The Milan Plague of 1576

PLAGUE. EPIDEMIOLOGY. Besta, Giacomo Filippo (active 1576-1606)

Vera narratione del successo della peste, che afflisse l'inclita città di Milano, l'anno 1576 & di tutte le provisioni fatte a salute di essa città.

Milan: Paolo Gottardo e Pacifico Gottardo, fratelli, 1578


Quarto: 20.5 x 14 cm. 56, [12] lvs. Collation: A-R4


19th c. patterned boards, vellum spine. Text in excellent condition with only light staining to the title, a light stain to leaf P1, and a few trivial blemishes. Partly erased contemporary ownership inscription on title, small private collector stamp.

A rare account of the Milan plague of 1576-8 by Giacomo Filippo Besta, a gate guard and notary in Milan. His report is based on the Milanese state's own records and tracking of the plague as well as other reports from Trent, Venice, and Mantua, where the plague struck before entering Milanese territory.

Besta's account, much longer and more comprehensive than other contemporary plague-narratives, describes the suffering of the afflicted (shivering, shortness of breath, a sense of unease, followed by a burning fever, purple tumors, and finally delirium and death), methods used to treat the infected, and the extraordinary measures taken by the civil government and the Church to contain the outbreak and stabilize a city that had come to a near halt, beset by disease and famine, the twin scourge that worked together as the plague progressed to produce mortalities that in the end numbered more than 17,000.

Besta details the city's reactions and preparations. Doctors, surgeons, barbers, and others were immediately called into service to fight the plague's spread. Dogs and other animals found in the houses of the infected were killed. Cardinal Borromeo offered plenary indulgences not only to the plague-stricken, but also to those who served them bodily and spiritually. When it was observed that those who administered the Eucharist to the infected contracted the plague themselves, the practice of sticking the fingers that gave the host to the infected in a flame to sanitize them… "With city-wide quarantines, trade and industry came to a standstill. These conditions led to poverty and famine. To combat this, Milan's governor and the city council organized the importation of grain, vegetables, rice, and wood from uninfected regions but the plague's 'male progresso' outpaced the city's efforts…

"Besta describes in detail the plague huts, how they were provided with water from nearby fountains, the placing of crosses, how the plague-ridden were led in prayers, and registers that no longer survive containing the names of the interned. Besta further describes the procedures for the entry of the infected or suspected into the huts. When they died, the huts were either perfumed or burnt. Barbers or the recently employed French healthcare providers were the first to examine the stricken. These doctors also treated the infected at San Gregorio and were paid the extraordinary salary of 1,600 scudi  a month as sell as living expenses. Besta found their services less than satisfactory: 'they were inexperienced in their duties, renowned solely for their greed, profiting as much as they could. Ultimately they paid for their arrogance and vanity either by death from plague or imprisonment.' Besta describes scenes and records the voices of the poor: the plague cleaners with their carts full of the dead, stretchers transporting the stricken to the huts with poor women, dressed pitifully, who followed… 

The plague subsided beginning in January of 1577 and wile the city remained cautious, the plague failed to re-emerge in the spring. "With the city's 'liberation' from plague, Besta put its death toll at 17,329 (taken from the health board's records.) As with others writing during the crisis, Besta's analysis, advice, and lessons were framed in a narrative, and he exposed his changing sentiments as the plague progressed, a feature that does not appear in previous physicians' manuals."(Cohn, Cultures of Plague: Medical thinking at the end of the Renaissance, p. 107 ff.)

"Saint Charles' Plague"

In the 17thc., the Milan plague of 1576-7 became known as "Saint Charles' Plague" in honor of the courageous CardinalCarlo Borromeo (canonized in 1610), Archbishop of Milan, who made heroic efforts on behalf of the stricken and the poor during the plague.

Instead of escaping with the governor and the rich, Cardinal Borromeo stayed and organized a nursing service and shelters for the sick. He also visited lazar houses, which few dared to enter. “He fears nothing,” said a Capuchin who knew him. “It is useless trying to frighten him.” Convinced that the epidemic was a punishment sent by God, he went every day on processions of atonement, through streets littered with putrid corpses and dying men and women, barefoot, with a rope around his neck and carrying a full-size crucifix.

The Archbishop closed all the churches and he built altars outside them, to give the opportunity to the faithful to attend mass even from their homes. He introduced the "Practice of forty hours" that consisted of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that was exposed in the entrance for forty hours outside. He asked for volunteers to help the population. Borromeo donated a lot of his clothes and church tapestries to the people in need and he organized processions to console the people infected. One of these processions, on 6 October 1576, is called "procession of the Holy Nail" because it featured a nail said to be from Jesus's Cross.

BM STC Italian, 1465-1600, p. 90; EDIT 16 (online); CNCE 5653; USTC (online) 814306. Copies in North America: Newberry, Wellesley, NYAM, UT Medical Library, NLM, Harvard.