The Betrothed CHAPTER 28

After the rioting on St Michael’s Day and the day that followed it, it seemed as if times of plenty had really returned to Milan, by some miracle. There was ample bread in all the bakeries, at the same price as in years of good harvest; and the same was true of flour. Except for the small number of men who had been arrested, the people who had shouted, or done more than shout, during those two days now had reason to be pleased with themselves. Nor should it be thought that they kept quiet about it, once the first effects of the arrests had worn off. In the squares, at the street corners, in the taverns there was open rejoicing, and self-congratulatory, defiant boasting over the discovery of a method of bringing down the price of bread. But amid all the festivity and bluster, there was inevitably an uneasy undercurrent, a feeling that this state of affairs could not last. The people besieged the bakers and the flour merchants, as they had done during that other spurious and short-lived period of abundance produced by Antonio Ferrer’s first tariff. Everyone consumed what he could, without any thought of saving. Those who had some money put by invested it in bread and flour, storing them in cupboards, tubs or coppers. By vying with each other to take advantage of the low prices, they not only made a long continuance of them impossible (as it would have been anyway), but made it steadily more difficult to maintain them from day to day. And so on 15 November Antonio Ferrer published a proclamation, De orden de Su Excelencia,1 according to which no one who had grain or flour in his house was allowed to buy any more; and no one was to buy more than two days worth of bread at a time, with financial and corporal penalties at the discretion of His Excellency. There followed an order to report offenders against this regulation, addressed both to the competent officials and to the general public; and an order to the magistrates, to conduct searches at premises where hoarding had been reported. There was also a fresh order that the shops must be kept well supplied with bread, under pain of five years in the galleys, or such greater penalty as might be determined by His Excellency.

Anyone who can suppose that such a proclamation could be carried out must have enviable powers of imagination. If all the new regulations published in Milan at that time had been put into effect, the duchy would have had more men at sea than England has today.

However that might be, if they were going to command the bakers to produce all that bread, they had to take steps to see that the raw materials were available. In times of shortage the authorities always busy themselves with methods of making bread out of foodstuffs which are normally eaten in other forms; and so in this instance it had been decided to start using rice as an ingredient in the so-called ‘mixed loaf.’ On 23 November there was a proclamation that reserved, for the disposal of the commissioner and tribunal of provisions, one half of whatever quantity of unpolished rice (or ‘risone’, as it was then called, and still is, in Milan) that each individual might have in his possession, with penalties for anyone disposing of the same without the permission of the said authorities of confiscation of the goods in question and a fine of three scudi per measure. Nothing could be fairer than that, as we must all agree.

But that rice had to be paid for, at a price out of all proportion to the price of bread. The task of filling this enormous gap had been imposed on the city itself; but the council of decurions, which had assumed responsibility on the city’s behalf, resolved, on that very same 23 November, to represent to the Governor the utter impossibility of carrying the burden any longer. And the Governor published another proclamation on the 7 December, fixing the price of the afore-mentioned rice at twelve lire the measure. Anyone who asked a higher price, or refused to sell, was to lose the goods in question, to pay a further fine of equivalent value, and to suffer greater financial penalties, and corporal penalties up to service in the galleys, at the discretion of His Excellency, and according to the gravity of each case and the rank of the person involved.

A fixed price for polished rice had been imposed before the riots began. And most probably a tariff, or ‘maximum’, to use a word that has become famous in more recent times, had also been fixed for wheat and other grains by more proclamations, which we have not been able to trace.

Since the prices of bread and flour were kept so low in Milan, the natural consequence was that processions of people from the country came into town to buy those goods. To put a stop to this ‘inconvenience’, as he called it, Don Gonzalo published another proclamation on the 15 December, according to which no one was allowed to take bread out of the city to the value of more than 20 soldi, under penalty of the confiscation of the bread itself, and a fine of 20 scudi. And in case of inability to pay, two strokes of the lash, to be administered in public, or any greater penalty, in the usual way, at the discretion of His Excellency. On the twenty-second of the same month – the delay is hard to understand – he published a similar order relating to flour and grain.

The mob had thought it could create times of plenty by looting and incendiarism; the government thought it could prolong them by the threat of the lash and the galley. These two systems were perfectly compatible with each other; but how far they were compatible with the object in view is a question we can leave to the reader – who will see in few minutes how they worked out in practice. It is easy to see, and may be useful to remark, that there is in fact a necessary connection between all those strange provisions. Each was an inevitable consequence of the one before, and all followed logically from the first, which fixed a price for bread which was so far removed from the real price – by which we mean that which would have resulted from the relationship of supply and demand.

To the multitude such measures have inevitably always seemed no less fair in themselves than easy and simple to carry out. It is therefore natural that, when confronted with the deprivations and the sufferings of a famine, the multitude should desire them, beg for them, and indeed impose them by force, if it can. But as soon as the consequences begin to make themselves felt, one after another, the authorities have to cope with them, by a series of edicts each of which forbids people to do the very things which the previous one impelled them to do.

At this point we may be permitted a passing observation on a singular coincidence. In a neighbouring country, and during a recent period – the most stirring and noteworthy of modern history2 – when circumstances arose similar to those we have just described, recourse was had to similar measures – identical measures, we might almost say, in substance, with some difference of emphasis, but in almost exactly the same order. All this in spite of far-reaching historical changes, and of the advance of knowledge throughout Europe, and more especially in the country concerned. The reason for this was that the great mass of the people, to whom the new knowledge had not penetrated, was able to make its judgement prevail for a considerable length of time, and so force the hand (as they say in that country) of those who were making the laws.

Returning to our own story, there were two important results of the riots, when all was over. During the riots themselves, there was great wastage and effective loss of foodstuffs; and during the period when the tariff was in force there was excessive, thoughtless, unreasonable consumption – and all at the expense of the small amount of grain which had to see them through until the next harvest. Besides these general effects, there were also four poor devils hanged as leaders of the rioting: two in front of the Bakery of the Crutches, and two at the end of the road where the house of the commissioner of provisions stood.

In point of fact, the historical records of those days are so imperfect that we cannot even discover how or when that ferocious tariff came to an end. If we may be allowed to put forward a conjecture, in the absence of definite facts, we are inclined to think it was abolished within a day or two, one way or the other, of the 24 December, which was the day of the hangings. As far as the proclamations are concerned, we cannot find any more that deal with victuals after the last one we have quoted, which was dated 22 December. They may be irretrievably lost, or it may merely be that we have failed to find them; but it is also possible that the government, though not learning any wisdom from its failures, was so discouraged by the ineffectiveness of its measures, so overcome by the force of events, that it left them to take their own course.

The historians of those days were more given to describing great events than to tracing their cause or development; but we do find, in the works of more than one of them, a clear picture of the countryside, and a still clearer one of the city, in the late stages of that winter and in the following spring. At that time the cause of the trouble, which was the disproportion between the size of the stocks of food and the demand for them, had not been removed by the remedies which had temporarily masked its effects – and in fact those remedies had made things worse. Nor could the cause of the trouble be removed by the import of adequate quantities of foreign corn, to which there were obstacles such as the lack of private or public funds for the purpose, the poverty of the surrounding territories, the small volume and leisurely pace of trade at that time, and the restrictions applied to it, and the very regulations that tended to produce and maintain low prices. The true reason for the famine was continuing to operate without any restraint and with undiminished vigour – indeed, we may say that the famine itself was continuing to do so.

Here is a copy of that tragic picture.

Shops were closed everywhere, and the workshops were nearly all deserted. The streets were a terrible sight – a parade-ground for passing miseries, and a dwelling place for the miserable who could no longer move on.

Among the beggars, the professionals were now in a minority, confused and lost in the crowd of newcomers, and reduced to disputing for charity with people from whom they might formerly have received it. There were boys and young men who had been dismissed by the owners of shops, and had lost part or all of their daily earnings; they were now living with difficulty on what they had left over, or on their capital. Some of their employers were there too, for whom the interruption of their business had meant failure and ruin. There were workmen and their masters from every type of manufacture or craft, from the most ordinary to the most refined, from the most necessary to the most sophisticated; and all wandering from door to door, from street to street, leaning against the corners of buildings, lying huddled on the paving-stones, by houses and by churches, either pleading pitifully for alms or silently torn between cruel necessity and still unconquered feelings of shame; lean, exhausted, and shivering with cold or hunger in their scanty, ragged clothing, which often still showed traces of their earlier prosperity – just as some signs of the confident, productive worker could still be detected on many a face marked by inactivity and humiliation.

Mingled in the pathetic throng, and indeed forming a substantial part of it, were servants dismissed by masters who had recently sunk from a middle position in life to a state of actual want, or by masters who, though extremely wealthy, still found it impossible to maintain their usual splendid train in a year like that one. And to all the indigent in these categories must be added many others who were normally more or less dependent on them and their earnings – women, children and old people, either huddling close to those who had formerly been their breadwinners, or scattering through the streets to beg separately.

There was a large number of others, distinguished by their tousled quiffs, by the gaudiness of their ragged clothes, by something in their gait and gestures, and by the imprint which is often stamped on a man’s face by long habit – all the more clearly if the habit is a strange one. These were bravoes, who had lost the wages of their infamous calling in the common disaster, and were now begging the bread of charity. Tamed by hunger, not competing with the others except in the pathos of their appeals, terrified and bewildered, they slouched through streets where they had so long paraded with heads held high, with fierce and angry look, clad in rich and outlandish liveries, with long feathers in their hats, equipped with expensive weapons, over-dressed and scented. Now they humbly held out their hands for alms – hands that had so often been raised in insolent threat, or drawn back to deliver a treacherous blow.

But the most ghastly, and at the same time the most pitiful sight was provided by the peasants, whether in pairs, alone or in whole families. There were husbands, there were wives with babies in their arms or strapped on their backs, there were older children being led by the hand, and there were old men following on behind. There were people whose houses had been invaded and despoiled by soldiers who had been billeted on them, or by soldiers who had merely been passing that way, so that they had fled from their homes in despair. Among these were some who tried to inspire more pity, and to achieve a sort of pre-eminence in misery, by showing off the bruises and wounds they had received in defending their last few possessions, or in escaping from the blind and brutal frenzy of their attackers. Others had been spared that particular scourge, but had been affected by two others which had penetrated into every corner – the unfruitfulness of the earth and the weight of taxation, now heavier than ever in order to meet what were called the necessities of war; and so they had come to the city, which they regarded as the ancient home and last refuge of wealth and of pious generosity. The most recent arrivals could be known by their uncertain gait and unfamiliar look, and still more by their amazed and indignant expression when they found themselves in such a crowd, with so many rivals in their misery, in the very place where they had hoped to be unusual objects of compassion, and to attract immediate attention and help.

The others, who had been tramping the streets of the city, and living on them too for a fair length of time, keeping themselves going with what help they could find, or with whatever chance brought their way, in times of such disproportion between what was needed and what was available, had in their faces an expression of gloomier and more exhausted dismay. There was much variety in the clothing of those who could be described as clothed at all, and great differences in the men themselves as well. There were pallid faces from the lowlands, bronzed faces from the higher plains, and ruddy faces from the hills. But all had sharpened and distorted features, hollow eyes, and a fixed stare, sullen or crazy; tousled hair and long, ragged beards; bodies which had grown up and grown strong amid the labours of the field and were now weakened by hardship, with the skin hanging on their emaciated arms and fleshless shins and chests, which could be seen through the gaps in their rags. And alongside the sight of ruined physical strength was another sight, different in kind but no less distressing – the more easily conquered resistance, the more hopeless languor and exhaustion, of the women and children.

Here and there in the streets, up against the walls of the houses, lay small heaps of trodden, broken straw, mixed with all sorts of dirty rubbish. Yet this filthy stuff had been given out in kindness and charity, to serve as litter for some of the unfortunates, where they could rest their heads at night. And sometimes even during the day figures would be seen lying or sprawling there who were too weak with fatigue or hunger to remain on their feet. Sometimes too there might be a corpse lying on that grisly couch; or again a standing figure would suddenly crumple up like a rag and fall lifeless on the pavement.

Standing by one or other of those wretched sleeping places, and bent over it in sudden compassion, might be a passer-by, or someone who lived near at hand. Here and there were signs of help organized by more far-sighted generosity, evidently set in motion by someone with wealth at his disposal which he was accustomed to employ in large-scale benefactions. This was none other than Federigo Borromeo. He had selected six priests, whose lively and persevering love for their fellow-man was backed by great physical strength; he had divided them into three pairs, and had given each pair one third of the city to patrol, followed by porters carrying solid food of various kinds, with more delicate and quick-working forms of restorative nourishment in reserve, and also carrying clothing. Every morning, the three teams set out in different directions. They went up to those whom they found lying abandoned in the streets, and gave to each according to his need. Those who were already dying, and unable to take any nourishment, received the final consolations and comforts of religion. The hungry received soup, eggs, bread and wine; those who were exhausted by more prolonged starvation were served with broths, essences, and stronger wines. If necessary, they were revived in the first place with spirits. At the same time clothing was distributed to the more painful and unseemly cases of want.

Their help did not stop there; for the good archbishop intended that, as far as his arm could reach, his assistance should bring not merely temporary relief but permanent benefit. The poor folk who were restored by that initial help to a state where they could stand up and walk were then given a little money, to ensure that the return of hunger and the absence of other succour would not swiftly drag them down into the same condition once more. For those in a worse state, the priests tried to find board and lodging in some near-by house. Well-to-do householders generally took them in out of charity, and on the Cardinal’s recommendation; householders who had the good will but not the means to help would be asked by the priests to take the poor wretches in against payment; a price would be fixed, and an advance paid over at once. Then the priests gave the curĂ© of the local parish a list of the names of those who had been lodged in this way, so that he could visit them; and the priests returned to visit them again as well.

Needless to say, Federigo Borromeo did not confine his pastoral care to these extremities of suffering, and had not waited for things to reach that pass before being stirred to compassionate action. His love of mankind was so warm and so adaptable that it was bound to turn to pity for every misfortune, to offer every helpful effort that it could muster, to hasten to fill the breaches that it had been unable to foresee, and to take on whatever varied forms might be demanded by circumstances. The Cardinal summoned up all his resources, imposed yet greater frugality on his household, drew on savings which he had earmarked for other benefactions that were now of secondary importance, and, in a word, tried every possible way of raising money, in order to use all of it for the rescue of the starving. He had bought up a substantial amount of grain, and sent a large part of it out to the parts of his diocese which needed it most. And as the supplies fell very far short of the need, he also sent them salt, ‘with the aid of which’, says Ripamonti,3 as he tells us the story, ‘the herbs of the meadows and the bark of the trees can be converted into wholesome food.’

The Cardinal had also distributed grain and money to the various parishes in Milan. He himself toured the city, quarter by quarter, distributing alms; and he secretly came to the rescue of many poor families. We read in the Ragguaglio4 of a doctor named Alessandro Tadino – a contemporary work which we shall often have occasion to quote as our story progresses – that every morning two thousand bowls of rice soup were distributed from the Archbishop’s palace.

But though these charitable efforts were truly remarkable, when we consider that they were the work of a single man, and came wholly out of his resources (for Federigo Borromeo refused, as a matter of principle, to act as steward for another’s generosity); though they were backed by the offerings of other private citizens, less effective than his individually, but significant by their number, and though they were accompanied by the supplies decreed by the council of decurions, and distributed by the tribunal for provisions, they were still little enough compared with the need that faced them. While one lot of hill-folk were being rescued by the Cardinal’s generosity from imminent death by starvation, another lot were rapidly reaching the same desperate state. The first lot slipped back into it again, when those modest supplies were exhausted.

In other districts, which had been … not forgotten, but left till later as less urgent by a charity compelled to choose its objectives, the famine meanwhile reached mortal proportions. Death was everywhere, and from every side more people flocked into the city.

Two thousand men, perhaps, who were either stronger than the others or more skilled at overcoming competition and at carving their way through a crowd, had won themselves a bowl of soup apiece, enough to keep them alive for the day. But more thousands remained behind, envying those more fortunate rivals – but can we call them fortunate, when we remember that their wives, children or parents were often among those left behind? And while in certain parts those who were totally abandoned and reduced to extremity were raised up from the ground, brought back to life, and given lodging and food for a time, there were a hundred other places where their brothers fell, languished and died without any help or comfort.

All day long a confused murmur of imploring voices could be heard in the streets. All night there was a chorus of groans, interrupted at times by sudden outbreaks of loud lamentation, or howls of pain, or voices calling out in deep-felt supplication of their Maker, often ending in shrill screams.

With people in these desperate straits, with so many different grounds for indignant complaint, there were, strange to say, no attempts at rioting; the cry of revolt was never raised – or at least we can find no trace of it in the records. And yet, among those who were living and dying in those conditions, were many men who had been schooled to anything but patience. There were hundreds of the very men who had been so conspicuously active on St Martin’s day. Nor can it be thought that the example of those four poor devils who had paid the price for all the others was a sufficient reason to keep the rest of them so quiet. For how could even the presence of the gibbet, let alone its memory, have had that effect on the minds of a mixed yet united crowd which could see that it was already condemned to a slow death by torture, and was in fact already beginning to suffer its pains? But we human beings are like that – we rebel in furious indignation against moderate evils, and bow our heads in silence beneath extreme ill-treatment. Stunned rather than resigned, we put up with twice the load which we had declared to be unbearable earlier on.

Death created many vacant places in that pitiful crowd every day, but they were promptly filled, and more than filled. People flooded in all the time, first of all from the neighbouring villages, then from the surrounding districts, then from the other cities of the duchy, and finally from towns outside its frontiers. Meanwhile long-standing inhabitants of Milan were leaving the city every day; some to escape from the sight of so much misery, others because they found their places taken by competitors in the begging trade, and wandered off in a last desperate attempt to find help elsewhere, wherever it might be, so long as it was away from dense, trampling crowds and rival claimants for alms. Wanderers inwards passed wanderers outwards on the roads, and each were a sight of horror to the others, a bitter foretaste, a sinister omen of what might lie at the end of their respective journeys. But each continued on their chosen way, not so much hoping to find better luck, as unwilling to return to a place they had learned to hate, to look again on the scenes that had driven them to despair. Sometimes, indeed, one of them would feel his last vestige of strength ebbing away at that moment, and fall down in the road and die – a still sadder sight for his wretched fellow-travellers, and an object of horror, perhaps also of reproach, to other passers-by.

‘I myself’, writes Ripamonti, ‘saw the corpse of a woman lying in the road that girds the walls round about … half-chewed grass was dropping out of her mouth, and her lips were still twisted as if in an expression of angry effort … on her back was slung a bundle, and on her chest was slung a baby in its swaddling clothes, weeping as it sought for the breast … some compassionate people came by, who picked the poor little creature up, and carried it away, thus fulfilling in the meanwhile the first duty of a mother.’

The old contrast between rags and rich clothing, between superfluity and destitution, which is so normal a sight in normal times, had completely vanished. Rags and destitution were to be seen almost everywhere, and when something else came to view, it was no more than a look of very modest well-being. The nobles could be seen walking in the simplest and plainest of clothes, sometimes indeed in mean or worn-out garments – perhaps because the common causes of universal impoverishment had really reduced their fortunes to that point, or given the final blow to family finances that were already tottering; perhaps because they were afraid of provoking the indignation of that desperate populace by a display of splendid luxury; perhaps because they were ashamed to triumph in the midst of public disaster. Tyrants who had inspired both hatred and respect, accustomed to walk the streets with a train of bravoes behind them, now went about almost unaccompanied, with head held low, with an expression that seemed both to offer and to beg for peace. Other nobles, who had shown a more humane disposition, and had conducted themselves with more modesty, even in times of prosperity, seemed to be confused, dismayed and overcome by the continual sight of a misery whose magnitude went not only beyond the bounds of what could be remedied, but also, one might say, beyond the bounds of what could be pitied.

Anyone who had the means to give alms still had to make an agonizing choice between emergency and emergency, between hungry mouth and hungry mouth. And as soon as a charitable hand was stretched out towards a poor victim, other victims all around began to compete for attention. Those who still had some strength left thrust their way forward to lodge a more forceful appeal; the exhausted, the old and the children held out their fleshless hands; weeping babies, too weak to sit up, and clad in scanty rags, were held up in their mothers’ arms, so that they could be seen from farther away.

Winter and spring went by in this way; and for some time the commission of public health had been drawing the attention of the tribunal for provisions to the danger of an epidemic which now overhung the city because of the growing destitution that had spread through every part of it. The suggestion was made that the beggars should be concentrated into special places of refuge. While this proposal was being discussed and approved, while ways and means were being found, and suitable places selected, the corpses continued to pile up in the streets day by day, and all the other accumulation of miseries grew in proportion. In the tribunal of provisions a slightly different plan was suggested, as simpler and quicker. This was that all the beggars, whether sick or well, should be gathered together in a single place, namely, the lazaretto, where they would be fed and looked after at public expense. This proposal was adopted, against the advice of the commission of public health, which pointed out that so vast a gathering would increase the danger they were trying to avert.

I had better describe the lazaretto of Milan, in case this story ever falls into the hands of someone who has neither seen it nor read about it. It is a rectangular enclosure, almost square in fact, outside the city proper, to the left of the East Gate, and separated from the city wall only by the width of the moat, by a road which follows the line of the wall, and by a water-course which runs round the lazaretto itself. The two longer sides of the rectangle measure about five hundred paces each, the two shorter ones perhaps fifteen paces less. Each side is divided into a series of small rooms, in a single storey, towards the outside of the whole building. Inside the enclosure a vaulted arcade, supported by small and slender pillars, runs round three sides of the courtyard.

At that time the rooms numbered 288, or perhaps a few less – the recent creation of a large new opening in the middle of the side facing the main road, and a smaller one at the corner, has removed a certain number of rooms, but we cannot say exactly how many. At the time of our story there were only two entrances, one in the middle of the side towards the city wall, and the other exactly opposite. In the middle of the courtyard was a small octagonal church, which still stands there today. The construction of the lazaretto had begun in 1489, with money from a private legacy, and had been continued with the help of public funds and of other bequests and gifts. Its original function had been that implied by its name – the provision of shelter, as occasion might arise, for those stricken by the plague. For a long period both before and after that time the plague used to appear two, four, six or even eight times a century, now in one country of Europe, now in another, now in several at one time, and sometimes spreading over the full length and breadth of the continent. But at the time of which we are speaking, the lazaretto was used only for the storage of goods that were subject to quarantine.

In order to get it cleared out as quickly as possible, the authorities did not enforce the health regulations with full rigour. The prescribed fumigations and tests were hurried through, and all the goods were released at once. Straw was put down in all the rooms, supplies of food were arranged, of the quality and in the quantities that were available, and all the beggars in the city were invited by public edict to take refuge there.

Many of them went in voluntarily; all those who were lying sick in the streets and squares were taken in. In the first few days more than three thousand of those two categories arrived at the lazaretto. But the number that remained outside was much larger. Some may have waited in the hope that when the others had gone the small number left behind would get more benefit from the charity of the city, some may have felt a natural reluctance to be locked up. Others may have felt that mistrust which the poor often feel towards any proposal that comes to them from the possessors of wealth and power – a mistrust which is always proportionate to the common ignorance of those who inspire it and those who feel it, to the total number of the poor and to the stupidity of the laws. Others again may have known what the true nature of the benefits offered was. Some, too, may have been affected by all those factors at once, or by others that we have not mentioned – in any case, the fact is that most of them took no notice of the invitation, and continued to drag themselves painfully around the streets.

So it was thought best to pass on from invitation to compulsion. The police were sent round to despatch all the beggars to the lazaretto, and to take those who resisted there in chains. For each one of these last they were paid ten soldi; which shows that even in the greatest crises public money can always be found for a really stupid purpose. A certain number of beggars did indeed leave the city, to go and live or die far away, but at least in freedom – as the commission of supply had thought they might, and in fact intended that they should; but the round-up was still so effective that it was not long before the number of people in the lazaretto, counting both guests and prisoners, had risen to nearly ten thousand.

It is to be hoped that there were separate quarters for women and small children, although the memoirs of the period say nothing about it. There must surely have been rules and regulations for the maintenance of good order; but what sort of good order could be established or maintained at that time and in those circumstances, in so vast and varied a throng, whose voluntary members rubbed shoulders with the forcibly interned, and where those for whom beggary was a shameful and odious necessity stood alongside those for whom it was a normal profession, while those who had grown up amid the honest toil of field and workshop had to associate with others who had learnt the arts of idleness, cheating, mockery and violence in the streets and taverns of the city and in the palaces of bullying nobles?

We could make a shrewd but gloomy guess how they all got on for board and lodging, even if we had no definite information on the subject, as in fact we have. They slept heaped up in lots of twenty or thirty in those tiny cells, or huddled in the arcades; lying either on a little rotten and stinking straw or on the bare ground. Orders had indeed been issued that the straw should be sufficient in quantity, fresh, and frequently changed; but in fact it was wretched stuff, in scanty supply, and was never changed at all. There was equally an order that the bread supplied should be of good quality – and what administrator has ever given instructions for the manufacture or distribution of inferior material? But good bread could hardly have been obtained for a much smaller number in normal circumstances; so how was it to be procured for that multitude, in that situation? It was commonly said at the time (as we read in the contemporary memoirs), that the bread issued in the lazaretto was adulterated with various heavy, unnourishing materials; and that, alas, may well have been no unfounded rumour. There was even a shortage of water – of pure and wholesome water, that is to say. The water-course that flowed round the outer wall of the lazaretto was a shallow, slow-moving stream, muddy in places, and soon reduced to the state one might expect with so vast a multitude, of so lamentable a character, camped just by it – but it had to serve as their common source of water.

These causes of high mortality were all the more effective because they were operating on sick or sickly bodies; and to them was added a strange perversity of the weather. First came persistent rains, and then a still more persistent drought, accompanied by a violent heatwave, much earlier in the year than usual. To the real discomforts of the people were added a general feeling of ill-being, the boredom and restlessness caused by being shut up, the memory of earlier habits, grief for dead relations, uneasy thoughts of the absent, the revulsion and spite the members of the crowd inspired in each other, and countless other feelings of humiliation or rage which they had either brought with them to the lazaretto or acquired since they arrived there. Another factor was the constant apprehension and frequent spectacle of death – so common a sight for so many different reasons, and now itself a potent cause of further mortality.

Nor is it surprising that the number of deaths in that enclosure rose to such a level that it began to look like a pestilence, and indeed to be called one by many people. Perhaps the combination of all the factors we have mentioned, and their increasing severity, did no more than accentuate the activity of a simple epidemic of influenza; or perhaps, as seems to happen even in much less serious and prolonged famines than this one, some other infection was involved which found in those pitiful bodies, afflicted and weakened by hardship, bad food, foul weather, dirt, suffering and humiliation, the ideal material and time for its operations – the conditions, that is to say, which it needed to be born, to nourish itself and to multiply (if a writer without special knowledge may be permitted to set down these words, following a hypothesis put forward by several scientists, and most recently reformulated, with a wealth of supporting argument and with all due reserve, by a most diligent and talented man of learning).5 Again, the infection may have broken out in the first place in the lazaretto itself, as seems to have been the opinion of the doctors on the health commission, to judge by a report (admittedly obscure and inaccurate) which has survived; or the infection may have already been in existence in a latent form (which seems more likely, when we remember that the general hardship was both long-standing and widespread, and the death-rate already high), so that once it obtained a footing in that permanently overcrowded building, it spread with new and terrible rapidity. Whatever the truth of these conjectures may be, the daily death-rate in the lazaretto was soon above one hundred.

Inside that building debility, anguish, lamentation and cries of agony were the order of the day; while in the tribunal for provisions it was all shame, bewilderment and uncertainty. They argued, they consulted the views of the commission of public health, and the only answer seemed to be to undo what had been done with such pompous deliberation, such expense and such inconvenience. The lazaretto was opened, and all the poor folk in there who were not yet ill were allowed to leave. They came out with frantic joy and haste. The city again resounded with the cries of the poor, though not so loudly nor so constantly as before. The same crowds reappeared in its streets, less dense now, and inspiring all the more pity, says Ripamonti, by the very fact that they were so much smaller than before. The sick were taken to Santa Maria della Stella, which was then a hospice for the poor; and most of them died there.

Meanwhile the blessed earth began to grow yellow with ripening corn. The beggars who had come into the city from the country went back again, each to his own place, for the long-awaited harvest. The good Cardinal sent them off with a final proof of his kindness, and an original expression of it – every peasant who presented himself at the archepiscopal palace was given a giulio, 6 and a sickle to reap with.

The harvest finally brought an end to the famine. The mortality, whether epidemic or contagious in origin, dropped from day to day, though it did not cease until the autumn. It was approaching its end when a new disaster struck.

Many important events, of the sort which we specifically call historical, had happened in the meanwhile. Cardinal Richelieu had captured La Rochelle, as already mentioned, and had then patched up a peace with the King of England. In the council of the King of France he next proposed that effective help should be given to the Duke of Nevers, and his powerful eloquence carried the day. At the same time he persuaded the King to lead the expedition in person. While the necessary preparations were being made, the Count of Nassau, as imperial commissioner, appeared in Mantua and notified its new ruler that he must give up the states in dispute to the Emperor Ferdinand, who would send an army to occupy them if he failed to obey.7 Even in more hopeless circumstances the duke had already evaded these harsh and alarming terms; and, now that French support was near at hand, he was even more determined to evade them; though he did so in language so involved and wordy that it sounded as little as possible like a refusal, and with counterproposals of acts of submission that would be even more impressive, though less dangerous, than what he was asked to do. The commissioner went off swearing that bloodshed would be the result of his attitude.

In March Richelieu did in fact move against Italy, with the King at the head of the French army, and asked the Duke of Savoy to grant the force free passage. Inconclusive negotiations followed; there was an armed clash in which the French came off best; and finally an agreement was reached. The Duke of Savoy stipulated that Don Gonzalo of Cordova must be made to raise the siege of Casale, promising in return that, if Don Gonzalo refused to do so, the forces of Savoy would join the French in the invasion of the Duchy of Milan. But Don Gonzalo thought that even so he was getting off lightly, and he did raise the siege of Casale, the garrison of which was at once strengthened by the entry of a French contingent.

It was on this occasion that Achillini wrote his famous sonnet to King Louis, which begins with the line,

‘Sudate, o fochi, a preparar metalli,’8

and also another sonnet in which he urged the King to proceed at once to the liberation of the Holy Land. But it is the fate of poets that no one ever takes their advice. If history contains a record of any acts which appear to follow the suggestion of a poet, we may be quite sure that the decision to perform them had been taken before the advice was given. Richelieu in fact decided to go back to France, to attend to affairs that seemed to him to be more urgent. It was in vain that Girolamo Soranzo, the Venetian envoy, brought forward reasons to the contrary; for the King and the Cardinal paid no more heed to his prose than to the verse of Achillini, and went home with the main body of the French army, leaving only six thousand men in Susa to hold the pass and guarantee the treaty.

While the French army withdrew in one direction, the army of the Emperor was advancing from another. It had invaded the Grisons and Valtellina, and was preparing to descend on the duchy of Milan.9 Apart from all the other disasters that might be expected to follow from their passage, definite news had reached the commission of public health that this army was carrying the plague with it. In any body of German troops there was always a sprinkling of cases of plague in those days, as Varchi tells us when writing about the pestilence that they had brought with them to Florence a century earlier.

The commission of public health in Milan had a president and six other members – four magistrates and two doctors of medicine. They delegated one of their number, Alessandro Tadino (as we read in his Ragguaglio, which we have already quoted) to call on the Governor and inform him of the appalling danger which hung over the territory if those troops passed through it on their way to besiege Mantua, as it was rumoured that they were about to do.

From all the actions of Don Gonzalo’s life he seems to have had an overwhelming passion to feature in the pages of history, from which he could indeed hardly be altogether excluded. History, however, either did not know or did not bother to record the most memorable of all his deeds – a typical lapse on her part. We refer to the reply which he gave to Tadino on the occasion just mentioned. He said that he did not know what could be done about it; that the reasons of interest and prestige which had set the imperial forces in motion were of more weight than the considerations mentioned by the doctor; but that anyway they must take the best precautions they could, and trust in Providence.

By way of taking the best precautions they could, the two doctors on the commission of public health, namely Tadino himself and Senator Settala, the son of the famous Lodovico Settala, proposed to their colleagues that a regulation should be passed with very strict penalties, forbidding the purchase of any articles whatever from the soldiers who would be passing through. But it proved impossible to persuade one man of the necessity of such a rule; and this was the president of the commission. ‘Though a very good-hearted man,’ writes Tadino, ‘he thought it impossible that the deaths of many thousands of people could follow from mere contact with those men, or with their belongings.’

We quote this event as one of the most remarkable of the time. Since commissions of public health were first thought of, there can surely never have been another occasion when such a thought – if thought is the right word – crossed the mind of the president of one of them.

A few days after Don Gonzalo gave that memorable answer to Tadino, he left Milan. The reasons for his departure were unfortunate, and so were the actual circumstances of his going. He was removed from office because of the ill success of the campaign which he had initiated and commanded; and the people of Milan blamed him for the famine they had suffered under his rule. (No one knew about his efforts in the matter of the plague, or at least no one was concerned about them, as we shall see later – with the exception of the commission of public health, and especially the two doctors.)

He left his official residence in a travelling coach, surrounded by a guard of halberdiers, with two trumpeters riding in front of him, and other coaches behind containing nobles of his suite, and was greeted with much hissing by a large number of boys, who had assembled in the Cathedral Square, and now followed him in a mob. When the procession entered the road which leads to the Ticino Gate, by which it was to leave the city, it found itself hemmed in by a crowd of people, some of whom had been waiting since earlier in the day, while others were still arriving; all the more so because the trumpeters, those strict observers of procedure, sounded their instruments all the way from the palace to the gate.

During the investigation that followed this disturbance, one of them was accused of having made things worse with his incessant trumpeting, and he replied,

‘That’s our profession, your Honour; and if His Excellency didn’t want us to blow our trumpets, he should have told us to be quiet.’

But Don Gonzalo had given no such order, whether out of reluctance to show the white feather, or out of fear that it might make the mob more reckless, or because he was a little bewildered by events. The guards were unable to disperse the crowd, which surged along before, behind and around the carriages, shouting,

‘Good riddance to famine! Good riddance to the scourge of the poor! Away with him!’ and even worse slogans.

As they approached the gate, the people began to throw stones, bricks, cabbage stalks and vegetable refuse of every kind – the usual ammunition of such gatherings, in short. Some of them hastily climbed on to the walls, and discharged a final volley at the carriages as they went through the gate. Then they quickly dispersed.

Don Gonzalo was replaced by the Marquis Ambrogio Spinola, who had already won in Flanders the military glory which still distinguishes his name.

Count Rambaldo di Collalto, another Italian condottiere, of lesser but still considerable fame, was in supreme command of the German army, and had now received definite instructions to proceed with the campaign against Mantua. In September he entered the duchy of Milan.

Armies at that time were still largely made up of soldiers of fortune, enrolled by professional condottieri – sometimes to serve a particular prince, but sometimes on the commander’s own account, so that the whole contingent, with its leader, could be sold to the highest bidder. Men were attracted to the profession of arms not so much by the pay as by the hope of booty and the prospects of every other kind of licence. There was no firm overall discipline; and indeed it would have been hard to reconcile anything of the kind with the largely independent authority of the individual condottieri. They too were no great sticklers for discipline; nor can we see how they could have established or maintained stricter control even if they had wanted to, for soldiers of that type might well have mutinied against an innovating commander who tried to abolish looting: they would certainly, at the very least, have left him to guard his standard by himself.

Moreover the princes who hired these bands were more concerned with having a large force, to ensure victory, than with having one the size of which corresponded with their ability to pay, which was often very limited. So the soldiers’ pay often arrived late, or in the form of small sums on account, or a little at a time. The loot of places that happened to get looted came to be tacitly regarded as a supplement. There is a saying of Wallenstein’s which is almost as famous as its author – that it is easier to maintain an army of one hundred thousand men than an army of twelve thousand. And the army of which we are now speaking was largely made up of the men who had laid Germany waste under Wallenstein’s command, in that most famous war – famous both for itself and for its results – which was later named after the thirty years of its duration; at the moment, however, it was only in its eleventh year. Wallenstein’s own regiment was in fact serving in the invading army under the command of one of his lieutenants. Most of the other condottieri in that army had served under him, and among them were several of those who helped to cause his tragic death four years later, the story of which everyone knows.

There were twenty-eight thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry. On their way from Valtellina to the territory of Mantua they were to follow the course of the Adda, as it flows in through one narrow branch of Lake Como and out through another, and then on again as an ordinary river down to its confluence with the Po; and then they were to do a good further stretch along the banks of the Po itself. In all it came to eight days’ journey through the duchy of Milan.10

A large part of the inhabitants of the area through which they passed fled up into the mountains, carrying with them all their most precious possessions, and driving their livestock in front of them. But some remained behind, in order not to abandon a sick relative, or to save their house from being burnt, or to keep an eye on valuables which they had hidden or buried. Others remained because they had nothing to lose, or even thought they might gain something.

When the first contingent arrived at a village selected as a halting-place, the men quickly spread out over it and into the neighbouring hamlets, and literally put them to the sack. Whatever could be consumed or carried off vanished at once and everything else was ruined or destroyed. Furniture became firewood; cottages became stables; not to speak of beatings, woundings and rapes. The ingenious inventions and clever tricks that people had thought of to save their property generally proved useless, and sometimes worse. The soldiers were well versed in the stratagems of this sort of campaign too; they searched every cranny of the houses, knocked down walls, dismantled buildings, and quickly identified the spots in the gardens that had recently been dug. They went up into the mountains to steal the cattle. Guided by some treacherous villager, they searched the caves and pulled out the few rich people who were hiding there; they dragged them back to their own homes, and tormented them with threats and blows until they revealed their hidden treasure.

Finally they went; at last they were really gone. The sound of drums and trumpets died away in the distance, and a few hours of terror-stricken peace followed. Then another accursed rolling of drums and shrilling of trumpets announced the arrival of another contingent. Not finding any booty, the newcomers put all the more passion into wrecking what was left. They burnt the wine barrels that their predecessors had emptied, and the doors of the rooms that no longer had anything in them. They even set fire to the houses. They also put all the more rage into their ill-treatment of the villagers. And so it went on, getting worse and worse, for twenty days; for that was the number of contingents into which the army was divided.

Colico was the first place in the duchy to be invaded by those devils; then they hurled themselves against Bellano. Next they entered and spread out over Valsassina, from which they passed on into the territory of Lecco.