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The curious history of the Milan area that remained immune to the plague: an eccentric marquis, a witch or simply coal?

4 min read

Before 1630 Milan had over one hundred thousand inhabitants. In 1632 there were forty-seven thousand. In the middle there was the most violent plague epidemic in the history of the city. In the peak period, the so-called “black death” killed nearly 1000 people a day.

The Italian Plague of 1629–1631 was a series of outbreaks of bubonic plague which ravaged northern and central Italy. Often referred to as the Great Plague of Milan, it claimed possibly one million lives, or about 25% of the population.
Historically, it seems that German and French troops carried the plague to the city of Mantua in 1629, as a result of troop movements associated with the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Venetian troops, infected with the disease, retreated into northern and central Italy, spreading the infection.
In October 1629, the plague reached Milan, that was Lombardy’s major commercial center. Although the city initiated effective public health measures, including quarantine and limiting the access of German soldiers and trade goods, the plague spread.

However, there was a part of the city that remained immune: the area between the hospital (now State University) and Piazza Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Square).
The mystery, at first seen as a miracle, turned into real terror when a rumor began to spread: in the marquis Acerbi’s palace (corso di porta Romana 3), while the plague was raging, sumptuous dances and enjoyable parties were held.
Go down in history as “the devil of Porta Romana”, the poor Marquis, contrary to what is reported in many texts, was not a Milanese man “who ended up in Naples to take the place of the governor”, but a “Ferrarese who arrived in the city in 1615 on behalf of the Spanish government “. Even before the plague broke out, the evil tongues, perhaps out of envy, had begun to sow unflattering rumors, including one about his demonic origins.
In any case, for all the months in which the plague continued, the windows of the building remained always illuminated, while death reigned all around.
The amazement mixed with fear grew when, at the end of the plague, the rumor spread that none of the residents and those who had taken part in the dances had been affected by the plague. And like them most of the people who lived in that small part of town. This is how the legend of the “devil of Porta Romana” was born. A legend passed down for centuries and survived until the Second World War: when in the raging of the Anglo-American bombing of the summer of 1943 the palace was among the few not to be hit, some claimed that it was the Devil himself who protected it!

According to other people of the time, the reason for this miracle was due to the presence of a witch in Via Laghetto (which takes its name from a small disappeared dock) number 2 (at the time it was called Ca ‘di Tencitt) who would have done magic against the disease.
Today It’s hard to say if the miracle was really a work of witchcraft. Aside from the legends, one of scientific and more realistic reason that allowed Acerbi to survive, and with him all the others, was that in Via Laghetto there was the port where coal was unloaded. It was then taken to the factory called Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo. Those who transported coal were called Tencitt. The whole area, including the “devil’s palace”, was therefore covered with black powder, and its absorbent powers could have served as a disinfectant against the disease.
Powers known since ancient times but which evidently nobody took into account to solve the mystery.

According to a more religious legend, one night the sound of bells was heard followed by a very powerful voice that said: “I will have mercy on my people, mother”. It was the voice of Jesus that answered the prayers of the Madonna. And a few days later the epidemic disappeared from the city.
In any case, on the house in Via Laghetto, where the witch supposedly lived, there is a fresco depicting a Madonna, called “Madonna dei Tencitt”. It is a real ex voto commissioned in 1630 by Bernardo Catoni, prior of the dockers, as a thank you for having emerged unscathed from the plague. A gesture of “devotion to the Madonna that miraculously saved him and most of the Tencitts”.
An image that still exists today.

The 1630 plague in Milan is the backdrop for several chapters of Alessandro Manzoni’s 1840 novel The Betrothed (Italian: I promessi sposi). Although it is a work of fiction, author’s description of the conditions and events in plague-ravaged Milan are completely historical and extensively documented from primary sources researched by Manzoni himself.

Images from web – Google Research

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