- Paralella cosmographica de sede et apparitionibus dæmonum. Liber unus
The virulent outbreak of the plague in Milan between 1629 and 1631 stands out for the extraordinary climate of panic it engendered. The Milanese not only sought to explain the epidemic conventionally as a form of divine punishment, but were also gripped by suspicions of demonic malfeasance. This led, notoriously, to the prosecution, torture, and brutal execution of two citizens suspected of having poisoned wells, doors, and walls with contagious substances. The case came to figure prominently in Pietro Verri's Enlightenment pamphlet against torture and gained further notoriety through Alessandro Manzoni's nineteenth-century rendition, La storia della colonna infame.
Caught in the middle of the crisis was Milan's archbishop Federico Borromeo (1595–1631). The learned ecclesiastic's response to the plague, in word and deed, was conflicted. In his public statements, he acknowledged his belief in divine as well as diabolical influence, but he also searched for naturalistic explanations, especially in his tract De pestilentia (1631). The crisis was a test for a humanist and church leader who, at a time in which demonic fears peaked across Europe, had long thought and written about the issue. One result was the treatise Paralella cosmographica de sede et apparitionibus dæmonum, which is now made available in a useful new edition by [End Page 150] Francesco di Ciaccia. The book offers three versions of the text: the manuscript draft in Italian, the Latin version printed in 1624, and the editor's Italian translation of the latter, enriched with annotations. The edition is published in a series of the Accademia di San Carlo, based at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, which has done much in recent years to renew scholarly interest in the work of Federico Borromeo.
The Paralella cosmographica (thusly spelled) displays the same ambiguity of Borromeo's later reflections on the plague. On the one hand, as Di Ciaccia rightly stresses in his introduction, Borromeo examines accounts of demonic activity with scholarly detachment and acumen, along with a fine understanding of how false news and rumors come about. On the other, he does not doubt the reality of demons, and he accepts reported interventions if he trusts the source. Most interesting about this treatise, however, is its premise and organizing principle, namely, that demonic activity is conditioned by place, time, and other material or immaterial circumstances. Borromeo thus pursues his inquiry from cosmological, geographic, and ethnographic perspectives. To document his analysis, he mines sources ranging from classical antiquity to his own day, and he includes Asia, Africa, Scandinavia, and the Americas in his discussions of how landscape, the natural environment, cultural characteristics, and other factors affect the demonological universe. In contrast, Borromeo leaves questions arising from his distinctions between Christianity and other religions, and among true faith, heresy, and superstition, largely unexamined and thus unresolved.