The cholera epidemic of 1837
di Florindo Cirignano
One day in May of 1838...
The yard of the farmhouse had been carefully swept and washed with water perfumed with rosemary and jasmine flowers. On two poles cut in half by circumference was stretched a rope of twisted ivy tendrils, onto which were tied a half dozen oil lamps. Other lamps were laid on several tables arranged in a circle. Outside were seats made from planks set on large oak logs. Bouquets of roses and jasmine were scattered everywhere. Despite the warm evening, three fires were burning nearby and under crackling embers were buried whole baskets of potatoes.
Arrayed on white linen tablecloths were large loaves of bread mixed with yellow cornmeal, even more valuable than wheat flour. Also artfully arranged were piles of honeyed biscuits the size of a fist, sweet almonds and walnuts, little diamonds of corn sprayed with mosto cotto [a syrup made by boiling down the juice of unfermented grapes], plates of dried figs skewered on sticks of cane, and cakes made with ricotta and rice flavored with cinnamon. Curds of fresh ricotta in wicker baskets and pieces of cheese were surrounded by varieties of sausage and a heap of roasted chestnuts. Large containers of wine, white and red, made a fine show here and there among countless terracotta glasses and mugs.
Four mongrels dogs wagged their tails happily and restlessly, disconcerted by all the confusion. The musicians were three, playing guitar, violin and drum, and similarly dressed in green with red handkerchiefs tied around their necks. The parents of the betrothed received the guests in the yard, extending hearty greetings with large glasses of foaming wine.
No young women were seen until the musicians began to play. Only then did they exit from the same house, first the bride-to-be, then the others... and suddenly there was a spring breeze bearing a cloud of cherry blossom petals. The threshold cleared as the youngest of the Torresi advanced in procession., the girls adorned with braided wreaths of white daisies and orange marigolds and carrying bouquets of carnations. A ripple of motion passed among the assembled young men as the girls passed by, dressed as meadow nymphs and smelling of wild violets.
Their hair was styled in curls, straight with curls and lovelocks at the temples, dressed in a braid, or two (for the younger girls), some in a bun, onion, or in complex construction in Spanish or French mode, some held at the nape of the neck with bone combs sparkling with glittering stones, some with demure bangs. They passed with smiling faces, curious, hopeful, defiant, mischievous, some blushing modestly, a bit embarrassed before young men, many of the latter obviously feigning disinterest in the fair display.
Ahead of them marched a raven-haired Maria, elusive eyed Giulia, Antonietta with doe-slender body, Luisa of the cherry lips, freckled face little Domenica. Also, Alfonsina of the mighty buttocks, Giuliana skin whiter than milk, Alfonsina with prominent chest, and Giuliana whose hands of gold with needle and thread gloriously embroidered the sky, the stars and the peoplewho lived in them.
Seated on the sidelines were people of a certain age - relatives, neighbors and comrades - dressed in finery worn only on special occasions. Only their shoes, mostly deformed and worn by long use, betrayed their dignity and undisguised poverty.
I was there at the engagement party of Maria Gaetana and Giosuele Bevilacqua that wonderful evening in May of 1838. With me were all the young people of Torre: Mogaveros, Lombardis, Todescas, Ardolinos, Tecces, De Carros, and Russos. Iarrobinos, Vozellas, Colucciellos, Capones, Bianchinos, Carideos and Rotondis.
The party was to be held in August of the previous year, but had been postponed due to an epidemic of cholera. Maria Gaetana was beautiful. She wore her new silk dress with an apron of ochre blue, below a rather plain almost military-style fitted bodice which enhanced herhealthy curves.
The bride Maria Gaetana was beautiful... but even more so was Stella. Stella, “mia” Stella! Rend my body, pierce my heart, liver and kidneys, but leave my eyes so that I may see her! Lacerate my soul, drown me in still waters, yet allow me to caress her shadow.
Standing apart, with fists clenched in pockets ... and silently cursing the god of my shyness, I saw her come slowly toward me. Staring with beautiful, serious eyes deeply into my own... she extended her hand, inviting me to dance.
And, suddenly my humdrum life became the most beautiful thing under the Torre sun.
“L’amore a Torre ai tempi del colera” di anonimo del XX sec.
( Il vestito è conservato dalla signora Antonella Bevilacqua)
The disease was believed to have started in the swamps of the Ganges River, from poisonous snakes which entwined along rotten trunks and were thrown by wild tigers into the forests. It eventually passed through the steppes of Afghanistan and reached the Golden Horn.
For nearly 20 years, the dead littered the whole of Asia Minor before the disease moved to Europe, then, carried by smugglers, arrived in Liguria in 1835. In 1836, it appeared in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, leaving a long trail of death. In Naples, there were said to be 100 newly infected daily.
In Torre le Nocelle, it began in March, although appearing relatively benign. There were a few sickened, but all recovered. In late July, however, it returned stronger, resulting in deaths. The Cholera, or Asiatico, by early August had stricken several families and it was thought advisable not to celebrate the feast of San Ciriaco, but rather to create a hospital in the countryside.
On the day of San Lorenzo, at the hour of eight o'clock, Carmine di Iorio, age 60, contadino, died in the countryside from an attack of cholera. Immediately panic spread among the Torresi. From outside came strange rumors about poisoners hired by nobles or foreigners to contaminate the water in an attempt to destroy the lower classes.
It was said entire countries were decimated by the disease, so much so that corpses had to be abandoned at the roadside. The few foreigners (mostly street vendors), who dared travel, were looked upon with distrust and hatred.
The disease initially presented with severe diarrhea. Then came muscle cramps, weakness, drowsiness and vomiting. Within a short time, death would follow from dehydration.
Infection transmitted by fecal contamination through water and food was not understood in those days. Doctors, completely powerless before the scope of the epidemic, disagreed on methods of treatment and prevention. With no real guidance, every Torrese believed in a different effective remedy. There were those who claimed one should constantly keep a sip of wine in the mouth, breathing only through the nose. Others claimed chewing garlic and onion to be effective remedies against any infection.
It was believed the disease was spread by air, so frightened peasants lit bonfires of wood and wet straw in front of their houses producing vast amounts of smoke, thought to eradicate the infection. Wizards and witches prepared miraculous concoctions made of red pepper, dried figs and unmentionable ingredients. A few of the wealthy class believed rum and lemon were the only remedy, and put them to great use. The contadini used garlic, wine, mint, and nettle grass of St. John.
On the 21st of August, twelve-year-old Carmine Scala died. He had also lived on Strada Costarelle, and had been transported to the makeshift hospital in the countryside. (It is not clear if there were structures of this kind in each community, or if one location was used to serve several adjacent villages. It may be that there was also one located between Serra and Montefusco.)