COVID-19 – another take – Letter to the pupils of the Lycée Volta.

The Italian authorities have closed schools, but the most dangerous virus is not called Covid-19: it is the one that, carried by fear, poisons human relationships. 
Building on Manzoni, Domenico Squillace, director of the Volta technical high school in Milan, wrote to his students. His letter caused a buzz, A delicious antidote to panic.

Translated by Anna Lietti


To the pupils of the Lycée Volta.

“The plague, which the health court had feared entering the Milanese with the German bands, had indeed entered it with them, as the reader is aware; and he also knows that it did not stop there, but that it invaded and ravaged a large part of Italy… ”

With these words opens chapter 31 of Fiancés  [novel by Alessandro Manzoni and great school classic, editor’s note ], a chapter, with the following, entirely devoted to the epidemic of plague which fell on Milan in 1630. It is a luminous text of extraordinary modernity that I advise you to read carefully, especially in these days of confusion. 

There is already everything in these pages: the certainty that foreigners are dangerous, dissension within the authorities, the spasmodic search for said patient zero, contempt for experts, the hunt for oilers [accused, during the Milan epidemic, to spread the disease via infected ointments, note], wild rumors, the most absurd remedies, the raid on essential goods, the health emergency …

In these pages, you will come across, among other things, names that you surely know since you frequent the neighboring streets of our high school and that the latter is erected, let us not forget, in the middle of what was the lazaretto of Milan: Ludovico Settala, Alessandro Tadino, Felice Casati among others. All this to say that these pages seem straight out of a newspaper today, even more than the novel by Manzoni.

Les Fiancés , Milanese history from the 17th century.

Dear students, there is nothing new under the sun I think, and yet our establishment is closed and I must speak to you. Our institution is one of those which, with its rhythms and rites, punctuates the course of time and harmonious life in society; it is no coincidence that the obligation to close schools is only decided by the authorities in very rare and truly exceptional cases. It is not for me to judge the advisability of the present measure, I am not an expert, I respect the authorities, I trust them and I scrupulously observe the advice to the population. 

But also I want to tell you: keep your cool, avoid getting caught up in the collective delirium, continue – with the usual precautions – to lead a normal life. Take advantage of these days to go for walks, to read a good book; there is no reason – if you feel good – to stay locked up at home. There is no reason to storm supermarkets and pharmacies, leave the masks for those who are sick – only they can help. The speed at which the disease can reach the other side of the world is the daughter of our time, there is no wall that can stop it; a few centuries ago it also traveled, only a little more slowly. 

One of the major risks in such situations, teach us Manzoni and also Boccaccio, is the poisoning of social life, of human relationships. It is barbarism that makes a living in society. When we feel threatened by an invisible enemy, our atavistic instinct is to see the enemy everywhere and we run the danger of considering each of our fellow men as a threat, a potential aggressor. 

Since the epidemics of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have developed the powerful weapon that is modern medicine, it is not nothing, believe me. Let us appeal to the rational spirit which generated that to preserve our most precious asset: our social ties, our humanity. If we do not succeed the plague will have won for good, and we lost our humanity. If we do not succeed, the plague will have won for good.

I look forward to welcoming you to school,

Domenico Squillace

DIRECTOR OF THE VOLTA TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL IN MILAN