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Antonin Artaud, Cagliari and the Plague

Foto Marta R.Spiga

“The archives of the small city of Cagliari, in Sardinia, contain the report of an extraordinary historical fact”, said A. Artaud.  His essay “The Theater and the Plague”, is a masterly and canonical text on the history of contemporary theater. The brilliant French playwright reports a story, which perhaps occurred between the end of April and the beginning of May 1720, in which a providential dream of the Viceroy of Sardinia saved the city from the contagion of the terrible plague.


Artaud said: “Saint-Rémys, sensitive to the most pernicious viruses by his reduced responsibility as monarch, had a particularly unpleasant dream: he saw himself plagued and the plague devastating his tiny state. Under the scourge, the structures of society disintegrate (…) the order collapses. But although it is “annihilated and burnt in the marrow” and certainly terrified, the Viceroy knows “that in dreams one does not die”. He wakes up and starts a real “war against the plague”.

Saint-Rémys stands in contravention of national and international conventions, which in the face of “death” emphasizes Artaud “no longer count”. Saint-Rémys thus prohibits the Grand-Saint-Antoine vessel from docking at the port of Cagliari, under penalty of sinking it with cannon. In short, in this difficult battle against the danger of losing one’s life, one can, therefore, say that “The Viceroy was going for the frills”. His decision wasn’t politically correct but was accepted in the general skepticism and sarcasm of the crowd. History, however, gave reason to Saint-Rémys: the ship continued its journey, made a stop in Livorno, and when it was granted the authorization to land in Marseilles effectively led or promoted the development of the epidemic. The narration ended with a lapidary and presumed certainty: “The city of Cagliari (…) left the testimony of the episode in its archives, where anyone can find it”.

Cagliari spiata
Credit Alessandro Cani

Artaud, therefore, had no doubts about the popularity of the affair and of Viceroy himself. I, on the other hand, did not forget it: it was true that the baron Pallavicino of Saint-Rémys was dedicated to the majestic monument of my city, though it was not common, but not completely excluded that because of the “Saint” was often confused with a local saint. Nor could one affirm with certainty that the story was in the public domain and that above all anyone could easily access his story.

Encouraged by my professor of “Ermeneutica Artistica” Fiorella Bassan at “Sapienza”, the University of Rome, I decided to return to Cagliari to find out if it was actually so simple and immediate to find a testimony of the episode in the archives. Thus began an adventure that would reveal to me considerable surprises, a strange transnational and biennial conflict with A. Artaud, the famous French playwright, who died in 1944. Artaud uses the word virus to indicate the pathogen of the plague. It can be assumed, however, that this is not a gross error or negligence, but a conscious linguistic choice. The word virus, in fact, can better suggest the idea that Artaud wants to communicate perhaps much more than referring to an objective and scientific bacterium. The virus, as the etymology suggests, is a poison that penetrates and expands, which irreversibly transforms the social body, killing it or leading it to a sort of healing.

Artaud makes a precise choice, that is to say, to place himself outside the medical and scientific field. The director has defined it as the “direct instrument or materialization of an intelligent force in close relationship with what we call fatality”. But for A. Artaud the plague is much more than this, it is a psychic entity, a sublime abandonment of every hypocritical convention.Artaud learns about what happened in Cagliari and remains so fascinated that he decided to start his brilliant essay with this story, allowing the island’s capital to appear in all editions and translations of the text, immortalized like the scenario of a prodigious event. Between Saint-Rémys and the plague an intense and inexplicable relationship is established, he writes:

“The Viceroy captures in some dreams some emanations: it can not be denied that between the plague and him has established a palpable contact (…) and it is too simple to limit the possibility of transmission of a similar disease by direct contact (… ) yet these relations between Saint-Rémys and the plague, intense enough to be expressed in the images of his dream, are not so much to make the illness appear in him “.


The French director is sure that the story is widely known and that the undisputed protagonist is the Viceroy Saint-Rémys, Baron Pallavicino, but the situation is much more complex and there will be some surprises. First of all, the word plague in Cagliari does not evoke just this misfortune, but unfortunately, one other tragedy unfortunately occurred. In fact, it is well known the epidemic that hit the city in 1656, ceased according to the legend, only thanks to the saving intervention of the local saint  Efisio. Even today, in fact, we celebrate the anniversary on the date of the first of May with a huge and enormous popular participation, often eclipsing the national Labor Day. So we could conclude that in Cagliari it is preferred to keep in mind the material reality rather than a course of events that, although nefarious, fortunately, could only be considered a bad dream.

Consulting the text “Dalla Peste alle festa by Paolo De Magistris, I finally found, at least partially, what I was looking for: a reference to the magical fact that interested me. In fact, the apprehension and fear of Baron Pallavicino for the plague of Marseilles find space even among the pages of Volume 3 of the ‘History of Sardinia’ by  Giuseppe Manno. As a serious historian and only interested in objective truth, the scholar is limited to list the real and effective measures introduced by the Viceroy to avert the arrival and spread of the epidemic: therefore the project of the construction of the hospital of Alghero, and also what the scholar calls “the best order given to the general magistrate of Health” . Only then concrete measures, no mention is made of futile dreams and other events out of ordinary administration.

Paolo De Magistris instead gives his work a more informative cut, if he recognizes that “will be the pride of the Piedmontese Viceroy Pallavicino of Saint-Remys recently installed in Cagliari to exercise power in the name of Vittorio Amedeo II, to have issued wise and timely provisions that prevented the access of the disease in the island ” ,he does not renounce to comment that “the Viceroy’s nights of sleep should not be very quiet “.

Also this time A. Artaud proves that he is not right. In fact, finding this material is difficult and even less can we say that “anyone can find it”. Perhaps this time something paranormal happens, but by chance, the librarian Mrs. Maria Rosaria Scalas who, together with Mrs. Maria Luisa Patricolo, gave me very valuable help in the course of my research, and among other things helped to locate evidence that is not immediately intuitive.

The representation of the Saint and the handwritten note can be found in a poster dated May 1, 1793, which celebrates the “glorious events of arms followed in Cagliari in January and February MDCCXCIII”. The occasion in which this poem of praise for the Saint is written is the recent victory over the French in their attempt to invade the island. The author of the writing does not appear while from the signature it is deduced that to cure the graphic aspects of the print was a certain Stagnon. The epiphany of the Saint stands out in the center and impressively overpowers the image. In the background appears a timidly perched Cagliari, and on the right, you see a ship that explains the sails and quickly takes off: will it be the Grand Saint Antoine, intimidated by the threat of cannon shots?

Even more interesting is the handwritten note, a really detailed list of the prodigious events in which Saint Efisio guaranteed the salvation of Cagliari. Three miracles are remembered. The second of these is more popular and is traditionally referred to Baron Pallavicino: legend has it that the Saint Efisio appeared in a vision once again at Saint-Rémys warning him of the attempt by insidious enemies to poison the city’s water reserves. From this came the Procession of Holy Thursday which carried the statue of Sant’Efisio from the church of Stampace to the cathedral. The third event mentioned in the meticulous list, instead, refers to the defeat of the French, the recent circumstance commemorated by the press.

Photo Credit  Alessandro Cani

If you did not pay attention to the first miracle listed, you could conclude that the two prodigies such as the epiphany and the event reported by Artaud, both refer to the same character, Saint-Rémys. These are in the end a truly enlightened ruler if not lucky and with remarkable supernatural abilities. And yet, as a sudden coup de théâtre, the first miracle brought back threatens to compromise this idyllic narration, recalling: “when in 1743 a ship that had the plague appeared in the dream to Viceroy Blonay for two nights, he was threatening them to not to allow to be close to Cagliari. The vessel, which he sent away, brought the disease to Messina.

Suddenly, in my research, appeared two characters that the playwright had not really been taken into account. The relationship with the plague is no longer direct but is mediated by the figure of Sant’Efisio. So considering that for Artaud the disease is the strength of the spiritual physiognomy, surely the presence of another transcendent power would have created many difficulties in the speech that the director intended to carry on. The other intruder is the Baron Bolnay who was made sleepy for two nights by the saint could instead be the true protagonist of the legend then attributed to the Saint-Rémys.

An article, written in Spanish and issued by Don Luis de Bolonay Cavallero Gran Cruz and Comendador, testifies to the concern of the Viceroy for the disease that developed in Messina had already penetrated Reggio Calabria and testifies to the rigid restriction imposed on trade and circulation of vessels, animals and people from Calabria.

Which of the two Viceroys is, therefore, the protagonist of the Dream? Could there possibly be two dreams?

porta dell'Elefante-alessandro cani
Photo Credit:Alessandro Cani

A plausible hypothesis could be the following: the legend has been attributed to the figure of Saint-Rémys for the determination demonstrated through valid and conscientious expedients that have effectively and effectively averted the arrival in Cagliari of the fearsome Marsigliese plague, which instead perhaps for the failure to warn foreign rulers has not spared other areas.The other explanation certainly more fascinating, but not credible claims that there were two dreams so that in some way the dream was in Cagliari the most frequent way of prevention of disease. A new stream between politics and the transcendent world where the statesman seeing himself “plague” resolutely decided to take effective measures to prevent the disaster. Given the effectiveness of such a resolution with regard to the “plague not arrived”, in these times of economic crisis, such timely awareness via dream should perhaps be recovered, as a prodigious epistemic channel.Returning to A. Artaud, one can affirm or deliberately decide to orchestrate the event in a more congenial way, thus becoming the great director of the story, or much more simply it was a trivial mistake. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the playwright has ever visited the island so it must be reached by the knowledge of the legend only by means of a secondary source. Through a valid research bibliography, it has been possible to reconstruct how what happened in the “small town in Sardinia” has come to the reformer of the contemporary theater.Interested in drawing up a work on the plague that had raged in Marseilles, his city of origin, A. Artaud decided perhaps to consult the text of Fr Gaffarel et le maquis de Duranty “La Peste de 1720 à Marseille & en France”, in fact in this volume it is possible to read: “The viceroy of Sardinia, Saint-Remis, had dreamed the night before, that the plague was devastating his government, was still under the effect of this nightmare, when he was told that a ship with Levante asked to enter the port: so he decided to remove him at any cost.The inhabitants of Cagliari thought of an act of madness on the part of their governor, but when they learned that the rejected vehicle had the plague inside, they handed the testimony of the made to the archives of the city, which no one has ever thought to challenge.”

Unfortunately not even this French scholar who is also deduced was the source from which Artaud has taken the news and even almost the same words it is not the first source of the error. In fact, in fact, we read a reference to another author: it is P.E. Lemontey and his Histoire de la Regence. In the work of this historian the exact reproduction of what the other two scholars have reported once again appears: somehow this news has rebounded, as a pleasant anecdote between the two writers to be returned intact and identical in the essay of A. Artaud. P.E. Lemontey, however, does not report how scrupulous P. Gaffarel, his bibliographic references, so with him the search somehow stops: the circle closes, and it is difficult if not impossible to trace who was the first to report in a way that makes the event incorrect.

Given the information available, it can be deduced that simply A. Artaud would have been misled by information that had been reported incorrectly several times. This dry conclusion that leads one to imagine the author as a misguided and distracted reader naturally does not satisfy me. In a sense, the French playwright managed to create “a legend of a legend”, and this, in my opinion, is already an amazing result. His alternative version of the story, revisited and secular, if not better and more interesting than the original, has certainly taken the traits of official history: and this is precisely the legend that causes the astonishment, which attracts the attention of the student, ‘passionate reader who perhaps in a remote part of the world is aware of the prodigy and really deludes himself of being able to find evidence with ease in the archives of Cagliari.

Two artistic creations that slip on the edge of a presumed objective reality, two versions that acquire a fund of truth only when they can restore “the singular force of the fascination exerted by that dream”, thus reproducing an extraordinary enchantment, that precisely as A. Artaud comments “which will give back to us all the magical and natural equivalent of the dogmas in which we have ceased to believe”.

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