Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City – Florence Under Siege by John Henderson

In Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City, John Henderson examines how a major city fought, suffered and survived the impact of plague. Going beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor, this book provides a nuanced and more compassionate interpretation of government policies in practice, by recreating the very human reactions and survival strategies of families and individuals at all levels of society.

Wider Implications

Each age faces the challenge of new diseases from cholera to AIDS and Ebola, but plague remains the paradigm against which reactions to epidemics are often judged. Early modern Italy, famous as the birthplace of the Renaissance, has long been portrayed as having developed public health policies which formed the basis of models developed in later centuries. This book, while focussing on seventeenth-century Florence, examines the Tuscan capital within a wider Italian and European context to assess the effect and real impact of these policies on the city, the neighbourhood, street and family. Writing in a vivid and approachable way, this book unearths the forgotten stories of doctors and administrators struggling to cope with the sick and dying, and the impact of plague on individuals and families through the personal diaries of the literate to the verbatim testimony in court cases of the poorer levels of society.

Official Reactions

Many histories of public health concentrate on chronicling government policies, whereas here equal emphasis is placed on the lived experience. Underpinning this narrative is a vivid recreation of the stories and experiences of individuals who endured and survived the epidemic. Contemporary political and medical rhetoric often blamed disproportionately the lower levels of society as the spreaders and even cause of plague, but official measures are examined to establish their real impact on the whole population. These included the cordon sanitaire along the frontiers of the Tuscan state; sanitary surveys of the living conditions of the poor; inspection and locking up of infected houses. A range of treatments are examined from the plague doctor’s prescribing of the ‘miraculous’ drug of Theriac to the surgeons’ lancing of buboes to the complex recipes devised by empirics.

A physician wearing a 17th century plague preventive. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

Lazaretti or Isolation Hospitals

Lazaretti or vast, crowded isolation hospitals above all served to distinguish many Italian cities from their northern European counterparts. Some cities built new structures, but many took over existing buildings, as in the case of Florence, where the beautiful Romanesque convent and church of San Miniato al Monte on the hill overlooking Florence to the south of the river Arno became the city’s major Lazaretto. Together with the other Lazaretti around the city, San Miniato housed and treated over 10,000 people during the epidemic of 1630 to 1631, but did, as was claimed at the time, they lead to a reduction in mortality? or simply provide a convenient way for the poor to be enclosed?

Façade of the Church of S. Miniato al Monte, the Benedictine abbey, which became the main Lazaretto in Florence. It was sited on top of the hill to the south of the city, thus providing isolation and fresher air. (author photo).


Religious strategies also form an important theme of this book, reflecting contemporary belief in the necessity to placate divine ire at the sins of Mankind, through prayers and public masses. But elaborate processions with holy relics were an integral part of the ceremonial response. How far did this lead to conflict with the health board officers given the perceived threat of the spread of disease when large numbers collected together?  The plague in Florence also led to the commissioning of major works of art and architecture from the Medici Grand-ducal family to the more and less affluent, as they paid for chapels, altarpieces, and silver and wax votive offerings. This truly inter-disciplinary study examines these commissions and asks how far the iconography of votive saints in Tuscany, such as St. Sebastian and San Rocco, have in common or differ from other parts of Italy.

Pieter van Halen, ‘The Plague of the Philistines at Ashdod’ (1661), (Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY), which treats the same theme as Nicholas Poussin’s picture of 1630 of the same title. Though this presents a classicizing treatment of a Biblical theme of the divine punishment of the Philistines, contemporaries in the seventeenth century believed that plague was caused by God’s anger at the sins of Mankind. The presence of plague is reflected in the gestures of many of the people, others who held their hands over their noses and mouths to avoid the inhalation of the infected miasma of disease, and the dying mother and child. To the right can be seen a cart being loaded with dead bodies wrapped in shrouds to be taken for burial.

Individual Experience and Survival Strategies

Florence Under Siege seeks above all to look behind the optimistic gloss of official printed accounts to examine individual experiences. It recreates the often moving and tragic narratives of the individuals who ran isolation hospitals, the doctors who treated plague victims, and above all of the ordinary men and women left bereft and confused by the sickness and death of family members.

Plague on Trial

Analysis of the large corpus of contemporary court records provides fascinating evidence of the numerous survival strategies through which individuals coped with the very real fear generated by a city under siege from an invisible enemy and how they attempted to side-step regulations in order to preserve their possessions and their normal way of life. Examination of detailed trials reveals not just the extraordinary variety of ‘crimes’, but also reveals greater compassion than suggested by the draconian punishments prescribed in law and thus helps to break down the traditional picture of the opposition of rich and poor, the governors and governed.

Anon (Orazio Colombo), ‘Punishment and Execution of Untori or Plague-spreaders in Milan’ (1630), after the engraving by ‘Bassano’ or ‘Francesco Vallato’ (Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY). The print shows a wide variety of gruesome punishments administered in Milan to those men and women accused of spreading plague through smearing the walls of the city with poisonous unguents.

John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck, University of London, and Emeritus Fellow, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, is one of the leading social and medical historians of renaissance and early modern Italy, and is the author of a series of books, edited volumes and articles on renaissance Tuscany. With Yale he has published The Renaissance Hospital (2006) and (with Jon Arrizabalaga and Roger French) The Great Pox (1997) and most recently Plague and the City, edited, with Lukas Engelmann and Christos Lynteris (Routledge, 2018).

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