Post-classical history

Chapter Four
Sicilian Autumn

Sicily, October 1347

THE MEDITERRANEAN IS A SEA OF SECRETS. THERE ARE THE SECRETS of its submerged mountains, the lofty ranges that once linked Tunisia to Sicily and Spain to Morocco. There are the secrets of its mysterious ancestor, the Tethys Sea, which, before the birth of Eurasia, flowed across the face of the world into a great eastern ocean. And there are the secrets of the Mediterranean’s dead: the Vivaldi brothers, who vanished into the infinity of longitude and latitude, searching for a passage to the Indies. And the greatest secret of all: the fate of the pesilential Genoese, who fled Caffa with “sickness clinging to their very bones.”

“Speak, Genoa. What have you done?” a contemporary demanded on behalf of the plague dead. But Genoa has kept her silence about the ships, and keeps it still. The Caffa plague fleet floats through the literature of the Black Death like a ghost shimmering on a night sea. One account speaks of “three galleys loaded with spices . . . storm driven from the east by the stinking breath of wind”; another of four Genoese ships returning from the Crimea “full of infected sailors”; a third of a Genoese fleet—variously numbered at two to twelve ships—sailing from Asia Minor to the Mediterranean, infecting everything in its wake, including the Black Sea port of Pera, Constantinople, Messina (Sicily), Genoa, and Marseille.

In June, as the apocalypse gathered in the East, few in Europe were aware that something wicked was coming their way. In England the summer of 1347 had some of the sepia-toned glamour of the summer of 1914. Fresh from a glorious campaign season on the plains of northern France, the golden-haired Edward III was in London, enjoying the tournament season, while down the Thames at Westminster Palace, his daughter, Princess Joan, was spending the soft June evenings strolling the palace lawns serenaded by a Spanish minstrel, a gift from the dashing Prince Pedro of Castile. In Siena bootmaker and part-time real estate speculator Agnolo di Tura was at work on a history of the city, eyeing some properties on the Campo, the town square, and doting on his wife, Nicoluccia, and their five children. In Paris the cleric Jean Morellet was updating the building fund at his church, St. Germain l’Auxerrois. The fund received so few donations, Morellet had time for long morning walks along the unembanked Seine, where the river breezes kept the water mills in perpetual motion and the narrow rectangular houses along the bank stood up like “hairs on a multitude of heads.” In Thonon, a town on Lake Geneva, a barber surgeon named Balavigny could be found at the town gate most mornings that summer, gossiping with fellow members of the local Jewish community. In Naples, where the warm night air smelled of the “sweet, soft perfume of summer,” the most beautiful woman in Europe and Christendom’s reigning Bad Girl—Queen Joanna of Naples and Sicily—was facing accusations of murder.

In July, as the fields around Broughton filled with straw-hatted peasants, and the monks in Avignon glazed their windows to trap in the cool air, in Constantinople hopelessness and despair already reigned. Positioned just below the Black Sea and just above the Dardanelles, gateway to West, the Byzantine capital sat in the middle of a bull’s-eye. A Europe-bound ship leaving the Crimea could not reach home without passing the city. Thus, sometime in the spring or early summer of 1347, the plague-bearing Genoese arrived in the harbor, chanting the words of the black-hatted stranger in the American Indian myth: “I am death.”

The Venetian scribe who estimated that 90 percent of Constantinople perished in the Black Death surely exaggerated, but no one who lived through the pestilential summer and fall of l347 in the Byzantine capital ever forgot the experience. “Every day we bring out our friends for burial. [And] every day the city becomes emptier and the number of graves increases,” wrote the court scholar Demetrios Kydones. As the mortality intensified, Kydones saw his fellow citizens become twisted by fear and selfishness. “Men inhumanely shun each other’s company [for fear of contagion]. Fathers do not dare to bury their own sons; sons do not perform . . . last duties to their fathers.”

The plague also left a lasting mark on Ioannes IV, the Byzantine emperor. “Upon arrival . . . [the empress] found [our] youngest . . . dead,” wrote Ioannes, in his only known statement about the death of his thirteen-year-old son, Andronikos. After the boy’s death the emperor lost his taste for the world. Abdicating the throne, Ioannes retired to the solitude of a monk’s cell, to pray and mourn and grieve for the remainder of his life.

From Constantinople,Y. pestisfollowed the trade routes southward into the Dardanelles, the thin vein of blue water that carries the Europe-bound traveler into the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean beyond. In the summer of 1347, the world divided at the Dardanelles. Immediately to the west lay the green sunlit hills of Europe, still untouched by plague; to the east, the pesilential plains of Asia Minor. Descending through the straits,Y. pestisstopped to pay its respects to Xerxes, the Persian king who built a bridge of boats to ferry his army across the waterway. Then, as the Aegean rushed into view, the plague bacillus cloned itself. One strain of the disease swung northward through Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania, in the general direction of Poland; a second strain darted southward across the Mediterranean toward Egypt and the Levant; while a third strain doubled back eastward, striking Cyprus late in the summer. As if trying to repel a malignant body, the island immediately rose up in violent rebellion. First the earth ripped open, and “a tremendous earthquake” uprooted trees, collapsed hills, leveled buildings, and killed thousands. Then the angry sea threw up a tidal wave so enormous, it seemed to scrape the sun as it rushed toward the island. Mothers snatched up their children, farmers ran from the fields; seagulls scattered into the sky, gawking and yakking in alarm; while fishermen, caught between the coast and the wave, whispered a quick last prayer as the luminous Mediterranean light disappeared behind a hard black wall of water. A moment later an enormous crash sent shock waves flying across the water for dozens of miles in every direction; then large parts of coastal Cyprus disappeared beneath a turbulent sea of white foam. “Ships were dashed to pieces on the rocks and . . . this fertile and blooming island was converted into a vast desert,” wrote a German historian. Next the air itself seemed to give out. A “pestiferous wind spread so poisonous an odor that many, being overpowered, . . . fell down suddenly and expired in dreadful agonies.”* As calamity followed calamity, alarmed Cypriots began to fear that their Arab slaves would rise up in revolt. Closing their hearts to pity, islanders reached for the sword. Day after day that bleak fall, hundreds of Muslim men, women, and children were herded into ruined olive groves littered with puddles and twisted, uprooted trees and slaughtered by men who would be dead of the pestilence within a week.

The fourth strain of the plague swept westward across the Mediterranean until it found an island even more tragic and tortured than Cyprus.

Sicily lies only a few miles off the coast of Europe, but it belongs to a different world—a more primitive, insular, and, above all, violent world. There is the violence of the island’s sky, which is too blue; of its sun, which is too bright; of its people, who are too passionate; and of its wind, the piercing summer sirocco, which blows northward across the Mediterranean from Tunisia and stings the eyes, burns the throat, and coats the lungs with sand. There is also the violence of Sicilian history, a history so full of duplicity, subjugation, bloodshed, and despair that the sunny Mediterranean island has produced a society of black-hearted fatalists. In Sicily, says native novelist Leonardo Sciascia, “we ignore the future tense of verbs. We never say, ‘Tomorrow I will go to the country’; we say,‘Dumani, vaju in compagna’—‘Tomorrow I am going to the country.’ How can you fail to be pessimistic in a country where the future tense of the verb does not exist?”

The most tragic moment in Sicily’s history begins almost like a child’s fairy tale. “In October 1347,* at about the beginning of the month, twelve Genoese galleys put into the port of Messina.” The author of these words, a Franciscan friar named Michele da Piazza, does not say from where the galleys originated—Caffa, another Black Sea port, Constantinople, Romania, or somewhere closer—but apparently nothing about the vessels seemed untoward or suspicious. As the ships docked, Messina went about its daily business, enjoying a final moment of normalcy before the world changed utterly. Fishermen unloaded their catch, old women gossiped from windows, children chased one another across long golden beaches, a soft autumn wind danced up the narrow streets of the town; then anchors dropped, gangplanks came down, and the Genoese crews rolled onto the docks, “carrying such a disease in their bodies that if anyone so much as spoke with one of them he was infected . . . and could not avoid death.”

The Black Death had arrived in Europe.*

Almost immediately people began to fall ill, and they fell ill in ways no one in Messina had ever seen before. First, says Friar Michele, “a sort of boil . . . the size of a lentil, erupted on the thigh or arm, [then] the victims violently coughed up blood, and after three days [of] incessant vomiting . . . for which there was no remedy, they died . . . and with them died not only everyone who had talked to them, but also anyone who acquired, touched or laid hands on their belongings.”

Friar Michele seems to be describing pneumonic plaguesecondaryto bubonic plague—that is, plague that begins in the lymph system (producing the bubo), but metastasizes to the lungs (producing the bloody cough). Messina’s rapid infection suggests that if the disease was not pneumonic when it arrived, it rapidly became so—that is, at a certain point, the infection began to spread directly from person to person via airborne droplets.

More puzzling is how the Genoese, ravaged as they were, managed to get to Messina. Some of the crew members may have had a natural immunity toY. pestis,but even assuming that CCR5-∆32 does heighten resistance to the disease, far from settled scientific fact, could enough crew members have survived to get a fleet from the Crimea or Constantinople to Sicily, both several months’ sail away? Given how quickly plague kills, another, perhaps more credible scenario is that the fleet that brought the disease to Messina originated in a port closer to Italy.

Open sea sailing was still very dangerous in the Middle Ages, so mariners rarely sailed anywhere in a straight line. Even during extended trips, ships would inch along a coastline like rock climbers on a ledge, stopping every third or fourth day to trade and buy supplies. The practice, calledcosteggiare,would have allowedY. pestisto proceed to Europe in a stepwise fashion, moving from port to port and fleet to fleet, allowing it to kill crews at will.

Messina quickly expelled the Genoese, but the plague had already entered the lifeblood of the city. As the mortality deepened, churches and shops fell silent, beaches emptied, fishing boats lay idle, streets became deserted. Soon Messina, like Constantinople, became two cities, the city of the infected—a municipality of pain and despair—and the city of the uninfected, where fear and hate ruled. “The disease bred such loathing,” says Friar Michele, “that if a son fell ill . . . his father flatly refused to stay with him.” That autumn many in Messina died, not only absent the consolation of a parent or a child, but without a priest to hear confession or a notary to make out a will. Only Messina’s animals maintained the old traditions of loyalty and faithfulness. “Cats and . . . livestock followed their master to death,” says Friar Michele.

Soon Messina began to empty out. Friar Michele speaks of crazed dogs running wild on deserted streets, of nighttime fires winking from crowded fields and vineyards around the city, of dusty, sun-drenched roads filled with sweaty, fearful refugees, of sick stragglers wandering off to nearby woods and huts to die. He also describes several incidents of what sound, to a modern sensibility, like magical realism but were probably episodes of panic-induced hysteria. In one, “a black dog with a naked sword in its paw” rushes into a church and smashes the silver vessels, lamps, and candlesticks on the altar.* In another, a statue of the Blessed Virgin comes alive en route to Messina and, horrified by the city’s sinfulness, refuses to enter. “The earth gaped wide,” says Friar Michele, “and the donkey upon which the statue of the Mother of God was being carried became as fixed and immovable as a rock.”

Not long ago a British historian boasted of English resoluteness in the face of the Black Death. “With his friends and relations dying in droves, . . . with every kind of human intercourse rendered perilous,” wrote the historian, “the medieval Englishman obstinately carried on in his wonted way.” The assessment is accurate, but English fortitude owes something to good fortune as well as good character. The plague did not suddenly drop from the sky on England one day. Untouched until the summer of 1348, the English had nearly a year to collect intelligence and steady themselves. Without pressing the analogy too far, cities like Messina and Constantinople were in the position of a Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Not only did the plague more or less strike out of the blue, it produced death on a scale no one had ever seen, no one had ever imagined possible—death not in the hundreds or thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands, and in the millions. Moreover, it was a death capable of obliterating whole networks of people in a matter of hours. One day, wrote a contemporary, “a man, wanting to make his will, died along with the notary, the priest who heard his confession, and the people summoned to witness his will, and they were all buried together on the following day.”

Faced with catastrophe on such an unprecedented scale, it is hardly surprising that so many in Sicily lost their heads.

The tale of the Black Death in Sicily is also a tale of two cities, Messina and its southern neighbor, Catania. Believing the Messinese to be vain and supercilious, the Catanians had long disliked their swaggering northern neighbors, and when the town became a collection point for refugees from the port, relations between the two cities soured further. “Don’t talk to me if you are from Messina,” wary townsfolk told the refugees. The Messinese, whose reputation for vanity was not entirely unjustified, did not enhance their standing by promptly asking to borrow Catania’s most precious relics, the bones of the blessed virgin St. Agatha. The Catanians were aghast. Even by the standards of Messinese cheek, this was outrageous. Who would protect Catania from the pestilence while St. Agatha was in the north helping the Messinese drive the plague from their native city? Even Friar Michele becomes a little unhinged when he describes the request. “What a stupid idea on the part of you Messinese. . . . Don’t you think if she [St. Agatha] wanted to make her home in Messina she would have said so?”

The crisis deepened when Catania’s patriarch, Gerard Ortho, experienced a fit of guilt. Under public pressure, the patriarch had agreed to ban Messinese refugees from the city. Now, to appease God and his conscience, not only did he let the refugees talk him into lending them St. Agatha’s relics, he promised to carry the relics to Messina himself. Again, Catania was aghast. The patriarch seemed to be imposing a form of unilateral spiritual disarmament on the city. An angry crowd quickly gathered and marched on the cathedral. On every other day, Catanians addressed their patriarch on bended knee and with bowed head, but not on this day, with the city under imminent threat from a horrible illness. On this day the marchers spoke truth to power. Confronting the patriarch inside the cathedral, they told him flatly, “They would rather see him dead before they let the relics go to Messina.” A man of some moral courage, Patriarch Ortho insisted on keeping his word to the Messinese. Finally a compromise was struck. Messina would not get St. Agatha’s relics, but it would get the next best thing: holy water into which the relics had been dipped—Patriarch Ortho would sprinkle the water over the infected city himself.

Like almost all stories about Sicily in the autumn of 1347, the tale of two cities ends badly. Despite the holy water, the plague continued to rage in Messina; despite St. Agatha’s relics, Catania was struck by the pestilence; and despite a close association with two most important symbols of Sicilian spirituality, Patriarch Ortho died a terrible plague death.

The story of Duke Giovanni, Sicily’s craven regent, also has an unhappy ending. As the plague spread across the island—while it produced grievous mortalities in Syracuse, in Trapani, in Sciacca, in Agrigento—the duke thought of no one and of nothing but himself. “He roamed here and there like a fugitive,” says Friar Michele, “now in the forest . . . of Catania, now at a tower calledlu blancu. . . now at the church of San Salvatore. . . .” In 1348, certain that the plague was abating, the duke emerged from hiding and settled “in a place called Sant’ Andrea.” Hearing of his reemergence shortly before leaving Sicily,Y. pestispaid a call on the duke at his new home and killed him.

Near the end of his chronicle, Friar Michele throws up his hands in despair and declares, “What more is there to say?”

Very little—except that by the autumn of 1348, when the pestilence finally burned itself out, the dead had come to inhabit Sicily as insistently as the living. Human remains could be found everywhere on the island: on the desolate volcanic wastelands of the interior, in the soft green valleys near the coastal plains, and along the island’s golden beaches. A third of Sicily may have died in the plague; no one knows for sure.

Genoa, November-December 1347

In a disquisition on Genoese “character,” a local cleric likened his fellow citizens to “donkeys.” “The nature of a donkey is this,” he explained. “When many are together . . . and one is thrashed by a stick, all scatter, fleeing hither and thither.”

The Genoese expelled from Messina behaved in character. Scattering “hither and thither,” they began to infect other ports, but the expelled galleys were almost certainly not the only agents of plague in the Mediterranean in the desperate fall of 1347. From Caffa, the pestilence had spread around the Black Sea, then to Constantinople, Romania, and Greece, producing a panicked flight west. By November there must have been twenty or more plague ships off the southern coast of Europe, some sailing toward the western Mediterranean, others toward the Adriatic, each armed with the equivalent of a large thermonuclear device, and most, if not all, captained by men whose innate greed was greatly enhanced by the fact that they had a personal financial stake in the cargoes their ships were carrying. With holds full of dead and dying, many infected vessels continued to sail from port to port, selling their wares. One contemporary account speaks of three infected ships expelled from French and Italian ports “heading toward the Atlantic along the Spanish coast . . . to conclude their trade.” France, Spain, Egypt, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, and Tunis were all infected via the traditional Mediterranean trade routes, as was mainland Italy, which, in the autumn of 1347, may have been the most vulnerable region of Europe.

For years nothing had gone right on the Italian peninsula. Even the land and sky had seemed to fall into disorder. In 1345 the heavens burst open, and it rained torrentially for six months, flooding fields, washing out bridges, and producing famine on an epic scale. “In 1346 and 1347,” says a contemporary, “there was a severe shortage of basic foods . . . to the point where many people died of hunger and people ate grass and weeds as if they had been wheat.” In Florence the terrible plague spring of 1348 was preceded by the terrible famine spring of 1347. In April of that year much of Florence was surviving on a municipal bread ration. As if sensing the approaching horror, the Italian earth also began to tremble. Major earthquakes rocked Rome, Venice, Pisa, Bologna, Naples, Padua, and Venice,* perhaps releasing poisonous gas into the atmosphere as in Cyprus. In several places vintners complained that the air in their wine casks had grown turbid. Everywhere on the peninsula, there was also war and rumor of war.

Through hunger and rain, flood and earthquakes, Italians persisted in killing one another. Genoa was at war with Venice, the papacy with the Holy Roman Emperor, the Hungarians with Naples, and in Rome the aristocratic Colonna family and the aristocratic Orsini family were slitting each others’ throats with the happy abandon of Mafia clans.

“What was true of late medieval Europe as a whole wasa fortioritrue of Italy,” says historian Philip Ziegler. “The people were physically in no state to resist a sudden and severe epidemic, and, psychologically, they were attuned to . . . a supine acceptance of disaster. . . . To speak of a collective death wish is to trespass into the world of metaphysics, but if ever there was a people with a right to despair of life, it was the Italian peasantry of the mid-fourteenth century.”

If Italy was the most vulnerable region of western Europe, the most vulnerable region of Italy may have been Genoa, a handsome city with a “fine circuit of walls, . . . beautiful palaces” set against a majestic mountain backdrop. In addition to sharing the afflictions of its neighbors, Genoa also bore the special burden of its hubris and ambition. Having become the center of an eastern trading empire, the city exerted an almost magnetic attraction on anything coming out of Asia, whether it be Sungware from China, spices from Ceylon, ebony from Burma, or death from the Mongolian Plateau.

Perhaps sensing the city’s vulnerability, the Genoese exercised great vigilance in the autumn of l347. Contemporary accounts say that Genoa was infected on December 31, 1347, but a reconstruction of the timeline that fall suggests thatY. pestismade a first run at the city eight to ten weeks earlier. In this version of events, on a late October morning three or four galleys, probably members of the expelled Messina fleet, appear in Genoa harbor and are promptly driven away. As the fleet scatters “hither and thither” again, one stray vessel makes its way north along the French Mediterranean coast to Marseille, and infects the unsuspecting city; then upon being expelled for a third time (Messina and Genoa are one and two), the stray meets up with two companions and sails into history as part of the pestilential fleet last seen heading “toward the Atlantic along the Spanish coast.”

However, the prompt action by authorities in October only bought Genoa a little extra time. In late December a second infected fleet appeared in the winter sea off the city. It is unclear where the vessels, also Genoese in origin, came from—Messina, Constantinople, the Crimea, or somewhere else—but their visit appears to have been in the nature of a death ride. The crews were “horribly infected,” and may have wanted to gaze a final time upon their native city and its “fine circuit of walls” and “beautiful palaces.” Again the ships were driven away by “burning arrows and other engines of war,” but, in this instance, too slowly. During this second visit, which may be the December 31 episode described in the chronicles, the plague got into the city. Thereafter, Genoa falls silent. Almost alone among major Italian cities, she failed to produce a plague chronicler. The only record we have of the city’s experience in the winter and spring of 1348, the period of the Black Death, is a report of a famous visitor and a few accounts of individual acts of heroism and self-sacrifice.

One such act was performed by a woman named Simonia, who, in late February 1348, nursed her friend Aminigina through the final days of a bitter plague death. Ignoring the danger to herself, Simonia remained at Aminigina’s side, changing her soiled nightshirts, holding her hand when she cried, wiping the blood and spittle and vomit from her lips. On February 23, 1348, the dying Aminigina rewarded Simonia with a small monetary bequest. On that same day, in another part of Genoa, in an office above winter streets dancing with plague, a notary named Antonio de Benitio was making out wills. De Benitio and his colleagues, Guidotto de Bracelli and Domenico Tarrighi, both of whom also stayed in the city, are not obviously heroic figures in the mold of a Patriarch Ortho and Simonia. But in a period of mass death, when enormous amounts of money and property were suddenly being orphaned, notaries, who made out wills and other legal documents, played an essential role in the maintenance of civic order. Without notarial records, there could be no orderly transmission of societal resources from the dead to the living; and without such a transmission, chaos and disorder would result.

During the pestilence Genoa also received a brief visit from the most notorious woman in Christendom, the willful, beautiful Queen Joanna of Naples and Sicily. Joanna, a combination of Scarlett O’Hara and Lizzie Borden, was in trouble again. On a September evening three years earlier, her husband, eighteen-year-old Andreas of Hungary, was discovered in the Neapolitan moonlight, dangling from a balcony with a noose around his neck. The queen and her lover, Luigi of Taratino, a man of such extraordinary physical beauty that a contemporary called him as “beautiful as the day,” were suspected of plotting the murder. The queen’s visit to pestilential Genoa was occasioned by her angry Hungarian in-laws, who had just invaded Italy in pursuit of her and Luigi and anyone who had helped them kill the eighteen-year-old Andreas. In March 1348, while notary de Bracelli was at his desk making out wills, and bodies piled up along Genoa’s “fine circuit of walls,” the lovely Joanna, in the breathless tradition of the romance novel heroine, was boarding a fast ship in Genoa harbor. Soon Christendom’s most beautiful couple would reunite in Avignon, where the Neapolitan queen would participate in a trial so notorious, for a while it upstaged even the plague.

Little else is known about Black Death Genoa, though it is said that if you stand under the statue of Columbus in the harbor on a summer night, you can hear the plague dead speak—but, of course, the voices are just the moans and creaks of small pleasure craft pitching in the night wind. Along with a magnificent harbor, the winds were nature’s great gift to Genoa. They blow to the south and west—just the directions the medieval Genoese wanted to go—until the day they arrived at the place where the winds end and discovered what lay in wait.

It is thought that a third of the city’s eighty thousand to ninety thousand citizens died of plague but, as with Sicily, no one knows for sure.

Venice, January 1348

The Genoese cleric who likened his fellow citizens to donkeys also had some thoughts about the character of Genoa’s great rival, Venice. “The Venetians are like pigs,” the cleric declared, “and truly they have a pig’s nature, for when a multitude of pigs . . . is hit or beaten, all draw close and run unto him who hits it.”

The cleric could have added vanity to his list of Venetian traits. The “ruler of half and a quarter of the Roman empire” liked to boast that it had the sleekest ships, the wealthiest bankers, the most beautiful women, and the most intrepid merchant adventurers. “Wheresoever water runs,” declared a local chronicler, Venetians can be found buying and selling. The most famous—and, in the view of most non-Venetians, the most shameless—display of Venetian narcissism was the all-day parade the city gave itself upon the installation of Lorenzo Tiepolo as doge, or city ruler.

The parade began with a glorious morning sail-by. The entire Venetian fleet, fifty magnificent vessels—the decks and masts of each crowded with cheering sailors; sails billowing out like puffed cheeks—glided across the mouth of the harbor, looking as stately as a procession of cardinals. Then, in the sparkling light of an Adriatic afternoon, the city’s guilds marched out of St. Mark’s Square behind two lines of gaudily attired trumpeters. Behind the musicians came the master smiths, with garlands in their hair, and above their heads, brightly colored banners flapping in the wind. Next came the furriers, in samanite and scarlet silk with mantles of ermine and vair; then the master tailors, in white robes with crimson stars; the gold workers, dressed in a shiny gold fabric; and finally the wicked barbers, ogling and gawking at the scandalously dressed slave girls marching in front of them.

But the Genoese cleric was right: narcissistic the Venetians might be, but in moments of crisis, they did band together—and that trait served them well when the plague slipped out of a silvery January dawn in 1348. Unlike the fatalistic Sicilians, who accepted the pestilence as an act of God, the competent, vigorous Venetians displayed what psychologists call agency. In the context of the times, the city’s response to the Black Death was well organized, intelligent, and ruthless in its insistence on the maintenance of public order. On March 20, in an atmosphere of grave crisis, Venice’s ruling body, the Great Council, and the doge, Andrea Dandolo, appointed an action committee of leading nobles; the committee’s recommendations would form the basis for a reasonably coherent municipal response to the pestilence. Public health would be born in the tortured cities of northern and central Italy in the winter and spring of 1348, and Venice would be in the forefront of the new field.

Under instruction from municipal authorities, all ships entering Venice were boarded and searched; vessels found harboring foreigners and corpses (citizens of Venice being transferred home for burial) were set ablaze. To maintain public order, drinking houses (inns) were shut down, and the gaily colored wine boats that sailed the canals were ordered out of the water. Anyone caught selling unauthorized wine was fined, his goods confiscated and emptied into the canals. On April 3, with the warm weather approaching, the Grand Council issued a new directive. A few days later, a fleet of stiletto-shaped municipal gondolas appeared in the canals, their boatmen shouting,“Corpi morti, corpi morti,”as they navigated between the shuttered buildings. “Whoever had such dead in his house had to throw them down into barges under heavy penalty,” says a contemporary.

As May settled over the Venetian lagoons, corpse-laden convoys shuttled back and forth through the choppy gray seas to the windswept islands of San Giorgio d’Alega (St. George of the Sea Weed) and San Marco Boccacalame. The convoys carried the poor, collected from streets, canals, hospitals, and charitable institutions. As a reward for being a citizen of a state that ruled “half and a quarter of the Roman Empire,” each cadaver got a grave dug exactly five feet deep, a last view of Venice, and a final prayer from a priest. The same rules governed internment at San Erasmo, a mainland burial site under one of the modern city’s most famous districts, the Lido.

By summer, with black-draped mourners everywhere, public morale became a grave concern. Venice was becoming the Republic of the Dead. On August 7, so as to avoid a further deepening of feelings of “affliction” in the city, the Grand Council bannedgramaglia,or mourning clothes. The tradition of laying the dead in front of the family home to solicit contributions was also ended. The practice, popular in poorer neighborhoods, was deemed inappropriate in a time of plague. A new municipal clemency program was also instituted. To fill the empty canals and streets, the prisons were opened and municipal authorities softened their stance on the readmission of debt exiles; a right of return was granted to those who agreed to pay a fifth of what they owed.

Mass flight did occur in Venice, but the city clamped down vigorously on refugees. On June 10, with the death rate approaching six hundred a day, the authorities issued an ultimatum to absent municipal workers: return to your post within eight days or lose your position.

Caffa is often mentioned as the source of Venice’s infection. But, leaving aside the problem of how a crew could have survived such a long journey, if Caffa—or even Constantinople—were the source of infection, Venice, on the east coast of Italy, should have been infected around the same time or even a little sooner than Messina, instead of months later. Ragusa (present-day Dubrovnik), a Venetian colony on the Balkan side of the Adriatic, which was visited by a Crimean fleet late in 1347, is a more likely source of infection. Contemporaries put the municipal death toll at a hundred thousand, but, with a population of roughly l20,000, that would give Venice a preposterously high mortality rate of almost a hundred percent. A historian of the city, Frederic C. Lane, thinks the plague killed about 60 percent of Venice, roughly 72,000 people, extraordinary enough.

One thing even the Black Death could not damage was Venetian self-esteem. On being awarded an annuity for his valorous services to the city during the pestilence, the municipal physician Francesco of Rome declared, “I would rather die here than live anywhere else.”

The forceful Venetian response to the Black Death proves the point ofDisaster and Recovery,the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission study on thermonuclear war. In the worst years of the mortality, Europeans witnessed horrors comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even when death was everywhere and only a fool would dare to hope, the thin fabric of civilization held—sometimes by the skin of its teeth, but it held. Enough notaries, municipal and church authorities, physicians, and merchants stepped forward to keep governments and courts and churches and financial houses running—albeit at a much reduced level. The report is right about human resiliency: even in the most extreme and horrific of circumstances, people carry on.

Central Italy, Late Winter–Early Spring 1348

“At the beginning of January [1348], two Genoese galleys arrived from Romania, and when [the crews] reached the fish market someone began to talk with them and immediately . . . fell ill and died.”

The incident in the fish market in Pisa marks a new stage in the spread of the Black Death. Behind the coastal city lay a dense network of rivers, roads, and trade routes, and at the other end of the network lay the urban centers of Tuscany. As if scenting fresh blood, the previously seaborne plague suddenly changed direction and thrust inland with the ferocity of a feral animal. In Florence, eighty-one kilometers to the east, alarmed municipal authorities frantically made preparations for the coming onslaught. Citizens were exhorted to keep their homes and streets clean and butchers to observe municipal restrictions on the slaughter of animals. Prostitutes and sodomites—medieval Florence had a reputation as a hotbed of sodomy—were expelled, and a 500-lire fine was imposed on visitors from already afflicted Pisa and Genoa. In early April, with the city not appreciably cleaner, local officials established a special municipal health commission with quasi-military powers. Commission agents were authorized to forcibly remove “all putrid matter and infected persons from which might arise . . . a corruption or infection of the air.”

To the north, Florence’s neighbor Pistoia issued a series of extraordinary public health directives. As a warm late spring breeze wafted across the town square, a municipal official announced that, henceforth, “bodies . . . shall not be removed from the place of death until they have been enclosed in a wooden box and the lid of the planks nailed down”; that “each grave shall be dug two and a half arms length deep”; that “any person attending a funeral shall not accompany the corpse or kinsmen further than the door of the church”; and that “no one shall dare or presume to wear new clothes during the mourning period.” And “so that the sound of bells does not trouble or frighten the sick, the keepers of the campanile shall not allow any bells to be rung during funerals.”

However, at least one new measure would have had a familiar ring to listeners. The official decreed that “it shall be understood that none of this applies to the burial of knights, doctors of law, judges, and doctors of physic, whose bodies can be honored by their heirs . . . in any way they please.”

In Perugia, to the south of Florence, anxious local authorities turned to Gentile da Foligno for help. A leading physician of the day, Gentile was already famous for his paper on human gestation. After studying the vexing question of why human gestation tends to be more variable than that of the elephant (two years), the horse (twelve months), and the camel (ten months), Gentile concluded that one factor in the variability was the tendency of humans to become excited while having sex. In another renowned paper, Gentile examined a second vexing contemporary question: Is it better to suck poison from a wound on an empty stomach, as the great authority Serpion held, or on a full stomach, as the equally famous Maimonides and George the German had concluded? Gentile sided with Maimonides and George the German.

Questioned about the pestilence, Gentile, a professor at the medical school in Perugia, was initially reassuring. His plague tract, prepared at the request of municipal authorities, is so measured in tone—it describes the pestilence as less dangerous than some previous epidemics—that a modern German scholar would accuse him of writing most of it before 1348. However, the calm tone of the tract more than likely reflects geographical distance. Since the plague was still far away when Gentile began writing, he had set pen to paper lacking a firsthand knowledge of the disease. The passages that were added to the tract later, when the pestilence was approaching Perugia and more information was available, show that the “prince of physicians” was quick to appreciateY. pestis’s unique destructive power. These new additions describe the plague as “unheard of” and “unprecedented.”

While Florence exhorted its citizens to clean the streets, and Venice burned suspect ships, Siena, as ever, remained preoccupied withla glorie de Sienne. Municipal records show that in February 1348, as the pestilence thrust eastward across the wintry Tuscan countryside, Siena’s governing body, the Council of Nine, was preoccupied with getting the municipal university upgraded to a more prestigiousstudium generale. The Nine adopted a typically Sienese solution to the problem: bribery. The council instructed its representatives at the papal court—the arbiter of such things—to spend whatever sums necessary to obtain the prestigiousstudium generaledesignation. If Siena took any precautions to protect itself from the plague, they have been lost.

In Orvieto, eighty miles to the south of Florence, town officials had an even more novel reaction to the approaching danger. They simply ignored it. Examining municipal records for the late winter and spring of 1348, French historian Elizabeth Carpentier found not a single reference to the pestilence. Perhaps Orvieto’s Council of Seven, the town’s governing body, was concerned about further depressing public morale, already badly shaken by the famines of 1346 and 1347 and a series of bloody and incessant local wars. In such a fraught atmosphere, plague talk could easily produce panic. However, the Seven also seem to have been engaging in a bit of magical thinking. It almost seems as if the council had convinced itself that if the pestilence did not hear its name spoken in Orvieto, it would pass over the town as the Angel of Death passed over the children of Israel who marked their doors with lambs’ blood.

When the last of the winter snow had melted and the morning sky was flooded with golden light again, the plague came. The dying started slowly in March and early April, then quickly gathered momentum. On April 11, with local mortality levels approaching Sicilian levels, Florence suspended municipal deliberations; Siena followed suit in early June; and on July fifth, Orvieto. By August 21, six of Orvieto’s seven town councilors were dead, and the survivor was recovering from plague. All through the desperate spring and summer of 1348, only once had the word “plague” been spoken in a council meeting, and then not until June, when the pestilence seemed about to swallow the town whole. Contemporaries put Orvieto’s death rate at 90 percent, though Professor Carpentier thinks 50 percent a more reasonable estimate. In June, with the summer heat settling over the hills of Umbria, renowned physician Gentile da Foligno died a simple country doctor’s death, tending patients in Perugia. A devoted student would later claim the great man died of overwork, but the brief course of Gentile’s illness suggests a pestial death. In Pistoia, which gave its name to the pistol, draconian public health measures proved as ineffective as had St. Agatha’s relics in Messina. “Hardly a person was left alive,” wrote a local chronicler, and while surely that was an exaggeration, a half century later Pistoia’s population would be only 29 percent of its mid-thirteenth-century level. In neighboring Bologna, where will making reached record levels on June 8, 1348, the Black Death claimed 35 to 40 percent of the city.

In Florence and Siena, the death rates would be even worse.

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