“A Plague o’ Both Your Houses”
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
That’s a powerful curse! (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1, 90-92). Even today the mention of the plague or Black Death strikes an ominous tone. The plague had a profound psychological, economic, artistic, and spiritual impact in Europe. There were many bouts of plague, usually peaking in the hot summer months, but the 1348 and 1400 plagues were the worst. The plague pandemic originated in Central Asia and spread across Europe. About half the Florentine population died of the Black Death in 1348. Children and young adults were stricken most often. Prior to 1348 the plague was not noted in Florence. The average life duration was 20 years old during the worst fourteenth century plague years.
The populations of children were so decimated that by 1427 the aged were recorded in large numbers. If someone survived the plague once, it was more likely they would survive the next round. It wasn’t until about 1470 – nearly 100 years since the first plague – that the Tuscan population stabilized.
Other Italian towns experienced devastation from the Black Death, nearly wiping out small towns. San Gimignano, so well preserved from the Middle Ages, owes much of its preserved historic appearance today to the plague. Most of the town perished and the population took decades to stabilize. Although overrun with tourists today, San Gimignano gives a good idea of what a medieval town looked like. The devastation, fear and heartbreak cannot be imagined. San Gimignano went from about 13,000 inhabitants in 1332 to 3,138 in 1427. It’s difficult to think of the ramifications of losing over 75 percent of the population in a small town. Today the population is about 7,768.
San Gimignano, some of the many surviving towers,
and the Collegiata church below.
Unfinished Chronicle of the Plague
Giovanni Villani was a chronicler of Florence. A banker by trade, he was inspired to write a history of Florence. He wrote on many topics but his chronicle of the Black Death is compelling as he succumbed to the disease before he could finish his entry, leaving his last sentence unfinished. He described how the ailment started in the Levant and spread to Turkey, Greece, Syria and Crete until it reached mainland Italy.
The sailors carrying the illness “corrupted the air to such an extent that whoever came near the bodies died shortly after.” He explained how the lymph nodes in the groin and armpit swelled, “the victims spat blood, and in three days they were dead. And the priest who confessed the sick and those who nursed them so generally caught the infection that the victims were abandoned and deprived of confession, sacrament, medicine, and nursing…And many lands and cities were made desolate. And this plague lasted till….“ (Bartlett, Kenneth, ed., The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook, second edition, University of Toronto Press, 2011, pp. 42-43.) Giovanni perished in the 1348 plague. Most families lost a member or more to the plague. In some cities most or all of the priests and physicians died. The deaths and fear of the plague created at the very least spiritual uncertainty and at the most economic unrest.
Literally – of the mark. The Florentine undertakers generally kept good records of causes of death, especially from the plague. The deceased had a notation of “di segno” with the mark next to their names if they died of bubonic plague. From 1424-1430, 41 percent of the deaths in Florence were from the plague. In the 1424 plague 69 percent of the deaths were children. This explains why there was an abnormally large number of old people in the Tuscan Catasto (the 1427 tax census).
The Plague and Art
The first and foremost impact of the plague was the death of many artists and presumably their families and young men in apprenticeships. If a painter survived the plague(s) then it was likely advantageous for his career. On the other hand, commissions may have been halted during bad plague years or delayed. In some cases, such as Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes of St. Sebastian in San Gimignano, there were additional commissions especially of religious saints or scenes that were thought to protect from pestilence.
Benozzo Gozzoli, St. Sebastian, Collegiata, San Gimignano
There was a growth in religious zeal, with an increase in pilgrimages and flagellant orders during plague years. Economically some researchers argue the fourteenth century plagues exacerbated pre-existing problems such as poor harvests, rise in prices, and famine. The death of so many people created a new class of ‘new rich’ among the working survivors.
The pandemic was viewed as penance for bad deeds, like the coming of the end of the world. God exacting revenge for sins. The plague seems to have influenced depictions of subjects in three ways:
1. An angry God enacting revenge on sinners,
2. the Virgin Mary offering maternal protection from illness, or a
3. suffering martyr or survivor acting as intercessor and protector.
The Last Judgement was depicted near Benozzo Gozzoli’s St. Sebastian in the Collegiata church of San Gimignano, as a stark reminder of the vengeful God. The placement of the Last Judgement above the plague saint would not have been overlooked by the faithful.
On the other hand, the Virgin Mary in the visual form of the Madonna of the Misericordia, or Madonna of Mercy, offers protection and shelter, a stark contrast to visions of judgement, suffering, and God’s power. Instead of an end of the world Last Judgement with plague as a result of sin and misdeeds, the Madonna presents an alternative version of salvation through veneration.
Piero della Francesca, Madonna of the Misericordia,
Museo Civico, Sansepolcro.
Piero della Francesca’s Madonna of the Misericordia in the Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, painted in the 1450s, shows the Madonna holding out her cloak for her devotees. The four men and four women under the protection of her cloak are from different life stages. St. Sebastian is depicted on the left arch. Note the man in the black hood on the left under the Madonna’s cloak.
The painting was commissioned by the Misericordia lay confraternity which provided hospital and burial services for the ill as well as plague victims. They covered their heads for anonymity while providing services. The tradition of care for the ill lives on today in Italy with emergency medical services provided by the Misericordia.
The Misericordia logo on the altarpiece and the
Misericordia EMS ambulance.
St. Sebastian was a well-known plague saint as was St. Roch, who is usually depicted with symptoms of the plague. These two saints endured their travails and withstood pain and torture. Arrows are symbols that are associated with the plague saints and are also St. Sebastian’s trademark. A wood statue of St. Roch, made in France, is an example of how he is typically depicted with a bulbous open sore on his left leg, a symptom of the plague. He is usually shown with an inflamed lymph node on his left leg as he raises his tunic to reveal the swelling. As a survivor of the plague, who ministered to the ill in Italy, he quickly became a venerated protector against the plague. His survival story includes a faithful canine companion who supplied him with bread while he recovered in the forest.
St. Roch, early 16th century, wood statue, French. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Benozzo Gozzoli’s 1481 painting of Sts. Nicholas of Tolentino, Roch, Sebastian, and Bernardino of Siena was made specifically to protect from the plague, most likely to protect the town of Pisa, depicted in the background. Sts. Roch and Sebastian are easily identifiable with the leg wound and the arrow respectively. The angels above also carry arrows and the saints are neatly identified with inscriptions in their halos. The two art patrons kneeling at the front are painted in a smaller scale to denote lesser importance – compared to Masaccio’s groundbreaking Trinity which does not differentiate between the secular and divine figures in scale. Gozzoli’s painting, although completed more than fifty years after Masaccio’s, adheres to a more conventional representation.
Benozzo Gozzoli, Sts. Nicholas of Tolentino, Roch, Sebastian, Bernardino of Siena and Kneeling Donors, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Baetjer, Katharine. European Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Banker, James R. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Bartlett, Kenneth, ed., The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook, second edition, University of Toronto Press, 2011.
Bowsky, William M. The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? Huntington, 1978.
Herlihy, David and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427. Yale University Press, 1985.
Marshall, Louise. “Manipulating the Sacred: Image and Plague in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly (Autumn 1994): 485-532.
Meiss, Millard. Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death. Harper and Row, 1973.