2020 started with the a bomb in Iran, fires in Australia, the global climate change, the economical crisis and with a viral disease too: the Coronavirus. (Leap years are not very popular in Italian superstition… what about yours?)
A strong flu transformed in a viral dramma the whole world, causing the collapse of economy, tourism and good sense.
The health is a human right, the information is a human right, the communication is a human right. The good sense is a human must.
“Beauty will not probably save the world”, unlike Dostoevsky used to think, but it can help and reassure us in this irrational, nonsensical panorama which remembers very much the apocalyptic tone of Savonarola at the end of XV century in Florence.
Let’s start our gloomy journey through the darkest Florentine history: we will discover that the ignorance is a steadfast virus. The only way to eredicate it, is to relax, wash your hands and turn on your brain.
“Triumph of the Death” by Andrea Orcagna, 1344-1345, Santa Croce Church, Florence
A viral mosaic in Florence’s Baptistery: the “Inferno”
Once upon a time a guy with a hooked nose called Dante Alighieri who around 1304-1321 wrote the worldknown “Commedy”, later called “divine” by Boccaccio.
Dante was born in Florence in 1265: in that year, Florence was a burgeoning Republic where the wool trade drove the city’s economy. Nevertheless, the everlasting punishment was always in ambush. The painter Coppo di Marcovaldo knew it very well: the depiction of the “Inferno” in the tragic mosaics of the Baptistery (around 1280) gives the shivers. According to tradition, Dante was inspired by the mosaics to describe his Inferno in the Divine Commedy.
“Inferno”, by Coppo di Marcovaldo, 1280, Baptistery, Florence
When the virus is the Black Death
The XIV century opened in Florence with the bankruptcy of a lot of banquers families: the Mozzi and the Acciaioli in 1309, the Bardi and the Peruzzi in 1346. The famine and the panic were soon the consequences.
But in 1348 something worse than bankruptcy happened: the Black Death. It was one of the most devastating diseases of the human history. Florence inhabitants decreased from 100.000 to 60.000. Pisa was less lucky: the inhabitants decreased from 50.000 to 7.500.
The Black Death was a global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia. It arrived in Europe in October 1347, when twelve ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe. From Messina, the Black Death arrived to the ports of Marseilles and Tunis; then, it reached Rome, Florence, Paris, Bordeaux and London. In the early 1340s, the disease had already struck China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt. Blood and pus seeped out of the swelling, followed by a lot of symptoms: fever, chills, vomit, diarrhea and then, death. The bacillus was discovered by Alexandre Yersin in the XIX century and was called yersina pestis.
A lot of artists lost their life in the ravaged Florence: Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, painters from Siena; Andrea Pisano, sculptor of the South Door of the Baptistery and master in charge of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore; Giovanni Villani, chronicler of the Florentine history.
A very popular subject to paint was the so called “Triumph of the Death”.
Buonamico Buffalmacco (a particular quirky name) painted this myrthful theme around 1340-1343 in the Camposanto in Pisa (unfortunately damaged in the II World War, but recently restored). It was the perfect subject for a cemetery. The medieval legend was very famous: three knights are hunting in a grove, they suddenly see three corpses in three coffins. They are in three different states of decomposition. A monk arrives and easily explains the fact as a “memento mori”: remember that one day you will pass away too.
In the background, scenes of monastical life are depicted in conflict with the worldly, pleasurable court life: three ladies are playing music (the music was associated with lust) and they don’t notice a horrid bat armed with a scythe flying over them. Meanwhile, angels and demons are struggling for the souls of the deceased.
Andrea Orcagna painted the same subject around 1344-1345 in Santa Croce Church, Florence. The faces of the people are grotesque and disperate, almost caricatures.
The only solution to avoid the God’s punishment was to pray: pray and repent for the sins (greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness, for example). To accelerate the forgiveness, thousands of Jews were massacred and processions of flagellants displayed their punishment on the streets, beating themselves.
“The Triumph of the Death”, Buonamico Buffalmacco, 1340-1343, Camposanto, Pisa
Storytelling in Tuscan countryside against the virus
The new hope against the virus is in the hands of ten young Florentine citizens: Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Filostrato, Fiammetta, Elissa, Dioneo, Lauretta, Emilia, Panfilo. They met in the “venerable church of Santa Maria Novella”, in the Strozzi Chapel, a Tuesday after mass, during the plague of 1348.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was born in Certaldo, 48 km from Florence. He wrote his masterpiece, the “Decameron”, around 1349-1351. Decameron means literally ten days (from the Greek: “deka” = ten; “emérai” = days). Ten young citizens – three gentleman and seven young girls – decided to escape to the rural countryside next to Florence to avoid the plague. Each day, each one will tell a story: 100 tales against the virus. They will speak about Fortune, Nature, Love and Intelligence.
In his “Proemio” (preface), Boccaccio dedicates the Decameron to those people who are suffering love pains: according to Boccaccio, writing could soothe the love pains which can lead to the death. The words could help to soften the sorrows and the griefs. Boccaccio dedicated his work particularly to women: they are often repressed about love in his society and they could be palliated by his stories.
Boccaccio’s approach is extremely modern and smart.
The ten Florentines will stay in the outskirts of Florence, escaping from the chaos of the world, and their most important task will be to tell stories in company of each other. Boccaccio suggests to be together in the emergency situation and to spend the time chatting, conversing, telling stories.
Savonarola the influencer and the Bonfire of Vanities: viral panic in Florence
Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, a watershed in the international history: the discovery of Americas and the “reconquista” in Andalucía happened the same year. The Medici were exiled from Florence in 1494 and the Dominican friar Gerolamo Savonarola took the power in the frightened city.
Coming from Ferrara in 1489, invited by the same Lorenzo the Magnificent, Savonarola was a strict and austere friar who hated the Medici family, embodiment of art, luxury and paganism. From 1494 to 1498, he ruled the city as an authentic religious – and political – despot.
Savonarola became the Prior of Saint Marc Convent. He preached against the heresy, the concubinate, the simony and the scandals of the Church (Pope Alexander VI of the Borgia family had eight or nine children, for example). He prophesied the end of the world and of the Golden Age in Florence, predicting a revival of the humble origins of the true Church. He had a huge success and a lot of follewers, called the “Piagnoni” (Wailers). He fighted the excesses and immorality of Florentine inhabitants, imbued with the Original Sin. Many noblemen gave up their secular lifestyle to take the religious habits; many artists like Sandro Botticelli and Frà Bartolomeo, for example, were influenced by the sermons of Savonarola and abandonded worldly subjects to paint just religious scenes.
This craze culminated in the Bonfire of Vanities, held in Signoria’s square during the Carnival of 1496. The citizens scattered to flames all their clothings, jewels, wigs, books and paintings (… would you do it today with your smartphones?).
Paradoxically, just two years later, on May 23rd, 1498, the same friar Gerolamo Savonarola with his fellow friars Domenico Buonvicini and Silvestro Maruffi were condemned to death. Savonarola was hung at Signoria’s square as enemy of the Republic and than burnt at the stake as enemy of the Church in the same spot where the Bonfire of Vanities had take place two years before. His ashes were scattered into the river Arno in order to avoid the cult of relics. According to legend, some Florentine women threw into the river red and white roses, the same colours of the coat-of-arms of Florence. Nowadays, every May 23rd, the Mayor offers a wreath on the same spot where Savonarola and the other two friars were executed. This special day is called in Florence “La Fiorita”.
“Savonarola burnt at the stake”, anonymous, XVI cent., San Marco Museum, Florence
Escaping from the virus between art and science
During 1523-1525 the plague was again in Florence. The mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo took refuge in the beautiful Certosa of Galluzzo, on Acuto Mountain, in the outskirts of Florence. Built in 1341, entrusted by Niccolò Acciaiuoli, the church was the seat of the Carthusian order. It’s when a bad circumstance happens that humanity should give the best of itself. Pontormo did it on the walls of the Certosa, where he painted the beautiful frescoes with the scenes of the “Passion of Christ”.
In 1630 the plague came back to Florence. Ferdinando II of the Medici family proved to be an enlightened Grand Duke: he established sanitariums and an Office of Hygiene in order to isolate and cure the victims of the illness. However, in the city and in the countryside there were unfortunately 12.000 victims. The plague was the reason of a battle between the Medici and the Pope: Urban VIII censured the Florentine Office of Hygiene and Ferdinando II – who unfortunately lacked in perseverance – closed it.
Galileo Galilei was an indirect victim of the plague, too. In 1632, during the quarantine, he published the “Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican” without submitting to the Holy Office. His failure was interpreted by the Pope as an attempt to bypass ecclesiastical censure. In 1633 at the Tribunal of the Inquisition in Rome, Galileo was forced to retract his theories. He was allowed to go back to Florence, where he spent the last years of his life in exile at the Villa of Arcetri. He had more luck than Giordano Bruno, a philosopher who was burnt at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori, Rome, a few years before.
Ferdinando II wanted to celebrate the scientist Galileo with a monument in Santa Croce Church, but the Jesuites firmly opposed the project and the corpse of Galileo was buried in a secret room in the Medici Chapel. One century later, in 1737, the last Grand Duke Gian Gastone de’ Medici could erect a tomb to Galileo in the left nave of Santa Croce Church, in front of Michelangelo’s tomb.
The Certosa of Galluzzo, Florence
Viral guided tours in Florence: the virus of art will infect you
The Middle Age has luckily gone. Today we know what to do in case of emergency, we are aware of the importance of hygiene, we know that we don’t need to fight the Jews or to beat ourselves along the streets. Or not?
This is probably the most politically uncorrect of my articles, but I hope that you understood, while reading it, how much we are lucky today.
So, when the (mental) quarantine of Coronavirus will finish, if you want to explore the Baptistery, Saint Marc Convent, Signoria’s Square, the Certosa of Galluzzo, Santa Croce Church, Certaldo and Pisa’s Camposanto contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A lot of viral personalized guided tours are waiting for you!
Meanwhile, enjoy these famous words written by Lorenzo the Magnificent:
“Oh, how fair is youth and yet how fleeting!
Let yourself be joyous if you feel it:
Of tomorrow there is no certainty.”
from: “The Triumph of Bacchus and Arianna”
“Memento Mori”, 1424-1425, Masaccio, Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence