The importance of all the volunteer associations in Florence and elsewhere during the Covid 19 crisis has been critical to our survival, and will continue to be so in facing the difficult years ahead. And my avid reading during this time has also been useful in understanding why ancient words like ‘lazzaretto‘ reappear. June 3 – Phase 3 we can move across regions and welcome in the first tourists from Europe and plan our holidays outside of Italy, although we want to support our local tourism. In the excitement of this news Greece initially banned Italians from visiting and our Foreign Affairs Minister, di Maio responded with ‘We are not a ‘lazaretto’!” Visions of Italy being considered one big dreadful quarantine hospital full of infected people was certainly not a pleasant thought, and fortunately Greece has reneged. Or at least only thinking of quarantine for Italians from the North!
But how many people know that Florence was one of the first places in Europe to introduce volunteer services to assist those in need way back in the Middle Ages. The first established by a Dominican Friar San Pietro from Verona – The ‘Misericordia di Santa Maria’ – the Brotherhood of Mercy in 1244 at a time when Florence was one the biggest cities in Europe and a magnet to outsiders.
Many of the wealthy donated funds to the Brotherhood as well as their time and by 1321 the Brotherhood was able to buy a property opposite the Cathedral where it remains until today. Easy to see with a line of Ambulances parked ready to go.
Or more precisely it has moved out of the frescoed Bigallo home which is now the Tourist Information office across the road to its operational base and Museum. The great charitable work, helped plague victims and buried the countless corpses as well as managed a ‘lazzaretto‘ outside the walls of Florence. It provided a dowry for poor young girls, helped prisoners and their families, in general attended to the health and welfare needs of society.
Curiously the volunteers were to remain anonymous and wore a black robe with a hood, called a ‘buffa‘, a rather fearsome looking garb. For years they carried the sick and corpses in a huge cane basket on their backs until the stretcher ‘cataletto‘ was introduced in 1478 as seen on the cover of Henderson’s book above.
And the Misericordia continues today to provide an essential service for us all, as well as tourists. It has expanded and more have developed with medical clinics all over the territory that allow specialist visits at a discount price, as the specialists volunteer their services and the clinics are mostly staffed by volunteers. It manages rehabilitation services for disabled, takes care of elderly, and is also our Civil Protection service setting up many camps for earthquake victims both in and outside of Italy. It has been supplying those in need with food parcels and essential services during Covid 19 lockdown and distributing the anti virus masks, Their assistance is endless and essential and the volunteer network is enormous, creating solidarity and companionship in the community. We are so lucky to have them.