Stories of Italian plagues

The DecameronWith not a lot to do during lockdown but read, I have been reading about Italian plagues over the centuries. A new book – ‘Florence under Siege’ and re reading an old time favourite – ‘The Decameron’, of when the plague hit Florence in the 13th century. Interesting to discover many similarities with our current crisis, in preparing for the plague, the use of quarantine and isolation, the need to sanitize the poor housing areas and the dilemma over which will be worse, the plague or the economic hardship from lack of work.

Imposing restrictions on the population which were obeyed to varying degrees. After all, it has always been difficult to control Italians, who forever question a regulation before complying to it, assessing the pros and cons, and needing to make it a little more flexible with creative and innovative interpretations.

This time round Italians have been surprisingly compliant, recognizing the seriousness of the situation even if it took some time for that to sink in.

‘The Decameron’  for those who toured with me will remember well, as I read some of the stories while on our coach to pass the time, to entertain, and to help foreign visitors understand Italian life as it describes hunting, artisan trades, religious practises and more. It shows a lot about Italian character, their flexibility in dealing with reality, and their great sense of humour.

For those unfamiliar with the book – ‘The Decameron‘ was written in the time of the plague of 1300’s by Giovanni Boccaccio (a Tuscan). He outlines the options in dealing with the plague – 1) by leading a sober and abstemious mode of living   2) or the opposite; drinking heavily, enjoying life to the full, gratifying all of one’s cravings and  shrugging the whole thing off as one enormous joke   3) or by steering a middle course between the two  4) or a safer alternative, was to run away from it. He tells of the 10 young people from a wealthy background in Florence who take the fourth option and distance themselves to one of their Villas in the nearby countryside. Villa CetinaleTo entertain themselves they tell stories, based on a theme of the day – 10 stories for 10 days. One hundred intriguing, cheeky, bawdy and even tragic stories. My favorite theme day was how to get out of a difficult situation with a witty response – like Chichibio explaining whether a crane has one or two legs, or how Madonna Filippa avoids death for adultery with a shrewd manoeuvre that even leads to the changing of the law.

While I cannot recount the stories here, I highly recommend the book, a classic of Italian literature, very entertaining and particularly forward thinking for its time.

Florence under SiegeThe second book is a recently published one by John Henderson ‘Florence under Siege‘ which I only discovered via an article published in ‘The Age‘. A vivid recreation of the plague in Florence in 1630’s amongst the poorer class and how they were treated. It describes the dreaded ‘Lazzaretti‘ the hospitals created for those infected, of dubious quality with dire conditions while recognizing the need to isolate those infected. San Miniato church used as a lazarettoThe understanding that the plague travelled through the air and possibly on cloth to the detriment of the silk workers and the risky practice of stealing used clothing. The idea ‘that God was angry with mankind and sought to punish its sins’, therefore the need to continue services with appropriate restrictions as ‘by conquering fear, religion protected a person medically from the plague’.

It contains descriptions of the creativeness of Italians, breaking isolation regulations by visiting family and friends across rooftops, pleading innocence at imposed fines with inventive excuses and the governing bodies being compassionate enough to alleviate the fines or prison internamente since this would only lead to future hardship for the families involved. All in all it makes a fascinating read about Italian plague time in Florence.

Italian storytelling continues profusely today, particularly on social networks, keeping spirits up and offering a good laugh. A current example – as lockdown restrictions eased Congiunto sospesoand we are allowed to visit family, relatives and loved ones ‘congiunti stabile‘, Neapolitans offered ‘congiunti sospesi‘ following their tradition of offering a ‘caffé sospeso’ –meaning buy a coffee and leave one paid for. There has been a rush on demand for these congiunti sospesi for the singles in need of an excuse to get out of the house!

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