Plagues and Art – The Masterpieces of Days Gone By


Coronavirus, like the archangel of death, looms over our heads forcing us to retreat into our homes and boycott any and all social gatherings. The virus has put the entire world on pause and brought powerful countries to their knees. China’s booming economy has screeched to a halt and Italy is experiencing a record number of deaths. It is being forced to choose how to allocate medical resources and consequently having to decide who lives and who dies. This is a historical moment no doubt, but it is also important to note that plagues are not a new phenomenon. One that at least Italy is well acquainted with.

When the Black Death, travelling from central Asia to China, India and Russia finally came to Europe it decimated most of the population. Between the years 1347 and 1353, the bubonic plague killed around 50 per cent of the European population. It was a dark time. Florence, the centre of learning and arts, was one of the worst-hit cities. So, it’s no surprise then that when the outbreak finally subsided the populace was left with many scars. These scars are depicted in their art and tell an interesting story. One that we can relate to today.

Plague Dubbed as Pestilence

Black Death left in its wake sadness and despair. An undeniable sense of loss and hopelessness. The large scale destruction it wrought accompanied with no satisfactory explanation led people to believe it was the wrath of God. Many, influenced by the strong superstition and religiosity of the time, explained that the pestilence was caused by people’s many sins and by forcing people to recognize the fragility of life, it was meant to prompt people to scrutinize and reflect on the lives they were living.

One of the ways at the time that people sought to guard themselves against the pandemic was to pray and seek forgiveness. The mural “The Procession of Saint Gregory” ca. 1300 illustrates this perfectly. This piece seeks to induce repentance and fear of the church in such matters. This plague came to be known as Black Death in Europe and in the following years, the survivors called it the Great Pestilence. The first record of this is in the 19th century when a French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin, named it the bacterium pestis.

Plague Introduced Quarantine Practice

It was in the 14th century the time of the Black Death that the practice of Quarantine was first used. Considering Italy was the worst hit, it is not surprising that the term is derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which translate to 40 days.

Why 40 days? Well, this was the time that ships had to be docked offshore before anyone was allowed to approach the land. This epidemic also led to the creation of the contact tracing methodology wherein medical practitioners would search for relatives and neighbours that had been in contact with an infected person and isolate them to curb the spread of the disease.

The Practice of Social distancing

We like to parade about that social distancing is a new phenomenon, but it’s actually quite old and Boccaccio’s classical work from the Middle Ages ‘The Decameron’ serves as a guide to self-isolation and social distancing.

So, How Was Life Like?

The Decameron tells the story of a group of women and three handsome men with whom they flee Florence to escape the plague. They find a palace and settle there, cutting contact from the outside world and each night they tell a tale to keep the boredom at bay. Something we can relate to right?

Holed in our homes due to the Corona pandemic, most of us are catching up on some reading, watching movies and listening to music. And, with high-speed internet connections like Charter internet we are saved from having to head outside at all.

The Decameron first makes use of the narrative technique: framing device which changed the way stories were told and so if history is to repeat, we might see new techniques and creativity emerge from these pits of despair as well. And, this is indeed happening. We are seeing internet connection being used to create new content on Instagram and other social media platforms to tell stories. They share the simple joys of everyday life and hacks to fight boredom like the Decameron’s stories inside the story which too were also focused on simple joys of humanity.

During times past in the thick of the pandemic, you’d find processions singing litanies. The chants involved a supplication to be recited by clergy which was then followed by a response by the people on the streets and from inside their hopes. It created a sense of unity and togetherness especially in Milan where churches have considered the area of highest risk of spread. People joined together in the chanting of these songs from their windows and balconies. In this sense, Italy is still the same. We saw people sing songs from their balconies to connect to people around them.

Final Words:

Plagues are not new to humans and we have come across many over time. It’s interesting to note though that people are still the same, looking for hope and fighting hard against despair. This is sure to help humanity emerge stronger from the epidemic. So, take care. This too shall pass.