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John Henderson. Florence under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City.

John Henderson. Florence under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. xviii + 363 pp. + 38 Illus, 4 maps, 9 figures, 4 tables, $45.00. Review by R. Burr Litchfield, Brown University.

This is a thorough and very detailed discussion of the plague epidemic in Florence Italy in 1630-33. The plague had spread into Lombardy by troops of the Thirty Years War in 1629. The city of Venice lost 33 per cent of its population of 140,000 and Milan 46 per cent of 130,000. In Venice the huge church of Santa Maria della Salute was built in thanksgiving for the plague's passing. In Milan this plague features in Alessandro Manzoni's great nineteenth century novel I Promessi Sposi. In Florence the victims were fewer, about 9,000, 12 per cent of the population of 75,000. There are several accounts of the plague in Florence: contemporary accounts, including Francesco Rondinelli's Relazione del contagio stato in Firenze l'anno 1630 e 1633_(1634), and more recently studies by Carlo Cipolla (1973-76) Giulia Calvi (1984), earlier articles by Henderson (1988-2001) and briefly in a section of the present reviewer's book Florence Ducal Capital, 1530-1630 (2008). Henderson utilizes all of these earlier works besides archival sources such as the archive of the Sanita (the Florentine health office that corresponded throughout the state and was founded at the time of the plague of 1527), the confraternity of the Misericordia (which buried the dead in Florence), various hospitals, and other institutions.

Aware of the plague in Lombardy, the Sanita closed passes through the Appenines in 1629, but cases of plague appeared north of Florence in July 1630 and the contagion soon spread into the city. Earlier studies of the plague had focused just on the epidemic itself while Henderson takes a broader approach aiming at a "total history" encompassing the response of Florentine society as a whole. Whether it was plague or not was at first unclear to the magistrates of the Sanita. They thought the transmission was from person to person (that rats and fleas were also involved was unknown). This conditioned the response of the authorities. Streets were vigorously cleaned and cesspools emptied. Suspected persons, beggars, prostitutes, washerwomen and Jews from the Ghetto, were confined. Butchers and barber shops were closed. Matrasses and clothing in the houses of victims were burned. Understandably the mortality was highest among the poor. Wealthier Florentines fled the city to country villas. Deaths reached their height in November-December 1630. Lazaretti (pest houses) were opened in structures outside of the city and any thought infected were confined in them ("a fate thought worse than death itself")-about half of those sent to Lazaretti died. Burials were in plague pits outside of the city, which people also tried to avoid preferring to be buried in family tombs or local Campisanti. Galileo (whom Henderson ignores) lived south of the city away from the source of contagion (a daughter brought him supposed remedies). The Ducal government was soon involved. A quarantine began in January 1631 keeping people inside houses--one member was licensed to procure food from warehouses established by the Ducal government. Any others leaving home were arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned. Further problems appeared since staff members of the Sanita stole items from empty houses. People tried to sell clothing from the dead. Appeals were made to churches (was God angry?). Masses were celebrated in streets and people were told to watch from windows. Appeals were made to individual saints: to the shrine of St. Anthony in the church of San Marco (he had been active in fifteenth century plagues), to Domenica da Paradiso a tertiary Domenican nun (active in the plague of 1527), and ultimately to Santa Maria dell' Impruneta in a church south of the city who had often been thought to protect Florence from disasters. Her image was carried into and through the city in procession in the spring of 1633. On this occasion church bells rang and cannons were fired to warn the populace to remain indoors. Throughout the secular and ecclesiastical responses were closely linked. The plague waned in the summer and autumn of 1631, and the quarantine was lifted, but it returned briefly in the autumn of 1632 reaching a new peak in the spring of 1633. It did not spread much south of Tuscany. This was Florence's last serious plague, although plague spread in southern Italy later in the seventeenth century.

Henderson's presentation is enhanced by tabular presentations of the data, showing maps, the number of plague burials in the city by month in 1630-31, and particularly the number of incidents in the large parish of San Lorenzo, the number of admissions and burials in hospitals and Lazaretti, and the number of individuals arrested for breaking the quarantine (people who tried to return to their usual activities). But on the whole Henderson thinks the Sanita was rather tolerant in enforcing its regulations. The illustrations enliven different neighborhoods of the city, the protective clothing used by plague doctors, monuments in churches later built in honor of the saints involved, and photographs of buildings where Lazaretti were established.

A possible criticism of Henderson's study is that it focuses just on Florence, although the plague spread widely through the Florentine state and the Sanita corresponded with local offices elsewhere. Conditions could be somewhat different in different places as the earlier work of Carlo Cipolla (Cristofano and the Plague [1973]--a study of Prato) has suggested. Not much attention is given either to the return of plague to Florence in 1633. Also, it is unclear from Henderson's study why plague mortality was so much less in Florence than it was in Venice or Milan. Were the measures taken by the Sanita in Florence more effective than those in Lombardy? And why did the plague not reappear in Florence later in the century? Nonetheless this is a very interesting study for anyone interested not only in plague epidemics but also in seventeenth-century Florentine social history.
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Author:Litchfield, R. Burr
Publication:Seventeenth-Century News
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2020
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