Biographies & Memoirs

[XVIII]

Since the lord chastises us with these whips

MOST BELOVED LORD FATHER

I am heartsick and worried, Sire, imagining how disturbed you must be over the sudden death of your poor unfortunate worker. I assume that you will use every possible precaution to protect yourself from the danger, and I fervently urge you to make great effort in this endeavor; I further believe that you possess remedies and preventatives proportionate to the present threat, wherefore I promise not to dwell on the subject. But still with all due respect and filial confidence I will exhort you to procure the best remedy of all, which is the grace of blessed God, by means of a thorough contrition and penitence. This, without doubt, is the most efficacious medicine, not only for the soul, but for the body as well: since, given that living happily is so crucial to the avoidance of contagious illness, what greater happiness could one secure in this life than the joy that comes of a clear and calm conscience?

It is certain that when we possess this treasure we will fear neither danger nor death; and since the Lord justly chastises us th these whips, we try, with His aid, to stand ready to receive he blow from that mighty hand, which, having magnanimously granted us the present life, retains the power to deprive us of it at any moment and in any manner.

Please accept these few words proffered with an overflowing heart, Sire, and also be aware of the situation in which, by the Lord’s mercy, I find myself, for I am yearning to enter the other life, as every day I see more plainly the vanity and misery of this one: in death I would stop offending blessed God, and I would hope to be able to pray ever more effectively, Sire, for you. I do not know but that this desire of mine may be too selfish. I pray the Lord, who sees everything, to provide through His compassion what I fail to ask in my ignorance, and to grant you, Sire, true consolation.

All of us here are in good physical health, save for Suor Violante, who is little by little wasting away: although indeed we are burdened by penury and poverty, which take their toll on us, still we are not made to suffer bodily harm, with the help of the Lord.

I am eager to know if you have had any response from Rome, regarding the alms you requested for us. Signor Corso [Suor Giulia’s brother] sent a weight of silk totaling 15 pounds, and Suor Arcangela and I have had our share of it.

I am writing at the seventh hour: I shall insist that you excuse me if I make mistakes, Sire, because the day does not contain one hour of time that is mine, since in addition to my other duties I have now been assigned to teach Gregorian chant to four young girls, and by Madonna’s orders I am responsible for the day-to-day conducting of the choir: which last creates considerable labor for me, with my poor grasp of the Latin language. It is certainly true that these exercises are very much to my liking, if only I did not also have to work; yet from all this I do derive one very good thing, which is that I never ever sit idle for even one quarter of an hour. Except that I require sufficient sleep to clear my head. If you would teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire, for getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful, because in the end the seven hours that I waste sleeping seem far too many to me.

I shall say no more so as not to bore you, adding only that I give you my loving greetings together with our usual friends.

FROM SAN MATTEO, THE 18TH DAY OF OCTOBER 1630.

Your most affectionate daughter,

S.M.Coloste

The little basket, which I sent you recently with several pastries, is not mine, and therefore I wish you to return it to me.

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Suor Maria Celeste’s prescription for prayer and penitence in the face of the plague meshed perfectly with prevailing wisdom. Prayer surpassed or at least augmented the many available treatments, which included bloodletting, crystals of arsenic applied to the wrists and temples, small sacks of precious stones laid over the heart, and unguents made by cooking animal excrement together with mustard, crushed glass, turpentine, poison ivy, and an onion. The value of confession and penitence reached new heights during plague epidemics, for the disease, once it struck, left its victims no time to make amends.

The first symptom typically erupted as a swelling of the lymph nodes under the arms or between the thighs. These large, painful, pus-filled lumps, called buboes, gave the pestilence the name “bubonic plague.” Ranging in size from almonds to oranges, they were the focus of treatment by doctors, some of whom advocated burning the buboes with incandescent gold or iron, then covering the wound with cabbage leaves; others preferred to cut the buboes open with a razor, suck out the blood, and deposit three leeches on the site, topped by a quartered pigeon or a plucked rooster. Left alone, the buboes enlarged each day until they often burst on their own, provoking agony sufficient to rouse even the nearly dead to frenzy.

Since only a fraction of those who contracted the plague could hope to recover, the appearance of the bubo pronounced doom. Fevers rose high within hours of onset, accompanied by vomiting, diffuse pain that felt like burning or prickling, and delirium. Soon the skin displayed wheals and dark markings caused by subcutaneous hemorrhage. Death followed within the week, unless the disease also invaded the lungs, where it caused the coughing of a bloody, frothy sputum and killed the victim in two or three days flat—but not before it facilitated numerous new infections via droplets borne on the wind to be inhaled by the unsuspecting.

The plague leaped like fire from the sick to the whole. Even the discarded clothes or other belongings of the afflicted could communicate the disease. When one family member fell sick, the rest typically followed, and soon all were buried in the fields, as the laws of Florence barred plague corpses from the churchyards.

The Italian people recognized the plague as an ancient enemy, periodically banished but never vanquished. In its worst visitation, from 1346 through 1349, it claimed 25 million lives, or roughly one-third of the population of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

“Oh, happy posterity,” exclaimed poet Francesco Petrarca when that Black Death robbed him of his beloved Laura, “who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.”

Following the pandemic of the fourteenth century, the plague returned to one region or another at its own whim every few years, as though to remind the wayward of the tortures of Hell.

By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had gained enough experience with the pestilence to recognize the accumulation of dead rats in streets and houses as the harbinger of disease. The causal connection, however, remained elusive. People continued to blame the plague on miasmas of swampy air, the full Moon, conjunctions of the planets, famine, fate, beggars, prostitutes, or Jews. Two hundred years before the germ theory of disease, no one realized that the plague was caused by microbes living in and on the ubiquitous black rats.* When a sick rat died, its hungry fleas jumped the few inches to another animal, or to a nearby human. Having ingested infected blood, the fleas delivered the disease by inoculation with their next bite. The poisonous plague bacterium multiplied rapidly in a new host’s bloodstream until infection pervaded the body, attacking vital organs to cause kidney failure, heart failure, hemorrhaging blood vessels, and death by septic shock. (Galileo’s early description of the flea he observed through his microscope as “quite horrible” referred only to its ugliness, and not its true menace, for he had no inkling of the creature’s role in plague transmission.)

While live rats traveled with impunity on foot and aboard ship, exporting the plague hither and yon, people were confined to their houses by fear and municipal prohibitions. The Venetian doge imposed the first official quarantine in 1348, after the city death rate from plague had risen to six hundred per day. The doge’s council, seeking to isolate returning voyagers from the Orient, had decided on the duration of forty days—quaranta giorni in Italian, from which the word quarantine is derived—by selecting the same period of time that Christ had sequestered himself in the wilderness.

When the pestilence returned in 1630, it skirted Venice altogether, dealing its most brutal punishment to the city of Milan and its environs in Lombardy. Nevertheless, the presence of the threat, coupled with the specter of past plagues, mobilized preventive measures all over the peninsula. In Rome, for example, Pope Urban VIII led holy processions and granted indulgences to individuals who followed a formula of church visits, fasting, prayer, the giving of alms, and the taking of communion. He installed his capable nephew, Francesco Cardinal Barberini, as head of the Congregation of Health, which issued policies and edicts to be enforced by civic authorities. Specially appointed guards stationed at the twelve gates through the city walls detained all travelers who arrived from plague regions.

The plague of 1630 offered the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, his first chance to assert his new leadership. The twenty-year-old Medici scion had only just attained his majority in 1628, at which point he reclaimed the government from his mother, his grandmother, and the Council of Regency. He responded with energy to the present emergency. In addition to all his official acts aimed at contagion control, Ferdinando went out among the people every day to show his compassion, walking the streets through the poorest neighborhoods to dispense comfort and encouragement.

The portly Ferdinando looked nothing like a hero. He assumed a suit of armor only to pose for the court portraitist and never wore one into battle. Even on his hunting excursions, he left the bloody work to the falcons. But Ferdinando behaved fearlessly in the face of the plague. In contrast to the many well-to-do Florentines who fled the city in dread, he stood fast throughout the epidemic. He made his four younger brothers stand by him, lending their help, though the Medici family of course possessed the means to flee and many country estates to flee to— some complete with moat and drawbridge. As though rewarded for valor, Ferdinando and his seven siblings all survived the plague in Florence.

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Grand Duke Ferdinando II

Ferdinando ceded broad discretionary powers to his public health officers—a group of noblemen who answered directly and only to him. Their ordinances, aimed with good intentions at halting the spread of infection, affected every aspect of daily life. Citizens who resented the policing of their private affairs found ways around the law, and the commissioners found themselves sometimes taunted in the streets, pelted by stones, or formally denounced. For example, the Tuscan clergy, outraged by restrictions on gathering the multitudes together for public sermons and processions, appealed to Pope Urban VIII for redress. The pontiff responded by censuring the whole board of health—which included Galileo’s friend and former student Mario Guiducci—so that the board members were forced to perform salutary penance for their good deeds.

Hired monitors working for the Florentine Magistracy of Public Health patrolled the city, sending the stricken to the plague hospitals, burning their belongings, and disinfecting and boarding up their homes—with the other family members locked inside. Behind these sealed, marked doors, the relatives were expected to wait twenty-two days for release while subsisting on allotments of bread and money distributed by the magistracy. The confined raised these supplies from the street in baskets on ropes and lowered their corpses from the windows via the same system.

Most often the man of the house, at the first hint of “the bad disease” among the children, would move a mattress and some cooking utensils into his shop, hoping to avoid enclosure and carry on business as usual through the epidemic. When an artisan or apprentice fell sick, his fellow workers might care for him themselves, often breaking the law by failing to report his case and bribing a barber-surgeon or an herbalist for secret treatment. Though all parties faced strappado torture (being hung by the wrists with hands tied behind their backs) if discovered in such behavior, still they took the risk. Well-meaning weavers, gold beaters, and butchers managed to foil the magistracy— not just by virtue of their innate cleverness but because the inadequate army of health deputies could not catch every infraction. Also the 1,100 health workers, endowed with no special immunity, succumbed to the plague as readily as anyone else, constantly necessitating the appointment of new replacements from the ever-shrinking pool of available, able-bodied men.

In defiance of the public health edicts, rich and poor alike often tried to hide their sick in the bosom of the family, rather than relinquish them to the isolation of the hospital. If a blackened child died at home, at least the intimacy of the tragedy offered its own solace—and held out hope of a finagled death certificate that could convince grave diggers and sacristan to bury the body in the churchyard.

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Plague doctor in protective costume; the beak was filled with flowers to ward off plague vapors

A grim new sound insinuated itself into the daily clamor of the city districts—a sound that could still be heard at night when curfews kept the populace indoors. It was the ringing of the bells worn about the ankles of body removers and other sanitary personnel.

Meanwhile, the dreaded plague-houses at San Miniato and San Francesco took in some six thousand Florentines who bore buboes or ran suspicious fevers during the autumn of 1630. Most of the patients admitted to these institutions died in them, despite the efforts of resident doctors and clergy, and wound up thrown naked without ceremony into mass graves bordering the city. The magistracy spread lime and erected fences around the graveyards to keep dogs from devouring the cadavers, but the image of some beast bringing home the bones of loved ones now deceased became the communal nightmare.

Much to Galileo’s distress, Vincenzio and the pregnant Sestilia joined the many who sought safety in rural settings—as though the wrath of God would not pursue them beyond the city walls. The couple removed to a villa the Bocchineri family owned at Montemurlo, in the hinterlands between Prato and Pistoia. Abandoning their house on the Costa San Giorgio, they also left behind their little boy, not yet one year old, in the care of a neighborhood wet nurse and his grandfather Galileo.

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