Post-classical history

Chapter Five
Villani’s Last Sentence

March 1348

ON A GRAY MARCH AFTERNOON IN 1348, PAST AND PRESENT intersected in the writing room of Florentine Giovanni Villani. As Villani sat at his desk composing a history of the plague, the disease was already in the villages to the west of the city and expected in Florence within days. Walking home from church that morning, the old man had seen dozens of carriages and carts rushing eastward toward the hills behind the city. Many of the shops and homes he passed had already been shuttered. Everyone who could seemed to be fleeing the city, and everyone who could not was deep in prayer. Seventy-two-year-old Villani, former banker and lifelong chronicler of Florence, would seek solace in his writing. He picked up his pen; on the walk home, he had composed a first sentence for his brief history of the pestilence. “Having grown to vigor in Turkey and Greece . . . ,” he wrote, “the said pestilence leaped to Sicily, and Sardinia and Corsica.” Pausing, Villani examined the sentence. What should come next? Ever since the previous November, Florence had been full of rumors about the plague, but which to believe? Ah yes, the old chronicler recalled, one story had struck him as both true and haunting—full of great courage and great foolishness. It was a report about eight Genoese galleys that had dared the pestilential Crimea. Four ships had returned “full of infected sailors . . . smitten one after the other on the return journey”; the other four vessels were said to be still wandering the Mediterranean, crewed by dead men. As the old man began to recount the fleet’s odyssey, the room fell silent. There was just the crackle of embers in the dying fire and the sound of carriages rushing by in the empty street outside. As Villani wrote, the gray afternoon light in the window behind him faded into the lifeless black of a March night.

In his prime, Giovanni Villani had been a revered figure in Florence. A dazzling polymath, the young Villani had seemed capable of anything: computing the city’s population from its grain consumption, counting the number of workers in the municipal cloth industry, writing a multivolume history of Florence in the manner of Virgil and Cicero. A wealthy banker at thirty, a civic leader at forty, the elegant Villani had climbed to the very pinnacle of Florentine society with silky ease, serving once as chief of the municipal mint and twice as prior, the city’s most important civic office. Florence, more celebrated than any “republic or city state, save the Roman Republic . . .”; Florence, the city that invented eyeglasses and modern banking; Florence, the city Pope Boniface VIII called the earth’s fifth element along with earth, wind, fire, and water—Florence had reached its glorious apotheosis in the feline, multitalented Signor Villani. For a time, the chronicler’s only fault seemed to be marrying unwisely. When his second wife, the haughty Monna dei Pazzi, ran afoul of the sumptuary laws (dress codes), the rueful Villani grumbled that the “disordinate appetite of women . . . overcomes the reason and good sense of men.”

However, by March 1348 the former Florentine wunderkind was an impoverished and disgraced old man—his fortune lost, his good name blackened beyond repair. Ten years earlier, at the age of sixty-two, Villani had endured the double humiliation of bankruptcy and debtors’ prison. After his release, the former banker returned to chronicling, a passion that survived all the storms and seasons of life, but postimprisonment Villani showed a new appetite for disastrous and apocalyptic events, as if drawn to situations that mirrored his own embittered old age. And during the 1340s, Florence was happy to provide him with many such episodes.

Even without the plague, the 1340s would have been a desperate decade for the city. In 1340 there was a terrible epidemic; in 1341, a war with Pisa; and in 1343, political upheaval and civil strife, the latter culminating in a monstrous act of public barbarism that had left the old chronicler deeply shaken. “In the presence of the father and for his greater sorrow,” Villani wrote of the execution of the city’s chief of police and his son, the crowd “first dismembered the son, cutting him into small bits. This done, they did the same with the father. And some were so cruel . . . they ate of the raw flesh.” In the mid-1340s ecological upheaval and financial ruin added to the sum of Florentine misery. There were the torrential rains of 1345 and the terrible famine of 1347, and in between there was the financial catastrophe of 1346, when Edward III of England, who was using Florentine money to fight the Hundred Years’ War, defaulted on his loans to local banks to the tune of 1,365,000 florins—a sum the horrified Villani described as the “value of an entire kingdom.”

However, no catastrophe captured the old chronicler’s imagination quite like the plague. In the autumn of 1347, as Catania and Messina fought over St. Agatha’s bones, Villani, in an I-told-you-so mood, was writing, “This plague was . . . foretold by the masters in astrology last March. . . . The sign of Virgo and its master . . . Mercury . . . signif[y] death.” A series of sinister ecological portents in late 1347 and early 1348 reaffirmed Villani’s belief that death would soon be astride the Arno plain. The winter before the plague arrived, the earth ripped open again, and large parts of northern Italy and Germany were rocked by earthquakes; shortly after Christmas 1347 a mysterious “column of fire” appeared over Avignon. Eyewitnesses claimed that the glowing shaft of golden light was a natural phenomenon produced by “the sun’s rays like a rainbow,” but Villani was having none of that. Even if the column was a natural phenomenon, he insisted that its appearance “nevertheless [is] a sign of future and great events.” Whenever Villani wrote “great,” he meant “terrible.”

The pestilence, when it arrived, was everything that a Lear-like old man could have hoped for. Slipping under Florence’s three sets of walls on a grim March day,Y. pestistoured the city like a conquering King Death. Stopping here and there to admire “views that resemble paintings,” it infected Florence’s “beautiful streets, beautiful hospitals, beautiful palaces and beautiful churches.” Demonstrating a new ferocity, it burst into homes and churches and leaped upon the inhabitants “with the speed of fire racing through a dry or oily substance.” The plague killed eighty Dominicans at the monastery of Santa Maria Novella and sixty Franciscans at Santa Croce del Corvo; it killed vast numbers of Florence’s eight thousand to ten thousand schoolchildren, thirty thousand wool workers, six hundred notaries and lawyers, and sixty physicians and surgeons. And, as if emboldened by its success, with each passing day the pestilence killed with ever-mounting ferocity. It killed through a gray, wet April and a sunny May; and when the summer came and the July sun baked a thousand tangerine rooftops, it killed with an even greater ferocity, as if killing was the only happiness it knew.

In early spring, as the pestilence was taking hold in Florence, Villani completed his history. After followingY. pestisfrom its origins to the present moment, the chronicler wrote, “And the plague lasted until . . .”—then put down his pen, apparently expecting to pick it up again after the disease had burned itself out. It was an uncharacteristic act of optimism on the old pessimist’s part, and, as it turned out, an unwarranted one.

Seven hundred years later, Villani’s last sentence still awaits completion.

In the opening scene ofThe Decameron,Giovanni Boccaccio’s allegory set in hills above Black Death Florence, several young women, “fair to look upon” and highborn, are attending a funeral in the city. Afterward, sitting in the oppressive darkness of the church nave, the little group falls into a fit of communal gloom. Outside, on the hot, pestilential streets, a world of pain and death awaits them. Suddenly a member of the group—a pretty young woman named Pampinea—brightens. Turning to her companions, she says, “Dear ladies, Here we linger for no purpose . . . [other] than to count the number of corpses being taken to burial . . . If this be so (and we plainly perceive that it is), what are we doing here? . . . We could go and stay together in one of our various country estates. . . . There we shall hear birds singing . . . see fresh green hills and plains, fields of corn undulating like the sea.”

While the sparkling twenty-somethings inThe Decameronare fictional, the account of the plague that precedes their conversation in the church is not. Giovanni Boccaccio lived though the Black Death in Florence,* and his account of the epidemic captures the texture and feel of life in a pestilential city as no other document of the period does.

“It is a remarkable story I have to relate,” Boccaccio begins, then offers the reader a small sample of how “remarkable” life in Florence was. “One day,” he says, “the rags of a pauper who had died from the disease were thrown into the street where they attracted the attention of two pigs. In their wonted fashion, the pigs first of all gave the rags a thorough mauling with their snouts, after which they took them between their teeth and shook them against their cheeks. And within a short time, they began to writhe as though they had been poisoned, then they both dropped dead to the ground, spread-eagled upon the rags that had brought about their undoing.”

A visiting Venetian once described Florence as a “clean, beautiful, happy place,” but the city Boccaccio describes had become a vast, open-air death pit. “Many dropped dead in the open streets by day and night, . . . whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbors’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses than by any other means. And what with these, and the others who were dying all over the city, bodies were here, there and everywhere.”

Of the plague’s divisive effects, Boccaccio writes, “It was not merely a question of one citizen avoiding another; . . . this scourge had implanted such a great terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandon brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases, wives deserted husbands. But even worse, and almost incredible was the fact that fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them.”

The dying could find no succor outside the family, either. “Countless numbers of people who fell ill, both male and female, were entirely dependent upon . . . the charity of friends (who were few and far between) or the greed of servants, who remained in short supply despite the attraction of high wages out of all proportion to the services they performed.” As shocking to Boccaccio as the desertion of the sick was “a practice almost never previously heard of, whereby when a woman fell ill, no matter how gracious or well born or beautiful she might be, she raised no objection to being attended by a male servant, whether young or not. Nor did she have any objections to showing him every part of her body as freely as she would have displayed it to a woman. . . . This explains why those women who recovered were possibly less chaste in the period that followed.”

According to Boccaccio, “A great many people died who would perhaps have survived had they received some assistance. . . . And, hence, what with the lack of appropriate means for attending the sick and the virulence of the plague, the number of deaths reported in the city whether by day or night was so enormous that it astonished all who heard tell of it, to say nothing of the people who actually witnessed the carnage. And it was perhaps inevitable that among the citizens who survived, there arose certain customs that were quite contrary to the established tradition.”

Boccaccio is referring here to the way the plague changed the grand opera that was the Florentine Way of Death. “It had once been the custom . . . ,” he writes, “for the women relatives and neighbors of the dead man to assemble in his house in order to mourn in the company of the women who had been closest to him; moreover, his kinsfolk would foregather in the front of his house along with his neighbors and various other citizens, and there would be a contingent of priests, whose numbers varied according to the quality [that is, status] of the deceased; his body would be taken thence to the church in which he had wanted to be buried being borne on the shoulders of his peers amidst the funeral pomp of candles and dirges. But as the ferocity of the plague began to mount, this practice all but disappeared. . . . Not only did people die without having many women about them, but a great number departed this life without anyone at all to witness their going. Few indeed were those to whom the lamentations and bitter tears of their relatives were accorded; on the contrary, more often than not, bereavement was the signal for laughter, and witticism and general jollification—the art of which the women, having for the most part suppressed their feminine concerns for the salvations of the souls . . . , had learned to perfection.”

Even sadder to see, according to Boccaccio, were the pathetic little trains of mourners who followed the dead through the summer streets. It became “rare for bodies . . . to be accompanied by more than ten or twelve neighbors to church, nor were they borne on the shoulders of worthy or honest citizens but by a kind of grave digging fraternity newly come into being and drawn from the lowest orders of society. These people assumed the title of sexton and demanded a fat fee for their services, which consisted of taking up the coffin and hauling it away swiftly not to the church specified by the dead man in his will, but usually to the nearest at hand.”

Boccaccio’s grave diggers are the sinisterbecchini,who circled Florence like vultures during the plague. Adopting the death’s-head motto, “Those who live in fear die,” these rough country men from the hills above the city earned an unsavory reputation not only for their cavalier attitude toward death, the way they seemed almost to condescend to it, but also for their swashbuckling behavior. In a city swollen with grief and loss, thebecchinidrank and wenched and caroused and stole like happy buccaneers. As spring became summer, the terrors of life in Florence grew to include a front door bursting open in the dead of night and a group of drunken, shovel-wielding grave diggers rushing into the house, threatening rape and murder unless the inhabitants paid a ransom.

The greatest blow to the Florentine Way of Death, however, was not thebecchinior the cynicism of the female mourners, but the plague pits. “Such was the multitude of corpses . . . ,” wrote Boccaccio, that “huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stored tier upon tier like ships’ cargo, each layer of corpses being covered with a thin layer of soil till the trench was filled to the top.”

Professor Giulia Calvi was describing the psychological effects of the pits during a recurrence of the plague in the city, but her words apply equally well to Black Death Florence. “Nothing,” she writes, “was more senseless, uncommon and cruel [to Florentines] than to be buried . . . far from the family vault, one’s own church . . . from the texture of family life and neighborhood life . . . naked, mutilated by animals, a victim of the elements.” For many, the pits held another, even greater terror. The modern idea of a personal death, of “my death,” is a product of the European Middle Ages. In Antiquity and the early medieval period “death, at least as described in epic and chronicle, was a public and heroic event,” says historian Caroline Walker Bynum. “But in the later Middle Ages death became increasingly personal. In painting and in story, [it] was seen as the moment at which the individual, alone before his personal past, took stock of the meaning of his life.” The plague pit was the antithesis of this idea; it made death anonymous, casual, animal-like, and left the individual unrecognizable “even for future resurrection.”

However, one thing even the Black Death could not change was human nature. Florentines responded to the pestilence in ways that still sound familiar. “Some people,” says Boccaccio, “were of the opinion that a sober and abstemious mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection. They, therefore, formed themselves into groups and lived in isolation from everyone. Having withdrawn to a comfortable abode, . . . they locked themselves in and settled down to a peaceable existence, consuming modest quantities of delicate food and precious wines and avoiding all excesses.

“Others took the opposite view and maintained that an infallible way to ward off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full . . . gratifying all one’s cravings . . . and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.” Members of this group visited “one tavern after another drinking all day and night to immoderate excess or . . . they would do their drinking in various private houses, but only in ones where the conversation was restricted to subjects that were entertaining or pleasant. . . . People behaved as though their days were numbered and treated their belongings and own persons with abandon.”

A third group of citizens “steered a middle course . . . living with a degree of freedom sufficient to satisfy their appetites, and not as recluses. They therefore walked about, carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses, deeming it an excellent thing thus to comfort the brain with such perfumes because the air seemed to be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and dying, and the odors of the drugs.”

A fourth group reacted like Pampinea and her friends. “Some again,” says Boccaccio, “the most sound perhaps . . . affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficiency to flight; following which prescription, a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, . . . and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country, as if God . . . would not pursue them.”

The chronicle of another Florentine, Marchione di Coppo Stefani, helps to flesh out the picture of life in the pestilential city. Though he wrote several decades after the plague, Stefani employed a perhaps more resonant metaphor to convey the horror of pits. He says the dead were laid out, “layer upon layer just like one puts layers of cheese on lasagna.” The chronicler also offers a fuller explanation of how friends and relations would desert the dying. As night fell, plague victims “would plead with . . . relatives not to abandon them,” and to avoid an ugly scene, often the relatives would agree to stay. “‘So you don’t have to wake me during the night,’ they would tell the victim at bedtime, ‘take some sweetmeats, wine or water, they are on the bedstead by your head.’” According to Stefani, this supposed act of kindness was usually a ruse. “When the sick person fell asleep [the relative] left and did not return.” Frequently these little dramas of abandonment and betrayal had an even darker second act. The next morning, awakening to find herself deceived and abandoned, the plague victim would crawl to a window and cry out for help, but since “no one . . . wished to enter a house where someone was sick,” the call would go unheeded, leaving the victim to die alone in the warm morning light in a pool of her own blood and vomit.

Stefani’s account also contains a description of the mordant dinner parties that became popular in Florence during the mortality. These often had the aspect of the game Ten Little Indians. “The [pestilence] was a matter of such great discouragement and fear,” says the chronicler, “that men gathered . . . to take some comfort in dining together. And each evening one of them provided dinner to ten companions and the next evening they planned to eat with one of the others.” But often when the next night arrived, the guests would find that the host “had no meal planned because he was sick. Or if [he] made dinner for ten, two or three were missing.”

For many Florentines, one of the strangest aspects of the Black Death was the eerie stillness that fell over the streets and squares. Normally church bells echoed through the city morning, noon, and night, but during the plague the heavy thud of the gloomy bells became too much for people to bear and municipal authorities ordered them silenced. “They could not sound bells . . . nor cry out announcements, because the sick hated to hear this, and it discouraged the healthy as well.” Human nature being what it is, greed flourished. “Servants, or those who took care of the ill, charged from one to three florins a day, and the cost of things grew as well,” says Stefani. “The things that the sick ate, sweetmeats and sugar, seemed priceless. Sugar cost from three to eight florins a pound, . . . capons and other poultry were very expensive, and eggs cost between twelve and twenty-four pence each. . . . Finding wax was miraculous. A pound of wax would have gone up more than a florin if there had not been a stop put [by the municipal government] to the vain ostentation that the Florentines always make over funerals. . . . The mortality enriched apothecaries, doctors, poultry vendors,beccamorti[literally, vultures, and another name for thebecchini], and greengrocers, who sold poultices of mallow, nettles, mercury, and other herbs necessary to draw off the mortality.”

The Black Death’s visit to Florence is unusually well documented. We know that the mortality claimed roughly fifty thousand lives, a death rate of 50 percent in a city of about a hundred thousand. We also know that while public order held, anarchy and disorder were common. Major riots were avoided, but flight was general and greed ubiquitous. During 1348, municipal officials stole 375,000 gold florins from the inheritances and estates of the dead. We know, too, that in Florence victims often developed two buboes instead of the one characteristic of modern plague. We know as well that many animals died; along with Boccaccio’s pigs, there are reports of dogs and cats and apparently even chickens being stricken by thegavoccioli,or plague boil.

What remains a source of contention, however, is why the plague was so severe in the city.

This question goes to the heart of an even larger and far more contentious and puzzling question: Why was the plague in late medieval Europe so much more catastrophic than the plague of the Third Pandemic? Victorian scientists arrived in late-nineteenth-century India and China expecting to encounter a ravaging, galloping, all-consuming monster. Journalist William Seveni warned readers of the BritishFortnightly Reviewto brace themselves. “We must not deceive ourselves [for once] the dreadful scourge . . . obtains a foothold [it] will be a far greater danger than when the terror-stricken Romans cried, ‘Hannibal ante portas!’”

However, while millions died, the plague of the Third Pandemic proved to be a far more manageable disease than the plague of the Black Death. In early-twentieth-century India,Y. pestistraveled at an average of eight milesper year;in South Africa, a little faster: eight to twenty miles annually. By contrast, in Black Death Europe,Y. pestiscovered the eighty-one kilometers between Pisa and Florence in two months—January to March 1348. In France and England the disease also moved with alacrity. Between Marseille and Paris, it traveled at a rate of two and a half milesper day;between Bristol and London, at two miles per day.

Contagion rates were also strikingly different. When the plague season arrived in Third Pandemic India, people would simply move two hundred yards from the family home, encamp, and wait for the disease to burn itself out. Indeed,Y. pestisproved so lethargic, British doctors in the colonial medical service joked that the safest place to be during the pandemic was the plague ward of a hospital. The pestilence of the Black Death, in contrast, was the pathogenic equivalent of a piranha. Boccaccio’s description of the two pigs who fell dead after shaking an infected blanket was not literary hyperbole. The medieval plague spread so quickly, several medieval medical authorities were convinced the disease was spread via glance. “Instantaneous death occurs,” wrote a Montpelier physician, “when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick.” The medieval plague also produced symptoms uncommon in the modern disease, including a gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs; violent chest pains; a hacking, bloody cough; uncontrollable vomiting; a foul body odor; and a rapid course. Like Friar Michele da Piazza, chronicler Villani noted that most victims were dead within three days.

Most striking of all is the difference in mortality rates. In the Black Death, mortalities of 30 and 40 percent were common, and in the urban centers of eastern England and central Italy, death rates reached an almost unimaginable 50 to 60 percent. Historian Samuel K. Cohn claims that in the worst years of the Third Pandemic, death tolls never exceeded3 percent. While that estimate is open to question, no one challenges Cohn’s contention that, overall, the mortality rates of the Third Pandemic were dramatically lower than those of the Black Death.

In the 1980s these discrepancies gave rise to a new theory of the medieval plague. A group of scholars began to argue that the Black Death was not a plague at all, but an outbreak of another disease—possibly anthrax, possibly an Ebola-like illness called hemorrhagic fever. The arguments of the Plague Deniers, as the group might be called, will be examined in the afterword. Suffice it to say here that recently DNA fromY. pestishas been found in several medieval plague sites. Moreover, it is not necessary to reinvent the Black Death to explain the discrepancies between the Second and Third Pandemics.

Microbiologist Robert Brubaker thinks that many of the differences between the two outbreaks dissolve if the vast differences between medieval and Victorian medicine are factored into the equation. Another possible explanation for the differences may lie in the unique impact of a disease like plague on a premodern society with no access to a relatively sophisticated colonial medical service. Unlike viral infections, which often left behind a large core of immune survivors to care for the ill and harvest the food the next time an epidemic struck, plague spared no one. Despite the findings about CCR5-D32, the best available current evidence is thatY. pestisdoes not produce permanent immunity in victims. During the Black Death, this biological quirk may have produced an enormoussecondarymortality. As both Boccaccio and Stefani suggest, many people seem to have died not because they had particularly virulent cases of plague, but because the individuals who normally cared for them were either dead or ill themselves. In addition, the medieval streets may have become even dirtier and more rat infested because the street sweepers were all dying, and the malnourished even more malnourished because the farmers who grew the food and the stevedores who carted it to the city were also being decimated by plague.

A third possible explanation for the supermortality of the Black Death is that the medieval pandemic was caused by an unusually virulent strain ofY. pestis,marmot plague, which spread to rats as it moved toward Europe, while the Third Pandemic was an outbreak of less lethal rat plague that, for the most part, stayed in rats.

In the view of many Russian scientists, what makes marmot plague more virulent than, say, rat or gerbil plague, is a long-shared evolutionary history. Having cohabitated together, perhaps since the plague bacillus first evolved on the steppe, marmots have had more time than other rodents to develop resistance to the bacillus. Thus, to survive in marmots, biologically speaking,Y. pestishas been forced to go nuclear by adopting a strategy of hypervirulence, which it has done by, for example, evolving a tropism for the lungs.

Many Western microbiologists question whether the virulence of the plague bacillus varies from one rodent species to another. However, unlike most existing explanations of the Great Mortality, the Russian marmot theory has the virtue of simplicity. It provides a single, coherent explanation for several aspects of the medieval plague that continue to puzzle historians and scientists, including the high mortality rates and the apparently very high incidence of pneumonic plague even during the warm Italian springs and summers.

One or several of these factors may well have been responsible for the fearful death tolls in Florence, and a few months later, in Siena, a few dozen kilometers to the south. Except in Siena the mortality was even greater and the song of death that arose from its stilled summer streets, even more haunting than Boccaccio’s mournful dirge.

Siena, April–May 1348

“La mortalità cominciò in Siena di maggio”—the mortality commenced in Siena in May, wrote Agnolo di Tura. Other sources place the plague’s arrival in mid-April. All that is known for certain is that in Siena, as in Florence, men and women grew fearful as spring gathered in the countryside. The rustics, the rough countrymen who brought oil into Siena, stayed home; shops and stores were shuttered; the municipal courts fell silent; and the wool industry, a sinkhole for so much Sienese wealth and pride, shut down. However, one aspect of Sienese life went on as usual as death arrived with spring in the fateful year of 1348.

As they had every day for a decade, the Sienese continued to awake each morning to the shouts of laborers mounting the scaffolding around the city cathedral, and to walk home each evening in the aura of the loveliest vista in Tuscany, the cathedral’s white marble pinnacles and statues flushing rose red under a twilight blue Tuscan sky. The decision to pour thousands of lire into transforming the main town church into a majestic Tuscan St. Peter’s was typically Sienese. “That vain people,” Dante mocked in theInferno,but a more accurate description of the medieval Sienese might be “deluded.” Feeling overshadowed by larger, wealthier Florence, little Siena spent the better part of the thirteenth century huffing and puffing to make itself look bigger than it was, usually with disastrous results. Deciding the road to municipal glory lay in naval power, in the manner of Genoa and Venice, landlocked Siena frittered away a fortune trying to turn a malarial coastal village called Talamone into a major seaport. A few decades earlier, deciding cloth-making was the key to municipal glory and wealth, waterless Siena (water was essential to the manufacture of cloth) had frittered away another fortune digging up the rocky hill under the town in search of a mythic underground river called Diana.

In Agnolo di Tura, the city of dreams found its perfect spokesman. Reality has its place in Agnolo’s journals, but not so prominent a place that it interfered with Siena’s march toward the “broad sunlit uplands” of civic glory. Thus, in 1324, when the town wall is expanded, Agnolo boasts that Siena “has . . . grown in population such that the . . . walls [have to be] extended at Val di Montone.” And in 1338, when the City Council decides to expand the town church, Agnolo is so enthusiastic you can already see the new cathedral floating above the Arno plain like a great gothic ship asail on a pumpkin-colored sea. “Siena,” he writes, “is in a great and happy condition. Accordingly a great and noble enlargement of the city cathedral has begun.” Even in 1346, a year of torrential rain and widespread famine, Agnolo remains, as ever, upbeat. After visiting the Campo, the town’s main square, he declares that it is “more beautiful than any other piazza in Italy.”

Like Giovanni Villani, Agnolo di Tura was a town chronicler, but there the resemblance between the two men ends. The older Villani was a scion of a wealthy mercantile family: well educated, urbane, and, before his financial embarrassment, an important civic figure. Agnolo was an everyman, albeit an ambitious everyman. He seems to have begun life as a humble shoemaker. There is still a bill of sale for some molds and other tools he bought in January 1324. The rest of Agnolo’s early life remains unknown, except for his mother’s name, Donna Geppo, and where he grew up, the Orvile section of Siena. However, Agnolo’s literary career suggests some early education, and his habit of signing himself Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, or Agnolo the Fat, suggests that he liked to eat.

Agnolo seems to have thought big as well. Everything else we know about him points to a young man eager to rise in the world. The dowry of his wife, Nicoluccia, for example, indicates that the humble shoemaker managed to marry a bit above himself. Three hundred and fifty lire was a tidy sum for a craftsman’s wife to bring into a marriage. Other surviving evidence also points to dreams too big for a cobbler’s bench. One is a set of receipts for some gifts Agnolo bought the wife of a high official in the Biccherna, Siena’s treasury department, where he worked part-time as a tax collector. It is unclear whether the gifts were purchased at the man’s behest or on Agnolo’s initiative; either way, the purchases were clearly meant to curry favor.

The fact that Agnolo convinced the tax office to reimburse him for the presents a few months later suggests that he was also shrewd about money, an impression reinforced by Nicoluccia’s dowry and Agnolo’s real estate dealings, which include the sale of a piazza near a place called Fontebradda for the handsome price of twelve gold florins in 1342. Real estate, tax collecting, shoemaking—would even an ambitious young man wear so many professional hats? It may be that Agnolo was not the only di Tura eager to rise in the world. In the medieval version of the “Take my wife” joke, the wife never tires of reminding her husband that her family is higher born than his. Some of this dynamic may have been at work in the di Tura marriage. During the 1330s and 1340s so many houses are listed under the name Agnolo di Tura, historians have speculated that Siena had several men of that name. But there may be another explanation. The residences all belonged to the same Agnolo di Tura, who kept moving his family into ever bigger houses in hopes that one day his higher-born wife would stop reminding him of how much she had sacrificed to marry a lowborn shoemaker.

The other salient fact about Agnolo is that he and Nicoluccia had five sons.

Agnolo mentions the children only once in his chronicle, but he compresses so much emotion into the single reference, the door flies open to the di Tura family’s life—to the Christmas visits of Donna Geppo’s, the Sunday outings at the Campo, the evening walks through the little squares that blink out from Siena’s converging streets like an eye to a keyhole: the five di Tura boys running across the square, scattering a flock of birds into a vermillion-colored sky, an out-of-breath Agnolo chasing after them, and Nicoluccia shouting for everyone to stop, especially Agnolo, who is toograssoto run.

In the early summer of 1348, this happy life ended in a field near the cathedral.

The first official Sienese reaction to the pestilence came in early June. On the second, the City Council shut down the civil courts until September. A week and a half later, with plague pits already beginning to appear in the city, council officials resorted to a favorite municipal strategy—bribery. To appease a wrathful God, on June 13 a thousand gold florins were appropriated for the poor and gambling was banned “forever” in the city. On June 30 money was appropriated for the purchase of“torchi e candele”for a great religious procession.

The Palazzo pubblico, the building where the City Council met, was familiar to Agnolo. In his chronicle, he mentions a 1337 renovation there: “Rooms were constructed for Signori [Lords] and their staff [above the council chamber] and scenes from Roman history . . . were painted outside them.” In the terrible May and June of 1348, one sees Agnolo, a big, heavyset, sad-faced man, walking the halls of the palace offering condolences to bereaved colleagues, listening to debates on how to dispose of the corpses accumulating in the sweltering, malodorous streets, comforting the dying on the new second floor. However, if Agnolo did any of these things, he never wrote about them. The impression one gets from the chronicle is that summer—the summer of the plague—Agnolo became a walker in the city.

“In many parts of Siena, very wide trenches were made and in these, they placed the bodies, throwing them in and covering them with but a little dirt.”

One sees Agnolo walking to the cathedral, the workmen gone from its roof and walls now; its nave lit by the glow of a thousand candles—

“After that they put in the same trench many other bodies and covered them also with earth and so they laid them layer upon layer, until the trench was full.”

—and through the Plaza de Campo, where he and Nicoluccia would take the children on Sundays—

“Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could without a priest, without divine offices.”

—and the little squares, where the di Tura children would scatter birds into the evening sky with their shouts and charges.

“Some of the dead were . . . so ill covered that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city.”

Here a final image suggests itself: Agnolo standing at the a burial site near the unfinished cathedral on a soft April Sunday in 1356 or 1357. The field is featureless—in the pestilential summer of 1348 there were too many dead for individual graves and headstones. There is just a marker noting that during the Great Mortality many people of Siena were buried here. Agnolo places a bouquet of flowers under the marker and says a prayer. Later, walking home, he begins to relive the day he first visited the plague pit: the smells and the sights of that day—the hungry dogs snarling at one another while they pawed at the loose earth, the burly rustic gravediggers stripped to the waist in the summer heat, the wails of the grieving mothers and fathers, the piles of greasy white corpses in the shallow plague pits, and himself—full of fury, grabbing a shovel from a rustic and digging a separate, deeper grave.

One imagines that this was the day Agnolo added the concluding sentence to his chronicle for 1348:

“And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the fat, buried my wife and five children with my own hands.”

The mortality in Siena was grave. According to Agnolo, “52,000 persone” died in the city, including 36,000 “vecchi”—old people; for the countryside, he gives a figure of 28,000. In a region with a preplague population as potentially high as 97,000, that works out to a death rate of 84 percent, a figure most modern historians consider improbable. Current estimates put the mortality in Siena at between 50 and 60 percent. The plague produced one additional casualty. While the eternal ban on gambling was revoked within six months (Siena was broke again), seven hundred years on, the cathedral renovation awaits completion.

Rome, Summer 1348

In August the pestilence traveled southward from Orvieto to Rome, where one of the most extraordinary of all of medieval Italy’s little municipal dramas was playing itself out.

Imagine Mussolini three times as handsome and four times as preposterous, and you have the drama’s hero, Cola di Rienzo, self-proclaimed tribune of Rome, fantasist extraordinaire, and local hero. For smashing the Mafia-style rule of Rome’s old noble families, thepopulus romanuswere willing to forgive their handsome Cola almost anything, including the fantasy that he was the bastard son of a German emperor instead of the peasant son of a barkeep. But when Cola knighted his own son in the blood of another man, even the Roman crowds recoiled in horror.

The second major character in the drama was Cola’s nemesis, eighty-year-old Stefano Colonna, Rome’s most powerful aristocrat and an authentic natural wonder. “Great God, what majesty is in this old man,” wrote a contemporary. “What a voice, what a brow and countenance, . . . what energy of mind and strength of body at such an age!” When Cola’s supporters killed Stefano’s son, grandson, and nephew, the old man refused to mourn, saying, “It is better to die than [to] live in servitude to a clown.”

The third major character in the drama was the urbane and learned Pope Clement VI, a shrewd sybarite with a Friar Tuck–sized waistline and an X-rated libido. One story has it that, when rebuked for wantonness, Clement would pleadex consilio medicorum—he was following the advice of his physicians; another, that he would confront the chastiser with a list of other libidinous popes he kept in a “little black book,” then wonder out loud why it was that the church’s greatest leaders had also been among its greatest philanderers.

The last major player in the drama was Francesco Petrarch, literary celebrity and early practitioner of radical chic. “I feel I have met a God, not a man,” Petrarch wrote, after encountering the handsome Cola, thereby proving that he was a better poet than a judge of character.

Thedeus ex machinathat brought these figures into play was the intolerable state of medieval Rome. By 1347 the great capital of Antiquity had shrunk to a squalid little ruin; it was a city of buildings without walls, arches without roofs, pedestals without statues, fountains without water, columns without arches, and steps that led from nowhere to nothing. From a half million—and perhaps many more—residents during Antiquity, the population had fallen to a pitiful thirty-five thousand, and with no other visible means of support, medieval Romans survived by cannibalizing the decaying city. The rich pilfered marble and brick from the imperial ruins to build their gloomy castles and fierce towers; the poor, to erect their stinking hovels. Even the great palaces on Palatine hill, the baths of Diocletian, and the Julian basilica were torn down and thrown into kilns to make lime. Materials the Romans could not use themselves, they happily sold to others. Many of Italy’s great cathedrals and even London’s Westminster Abbey were, in part, built from imperial rubble. On summer mornings medieval visitors could still see women hurrying across the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, balancing bundles on their heads, and fishermen bent over their pots and nets along the banks of the Tiber. But beyond the river, now malodorous and polluted, and the center city, where the poor lived in streets so narrow the afternoon sun never fell below the tiled rooftops, there was nothing but lumpy grassland, broken buildings, and cow pastures all the way to the Aurelian wall, the boundary of the old imperial city.

Life on the Roman street mirrored the city’s physical condition. The Hobbesian state of all against all, characteristic of medieval Italy generally, reached its apotheosis in the gangsterism of medieval Rome. The city’s ruling class—the great aristocratic families like the Colonna and the Orsini—engaged in a perpetual war against one another, and beneath the violence of the highborn there was the violence of the gutter: of robbers and muggers and streetcorner toughs. In 1309, when the papacy, the last bastion of municipal authority, fled to the safety of Avignon, civic order collapsed entirely. With “no one to govern,” wrote a contemporary, “fighting [was a] daily occurrence, robbery was rife. Nuns—and even children—were outraged; wives were torn from their husbands’ beds. Laborers on their way to work were robbed at the very gates of the city . . . ; priests became evil doers, every sin was unbridled. There was only one law—the law of the sword.”

Cola di Rienzo’s emergence as the self-appointed savior of a bleeding Rome owed something to civic patriotism, something to personal grievance—a Colonna henchman killed Cola’s brother—and something to a romantic imagination inflamed by constant rereadings of Seneca, Livy, and Cicero. Sometimes, after studying the Great Ancients, the dreamy young Cola would stand in a cow pasture at twilight and, surveying a broken column or arch, wonder out loud, “Where are those good old Romans? Where is their lofty rectitude? Would that I could transport myself back to the time when these men flourished.” Lacking a time machine, Cola did the next best thing: he invented a fantasy version of himself. Long before his rise to prominence, he took to signing himself Cola di Rienzo, “Roman Consul and sole legate of the people and of the orphans, widows and the poor.” He also began telling people that he was the illegitimate son of the German emperor Henry II, who had seduced his barkeep mother on a visit to Rome.

Cola first rose to public attention in 1343, on a visit to Avignon. He was by then a notary—one of the few careers open to poor, bright boys—and prominent enough to be appointed to an important commercial delegation. To revive tourism in popeless, lawless Rome, municipal authorities wanted Clement to declare 1350 a Jubilee Year and offer a special indulgence—a forgiveness of sin—to pilgrims who visited the city. A similar celebration in 1300 had attracted more than a million tourists. However, when the delegation met with the pope, Cola used the occasion to launch into a furious denunciation of the Roman nobility and their gangsterism. Horrified by the outburst, Cola’s fellow delegates tried to shush him, but Clement, already on record as declaring the nobles “horse thieves, murderers, bandits and adulterers,” was impressed by the ardent young notary. Before leaving Avignon, he put Cola under papal protection and gave him a new title, rector of Rome.

During the same visit, Cola also met the poet Petrarch, another lively fantasist and sly self-promoter, who already had a good part of literate Europe trying to guess the name of the mystery woman who appeared in his love poetry, the luminous Laura.

Love and I, stood agape; we marveled how

no wonders ever amazed the human sight

like the speaking lips and laughing eyes alight

of our lady.

“You say that I have invented . . . Laura to have something to talk about and to have everyone talking about me,” Petrarch wrote to a friend, who, like many others—in the poet’s own time and since—have thought Laura the artful fabrication of an artful fabricator. But the mystery woman in the poems was real enough. Her full name was Laura de Sade, she was related by marriage to the infamous eighteenth-century Marquis de Sade, and Petrarch loved her as deeply and truly as he claimed, though perhaps not as chastely. He had children with at least two other women.

An international celebrity as well as a poet, Petrarch dined with the aristocratic Colonna, walked the beaches of Naples with the beautiful Queen Joanna, attended audiences with Clement VI—if there had been a fourteenth-centuryPeople,the fish-eyed poet would have been on the cover under the headline, “The Fabulous Francesco!” Normally, lowborn notaries were of no interest to the celebrity poet, but besides sharing a reverence for Rome’s past, the bookish Petrarch was infatuated by Cola’s bold man-of-action stance. After their first meeting, the poet gushed to his new hero in a letter, “When I think of our earnest, sanctified conversation . . . I feel afire, as if an oracle had issued from the recesses.”

In May 1347, as the plague was sailing west, Cola, who had been building a power base in Rome since his return from Avignon, launched a coup.

On the nineteenth, a sleepy Saturday, forces loyal to the notary seized the buildings in the municipal district. The next morning, as church bells echoed through the streets, the gates of Rome flew open and Cola strode into the city the way he must have imagined a thousand times in his dreams: dressed in full knight’s armor, with the red banner of freedom and the white banner of justice flapping overhead and the papal vicar at his side. Ahead of Cola marched a phalanx of blaring trumpeters.

“Cola! Cola! Cola!” the crowd shouted. The notary, who looked especially handsome in shining armor, raised a hand in acknowledgment; a child emerged from the crowd; Cola took the bouquet she offered and gave her a kiss. Then the trumpets blared again and the notary’s little ship of state sailed off through flower-strewn May streets to the palace of the capital, where the coup ended with a remarkable oration. As thousands of voices shouted approval, Cola pledged himself ready to die for Rome, swore to restore the city to its former glory, and promised to devote himself to the cause of equal justice for all.

“I think of you day and night,” an excited Petrarch wrote his hero shortly after the coup. “And . . . O Tribune, if you must die in battle do so courageously for you will assuredly be rapt in heaven. . . . Unfortunately,” the poet added in a postscript, “my . . . circumstances prevent me from joining in your holy war.” Happily, no one had to die in Cola’s cause, not even Cola.

Stefano Colonna flew into a rage when he heard about the notary’s coup. “If this fool provokes me further, I shall throw him out the window,” the old man shouted. The rest of Rome’s aristocrats, however, chose to sit on their swords and await events. When Cola summoned the nobility to the capital to swear allegiance to him, everyone came and solemnly placed a hand over his heart. Many in the illustrious gathering could remember when the notary had been the pet bad boy of Rome’s elite, the impudent provocateur whom fashionable hostesses would invite to dinner parties to shock and titillate highborn guests. Perhaps Cola was a still a fool.

While the great bided their time, Cola collected titles and tried on clothes. On the last day of July 1347, the notary, dressed in a white silk robe embroidered with gold and accompanied by a matching pennant emblazoned with the sun, led a procession to the Baptistry of St. John. There Cola, who had just had himself proclaimed a knight, took a ritual bath in the tub where Emperor Constantine was said to have been cured of leprosy. The next day, now dressed in scarlet, Cola appeared on the balcony of the Lateran Palace. Declaring Rome the capital of the world and all Italians Roman citizens, the new knight unsheathed his sword and made three cuts in the air—one to the east, one to the west, and one to the north. The enthusiasm of the crowds was enhanced by a nearby statue of Constantine; the emperor’s horse spewed free wine from the nostrils.

On August 15, three months after seizing power, Cola gave himself a new title, tribune of Rome. After receiving a silver wreath, a scepter, and an orb, a symbol of sovereignty, the newly crowned tribune stepped to the podium and reminded the audience that he was thirty-three, the same age as Christ when He died on the cross for the sins of humanity.

On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Cola, now dressed in green and yellow velvet and carrying a scepter of glittering steel, rode to St. Peter’s Basilica on a white charger. In addition to fifty spearmen, the new tribune was accompanied by a horseman holding a banner with his coat of arms, a knight throwing gold coins into the crowd, a chorus of trumpeters blaring through long silver tubes, and a chorus of cymbalists clanging silver cymbals together. On his arrival at the basilica, an assemblage of bowing dignitaries greeted the tribune to the strains of“Veni Creator Spiritus.”

After a summer full of comic opera events, support for Cola began to evaporate. In September, with the plague now only a few weeks’ sail from Sicily, the pope denounced the tribune as a usurper and heretic. Petrarch, fearful of alienating his powerful friends in the Roman elite, expressed disquiet and doubt, and the Roman crowds, believing their presumptive savior was acting the fool, faded away.

Sensing the change in mood, in mid-September Cola organized a second coup. He invited all Rome’s great barons to a banquet. At dinner, Cola had to endure old Stefano Colonna’s sarcasm about his magnificent attire, but after dessert the notary had his revenge. As the guests prepared to leave, Cola ordered the arrest of seven leading nobles, including five members of the powerful Orsini family, and impudent old Stefano. You will be executed in the morning, the tribune informed the prisoners.

When a priest came to Stefano’s cell the next morning, the old man snarled and waved him away, saying he had no need to confess; Stefano Colonna would never die at the hands of a nothing like Cola di Rienzo. The remark proved prophetic. A few hours later, as bells tolled for the condemned men, the tribune lost his nerve. Executing the Colonna and Orsini prisoners, members of the most powerful aristocratic families in the city, might provoke the other nobles. A few minutes later, a chastened Cola stepped out onto a balcony and, reminding the crowd of the biblical adage “Forgive us our trespasses,” announced that he had decided to pardon the prisoners.

In November, as the plague was arriving in Marseille, Cola alienated his few remaining supporters with an act of unimaginable barbarism. During an attack on the city by a group of nobles, twenty-year-old Giovanni Colonna, old Stefano’s grandson, was cut to pieces by Cola’s cavalry. The morning after the assault, the tribune brought his son Lorenzo to the spot were Giovanni fell. As a crowd watched in horror, Cola unsheathed his sword, dipped it in Colonna’s blood, then placed the red-tipped sword upon his son’s head, proclaiming him knight Lorenzo of Victory.

A few weeks later, as the last of Cola’s support was ebbing away, Petrarch wrote to the tribune, “I cannot alter matters, but I can flee them. . . . A long farewell to thee also, Rome, if these stories are true.”

When the plague arrived in the city in August 1348, Cola was safely out of harm’s way. Unseated the previous December in a countercoup, he was living in disgraced exile with the Celestine monks in Abruzzi. That was too far away to hear the tremendous earthquake that rocked Rome at the start of the pestilence, or to catch the scent of burning flesh rising above the Coliseum, where many of the plague dead were cremated, or to see the piles of corpses lined up along the Tiber like a levee wall.

“I am overwhelmed,” wrote a contemporary, in the sad, desperate voice that became the voice of Europe in the summer of 1348. “I can’t go on. Everywhere one turns there is death and bitterness. . . . The hand of the Almighty strikes repeatedly, to greater and greater effect. The terrible judgment gains in power as time goes by.”

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