Plagues of Italy

Bubonic Plague

The two most devastating bubonic plagues of Italy surfaced in the 14th and 17th century. They came swiftly, ravaging the great cities and attacking people seemingly at random.Doctors and scientists were baffled to what was causing this horrific spread of death and mayhem. No one even suspected that rats and fleas were the culprits.It would take until 1894 before two bacterologists discovered the cause but until then the plague would terrify the world.

Plague of 1347

How It All began

The origins of the 14th century plague have been linked back to central Asia and more specifically Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, one of the largest mountain lakes in the world. Archeologists who had discovered evidence of high death rates during the period of 1338-1339 also found in their digs a series of inscribed memorial stones which suggested the death rate was due to the plague. The plague would have easily spread from China through to India via the common trading routes.However there is evidence that also suggests the plague was ravaging China as early as the 1320's. Whether the plague in Kyrgyzstan was directly linked to the one in China is up for debate but what is clear is the disease eventually made its way to the Genoese city of Kaffa on the Black Sea.


Kaffa (now the city of Theodosia in Ukraine) was a city , located on the Black Sea. During the 13th century traders from Genoa (Italy) purchased the city and established a thriving settlement. As a result the Genoese created a virtual trade monopoly in the Black Sea area. The city also became one of the largest slave markets in Europe. These were inticing reasons for the city to be vunerable to foreign invasion. Sure enough in 1345, after a previous failed attempt, the Mongolian army, headed by Kipchak khan Janibeg, besieged the city. The victory was short lived as his soldiers began to mysteriously die, one by one. First the chills, then the fever and finally the black lumps in the groin, armpits and neck. Panic set in and the Mongols fled the city. But before they left, as a last act of defiance, they loaded the dead and dying soldiers on catapults and flung them over the city walls to infect the returning residents (nice one). This act of early biological warfare would result in the death of over a third of Europe's population.


Four Genoese ships full of Italian traders high tailed it back to their home ports of Genoa and Venice to escape the scourge, not realising that many on board were already infected with the disease.In January 1348, the Black Plague entered Genoaand soon spread like wildfire throughout the Italian Peninsula , as people fled the coastal towns in search of safety, unaware they were already carrying the disease (or carrying the fleas in goods such as textiles). As people continued to flee further inland so did the plague. A few weeks later, it infiltrated Pisa, and then spread with alarming speed through Tuscany to Florence, Siena and Rome.


Meanwhile in Sicily they were already in the midst of the epidemic.In late 1347 Genoese ships had arrived in the harbour of Messina in Sicily. The ships were in distress with dying passengers and the crew writhering in pain on the decks. It took several days before it was realised that the ships were carrying the Black Death. The ships were sent away with their lethal cargo but the damage had been done. Unfortunately the ships sailed on to the ports of Marseilles, Corsica, Sardinia, Spain and Portugal spreading the evil disease. The plague eventually found its way to Dorset, England having successfully spread itself throughout Europe.


When the plague hit Florence,it hit hard. The thriving city, which relied so heavily on foreign trade, was brought to its knees. It is estimated nearly 60% of the population perished. Camps were set up outside the city walls for people who were showing any sign of the disease. So many were dying that mass graves were dug and possessions burnt, before so much as a blessing. Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio who survived in the city was inspired to pen his experience into a ficticious novel, The Decameron.


In Siena the same tales were being told. Nearly one third of the population died. The Siena Duomo (cathedral) was put on hold as people were too sick to continue working. Money that was raised for the building of the Cathedral was quickly diverted to dealing with the crisis. From April to October the plague raged, claiming an estimated 80,000 people. Well known brothers and artists Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and four of the nine members of the governing oligarchy all fell victim to the disease. As a result of the plague, Siena never recovered to its earlier glory.
Angelo di Tura, descibed the situation in the city; "Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another for this plague seemed to strike through breath and sight, so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship."


Like all of the major port cities Venice was not spared the ravages of the plague. Venice lost 20 out of the 24 physicians working in the city.Following the devastating plague Venice authorities established better hygene and quarantine measures to ensue the disease would be kept at bay. Some of the measures included deep burial of bodies and isolation of up to 40 days for anyone returning by sea from the East. Unfortunately, three hundred years later, these measures useless in preventing the bubonic plague entering the city again.

The Church

As the plague spread rapidly from city to city people began looking to the church for answers. As many of the local doctors and priests who tended to the sick and dying were also succumbing to the disease people began to believe the plague was an act of God. This idea wasn't helped by some Christian priests who attributed the plague to the "arrow of God", who was punishing people for their sins.It wasn't long before rumours began spreading about the cause of the scourge. One devastating rumour claimed that the Jews were responsible for the spreading of the disease, by contaminating wells. As a result many Jews in Centural Europe and Italy were rounded up and placed in wooden buildings and then burnt to death.The painful whipping ritual of flagellants was thought to have had a resurgence during this time. Flagellant was a way to rid the body of sin by inflicting pain . Both priests and the general public took up the ritual.Interestingly, during the time of the plague, the Pope was no longer in Italy but in Avignon, southern France (1309-1378). He was successfully protected from the Black Death by having three fires lit around him constantly to 'purify' the air.

Plague of 1630

How It All Began

In 1630 Italy was once again ravaged by the plague. The Black Death was carried to Italy on the merchant ships loaded with spices (and rats) from the Orient. No one suspected the stow away rats were the cause of the dilemma. It has been estimated up to 70% of the population of Northern Italy perished during this bout of the plague.


This time the port city of Venice was to bear the major brunt of the epidemic. Even with the introduction of quarantine laws neither doctors or scientists could trace the disease to the ships which lined the ports. Nearly a third of the city's population perished. Even the Doge, Nicolò Contarini, wasn't spared. However just prior to his death Contarini, believing the plague was an act of God, promised to build a church in honour of the Virgin Mary if the plague stopped. Fifty years later, in 1682, the church of Santa Maria della Salute was finally completed.Some historians even suggest that the plague's impact on the people and commerce of Veniceultimately resulted in the Republics decline as a leading commerical and political power.With a weakened population Venice could no longer successfully defend its territories and in 1669 they lost the island of Crete to the Ottoman Turks. It was a downhill spiral from then on. Could it really have been fleas that brought about the downfall of the Venetian Republic?

The plague spread rapidly through Milan and the Tuscany region leaving death and carnage in its wake. As people fled to the safer areas they inadvertently took the disease with them. Italy, which relied so heavily on sea trade, also increased the spread through its merchant shipping fleets which were continually travelling from port to port.


At the peak of summer as the plague worsen in Florence , an order came from the Commissioner of Health ordering nuns to pray continuously for the next 40 days for divine intervention. The thriving and prosperous city would lose over 60,000 residents.