From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 25
The Black Death
(14th Century A.D.)

Due to the sophisticated network of castle towers from which signals could be sent, news from Lucca could reach Gioviano and points beyond in a matter of minutes. From Lucca, the news would be flashed to the castle of the Bargilio, then down to Gioviano. From the campanile in Gioviano, the news could be flashed to Castruccio’s castle in Ghivizzano and so on, up and over the mountains to Pavia and beyond.

From the Bargilio came news that something terrible was happening in Lucca, Pisa, Florence, and the major cities of Italy. People by the thousands were coughing up blood and turning black before dying a horrible and painful death. At first the Giovianini felt safe and secure in the isolation of their little walled city. Looking down toward the Serchio and the Via Francigena, the normal daily passage of pilgrims seemed to have intensified, with many stopping at the little hospital at Calavorno.

The next morning brought more news of the dead and dying, and the roadside appeared to be littered with the bodies of people, horses, and donkeys. The Giovianini were frightened. The town council was called into session, and it was decided to hoard as much food as possible, to close and barricade the two city gates, and to allow no strangers into the village.

Every day, travelers trudged up the steep path to the gates of Gioviano begging to be let in. The citizens, feeling empathy toward the plight of their fellow Lucchesi, would throw down what little food they could spare but refused to open the gates. About a week after the horror began, a Giovianino showed up at the gate asking to be let in. At first the elders refused him entrance, but his wife, children, brothers, sisters and the rest of his extended family cried and made such heartfelt pleas that the elders relented, and he was allowed in.

That unfortunate decision in the year 1348 brought terrible fear and misery into our gentle village in the form of the Black Death. The next day, the villager who had returned from a trip to Lucca, developed an unsightly swelling in his groin and others under his armpits. High fever was followed by intense coughing which expelled copious amounts of bloody mucus. Fear enveloped the village, and death stalked the inhabitants until more than half had succumbed to the horror of the Black Death.

Ratus ratus, the dreaded Black Rat, was host to the Oriental Rat Flea, Xenopsylla cheopis which was infected with the deadly bacterium, Yersinia pestis. This plague-bearing rodent had invaded Italy bringing death in a most horrible form to not only the citizens of Lucca and Gioviano but within a couple of years to people throughout Europe. They believed that it was the wrath of God randomly striking at men, women, and children regardless of the degree of sin in their lives.

Of course, no one knew the cause of the pandemic, because it wasn’t until 1894 that the responsible bacterium was discovered. Thus, for nearly 500 years, the cause of the disease was a mystery. Therefore it was made much more terrible because, instead of exterminating rats, the infected populace fled the infected cities into the countryside spreading the pestilence with them. For the citizens of Lucca, Gioviano would have been considered a place of safety, but of course safety was not to be found anywhere.

Three forms of the Black Death, in increasing order of virulence, certainly accompanied the fleeing Lucchesi: pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic. The bubonic and septicemic forms were contracted by infected fleas biting humans and squirting partially digested infected rat blood into the wound. Those thus infected would begin to cough up a combination of saliva and bloody phlegm, which when inhaled by others would infect them as well. The most horrible form was the septicemic variety for which, even today, there is no cure, and it would kill 100% of those infected.

The Black Death got its name from the deep purple, almost black color that the victims turned before dying. (Excuse me. Sue just called me to supper.)

“Sue, I’m right in the middle of writing a chapter about the Black Death in Gioviano, and I’m not really hungry.”

“Okay, I put your pizza al gorgonzola (pizza with gorgonzola cheese) in the fridge. You can heat it up whenever you want. I’m eating mine now while it is fresh, crispy and hot.”

“Damn, why couldn’t I be writing a chapter about my favorite pizzerias right now?” I said to myself.
I can’t even imagine the horror of dying such a gruesome and painful death. Worse even would be the greater horror of watching your wife or husband, children, and parents expire before your eyes and then being unable to even dispose of the rotting bodies due to fear and lack of labor.

Becchini (grave-diggers) dressed in red robes and red masks took advantage of the situation by offering to remove the dead bodies from houses. Then, after entering, they would often rape the living and pillage anything of value. Of course, their ill-gotten gains and debauchery would no doubt soon end, as they were more than likely to be the next victims of the plague due to constant exposure to the infected dead.

Animals also sickened and died. The stench of death pervaded the atmosphere, and it was thought that the disease was spread by the foul odor. People fleeing the smell of rotting flesh would in turn spread the disease to the next village. Soon, the fields would be abandoned due to lack of labor. Hunger, depression, and confusion about why God would inflict such severe punishment upon the innocent, created manias including self-flagellation and the burning of “witches” who were said to have spread the disease.

In Milan, efforts to stop the spread of the plague met with some success. If someone in a house became infected, the entire house would be sealed up with all occupants entombed within its walls with the victim of the Black Death. I sometimes wonder about the sealed-up windows and doorways in some of the older houses and palazzi in Gioviano, including our own.

Did the Giovianini adopt the example of the Milanesi (people of Milan) and seal the houses of those infected? Was the sealed-up 12th-century front door to Palazzo Margherita a sign of those terrible times? And what about the sealed-up window just across the street from our 18th-century present front door? Are there skeletons behind those ancient stones?

After the plague had run its course, leaving Gioviano’s population reduced by half or even more, life slowly began to return somewhat to normal. Within a decade, the Black Death was still very much in the memory of the survivors, but it was considered a thing of the past. God must be satisfied that the populace had been adequately punished, or so it was believed. The lively voices of a new generation of children filled the air.

Then in 1362, the Black Death returned with a vengeance, this time striking a mortal blow to the children. The adults who had survived the less deadly bubonic form of the disease fourteen years before had developed an immunity whereas their children hadn’t. How terrible it must have been for the parents of the children of Gioviano to suffer the ordeal of watching their children die in droves.

The plague returned to Italy in 1369, 1375, 1390, and 1399. By 1399, the population loss coupled with almost mass religious hysteria nearly resulted in a complete shutdown of commercial and political activity in Lucca. Many of the leading citizens had once again fled to the villages.

People clothed in white linen robes, that covered their entire bodies with just holes for eyes, marched from town to town singing hymns. These processions of supplicants would last for nine days with the people sleeping in the fields or on piles of straw in the churches.

When the supplicants reached Gioviano, they would have crowded into Santa Maria Assunta as well as San Bartolomeo in the little village a short distance from Gioviano, which never recovered from multiple bouts of plague and was abandoned. Others would have stayed in the Romanesque church at Terzone.

The Giovianini were very excited about the Festival of the Volto Santo, having been infected by the religious fervor of the Bianchi, as their white-robed visitors were called. Those who were able made white robes of their own and joined the procession of 25,000 that entered Lucca on September 13th of that year. That huge number of the survivors of the numerous bouts of the plague over the last half century probably represented the major part of the population of the Lucchesia.

The prayers and hymns of the Bianchi must have pleased God, because Gioviano would not be visited again by the Black Death until the 17th century. In the year 1649, a hundred citizens of Gioviano died, and nearly all the survivors had been given the last rites by the Rettore P. Paulo Di Cesare Toti. The Oratory of San Rocco was built by the Confraternity to celebrate the end of the Black Death and its last assault on the populace of Gioviano.

Updated December 21, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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