So the Florentines found out in the 14th century after their once small and modest town mushroomed into one of the largest cities in Europe in less than a century.
People crowded into the city with more coming in every day from the surrounding countryside to work in the city’s textile mills, young men coming into town looking to learn a trade and advance themselves, people coming in from around Italy, Europe, and the world looking to do business in the newly rich city. The bulk of the city’s population packed into crowded tenements along dark narrow dangerous streets.
This was before the days of professional city services. Everything from fire protection to garbage clean up had to be improvised. The local militias under a public official grandly titled Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People) provided police protection, such as it was. Powerful families could provide for their own security and for that of their parishes if they felt generous. The Commune provided the disenfranchised majority with services only if it felt that it was in their interests to do so. While police protection could be spotty and imperfect, the Commune provided public grain storage in case of shortages, always a possibility in that time. While the crime rate didn’t concern them much, Florence’s rulers feared mass unrest due to famine. A rapidly growing population strained such public services that there were, making the whole city vulnerable to serious disaster.
And disaster came.
In 1333, the Florentines believed that they saw a portent of disaster in the sky. There was a total eclipse of the sun in the city.
Orcagna, Eclipse of the Sun, from a fresco fragment in Santa Croce, 1360s
For us, these are predictable events of celestial mechanics. Not so the ordinary people of the 14th century who equated the sky with heaven. They assumed the sky and its stars to be fixed, their order unchanging. When something dramatic disrupted that accustomed order like an eclipse, people assumed that God was angry and that the event portended disaster.
In November 1333, after four days and nights of continuous rain, the swollen Arno river came down out of the Appenines in the east in roaring torrent, flooding the entire river valley.
Plaque on the Via San Remigio commemorating the 1333 Florence Flood. The hand on the lower right points to the water level of the flood. The small marble marker above indicates the water level of the 1966 flood.
The 1966 Flood; The flood waters around the Loggia del Bigallo
The 1966 Flood: The Arno torrents washing through and around the Trinita Bridge
The 1966 Flood: The flood waters around the Baptistery
Florence’s recently built city walls turned the whole city into a giant bowl of water with streets and piazzas flooded to a depth of 15 feet
…wherefore everyone was filled with great fear and all the church bells throughout the city rung continuously as an invocation to heaven that the water rise no higher. And in the houses they beat kettles and brass basins, raising loud cries to God of “misericordia, misericordia,” the while those in peril fled from roof to roof and house to house on improvised bridges. And so great was the human din and tumult that it almost drowned out the crash of thunder … And on the first sleep of night, the water washed away the city wall above the Corso de’ Tintori … In the Baptistery of St. John the water rose above the altar and reached to more than half the height of the porphyry columns before the entrance. And in the Bargello, it rose in the courtyard to a height of ten feet.
“The Ponte Carraia fell with the exception of two arches. And immediately after, the Trinita bridge except for one pier and one arch … It was now the turn of the Ponte Vecchio. When it was choked by the boughs of fallen trees brought down by the Arno, the water surged over the arches and, rushing upon the shops on the bridge, swept everything away except the two central piers. And the Rubaconte bridge [today the Ponte alle Grazie] the water rushed over the top and destroyed the parapet in several places … To look at this scene was to stare into chaos.
So wrote the famous 14th century Florentine diarist Giovanni Villani, one of many helpless witnesses to the disaster. Historians estimate that around three hundred people died in the 1333 Flood.
The Arno remains an ever-present threat. An even bigger flood in 1966 killed about thirty people and nearly washed away the city’s treasures.
The crowded tenements with their cooking fires and lamps were in even greater danger of fire. Fires almost never confined themselves to a single building, but spread rapidly, especially in windy weather.
A few years before the 1333 Flood, Villani wrote about an
… accursed fire fanned by a strong north wind … burned the houses of the Abati and of the Macci; of the Amieri and Toschi … the Lamberti and Bachini … and the whole street of Calimala. And then attacking the houses of the Cavalcanti, it traveled round the Mercato Nuovo and consumed the Church of Santa Maria as far as the Ponte Vecchio … In fact, it destroyed much of the city of Florence, consuming a total of 1,700 palaces, towers, and houses. The loss in furniture, possessions, and goods of every kind was incalculable … and what was not burned in the fire was carried off by robbers.
Flood and fire were always risks in the Arno River Valley, but now those dangers threatened thousands of people.
The uncertainties of medieval agriculture made famine a constant threat, especially in so large a city whose population out-stripped the ability of the surrounding countryside to feed it.
Distribution of emergency grain rations at Orsanmichele; note the conspicuous presence of armed guards.
Our guide to 14th century Florence, Giovanni Villani, writes about the effects of a particularly severe famine that struck all of Tuscany in 1329 which drove grain prices up as much as 500% putting it out of the reach of Florence’s large proletarian population already living on the edge of starvation. The Florentine government purchased a large shipment of Sicilian grain to feed its population, hoping to prevent unrest.
In spite of all the government did, the agitation of the people at the market of Orsanmichele [the city’s grain market and public granary, as well as a shrine containing a miracle-working image of the Virgin and Child] was so great that it was necessary to protect the officials by means of guards fitted out with ax and block to punish rioters on the spot with loss of hands or feet.
And in mitigation of the famine the Commune of Florence spent in those two years [1329 – 1331] more than sixty thousand gold Florins. Finally, it was decided not to go on selling the grain in the piazza but to requisition the bakers’ ovens for the baking of bread in order to sell it on the following morning in three or four shops in every sesto [city precinct] at four pennies for the loaf of six ounces. This arrangement successfully tamed the rage of the people since wage-earners with eight to twelve pennies a day could now buy bread on which to live …’
The disasters were not all physical calamities. Florence saw the emergence of a new kind of disaster, now all too familiar to us, but quite new at the time, economic disaster.
Such a disaster struck Florence and much of northern Italy in 1339 when King Edward III decided to default on the huge sums he borrowed from Florentine bankers, especially the Bardi, to pay for his war on France. Isolated and impoverished England could not even begin to pay the interest or the principal on those loans. The major banking houses of Florence collapsed into bankruptcy. They all got into the extremely risky and very profitable business of lending money to governments and princes. They foolishly agreed to finance princely military adventures that carried high costs and little promise of returns. The Florentine financial industry collapsed quickly pulling the whole Florentine economy down with it. The already marginal laboring classes found themselves out of work and thrown out of their homes. Small shopkeepers who depended on the modest purchases of laborers soon joined them in the ranks of the homeless poor.
The Commune itself threatened default. It too was in the middle of an expensive war with Pisa over the possession of Lucca. That war went badly for Florence, and was costing more and more public money.
The city’s voiceless poor were left to fend for themselves. Church charities, such as they were, stretched to the breaking point to meet the need. The very idea of a social safety net was centuries into the future. Disenfranchised people made their discontent known in the only way available to them, by rioting. Deadly bread riots broke out all over the city. City militias and hired mercenaries did all they could to restore order in the city.
Economic and political desperation drove the city’s business elite, and its populace, to turn to the city’s traditional benefactors, the House of Anjou in Naples for help. They sent a dubious nobleman from a dubious noble house, Walter de Brienne, “Duke” of Athens, one of those duchies created in the Fourth Crusade. The desperate business elite, frightened by the violence of the even more desperate poor, hoped the Duke of Athens would bring some kind of order, and put the war with Pisa back on the path of success, or bring it to some kind of end. The city’s huge poor population hoped the Duke would bring some kind of relief to their plight. The Commune’s governors decided to make the Duke Capitano della Guerra (Captain of War) for one year. The office was a kind of emergency dictatorship modeled on Roman law. Rioters filled the Piazza della Signoria and loudly shouted a vita! a vita! (for life! for life!). Bowing to threats from the mob to storm the Palazzo Publico, the governors gave in and appointed the Duke a dictator for life. The Duke with thin credentials predictably failed to deliver on inflated expectations. He did end the war with Pisa with a reasonable treaty, but he failed to bring much tangible relief to Florence’s desperate economic crisis. The same mob that made him turned on him with a vengeance. The Duke and his few remaining supporters found themselves besieged in the Palazzo Publico. The mob outside demanded his blood. The Duke shoved his chief of police with his 18-year-old son out the front door to negotiate with the mob. Giovanni Villani describes the horrific events that followed.
In the presence of the father and for his greater sorrow they first dismembered the son, cutting him into small bits; and this done, they did the same to the father. And one planted a piece of flesh on a lance and another on a sword, and in this manner they made the rounds of the city. And some there were so cruel and possessed of such bestial fury that they ate of the raw flesh.’
The deadliest of all threats to the newly great city was disease. Plagues of cholera, influenza, tuberculosis, and typhus visited the city’s tenements regularly in the summer months killing thousands of people. Those magnificent villas in the beautiful northern Italian countryside so celebrated in tourist guides and on cooking shows began out of grim necessity. Wealthy and powerful families built these country homes to escape the annual plagues that swept through the crowded cities in the hot summer months.
Far and away the worst catastrophe ever to strike the city of Florence was the Black Death of 1348, an outbreak of Bubonic Plague whose like was unprecedented.
Burial of the plague dead in the Flemish city of Tournai, 14th century.
Historians estimate that the Black Death carried off half the population of Florence in the summer of 1348. Whole towns and villages in the surrounding countryside were wiped out by the Plague. The crowding and filth of 14th century Florence magnified the disaster. The Plague frequently followed the great and powerful to their country estates to kill them and their staffs. The Plague killed off most of the great artists of the 14th century including both of the Lorenzetti brothers and the sculptor and architect Andrea da Pisano. Our diarist Giovanni Villani was among the victims. His last entries describe the Plague’s outbreak in Florence and end in mid sentence unfinished.
The most famous and vivid account of the Black Death in Florence is in the opening of Bocaccio’s Decameron, but there are other visible remnants still to be seen in Tuscany of the Plague’s impact.
The Sienese decided to more than double the size of their cathedral, stung by the Florentine’s recent decision to build a new cathedral that would be the biggest in Europe at the time. The Sienese intended to turn the present cathedral into transepts for a much larger cathedral.
Air view of Siena. The cathedral is in the bottom center. To the immediate right of the cathedral is the unfinished nave and facade of the aborted cathedral enlargement.
The unfinished nave and facade for the expansion of the Cathedral of Siena. The Cathedral Museum housing Duccio's Maesta occupies the brick building built in the former side aisle.
They built part of the nave and façade before work stopped abruptly because of the Black Death. The new nave and façade stand unfinished to this day. Siena remains one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Italy because it never fully recovered from the Black Death.
In the city of Pisa, there appeared on the walls of the Camposanto, the city’s medieval cemetery, a new subject in a fresco painted by an unknown artist in 1350, The Triumph of Death.
The Camposanto, Pisa
Cloister yard of the Camposanto, Pisa. The central lawn supposedly covers the mass graves of plague dead from the Black Death.
Tracery arches of the Camposanto. Pisa Cathedral appears in the background.
Cloister of the Camposanto with floor burials. The walls were once covered with frescoes. Most were destroyed in World War II. Surviving frescoes have been detached and moved to a separate gallery attached to the Camposanto.
The Triumph of Death from the Camposanto, around 1350. Scholars are still divided about who was the artist.
The Camposanto Triumph of Death photographed shortly before World War II.
The Pisa frescoes are the first versions of a subject that would spread across Europe and appear in art for the next two centuries. This is a subject that bears powerful testimony to the trauma of a disease that wiped out whole populations and claimed the healthy with the unhealthy, the young with the old, and the good with the wicked. The fresco was badly damaged by Allied bombing in World War II, and is now difficult to make out in some places. The figure of Death with a scythe makes the first appearance in art in this fresco.
Death charges the distracted young revelers, from a pre-World War II photograph of the Camposanto Triumph of Death.
The artist shows Death as an elderly mad woman with a huge scythe rushing like an oncoming train at a group of young revelers unaware of her approach.
Those fashionable young people appear elsewhere in the fresco confronting the spectacle of three corpses in open coffins in various states of decay.
The Living confront the Dead from the Camposanto Triumph of Death
The story of the Three Quick and the Three Dead makes its first appearance in art, and with it, a new morbid fascination with decay and disintegration of the flesh that is not exactly religious. Nearby is a pile of corpses from people of all classes, vomiting up their souls as they expire.
Devils snatch the souls vomited up by the dying from the Camposanto Triumph of Death.
Angels and devils battle over the souls of the recently deceased from the Camposanto Triumph of Death.
Angels and devils fight each other for the souls of the recently deceased.
This fresco expresses the terror, the anger, and the resentment that lingered long after the Black Death ceased.
In Tuscany, as in the rest of Europe, a frightened and angry religious reaction took hold. Early medieval beliefs and attitudes long dormant returned with a passion. The old idea of the spirit world as a battleground between God and the devil for people’s souls returned. Ideas of the terrible end of the world with Christ as the Final Judge with No Appeal, the terrors of damnation and hell, the terror of dying unprepared, ideas that have more in common with the 11th century than with the 13th or 14th centuries return. Near the fresco of the Triumph of Death in Pisa is another contemporary set of frescoes of the Last Judgment discarding the comparative optimism of Giotto’s vision of the subject in the Arena Chapel in Padua from 40 years before for a frightening image of Christ turning to dramatically cast the damned into hell.
The Last Judgment from the Camposanto, about 1350
The lower half of the fresco shows devils dragging away the terrified and despairing damned. Angels beat back those trying to escape. The entire adjacent wall contains one of the most violent hell scenes ever painted, inspired by Dante’s vision of a rational organized hell, but much more violent and crowded.
Hell, detail, from the Camposanto, about 1350
Satan from the Camposanto Hell.
The damned endure tortures and degradations of unspeakable cruelty presided over by a monstrous Satan with green skin covered in black boils chewing on the souls of the damned in his three mouths as Dante describes him. The optimism, humanity, and compassion articulated so eloquently by Giotto in his work now lie completely discarded and forgotten in the fright and bitterness left by catastrophe.
Pisa and Siena never really recovered. Florence did.