In this multi-part summer series, the Italian Tribune will look at the effect that the 14th century Black Death had on Italy and the Renaissance that followed much later.
Nearly seven centuries ago, the Black Death (1347-1350) devastated the populations of Europe and Asia and brought an unprecedented degree of human tragedy to Italy. It not only shook Italian society but transformed it. The Black Death marked an end of an era in Italy, with an impact that was so profound it resulted in wide-ranging social, economic, cultural and religious changes. These changes, both directly and indirectly, led to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture and literature in human history.
The 14th century saw a series of catastrophes that caused the European economy to go into a deep recession. Climate also played a significant role. The period of warm weather throughout Europe was ending and the transition to what is called the ‘Little Ice Age’ began. The reduction in temperatures caused a significant decline in agricultural production leading to repeated famines. This condition was worsened by the rapid population growth of the earlier era. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France disrupted trade throughout northwest Europe, but significantly affected the banks of Italy. Most notably, in 1345, when King Edward III of England repudiated his debts, it contributed to the collapse of the two largest Florentine banks – Bardi and Peruzzi. In the East, war was also disrupting trade routes, as the Ottoman Empire began to expand throughout the region.
The Black Death spread to Italy from modern-day Russia. Genoese merchants unwittingly spread the plague while fleeing a Mongol attack that had taken place at the merchant’s trading post in Crimea. The plague was carried and spread by the fleas that lived on the black rat and were brought to Italy on the Genoese ships. The population of Italy was ill prepared for the spread of the disease. There had been a series of famines beginning in 1341, with food shortages remaining a problem for years thereafter. This left much of the population weak and vulnerable to disease. Furthermore, the population did not have any natural resistance to the disease. Italy was the most urbanized society in Europe with the cities of Milan, Rome, Florence and Venice among the largest on the continent.
The majority of the urban population in cities such as Naples were impoverished and lived in squalid conditions. These factors ensured that the disease spread quickly and that there was a high level of mortality, especially among the poor, although even the wealthy could not escape the plague. From the cities, the plague spread like wildfire to the small towns and villages of the peninsula.
There is no firm data on the impact of the plague on the population of Italy. Remember, at that time the peninsula was fragmented into the Holy Roman Empire as a collection of imperial fiefs, including the Savoyard State (the House of Savoy) and Duchies of Tuscany, Milan, Parma and Mantua. There were also the independent republics of Genoa and Venice, as well as the Papal States. The latter covered most of the modern Italian regions of Lazio, Marche, Umbria and Emilia Romagna, as well as portions of Campania. In the south, the area was dominated by the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily.
Numerous examples show the full extent of the disease in Italy. The plague halved the population of Florence, reducing the population from approximately 100,000 to 50,000. The effect of the plague also created what historians describe as an hourglass effect on the population. It ravaged many who were in their prime, leaving behind the young and the old. By the end of the plague in 1350, more than 15 percent of Florence’s population was over the age of 60. The experience of Florence was replicated across all the major cities of Italy which also experienced similar drastic declines. The death rate in rural Italy was not nearly as high, but there was a significant loss of life. In general, the total population of Italy is estimated to have dropped by one third.
The Black Death was also an economic crisis as trade ceased because of fear of the spread of disease. As trade stagnated, businesses failed and unemployment rose. The plague caused a complete social breakdown in many areas. In 1353, Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) wrote in his collection of novellas entitled “The Decameron” that some people would abandon their occupations, ignore the sick and resort to lives of wild excess, as if expecting everyone to perish by the scourge of the plague.
The Rise of Humanism
Directly in opposition to the excesses described by Boccaccio was the concept of the strength of the individual, rising above the tragedies of life to contribute to society by bettering oneself. Rather than accepting the injustices as God’s will, humanists sought to do something about it. The social consequences of the plague on society came to be profound. Economically, the high mortality rate resulted in a drastic decline in the labor force. The contrast between the results in northern and southern Italy were stark. In the north, workers were empowered as wages rose and as a necessity, the reduced work force resulted in the development of labor saving devices. The survivors of the Black Death generally had a higher standard of living than before the plague. In the north of Italy, where good farmland was plentiful and wages increased, the last vestiges of feudalism disappeared as serfs were finally able to purchase their freedom.
In the south, the opposite occurred. Since the days of the Norman kings, the aristocracy had been consolidating feudalism. After the Black Death, the elite responded to the labor shortages by strengthening the restrictions on the peasants and thereby strengthened feudalism in southern Italy.
The noble families of northern Italy suffered in a different way than the other classes as a result of the plague. In the aftermath of the epidemic, they found themselves with serious financial difficulties. The loss of population meant that there was no longer a high demand for their land and rents fell. In some cases, laborers simply left the land and were not replaced. Many of the nobility found themselves obliged to sell serfs their freedom or to sell land to merchants from the cities. At this time, many wealthy merchants purchased new estates. The demise of the traditional aristocracy meant that a new elite came to the fore, composed of merchants and self-made men. Humanism had arrived in Italy.
In Part II of this series, we will look at the impact of the Black Plague on the Church and art.