The Black Death: How It Ravaged Florence

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

The bubonic plague that struck Asia and the European mainland in the 14th century was an epidemic of great proportions. It killed thousands in its wake. In the mid-1300s, the plague, also known as the Black Death, entered Europe via commercial and trading centers in the port cities on the Italian Peninsula and on the Mediterranean coast of France.

Painting showing victims of the bubonic plague.
With lack of medicines and cures, the bubonic plague wiped out a big chunk of the European population. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

As the plague invaded the Italian Peninsula, the Black Death started moving westward via land, although a bit slowly than the sea routes. As mortality rose up to 80 percent with no effective treatments or cures, many people believed that the end of days had arrived.

Onslaught of the Black Death in Florence

The city of Florence was one of the worst victims of this disease. Of all the cities in Italy, Florence was considered the crown jewel after the relocation of the papacy to Avignon in France in the early 1300s. Florence was the most advanced community in the medieval world that paved the path for the early Renaissance period.

Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.

Religious Aspect of Florentine Life

The political officials of medieval Florence believed it was important and worthwhile to sponsor works of art to beautify their city.

The city fathers held a competition to select the best artist to commission to design the famous bronze baptistery doors of the Duomo. Finally, this task was assigned to Lorenzo Ghiberti, one of the artists of the early Renaissance.

Image showing the exterior façade at the baptistery paradise gate in Florence.
Art and aesthetics were important in Florence. (Image: ArTono/Shutterstock)

The building, known as the Orsanmichele, was originally a grain market. It became a chapel specifically for the leaders of the guilds of the city. Art and aesthetics were significant to the city fathers of Florence, and they ordered each guild to commission and make payment for a statue of the patron saint of their particular guild. These statues would be placed in one of the niches all around the exterior of the chapel.

This fact demonstrates an important aspect of Florentine life, which is that this was a deeply religious Christian community and religious belief was infused in every aspect of life in Florence. This was an important consideration when the plague struck—most religious people believed that this was God’s punishment for sinful behavior.

Learn more about the Black Death’s ports of entry.

Measures to Slow Down the Spread of Plague

In all probability, the plague entered Florence through Pisa, the city with which Florence had a flourishing trading relationship. The plague invaded Pisa in late 1347 and made its way to Florence in early 1348. Florence’s city records show that by April 1348, almost 60 to 80 deaths occurred each day due to the plague.

On April 3, 1348, the city leaders took reasonable precautions to slow the spread of illness. They ordered that the clothes of all sick people and those who had died to be destroyed rather than sold or passed on to family members or friends as had usually been the case. This may seem like common sense at present times, but at a time when everything was made by hand—shirts, boots, and cloaks, especially those made from luxury fabrics—they were too valuable to simply be disposed of.

The city fathers also ordered all prostitutes out of the city. This may not have been because of the plague itself. It may have been more because of concern about moral failings, and maybe a sign that some people at the top were worried that sinful behavior had made God angry. Hence, they decided to get the sin out of the city to appease God’s wrath.

The city fathers forbade anyone from Pisa or Genoa to enter Florence in a move that demonstrates they were aware of the first entry points of the plague into Italy. If anyone was found in violation of this rule, a huge fine would be levied.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

Failure to Slow Down the Plague

Drawing showing a plague doctor's mask.
A plague doctor wore a special mask to avoid getting infected. (Image: hand draw/Shutterstock)

Despite the crucial steps taken to slow down the spread of infection, the number of deaths continued to rise.

In a move that is a further demonstration of just how advanced Florence’s political infrastructure was, on April 11, an emergency eight-person committee was established. This committee was charged with making sure the rules pertaining to steps taken to slow down the spread of the disease were enforced and that burials were carried out properly and promptly.

Unfortunately, in mid-June, the death toll rose to 100 people per day and by July and August, the best estimates show that there were 400 deaths per day from the plague. For all of 1348, it appears that the death rate was at least 20 times of what would be considered normal.

Several scholars agree that by 1352 the population of Florence had dropped to less than half of what it had been at the start of 1348. Almost 60,000 people living in the city had died, and those who did not die, fled to the countryside in large numbers, leading to further depopulation of the city.

Common Questions about the Effects of the Black Death in Florence

Q: How did the Black Death enter the European mainland?

The Black Death entered Europe via commercial and trading centers in the port cities on the Italian Peninsula and on the Mediterranean coast of France.

Q: How did the plague enter Florence?

The plague entered Florence most likely through Pisa, the city with which Florence had a flourishing trading relationship.

Q: What did the city fathers of Florence order to do with the clothes of the people infected with the plague?

The city fathers of Florence ordered that the clothes of all people infected by the plague and those who had died to be destroyed rather than sold or passed on to family members or friends.

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