Everyone has heard of the Black Death (1347-1352) and of the twenty five million victims it left in its wake throughout Europe. Not many people are aware—these are but a few, randomly chosen examples among hundreds—that there were also epidemics of bubonic plague in London in 1563; in Venice from 1575 to 1577; in Milan in 1576; in Northern Italy from1629 to 1631 (it left a million dead out of four million inhabitants). The 1647 plague in Seville killed 60,000 victims, some 50% of the city’s population; the plague in Naples in 1656 killed 240,000 of a population of 400,000. The plague was in Genoa that same year, and in London in 1665 when it killed 100,000, or about 25% of the population. At least 70,000 died in Vienna in the plague of 1679. The last great plague in western Europe started in Marseilles in 1720, spread throughout Provence and sent 100,000 souls to their grave.
The Modern Era is, for the West, the age of pestilence, principally because of the recurrence of the plague from the 14th to 17th centuries, but also marked by the appearance of syphilis, then known as the pox, in the 16th century. The 19th century was a period of recurring cholera epidemics. These incurable maladies were unknown to the Middle Ages. Considered a time of scientific and technical progress with the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, the Modern Era has in fact been a time of fear, a fear that the Middle Ages, reputed the Dark Ages par excellence, never experienced in such proportions. This ambient fear did not just involve epidemics. Starting around the end of the 14th century, famines and war, particularly the wars of religion that bloodied Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, spread everywhere across the continent. More than fear alone, the social climate was colored by a latent anguish, a fear without a real object, always present, favoring superstition, the rejection of outsiders, and the retreat into faith.
If, prior to the modern era, illness was a social referent shared by all (a simple cold could drop anybody), fear of the plague was the most terrifying of all because plague was a scourge against which absolutely nothing could be done, cutting down thousands in a matter of weeks and wiping entire towns and cities off the map. Plague was the Apocalypse made real. Once the malady had declared itself and had been formally identified by the authorities (this could take some time, since the local powers often refused to acknowledge reality for fear of panic), it brought society to the brink of collapse: helpless populations gave in to a collective stampede, and the otherwise rigid social conventions of the times vanished all at once. The plague dissolved communities, shattered social boundaries and all forms of traditional solidarity.
Side by side with the accounts and chronicles describing the dis-array and misery of the populations confronting such infections, plagues gave rise to a wealth of artistic representations that constitute a precious record of these critical periods in history. Their images give a face to fear even as they provide information about the beliefs and hopes of the men and women facing the disease.
Let us note at the outset that there exist relatively few realistic representations that show the concrete effects of the plague in the towns or countryside: no piles of rotting corpses abandoned to crows in deserted streets, barricaded houses, or carts clumsily dumping lifeless bodies into hastily dug, then quickly refilled mass graves. First, because the cities where plague was detected were generally placed under quarantine, the only known solution for containing the infection but that condemned to certain death those, usually the poorest, who had not been able to flee in time. Consequently, no one went in or out of the city, and there was certainly no hurry to send in some painter to execute a canvas in the plague-ridden streets. But also and especially because of the preference for transcending the disease by means of large altar pieces rather than paintings showing the reality of the terrible scourge. To the true face of the plague, the preference was for glorious ex-votos where the miracle worker saints reputed to have driven out the plague occupy most of the canvas, under the salutary apparition of the Virgin Mary. In such congratulatory works, painted as thanks for a grace received—namely the end of the plague—the evocation of pestilence is confined to the lower margins of the painting where a few lifeless bodies, flesh intact, are laid out in a noble, Grecian nudity. In such paintings, like those of Jacob Jordaens (Saint Charles Borromeo Giving Assistance to the Plague Victims of Milan , 1655, Antwerp, Church of Saint-Jacques) or of Sebastiano Ricci (Altar of Saint Gregory the Great, imploring the Virgin to Obtain the End of the Plague, 1700, Padua, basilica Santa Giustina), the rare plague victims at the bottom of the canvas become in fact mere attributes of the miracle worker saints, allowing the viewer to identify them and invoke their protection. Specifically, Saint Sebastian, Saint Roch and as of the 17th century, saint Charles Borromeo (an Italian archbishop, canonized after his death, who succored the people of Milan during the plague of 1576) were the principal saints implored alongside the Virgin Mary to protect plague-stricken communities.
It was during the 14th and 15th centuries – the first centuries when after an eight hundred year absence the plague reappeared in Europe– that the most morbid representations emerge, even if they don’t directly depict victims of the plague. During this period, the grimmest fatalism emerges as the 100 Years War rages on in France, famines multiply, and each year the plague runs rampant somewhere on the continent. This context provides fertile terrain for eschatological discourse, which returns emphatically in the preachments of Saint Bernard of Siena, Savonarola and of course Luther. All of them decree that the end of the world is nigh if mankind does not return to the path of righteousness and morality, the plague and the other diseases that decimate populations being invariably interpreted as divine punishments castigating the wayward. On church walls a new kind of representation appears, halfway between sacred and profane imagery, the danses macabres. An iconographic theme elaborated in the theater as well as in painting, the danse macabre brings together in a single farandole some forty characters representing all social classes, led in an endless dance by mocking skeletons. From the pope to the plowman, not excepting the emperor, the cardinal, the aristocrat, the priest and even the child, all of society is united in a singular fate: the moral is that death strikes down men and women indiscriminately, without regard for rank or wealth. The appearance of this type of imagery in the societies of the Old Regime, structured as they were in three impermeable social bodies, is the direct consequence of the brutal eruption of the plague in Europe beginning in the mid-14th century. This type of memento mori gave solace to the poor and reminded the privileged that in the face of death their prerogatives were worthless. A famous example is the Danse macabre painted by the German artist Bernt Notke in the church of Saint-Nicolas in Tallinn, Estonia, dating from the end of the fifteenth century : the surviving fragment represents the powerful—from left to right the pope, the emperor, the queen, the cardinal and the king—casting worried looks in their reluctance to enter into the dance of death.
In the following century, a vast composition executed by Tintoretto (1518-94), one of the most original painters of the Renaissance, constitutes a rare exception to the unspoken rule that holds one should not show rotting flesh in a church painting. The 16th century Venetian old master was reputed for his independence and his sometimes irascible character. The most prestigious commission of his long and fruitful career was the conception of the decor for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the most powerful of Venice’s religious brotherhoods. Made up of the laity – aristocrats, merchants, public officers – it was dedicated to saint Roch, healer of the plague. In effect, its principal charitable activity consisted in helping the sick. Between 1560 and 1580, to decorate the magnificent palazzo that the brothers had constructed for themselves in mid-century, Tintoretto painted a cycle of some thirty immense canvases to line the walls and ceilings of the vast interior rooms. Some ten years earlier, in 1549, at the behest of the brotherhood, he had already painted a six meter wide tableau to embellish the choir of the church dedicated to saint Rocco, located just across from the Scuola.
Saint Roch Healing the Plague-Stricken is a work of great originality, one of the artist’s lesser known masterpieces. It perfectly reflects the free, rebellious spirit Tintoretto possessed, an artist courted by the powerful but who knew how to place elements drawn from the observation of real life in the public commissions he received. Framed on a masterful, in-depth oblique extending from left to right that hollows out its center, the painting represents the interior of a lazaretto where the figure of Saint Roch, depicted in the middle and recognizable by his halo, works to heal plague sufferers one after another by the simple laying on of hands. The whole is bathed in an unreal chiaroscuro (the first time in his career that Tintoretto used this ambitious technique), in which shadows symbolically signify sickness and death, and light miraculous healing and salvation. In this virtual hospital that resembles a genuine court of miracles, Tintoretto succeeded in the discrete placement of several representations that were quite unconventional for the period.
At the far right, quite prominent and a head higher than all the other characters, the aged mother who holds up her sick daughter is in fact an allegory of the Plague itself: how else to explain her skeletal aspect, her emaciated body, the greenish almost livid color of her flesh, and the white hair that seems to belong to an old witch?
The allegory of the plague is on the right, but the reality of the disease is on the left: at the other extremity of the painting, three handsome figures of half-naked young men whose rhetorical gesturing makes them resemble Greco-Roman statues or models posing in the painter’s atelier (we know that Tintoretto would often recopy in his paintings small models sculpted in wax after statues by Michelangelo, Sansovino or artists from antiquity), could well appear entirely classical and not in the least realistic – after all, does one ever see beautiful young men showing off this way in a hospital? But if we look at them more closely, we notice that what they are showing us by their gestures as much if not more than with their vigorous bodies, are the marks those muscular bodies bear: the upright man, as if perched upon a pedestal, has two red buboes on his left leg; the seated one has a bubo under his armpit and another on his left thigh; the third young man lies on the floor, showing the wound on his upper arm. These are indeed the stigmata of the plague, rare wounds scattered across otherwise healthy bodies but easily identifiable because they are designated by the characters themselves. This is the art of showing while hiding; it is in such subtle “effects of the real” that Tintoretto’s genius resides.
Finally, to the left of Saint Roch, we see one of the two dead characters in the painting, a prostrate man represented in a masterful foreshortening of the perspective of receding lines created by the floor tiles. He has succumbed to the plague before the miracle worker could intervene, and to emphasize this fact the painter has judiciously placed him at Saint Roch’s back, in the darkness cast by the Saint’s shadow. The dead man’s head is almost invisible, a sign that there is no longer any hope for him. The greenish hue of his body clearly indicates the cause of his death.
Never before nor after had the plague in Venice been given a face so like the truth. By placing Saint Roch in this lugubrious hospital ward, Tintoretto succeeds in showing the illness in its clinical reality without for all that giving in to the macabre or the sordid. His painting is perfectly balanced between two extremes: he succeeds in respecting convention and not shocking the consciences of his day, exalting the strength of divine power by a sufficient idealization of the scene, even as he names and shows clearly the black death that struck Venezia Serenissima so often in the course of its history.
As with Tintoretto, in the hundreds of ex-votos placed in churches after epidemics in thanks to one or more saints for having put an end to pestilence, we see the dead victims of the plague directly, but according to a very particular vision. The artists almost never depict the emaciated, blackened bodies disfigured by plague bubos; artistic idealization and propriety decreed that the corruption of the flesh had no place within God’s sanctuary. Artists couldn’t, nor did they want to show to communities of the faithful a disease no one knew how to conquer. The dead who are depicted in order to give grace to God for having put an end to the epidemic are half naked corpses represented lying down and at rest, as if asleep. They sometimes even seem to languish in an almost sensual manner. This is the case for the stripped male bodies that figure at the bottom of the great fresco painted by Cesare Nebbia in Pavia from 1603 to 1604 that represents Charles Borromeo during the Plague in Milan in 1576, where the most prominent corpse even gives the impression that he is touching his genitals with his left hand.
In most church paintings, to make the viewer comprehend that it is indeed the plague-stricken who are shown in the lower part of these ex-votos, a generally followed convention held that painters depict one or two living characters kneeling next to the lifeless bodies, and holding their noses to protect themselves from the fetid stench of decomposing corpses. A good example of this is the large picture of the Flemish painter Jacob van Oost the younger, representing Saint Macaire of Ghent, assisting the plague-stricken (1673, Musée du Louvre). The few dead piled up in the lower part of the tableau function as a synecdoche, the part for the whole: there has to be at least one dead man and one dead woman along with a child who is sometimes depicted as dead, sometimes still living.
In the latter case, the child is seen weeping over the breast of its mother, now forever cold and emaciated (nursing was generally understood as an allegory of abundance; its negative image here functions as a symbol of misery and destitution). These few characters of different age and sex serve as a representation of all who have been struck dead by the epidemic.
There was another way for artists to evoke the plague in addition to the large church paintings, or in city views of plague devastation, those documentary representations that most painters were reluctant to execute (until the 19th century, and except in the low countries, urban views were considered a minor artistic genre in Europe). Painters instead referenced ancient history. The Bible episode known as “The Plague of Ashdod” from the first book of Samuel, was on several occasions a source for artists. The story recounts how the Philistines conquered the Israelites at Afek and stole the Arc of the Covenant that holds the tablets of the Law. They dared set the Ark in the temple of their god Dagon, which provoked the wrath of Yaweh: his divine anger shattered the statue of Dagon and the Philistines were then struck down and decimated by pestilence.
A celebrated example of the subject is the painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the great exponent of classicism. In it we find once more the same expedients used in altar pieces for the depiction of disease: in the foreground lies a dead woman, her two naked children weeping by her side and left completely to their own devices while two men, still alive, hold their hands to their noses because of the stench. Two other men in the background carry a dead man to burial in a pose that recalls the burial of Christ; they represent the monatti: young men charged with ridding the streets of cadavers during the plagues in Italy. The canvas can be interpreted with reference to Stoicism, the philosophical doctrine dear to Poussin, as a reflection on hubris: men are punished by God for their arrogance. But the work, painted by the French artist in Rome around 1630, also refers to the situation of the times: Northern Italy experienced in that very year the most terrible plague epidemic in its history.
It is in fact in Italy that we encounter the largest number of representations of plague in the Modern Era. The reasons for this are straight forward : because of the warm Mediterranean climate, epidemics of bubonic plague had a greater chance of arising in Italy than in Northern Europe. Italy also boasted at that time Europe’s largest urban civilization: as of the end of the 16th century many of its cities approached or surpassed populations of 100,000. And the majority of those cities are vast ports, opening onto the sea and the East. They are ports of entry for a thousand riches, but also a thousand diseases, often originating in the Middle East or in Asia. Thus we find Venice struck by the plague in 1575, Milan in 1576-1577, Venice and Milan again and together in 1630, Naples, Genoa and Rome in 1656. As these cities are also great cultural centers, historical or allegorical evocations of the episodes of plague that devastated them abound: altar pieces in the churches that serve both as ex-voto and memento mori , but also highly interesting documentary representations depicting cities in quarantine left to fend for themselves.
Micco Spadaro (1609-1675) is a painter of the Neapolitan school whose works relate important events that the city experienced in the 17th century. He has left us one of the very rare contemporary representations of the plague that struck down Naples and Southern Italy in 1656, a bird’s eye view representing the Piazza Mercatello in Naples (known today as the Piazza Dante) during the epidemic. If the painting seems realistic on first sight, the truth is that it brings together in the same space a great number of various small scenes that condense all kinds of behavior in a population forcibly confined in the city. The general effect sought is one of confusion and overcrowding: a plastic confusion expressed by the tangling up of the bodies of the dead or still living completely fills the space, which reflects the real disarray that the Plague provoked in the organization of the city. In the painting, representatives of all social classes meet in a jumble; we see aristocrats, bourgeois, commoners; the dying are thrown together with the already dead; children whose parents have been taken by the disease wander aimlessly; thefts are committed, brawls break out, while in the foreground nobles mounted on horseback are trying to flee the scene and pass through city gates that can close at any moment and trap the population within. The canvas is a sort of concentrate of the consequences of the plague and its derangement of the social order. There is but one hopeful note: the apparition—a most discrete one, to be sure—of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in the heavens. Only the cupola of the church on the left rises high enough into the blue sky to escape the miasma. In a time when medicine was notoriously incompetent, religion became the sole refuge.
A similar vision can be found from Domenico Fiasella (1589-1669), a Genovese painter who left us an image of that same 1656 outbreak of the plague that struck Genoa and felled a significant part of the population. Here the register is hybrid; that is, the painting is at once a realist representation as well as an allegory, since in the middle of the city of which certain monuments like the high lighthouse that dominates the port are recognizable (left background), Death’s chariot crosses the ravaged streets. It is driven by a very rare personification of the plague, depicted here as a livid woman with gaunt breasts. Standing at the rear of the cart a skeletal Death cuts down the dying. The devil hovers over the scene, pouring from his cauldron the lava of hell over the masses: in contrast with Micco Spadaro’s Neapolitan painting, there is no remission here, no divine assistance, no hope whatsoever. Fiasella’s vision is particularly bleak. In the scenes depicted we find expressed the worst of humanity: among the dead and dying we can clearly see on the left edge a man who has stolen a bulging purse who is trying stealthily to make his way out of the image field.
In a small museum in Florence one can admire what is certainly the most striking representation ever given of the black death. It is not the work of a painter, but a sculptor–and of a most unexpected kind: a sculptor in wax. His name is Gaetano Zumbo (1656-1701). Of Sicilian origin, he had attached himself to the service of the Grand-duke of Tuscany, for whom he produced wax anatomical dioramas whose realism is so striking that his contemporaries thought they were looking at the real thing. Zumbo was so acclaimed in his day for his “inventions” that Louis XIV granted him a monopoly on wax anatomical creations and he settled in France, in Marseilles, where he died in 1701. His diorama entitled The Plague(modeled circa 1690) is a three dimensional work, a kind of intimate theatrical scene full of characters sculpted in relief against a backdrop that serves as a screen.
We see here the monatto, or “street cleaner,” a vigorous youth charged with collecting lifeless bodies and piling them on the tumbrils sent off to the mass graves: the sole living character, he is distinguished by his tanned, almost red skin color, which serves to connote his vitality in opposition to the deceased, but also by the cloth mask that protects his nose. The flesh of the stacked bodies, partly or entirely naked, are greenish, livid, brown, jaundiced: the colors merge until the bodies resemble a pile of decomposing garbage in the process of rotting and recombining. You can almost feel the exhalations of rotten flesh, the sticky stench of death mingling with the reek of the mass graves where corpses are being burned because they can no longer be buried in the pits overflowing with the dead. It is a pathetic concentrate of the horrors of the plague, sordid in its overall vision, but anatomically correct in the representation of the bodies, even if the muscles seem too exaggerated. It testifies to Zumbo’s anatomical training and his perfect knowledge of myology.
The works of Zumbo held in Florence aroused great curiosity among the writers and intellectuals who discovered them in their chance wanderings around the city of the Medicis, for example the Goncourt brothers who said of them: “their reduced size removes the horror of these horrors, and confers upon them something of the character of toys.” Earlier, the Marquis de Sade described Zumbo’s Plague in his novel Juliette as follows:
Wax is so malleable that it allows the sculptor to attain a natural-ism and an illusionism that are almost painful to the eye, simultaneously using the three dimensions proper to sculpture and the color habitually reserved to painting. It is because wax is so perfectly mimetic that it disturbs; for this reason and no other, it is the material used for the troubling reconstitutions in the Musée Grévin and Madame Tussaud’s.
We close this rapid overview with two works dating from the nineteenth century. At that time, the plague had disappeared from Europe but it still raged in the Middle East, and Bonaparte’s army ran into it in 1799 at Jaffa during the expedition to Egypt. Several French soldiers contracted the disease. To sustain the morale of his troops, the General visited the lazaretto where the dying were sequestered. Bonaparte becomes Napoleon I in 1804, the same year when Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), one of the regime’s official painters, receives a commission for an immense canvas representing the General’s visit to the plague-stricken in Jaffa five years earlier. In this enormous, seven meter wide machine, the future first consul appears in the middle of the composition as a glorious miracle healer, laying his hand upon a sufferer in a clear echo of the belief that held that the kings of France could cure scrofula2. With this propagandistic image, the new sovereign attempts to position himself in the lineage of the Capetian monarchs and to legitimize his own dynasty, so recently installed on the vacant throne of France. In reality, Bonaparte’s visit to the lazaretto in Jaffa lasted no more than a few moments; it is documented that he did not get anywhere near a plague sufferer.
At the other extreme from this political vision of the plague, and at the other end of the century, the Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) provides a very personal allegorical vision of the Black Death. The canvas entitled The Plague was painted in 1898 at the end of his life. The artist, who had survived typhoid fever and had lost several of his children to various diseases, seems to cast a jaded, fatalistic eye upon his own existence. The painting takes its place in a very strong artistic tradition (think of Dürer’s apocalyptic engravings). It stands out because of its sober palette in which faded, dull colors dominate. At the entrance to a devastated street that is deployed in depth, a gaunt woman with vacant pupils and greenish skin, dressed in black and carrying the scythe of the Grim Reaper, rides a sort of dragon or bat-winged vulture. This personification of the plague fills most of the image field, closing off perspective, preventing the viewer’s gaze from fleeing. Böcklin informs us in this way that it is impossible to escape the scourge of the Black Death. Beneath the hideous creature we find once more the classical visual synecdoche used to condense a whole family into three characters: a young woman, a mature woman and a man with grey hair. The work’s originality resides in the color treatment of its characters, which gives them a symbolic charge: the young woman is dressed in red, a symbol of spilled blood but of vitality as well. She weeps over her dead mother, who is lying in the street dressed entirely in white like the Virgin Mary or an innocent vestal. The elderly father, his back against the wall, his skin tanned by age and disease, gives himself up to the morbid breath of the vulture. Is the figure of the old man ready to allow himself to be carried off by death? Is Böcklin representing himself, broken but more than anything resigned to the end of an existence marked by the successive disappearances of many of his family members? The artist died three years after completing this painting, which was paradoxically executed at a time when medicine had finally learned how to treat this terrible disease.
Today, even if it has long since been eradicated, the bubonic plague still remains a powerful reference in our society, present in the collective imagination, a sign of the stigmata it has impressed onto western mentalities through the centuries of its reign over impotent cities. References to the plague persist in our language even though the disease was conquered ages ago. In French, we continue to call an intractable person (often a woman) “une peste”; we say of someone who has been shunned that he is “un pestiféré.” One can even “pester” (rant, rage) against an exasperating individual and curse him saying “peste soit de lui!” (a pox upon him!).
Will the coronavirus that is raging now have the same fate as the black death in our collective artistic imagination? Will it be a source of inspiration for artists in whose work we expect to find the reflection of the passions and fears of society? Nothing is less certain. Putting aside its lethality, which is clearly a hundred times lesser, the principal difference between coronavirus and the plague is that the epidemic that has brought the world to a standstill over recent months has no face. In 2020 medical progress has meant that we don’t see the sick; everything takes place in hospitals, in closed rooms, away from our gaze. Once, city streets were just full of corpses; today they’re just empty. The true face of the coronavirus is loneliness, the solitude of confinement and social distancing. A parenthesis of silence in our busy lives: that, perhaps, is what artists will recount and retain from this abnormal period in the habitus2 of modern humans, who are no longer familiar with the shadow of death—and all the more fearful of its menace.
TRANSLATED BY JOHN ANZALONE