At a certain point while serving as Florentine ambassador to Venice, with the bubonic plague of 1630 raging all around him, Ippolito Buondelmonti asks his superiors (not very directly, of course) whether he might be allowed to pack up and leave before danger turned to tragedy--not only for the Venetians but for him. Whether he was fully aware of the situation back home at this point is anybody’s guess. Plague had already arrived there and elsewhere, so escape would not be easy even if allowed. In the event, Buondelmonti remained at his post, busily writing letters under lockdown, until the danger passed and both cities were healthy again.
Here in Florence where the IRC-funded EURONEWS project (www.euronewsproject.org) digs avidly into the paper trail left by the lost worlds of early modern news, we were fortunate to have digitized thousands of documents before the libraries and archives closed in March until further notice due to COVID-19. So although carried out in peoples’ homes for the moment and coordinated by our online platform and team communications network, the research continues to unearth hundreds of examples and cases to serve as the basis for a new history of the birth of news, integrating the center with the periphery of Europe and redefining which is which.
Buondelmonti no doubt imagined a sojourn in La Serenissima during which the business of diplomacy in the ongoing Thirty Years War, including key Medici dynastic interests in the duchy of Mantua, would be carried on amid the famously lavish party scene, located wherever arts and culture met the joy of life within the ornate gothic constructions along the canals and around the open spaces of the maritime setting. Instead, here he was grasping for words to describe the indescribable and trying to remind those back home that he was not dead yet.
What is less known about Buondelmonti is that, apart from his sometimes daily dispatches addressed to Ferdinando II de’ Medici and the grand ducal secretary Balì Cioli, he also authored the anonymous weekly manuscript sheets known as the Venice Newsletter (Avvisi di Veneza) and containing whatever he and his informants regarded as worth transmitting about current events, addressed not only to the grand ducal court but also to a wider public of officials, ministers and assorted subscribers throughout Italy and beyond. In his zeal to pack his sheets with the best information about the widest range of topics, he even managed to raise a few hackles, as when the secretary complained that too many people were seeing the sheets, to which he replied that information involved a quid pro quo: and the more you gave the more you got.
The original sheets that arrived at their many destinations have not yet been traced, but Buondelmonti himself assured his own legacy. Copied up in a fine hand and bound in six neat fascicles at the end of his tour of duty in 1633 as a reminder about his achievements, the newsletters, all 170 of them, now exist in the Florence State Archive, where we consulted them in the months prior to lockdown and now work on their digital surrogates. Together they constitute a testimony to the author’s triumph over adversity as well as an unsurpassed record of one of the most colossal disasters of early modern times.
Not by choice, Buondelmonti was an eyewitness to history seeming to repeat itself in Northern Italy. Plague was back, over a half-century after the 1576 outbreak that the architect Andrea Palladio had commemorated by building the Church of the Redeemer and that modern Venetians now remember yearly by a solemn promenade. Local memories went even further, to the Black Death in the late Middle Ages, so the first signs of contagion hit an open wound, with familiar effects, first sparking disbelief, then eventually dread followed by despair.
The plague of 1630 would eventually take more than a third of the city’s population, roughly equal to the number in the 1576 plague, and neighbouring cities were similarly hit. Strangely, Florence was hit more by the plague of bad news than by the bacterium itself. Did the reason have to do with the relatively timely and successful deployment of the Boards of Health instituted in the sixteenth century, and recently analysed by John Henderson? For whatever reason, the city eventually shed, we hesitate to say “only,” some 15 percent of inhabitants.
In nearby Milan, local events of the 1630 plague eventually inspired one of the great novels of the nineteenth century, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, where the backdrop of the main story is a contagion for which the necessary deflection of responsibility away from constituted authority involves innocent scapegoats accused of spreading poisons around the city, with officials incriminating the most vulnerable putative instruments of divine providence, centuries before the discovery of rat fleas and the bacillus Yersinia pestis.
Reading through the newsletters we observe how foreign affairs gradually recede from view as health issues take centre stage. Still in early April the news is about Pinerolo surrendering to the French, the duke of Savoy skimping on military provisions, et cetera, only then following up with news of plague in Milan as well as in Verona. But by October, with the Venice plague in full swing, we hear that “shops are closing, and the merchants are fleeing the city; it is estimated that over the last 10 days there are 50 thousand people fewer. Public squares “once full of dealmaking and people, now appear empty, and there is practically no one, and the same goes for the streets, especially those that were most crowded.” Only bakeries seem to be staying open, perhaps in fear of penalties from the Health Board; and they have taken special precautions such that “in these conditions they have made certain small service counters with screens to keep buyers at a distance.”
By 2 November we read: “No description of the plague in this city could possibly convey what is actually happening…. The fear is so great that everyone feels lost. All business is gone, and almost all shops are shut; everyone stays inside and thinks of nothing except how to save their lives.” With ominous connotations regarding the similar prospect surely awaiting Florentines, Buondelmonti concludes, “this is the miserable situation of Venice.”
As 1630 gives way to 1631, reflections on the wider significance seem in order. “The plague continues to strike this city miserably, and with more fury than ever,” he points out, whereas no group was spared, however honourable, however highly placed. “Nobles and comfortable persons begin to die,” he reports indignantly in April; “and members of religious orders in their convents are infecting each other” so that “the fear is great, the calamity incredible, and all things seen and heard are pitiful trophies of death.” The only recourse seemed to be heavenly pardon and atonement, orchestrated with plutocratic flair; and thankfully, after the Senate sent a beautiful jewel-encrusted lamp worth ten thousand ducats for presentation to the Holy House of Loreto, there was a significant improvement, such that “the number of deaths was reduced to … the average for this city in healthy times,” a sign that perhaps “God will grant us total liberation.”
The official confirmation of a plague-free city would not occur for another month, but already in October 1631 Buondelmonti considered that the worst was over, remarking almost offhand, in the midst of unrelated matters, “nobody talks about the plague any more since we are healthy,” and as often as not, the following newsletters begin by confirming that “nothing of note has happened this week.” Behind the nearly audible sigh of relief was the sense that life had suddenly become less interesting--in a good way.
The long view here tends almost too much to abstraction, but a few conclusions are possible. Disasters no doubt come and go, leaving behind a trail of compassion crossed by incomprehension; and as Giulia Calvi has sagely noted in regard to the very events we have been talking about, plague narratives, like all accounts of catastrophe, share a particular form, to which all adhere with variations to suit the local circumstances. In the case in point, the argumentative structure inevitably bears elements of the following: something terrible has happened; causes are being sought; attempts are made to put things right not only for the present but for the future. Life eventually returns to some kind of normalcy, more or less different from the status quo ante. Then comes the questioning: could we have done it better?
John Henderson. Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City. Yale University Press, 2019
Giulia Calvi. Histories of a Plague Year. The social and the imaginary in Baroque Florence. Tr. Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan Jr. University of California Press, 1989.