What Would Boccaccio Say About COVID-19? - Paula Findlen

The plague haunts our imagination as an indelible memory. Yet few of us have any experience of it, even as epidemiologists have noted an uptick in the number of cases in the last few decades to around some two thousand each year.

We know the plague best, of course, through the lens of the Black Death, the infamous outbreak of plague that peaked in the mid fourteenth century. The scourge affected most of Eurasia and North Africa, and may have reached as far as sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean. But some of the most vivid documentation of the devastation it wrought comes from European cities such as Florence, where the fourteenth-century humanist Giovanni Boccaccio had a front-row seat to the most fatal pandemic in recorded human history. There the Black Death left its mark on everything to such a degree that one could speak of a time before plague, and a time after.

I have friends in Florence, now cautiously venturing out into the semi-vacant streets of this normally crowded city for their weekly grocery runs, at home trying to educate and engage their kids, hunkering down in the semi-isolation of dormant research institutes inhabiting the villas of surrounding hill towns. The study abroad students have long gone home, and the tourists sure aren’t coming. Like so many places under COVID-19 quarantine, Florence has become strangely quiet. The modern inhabitants of this quintessential Renaissance city feel that we have indeed gone back to a past that partly began there.

In 1348 Boccaccio’s world changed abruptly and dramatically. The illegitimate son of a wealthy Florentine merchant, he was a struggling writer and sometime commercial agent in his mid-thirties, desperately trying to establish his independence from his father and hoping that he had mostly left Florence behind. He was probably not there but when the “deadly pestilence” arrived in his native city but returned in the aftermath. At least a third of the population died, including his father and stepmother, leaving him to deal with the chaos of lives interrupted.


*Boccaccio talking with other Florentines who fled the plague, from a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Decameron