The Black Death was a pandemic that swept across the Eurasian landmass devastating the populations along the way. In Italy, the plague resulted in a human tragedy that transformed the region in ways that could not be anticipated.
The Black Death arrived in the Italian peninsula via Russia, carried by Italian merchants returning to their ports along the coast. Genoa was considered one of the main points of entry and with Italy being the most urbanized society in Medieval Europe, the disease spread quickly. Like the natives in the New World ravaged from disease brought over with the arrival of European colonists, Italians suffered massive losses due to having no resistance to the plague that laid waste to the population. While there is no way to confirm exactly how many people died, estimates of a third to upwards of a half of the population in urban areas perished in the years between 1347 to 1350.
In business matters, the Black Death was an economic catastrophe. Trade stopped due to the fear of spreading the disease. With the halt in the movement of goods, businesses failed, unemployment rose, and crime and violence became more common. People walked away from their livelihoods and lived as though they expected to die tomorrow, resulting in the complete breakdown of Italian society.
The high mortality rate caused a drastic decline in the labor force. Once merchants and tradesmen began to slowly resume commerce, they realized they needed workers. Positions were difficult to fill, wages rose, and the standard of living amongst the survivors was higher than before the pandemic hit. For merchant families like the Medici of Florence, the unintended culling of the population actually turned out to be an advantage in matters of business.
Initially, the plague resulted in a religious revival as many believed the pandemic to be God’s judgment on a wicked society. Within the church, a high number of priests and monks died as the environment in which they operated was ideal for the spread of the disease with the priests’ giving of last rites to so many infected individuals. This resulted in vacancies within the church, hastening the need for Rome to recruit as quickly as possible. In too many cases this hasty recruitment process resulted in unsuitable candidates filling roles they had no business occupying. As corruption rose amongst the clergy, the laity began to rebel. The church lost the respect of believers who turned to themselves for answers to life’s questions. They could no longer rely on the church. Their futures were in their own hands.
The loss of life and suffering caused a general sense of pessimism to prevail. People realized their lives were short and fragile. Every opportunity for joy, pleasure, and happiness should be taken hold of, and many Italians sought comfort in the arts.
This awakening of individuals to their own abilities apart from the church inspired artists to look to the classical periods of Rome and Greece for guidance. The Medici family, who were, and are still considered some of the greatest patrons of the arts in history, led the wealthy classes of merchants who showed a willingness to pour a significant amount of their resources into the promotion of the arts. This movement, which came to be known as the Renaissance, revolutionized the Italian peninsula and spread throughout Europe and ultimately changed the world.
Spread of the Black Death in Europe by Flappiefh [CC BY-SA 4.0
sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Danse Macabre by Michael Wolgemut