PLAGUE, PLACE AND FEAR IN EARLY MODERN FLORENCE

Nick Eckstein   University of Sydney

17thC plague coatIn the plague years of 1630-1631 the aristocratic confraternity of the Archangel Michael, nicknamed the ‘Stropiccioni’ (Zealots, or ‘Bible Thumpers’) sent pairs of its members into the streets and back-alleys of their own city in an unusual programme of ‘Visitations’.  The Visitations were recorded and constitute a remarkable resource for understanding the social and cultural role of plague in Renaissance Florence.

At least two of the objectives of my research are very different from those of recent historiography on medicine, epidemiology and plague relief. The first is to demonstrate how fear of plague influenced governmental and upper-class perceptions of the Florentine urban environment. The second, wider, aim is to advance scholarship on early-modern neighbourhood and community. It will do this in an innovative way by shedding new light on an inherently spatial, geometrically inflected discourse that informed Florentine understanding and use of the city over a long period.

I treat the Visitations, and a range of comparable sources, as evidence of a symbolic cultural performance in which citizens defined, constructed and reinvented their relationship to places, spaces and their fellow inhabitants. This analysis will create new insight on major themes including:

• The impact of disease on contemporary perception of urban space and the city at large;

• Aristocratic perceptions of the poor, sick, and underprivileged;

• Fears of lower-class disorder and unrest;

• The relationship between the charitable mission of Florentine confraternities, civic identity and contemporary constructions of community;

• Continuities and discontinuities in the discursive understanding of and engagement with streets, neighbourhood and micro-neighbourhood (streets, street-corners, small precincts) between the early 15th and 17th centuries.

The research for this project is in its early stages. I will be carrying out a significant amount of the necessary archival work during 2014 with the aim of having the book completed in 2016.

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