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17th-century Florence: When lockdown became the template to fight pandemics

The 1720 Plague at the French port of Marseille
The 1720 Plague at the French port of Marseille © Michel Serre

With no vaccine or therapeutic drugs available against Covid-19, confinement and quarantine have been the prominent and proven measures taken across the world to contain the pandemic. This scenario, though new to most of us, has played out multiple times over the past few centuries.


Perhaps the first time in history that lockdown measures were used as a part of an organised response against health emergencies was during the plague outbreaks in Italy in the Renaissance period.

"Plague is often portrayed as having provided a template for public health, with some of the main strategies developed in the Renaissance and early modern periods as models for later policies," writes John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History at Birkbeck, University of London, in Florence Under Siege, Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City.

"Italy has been seen central to this process, developing what have been described as the first effective plague measures."

Florence Under Seige - Surviving Plague in and Early Modern City
Florence Under Seige - Surviving Plague in and Early Modern City © John Henderson

According to Henderson, these measures emerged in Italy over the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and can be seen applied in full force during the plague in Florence in 1630-31.

And there are parallels between the Covid-19 measures of today and those in Florence almost 400 years ago.

Patient zero

One of them is the process of contact tracing and finding patient zero, employed by the authorities in Florence.

"That's a feature of many accounts of the plague in early modern Italy. They tried to identify the first person who brought the plague into the city or state and tried to track down all their contacts, who were then kept confined for forty days to their houses or in large isolation centres outside the city walls," Henderson tells RFI.

"During the total quarantine of Florentine population in early 1631, people were allowed to stand on their balconies or roofs from where they participated in mass or talked to people across the street or even sang. We have seen something similar recently with people singing songs from their balconies in Italy and Spain."

According to Henderson, there was also a considerable amount of vigilance by the health authorities to ensure people stayed home during the lockdown.

"The health boards communicated with the other cities through correspondence. Everyone was aware when plague was approaching their state, thereby enabling them to take measures," he says.

Black Death - bring out your dead
Black Death - bring out your dead © wikipedia

The other feature of public health measures at the time included setting up cordons sanitaires along the state borders in order to stop people travelling from one state to the other.

Different cities, different seasons

Plague outbreaks in Florence and other Italian cities like Milan, Verona and Venice were seasonal.

"In the case of northern Italy, the outbreak began in late 1629, got worse in the spring and summer and diminished in the autumn when the weather began getting cooler. Florence had a different seasonality, beginning in summer 1630 and was at its worst in the autumn and early winter."

The outbreak in Florence lasted for up to a year killing 12 percent of the population of 75,000 and causing significant economic hardship. "One of the main plague regulations was to cut trade with other cities. As a result, occupations relying on international commerce were completely stopped."

The economy of Florence also suffered, as it was a major centre for the textile industry. "At the time it was believed that plague was caused by corrupt or diseased air which spread from person to person. And that the disease had a sticky quality and it stuck to cloth and clothes," Henderson says.

Death striking a door the plague
Death striking a door the plague © wikipedia

In the end, the authorities decided to ban the sale of second-hand clothes, so as to make sure the clothes worn by infected people were not sold, to avoid further spreading the disease.

Compassion over repression

However, since the textile industry was central to the economy, the authorities found a compromise. "They allowed a limited number of members of the textile industry to work as long as they stayed in their workshops and didn't return home. So the economy continued working to a certain degree," Henderson explains. 

The other salient feature of the way the Florentine authorities handled the outbreak was the relatively mild system of justice. "A high percentage of the 550-odd people who broke the quarantine rules were let off with simply a few days of imprisonment or minor fines. 

Although some were punished severely, overall the system appears to have been more compassionate when compared with measures taken by some other cities, such as Milan and Rome, during the plague outbreaks in 17th-century Italy."

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