When all roads lead to Rome no more

Screenshot 2020-03-22 at 5.17.56.png
17th century surgical face mask: the costume of a Roman physician in 1656 included ‘occhiali di christallo’ (crystal glasses) and ‘il naso pieno di profumi’ (nose stuffed with perfumes’) to avoid contagion (from a print in the British Library) 

While Coronavirus news are plaguing our media, more people seek refuge in art, culture, and history – existential stances which are ipso facto open to the future tense. Or it is precisely our right to the future tense as a society which is being questioned these days. With things becoming more uncertain each day, and more restrictions being introduced in countries around the world, we are finding it increasingly harder to conjugate our lives in the simple future. So here I am, offering a glimpse of the past as a momentary distraction from the iron bracket we find ourselves in, individually and as a society.

Our stop: Rome, 1656. We’ve recently seen images of Venice and Rome returned to a state of quiet and desertion without precedent in living memory. We’ve seen empty streets, vacant canals, cityscapes resembling out-of-scale urban planning models and cinema sets. In 1656, Rome wasn’t much different.

The great plague of the 14th century returned to Europe in the 15th century (1464, Paris; 1471/79-80, London), then in the 16th and the 17th centuries (1576, Venice; 1596, Castille, 1603, London, catching Shakespeare by surprise; 1628, France; 1629, Italy; 1647, Seville). Each time, it proved less deadly, but it was strong enough to almost kill the entire population of Naples in 1656.

In that same year, the plague arrived in Rome. Responsible for dealing with it and maintaining order was the city’s Congregazione della Sanità per liberare la città di Roma dal contagio (Congregation of Health for the liberation of the city of Rome from contagion). Working with the cardinals, Pope Alexander VII took radical measures to contain the spread of the disease. He banned all social gatherings, which, by the standards of the time, was as radical a measure as it was unprecedented. He set up a system of health passes for the movement of people and goods. Rome’s streets emptied, but there were no photographers to share the desolation.

Remarkably, the papal government proceeded to generalised isolation of the city’s population: it opened safehouses and pesthouses to quarantine and treat the sick, respectively. It kept health specialists (surgeons, physicians and barbers) in Rome, forbidding them to leave the city.

Almost immediately, Rome closed itself unto the world. Overnight, all roads ceased to lead to Rome. But Rome was spared. Around 20,000 died in Rome from the plague, compared to a staggering 150,000 in Naples at the same time.

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