Inaugural lecture: Death in Florence. Plague, Public Health and the Poor in Early Modern Italy
On 24 May 2011, Professor Henderson gave his inaugural lecture on the following subject:
Plague is a topic of enduring fascination. As each age faces the challenge of new epidemic diseases, from cholera to tuberculosis to AIDS, SARS and Bird Flu, plague has remained a paradigm against which reactions to other epidemics have been judged. This lecture will examine plague in early modern Italy, a country which saw not just the birth of the Renaissance, but also the precocious development of public health strategies to cope with epidemic disease.
Based on a wide range of written and visual sources, I will discuss the measures taken by Italian governments to cope with plague and its impact on society. The central focus is Florence, but discussion will be framed by broader comparisons with plague policies of other Italian and European states, including England, in order to assess the effectiveness of measures such as quarantine and large-scale isolation hospitals. I shall also seek to get behind the optimistic gloss of official accounts to examine the impact of these public health policies on the life of local inhabitants. In addition to descriptions of the grim conditions in isolation hospitals, contemporary records also contain fascinating accounts of the varied reactions and activities of the poor, suggesting that they were far from being passive actors.
This, then, is an account of not just government policies, but also of the enduring strategies of survival adopted by any population during emergencies caused by natural disasters.