“Such was the cruelty of the stars, and perhaps to some extent of men also, that between March and the following June, what with the virulence of the plague and the abandonment and neglect of many of the sick by those who were healthy but fearful, it is firmly believed that more than one hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of Florence, when it is likely that beforehand no one would have estimated that the city had so many inhabitants.”1
“There was a cold morning
When Santa Maria della Pace
seemed to whiten in shadows
And an afternoon when we looked up,
as if casually,
At the stone eagles of the Last Judgement
perched on Santa Crisogono in Trastevere.
I’ll never forget how the sky shimmered
like a bowl of light
That poured over our heads as we climbed
One hundred and twenty-four stairs—
The steep unforgiving gray stones
of Santa Maria d’Aracorli—
Built in gratitude
for deliverance from the Black Death.”2
“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancients footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”3
From Boccaccio to Edward Hirsch to Bob Dylan, writers often echo elements of times passed. Recently I have rediscovered two of these classic themes: the “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio from 1350, and the Millard Meiss essay on “Painting in Florence and Sienna After the Black Death” from 1951. These are haunting and horrifying observations from history, which have been too easily forgotten over the years. From Florence to Rome and all across Europe during those times, thousands of people were migrating to distant safe places, while even more thousands of people were dying at home.
Boccaccio made use of parables and morality tales in order to entertain and enlighten the public in the Decameron, while offering in the introduction a history and a warning for generations to come. Six hundred years later, Millard Meiss was describing the plastic process in altar pieces and frescoes of that time period. He often noted the new naturalism in certain paintings, and the movement or gesture created by these artists. Sadly however, he notes that there are no documents remaining that mention the Lorenzetti after this time, concluding that they too were victims of the Black Death.
First appearing in Florence from June to September in 1348, the Black Plague continued with resurgences in 1363 and again in 1374. During these times, the city states experienced other social, political and aesthetic developments: these included transitions from a merchant oligarchy to nobility rule, followed by revolutions against these very same nobles; business and banking failures; and painting developments with regard to looking to past classics for inspiration, or looking to the future and progress. Everything seemingly in disarray.
“…things had come to such a pass that dead human beings were treated no better than goats. It became apparent that the sheer scale of this disaster had made ignorant folk fully aware and resigned in the face of that one thing which limited and less frequent misfortunes, such as occurring the natural course of events, had not been able to teach intelligent people to endure with patience. There was not enough consecrated ground to bury the great multitude of corpses arriving at every church and almost every hour….So, when all the graves were occupied, very deep pits were dug in the churchyards, into which the new arrivals were put in their hundreds….like merchandise in the hold of a ship….”4
In the midst of all of this, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti produced their finest works, incorporating both organic form and spatial movement. Pietro was concerned with continuing in the modes of Giotto and Duccio, whilst Ambrogio was focused on the contemporary world and his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna. In either case, they advanced the path of early Italian painting.
But what can we say about writing and painting in this day and age? Do we find ourselves in a new international style, or a new dark ages, continuing to be scattered in many smaller diverse city states?
There is an early painting by a contemporary artist in Philadelphia, Sidney Goodman, that has always been an enigma to me, even from the first time I saw it years ago. It was the image of some sort of tragedy, with a few survivors going about, but not from any particular time. It could easily have been an example of, or the result of “Bad Government” during the Post War Era in the 1960’s. Or did it portend to the future? In any event, it is a terrifically staged scene in which the characters act.
When I look at the larger more populous centers such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, I often feel like they have insulated themselves from the rest of the country. However, when I think of other areas, there are a lot of artists living in isolation, social distancing, and continuing to work. These artists and writers include: Kristy Deetz and Ed Louis in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Altoon Sultan from Groton,Vermont, to Erik Johnson in Eugene, Oregon; Christa Charles and Patrick Manning in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and in Indianapolis, Carla Knopp and Steve Paddack.
One artist in particular, Maddy Weisz, from Ft. Collins, Colorado has recently created another set of stage like images, dealing with human interactions and isolations all at once. When I asked her about these paintings, this was her response:
“My paintings are derived from the thousands of photos . . . I’ve taken over the years . . . . They are not good photos by any means, but I usually find interesting people walking, interacting . . . .”
“. . . . for example the arrangement of people and things in the ‘Tiny Dancer’ painting . . . . I happen to be watching from our Hotel room in Brussels to the plaza below, and captured the little girl dancing while all the people around her were absorbed in other things.”
“I’ve been interested in the idea of stage settings for a long time, and I’m really glad you picked up on this theme. . . . I’ve been trying different formal approaches to this idea. Sometimes I have an idea about the patterning of the ground space around the figures before painting, but most of the time I let the painting evolve intuitively.”5
Finally, there is a novel by Albert Camus that describes and captures our own existential moment: a horrific viral pandemic.
A doctor, a journalist, and a friend find themselves in the midst of a mysterious virus that is sweeping the land. The friend suggests that he can set up a local sanitary squad or safety committee, in order to keep the local citizenry healthy, and to assist the doctor in his work. It started out as some men’s duty, but quickly turned into everyone’s concern. About half way through The Plague, Albert Camus sets these characters Rieux, Tarrou, and Rambert in a conversation discussing the idea of man and his courage, heroism, and decency.
“Rieux had been watching the journalist attentively. With his eye still on him, he said quietly: ‘Man isn’t an idea Rambert.’”
Rambert, jumping off of his bed declares: “Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. We must face that fact, doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no further.”
Although he was very tired, Rieux rose and responded: “You’re right, Rambert, quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to me absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you; there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”6
1 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; p. 13.
2 Hirsch, Edward; “Roman Fall” from Earthly Measures; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1999; p. 39.
3 Dylan, Bob; Writings and Drawings; A Borzoi Book, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1973; p. 299.
4 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; pp. 12-13.
5 Weisz, Maddy; “E-Mail correspondence with this writer,” 10:01 pm, 5 February 2022.
6 Camus, Albert; The Plaque; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2004; pp. 146-147.