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BLACK DEATH

 
How the Plague Changed Art History
 
 
The plague fist showed up in Italy in the late 1340s and returned with regular outbreaks for the next five hundred years. Many of Italy's  greatest painters died of plague, including the great Sienese geniuses, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Pietro Lorenzetti, who died in the first out break of 1348. Later plague epidemics took the lives of Andrea del Sarto Titian, Dosso Dossi, and the greatest Venetian genius of all time, Giorgione . The horrors of the black death pervaded all aspects of European culture,  especially art. The effects were lasting, bringing a somber darkness to visual art, literature, and music. The dreadful trauma of this era instigated the imaginations of writers and painters in bleak and disturbing ways for decades to follow. Hell, Satan and the Grim Reaper became favored subjects.
 
 When the plague first struck, Europe was emerging from the "dark ages"  trying to put unpleasant memories behind it and move on to a more enlightened era. Barbarians no longer ran rough shod, putting entire villages to the torch and slaughtering the local peasants.  Without the constant fear of invasion, art and architecture found fertile ground to grow. Gothic painters were not simply anonymous lowly craftsmen, but well respected professionals. They were held in high esteem and often interacted with clergy and wealthy patrons.  The arrival of Black death harkened in a new darker era of painting. Paintings were overflowing with tortured souls, death, dying, fire and brimstone.


 
What was the Plague?
 Bubonic plague is a bacillus, an organism, most often carried by infested rats who were plague-ridden with fleas. The infected  fleas, seeking a new blood meal jumped off their rodent hosts and leapt onto a human, biting their new victim causing infection.
 
Symptoms of the Plague

Bubonic Plague was known as the Black Death and had been known in Europe for centuries. It was a grisly sickness. The victim's skin turned purplish in places and inflamed pustules burst open spilling contagious puss on bystanders. To top it off victims also endured compulsive projectile  vomiting. This caused clergy to denounce early victims as being possessed by the devil.

After a few days or even hours plague victims became unrecognizable, grotesque monsters. The died by the millions, alone in agony, their kinsmen fleeing in terror.  Government and Clergy tried to control the catastrophe, but the disease progressed relentlessly, eventually wiping out 80 million people.


Preventing the Plague
 
Many believed that the disease was spread upon the air, So, the survivors turned to incense, fragrant oils and perfumes to ward off the deadly vapors that they believed to be causing the infection. With so many bodies piling up, if nothing else the air smelled a bit better. Towns rang church bells and held parades where all the citizens paraded through the streets banging pots and pans to drive the plague away. Gypsies, Jews, foreign travelers, and lepers were hunted down and killed as they were believed to be the carriers of the disease. Medieval entrepreneurs made a fortune selling talismans, lucky charms and enchantments. Peasants who could not afford such luxuries simply wore a necklace of garlic around their necks or crushed herbs in their pockets. People were frantic for a remedy and would try anything, no matter how peculiar or bizarre.
 
 
 Life in the Gothic Era
 
In the Gothic Era, people concentrated mainly on the church, God, and personal salvation. Life in Medieval Europe was primitive and far more difficult than that of Imperial Rome. The Average life expectancy was only 30.  Christianity provided an ethical element lacking in previous cultures.




  

Traveling in the Middle Ages was discouraged by feudal lords. Peasants were often considered the property of their overlords. Non-Christians had a particularly difficult time traveling about in Medieval Europe. According to distinguished historian Israel Abrahams, "Before leaving home, a Jewish wayfarer of the Middle Ages was bound to procure two kinds of passport. In no country in those days was freedom of motion allowed to anyone. The Jew was simply a little more hampered than others. In England, the Jew paid a feudal fine before he might cross the seas. In Spain, the system of exactions was very complete. No Jew could change his residence without a license even within his own town. But in addition to the inflictions of the Government, the Jews enacted voluntary laws of their own, forcing their brethren to obtain a congregational permit before starting."

A Medieval Song about the Plague

"A sickly season," the merchant said,
"The town I left was filled with dead,
and everywhere these queer red flies
crawled upon the corpses' eyes,
eating them away."

"Fair make you sick," the merchant said,
"They crawled upon the wine and bread.
Pale priests with oil and books,
bulging eyes and crazy looks,
dropping like the flies."

"I had to laugh," the merchant said,
"The doctors purged, and dosed, and bled;
"And proved through solemn disputation
"The cause lay in some constellation.
"Then they began to die."

"First they sneezed," the merchant said,
"And then they turned the brightest red,
Begged for water, then fell back.
With bulging eyes and face turned black,
they waited for the flies."
 

"I came away," the merchant said,
"You can't do business with the dead.
"So I've come here to ply my trade.
"You'll find this to be a fine brocade..."

And then he sneezed.

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