The Lasting Consequences of Plague in Siena
Ryan S. Davis
In the mid 14th century, Italy was not Italy as we know it today. The peninsula was broken into city-states, where independent oligarchies controlled by the wealthy made laws for each of their areas. Tuscany, in northern Italy, was the economic capital of the world. Florence, Siena, and Milan flourished both in prosperity through control of eastern trade to its northern neighbors, and broad taxation of its citizenry (Benedictow, 2004). Some postulate that this was the birthplace of the free-market economy. People could buy, sell, and trade in almost any manner that they preferred; the reigning government took their cut off of the top of each deal. Each was extremely urbanized for the time, which fueled the fire for plague transmission.
Tuscany, Florence in particular, developed into a cultural dynamo harboring artists and philosophers. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, all Tuscans, developed the humanistic tradition, which planted seeds for the Italian Renaissance 50 years later. A robust rivalry between cities pushed each to develop their own traditions, and to compete with each other in any realm possible. As part of the cultural rivalry, Siena planned to expand the Duomo di Siena to become an extremely large cathedral (Nardo, 1999). In 1348, the pestilence struck these highly populated urban areas without mercy; Siena lost 30-50% of its population (Benedictow, 2004). Florence and Milan would rebound, but Siena, a thriving metropolis in 1340, died and never recovered. She limped along; her cathedral never finished; her economy never reaching its past glory; her town never reemerging as would her neighbors. Siena suffered immensely more than other Tuscan cities from the Black Death, and lost out to Florence both culturally and economically.
Before the epidemic, the city depended on the considerable agricultural prosperity of the surrounding lands. Like many other city-states, Siena bankrolled the papacy gaining on interest returns as the loans were being paid off (Adams, 1992). The local wealthy government, called the “IX”, was incredibly strong and surpassed ecclesiastical authority. Government decided taxes; government tried legal disputes; government made laws. The church was involved to an extent, but the secular government held most of the money and authority (Adams, 1992). The urbanized center, Siena itself, was economically based on the exchange of goods. These included crops from outside of the city, wool, and crafted wares (Caferro, 1994). Although the numbers vary, the population has been estimated to be from 25,000 to 47,500, as very few seem to be consistent (Bowsky, 1964). About the same number lived outside of the city in smaller towns that were governed by Siena, and had to pay taxes based on the size of their town (Bowsky, 1964).
Scholars have analyzed city records of Siena before 1348; these records indicate that Siena was experiencing economic growth at that time. Many new citizens of the city promised to build new houses within the city walls, and the walls had to be expanded in all four districts of the city to protect new inhabitants. Wars with small independent neighbors were fruitful, and the armies of Siena conquered those border regions to add territory to the state (Bowsky, 1964). These indicators of growth may have continued after the plague had it not been for Siena’s location.
However, Siena could not recover after the disease killed a large part of its urban population. It is far inland thus without a port; nor is it a major transport route from north to south (Adams, 1992). The city relied on well water, and had little surface water to exploit that could support a large population (Adams, 1992). Wars with their Florentine neighbors kept the government from accumulating an excess of wealth for civic projects. Areas that could provide an effective infrastructure for survival drew people away from Siena, and to more amenable cities. Efforts to repopulate the city after the plague failed, despite liberal laws embracing many types of individuals (Bowsky, 1964). Geographical restraints did not provide an incentive for promoting growth after the plague died down. The city did not return to pre-plague numbers until the 20thcentury (Bowsky, 1964). Conversely, other booming cities did not lack the resources to cope with rapid growth after the plague. Florence and Milan expanded their commerce as Europe began to recover, and conquered neighbor states like Siena to increase their assets, and tax base.
The economic changes related to taxation and labor became a major concern as the Black Death began to ravage the city. This was the foremost problem that had the furthest reaching effect throughout time. Although, Siena was thriving, the agricultural years of 1346 and 1347 were poor, and set the stage for calamity (Bowsky, 1964). In the summer 1348, labor was short as many poor, working class peasants died in their filthy neighborhoods that were infested with rats and fleas (Bowsky, 1964). Others fled, thinking they could outrun the disease’s steady progress. Industry, trade, and commerce were halted as even those in the IX postponed government, and took retreat in the country to avoid the disease (Bowsky, 1964). In this time period, from the end of May until the end of August, government, labor, and taxes ceased. This led to a complete absence of prosperity, and the city, like so many others of the era, suffered greatly without recovery. Eventually, the city would fall under the Medici’s of Florence, and from that time until the Italian Unification could not escape from being attached to Florence (Bowsky, 1964).
When the plague rescinded, after three months of infection on the city’s inhabitants, the social structure changed significantly. Many folks found themselves without family; others were without assets. Out of the rubble of human catastrophe, those who stole, or inherited assets became modestly wealthy. Thesenouveaux richesinfiltrated society, and chipped away at the IX’s rule until they gained seats in public office. The artisans and literates who survived ignored the IX’s orders of wage limitations and demanded enormous sums to perform skilled labor and notary work. For the first few years after the plague, Siena saw a moderate amount of economic growth. The foundations of this growth were shaky, and a decade later the government did not have enough in the treasury to keep public support. The IX was overthrown in 1355; the change in the social structure as a result of the pestilence was simply too difficult to govern.
The Tuscan city-states were very competitive about the role of cultural achievement in art and architecture as the regions were progressively patriotic at the time. Within the competition, Siena began construction on the Duomo di Siena in 1249, and it has never been finished (Nardo, 1999). A wholesale expansion project began in the early 1300’s as a response to this competition, which would have made the cathedral enormous, was halted when the plague struck (Nardo, 1999). The lack of funds, labor, and craftsmen made it impossible to pick up the work immediately after the plague, and the town never found a reason to follow up on the original plan. The duomo, as it is, has inlays of black and white marble inside and out, and was built in the Italian gothic style. Busts of popes line the walls; the pulpit, baptistery, and fountain are considered masterpieces. Many important artists were commissioned to sculpt and paint to add to the interiors motif. The duomo could be taken as a cross section of art in the city throughout the middle ages, and contains works of Michelangelo, Donatello, and Pisano (Figs. 1-3).
After the Black Death, art around the world, and in Siena, was affected in ways that related to the state of the people, and the state of the artists. Doubting a loving God, the art began to contain images of an angry, or at least indifferent, deity that was punishing people for the sins of humanity (Pollefey, 1998). Also, without a doubt, artistic ingenuity was stunted in that many practicing artists and craftsmen did not survive (Bowsky, 1964). Commissions would have been harder to come by as the depression caused by the plague left the rich with less money to use after the epidemic. Entertainment and expression were minimized by the need for survival. Like Siena, Sienese art lost out in relevance and prestige to well renowned art in Florence. Alternate interpretations of the implications of Plague on the city have been put forth.
Adams (1992) suggested that Siena’s government and infrastructure kept it stable for the last 600 years. Hence, plague in the long term did not affect the city. This cannot be true as is it was conquered by Florence in the next century, and under their rule until Italian unification (Bowsky, 1964). After the Florentines took over, Siena’s government and influence was obsolete. It is more likely a direct loss to its Tuscan neighbors that suppressed growth for centuries. They had water, dynamic trade, and a dominating government, whereas, Siena was not large or rich enough to defend itself from being gobbled up by the much larger Florence.
The case of Siena is an example of how nature can direct the events of human history, and change the course of a government and society. Pestilence limited the city’s growth, cultural expression, and military defense. Siena was known throughout Europe in 1340. By 1450, it was part of Florence. Plague struck the medieval city, and devastated it. Today, Siena has modernized slowly, with grace, and its beauty rests in its inability to recover from the pestilence 650 years ago.
- Adams, J. 1992. Economic Change in Italy in the Fourteenth Century: The Case of Siena.Journal of Economic Issues.26:125-134.
- Benedictow, O. J. 2004. The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History. Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press.
- Bowsky, W. M. 1964. The Impact of the Black Death upon Sienese Government and Society.Speculum. 39:1-34.
- Caferro, W. 1994. City and Countryside in Siena in the Second Half of the Fourteenth Century.The Journal of Economic History. 54:85-103.
- Nardo, D. 1999. The Black Death. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc.
- Pollefey, P. 1998. The Triumph of Death. Retrieved March 28, 2005. http://www.geocities.com/ppollefeys/triumph.htm