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Florence and the Plague

In its February 20 issue, the London Review of Books reviewed Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in An Early Modern City by John Henderson. The reviewer, Erin Maglaque, observed that not only was it the poor who were worst impacted, but it was also they who were most blamed for the spread:

Along with the poor, other marginalized groups were thought to be ‘inclined towards putrefaction.’ Jews, feared ‘because of the appalling smell which arises from all their bodies,’ were locked in the ghetto. Prostitutes were also targeted by the Sanita: the excessive heat generated by sex was said to corrupt the body, rendering it vulnerable to infection. . . In the eyes of the city’s magistrates, the poor were both victims and criminals, defenseless in the face of infection but also walking, breathing, dancing vectors of contagion.

This is only one element of the book’s argument, however. Henderson, the author, is also an advocate for a “more nuanced approach to the experience of epidemic disease than simply an opposition of the rich and poor.” He hopes to provide a “lively and at times heart-rending discussion and analysis of what it was like to live through a major epidemic.” Though its style is, at times, more academic, Florence Under Siege is well worth reading. Naturally, there are many eerie parallels with what’s happening in northern Italy right now.

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