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La Pestilenza: True Story of ‘Black Plague’ of 1348

By Tony Mochama | October 30th 2020 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300

Plague doctors wore beak-like masks, stuffing the beak with herbs in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from the plague. [Courtesy]

However bad things are, they can get infinitely worse. And in Venezia, starting at the Ides of March as indeed they would across Europe for the next four years, they’d get so bad that most of those who survived would wish they were dead.

For with the floods and the famine, the returning traders had bought something bad within them from the Black Sea. It started with their having a continuous dry cough that wouldn’t stop. They’d cough and sweat till they spit blood and phlegm, and because this was la contagion, everyone around them was also coughing and spitting and shaking like a leaf. Soon, the entire city was heaving under a great racking of chests and breasts; and groaning with grief as people began to drop dead like flies in every household within two or three days of being taken ill.

Out on the streets, the narrow alleys and the wooden bridges that served as footpaths for the crowds, the corpses began to pile up in their numbers.

Because the breath, spittle, sweat and sh*te of the sick was so gross and disgusting and stank to the high heavens, relatives began to flee the roofs under which close and loved ones were dying, with more callous types dropping their dying bodies out of the home under cover of darkness, abandoning them to the fate of perishing alone and scared on the filthy streets. Oh Venice.

At first the Doge of Venezia, Antonio Cuomo, was too stunned to say or do anything; but after a fortnight, with the disease now on his palace doorsteps, he roused himself and ordered the streets cleared of refuse, and the sick taken out of the city walls to be tended to in the shade  of the city walls by priests, nuns, medical men, magi, magicians and other saintly sorts - frontline workers of the kind one finds every time a pandemic breaks out in any corner of the planet, in any given age, whether gilded or accursed, and causes panic and pandemonium. But that was just the first wave of the pestilence that was raining down on Europe,and that would, in the fullness of time, kill one of every two people alive on the Medieval continent.

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Something slimy and insidious had been breeding inside the vermin that had stowed away on the ships for the free ride from the port of Azov to the seaside cities of Venice and Genoa.

And in early May, as the rodents poured out in their millions to feast on the free human flesh festering on the city streets, the fleas on them leaped out in all their joyous fury onto humans.

Courtesy, Reuters.

People who had only seen the pneumonia phase of La Pestilenzia now began to experience subcataneous hemorrhages beneath the skin, these leading to blood-filled buboes that the Italians called ‘gavoccioli.’

Symptoms of the Bubonic plague

Sometimes these gavoccioli may suppurate and burst into disgusting boils of pus, leaving the survivor disfigured for life but at least still alive (as happened to the teenage doe-eyed daughter of the Doge, who had been said to be the ‘most beautiful young woman in Venezia’ (and possibly all of Italia)).

She would spend the rest of her mercilessly long life under a veil of silence in a distant convent in Cremona, her face never feeling the touch of sun again until the day she was set to flame in the first primitive crematorium of the 15th century (as a local legend sprang about her as a vampire nun, thanks to her shadowy existence and longevity).

A film called ‘Suor Omicidi’ would be made from her legend, 666 years after her death. For most folks, though, it would be a horrible immediate end - with blood oozing out of nose, eyes, ears (and other orifices) within five days, tops, from ruddy health to bed to rude death.

People took to religion with a fervour as high as their pneumonia fevers, walking the streets in processions that observed absolutely no social distancing as they beat their chests and heads, and wailed for God, Mary and Jesus to pardon them their sins; and spare them and their children from La Pestilenzia.

 Others became fatalistic, especially in the wealthier areas of Venezia, raiding the wine cellars of their departed jiranis and gathering in groups to drink and make merry with the jaded and cynical angst of those with nada to live for: ‘e la fine del Mondo.’ (it’s the end of the world),’ they said.


Black Plague Pandemic
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