Undergraduate Seminar: The Black Death and Beyond: Art and Plague in Early Modern Italy
The plague first appeared in Western Europe during the so-called Black Death of 1348–53, which resulted in the death of approximately 75–200 million people—half the population of the continent. For the next four hundred years, outbreaks of plague continued to spring up throughout Europe, becoming an unpredictable threat that required vigilance and management. This seminar will explore the crucial role played by works of art in the "culture of plague." We will investigate how plague was represented in visual art in Italian cities from 1348 to the mid-18th century, focusing on the various ways in which art was used to combat the disease. Prevailing medical theories and spiritual practices both emphasized the power of visual imagery to prevent disease and protect the body and soul. In this class, we will look at a variety of objects, including miraculous images, wearable amulets, anatomical prints, and graffiti scrawled on the walls of plague hospitals. Through in-class discussions, we will address the complex relationship between art and plague. What were some of the ways in which art was used to heal? Why were some forms of architecture considered "healthier" than others? Through what methods did civic and religious authorities control bodies during plague epidemics, and how did people regain control during destabilizing times? The global pandemic of COVID-19 has changed the rhythm of life worldwide, causing us all to adapt to new ways of getting things done. Though early modern plague and modern coronavirus have entirely different etiologies, parallels can be drawn between the proactive solutions we use now in disease prevention and management and those employed in Italy during the past. Many of the methods we use today to control outbreaks of infectious disease—from quarantine to travel bans—got their start in Italy during the 15th century.
Course Readings: Available through Canvas.
HISTART Distribution Requirements: 2. Medieval, 3. Early Modern, D. Europe and the US.