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  The Galileo Project > Family > Maria Celeste Galilei > Galileo's Daughter: Letters and Essays > Bubonic Plague

The Plague Epidemic in Italy, 1630-1633

by Marjorie Morrison and Bracken Kolle

There have been three great pandemics, or large epidemics, of the Bubonic Plague. The first came in the sixth century and is usually referred to as the Plague of Justinian. The second started in 1347/8 and ended in Marseilles in 1720. The third began in Mongolia in the middle of the nineteenth century. When it reached the Chinese seaports, researchers from the institutes of Louis Pasteur and Koch went there and isolated the micro-organism that causes it, namely pasteurella pestis. It eventually reached San Francisco c. 1904.

Several forms of plague ravaged various parts of Italy in the seventeenth century before leaving Europe in 1720. In 1348 the plague was pandemic in Europe; however in the 1600s the plague became endemic. The cause of the disease was present in the environment and/or animal/human population of Italy. Modern science tells us that the plague is a virulent contagious febrile disease causing a high rate of mortality. It occurs in bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic forms. The onset of the plague is marked by a chill and then a fever follows. Other symptoms include, but are not limited to, faces showing fear and/or anxiety, vomiting, thirst, unsteady gait, mental dullness, headache, hot and dry skin, and increase in respiration and pulse, petechiae, and buboes. Today an appropriate dose of antibiotics can cure people of the plague if that person receives prompt medical attention. Physicians of the seventeenth century were ignorant of the causes of the plague, and Maria Celeste and Galileo could do little to protect themselves from the plague. Although Suor Maria Celeste rarely made mention of her own health in her correspondence with her father, she often exhorted Galileo to avail himself of the more common remedies and preventatives of the time. These included a mixture of pills and elixirs as well as remedies based more on faith. In her own words the "best remedy of all" is the "grace of God." Her reasoning was that living happily, which includes penitence and prayer, helped one avoid the contagion. Notwithstanding her extreme faith, she used her skill as the convent's Apothecary to make medicines for Galileo. These included an "electuary" made of "dried figs, nuts, rue, and salt" held together by honey, "papal pills" made of aloe and rhubarb to guard against the plague, and an "Oxilacchara" made of sugar, pomegranate wine, and vinegar to tempt her ailing father's appetite. She was even able to procure a bottle of healing water from the venerated Abbess Ursula of Pistoia (letter 54) and a prescription against the plague, which is no longer in Galileo's manuscripts. Even if such methods were effective in combating the plague, doctors could not clearly distinguish the different forms of the plague. Furthermore, they faced difficulties in diagnosing the plague because many symptoms (fever, petechiae, mental dullness, headache, vomiting) are common to other illnesses. In addition, social pressures strained physicians' diagnostic skills.

When the plague infected a person, the chances were high that both the individual and people in close contact with him or her would die within a few days. In Florence, for instance, of a population of 76,000, 9,000 people died from plague in 1630-1631. For this reason, when the plague broke out in a particular city, other cities would stop all contact with that city. Neither people nor merchandise from the infested city could enter other cities, to the great detriment of that city’s economy. (However in 1652, Florence and Genoa reached an agreement about common health practices to avoid mutual quarantines.) Moreover, individuals infected with the plague would either be quarantined inside their houses or sent to a pesthouse for treatment. Quarantines placed a further strain on the economy because quarantined people had to be fed and could not work.

The plague affected everyone in Italy, directly or indirectly. Galileo himself was forced to work around the constraints that the plague placed on his life. During the early onset of the plague in Florence, Galileo had been in the process of getting his book, Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems , published. The censor in Rome who had been checking the book, Father Nicolo Riccardi, insisted on remaining in control of the content of the book despite Galileo's change to a Florentine publisher which would have placed him under authority of a Florentine book reviewer, censor and Inquisitor. Father Riccardi demanded the manuscript from Galileo, but sending a manuscript from a plague-stricken region could result in its confiscation. Galileo's persistence with the Roman censor resulted in an agreement in which a small part would be censored in Rome while the remainder would be subject to a final review by a Florentine censor of Father Riccardi's choice.

During this period, Galileo moved to a villa in Arcetri, "Il Gioiello," in order to be closer to San Matteo, so that he would be able to visit her more frequently. However, the pleasure lasted only a little over a year, because after the publication of the Dialogues and the uproar that ensued Pope Urban VIII insisted Galileo travel to Rome. Added to the difficulties of age and distance associated with trips to Rome were the danger and uncertainty that the plague caused all travelers. Undoubtedly, Maria Celeste knew that if Galileo had to travel to Rome he ran the risk of being quarantined in a city along the way. His son Vincenzio and his wife Sestilia had left Florence to seek refuge in a rural setting close to Prato and were cut off from their family by a quarantine.

After the Galileo's condemnation in Rome, his doting daughter met his temporary move to Siena with mixed feelings. Many of her letters show hope that he would return soon while simultaneously expressing deep concern and warning him not to come until the plague had abated. At one point she mentions that Vincenzio Landucci, Galileo's nephew was locked up in his house because his wife died from the plague. Other people who died from the plague include Suor Teodora’s brother Matteo Ninci and one of Galileo’s workers. During a time when people were quarantined in their houses because they were suspected of having the plague, Galileo was in the custody of the archbishop of Siena, which was spared from the plague. Meanwhile, Suor Maria Celeste remained in claustration, living under her own house arrest in the convent. When Florence was decreed free of plague and Galileo was granted the conditional right to return to his villa (where he was to live under house arrest), the reunion of father and daughter was surely extremely joyous.

Since religion dominated life in seventeenth-century Italy, prayer was naturally an important weapon against the plague. When the plague worsened in Florence during the summer of 1633, an order came from the Commissioner of Health requiring nuns to pray continuously for the next 40 days for divine. This came on the heels of the procession of the "Madonna of Imprunetta" (a statue of the Virgin Mary) through the region. Indeed, a few months later the plague receded from Tuscany.

Besides prayer, city officials reacted to an outbreak of the plague by ordering the city to be kept clean, by setting up a pesthouse outside the city wall, and by requiring detailed reports from physicians. Further, when someone died from the plague, his or her belonging were burned for fear that they might spread the infection. People who died from plague were buried in common graves outside the city wall, rather than at a local church as was the custom. These actions were based on the belief that miasmas (poisoned air, usually marked by foul smells) caused the plague. Thus, items such fur and carpet, which retain smell, were handled with great care. As it happened, this care was well-founded because we now know that bubonic plague is transferred from infected rats to fleas, and then to humans; and fleas survive well in fur and carpet. The increased rat population in the summer explains the increased intensity of the plague during summer months. Historians speculate that the plague receded from Europe because the rat species, rattus rattus , the gray rat, was replaced by rattus norvegicus, the brown rate. We may speculate that the elimination of rats and filth had something to do with it as well.

Other reasons why the plague devastated Italy in the seventeenth century include the filthy quarters of the poor with their high population density. Most of them did not have beds and slept on loose straw, where fleas flourish. Conditions in the pesthouses were not much better. There were often not enough food, soap, bandages, blankets, or space. Patients slept five to a bed in some cases. pasteurella pests has by no means disappeared; it is, for instance, present in wild rodents in the western United States. But better hygiene and fewer rats means that cases of plague among the human population are exceedingly rare. The rare case of plague is usually conquered by anti-bacterial medicines.

1995 Al Van Helden
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