"Filth is the mother of corruption": plague and the built environment in early modern Florence

John Henderson

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The aim of this paper is to explore the association between the impact of plague and the physical fabric of the city during the last major epidemic to affect Tuscany, 1630– 1631. Contemporaries in the seventeenth century were only too aware of the close connection between disease and the conditions in which people lived. This was reflected in the long tradition of sanitary legislation, which had sought to address what they thought caused disease, namely corrupt air, which was seen as being generated by industrial and domestic waste and exacerbated by people living in cramped, crowded conditions. The threat of plague led early modern city-states to implement both precautionary measures to address the factors which led to the generation of disease, and to preventive measures when an epidemic had broken out in a city. This resulted in the institution of a complex system directed by Health Boards to mitigate the spread of disease, including sanitary surveys, the inspection and registration of the sick, their incarceration in isolation hospitals and the quarantining of their contacts and families in their houses or in separate institutions. This paper will concentrate on examining the preventive measures that Florentine authorities put into place, in particular, house-by-house sanitary surveys, revealing the dreadful living conditions of the poor, and then the measures taken to address these problems through the cleansing of houses and streets. More broadly it will seek to understand these measures in relation, on the one hand, to contemporary medical theory, and in particular the influence of neo-Hippocratic ideas concerning the influence of environmental factors, and, on the other hand, in relation to attitudes towards the poorer members of society, who were even blamed for the worsening epidemic through their lifestyle.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPlague and the City
EditorsLukas Engelmann, John Henderson, Christos Lynteris
Place of PublicationAbindong Oxon UK
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic) 9780429450044
ISBN (Print) 9781138590670, 9781138326125
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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