Art and commemoration at the time of COVID-19

Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy

In the last months the impact of COVID-19 epidemic was often compared in the press to the Black Death, a highly lethal and contagious disease that hit Europe with full force in 1348. Pacing back and forth with my undergraduate students in Florence the relatively empty corridors of the Uffizi on 27 February 2020, I could not help thinking about how lucky we are to look at Simone Martini’s Annunciation or Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera free from the usual large crowds. And at the same time my thoughts often arrived at the gruesome Italian testimonies of the 1348 plague. When the dish was ordered for dinner, it was impossible not to recall Baldassare Bonaiuti’s chronicle, who paralleled alternating layers of corpses and earth in mass graves to the preparation of a lasagne. The lockdown was imminent, and although we safely returned to Plymouth the next day, it was clear that the worst is to come.

Art history students at Uffizi, Florence

I also remembered Boccaccio’s introduction to the Decameron, written a couple of years after the plague, where he laconically listed popular survival strategies such as religious devotion, mundane hedonism, stoic moderation or careful seclusion, a type of social distancing. Although he seemed to label all equally ineffective, the Decameron advocated social distancing in fair company, coupled with entertaining stories from everyday life.

Decameron by Boccaccio

As the current epidemic shows, examining the biological and medical aspects of past diseases and their social consequences can be key in fighting the current virus. However, it is evident that there is a delicate balance between the benefit to remember and the urge to forget once the sickness is – hopefully – over. Scientific data-gathering is relentless, but as a society, we are often looking for a safe new beginning rather than ruminating over suffering and loss, again and again. Yet, for the numerous sacrifices and challenges we are facing as a collective, the commemoration of this event cannot be avoided. With all its destruction, COVID-19 brought us closer and turned us into a community – a group of people who are exposed to the same threat, learning and resisting together in some sense, through the ironic efforts of isolationism.

Art can be a powerful tool to commemorate such shared experiences, whether by depicting the plague or offering broader parallels to our current predicament. Modern artists might be reluctant to engage with large-scale communal projects, since they perceive it as a danger to their own creative freedom, a degradation into state or governmental propaganda. I believe we are at a different moment, when a genuine monumental work, still to be invented, can anchor and consolidate this fragile coming-together beyond political, cultural and social divides. At the end of the day, Pablo Picasso did paint Guernica in 1937.

Art historians should be careful enough not to entertain hypothetical narratives. Still, I sometimes wonder what would have looked like if at least one of the extremely talented painters of the early Trecento had depicted the impact of and the fight against the Black Death. Ambrogio Lorenzetti from Siena is an emblematic case. A decade earlier (1338-39) he frescoed the most complex allegory ever for the council hall of the city magistrates detailing the virtues, vices and tangible effects of good and bad governments. Personifications of Justice and Fear move hand in hand with peasants tending the vines, youngsters singing in the main square and soldiers pillaging the countryside. The imagery is realistic and uncompromising in this immersive sequence. Since its creation, the cycle has become a unique reference for the visualization of human life under political regimes.

I like to think that Ambrogio Lorenzetti would have painted something extraordinary about life under medical regimes – about life under COVID-19 – had he had the opportunity. He did not get the chance. From the archival records we know that he penned his last will on June 9, 1348 in the shadow of 'dark death and pestilence'. He left everything to his three daughters, Lisa, Tomassa and Cateranna. 

From the records, it can also be deduced that he died not long after, and the girls followed him within a year. Techniques, materials, media and aspirations of image-making have changed significantly since then, but the task remains.

'Effects of Good Government on the City Life' by Ambrogio Lorenzetti