As the Plague Ravaged Italy, This City Kept It at Bay

The plague ravaged major cities and provincial towns in northern and central Italy from 1629 to 1631, killing over 45,000 people in Venice and wiping out more than half the population of cities like Parma and Verona. But strikingly, some communities have been spared.

In fact, the city of Ferrara, in northern Italy, managed to prevent even a single death from the plague after the year 1576, even when neighboring communities were devastated. How did they do it? Records suggest that border controls, sanitary laws, and personal hygiene were essential to the city’s success.

From the catastrophic arrival of the black plague in 1347, Italian cities gradually began to take proactive public health measures to isolate the sick, quarantine potential carriers and restrict travel from affected regions, explains John Henderson, professor of Italian Renaissance history at Birbeck, University of London, and author of Florence Under Siege: Surviving the plague in a modern city.

Over the next three centuries, epidemics of plague occurred regularly in the densely populated cities of Italy, provoking increasingly coordinated and sophisticated responses. While Henderson says that the same general package of anti-plague measures has been taken in the cities of Italy, the city of Ferrara, which has about 30,000 residents, offers a fascinating success story.

READ MORE: Pandemics that have changed history

Border control, sanitation and hygiene

A team of researchers from the University of Ferrara delved into municipal archives and historical manuscripts to discover a Renaissance approach to “integrated disease management”. They attribute Ferrara’s remarkable success to a combination of strict border surveillance, aggressive public sanitation, and rigorous personal hygiene regimes that harnessed the natural antimicrobial properties of herbs, oils, and even scorpion and snake venom. .

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