In this photo there is a man who has defeated the epidemic.
A man whose courage and resolve saved thousands of lives.
A man who knew how to govern fear.
It is Alessandro VII Chigi (in the portrait in the background).
In 1656 the plague arrived in Rome, and the then Pope took highly criticized draconian measures. He cut the bridges with Naples, the red zone, stopped the activities and erected the surrounding walls.
“Before the development of the disease, Alexander VII was accused of political artifice in supposing the existence of the plague, stubbornly denied; this is how the meritorious and zealous Pontiff was paid: so much is the judgment of the multitude unjust and ungrateful, when, having abandoned reason, it is carried away by passion, even to its detriment ”.
(Moroni, Dictionary of historical-ecclesiastical erudition, vol. LII, 1841).
THE FIRST EPIDEMIC OF PALAZZO CHIGI
The portrait stands out in the library on the fourth floor, hidden but present. On the other hand, Alexander VII – in the century Fabio Chigi – of the great library room of Palazzo Chigi is the great inspiration and “master”.
In these rooms, where today it can happen that presidents of the Council and ministers appear for a private meeting or a press conference, until 1923 the book heritage (later sold by Mussolini to the Vatican) of the pontiff who reigned over the Church around the mid-17th century: 26 thousand between codices, historical essays, fiction books, ecclesiastical manuals, collected and preserved by a humanist Pope and passionate bibliophile.
Nowadays, however, Alexander VII comes to mind for another story, which has to do with the vocabulary of current events: contagions, fear, protests, hope, healings.
In 1656, a year after his election to the Papal Throne, the Pope, an exponent of the wealthy Sienese banker family, found himself facing a dramatic plague epidemic. Moroni recounts, in the “Dictionary of historical-ecclesiastical erudition” (vol. LII, 1841):
“While he was in Castel Gandolfo Alexander VII in 1656, the ominous news reached him that the bubonic plague from Sardinia had appeared in Naples, so he immediately went to Rome, possibly to save his neighboring state”.
It was the second great wave of plague of the seventeenth century, which broke out in 1652 in Spain and from port to port reached Rome.
Cultured and resolute, Alexander VII immediately had a highly trusted health commissioner appointed: his brother, Cardinal Mario Chigi. Then he set up a real ‘task force’ of senior prelates of experience and with ample room for maneuver in various sectors, from health to commerce. And closed the borders of the Papal State with the Kingdom of Naples.
But that wasn’t enough. Traveling by sea, through ships, the plague bacterium landed in Civitavecchia and Nettuno. And from there, to Rome.
“What terrified Rome was a Neapolitan fisherman who died in the hospital of the Holy Savior in the Lateran, with epidemic signs […] The disease attacked other people in Trastevere, so the major industries worked to limit its spread and the consequences”.
The whole of the Tiber island was used as a hospital.
Alexander VII had the sick isolated, the non-infected population transferred and walls built around Trastevere, which had become the red zone. He built two hospitals on the outskirts of the city for the precautionary quarantine of foreigners and several new hospitals within the city (as well as dedicated departments in pre-existing hospitals). And he thought of the refreshments: since the inmates had no sustenance, he had a compensation of 160 scudi administered every day.
The rules for all citizens were very strict: prohibition of unjustified travel and removal from Rome, especially for doctors, surgeons and pharmacists. Squeezed on trade and religious services. Forced sanitation of homes, shops and goods, as well as money. And those who did not report their own or others’ contagion were subjected to capital punishment or forced labor in hospitals (which in many cases amounted to a death sentence).
How did the people react to such draconian measures? “Before the development of the disease – writes Moroni – Alexander VII was accused of political artifice in supposing the existence of the plague, stubbornly denied”.
When, thanks to the severe interventions, a second and a third wave were also contained in the provinces of the Papal State, the attitude changed. Despite the protests “the most exalted the Pope, who far from hiding the reality of the contagion, almost removed Rome from the jaws of death”.
The plague of 1656 broke 14,000 lives in Rome against hundreds of thousands of deaths throughout Italy (240,000 in Naples alone). At the end of the pontificate the Roman people asked the Pontiff to be able to erect a statue in his honor. He modestly declined, “and thanking for the loving thought, it meant wanting no other simulacrum than the one the Romans kept in their hearts”.
The story ends here, I hope that Pope Alexander VII’s successors are at least as authoritative as he is. I leave you in the company of a beautiful compilation with an ecclesiastical flavor. Download and … peace be with you 🙂
Jacopo Matano collaborated in this article