The church of San Rocco represented an important centre point for local worship, even though it stands just outside the town walls, on the other side of Rio Fontanamaggio, in the area which is usually called “Barga nuova”.
Prior to the 14th century there were two chapels dedicated to the saint, but the present church was started in 1631 and finished due to new funding (50 alms plates) after 1782.
On the main altar there is a wooden statue depicting San Rocco, considered by some to be contemporaneous to San Cristoforo in the Duomo, but more likely to date back to the 15th century.
As well as the important 19th-century organ, the wonderful stucco work is worth a visit as it’s the real leitmotiv of the interior decoration.
Every year at the annual San Rocco market you will see people arriving at Barga Giardino with small bundles wrapped up in newspaper in their hands or pulled out of shopping bags. 15th and 16th August is the traditional time to get the kitchen knives and scissors resharpened by Umberto the Arrotino – the knife sharpener.
Once upon a time there would have been many travelling knifesharpeners working in this area but that has changed over the years as peoples buying habits and expectations have changed.
These days it is just easier to throw away the pair of scissors that no longer cut as well as they did or buy a new sharp knife to replace the old blunt one. One person who knows this better that most is Umberto who has been working his trade since 1950. Now in his late 60’s, he has become more or less the last knife grinder still on the road.
La Chiesa di San Rocco ha rappresentato invece un’importante fulcro per la devozione locale sebbene collocato appena al di fuori della cinta muraria, oltre il Rio Fontanamaggio, nell’area normalmente individuata come “Barga nuova”.
Già prima del ‘300 esistevano due cappelle dedicate al santo, ma la chiesa attuale fu costruita a partire dal 1631 e terminata con nuovi stanziamenti (50 scudi di elemosina) dopo il 1782.
Sull’altare maggiore è posta una statua lignea raffi gurante San Rocco, da alcuni ritenuta contemporanea al San Cristoforo del Duomo, ma più probabilmente del XV secolo.
Insieme al notevole organo ottocentesco da ammirare gli splendidi stucchi che rappresentano il vero leitmotiv della decorazione interna.
Ironically, as Barga celebrates its annual mid-August festa di San Rocco with dining and dancing under the stars and a lively outdoor market, it is also marking the inconceivable carnage of the Black Death – in which the Serchio Valley almost certainly played a critical role.
In the lengthy annals of European trauma, ranging from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Second World War, probably none had greater impact on the collective memory than the Black Death. In the brief span of four years, beginning in 1348, the deadliest epidemic in recorded history carried off up to 60 percent of Europe’s entire population.
More than 40,000 German villages and towns vanished forever, all of their inhabitants left dead. Within a few months, the population of Florence dropped from more than 120,000 to less than 50,000. Overall, epidemiologists believe, Europe as a whole may have lost half of its population. In Italy, Spain and southern France, the toll was more than three-fourths.
The starting point in this grim tale is San Rocco himself, thought to be a 14th century nobleman from Montpellier, France, who renounced his inherited wealth and left on a lifelong pilgrimage that ended in the Italian town of Voghera, now part of the Province of Pavia. Through the worst years of the plague, legend has it, Rocco worked tirelessly as an itinerant healer, tending to the dying and their families. When he fell sick himself, he moved to a simple hut of wood in an isolated forest glade. But to his own surprise, he lived on, sustained by a natural spring of fresh water that miraculously appeared in a nearby rock, and by a small dog who brought chunks of bread to the hut each morning.
Barga’s 17th century Chiesa di San Rocco, built on the foundations of a 14th-century chapel just beyond the lower bridge to the Giardino District, recalls this legend graphically in a statue over its entrance. It features the dog, as well as the saint, holding his pilgrim’s staff in one hand, and raising the tattered hem of his tunic with the other to bare the bubonic sores on his thigh.
All of these details, most notably the church’s location, speak to a tragic moment in local history: Barga was probably among the very first towns struck by the Black Death, and a de facto principal transmission node. Hence the construction of the chapel at a key entrance to the castle town, echoed in thousands of similar churches across Europe, and meant to ward off future epidemics. Almost 600 years later, researchers regard the dispersion of these churches as a remarkably precise “map” of the plague’s most concentrated impact and extent
The evidence regarding Barga’s role is circumstantial, but compelling. What is known, from scientific evidence, is that the great plague reached the shores of continental Europe when a galley from the Levant docked at the port of Pisa in January, 1348. Although its cargo manifest and passenger list have not survived, there is no doubt that its hold ferried a colony of migrating rodents – all ships did in those days – and that they in turn hosted Oriental rat fleas infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, source of the Black Death.
The legitimate cargo could well have been linked to the lucrative Mediterranean trade connections that 14th century Barga and Lucca enjoyed as major producers of silk. In all likelihood, the unidentified human passengers were pilgrims, flea-bitten after an uncomfortable voyage from the Holy Land. Their northern journey homeward, which few if any completed, would have taken them (and Yersina pestis) through Barga en route to the celebrated Apennine pilgrimage hostel at San Pellegrino and onward.
Together, silk and pilgrims accounted for the wealth that built the grand palazzi that still grace the streets and piazzas of Barga Vecchia. But for much of the town’s population in the fatal winter of 1348, they were harbingers of a bitter and untimely death.
Article by Frank Viviano
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).