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).