Plague Of the Bianchi
In these extraordinary times, it appears that nearly all of the citizens of Florence, as well as those subject to the city and residents of surrounding cities and regions, have put on white linen garments, and ... joined in processions.
-- Provvisioni of the Signoria, September 10, 1399
In the summer of 1399, a religious movement arose in Lombardy, the northern Italian region around Milan, and began to travel southward toward Rome, attracting thousands of followers on the way. They were called the Bianchi, the Whites, for the white linen robes they wore as a sign of penitence and spiritual renewal. The pilgrims reached Florence in August, and their effect on the city was extraordinary. Shops and factories closed as citizens joined pilgrimages to smaller towns and villages, up the Arno and into the Apennine Mountains, "piously singing lauds, engaging in acts of penitence, abstaining from meat for nine consecutive days, and from wine for another day, not sleeping in beds ... the air vibrating with their voices." Old enemies swore new friendship, and there were cries to throw open the gates of the city prison.
The fervor cut across social classes, from impoverished cloth workers to wealthy merchants and manufacturers, though the rich could follow their religious path in more comfort than the poor. One wealthy merchant, Francesco Datini from the town of Prato, near Florence, wrote of joining a pilgrimage
on this 18th day of August 1399 ... clothed entirely in white linen and barefoot ... And that we might have what was necessary, I took with us two of my horses and the mule: and on these we placed two small saddle chests, containing boxes of all kinds of comfits ... and candles, and fresh bread and biscuits and round cakes, sweet and unsweetened, and other things besides that appertain to a man's life.
An aristocratic and powerful Florentine merchant named Buonaccorso Pitti followed this movement from the isolation of the Palazzo della Signoria, now called the Palazzo Vecchio, or "Old Palace," the massive stone building, topped by a looming tower, where the nine members of the Signoria lived and worked during their two-month terms of office. The Signoria was the supreme executive authority of Florence, and the brief terms reflected both the total commitment required of those who served and the concept that a short term of office prevented any single man from gaining too much power. In fact, ambitious men found ways to consolidate power, but by the standards of medieval Europe, the Signoria and other Florentine institutions formed a noble experiment in republican government.
"During my term in the Signoria," Pitti wrote, "a great novelty was seen throughout Italy when people of all conditions began to don white linen robes with cowls covering their heads and faces, and throng the roads, singing and begging God for grace and mercy. While this was going on in Florence someone raised the cry: 'Open the Stinche prison and free the prisoners!' By God's grace the danger of armed riots was averted, though it was a near thing. In the end everything turned out well, for the pilgrims brought about many reconciliations between citizens." Pitti's own family made peace with the relatives of a man he had killed in Pisa, settling their difference in a written and notarized compact. Other families made similar efforts to overcome long-held vendettas, the seething, ritualized hatred of man for man and family for family that had poisoned Florentine society for centuries.
The spirit of brotherhood and forgiveness brought on by the Bianchi carried into the fall, and on September 10,...
Author: Paul Robert Walker
Paul Robert Walker has written twenty books on subjects ranging from the Italian Renaissance and the American West to folklore, baseball, and miracles. A former teacher and journalist, he lives in Escondido, California, with his wife and two children.