Monday, May 06, 2019


From 1081 to 1527

Matthew Kneale, Rome: A History in Seven Sackings (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), pp. 181-183:
A visitor from 1081 would have found that in many respects the city had been far more comfortable to live in during the eleventh century. Certainly, its infrastructure had been in a far better state. Many of Renaissance Rome's sewers, which had been one of the city's first achievements, had become blocked and, as the street level rose thanks to fires and floods, were all but unreachable to repair. A stinking open sewer, the Chiavica di San Silvestro, ran right across the city, from the Trevi area to the Tiber. The aqueducts were no better. In the 1520s, when Rome had far more inhabitants than it had done for a thousand years, only a single aqueduct still worked — the Acqua Vergine — and it produced a feeble flow of water. Attempts to repair it were hampered by the fact that the Romans appeared to have to have forgotten where its underground course began.

As Rome's aqueducts declined, so did Romans' drinking habits. Though a couple of springs supplied water to the Leonine City and a few lucky Romans had wells, in 1527 most Romans washed with, cooked with and drank Tiber water. It was decanted for a week to allow sediment to fall away and was then considered clean. Visitors from elsewhere in Italy were appalled, and rightly so. The Tiber was Rome's main sewer, rubbish dump and morgue and classical Romans would never have dreamed of drinking its water. Yet Renaissance Romans not only drank it but claimed to enjoy its taste. Clement VII, when he paid a visit to Marseilles in 1533, insisted on taking several barrels of it with him so he would not have to risk drinking the local supply.

Then there was the question of hygiene. To put it simply, Renaissance Romans stank. Classical Romans would have been disgusted, as even their household slaves smelt far sweeter. By 1527 it was standard practice for most Romans — like most Europeans — to enjoy a full body wash only during major life events: in other words, when they were born, before their wedding night, and when they died. For all other occasions a quick dab at appropriate areas would do. Romans' clothes were cleaned hardly more often than their owners and their outer garments were given a thorough wash only once a year. Romans in 1527 would have itched and scratched as constantly as they had in 1081, if not more so.

Renaissance Romans also lived less long than their eleventh-century predecessors. As well as measles, typhus and tuberculosis, early sixteenth-century Romans had a constant fear of plague, while malaria was as lethal as ever, especially — as always — to poor Romans who could not escape the city in late summer. Romans' love of Tiber water would have afflicted them with waterborne diseases. Finally, if this were not already enough, there was a wholly new health threat: the French Disease, also known as the Great Pox, the French Pox and — by the French — the Neapolitan Disease. Today we call it syphilis. It seems to have originated in the Americas and first became known in Europe in 1495 when it was contracted by French troops besieging Naples. Within months it was causing alarm and intense discomfort across Italy. It produced rubbery growths on the genitals that could grow as large as a bread roll, as well as the pustules that devoured skin and bone, and purple rashes to the face that marked out sufferers. As well as Pope Julius II, celebrity victims included Cesare Borgia, three sons of the duke of Ferrara, Charles V's grandfather, Emperor Maximilian, and a good number of cardinals. Observers at the time noted that it seemed especially fond of priests.

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