The Black Death's Legacy: Wealthy Orphans of Renaissance Florence
Tuesday, February 25, 2020 - 6:45 p.m.
Inventory record from a cloth merchant's store, with symbols possibly indicating types of cloth, 1388, Florentine State Archives; photo by Daniel Lord Smail
As it swept through Florence from the mid-14th century to the end of the next, the Black Death made no distinction between the city’s poor and rich. The plague swelled the ranks of the city's orphans, many of whom inherited vast fortunes. Bereft and beleaguered families implored the Florentine state to appropriate and manage the assets of these young inheritors, and then return the estates to the beneficiaries once they reached the age of majority.
The official accounting records and inventories of these inheritances offer today’s historians a unique and richly detailed glimpse into upper-class life in Renaissance Florence. These state documents enumerated the possessions and property that passed to the orphaned young people, from their families’ jewelry and richly embroidered garments to kitchenware and garden tools, farm animals and foodstuffs to books and furniture—and even enslaved persons.
Historian Laura Morreale uses the inventories to offer a room-by-room tour through the homes of wealthy Florentines, rifling through their wardrobes, attics, basements, kitchens, and storage spaces to peek at what they owned, used, and hoarded.
She also discusses how historians are making sense of these centuries-old lists of what remained, and how the evidence of everyday items can shed light on the Florentine world during a time of plague.
Morreale is associate in the department of history at Harvard University and an affiliate faculty member at Georgetown University.
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