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The Pope who decreed to close Rome and save Rome from the plague in the seventeenth century

The Pope who decreed to close Rome and save Rome from the plague in the seventeenth century

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Pope Alexander VII decreed sanitary measures in the seventeenth century, which, according to researchers, caused the spread of the plague in Rome at a low rate.

He was a thinker, a fan of art and architecture, a doctorate in philosophy, theology and law. When the Italian Fabio Chigi (1599-1667) became Pope Alexander VII, he did not even imagine in his worst vow that he would have to face the plague.

However, his reaction was overwhelming.

Although science discovered the bacterium that causes plague in 1894 – thanks to bacteriologist Alexander Yersen – the Supreme Pontiff issued health measures that, according to researchers, contributed to The murder rate in Rome was much lower Than it is the case in other places affected by the same epidemic.

According to a study by the Italian historian Luca Tobi, professor at the University of Rome La Sapienza, between 1656 and 1657 the plague killed 55% of the population of Sardinia, half of the population of Naples and 60% of the population of Genoa.

In Rome, on the other hand, 9,500 people died out of a total of 120,000. Less than 8%. This data was published in an Italian scientific journal in 2017.


It is estimated that different waves of plague wiped out about half of Europe’s population.

When the first reports of deaths from the epidemic reached the then Kingdom of Naples, Alexander VII was Pope for a year.

Graphic representation of the plague in Italy.

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Various waves of plague killed nearly half of Europe’s population.

The Pope was not just a leader of Catholicism. If today he is the sovereign over the small state of the Vatican City, then he ruled at that time the so-called Papal States, which included Rome and a large part of the surrounding territories; Practically the entire center of modern Italy.


This remarkable story tells of how many of the restrictions in place today against the coronavirus pandemic in Rome worked against the plague 400 years ago.

What are the measurements of the Pope?

Within papal sovereignty, the outbreak occurred between May 1656 and August 1957.

As soon as the first news of the plague reached Rome, Alexander VII put the Health Conference, which had been established earlier, on alert.

Containment measures It was implemented graduallyAs the situation became more dangerous.

On May 20, a decree was issued suspending all trade with the Kingdom of Naples, which was already severely affected.

A 17th-century painting of Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican.

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In the seventeenth century, the Pope was the highest authority in the Papal States, which included the region and surroundings of Rome, and practically the entire center of present-day Italy.

The following week, the blockade was extended and any travelers were forbidden from entering Rome.

On May 29, in Civitavecchia, in the Papal States, the arrival of the plague was recorded and quarantine was imposed immediately.

“In the days and months that followed, many other regions in that region were isolated,” says the historian Toby.

in Rome, The decision was drastic: Nearly all city access gates are closed. Only eight remained open, but they were protected 24 hours a day by soldiers supervised by a “gentleman and cardinal”.

Since then, any entry must be justified and recorded.

On June 15, Rome had its first case: a Neapolitan soldier died in hospital. The rules have been tightened further.

On June 20, a law was passed requiring citizens to inform authorities if they met a patient.

Then, a new papal organ began requiring each parish priest and his aides to visit every three days to all homes in their electoral districts to identify and register the sick.

Then word spread another death, this time a fisherman from the Trastevere region.

“The victim’s relatives were also injured and many died,” says Rilsson Araujo, a theology student at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil, who has also investigated the matter.

The first idea was to try to isolate the area.

An illustration of Alexander VII.

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Alexander VII imposed gradual measures until he reached complete confinement.

“The Pope was also the civil authority. When the epidemic began to spread, he implemented isolation measures. After banning trade with Naples, he decreed other rules of social distancing: the ban on meetings, processions and all popular expressions,” says Araujo.

Tightening procedures were gradually reaching until I reached Total isolation.

“With the passage of time, the Pope adopted new prohibitions. Church gatherings, diplomatic visits, as well as religious and public meetings, were suspended, roads were monitored,” Araujo recalls. “All civilian groups have been suspended.”

“Various economic and social activities were prohibited,” says theologian Gustavo Catania, philosopher at the Monastery of São Bento in São Paulo. “Festivals and public, civil and religious celebrations were canceled.”

Saint Peter's Square is empty due to restrictions imposed in Rome.

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As with the coronavirus pandemic, he was banned in the 17th century from attending religious ceremonies in Rome.

“Markets have been suspended and some people who were living on the streets have been expelled because they may be the cause of infection. Night crossings of the Tiber have been banned.”

The Pope also decided that no one should fast, in order for the population to eat and thus remain healthy in the event of an injury.

All those with at least one infected person in the household have been banned from leaving the home. To secure assistance, Alexander VII divided the priests and doctors into two groups: those who would be in contact with the sick and those who would not, and those who would care for the rest of the population.

“There was a concern that the priests would become carriers of the disease,” says Araujo.

Doctors prevented from fleeing RomeCatania says, indicating that many are afraid of infection.

When the patients were isolated, a Population Support Network was established.

“There has been the provision of financial assistance to families who are unable to leave the house Some people got food through the windowSays the seminary.

In October and November, when the disease rate was higher, the death penalty was expected for those who broke the rules.

Deniers and Fake News

However, not everyone acknowledged the severity of the situation.

There were those who despise her and even spread tricks.

“The Pope has been accused of inventing the disease for his own benefit and of gaining popularity,” says Mertcelli Medeiros, a researcher at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Denial protests in Rome over the coronavirus pandemic.

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As also happened in this epidemic, there were deniers at that time who did not acknowledge the existence of the disease.

“Many did not want the Pope to adopt these measures in order not to disturb the population,” he adds.

Even his closest aides advised him not to do so. They feared that from the moment the seriousness of the situation was announced, through decrees and disclosures, the economy would begin to feel the effects of this kind of situation. But the Pope was firm and adhered to his health policy. “

Araujo compares the events of the 17th century to the “movement of the day and popular resistance” to accept the severity of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Traders advised the Pope not to take action because The closure damaged trade and harvestThe researcher comments.

“There were groups that came to him to ask him not to take further isolation measures. They wanted to cover up the situation so that the panic would not spread and the shops would close,” Araujo continues.

There are reports that a doctor has spread hoaxes about the true motives for imprisonment.

“He propagated the idea that there were political interests behind the decisions of this pope,” says historian Victor Missiato, a professor at MacKenzie Presbyterian College in Brasilia.

He was accused of defamation and ended up working in a hospital designated to treat the plague.

Victory over disease

When the outbreak resolved in 1657, the celebration failed.

Alexander VII showed church revival with Monuments that characterize the Vatican to this day, Such as the colonnade group in Saint Peter’s Square by the Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Bernini's Columns in Saint Peter's Square.

Edison Vega

The works of Pope Alexander VII have been marked by the emergence of the Vatican to this day.

“In that period, it was very common for Popes to demonstrate their sovereignty and power. The great monuments of Rome at that time were built with this impulse,” Medeiros explains.

As in the case of the fountain of the four rivers in Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and others.

He explains: “Alexander VII had a passion for art and was a friend of Bernini. His start as a pope was marked by the plague.”

“The way he found to stop that dark period was Investing in a huge business. Saint Peter’s columns represent the open arms of the church. Saint Peter’s Basilica has been restored as a symbol of temporal strength, not just spirituality. “

Other cases

This was not the only historical moment when the church closed its doors in the past due to the outbreak of epidemics and epidemics.

Medeiros recalls: “There were other cases in some dioceses in Italy, especially in the nineteenth century during the outbreak of cholera.” Then similar restrictive measures were taken. “

Market inscription during a cholera epidemic in Italy.

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During a cholera epidemic in the nineteenth century, the church imposed similar restrictions in Italy.

On the other hand, the expert states that at the outbreak of the plague in the fourteenth century, “the exact opposite” happened.

“Pope Clement VI, isolated in the papal palace in Avignon, France, did not seem very concerned about what was happening outside the walls of his house,” says the researcher.

“At that time, disease was a divine punishment and other processions and crowds took place to try to overcome evil, according to the religious mentality.”

In the last century, the Milanese region was severely affected by the plague. Cardinal Archbishop Carlo Borromeo has also put in place strict sanitary measures in his constituency.

“He proposed a general quarantine and ordered people to stay home until the situation is resolved. Only those who have been helping the residents spiritually and materially can leave.

The researcher says so even Las M.ISAS celebratesThe ban “From a distance.”

“A priest went to the corner and celebrated in the street,” he explains. “The believers watched from their windows.”

Belief in science

When analyzing these events from the past, which are often similar to those we live in today, it should be borne in mind that science has not been valued as much as it is today and that religion and politics are very intertwined.

In the seventeenth century, absolutism was very powerful in Europe and it was linked to the power of the Church. Political power and religious power It was very mixedMissiato explains.

“At that time, the scientific revolution had not yet spread to the various societies in the European world. Belief in God as a determining entity of peace and chaos was still seen as the path to salvation.”

That is why the incarceration imposed by Alexander VII is so relevant.

What happened indicates the compatibility between faith and science. Realistic faithAraujo says.


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