The Black Plague is the fault of Venus

Jan 20, 2022 | Authentications & attributions

16 December

The Black Plague had a dreadful impact on Siena. The city had reached its golden age during the 14th century, when many of the beautiful buildings that survive to this day were erected (like the Duomo, the Palazzo Pubblico, the Torre del Mangia). This was also the period in which Sienese art flourished, and a new style was invented, abandoning the byzantine dictates to begin convey a physical as well as a spiritual reality, and producing masterpieces such as those now in the Pinacoteca.

The medieval age was a great time to be alive in Siena. At least until in the late 1340s, when a catastrophic wave of bubonic plague swept through Europe and, by May 1348, reached the city.

Before the plague, Siena was home to 50,000 people. After, the population dropped to about 14,000. A real and total devastation.

On 16 December 1406 Jacopo della Quercia, born in Siena, a prominent sculptor active in many cities and courts, was asked to build a new fountain in Piazza del Campo . It had to replace the old fountain with a statue of the goddess Venus. This pagan statue was blamed for the outbreak of the Plague. The statue was destroyed and buried outside the city walls to avert its “evil influence”.

Jacopo built a rectangular fountain in a slightly different site, however using the hydraulic construction that had led water for the first time to the piazza from 25 kilometers away. It had been a major event, also considering that Siena is built on top of a hill.

The new fountain was dedicated to the Virgin, adorned on the three sides by many statues and multiple spouts. Because Jacopo accepted also other commissions at the same time, progress was slow. The fountain was only finished in 1419.

In 1858 copies replaced the statues by Jacopo. These are now on display in the lower levels at Santa Maria della Scala, where they calmly wait to overcome this more recent COVID plague as well, since luckily nobody is blaming them this time.