From the Editor


A historian of Italian epidemics, living in the middle of one.

Frank Snowden. View full image

There’s ordinary coincidence, and then there’s the higher-plane, eighth-dimension variety of coincidence that has marooned Frank Snowden—author of two history books on epidemics in Italy—in Italy during an epidemic.

Snowden is the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of History and Professor of the History of Medicine, emeritus. When questioned, he’ll deliver an erudite overview of plagues from the Black Death through Ebola, or of Italian history and politics, with the gentlest modesty. He’s been in Rome since late January. The papers of Pius XII had been made available to scholars; he’d planned to research the effects of the Cold War on the country. But the arrival of COVID-19 rerouted him back to examining epidemics. It was surreal, he told me, to find himself present at a pandemic in a country whose medical history he has studied for years. 

The news of Italy’s fast-moving and destructive infection curve is known around the globe. But Snowden says that in contrast to, say, the vacationers who flooded Florida beaches during spring break, the country for the most part followed the government’s restrictions once they’d been finalized: Italians “seem to be taking this very seriously and did so from the start.” In Rome, he’s allowed to go outside only to buy supplies or medications, and only within a few hundred meters of where he’s staying. Everyone gives each other a wide social-distance berth, stepping into the street if necessary. Lines that form outside the grocery stores stretch far down the block, because the waiting shoppers meticulously keep several yards away from each other. There are, of course, exceptions. Gatherings are forbidden, including—agonizingly, for those who have lost friends and family—funeral ceremonies. But at least two priests have been arrested for conducting funeral rites. “There are, we might say,” Snowden notes, “some cases of people who are conscientious objectors.”

He believes that the near-unanimity of the populace arises from the government’s decisiveness. The Italian government, having formed its plan, now “speaks with one voice”; its requirements are uniform throughout the nation. What to us may sound heavy-handed—police driving through the deserted streets with bullhorns, reminding citizens to stay inside their homes—the Italians see as good advice. They seem to concur, Snowden says, that “we all have a contribution to make, and a duty” to help save each other’s health and lives. He paraphrased a local paper: “In three millennia of the history of Rome, this is the first time that the people of Rome ever have been obedient.”

Snowden has also seen resilience. Keeping oneself separate from friends and family members—from ordinary, everyday, precious community—becomes painful over time. But in Rome, creativity springs eternal. There’s a U-shaped apartment building near where he’s living, and each apartment has a balcony. Every evening at six o’clock, someone steps onto a balcony and puts on traditional Italian folk music—loud. “And on each balcony a couple appears, and they dance and sing,” he says. “I thought that was a very imaginative, and moving, and creative way of creating community.”

He’s also overheard people in the stores discussing what it must have been like in World War II. They often note: We’re in it together. “I’m reminded of London in the Blitz sometimes,” Snowden says.

In the midst of trauma, we persevere. Good health and resilience to you all.

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