Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 23: Florence, Part 3

September 1, 2022


Santa Maria Novella Church

Florence is famous for being a city that endured a devastating plague.

In the mid-14th century, the plague (pestilence) swept through the city, claiming the lives of 60,000 people, which amounted to half of its population, as recorded.

It was in this city that Giovanni Boccaccio was born and wrote "The Decameron," considered a masterpiece that depicts human reality during the spread of 14th-century plague.

In contrast to Dante's "Divine Comedy," it is often referred to as the "Human Comedy" due to its  humanistic stories.

It is said to have been influenced by "One Thousand and One Nights," an Arabian collection of stories.

To escape the contagion of the plague, ten men and women took refuge in a villa and, to pass the time, each told stories to entertain the others.

Each person told one story per day for ten days, resulting in 10x10=100 tales.

"Decameron" derives its name from the Greek words for "ten" (deka) and "day" (hemera).

I, too, have read the entire work, albeit in a Japanese translation.

While the prose is beautifully literary, the content is highly obscene and vulgar.

For reference, here is an excerpt from the ninth day, the tenth tale: "A Catholic priest lodges in a believer's house."

“The priest undressed the believer's wife and left her completely naked.

He made her get down on all fours on the floor.

Then, he touched her chest and lifted the hem of her shirt.”

The story continues with explicit and graphic details that I won't elaborate on here.

If you're curious, I recommend reading "The Decameron" for yourself.

To me, it appears to be a well-crafted piece of erotic literature.

The ten men and women first gathered and later dispersed at the Santa Maria Novella Church in this story.

Despite the story's extremely crude content, the church itself is exceptionally elegant and magnificent.

It establishes Florence's unique style while adhering to Gothic architecture.

The facade of the church was designed by Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century.

It is constructed from white, green, and pink marble, presenting a stunning appearance.


I will now share my thoughts on why Boccaccio chose this church as the setting for his novel.

The "Novella" in Santa Maria Novella translates to "news" or "message" in Italian, so "Santa Maria Novella" can be interpreted as "the message of Saint Maria."

In other words, you can get the opportunity to hear the revelations of Saint Maria when you come to this church.

On the other hand, "Novella" in English means "novel" or "story."

Boccaccio intended to write a hundred stories set in Florence and naturally chose this church, the most venerable in Florence, and one whose name included "story."


In front of the church, there were ambulances of this church in a parking lot.

In Italian, an ambulance is called "AMBULANZA," but what is written on the vehicles is the mirrored version of this word.

It is intentionally written in reverse so that it reads "AMBULANZA" when reflected in the rearview mirror of the car in front of it.