Poussin, plague, and early modern medicine.

Author:Barker, Sheila

... every year we have cured a number of the sick, who regained their health by no other means than the movement of their souls.--Galen, De sanitate tuenda, 1576 When we endure the smartest sores our crying turns the cure.--William Austin, The Anatomy of the Pestilence, 1666 (1) Seeking to launder the spoils of a diamond heist, Fabrizio Valguarnera visited the studio of Nicolas Poussin in early 1631 and purchased two paintings. (2) One of these, begun in late 1630, depicts an unusual Old Testament history based on these passages from the first Book of Samuel (4-6):

And when they [the people of Ashdod] rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both hands were lying cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.... But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors in secret places.... He brought mice upon them, they swarmed in their ships. The mice went into their land, and there was mortal panic in the city. (3) Later known as The Plague of Ashdod, this painting portrays the scourge that God sent to punish the Philistines for stealing the Israelites' ark and the supernatural heralding of that event by the destruction of a temple statue (Fig. 1). It would become the most imitated and celebrated plague painting of the seventeenth century. (4)

Though The Plague of Ashdod remains one of Poussin's most frequently studied works, it has never been analyzed through the prism of scientific medicine current in Poussin's time. There has been some interest in defining the contours of Poussin's knowledge of plague, but these previous assessments of his painting's scientific value have suffered from a myopic, piecemeal, and ultimately anachronistic approach. Often they have focused only on those selected aspects of the composition that pertain to modern-day medical discourse, such as the detail of the rats; in other cases they have taken as their premise the post-Enlightenment prejudice that matters of science and faith are naturally opposed. (5) Alternatively, this investigation seeks to situate itself within the discourse of seventeenth-century scientific medicine. It will attempt to build a holistic, even phenomenological, understanding of Poussin's work--one that goes beyond specific iconographic readings in order to evaluate the act of painting such an image and its consequences. Only once we suspend our contemporary conceptions of plague and human biology can we begin to reconstruct the range of medical issues that framed Poussin's enterprise during his own age.

This perspective is critical to the comprehension of The Plague of Ashdod--not only because of its subject but also because in 1630, the year Poussin undertook work on this painting, Italy was afflicted with the century's worst outbreak of bubonic plague. (6) That same year was also beset by war, famine, witchcraft, assassination plots, and volcanic eruptions--truly it was an annus horribilis. The Roman orator Agostino Mascardi, in a letter to Claudio Achillini, spoke of the contemporary horrors at length:

Perhaps the lamenting of private misfortunes amid the deluge of public calamities is a sign of a faulty soul; however I, amid these miseries affecting Italy universally, mourn the loss of many friends and for this reason hope to be pitied as well as forgiven. The spectacle of this desolate Province strikes every chord of pain in anyone with a human heart, for in addition to the turmoils of war ... there are those that bring tears to the eye that witnesses so many noble cities tormented by hunger, violated by foreigners, exterminated by plague, emptied of inhabitants, filled with cadavers and fright.... solitude is terrifying, commerce is poisoned, those who see it firsthand are stunned, fear suffers not from this destruction, sickness awaits no cure, and sleep is interrupted by death. Mascardi's threnetic description proceeds, referring to the hardest-hit regions in the north. He portrays the funeral processions for the vast number of dead as if they spanned the length of the peninsula:

Nothing is seen except images of horror, nothing is heard except the screams of the tormented; we wait only for the assaults of death, longing only for a quick death, and meanwhile the long, unbroken file of cadavers being carried to their resting place is seen stretching all the way to the grave; with tears and pain we gather round that unhappy place, where the sound of our quarreling voices reverberates across the open urns, and a woeful echo stings our ears and hearts, declaring us fragile, transient, miserable, and more moribund than mortal. (7) It might come as a surprise that Mascardi did not witness any of the horrors he recounts. His vivid letter was written from one of the few places in Italy unscathed by these disasters: Rome, the same city that harbored Poussin. But the bleak fantasies of his fraught imagination are nevertheless integral to the medical history of the plague of 1630. They demonstrate that a plague's ramifications could extend far beyond the range of its etiological agents and subject otherwise healthy individuals to anguish, fear, and despair. The impact of fear on Rome's social fabric in these years was most dramatic, sparking a terror-driven exodus for the sparsely populated villages and isolated villas in the nearby mountains. This flight caused a decline in the urban population almost equal to the ten thousand deaths that resulted when plague broke out in Rome in 1656 and 1657. Among those who remained, fears of satanic agents and murderous plague spreaders called anointers (untori) fostered a deep mistrust of indigents, non-Christians, and strangers; those suspected of sickness were whisked away to pesthouses outside the city walls, and enforced quarantines kept large segments of the population locked up. (8)


Dangerous Times, Dangerous Thoughts

Mascardi's letter to Achillini frames our discussion of Poussin's Plague of Ashdod because both were made in the midst of a century whose medical community regarded psychological turmoil, including that which resulted from merely thinking of plague, to be a cause of physiological disease. Schooled in psychosomatic models of medicinc, physicians of Poussin's time would have associated Mascardi's morbid ruminations with a range of health problems, even plague and sudden death. In an age when human physiology and the mechanisms of propagation were still largely mysterious, the horrible image of plague, once it took hold of the imagination and the emotions, was regarded as a major factor in the pathology of the disease itself.

This credence in the imagination's role in disease had ancient roots; we need only recall Thucydides' observation that during the plague of Athens. "what was most terrible in the whole affliction was the despair when someone realized he was sick, for immediately forming the judgment that there was no hope, they tended much more to give themselves up instead of holding out." (9) Beginning in the Renaissance, physicians, surgeons, philosophers, literati, and priests throughout Europe formulated theories that linked imagination and disease, and by the seventeenth century this field of inquiry had taken on a modern, empirical cast. (10) One important impulse came from Daniel Sennert (1572-1637), who documented numerous cases in which plague was contracted not through contact, but either as the result of experiencing fright at the sights and sounds of the disease's effects (such as when a wagon carrying cadavers to the graveyard passed by) or after a terrifying dream. These cases proved to Sennert that "the passion of the soul affectively accelerates the plague and alters the body." (11) Robert Burton argued similarly in his 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy that the agitated imagination can kill, citing the case of a man who died instantly of fear on coming to the mistaken conclusion that he had been in the presence of a person stricken with plague. The lesson drawn by Burton was that "the mind most effectively works upon the body, producing by its passions and perturbations miraculous effects, cruel diseases, and sometimes death itself." (12)

The power of a distraught imagination to generate plague in the absence of other, extrinsic causes received confirmation from successive generations of physicians, including those who treated victims of the plague that struck Rome in 1656 (when Poussin would paint another plague picture, The Vision of Saint Francesca Romana). (13) Written during this outbreak, physician Gregorio Rossi's plague treatise advised, "Avoid altogether sadness and lust: The mind should be happy, and it should not fall into contemplation." (14) From the same years, a plague treatise by papal physician Matteo Naldi linked emotional trauma to the body's susceptibility to plague:

... the onset of [plague] occurs when the victims experience ... new perturbations of the soul and of the blood, either because of their affection for those who die first, or because of the fear of having received the contagion from the latter, or because of some other trauma; these perturbations usually give rise to the progression of the disease, as a kind of final trigger, like a little spark from a stone landing in kinding that is all ready to catch fire. (15) Even members of the clergy by this time were convinced that sadness and psychological pain could lead to plague and death. Geronimo Gastaldi, a prelate who had served as general commissioner of pesthouses during Rome's plague of 1656, took up this position in a treatise he wrote after that outbreak. He concluded from his experiences that "the imagination merely frightened by the plague is enough to bring on the disease." (16)

While the medical community of the seventeenth century concurred that emotional agitation-including that caused by...

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