Italy's body collectors and beauty

The history of Italian cities and their brush with the Black Death are a reminder of humanity's ability to adapt and overcome

Milan’s San Bernardino alle Ossa church boasts a splendid interior with a storied past. Inside the church is a room with a wall of human skulls and bones (above), some of which are believed to be those of plague victims.
Milan’s San Bernardino alle Ossa church boasts a splendid interior with a storied past. Inside the church is a room with a wall of human skulls and bones (above), some of which are believed to be those of plague victims.PHOTOS: RONAN O’CONNELL
Milan’s San Bernardino alle Ossa church (above) boasts a splendid interior with a storied past. Inside the church is a room with a wall of human skulls and bones, some of which are believed to be those of plague victims.
Milan’s San Bernardino alle Ossa church (above) boasts a splendid interior with a storied past. Inside the church is a room with a wall of human skulls and bones, some of which are believed to be those of plague victims.PHOTOS: RONAN O’CONNELL
The churches of San Simpliciano in Milan (above) and Santo Stefano in Bologna were places of refuge during the Black Death.
The churches of San Simpliciano in Milan (above) and Santo Stefano in Bologna were places of refuge during the Black Death.PHOTOS: RONAN O’CONNELL
The churches of San Simpliciano in Milan and Santo Stefano in Bologna (above) were places of refuge during the Black Death.
The churches of San Simpliciano in Milan and Santo Stefano in Bologna (above) were places of refuge during the Black Death.PHOTOS: RONAN O’CONNELL

While we shower praise on coronavirus front-line staff, some pandemic workers were despised during the world's worst-ever outbreak in the 1300s - none more so than Italy's infamous "Becchini" body collectors.

All across Italy, homes were boarded up. Hidden inside, terrified residents huddled together, praying they would not be the next victims of a virus outbreak that had killed more than half the population in some Italian cities.

Occasionally, a ruckus was heard in the streets. Whistling, singing or even laughter would drift into the fortified homes.

You see, not everyone was scared of the Black Death. Some Italians, in fact, saw opportunity amid this crisis. If you possessed the courage, the composure, the recklessness to stare down the bubonic plague, you could potentially make a small fortune.

That was the ethos of one group of bold men. Rather than holing up and waiting for the pandemic to abate, they took a job no one else would. Called the Becchini, they were Italy's corpse collectors.

Unlike our admired coronavirus front-line workers, the Becchini were hated and feared.

They didn't just gather and bury the bodies of plague victims. Sensing the chance to make easy money, some ransacked the houses of the dead, extorted money from families, and even threatened to murder ill people to create new "business".

I was shocked when I learnt the sordid story of the Becchini on one of my most recent trips to Italy. Fascinated by what I had read about the plague's lasting impact on this nation, I decided to visit a host of ancient sites linked to the Black Death.

In a quiet side street in downtown Milan, I came across a church which dates back nearly 1,800 years where many plague victims were given funerals.

Modest in size by Milanese standards, the red-brick church of San Simpliciano was a place of refuge during the pandemic.

So, too, was Santo Stefano church, which I found in the under-rated northern Italian city of Bologna. One of the highlights of Bologna's wonderfully authentic Old Town area, this sprawling complex of religious structures is almost 1,500 years old.

Ruthless, unscrupulous and dangerous - that was how most Florence residents viewed the Becchini.

At best, they charged high prices to collect bodies. Families unwilling to pay were stuck living alongside the bodies of their deceased relatives.

At worst, the Becchini ran amok, taking advantage of others' misery.

Bologna was also devastated by the Black Death, but avoided the apocalyptic scenes in Florence, where bodies were piled up in the grounds of the Santa Maria Novella church.

As I admired the intricately decorated facade of this church, I found it difficult to imagine the grim events that unfolded here.

While the coronavirus is unlike anything we have experienced, imagine being in Europe in 1347. Each day, news arrived of another village, town or city that had been decimated by a ferocious virus creeping across the continent from east to west.

Unlike Covid-19, which spread rapidly due to air travel, the march of the Black Death was slow and steady. Originating in China, the plague advanced along the trade routes that connected Asia with the Mediterranean and North Africa. By 1347, it had arrived in Italy, before reaching France, Spain, and England in 1348, and then moving into northern Europe over the next two years.

The Italians were not afforded a warning. While many other European nations knew what was coming, the plague ambushed Italy.

As I stood in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence's main public square, I considered the chaos and terror that had gripped this city. This metropolis in Tuscany was hit harder than almost any other part of Italy.

A thriving hub of art, fashion and commerce, Florence in the 1340s was a densely populated city of about 100,000 people. Some historians believe up to two-thirds of its residents were killed by the Black Death.

The task of collecting and burying these corpses was so perilous that Italy's regular system for disposing of the dead broke down. Charities and churches that previously organised such services for free were no longer able to get willing staff.

Enter the Becchini. Mostly from the lower classes or of criminal backgrounds, these men filled the breach. For a fee, they would come to a home, collect a dead body and then bury it.

But they were not Good Samaritans. Ruthless, unscrupulous and dangerous - that was how most Florence residents viewed the Becchini.

At best, they charged high prices to collect bodies. Families unwilling to pay these hefty fees were stuck living alongside the bodies of their deceased relatives.

At worst, the Becchini ran amok, taking advantage of others' misery. Commonly, they would steal the valuables of the corpse.

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Sometimes, this would escalate into robbery of the deceased's family. Family members who refused to pay up were sometimes assaulted or even received murder threats.

The Becchini became as despised as the plague itself. That is why they were given that name - derived from the Italian verb "beccare", which means to peck at something for sustenance. In this way, Italians perceived the Becchini as feeding off the dead. They were human vultures.

Seven centuries later, these scavengers entered my mind as I stared at a wall of human skulls and bones in a room inside Milan's San Bernardino alle Ossa church.

Carefully arranged to create a number of patterns, including a Catholic cross, it is believed that some of these human remains were plague victims.

This room and its contents are undeniably macabre. Yet, after a few minutes, I began to see these arrangements of human remnants as inspiring and unique.

They represent the creativity of humans. They showcase our ability to adapt to hardship. They highlight our capacity for creating beauty from tragedy. Even the ghoulish Becchini could not tarnish that.

• The writer is an Australian journalist and photographer who splits his time between Ireland and Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2020, with the headline 'Italy's body collectors and beauty'. Print Edition | Subscribe