Images of the Plague in Rome, 1656

Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi’s Plague Broadsides

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In 1657, the Roman publisher Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi issued a series of three large prints depicting daily life in Rome during the plague epidemic of 1656. The prints are each composed of a series of vignettes depicted in four or five horizontal strips, almost like a graphic novel or comic book. The French artist Louis Rouhier probably designed the prints. Similar series were produced by other publishers in Rome that year and, a decade later, marking the plague in London in 1665.

Individual vignettes from the three de Rossi prints featured in the image gallery above recall our current condition with the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. People pore over the lists of the dead, hospitals are set up at churches throughout the city, carts or boats transport the sick or the dead, and trenches at the edge of town serve as mass graves. Those who are able flee the city. Measures for quarantining travelers at Porta del Popolo or “disinfecting” cash with vinegar remind us that basic tenets of public health have a long tradition, even if the importance of hand washing only became clear during the course of the nineteenth century.

De Rossi’s broadsides offer a graphic, sobering perspective on the recurring human ordeal of epidemics. Yet we can take solace in the fact that no pandemic lasts forever: this, too, shall pass.

Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi, Ordini diligenze e ripari fatti con universal beneficio dalla paterna Pietra di N. S. PP. Alesandro VII. et emin.mi SS. card.li della S. congr.me della sanita per liberare la citta di Roma dal contagio, 1657
Source: Rijksmuseum / public domain

Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi, Episodes in the plague in Rome of 1656, 1657
Source: Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0

Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi, Episodes from the outbreak of plague in Rome, 1656, 1657
Source: Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0

Further Reading

Ellen B. Wells, “Prints Commemorating the Rome, 1656 Plague Epidemic,” Annali dell’Istituto e Museo di storia della Scienza di Firenze 10:1 (1985): 15-21.