How have plagues and pandemics influenced the arts?

Professor of literature Justin Clemens and artistic director Dr Suzie Fraser describe how throughout history, writers and artists have explored the impact of plagues and pandemics on humanity

Dr Andi Horvath

Published 15 April 2020

Episode 76

One of the things about literature is that it always responds immediately to what’s happening in the environment, says Associate Professor Justin Clemens from the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

“People started writing responses to the plague immediately, but the most famous book is probably Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which was written after the plague in Florence of 1348,” says Professor Clemens.

The Decameron is a group of stories united by the overarching tale of a group of young aristocrats who have retreated to the hills to avoid the plague.

“They didn’t have Zoom, they didn’t have the internet and so they tell each other stories over the course of two weeks,” Professor Clemens says.

Dr Suzie Fraser adds that the Black Death, or the Bubonic Plague, was also depicted by visual artists using representations of death, pestilence and disaster.

“One of the most prevalent visual allegories that emerged in the Middle Ages was the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death,” Dr Fraser says.

“This theme depicts a universality to death where the living and dead exist side-by-side. Living people who are rich and poor, young and old, all genders and classes are being targeted, are being tugged, pulled and harangued into the afterlife.”

Fast forward to today, and COVID-19 is also bringing out some very positive examples of public creativity and citizen artists, says Dr Fraser.

“Dr Kate Just from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, along with Dr Tal Fitzpatrick, started an Instagram project titled COVID-19 Global Quilt.

“This project invites people to contribute a patch to the quilt which reflects their experience of the current pandemic.”

Episode recorded: April 8, 2020.

Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.

Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.

Co-production: Silvi Van-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.

Banner image: 17th Century Woodcut Depicting Londoners Fleeing from the Plague An illustration showing Londoners fleeing the country because of the plague. Printed 1630. (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

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