In 1363 the Black Death struck central Italy for the second time, causing a detectable shift in notions of the afterlife and patterns of charitable giving. Throughout Tuscany and Umbria, patricians and peasants alike abandoned their previous practice of dividing bequests into small sums, combining them instead into last gifts to enhance their "fame and glory" and that of their lineages. Illustrative of the new mentality, religious art patronage spread to new social classes, touching even peasants, who sought to be represented "in their very likeness" at the feet of their patron saints. From the supposed center of Renaissance culture-Florence-to the citadel of Franciscan devotion-Assisi-this change in sentiment spurred new levels of demand for monumental burials, testamentary commissions for art, and other efforts to exert control over the living from the grave.
In his award-winning study, Death and Property in Siena, historian Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., used close analysis of last wills to chart transformations in mentalities over a six-hundred-year history. In The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, he applies the same methods to compare six Italian city-states-Arezzo, Florence, Perugia, Assisi, Pisa, and Siena-showing the rise of a new Renaissance cult of remembrance. But this new cult was not Burckhardt's Renaissance "individualism" tout court. Instead, the new piety grew in tandem with reverence for the ancestors and a strong sense of family identity that flowed down male blood lines.
Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., is professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and the author of The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence and co-editor of Portraits of Medieval and Renaissance Living: Essays in Memory of David Herlihy. His Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in the Italian Renaissance and Death and Property in Siena, winner of the Catholic Historical Association's Howard R. Marraro Prize for Italian History, are also available from Johns Hopkins.