“To leave the country and return to the city, what more can be said save that such and so great was the cruelty of heaven (and in part, peradventure, that of men) that, between March and the following July, what with the virulence of that pestiferous sickness…it is believed for certain that upward of a hundred thousand human beings perished within the walls of the city of Florence.”
So wrote Giovanni Boccaccio in the opening paragraphs of The Decameron, his 14th-century collection of novellas. Set in 1348, when Florence, Italy, was hit by the Black Death, the book’s stories are framed by the tale of 10 young people who spend their time waiting out the epidemic by reciting stories to one another.
Fast-forward to 2020, this masterpiece could be mistaken for a timely account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is why Triennale di Milano, the modern art museum in Milan, was inspired to launch a contemporary homage to the book. Every day, an artist, a musician or other creative person is invited to perform in the now-empty galleries of the museum. The performances are being streamed on Instagram for its audiences trapped at home.
This museum’s project celebrating the Italian literary masterpiece aims to provide an escape as it highlights the importance of sharing stories and culture. The same motive is at work in the Scuola Normale Superiore University of Pisa’s organized online readings of The Decameron. The book also is trending on online reading lists as a recommendation for people quarantined in their homes.
The current pandemic has disrupted lives worldwide. Most museums in New York City closed to visitors last week. Arts and culture are suffering a major blow as they are cut from people’s lives to avoid unnecessary outsized gatherings. Cultural institutions are innovating to introduce new ways of providing access to cultural content in new ways.
Italy has been hit hard by the pandemic, with 60 million people essentially confined to their homes. Last week, the effect was mostly limited to the northern region of Lombardy, where Milan is the central city. “We have to start again from culture,” Mayor Beppe Sala said in an Instagram post. “Let’s open something, we can start with museums or other institutions. Culture is life.”
The next day public museums reopened, with new regulations in place to handle the flow of visitors. “Obviously, our apprehension is still high,” said Elena Conenna, a press officer for the municipality. “Opening museums and exhibits is a way for us to slightly reopen our doors, giving a therapeutic and beneficial effect to our residents.”
The arts have long been considered a therapeutic tool for trauma. Research shows the positive neurological impact on those who interact with art passively (going to the museum) or actively (playing an instrument). “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” according to a 2015 University of California Berkeley study.
As the health emergency worsens, cities across the globe have deemed it too risky to keep museums open. “The only thing that can give a comforting role to the arts now is making them available online,” says Stefano Ghirlanda, professor of psychology and biology at Brooklyn College. “If there is an extended quarantine then people need to do something.”
Milan’s initiatives include providing free access to art, such as downloadable content from the local library system and cinematheque. Institutions beyond the Triennale di Milano have been inspired to create new content, tailored to engage audiences at home. Around the globe, shuttered institutions including the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are sharing parts of their collections online and in virtual tours.
Milan’s approach might serve as an example of the next steps ahead. “We are acting in two ways,” says Filippo Del Corno, chief councilor for culture. “The first is that of addressing the economic difficulties that affect the whole cultural sector.” He says initiatives such as “Mi lasci il tuo biglietto” (“Leave me your ticket”) were developed by theaters to ask people to not ask for their money back. “This could help defuse the negative effect on people who work in these sectors,” continued Del Corno.
“Secondly, we still want citizens to have access to culture and cultural institutions,” he says. “We are trying to find a way to ensure that culture is not an absence in people’s lives now that they are living in extraordinary circumstances.”