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The Misericordia c. 1910 10/02/2011

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c. 1910

Most visitors to Florence have seen the brethren of the Misericordia bound on some mission of mercy, gliding silently – black ghosts carrying a black catafalque – through the city. All heads are uncovered as they pass, and the most ribald and uncouth carter draws his mules on one side to give more room. No wonder the Florentines are proud of their Confraternity, the finest charitable institution that ever was founded. Anyone can give money, but the brethren give personal fatigue, and are often exposed to infection. Neither winter snow nor burning summer sun stops the devoted band. Three times a day the bell of the Misericordia Chapel, in the Piazza del Duomo, rings to call those of the Confraternity whose turn it is to carry sick poor to the hospital. Ten brethren usually go with each litter, under the orders of a Capo di Guardia, who is distinguished by a bag tied round his waist containing brandy, cough lozenges, and the key of a drawer under the litter in which is a drinking-cup, a stole, a crucifix, the ritual, and some holy water, in case the sick person should die on the way.

The long overcoat and the cowl with two holes for the eyes are made of black cotton, and black gaiters are worn so that the brethren may not be recognised by the colour of their trousers. The cowl may only be thrown back outside the city gates and in certain specified streets, and if it rains hard or the sun is powerful, a black felt hat is worn over it. Four brethren carry the litter, which weighs about 180 lbs, and the reserve men keep one hand under the poles in case a bearer should stumble or fall. A slight tap on the pole is the signal for changing bearers, and this is so skilfully done that the sick or wounded arc never shaken. The fresh men say as they relieve the others, ‘May God reward you!’ and the answer is: ‘Go in peace!’ If they have to go some distance, sixteen brethren are told off for service, and should the case be a very bad one, a brother walks on either side of the litter to watch the invalid’s face or feel his pulse.

Should the door of the house be too small to admit the litter, the Capo di Guardia and six brethren go to the sick-room. Tenderly and carefully they carry the invalid on a thick quilted coverlid to the litter, and the arched top is opened against the so curious passers-by should not see the sick person. Before leaving the room, the Capo di Guardia leaves a small sum on the table, in obedience to a legacy left for that purpose to the Confraternity by two pious citizens in long past days, and if the invalid is the bread-winner, or the poverty of the family evident, the Capo di Guardia begs the brethren to do yet another charity, and holding his hat together like a bag he goes from one to another to collect alms. He asks the sick person to whom the money is to be given, and, without counting, pours the contents of his hat into their hands. The members of the Misericordia take it by turn to go at stated hours to the houses of sick people to change their linen, or to sit up at night with those who arc too poor to pay a nurse.

In maladies like rheumatic fever, when the slightest touch is agony, they are often called by rich folk to lift an invalid – so gentle and sure from long habit is their touch. No brother is allowed to accept anything – money or food – save a glass of water, in any house. Someone is always on guard at the Misericordia Chapel, and if an accident occurs a message is sent there to call a litter. Then the great bell of Giotto’s Tower, just opposite the chapel, is tolled in a peculiar way – twice for an accident, three times for a death – to call the brethren who are on the list for that day. Twice it has happened to me that a shopman has left his wife to serve in the shop, while he hastily threw on his cloak and ran out of the door. The first time, being new to Florence, I thought the man had gone mad. My face, I suppose, showed surprise, for one of the customers said, ‘Eh, signora, don’t you hear the bell? An accident.’

A member of one of the oldest and most noble families of Florence told me his experience with the Misericordia. One evening in the old Ghetto, a poor woman, on the eve of her confinement, was lying in the room where her husband, his brother, and two children were ill with typhoid fever, and the Misericordia had been called to take her to the hospital. She lived on the ninth story of the tower of the old Tosa Palace, up a precipitous and narrow staircase with many turnings. The question arose how to carry her down in safety, and was solved by my friend. He crept under the quilt, which was held by four bearers, and on hands and knees he went backwards down the long staircase, with the poor woman on his back. It took nearly half an hour to reach the litter in the street, and the bearer was stiff for many days afterwards. To the baby boy, who came into the world three hours after the woman reached the hospital, he stood godfather, saw to the child’s education, and made a man of him.

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