Skeletons in the Church

At the church of St Agostino in San Gimignano I spotted a cartoony skull and crossbones carved into a large marble slab in the middle aisle of the floor.  Inspecting further, the marble slab was jointed. A small oval piece – about two feet wide had two embedded hooks on either side.The engraving had two long-bonds tied together with a ribbon and a foreboding skull on top, resembling the classic symbol for toxicity, which I have come to know well working in the chemistry lab.

Our guide informed me that this marble slab was part of a tomb. When wealthy people died, they were placed into the mass grave. The oval piece was lifted and the body slipped inside. Apparently this was the origin for the phrase–filthy rich. During the summer, the bodies would smell up the church from within their tombs. I cannot help but wonder if there are still human skeletons under that cartoon-looking skull and crossbones. Later in history, there were laws that no persons should be buried in the church–supposedly, to prevent disease.

Speaking of, there were walls of Fresco paintings all over the church and many of them depicted angels and protectors asking for relief from the plague. In the 1300s the plague decimated the population of the region from about 120,000 people to 40,000. With no medical science, they had no idea what spread the disease. Doctor-types would wear masks with long, pointy nose pieces–think masquerade ball- and stuff the nose full of flowers to cover the stink of bodies. I learned about the origins of perfume in Italy–before the tradition spread to France. People thought that frequent bathing made the skin weak and therefore more susceptible to contracting the plague. Because of this, they stopped bathing entirely and concocted perfumes to cover the rampant body odor. Delightful and almost humorous to think of the perfume industry now.

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