Come to this fine and hilly old industrial city and find a meditation on terror rendered in Renaissance and baroque oils.
There are paintings of babies seeking succor from plague-ridden mothers, of the saintly tending to the mortally ill, and of men and women recoiling from death's touch. Franco Mormando, a soft-spoken former Jesuit, has assembled this exhibit -- "Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500 to 1800" -- at the Worcester Art Museum, and it features a great many artistic worthies, from Tiepolo to Canaletto to Van Dyck.
But what gives it a haunting and modern resonance is the evocation of contagion and helplessness, and the fear that is their handmaiden.
"For 300 years plague hung over the lives of Europeans like an omnipresent cloud," said Mormando, who is an Italian studies professor at Boston College. "I had just begun assembling this exhibit when September 11th came along and we were living in this state of utter helplessness."
He nodded toward the paintings, arrayed in cool and shadowed halls. "The preoccupations began to feel very familiar."
In an age of subway bombs and anthrax and avian flu, when thousands of Americans pass waking hours trying to manage their fears, Mormando and three fellow curators -- from the University of Massachusetts, Clark University and the College of the Holy Cross -- have fashioned a strikingly timely exhibit from 37 paintings drawn from European and American collections. One might argue that Renaissance Italy is so distant as to offer little insight into our own anxieties, Mormando acknowledged.
But the corrosive anxiety in these paintings feels current.
"The specter of terrorist-disseminated plagues, the anthrax and smallpox has kept us in a state of collective anxiety, if not panic," Mormando said. "We have come to realize, as they did, that fear is our new reality.
"The question," he continued, "is how this fear forces us to change our reality. For a brief time we had confidence that science would overcome anything. Now we return to something older."
The plague paintings are characteristically Italian, the gruesome nature of the subject never extinguishing the beauty and delicacy of the oils chosen, or the artist's appreciation of classical form. A large and handsome canvas by Giovanni Martinelli titled "Memento Mori" ("Remember, you shall die") hangs in the first room of the exhibition. Handsomely attired young dandies and two women make merry around a table laden with grapes and peaches and berry tarts when from the dark shadows a skeleton approaches holding an hourglass. A young man, eyes wide, takes on death's gray pallor, and a young woman stares at him with a palpable gasp of horror.
Plague was the visitor half expected for hundreds of years. While historical accounts tend to dwell on grand outbreaks -- the civilization-altering Black Death of 1348 and the epidemics of 1575 and 1630 -- nary a year passed without plague breaking out in some walled town or port city.
"It's no exaggeration to say that when the Italians were not living through the plague they were anxiously awaiting its return," Mormando said. "There was no such thing as a 'little outbreak.' When the plague came there was no escape."
Mormando, 49, grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in downtown Manhattan and came up with the idea for this exhibit -- which runs through Sept. 25 -- from his work in Renaissance and baroque art. He had helped rediscover a painting by Tintoretto that depicted the raising of the leper Lazarus from the dead, one of the most spectacular of Jesus' miracles.
"I discovered that many paintings depicted Lazarus, because he was the plague saint," Mormando said. "Curiosity got the better of me, and as I researched I found art filled with references to the plague, to the point of consuming preoccupation."
Mormando looked for clues with a detective's eye. Bernardo Strozzi paints a naturalistic scene of a young woman pouring water from a brass jug into a poor boy's bowl while a crippled old man awaits his turn. It's an allusion to the bubonic plague, which visited an unquenchable thirst upon its victims. The charity of those willing to brave the plague was considered a church-sanctified corporal work of mercy.
Other clues are easier to discern. Plague paintings often depict a man holding his nose in an attempt to forestall the stench from the pus-filled bodies of the dying. (Anyone who smelled the strange odors near Manhattan's Ground Zero in the days after the towers collapsed and burned would feel a twinge of horrible recognition.) It is perhaps curious that, given his subject, Mormando seems by nature an optimist. He believes in art's transcendence and its ability to illuminate the human condition. In this he is not so remote from the Renaissance Italians, who conceived of art as a spiritual remedy in the face of unspeakable horror.
"In Italy, the prevailing ethos was that you painted for catharsis," he said, "and to give people hope through beauty."
But as Mormando researched plague art in the days after Sept. 11, he noticed less salutary parallels. When a pandemic descended upon them, Italians gave security precedence over all else. There were quarantines and censorship -- town fathers feared that talk of plague might wreck their economy, much as the modern Chinese government delayed releasing word of the SARS virus for fear of the economic devastation. The rich fled in sealed carriages to country villas, and the poor and artisan classes as often found themselves locked in their homes or in odorous and wretched public plague hospitals known as lazarettos.
Most accepted the church's insistence that the pestilence was God's punishment on his sinful and disobedient children. The hope was to find a saint who might offer heavenly intercession.
"The popes, the cardinals, the bishops, viewed medicine as well and good, but the ultimate cause of the plague was sinfulness," Mormando said. "It was a simplistic explanation."
He paused and added: "Now our leaders react to the terrible times by telling us the evil like to destroy the good. That, too, is a simplistic and self-consoling answer."
So saints cried, peasants prayed, artists painted -- and still anxiety hung like a miasmic cloud while tens of millions died. As he prepared this exhibit and glanced at the jittery modern world around him, did Mormando despair?
He shook his head. He left the Jesuit order recently after 20 years, no longer confident of his church -- but he has not abandoned faith.
"Plague has been with us and we've survived," he said. "How we behave in times of plague can define us. Out of horror we can find inspiration."
-- Michael Powell
It "began to feel very familiar," curator Franco Mormando says.