By Remi Chiu

In March 2020 Raffaele Kohler, a Milanese trumpeter quarantined at home on account of COVID-19, found internet fame when a video of him playing his instrument at his window began circulating. The symbolism, Kohler recognizes, sets an optimistic tone: a dark room with a grille at the window evoking a sort of prison, and the music flowing out of it as a means of imaginative escape and contact with the outside world. In an interview, Kohler explains that he played in order to instill hope, to cheer up and lend strength to his city. He also notes Milan has never faced such complete disruption before, not even under the bombardment of war.

In fact, Milan has met with and overcome similar circumstances before, albeit not within living memory. In one well-documented case—an especially devastating outbreak of plague in Milan between 1576 and 1578—the city also ground to a halt. And the Milanese, under a strict quarantine, even adopted a similar musical response.

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By the time Milan was struck by the plague in August 1576, the city already should have been on alert. An outbreak began in Trent the year before, spread to the neighboring Piedmont region in March 1576, and besieged Venice and Mantua that same summer. How the disease slipped past Milan’s city walls was a matter of much rumor and speculation. It was perhaps the fleeing Mantuans who carried the contagion. Others suspected the gathering in Milan of foreign nobles who were honoring Don John of Austria with tournaments and festivals. High-minded writers who saw the plague as an act of God seized on these games as indicative of the kind of moral lassitude that would invite divine punishment. Over the course of eighteen months, the scourge took 25,000 Milanese lives, or roughly twenty percent of the city’s population.

A lot of what happened during the outbreak is frighteningly familiar. By the end of the summer, most of the Milanese nobility, including the governor, did the only thing that could guarantee their safety and fled, even as movement in and out of the city was restricted. By September, there were as many as 300 deaths per day. Industry, trade, and commerce faltered rapidly, and it became so difficult to provision the city that it was constantly on the brink of famine. During this time, the plague hospital was filled to capacity, and temporary huts could not be built quickly enough. Those who could not be admitted were shut in their own homes, their doors marked with white crosses drawn with lye. And as the death toll climbed, increasingly draconian measures were enacted. Starting in late October 1576, a general quarantine kept nearly everyone in their homes. Special licenses were required for shops to remain open and for heads of households to venture out. The quarantine was not relaxed until the end of March 1577.

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On the last day of January 2020, Italy suspended flights to China and declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19. Parts of Lombardy, among the hardest-hit regions in Italy, began lockdowns in late February. Carnival was canceled. Schools and some workplaces were closed. In the second week of March, by which time there were over 9,000 documented cases, quarantine measures were first expanded to cover most of Northern Italy, then the entire country. Travel in and out of the afflicted areas was restricted, personal distancing in public was advised, and many social amenities were shuttered. Restaurants and bars were subsequently closed, and factories were ordered to suspend operation near the end of March. The health system in Lombardy is overwhelmed; some hospitals have had to set up temporary buildings and tents.

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Before Milan was locked down at the end of October in 1576, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo decided to hold a series of three emergency processions through the streets of the city in order to rectify the people’s relationship with God, who was ultimately in control of such disasters. These processions attracted an enormous number of participants, who set off each day from the cathedral, carrying banners, images, and relics, and singing the Litany of the Saints repeatedly while on the move. This formulaic call-and-response chant consists of a series of invocations and petitions, answered by a simple “pray for us” or “hear us,” etc. The bulk of the prayer, a roll-call of names of holy patrons, was meant to be customized for local usage. The names of saints who were important to the community (in Milan’s case, Sts. Calimerus, Sisinnius, and Celsus, for example, who are almost never listed in Litanies elsewhere) or whose churches were along the route were inserted among the more universal ones, so the list of patrons became even more meaningful to the participants and to the occasion. To encourage participation in this devotion, Borromeo sent his followers out into the streets to teach the poor how to sing this Latin chant. And, as the column of participants snaked through the streets, they entered churches along the way and sang antiphons, hymns, and even motets devoted to the patrons of those places.

The general quarantine abruptly put an end to these public processions. But Borromeo came up with a plan. He directed his clergy to prepare each household by teaching them a variety of prayers, litanies, and psalms. During the quarantine, bells across the parishes rang seven times a day to call the households to prayer. At that time, according to Borromeo’s instructions, “Litanies or supplications will be chanted . . . in such a way that one group sings from the windows or the doors of their homes, and then another group sings and responds in turn.”

This directive was evidently put into practice and impressed a number of chroniclers. Giovanni Pietro Giussano described Milan as a religious cloister during these times, with its citizens “serving God in the enclosure of their cells, an image of the heavenly Jerusalem filled with the praises of the angelic hosts.” Paolo Bisciola similarly reports:

When the plague began to grow, this practice [i.e., of processions] was interrupted, so as not to allow the congregations to provide it more fuel. The orations did not stop, however, because each person stood in his house at the window or door and made them from there. . . . Just think, in walking around Milan, one heard nothing but song, veneration of God, and supplication to the saints, such that one almost wished for these tribulations to last longer.

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The tune that Kohler trumpeted from his window, “O mia bela Madunina,” is something of a Milanese anthem. The “Madunina” invoked in the song refers to the statue of Mary atop the spire of Milan Cathedral, of which she is the patron. The chorus carries the comforting words:

O my beautiful Madunina,
you who shine from afar,
all golden and small,
you dominate Milan.
So, come without fear,
we will extend our hand to you.
The entire world is a village, indeed,
but Milan is a great Milan.

Under the protection of the Virgin, Milan finds its strength. Rousing cries of “Forza Milano” erupted after Kohler’s performance.

Kohler is certainly not alone in performing music at his window; videos from around the world capture this practice. Frequently, like Kohler, balcony performers would choose patriotic or popular local tunes. As night fell, Sienese neighbors sang “Canto della Verbena,” which touchingly proclaims, “Long live our Siena, the most beautiful of cities.” Citizens from Milan to Wuhan to Baltimore sing their respective national anthems. While most of the songs sung by neighbors today no longer carry the spiritual character of the Litany—just as Western medicine has lost its religious character—they, like the Litany, are widely known in the community and allow for participation (and sometimes in a call-and-response or alternatim manner). What’s more, many of these songs proudly invoke the shared history and culture of a place, in the same way that Litany called on local intercessors. Montrealers invoked Leonard Cohen—one of their own patron saints, after a fashion—with a performance of “So Long, Marianne” from their balconies.

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To cheer up, to increase solidarity, and to instill hope were exactly the objectives that the inmates of the Milanese plague hospital had in mind when they decided, against the strict orders of the warden, to throw a ball one night within their confines. (Today, Italians are hosting dance parties and doing the Macarena on their balconies.) When one of the religious administrators caught wind of the singing and dancing, the story goes, he went to the plague pit, hauled out one of the corpses and, gaining entry to the party, threw it into the center of the room, rebuking the revelers for debauching and offending God when death was so close at hand. His admonishments quickly put an end to the festivities.

Yet music and merriment were precisely what physicians at the time prescribed for the plague. Doctors earnestly believed that negative emotions left the body susceptible to the disease. It was even thought that the mere thought of plague would directly bring on physical buboes, the characteristic symptom of plague. Consequently, doctors routinely encouraged the use of stories, games, and music as a prophylaxis. Dr. Niccolò Massa, for example, writes in his 1540 plague treatise:

Many, from fear and imagination alone, succumb to pestilential fever. Therefore, it is necessary to be joyful . . . . One should stay in a bright and well-decorated home with scents and fumigations. Or take a walk in a well-appointed garden, since the soul is restored by this. Furthermore, the soul gladdens in meeting dear friends and in talking of joyful and funny things. It is especially advantageous to listen to songs and lovely instrumental music, and to play now and then, and to sing with a quiet voice, to read books and pleasant stories, to listen to funny stories, [and] to look at pictures that please the eyes.

Today, the psychosomatic bonds that hold together the human body are arguably looser. While scientists are beginning to understand the effects that happiness or stress can have on our immune systems, few would seriously believe that merely thinking or talking about COVID-19 would bring on the disease. Regardless, as if by instinct, we still turn to music to buttress our mental health. Participants in spontaneous communal music making describe the capacity of music to uplift the spirit, release it from worry, and bring joy not only to themselves but to the entire neighborhood (and, via the web, beyond).

To make music is to allow its abstract logic to regulate our bodies and our minds. What’s more, to make music communally requires a willing contribution and submission to the larger goal of the group. In that, there is a powerful and joyous metaphor for what we are being asked to do civically in times of extraordinary crises. Certainly, no one can sensibly wish—as Bisciola nearly did—“for these tribulations to last longer.” But, like him, we can at least take heart in the music and music making that provide such salutary benefits to individuals and their communities under quarantine.

Remi ChiuRemi Chiu is associate professor of musicology at Loyola University Maryland. A specialist in early music and the history of medicine, he is the author of Plague and Music in the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and editor of a volume of plague-related renaissance polyphony for A-R Editions.