Povertade innamorata Grand'è la tua signoria!
JACOPONE DA TODI*
THEY stand in the extreme left-hand corner of Orcagna Triumph of Death in Santa Croce, four beggars -- one blind, one old, one crippled, one merely hungry. They are the personification of poverty. All of them but the blind man, whose head is thrust upwards, eagerly listening to what he cannot see, are watching the figure of Death, descending with her scythe upon mankind. But while, at the other side of the fresco, the rich merchants and priors and pretty women are shrinking from her in terror, the beggars have stretched out their hands towards her: why has she been so slow? They are the men who in Fra Bernardino's time -- and indeed for many centuries before and after -- were to be found at many street-corners, at every church-door: the derelicts of society, living wholly upon alms -- la poveraglia.
How large a proportion they formed of the population of the Tuscan cities which Fra Bernardino knew, it would be difficult to say. But certainly in trying to imagine his world, it is necessary to remember the sheer amount of physical suffering that often lay before his eyes, and how many of the people to whom he spoke had never had quite enough to eat.
Impoverished, as we have described elsewhere, by the decrease of her trade and the rise of that of Florence, harassed by the Free Companies, and decimated by the frequent outbreaks of the Black Death -- of which three took place during Fra Bernardino's lifetime1 -- Siena, a city without a harbour or a river, had one problem which took precedence over all others: how to feed her hungry poor. At the end of the thirteenth century she had attempted to secure bread for her population by annexing both the lands of