Party like it's 1656: The end of the pandemic should be a moment to celebrate says historian

Studying music and culture from the 17th and 18th centuries gave historian Keith Johnston a vision for how we could mark the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnston says we can draw inspiration from a 10-day festival hosted in Naples at the end of the 1656 epidemic.
Keith Johnston says Neapolitans loved fireworks and they often played a central role during festivals. (ANNA MONACO/AFP via Getty Images)

Originally published on April 23, 2021.

Although it may seem so far away, Keith Johnston says when the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end, we should celebrate. 

Johnston, a music historian and sessional lecturer at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., found inspiration in 17th-century Neapolitan traditions and the celebration they held at the end of their pandemic. 

"Early modern history, this period, I think, reminds us just that making art, being together, engaging in ritual, is something that humans will always need to do," said Johnston in an interview with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Historian Keith Johnston sees 17th-century festival as inspiration for modern post-pandemic celebrations (Submitted by Keith Johnston)

When a plague swept through Naples, Italy in 1656, Johnston said Neapolitans lost their connection to social life and civic traditions. When the epidemic ended, the city threw a 10-day festival to both celebrate and memorialize the hardship they'd endured — a kind of societal exclamation mark at the end of a dark chapter. 

Framed against the backdrop of gun fire and cannons, trumpets, choirs and fireworks, Johnston describes the festival as "a feast for the senses."

In an article for The Conversation, Johnston draws links between the hardships faced by Neopolitans during the 1656 plague and modern challenges posed by COVID-19. 

The rampant illness and death, closing of public spaces, and the loss of shared traditions that Johnston describes Neapolitans facing sound eerily familiar to today. Johnston hopes we'll find a connection to Naples beyond the shared experience of pandemic hardship by following their lead on joyful reunification when it's over. 

"I think there is a danger, of course, in romanticizing the past. And I'm quite sure that to live in 1656, quite apart from the pandemic, would have been terrible in many ways," said Johnston.

"But one of the things I think that history does, or examples like these kinds of festivals, or these sorts of rituals, is they remind us of the way that humanity continually finds new ways to express kind of our deepest needs."

How windows allow Italians to gather for a glass of wine

2 years ago
Duration 2:13
With much of Italy in various stages of lockdown, restaurants in Florence are reopening a centuries-old way of gathering for a glass of wine safely — windows.

Balancing grief and celebration

Johnston said it's a Neapolitan tradition to mark important occasions with massive, city-wide celebrations. 

"It was thought to be, in a way, that history wouldn't happen or things didn't happen or didn't have meaning unless you actually went out to the streets and marked it in this communal or civic way," he said. 

While Johnston would like to see some kind of celebration held to mark the end of pandemic life, he's also interested in integrating the reflective components of Neapolitan festivities. 

"The festival itself started off quite solemn, more religious in character. As it moved through the week, it became more civic and more triumphant and more fun," he said.

"Humans have this weird and wonderful ability, I think, to both weep with sadness, and then with joy, within the space of a few minutes. I think art … gives us permission sometimes to do that. I think festivals, art, activities that bring us together, actually make space for that." 

Finding connections through art and community 

Johnston said art played an important role in the lives of Neapolitans during this period, not just for its aesthetics but also for its believed capacity to heal people and perform miracles. 

During the plague, "one of the things that they did is they commissioned these frescoes that were going to be painted by Mattia Preti. And they were going to be mounted above the seven city gates, and they were meant to help protect Naples," he explained. 

Johnston said that while society is unlikely to return to the belief that "art performs this kind of miraculous function," it can still serve a shared purpose. 

"If we think about what art does sometimes is that art takes the chaos of the world, it takes noise, and it organizes it into music, it takes rocks and it organizes it into buildings, it takes minerals, and it makes them into paints that make an image that communicates, that has meaning for us."

Johnston suggests we take those activities that we've turned to for joy throughout the pandemic, like enjoying art remotely, reading a good book or dancing to music, and bring them out into the wider community to create new connections. 

"Are there ways that we can do that today that make us feel a part of something that is bigger than ourselves? That makes us feel a part of something great," he said. 

Finding common ground in an era that's rife with political and social division may not be as simple as hosting a 10-day celebration — but Johnston sees it as one place to start. 

"I guess why I'm drawn or attracted to the idea that something big, that something maybe joyous but messy, is necessary is that our tanks need to be filled up. And I think the promise of that, I like that idea. That there is going to be an abundance coming."