In 1499 the German astrologer Johann Stöffler published ‘Le Ephemerides‘, a work in which he predicted major catastrophes to occur in February 1524 as a result of a rare planetary conjunction. This astrological alignment was previously worked out by an ancient Persian astrologer named Abu Ma’shar who lived between 787-886 AD, whose studies Stöffler placed the utmost trust in, and concerned the then known planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Sun (the Sun was still considered a planet) that were to thicken in a relatively small region of the sky in the constellation of Pisces. This happened during the Renaissance, one of the highest moments ever reached by culture in the West, when man, placed at the centre of the universe and created by God, became the author of his own destiny also thanks to his earthly qualities.
From a historical point of view, the first decades of the Renaissance were a painful and troubled period of famine, disease and devastating wars, in which soldiers were shot at without respect by artillery and cannons. The most obvious and disturbing effect of this new military technology was the high number of deaths left on the battlefields, bodies horribly mutilated and deprived of burial, with serious damage to public health. Moreover, in this historical period, people were unleashed against minorities who acted as scapegoats, such as witches and Jews, creating fertile ground for the spread of prophecies, such as the well-known ones of Nostradamus. It is therefore not surprising that in this period numerous visions and apocalyptic prophecies followed one another with a persistent rhythm and the need to look for premonitory signs in the stars was exacerbated. Johann Stöffler’s prophecy had a great resonance in Europe, was widely commented on by scholars and spread to the people by itinerant preachers
The astrologer Niccolò Peranzone, in addition to a great rainfall and a rise in the level of rivers, foretold for February 4: “earthquakes, imprisonments, searches for treasures and alchemical objectives, construction of buildings, investigations of hidden things and administration of inheritance” .
Johannes Carion, astrologer of Gioacchino I di Brandeburgo, specified that the great rainfall would be harmful not only in the valleys protected by the mountains but that the coastal areas or those regions subject to the constellations of Pisces and Virgo would be particularly at risk. Furthermore, the flooded lands would have become barren in the following years, causing famine and death especially among the poor, while the following autumn would have brought lethal diseases to the populations. As a result, the nature of the devastation began to be limited to a single terrible flood that would have engulfed humanity as in Noah’s time, not only because of the unusual astral positions, but also as a just punishment for the sins of men.
Panic spread everywhere: in Vienna, since 1523, many people had sold fields and farms, while others postponed marriages and contracts, others deserted the work in the fields in the certainty of the imminent end. In Rome everyone believed in the imminent catastrophe, so much so that all the upper floors of the houses were rented and while the nobles preferred to abandon their city residences and move to the mountains, Pope Alexander VI found refuge in the hermitage of Camaldoli. The Venetian consul Lunardo Anselmi reported a disastrous storm that occurred in the city of Naples in October 1523, which lasted four days, during which the via di San Gennaro had turned into a river in flood that had overwhelmed trees and houses, causing the death of many people. These facts convinced the people that it was certainly a premonitory sign of the great scourge that would soon befall the world. The issue of the deluge became universal thanks to the press and popular dissemination of the various theories and interpretation of the signs of heaven: “it was a real global hit”. In essence, about sixty scholars produced more than a hundred pamphlets.
“The well-known politician and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli adhered to Stoffler’s theory of the end of the world and invited the population of Florence to take refuge in the nearby hills and live with the hermits. Leonardo da Vinci published a pamphlet explaining his disappointment on this hypothesis. catastrophic “.At a time when the people were searching the Bible for Noah’s instructions on how to build an ark, the noble Count von Iggleheim was probably the culmination of this case of collective distress: seriously concerned about the alarming news circulating in the country, the German aristocrat built a massive three-storey wooden ark on the Rhine River which was stormed by his fellow citizens on 20 February 1524, when rain began to fall after a long dry period. The ensuing riot resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and poor Count von Iggleheim was stoned to death during the riots.
Despite the cases of collective panic, not everyone believed the astrological prophecies and, since February coincided with Carnival, the theme became the object of satirical attacks, hoaxes and mockery. Carnival was also traditionally associated with the Flood, regardless of the 1524 prediction, as a return to chaos, to the primordial state, in behaviour and language, before the restoration of order sanctioned by Lent.
Johann Stöffler was later forced to admit that he had been mistaken about the possible consequences of the planetary conjunction, but by astronomically examining his date of birth he became convinced that he had to die on a certain day, because something should have fallen on his head from the sky. One day, while he was discussing with some friends in his house, trying to pick up a book from a shelf, a support fell off, causing all the books he was holding to fall on his head, seriously injuring him. He missed this prediction too and died of the plague in Tübingen in 1530.
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