There has been no recent shortage of middlebrow articles, essays, and thinkpieces highlighting connections between Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s most famous work, the Decameron, and the current outbreak of COVID-19. (1) For the uninitiated, the Decameron is a collection of 100 short stories surrounded by a frame narrative, similar in structure to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Brit-lit staple that it seems to have inspired. The frame narrative of the Decameron is set outside Florence, Italy, during the mid-fourteenth century Black Death. At the book’s open, seven women and three men have fled the city to the countryside to ride out the plague in an abandoned villa. To keep themselves occupied, they agree to each tell the group one story a night for ten nights (hence, one hundred total stories).
I am no Boccaccio scholar, though I did read a sizable chunk of the Decameron in an undergraduate course on the Middle Ages and have assigned excerpts to students in a couple of Western Civilization survey courses. Rather, my interest in the work (which I recently reread portions of) lies primarily in that frame narrative recounted above, in which the characters escape from their normal world to a comparatively remote (and posh) location for a time to avoid disease. The general parallels to social distancing are quite obvious, but I am more curious about the possible links between these characters’ actions and the distinctly modern creation and use of “luxury bunkers.” (2)
Like the Decameron, luxury bunkers–fortified and fancified underground homes, often built inside abandoned missile silos and similarly durable structures–have been in the news quite a bit as of late. You’ve probably seen stories in this vein already, but in case you haven’t, here is a fascinating video tour that will give you a sense of what I’m talking about:
As a recent Los Angeles Times piece reminds us, “Bunkers are nothing new,” (3) and anyone who (like me) grew up in Alabama will know just how commonplace tornado shelters and similar structures are. Luxury bunkers, however, are a different breed, with seemingly every whim catered to ahead of time. Inhabitants would not simply survive a crisis; they would do so in style.
I have been fascinated with these facilities since I first read about them several years ago, even doing a small amount of academic reading on the subject, but I have to confess a general skepticism regarding the practicability of the whole luxury bunker enterprise. For one, a recent study found that “the most curious statistic… was the common thread of five-to-ten-year leases for escape bunkers, as though the apocalypse would be obsolete in less than a decade.” (4) Of course, leases can always be renewed or taken on by other clients, and apocalyptic fears are hardly a new human preoccupation, but it remains to be seen if demand will hold for these elaborate dwellings in the long run, or if they will eventually be seen as curiosities much like fallout shelters are today.
Even more practically, though, I have been skeptical that tenants would be able to navigate their way to these remote structures (abandoned missile silos are generally out in the middle of nowhere, after all) in the event of a societal collapse. To be sure, some luxury bunker companies promise retrieval services–i.e., they will send trained professionals to rescue you–but again, in the event that the US is involved in a nuclear exchange or something of that magnitude, how much certainty can you really place that someone will come for you? As one writer for Vanity Fair recently put it,
The biggest question everyone asks: what are you gonna do if something happens, if you’re stuck, how are you going to get there? You have to have a realistic plan. If you’re survival-minded, you have a five-day head start on most everybody else…. You have to have the ability to get to where you’re going to stay during crisis situations, so [someplace like New Zealand] would be too far. (5)
The recent COVID-19 outbreak, though, will provide a test of these bunkers’ relative utility in the face of a more gradually unfolding crisis. While the disease has spread rapidly, mildly perceptive observers realized months ago that the US would eventually have to reckon with it, and of course its spread within the country has not been uniform. This has led to a sharp increase in the demand for luxury bunker purchases and leases (6), and while (as of the time of this writing on March 27) it does not seem that a majority of bunker tenants and owners have actually moved in, things seem to be heading in that direction. “The residents are starting to flock to the area, staying nearby in motels and RVs,” one article relates. (7)
Again, as a historian, I am interested to see how these efforts will be perceived in the long run, and their effectiveness (or lack thereof) during the COVID-19 outbreak will, I think, play a major role in our historical perspectives on the relationships between health, wealth, safety, and society.
(1) A particularly excellent example is André Spicer, “The Decameron — the 14th-century Italian book that shows us how to survive coronavirus,” New Statesman America, March 9, 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/2020/03/coronavirus-survive-italy-wellbeing-stories-decameron.
(2) One Boccaccio scholar, Massimo Riva, has hinted at the possible overlaps here, stating in an interview that the characters’ decisions to leave Florence “can be interpreted in two different and somewhat opposite ways: as an escape from the common destiny of those who can afford a luxurious shelter (similar to the doomsday bunkers that very rich people build for themselves today); and as the utopian desire to rebuild together a better, more ethical and harmoniously natural way of life, out of the ruins of the old world.” See Norman Vanamee, “Decameron and Chill? Why a 14th-Century Italian Masterpiece Is on Everyone’s Coronavirus Reading List,” Town & Country, March 16, 2020, https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a31540805/decameron-sudden-popularity-coronavirus/.
(3) Jack Flemming, “Bunker with a bowling alley: How the rich are running from coronavirus,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/business/real-estate/story/2020-03-23/rich-are-running-from-coronavirus.
(4) Kristina Dittrich, Cassandra Rota, and Mia Voevodsky, “Doom, Doom, Boom,” Dimensions 32 (2019): 27.
(5) Adam Popescu, “Inside the Survivalist Bunker Where Some Wealthy People Hope to Ride Out Coronavirus,” Vanity Fair, March 13, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2020/03/coronavirus-survivalist-bunker.
(6) Rupert Neate, “Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak,” The Guardian, March 11, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/11/disease-dodging-worried-wealthy-jet-off-to-disaster-bunkers.
(7) Carolyn Said, “Billionaire bunkers: Where the elite may ride out the coronavirus pandemic,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Billionaire-bunkers-Where-the-elite-may-ride-out-15156717.php.