THE PLAGUE IN VENICE
THE PLAGUE IN VENICE
Highlights of this tour:
Historical survey about the epidemics in Venice
San Rocco Church The Salute Church Doctor of the Plague mask making atelier
A walk back-streets into Dorsoduro & San Polo districts.
The plague had been endemic in Asia for centuries, probably traveling both along the Silk Road and the common ship trading routes.
It is believed that the terrible sickness arrived in Europe on October 1347 – the first city to be infected was Messina, Sicily – brought by some Genoese merchant ships coming from the fortress of Kaffa, in Crimea. Here they had been besieged by the Tartars, who threw dead plague victims into the city, in the hope of infecting its inhabitants.
In January 1348 it had spread to Genoa and Venice, two major commercial ports on the Mediterranean.
By June 1348 the Black Death had reached nearly half Europe.
After the first outburst, which presumably killed more than half the population of Europe, it became endemic.
Venice, that lived out of international commerce, was at high risk. Between 1348 and 1509 the invisible enemy invaded the city and its territories 28 times!
The last epidemic touched Venice in 1630, and was tremendous.
Last plague in Europe was in Marseille 90 years later.
Our tour will examine how, notwithstanding the limited scientific knowledge of the time, the Venetian authorities, having recognized its infectious nature managed to limit its effects without interrupting the traditional trading activities.
During the 15th century, a complex system of sanitary cordons, hygienic regulations and quarantine measures was perfectioned and started to give its fruits.
We’ll talk about the islands of the Lagoon, the Old and the New Lazaret used respectively as hospital and as quarantine station, and about the capillary net of informers and spies that helped to keep the international situation under control.
The result was that during the 16th and 17th centuries the number of outbursts considerably slowed down.
Our tour will touch the Church of San Rocco, in the San Polo district. The relics of this popular French Saint, protector of plague victims, are still enshrined here.
You’ll learn about how cleverly the local authorities would indicate St Roch as an example to convince the population to collaborate and accept all the necessary rules and restrictions.
The Church contains some impressive paintings by Tintoretto illustrating, with passion and realism, the many miracles performed by the Saint, healer of people and animals as well.
The climax is reached in a huge canvas representing the interior of a lazaret, where the diseased and the caregivers are depicted with intense pathos and participation by Tintoretto.
Our walk will continue with a visit to a mask making atelier to envision the scary mask and attire invented by Charles de Lorme, a French doctor active in the 17th century, to protect the doctors from the plague.
A black waterproof robe was supposed to prevent any body contact between doctor and patient, and a frightening mask, whose long beak was filled herbs and spices, was to filter the “contaminated airs” of the city.
It was widely believed that the infection could be transmitted by ‘invisible creates’ contained by bed smells or miasmas.
We’ll also stop at some old stone wells, used for centuries to collect rain water, and we’ll describe how they worked.
The water wells were rigidly under the control of the Ministry of Sanity, with the intent of safeguarding the cleanliness of drinking water.
The authorities encouraged citizens to denounce those who didn’t respect the sanitary rules about food selling and waste disposal, and spurred anyone to report about suspicious diseases.
On our way to the Church of La Salute we’ll talk about the other mortal infections that plagued the Venetian population for centuries, such as syphilis and exanthematic typhus, and we’ll relate about the different typologies of plague and their different survival expectancies.
Walking along the Giudecca Canal we’ll admire the Palladian Church of the Redeemer (Redentore), whose building commemorates the end of the devastating plague that hit Venice in 1575-76, killing 25% of the population.
We’ll finally reach the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, “Our Lady of Good Health,” a huge votive temple designed by Baldassarre Longhena in 1631 to fulfill a solemn vow taken by the Venetian Senate.
The plague, after having killed 46,000 people, had started to lose strength.
The massive baroque architecture, famous for its enormous dome, stands on a highly symbolical location at the entrance to the Grand Canal.
Its enduring popularity – the celebration on November 21st is still today a major holyday in Venice – witness to the fervent faith of an entire community, yearning for eternal protection Inside, the exuberant sculptural and pictorial decoration (Juste Le Court, Titian, Luca Giordano) make the Salute Church one of the greatest examples of Venetian civilization.
Not earlier that 1895 science finally discovered that the plague is due to a bacterium (yersinia pestis), still existing in many areas today.
The bacterium was carried by a species of fleas living on common black rats, who were for centuries regular passengers on the ships. These fleas would jump from rodents to humans and infect them with their bites.
The bacterium could also be transmitted easily from man to man. According to pathologists, a massive migration of a species of rats from Central Asia provoked the progressive extinction of the common black mice.
Due to these new arrivals, the plague, but not its memory, disappeared from Europe.