Have you ever wondered what Venice was like during the plague?

Jul 17, 2020churches, history, society0 comments

 

How many times have you heard popular sentences such as: “A pestilential smell” or “That kid is pestiferous”, and moreover: “Keep away from someone or something like a plague”? Well, if you are me, you’ve heard it many times: here in Venice these verbal expressions are for daily use.

Alvise Zanchi, “The plague in 1630”, painting at the Saint Roch Grand School

Alvise Zanchi, “The plague in 1630”, painting at the Saint Roch Grand School

    

Well yes, the bubonic plague, the so-called “Black Death”, was a scourge for the entirety of humanity in past centuries, and even now it has not been completely eradicated in some areas of the world. It was called “bubonic” because it showed up causing buboes, pustules and black bruises, often bloody, all over the body.
Are you impressed? Ask your Best Venice Guide which sanitary measures the Republic of Venice adopted to stop the epidemic. Or better, the epidemics.

The silent carriers of the plague (rats)

The silent carriers of the plague (rats)

Yes, because we had at least three really devastating plagues.

The first one was in 1348; it arrived from Crimea on Venetian boats coming back from the Black Sea. Actually, big fleas attached to the rates were the carriers of the virus, and soon they started feasting on human blood as well. But, at that time, people were ignorant about this process. They almost thought about it as a temporary failure of body fluids (based on what Hippocrates said in the past, and, well, if someone so important said it, it must be true, right?) or a divine punishment.

The Redeemer Church in Giudecca island. Architect Andrea Palladio

The Redeemer Church in Giudecca island. Architect Andrea Palladio

The second bubonic plague outbreak was in 1576, the year when the great painter Titian died from the epidemic.

The third and last plague was the one described by Alessandro Manzoni in his masterpiece I promessi sposi, which ended in 1630. The Venetian Senate made vows to build extraordinarily beautiful churches in thanks for the cessation of the last two plagues, both of which can still be found in Venice today.
The Redeemer Church, in Giudecca island, was conceived of and build by Andrea Palladio, and the Baroque Virgin Mary Church of Good Health, which you can clearly see from Saint Mark’s square, is at the opening of the Grand Canal.

Virgin Mary Church of Good Health and its votive bridge. Architect Baldassarre Longhena

Virgin Mary Church of Good Health and its votive bridge. Architect Baldassarre Longhena

Even today, the most important feasts we celebrate in Venice are connected to commemorating the end of those two devastating plagues.

What true Venetian doesn’t meet with friends and family to see the exceptional fireworks reflected in the lagoon of Saint Mark’s Basin at midnight on the third Sunday of July? And what Venetian doesn’t cross the votive bridge to light a candle on the 21st of November to celebrate Virgin Mary of Good Health? The purpose to pray for our health is strongly threatened by little market stalls selling all kind of delicious typical products just outside of the Church. I remember when I was a child, I would wait on that day to eat cotton candy or caramelized hazelnuts after the Holy Mass.

Market stalls during the Virgin Mary of Good Health celebration

Market stalls during the Virgin Mary of Good Health celebration

Ask your Best Venice Guide to visit these two incredible churches, far from the common tourist circuits.
Ask your guide which concrete remedies the Most Serene Republic adopted to protect Venetian citizens’ health. Then, you will learn about the “Doctor of the Plague”, the invention of the unique drug able to save you from any disease: I am talking about the famous Venetian “teriaca” or “triaca”, a very complex treatment comprising over 60 ingredients.
Moreover, you will learn about the “lazzaretti”, islands in the lagoon of Venice where the Government forced sick people to recover or where quarantine for products was guaranteed.

The doctor of the plague in his typical “uniform”

The doctor of the plague in his typical “uniform”

The “teriaca or triaca” invented in Venice

The “teriaca or triaca” invented in Venice

Plague in Venice is a very interesting topic for curious tourists. There are many aspects to discover and to learn. I am talking about the two churches I mentioned, but also ancient preserved pharmacies where drugs were made, the Saint Roch Grand School famous for Tintoretto’s paintings. Don’t miss the experience of a tour focused on the bubonic plague: get in touch with me, I am waiting for you!

Federica Gullino   
BestVeniceGuides
federica.gullino@gmail.com