Death in Venice: How has La Serenissima managed infectious diseases through the ages?
Published by: Robert Veel | Jul 9th, 2020
With the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased attention has been paid to plagues of the past. Journalists knowingly remind us that the term ‘quarantine’ derives from the Venetian word quarantena, a period of forty (quaranta) days of enforced isolation, and critics claim that not much has changed in terms of public policy since the Middle Ages. But apart from reminding us that COVID-19 is not the first plague to rain down on us, very few specifics have been provided about what actually happened in past epidemics.
Italy, with its long shorelines and dynamic, open economies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, has a long history of infectious diseases and an equally long history of writing about disease, both in fiction and in scrupulously maintained civic records. These have all been a source of interest in the current context. Just a few days ago, for example, The New York Times launched a microsite of contemporary literary responses to COVID-19 inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in Florence in 1360 and set during the bubonic plague of 1348 (www.nytimes.com). In February 2020 the same newspaper published a long article[i] comparing Milan in lockdown to Alessandro Manzoni’s remarkable description of the 1630 plague in The Betrothed (I promessi sposi, published in 1827).
Both Boccaccio and Manzoni’s accounts make compelling reading but they are literary works, not history. Even though Boccaccio experienced the 1348 plague first hand, for example, his account is simply a framing device for the 100 short stories that comprise the Decameron, and his carefully balanced description of responses to the plague owes far more to classical Latin prose styles that it does to a desire for historical accuracy.
The Venetian sources
Like many other city-states in medieval Italy, the Most Serene Republic of Venice (La Serenissima) kept meticulous records of decisions made by its governing bodies, the outcome of legal cases and the minutiae of everyday civic administration. Moreover, as the wealthiest city in Europe it attracted extensive unofficial commentary both from Venetian observers and the many visitors from abroad, including diplomats and merchants, who watched affairs in Venice as closely as we watch the New York Stock Exchange Index today.
Among many other topics covered, these records are an incomparable source for understanding the impressive lengths to which Venice went in order to manage infectious disease over a period of many centuries. Thanks to the State Archives of Venice, the archives of the countries that engaged in politics and trade with Venice, and the subsequent work of generations of scholars, much of this material is easily accessible and has even been translated into English. Key documents include the decrees of the Venetian Senate, the orders of the health office or Provveditori di sanità, and the semi-official reports (relazioni) of notaries and ambassadors.
The safety of islands
Throughout history Venice has been physically isolated from the world by virtue of the fact that, like Australia, it is an island state. Indeed, Venice’s very identity is tied up with its lagoon setting. Foundational legends speak of noble Romans from north Italy escaping the predations of Attila the Hun by fleeing to the remote lagoon islands. In the eighth century Venice’s legendary independence was preserved when the boats of Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne, became hopelessly stranded on the treacherous sandbanks of the Venetian lagoon and the Frankish invasion was thwarted.
This island setting also played a decisive role in the management of infectious disease. The first known example of this dates to 1182, when nobleman Leone Paolini transfers a leper hospital from the parish of San Trovaso in central Venice (not far from the Accademia Galleries) to the island of San Lazzaro, midway between St Mark’s and the Lido.[ii] The name of the island derives from the New Testament character Lazarus, who became the patron saint of lepers in the Middle Ages.
Visiting the island of San Lazzaro today, one can still see the ground level windows of the Gothic church, which allowed the sick to observe mass from outside. Leprosy in Venice eventually declined and by 1600 the island was abandoned. In the eighteenth century the island was given to Armenian monks fleeing persecution by the Ottoman Turks, which is how the island gets the second part of its name, San Lazzaro degli Armeni.
A 1541 order by the Provveditori di sanità, in relation to bubonic plague, makes it clear that the islands continued to be an important physical resource for disease management:
The sick or the dead must immediately be sent to the Lazzaretto Vecchio with all the goods from their rooms, and then all healthy persons who have nursed them must be sent with their goods to the Lazzaretto Nuovo. Concerning doctors and barbers, the rule shall be followed as above.
To avoid all possible dangers, it must be noted that, when someone has recovered in the Lazzaretto Vecchio (his abscess having been lanced and healed), he shall be sent to the Lazzaretto Nuovo, taking no goods with him. There he shall stay for thirty days – that is fifteen in the [part called the] prà and fifteen in the sanità – and then he shall be sent home, where he shall stay under a ban for ten days.[iii]
This order also demonstrates that an understanding of what we now call ‘community transmission’ did exist, with the sick being taken to one island (the Lazzaretto Vecchio) and asymptomatic family members also isolated, but on another island, the Lazzaretto Nuovo. It also points to the fact that some health workers were more vulnerable to disease than other members of the community. (Remember that medieval barbers also performed surgery!)
The new quarantine islands referred to here – the Lazzaretto Vecchio and the Lazzaretto Nuovo – were established in 1423 and 1468 respectively, and reveal an ongoing state investment in disease prevention. The Lazzaretto Vecchio is located very close to the Lido, well away from central Venice. Unlike today, in the fifteenth century the Lido was scarcely populated, and this would have been a very remote spot indeed. The Lazzaretto Nuovo, intended for families of the sick rather than for the sick themselves, is markedly less isolated. Adjacent to the island of Sant’Erasmo, where fresh vegetables were (and still are) grown, it ensured a food supply for the detainees.
The reference to the physical goods of the sick is also interesting, for it shows an understanding that disease could be passed on via surfaces, not just through person-to-person contact. The same health order explains this further, at the same time introducing the concept of ‘social distancing’ as well as detailing the fines and punishments put in place for those who broke the lockdown laws:
And it is to be noted that one of the reasons the plague persists in the city is as follows … those in the prà at the Lazzaretto Nuovo begin to air their goods. Each takes care of his own things and thinks when he does so that these goods are aired, but in fact they are more infected than ever. And therefore steps must be taken to ensure that, when families are sent to the Lazzaretto Nuovo they are kept apart from each another, both persons and goods, and the goods must be aired separately. Note that, when newcomers are sent to the Lazzaretto, they are not to mingle with those that are already there, but each shall serve his time separately. And the Prior [of the Lazzaretto] must act responsibly and diligently in this matter, with all those punishments which can be given at the discretion of the Provedditori di sanità.[iv]
Australia has benefitted in its fight against COVID-19 both from being an island and by having a population who, arguably, generally comply with public health measures. Medieval Venice was perhaps no different.
Conditions on the lazzaretto islands
While the public decrees set out the rules, they do not give us a picture of what life was actually like. For this information we need to turn to the semi-official relazioni which have the latitude for dramatic reportage. The picture is not pretty.
I can truly say that on the one hand the Lazzaretto Vecchio seemed like hell itself. From every side there came foul odours, indeed a stench that no one could endure; groans and sighs were heard without ceasing; and at all hours clouds of smoke from the burning of corpses were seen to rise far into the air. Some who miraculously returned from that place alive reported, among other things, that at the height of that great influx of infected people there were three or four of them to a bed. Since a great number of servants had died, there was no one to take care of them, and they had to get themselves up to take food and attend to other things. Nobody did anything but lift the dead from the beds and throw them into the pits. It often happened that those who were close to death or senseless, without speech or movement, were lifted up by corpse-bearers as though they had expired, and thrown onto the heap of bodies. Should one of them be seen to move a hand or foot, or signal for help, it was truly good fortune if some corpse-bearer, moved to pity, took the trouble to go and rescue him. And many, driven to frenzy by the disease, especially at night, leapt from their beds, and, shouting with the fearful voices of damned souls, went here and there, colliding with one another, and suddenly falling to the ground dead. Some who rushed in frenzy out of the wards threw themselves into the water, or ran madly through the gardens, and were then found dead among the thornbushes, all covered with blood.[v]
The above report was written by Venetian notary Rocco Benedetti and published in 1630. The events described took place in the plague of 1576, the same one that killed the artist Titian and perhaps one third of Venice’s population. Benedetti’s account was probably written some decades after the 1576 plague and is addressed to an unknown bishop or archbishop. The publication date of 1630 is significant as this was the year of one of the worst outbreaks of bubonic plague in northern Italy. The report was probably intended therefore to provide intelligence on how best to manage a plague outbreak, indicating that Venice was perhaps known to be at the leading edge of contagion management.
Although the length of time between the plague of 1576 and the publication of this report in 1630 may make us question its accuracy, Benedetti goes on to give us some specific details of the lazzaretto islands:
On the other hand, the Lazzaretto Nuovo seemed a mere purgatory, where unfortunate people, in a poor state, suffered and lamented the death of their relatives, their own wretched plight and the break-up of their homes. Sometimes at the height of the plague 7000-8000 sick persons languished at the Lazzaretto Vecchio… At the Lazzaretto Nuovo, counting those within and without, and those on the boats (which resembles an armada), there were sometimes a good 10,000 persons. Their numbers increased beyond this to such a point that the pesthouses could not contain them, and two hospitals for the sick were established, one at San Lazzaro [the leper colony] and the other at San Clemente, and for the healthy 500 wooden houses were erected at the Vignole, and others in the Lagoon. Certain individuals, hoping to make a profit, endeavoured to build on stakes, so that their constructions looked like huts for bird-catchers. In addition to this, many vessels called burchielle were brought from the Arsenal to house the poor, and on the hulls of great galleys shelters were run up for the quarantine of those who had emerged from the Lazzaretto Vecchio after recovering.
When the bodies could no longer be burned because of the great stench, a cemetery was established a little way off on the Lido, at a place called Cavanella, and there very deep pits were dug.[vi]
Debt and division
Finally, Benedetti’s report reminds us that the Venetian government of 1576 was faced with exactly the same challenges that governments around the world face right now.
In maintaining so many people and bearing such expense the Doge spent a huge sum of money. Administration became chaotic, so that all the Savi [the cabinet] were bewildered, not seeing how to provide for so great a need, nor which course to take to protect us from such a hail of arrows, showered down in all directions by the plague.[vii]
Has much changed?
The Venetian records are remarkable, and there are some striking parallels with the public health measures being taken today – quarantine, social distancing, risks to health workers, hard lockdown, special legislation etc. However, it would be alarmist to suggest (as some media commentators have done) that things have not changed since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The big difference between then and now is of course science, specifically medical science. In spite of all the prudent and carefully executed measures which Venice took to contain the plague, they did not have modern research techniques and technology. The death toll was horrendous, with 30-50% of the population dying in any given plague outbreak between 1348 and 1630. And in spite of the measures taken, there is no epidemiological evidence that Venice managed the plague any better than other Italian cities.
If the Venetians did not have science, how did they explain calamities like the plague? The church of Santa Maria della Salute (literally, St Mary of Health), the magnificent baroque church at the entrance to Venice’s Grand Canal, was commissioned by and paid for the Senate in 1630 in order to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the passing of the plague.
The Senate decree ordering the church is revealing:
For ever increasing is the certainty that we have incurred the wrath of God for our sins, for the dreadful proof of this comes from the plague, and there is reason to fear even worse evil unless God can be prevailed upon to show his great mercy instead, after he has exacted from us by blows the prompt recognition he would have of us for the sake of our salvation. Hence we must with our most sincere and humble petitions beg him once more to temper his anger, as is his most merciful and fatherly custom when he sees in princes and people, and in their public parades of respect, devotion and piety, the desire to submit to his justice and to render to his divine name all honour, reverence and obedience.[viii]
The wrath of God? We can be thankful that governments around the world today consistently rely on scientific opinion in forming their public health and other policies. Can’t we?
Plague tourism in Venice
Some of the places mentioned in this blog can still be visited today. They are charming and full of history.
San Lazzaro degli Armeni The island is still occupied by a community of Armenian monks, so you have to book on the morning tours that are run several times per week, coinciding with the arrival and departure times of vaporetto route 20 from San Marco-San Zaccaria. Email in advance: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jewish cemetery on the Lido Take the vaporetto route 1 to the Lido, then bus A to San Niccolo. The cemetery is close by. Check the opening and tour times with the Jewish Museum in Venice’s ghetto email@example.com
San Clemente This one is easy! Just book yourself into the five-star Kempinski San Clemente Palace Hotel and enjoy private water taxi transfers to and from St Mark’s Square. Actually, there’s nothing to see of the plague hospital mentioned by Benedetti.
[viii] State Archives of Venice, Senate decrees, translated in Chambers and Pullan, op cit, pp414-5
Image top of page: Francesco Guardi, The Lazzaretto Vecchio
Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.