In Venetian history

The plague was a constant problem for Venice in the ancient times. A city devoted to trading could not simply reject foreign ships reaching the city for fear they would bring diseases, otherwise it would economically collapse. At the same time a welcoming attitude helped spread the disease.

However, solutions existed. After Dubrovnik and Milan, Venice also isolated the sick people starting in 1423. Forty-five years later Venice temporarily isolated the ones who could potentially infect the city, too, on the Lazzaretto Nuovo island.

A mistake or intentional negligence?

Mistakes happened, too. In 1575 some cases of bubonic plague in Venice were recognized by family physicians. Padua professors and commerce magistrates of the Doge’s Venetian State thought denied it was plague. One year later, on July 31st in 1576 the Venetian Senate finally admitted it and declared the first lockdown for two weeks.

A couple of months later, the situation was not improving. As a prayer, the Doge and the Senate promised the Lord to erect a temple in the name of Christ the Redeemer spending “10,000 scudi of public money” as notary Rocco Benedetti wrote in his chronicle.

The “voto” inscription on the counter façade of the Redentore church, Venice

Doge Alvise Mocenigo promising the temple of the Redentore, counter façade of Redentore Church, Venice

Benedetti added:

A temple for eternal memory of such an act of mercy, a temple where every year the Doge and his successors would go and pray. 

In 1577 on January 9th the longed for announcement arrived: after killing 50.726 people, one third of the population, the plague in Venice was over. 

How was the plague in Venice turned into collective memory? 

The plague in Venice in 1575 left us important evidence in the art. The issue is of course quite complex. Should art remind you of the victims? Or portray what happened in realistic details? 

The Redentore Church on the island of Giudecca: defeating the Plague in Venice

Art was first of all a way to thank God for the end of the plague. When you look at the Redentore church, think about the fact it would not be there if over 50,000 people had not died in one and a half years. Choose the right view point or compare different viewpoints. Consider it is a monumental sculpture the architect Andrea Palladio left us. 

Façade and staircase of the Redentore Church, Venice

More than monumental, magnificent! In fact, the foundations of the church worried the Franciscan Capuchins who wanted to stick to their principles of simplicity and poverty. Only when the Capuchin Friars were told they would not receive any money, they would hold the service for free and that the monastery would be simple and the cells would be small, they agreed to take care of this monument.

St Francis, façade of Redentore Church, Venice

The inner architecture of the Redentore church

Go inside and you will also notice none of the altars is rich and invasive as in other churches, everything is balanced and harmonious.

Nave in the Redentore Church, Venice

A large dome overwhelms everything.

The dome and the main altar inside the Redentore Church, Venice

A staircase like the Temple in Jerusalem

The staircase with its fifteen steps reminds you of the Temple in Jerusalem and its width corresponds to the width of the dome.

Campo del Santissimo Redentore, Venice, 1578

When viewed from the Zattere, you do not perceive the long nave, the large altar and the long space for the choir. Maybe you expect a circular ground plan, just like the one Palladio had originally proposed, but was refused for liturgical and political reasons. The church in fact needed a nave for its annual procession of the Doge and the Signoria. Once a year, outside the church a pontoon bridge still today allows for a journey across the water to praise God for the end of the plague.

The Scuola di San Rocco and Tintoretto’s paintings

The plague in Venice was ravaging when the Doge promised the erection of the Redentore church. In the meanwhile, Jacopo Tintoretto had already started a different enterprise, on canvas, to express a journey beyond the plague. For the ceiling of the chapter hall of Scuola Grande di San Rocco he painted stories from the book of Exodus and the difficulties the Jewish people faced in the desert. 

Founded with the mission to give mutual support and social assistance during plague events, the Brotherhood “Scuola Grande di San Rocco” agreed with Tintoretto he would paint the Miracle of the Serpent in Bronze, on July 2nd in 1575.

Tintoretto, The miracle of the Serpent in Bronze, Scuola Grande San Rocco, 1575, Venice – detail

By November 1577 Tintoretto had covered the whole ceiling of the Brotherhood’s chapter hall with many more paintings. But when you look at the Miracle of the Serpent in bronze, when you observe those bodies suffering, struggling against death brought by poisonous winged snakes, as well as the corpses laid on top of each other, how can we not think of what Tintoretto himself saw in Venice on those days?

Tintoretto, The miracle of the Serpent in Bronze, Scuola Grande San Rocco, 1575, Venice – detail

The miracle of the Serpent in bronze is an allegory for God’s punishment and healing power. An allegory for sure, but there is a lot of frightening realism, too.

Tintoretto, The miracle of the Serpent in Bronze, Scuola Grande San Rocco, 1575, Venice – detail

Tintoretto, The miracle of the Serpent in Bronze, Scuola Grande San Rocco, 1575, Venice – detail

The plague in Venice in the printing industry

As Sabrina Minuzzi well states in her booklet “La peste e la stampa”, edited Marsilio in 2020, the plague brought a strong impulse to the printing industry, too. If you read Italian, enjoy the documents Dr Minuzzi reports. You will find recipes to avoid the plague, or to disinfect objects and houses, poems written describing what happened, even the signs placed outside the stores closed during the lockdown. I found this one particularly ironic:

Aperirò quando me piaserà
(I will re-open when I like)

I loved the poem a courtesan wrote, complaining how she missed the kindness of some German students in Padua who had to leave the city. The image of a deserted Padua with no university students strikes us in all its power.

Not to mention the detailed narration by the notary Rocco Benedetti, who witnessed in first person those months of the plague in Venice. He also mentions the promise of the Doge to erect the temple of the Redentore. Benedetti also reports the Doge’s speech in St Mark’s basilica, when he compared the suffering of the Venetians to the Jews suffering in the desert, mentioning the fall of the manna and Moses striking the rocks to get water for his people. God does not want to see us succumb. 

Isn’t that interesting? These are exactly the stories Tintoretto painted for the ceiling of the Scuola of San Rocco…

And today? Freak of Nature and her green bamboos

As before Covid, Venice and its lagoon are again overwhelmed with visitors. Actually maybe there are more than before. It feels like an overreaction to the suffering in the last three years, getting “drunk with travels”. Forgetting covid, forgetting the victims, but also forgetting how much we hoped for over tourism not to be back. Is there anything in art to remind us of those times? 

While walking around Venice, you can see some green bamboos painted on some dusted shop windows. It’s a work of art by Freak of Nature, the artistic name of an artist who decided to highlight the shops which closed down and which risk to be forgotten. She actually started before Covid, but in Venice her intervention coincided with the crisis during Covid which brought many shops to close for good.

Freak of Nature, Venice, 2022

Freak of Nature’s bamboos help us see what has been abandoned. In this frenzy seizing Venice in these post-Covid months, I wonder how we can work together so that when hangover arrives, it’s not Venice to have been abandoned to voracious business. As Rocco Benedetti, at the end of his chronicle wrote:

In vero Venetia è troppo rara e signorile, né si può pensare com’ella giamai possa restare abandonata
(In truth Venice is too rare and noble, one cannot think how you can ever let her be abandoned)

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

In the cover: ceiling of the Chapter Hall of the Scuola Grande San Rocco, enriched by Tintoretto’s paintings, 1575-77, Venice

Sabrina Minuzzi, La Peste e la Stampa – Venezia nel XVI e XVII secolo, Marsilio 2020

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  • Jill Kerby

    …today, a plague of tourists has returned to Venice. When I was there in late May and most of June I noticed the crowds getting thicker by the day, but so too the heat and humidity. Climate change may eventually do for Venice what Yersinia Pestis did during Tintoretto’s time – reduce the numbers.

    As always, such an interesting article. (By the way, I visited both the Church of the Redentore and the Scuola di San Rocco and was delighted, as always, to have them both nearly to myself.)