Venice was one of the most international and active cities in Europe at this time and, because its’ complex web of mercantile contacts with the Levant, North Africa and Asia, made it a nexus of routes, it was always at risk from disease and suffered repeated epidemics. The description here comes from what is considered the Second Plague Pandemic.
Every effort at protection was made and Venice early adopted quarantine as a preventive measure, something learned from Dubrovnik (Ragusa), which had been its colony at an earlier period. In 1423, Venice established the first permanent plague hospital on one of the islands: Lazzaretto Vecchio and later in the century the Lazzaretto Nuovo was set up: a quarantine station where travellers had to wait for 40 days before entering the city.
Numerous other measures were tried, from draconian lockdowns to health passes – a pass for Chioggia-Venice dated 1611 is now in the Wellcome collection. Hostels and taverns were closed, Carnival and other major festivities banned and efforts were made to remove people with “no fixed address” from the city.
Divine aid was, of course, invoked and it was in these years that Tintoretto painted his terrifying “Brazen Serpent”, illustrating the Old Testament story (Numbers 21:5-9), showing the Israelites, dead or dying from the bites of a plague of serpents. It was painted for the Scuola de San Rocco (q.v.), the patron saint of plague sufferers. One notable victim of this plague was Titian, in his 99th year.
Naturally, the hunt was also on for a remedy and great fortunes were to be made if anyone could provide one – Theriac (q.v.) – Venetian Treacle – being a perennial favourite. Unfortunately, nothing had any effect. Efforts to control movement were deeply resented by a city that lived by and for trade and balancing health and the economy proved impossible.
In this out break, some 50 000 people died, an estimated quarter to a third of the population of the city.
Order of the most excellent councillors chosen by the illustrious Senate for the provisioning of the City of Venice, the 2nd day of August 1576.
In order to give effect to the findings of the illustrious Senate of the 31st day of the past month, it is decreed in the interest of the general welfare and the extirpation of the contagious plague, that the streets of the city be closed for the duration of fourteen days. On no condition whatsoever are inhabitants to be allowed to move from one street to another. The Councillors charged with the provisioning of the city make known to one and all, whether Venetian, or stranger, nobleman, burgher, tradesman, or of whatever rank he may be, that it is incumbent upon him, out of his own means and to the best of his ability, to provide, as far as possible all needful provisions for his household, for himself, his workmen and others who are in his service; and to take good care that sufficient water be in store in his well for the afore mentioned period of fourteen days. All this must be carried out by the coming Saturday. Likewise we command all fishermen, dealers in fruit, in meat, and all others who traffic in foodstuffs, also all those who offer for sale oil, faggots and wood, to furnish their shops at once with sufficient goods and to hold them for sale in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of their street. Likewise, by the order of the illustrious Councillors it is announced that all kinds of provisions are to be purchased elsewhere and to be brought into the city. This will be facilitated and promoted by all means, and it will be permissible to trade freely therewith wherever it may happen to be.
From Venice, the 1st day of September 1576
Yesterday the Senate carried a resolution whereby it was decided to buy from the physician in the hospital the remedy against the present contagious plague, which he has repeatedly offered.
He was there and then paid 30 000 ducats and as many gold zechines. He and his heirs are, moreover, to receive 300 ducats every month. Yesterday the secret was made public and as soon as I receive a copy of this I will send it to Your Serene Highness.
From The Fugger News-Letters, ed. Victor von Klarwill, tr. Pauline de Chary, London, 1924, pp.22-3.