The Venetian Republic in times of plague

The Venetian lagoon at sunset, the time of day when people in isolation traditionally gathered to sing the Te Deum. The island shown here is the old hospital island of Sacca Sessola. Image ©Blue Guides.

The Venetian Republic had to take steps to contain infection in the city as early as the 15th century. Their dependence on trade, bringing merchant ships from the East, meant that they were particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease (just as we are told today that globalisation has favoured the spread of Coronavirus). Venetians held that the ease of infection could well be attributed to flying particles in the air, a theory confirmed by scientists many centuries later.

The Venetians were able to make use of some of the islands in the lagoon, either for isolation hospitals or as quarantine stations. The 12th-century pilgrims’ hospice on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio was taken over by the Augustinian monastery of St Mary of Nazareth in 1423 and became the first-known permanent isolation hospital in Europe. The name Lazzaretto is a corruption of ‘Nazareth’, with a secondary etymology from Lazarus, patron saint of lepers. A lazzaretto or lazaret came to be a general term for a quarantine station. Right up until the 18th century those who were confined on Lazzaretto Vecchio would stand on the bank looking towards Venice at sunset each evening and sing the Te Deum together in thankfulness for their escape from contagion.

Perhaps the most interesting of the Venetian quarantine islands is Lazzaretto Nuovo. Local archaeologists and volunteers have restored some of its buildings and carried out excavations and the island is open to visitors on certain days. In the centre of the island is the Tezon Grande (one of the largest public buildings in Venice, more than 100m long), which was used to decontaminate ships’ merchandise. The goods were fumigated outside, using rosemary and juniper, or soaked in salt water in specially-constructed canals, or covered with vinegar. The splendid wood roof has been restored and the original brick herring-bone pavement survives. On the walls are some interesting inscriptions made by sailors in the 16th century. Some 200–300 sailors, merchants, and travellers could also be housed in isolation on Lazzaretto Nuovo, in small cells built against the perimeter wall, each with its own kitchen, fireplace and courtyard (in old prints the island can always be identified by its forest of Venetian chimneys). Today the island is inhabited by herons, cormorants, swamp hawks, kingfishers and egrets. A sea dyke has been constructed to the west, in an attempt to protect it from acqua alta, and a pilot project has been carried out close to the landing-stage which demonstrates that water can be purified by plant biology. The island also has its own website and a full description of what you can see there is given in our Blue Guide Venice. Ironically, research work for the next edition of Blue Guide Venice was interrupted a few weeks ago by the Coronavirus outbreak.

Another island, San Clemente, housed a quarantine station for overseas visitors until it became a large monastery in 1645. The island of Sacca Sessola (pictured above) was occupied by a hospital until 1980. San Lazzaro degli Armeni, and island just off the Lido, was used from 1182 as a leper colony and after occupation by the Benedictines was given to an Armenian Catholic monastery in 1717.

All visitors to Venice will be familiar with the church of Santa Maria della Salute, which stands guard at the entrance to the city, right at the beginning of the Grand Canal. It was built in 1631–81 in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague of 1630–1, which had claimed the lives of some thirty percent of the population (46,000 people). The Doge visited the Salute annually on 21st November, in a procession across a pontoon of boats from San Marco. Every year on the same date this Venetian festival is still celebrated and crowds throng to the church to receive a votive candle.

by Alta Macadam

Blue Guides during lockdown

“The world is a book,” according to St Augustine, “and those who do not travel read only one page.” For years we featured that quotation prominently on our website. The trouble is that today, in this state of global lockdown, none of us is permitted to travel; we are all confined to that single page. Perhaps we are finding unexpected beauties there: watching out of the window as the trees come into leaf (if we are in temperate Europe), noticing how the clouds regroup, how the sky changes as dusk falls or day breaks. Perhaps we are marvelling at the sight of our semi-deserted cities, all those teeming streets and squares suddenly tranquil and still like Laurana’s famous painting of an ideal Renaissance city (pictured at the top of this page), where rows of elegant, geometrically proportioned buildings converge on an invisible vanishing point behind a central rotunda. Not a soul is abroad, no life stirs. It is a city fresh from the planner’s drawing board, unsullied by noise and clutter, dirt and litter, double yellow lines and garish signage, traffic lights and commercial advertising. The painting hangs in Urbino. We used its rotunda as the cover image for Blue Guide the Marche and San Marino. But which of us can travel to the Marche or San Marino now? We can only dream of going there. What use is a series of travel guides to people who cannot travel?

But Blue Guides do have something to offer. They are not and never have been primarily focused on practical details, and they still deliver information by means of long paragraphs of continuous prose. Perhaps because of this, they appeal to the contemplative life just as well as to the active one. Anyone who suddenly has more time on their hands for reading will find that Blue Guides are wonderful things to curl up with in an armchair, with a cup of tea and no deadlines. Our most recent volume is the new 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome. We also have a list of titles that are not specifically guide books. These include our Literary Companions (to Rome, London and Venice), extracts from writings—poems, diaries, novels, letters—by travellers throughout the ages. There is also our Sites of Antiquity, a lavishly illustrated story of 50 ancient sites that underpin the whole history of Europe. And there are our Food Companions, available in book form or as apps. People are cooking a lot in lockdown, either experimenting with new recipes or—when familiar ingredients prove unobtainable—improvising new ones, posting photographs on Instagram of culinary triumphs and ignominies. Some inspiration might be found in Blue Guide Italy Food Companion, with its roundup of gastronomic knowledge from across the peninsula; or Blue Guide Hungary Food Companion, introducing those not familiar with Central Europe to a whole new world of flavour.

Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

Hungarian pioneer of hand-sanitization

How many of us today, while methodically washing our hands in the hope of staving off Covid-19, think of Ignác Semmelweis? How many of us have even heard of him? Semmelweis (1818–65) is not widely known around the world but he is a familiar name in Hungary. Budapest’s medical school is named after him and he has gone down in history as the ‘saviour of mothers’ because his pioneering methods saved many women and infants from death by puerperal fever. Semmelweis’ theories were revolutionary for his time. And now, his insistence on the importance of disinfection to halt the spread of contagion has been brought once again under the spotlight as we are once again reminded of its importance. Semmelweis was ahead of the curve in his grasp of the importance of hand-washing: his hunch was borne out by significant decreases in the rate of mortality on obstetric wards under his supervision. Despite this, his idea was rejected by the established medical community, who were offended by the suggestion that a patient’s death could be imputed to the medical staff’s personal hygiene. What made things more difficult for Semmelweis was the fact that he was a practitioner, not a scientist. His theory could be explained as a hunch that seemed to work but he had detected nothing through a microscope that could furnish scientific explanation and proof. He never gained the reputation he deserved during his lifetime. In fact he suffered some kind of mental and emotional breakdown and began lashing out in print at the ignorance and obstinacy of the medical fraternity. In the end he was transferred to an asylum in Vienna, a move supported by his wife, who was no longer able to cope with his tantrums. He died very shortly after his admission, perhaps as a result of ill-treatment.

Semmelweis’s former home in Budapest is now a museum of the history of medicine (described in full in Blue Guide Budapest). His theory, of course, is fully recognised today. Named after him is the phenomenon known as the Semmelweis reflex, the human tendency to reject or ridicule new ideas if they fly in the face of accepted convention.