This piece is part of HWO’s feature on ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’, bringing together radical reflections and historical perspectives on catastrophe and calamity. How have crises (both real and imagined), and responses to them, shaped our world?
When plague arrived in Venice in the summer of 1575, one of the most mobile and dynamic cities in Europe ground to a halt. Carnevale was cancelled; preaching and church services were stopped; shops, inns and taverns were closed; charlatans and mountebanks could no longer gather an audience in the streets. In an effort to quarantine the worst affected area, the city was blocked off at the Rialto bridge and half of the population isolated in their homes. While the wealthy fled the city in large numbers, the poor had no choice but to remain, vulnerable in cramped and unhealthy housing conditions.
The ceaseless traffic of the lagoon – small ferry boats bringing artisans, labourers and domestic servants from the mainland or across the Adriatic; galleys carrying pilgrims, merchants, diplomats out into the world – stopped. The city was eerily still, apart from the constant plying of vessels back and forth to the lazzaretti, the plague hospitals located on islands in the lagoon. Before the epidemic petered out in mid-1577, almost a third of the city’s population of close to 170,000 had died.
The movement of people – and the commodities, money, ideas and innovations that travelled with them – were crucial in making Venice one of the wealthiest, most creative and most successful of Renaissance cities. But they also rendered it particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease. Indeed, ever since plague returned to Europe in the fourteenth century, the position of Venice and other Italian cities as centres of trade and travel put them at the frontline of epidemics. In the wake of the Black Death, and the numerous, less lethal plagues that continued to strike with brutal regularity through the fifteenth century, these cities were spurred to introduce and refine innovative measures to counter the spread of disease. Many of these same measures – including quarantine, travel bans and self-isolation – we have seen adopted again in recent months, as northern Italy saw the first serious outbreak of the Coronavirus in Europe.
Controlling Plague, Controlling Mobility
In the fifteenth century, Venice developed a world-leading infrastructure of plague control. This system focused above all on restricting the movement of people suspected of carrying the disease while also allowing, as much as possible, the continuing flow of goods and merchandise. Such measures would prove immensely influential across Europe and the Mediterranean.
Venice was quick to borrow or adapt the most innovative examples of disease control from its near neighbours. From the Republic of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) – its former colony just across the Adriatic – Venice imported the newly-invented practice of quarantine, forcing people and ships arriving from suspected places to remain in isolation for forty (quaranta) days before entering the city. From the Duchy of Milan to the west it adopted the use of travel bans on goods and people from plague-affected cities.
In 1423, Venice itself was the first to establish a permanent plague hospital, the Lazzaretto Vecchio; other cities such as Bergamo, Verona and Milan soon followed suit. Half a century later, the Venetian lagoon also saw the creation of the Lazzaretto Nuovo where passengers arriving from suspected locales were kept in quarantine before being allowed to enter the city. Extraordinary graffiti and wall drawings still survive there, by sailors, ship captains and the humble facchini who fumigated their goods in enormous warehouses. Venice was also among the first cities to institute a permanent public health office (the Provveditori alla sanità), with the task of gathering information about suspicious deaths and co-ordinating efforts to combat plague, as well as broader hygiene and public health initiatives.
Such mechanisms, introduced to stem the spread of plague, dovetailed with broader efforts to control and monitor the movement of people, especially as Venice became ever more a node of attraction for migrants and visitors, with a rapidly growing population. As one of the few major European cities of the time without walls and gates, Venice instead created a system of checkpoints around its encircling lagoon, to enable the inspection and interrogation of anyone wishing to enter. It was also among the first states to make use of bollettini or fedi di sanità – health passes that permitted their bearers to travel with the certification that they came from a place free from plague. Initially hand-written and soon printed on small slips of paper, these were among the earliest forms of documentary identification used to facilitate – but also contain – mobility, forerunners of modern passports or identity cards.
The Venetian authorities called upon the support of a variety of low-level officials or private operators to enforce the surveillance of people on the move and stop the entry of undesirable migrants and travellers, who might carry disease. For instance, the boatmen who manned the ferries bearing people across the lagoon were to refuse passage to anyone who could not present their health pass (and sometimes had to deport foreign beggars or prostitutes, particularly unwelcome when there was plague around). Lodging house keepers were banned from providing accommodation to ‘low lives and scoundrels’, or squeezing too many people into rooms that might become breeding grounds for disease.
When an epidemic hit, such measures tightened. But as soon as the crisis subsided, the Venetian authorities hurried to open up the city and get things moving again, even if some of the mechanisms for monitoring mobility were retained for security reasons.
A delicate balance
The examples of Venice and other Italian Renaissance cities embody the perilously delicate balance between enabling movement and protecting populations from disease that states are struggling to maintain again today. While Renaissance medical theory was beginning to understand the concept of contagion and ways to counteract it, governments were acutely aware that stopping the spread of disease could mean cutting off the flow of trade that nourished their economies and the import of essential food supplies. They were also conscious that their populations chafed against orders to stay quarantined in their houses and constantly sought ways to escape or alleviate the boredom of lockdown (as John Henderson has shown in his vivid study of Florence during the 1630-1 plague).
In terms of broader political relations, the management of plague meant walking a diplomatic tightrope. When Venice stopped traffic with its subject city Padua during another plague crisis in 1555, for instance, the Paduans complained strenuously that their crippled economy brought more hardship to ordinary people than the disease itself. Venice, like other Italian states, was often tempted to minimize reports of a new outbreak in its territories in fear that its own merchants and merchandise would be denied entry elsewhere. At the same time, its spy service sought to infiltrate the smokescreens erected by other states and bring back reports of outbreaks.
It is perhaps not surprising then that in 1575 the Venetian government initially hesitated to act, caught between the conflicting opinions of expert doctors, the health officials and its own economic concerns. The resulting, critical delay in implementing the established mechanisms allowed the disease to spread unchecked and increased the devastating death toll. A tidal wave of contagion overwhelmed the Republic’s health system. At the height of the epidemic, the Lazzaretto Vecchio was housing eight to ten thousand patients, while the capacity of the Lazzaretto Nuovo – used to isolate relatives of those infected – was expanded by the presence of as many as three thousand boats moored around the island. The pamphleteer Rocco Benedetti likened the Lazzaretto Vecchio at this time to ‘Hell itself’, the air full of foul smells, and the groans and cries of the dying left mostly to fend for themselves.
The epidemic of 1575-7, which also hit other Italian cities hard, was the greatest test yet for the control mechanisms that had been put in place in the previous two centuries. While the Venetian government did not respond quickly enough to prevent huge loss of life, this plague did at least have a galvanizing effect on the collective efforts to fight the disease across the Italian peninsula. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Health Offices increasingly developed a more co-ordinated, collaborative approach to implementing restrictions across territories and even across state borders, meaning they could act more effectively when first reports of disease began to emerge.
While the system could still fail spectacularly (notably in the plague of 1630-1, when again Venice lost around a third of its population), the measures developed in Northern Italy eventually are believed to have helped to bring the disease under control in that region, while it continued to ravage other parts of Europe for some time. From these dramatic periods of crisis and stasis, Italian cities were able get moving again and to repopulate, having learned some important lessons. The longer-term economic, political and demographic consequences of these apocalyptic episodes may have been profound, but they encouraged Venice and its neighbouring states to pioneer systems for containing the spread of disease to which – in the absence of vaccines – we are yet to find many better alternatives.