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Antica pianta di Venezia
Venice before 1630

In the first decades of 17th century, from many points of view, Venice was having some problems: economic (ruthless competition from the French, English and Flemish merchants), political (alliance with France, tension with Spain and even greater problems with the Papacy, resulting in the Interdict) and military (the war against the Uscocchi pirates for hegemony on the Adriatic and the war for the succession of Mantua).

  Antica pianta di VeneziaVenice began to take on a different role in the balance of European politics, and was certainly more in the background than in previous centuries.

It is in this context that, 54 years after the terrible plague of 1575-77, the disease gripped the city once more, taking tens of thousands of victims.

Giovanni Grevembroch, Predatori predati
The plague

As well as military defeat, the War of Mantua brought Venice the plague.
The city found itself paralysed once again: traffic diminished, the nobility took refuge in their country homes, and the population was greatly reduced, roaming the city asking for charity.

Yet once again the government acted with decision and firmness: it coordinated the disinfecting of the city, sequestered entire neighbourhoods, set up the quarantine hospitals and buried the infected dead under lime. Unfortunately, not even these sanitary measures could halt the spread of the disease.

Pianta dei lazzaretti
The quarantine hospitals

In 1423 Venice became the first state to have a special building for treating people with infectious diseases. The island of S. Maria di Nazareth was chosen as the ideal site for containing disease and guaranteeing isolation.

The isolation hospital was a place of both prevention and cure, where the ill were treated and where much attention was paid to separating the sick from the convalescents and the “suspected ill”.

The birth of the quarantine hospitals is testimony to the Republic’s revolutionary acts regarding hygiene.

Giovanni Grevenbroch, Suffragio dei mortiImpotence and superstition

The atmosphere in Venice was of dejection and lack of faith. In this climate of fear it is easy to understand the Venetians’ suspicion that the plague had been deliberately caused by “plague-spreaders”.

Some French people were suspected of spreading the illness, but this merely shows the Venetians’ psychological state after succumbing to the terrible disease so soon after the epidemic of the late 1500s.

It should be mentioned that Milan was ravaged by the plague during the same period, as described by Manzoni in “The Betrothed”, and there were trials against suspected plague-spreaders. At such times there is always room for superstition and fanaticism.

Il doge circondato dai dignitariThe vow

In spite of strict sanitary measures the plague did not seem to decline and so the Senate turned to divine help once more.

On October 22, 1630, Doge Nicolò Contarini made a public vow to erect a church called the Salute, asking for the Virgin Mary’s divine intercession to rid the city of the plague. The first stone was laid with the plague still raging through the city and the church was consecrated in 1687.

The end of the plague

In November, 1631, the plague was definitively eradicated, but at a terrible cost: almost 47,000 died in the city (more than a quarter of the population) and 95,000 in the so-called Dogado, comprising Murano, Malamocco and Chioggia.


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