The history of culture is a history of plague. The Abrahamic religions were forged in it. The deity Horus might be a bigger bird today were it not for the ten plagues of Egypt. “The Egyptians shall know that I am the lord, when I have gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen,” we read in the Book of Exodus. Each spring, the Passover holiday marks the freedom of the Jews from Egypt by reenacting the Israelites’ salvation from the torments that plagued Pharaoh. The ten drops of wine ceremonially spilled in the Seder meal are meant to cast out the bloody water, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and firstborn death, the last of which “passed over” the Chosen People. Plague not only meant the exodus of the Jews and the beginning of the end of Pharaoh. Plague also meant the start of the world as we know it today.
Yet somewhere along the way to modernity these important lessons were lost if not wilfully forgotten. Primary among contemporary fallacies is the belief that science alone offers salvation. Pandemics, to the contrary, and often quite inconveniently, remind us of the limitations of human power, and so are readily forgotten. For this reason, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 quickly came to be regarded as a historical footnote rather than the world-defining event that it was—killing, as it did, more people than were killed in battle during World War I. There are few memorials to this Spanish influenza. The literature it inspired is scant. H. L. Mencken noted how the 1918 virus had “an enormous mortality in the United States and was, in fact, the worst epidemic since the Middle Ages,” yet it is “seldom mentioned, and most Americans have apparently forgotten it. This is not surprising. The human mind always tries to expunge the intolerable from memory, just as it tries to conceal it while current.”
We don’t have to look far and wide to see how disease has challenged and shaped our increasingly cosmopolitan world. The modern epidemics of cholera, typhus, yellow fever, measles, smallpox, and polio, among a host of other infectious diseases, might have better prepared us for our current crisis—if only their histories were better remembered and their dead and injured duly honored. In a more just world, London’s Broad Street pump and New York’s High Bridge would both be shrines to our cholera dead, one for marking a locus of contamination, the other for the delivery of clean Croton water.
From its swampy beginnings through its mercantile heights, the Most Serene Republic has been defined by disease.
Epidemics were a central feature of Venice, with its “putrid smells,” “febrile effusions,” and “revolting sultriness,” in the words of Thomas Mann, long before Death in Venice. From its swampy beginnings through its mercantile heights, the Most Serene Republic has been defined by disease. Yet rather than turning away from its fate, Venice has used illness as inspiration for its greatest works of art and architecture. Such thoughts have been on my mind since I toured the city one autumn not long ago with Frederick Ilchman, the curator and Tintoretto expert, whose exhibition of the cinquecento master was on view at the time at the Palazzo Ducale. Now with the covid quarantine—which, in the West, began appropriately enough in Lombardy and the Veneto—Venice’s story of sickness and survival takes on renewed significance.
It is the deliverance of Venice from plague that should give us inspiration in our own age of pandemics and pandemonium. A center of maritime trade founded on the saltwater marshes of a lagoon, Venice has been hit hard by the diseases of ship and swamp. It was primarily the waves of bubonic bacterium, Yersinia pestis, that swept through Europe in the last millennium which affected the port city in ways that continue to shape its identity. A disease that infects the lymphatic system, the bubonic plague became known as the Black Death in its most deadly outbreak of the mid-fourteenth century for its ability to swell and burst the lymph nodes, further spreading illness before causing necrosis, fever, and death. Its horrific effects would put the novel coronavirus to shame. The plague could kill within days. Its signature boils became known as buboes, from the Greek word for groin, where they often appeared. From bubo, we may, in fact, have gotten the term “boo-boo.”
As the bubonic plague spread throughout Europe, killing upwards of fifty million people—over half the population of Europe—the Venetians turned to the “plague saints” for protection. A central figure was Roch. The Golden Legend, a collection begun by the thirteenth-century archbishop Jacobus da Varagine and added to by subsequent church historians, includes a CliffsNotes version of his miraculous deeds. Saint Roch, known in Italian as San Rocco, was born around 1300 to a nobleman in what is now the southern French city of Montpellier. Taking a strict vow of poverty, he made his way to Rome to tend to the plague-ridden. When he became ill himself, he was cast out of town to die in the forest. Here he made a home of branches and drank from a miraculous spring. A hunting dog brought him bread and licked his wounds, restoring him to health. Roch then returned to his hometown only to be mistakenly imprisoned and die a spy. He did not want to be glorified by revealing his true identity.
In addition to being the patron saint of dogs and pilgrims, Roch became venerated for his ability to survive illness. In the sixteenth century, the plague-ravaged Venetians dedicated a new church and confraternity building, or scuola, to Roch, both to aid the city’s sick and to venerate his relics, newly brought to La Serenissima. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco has become known as the “Sistine Chapel of Venice” for its cycle of religious paintings created by its most famous member, Tintoretto. Yet in the church next door to the Scuola, often overlooked by tourists, the cinquecento furioso artist also created a set of four monumental scenes from the saint’s life. They remain some of the most affecting works in Venice for depicting Roch’s devotion in the face of an invisible scourge.
Here, for the chancel, Tintoretto conceived a cycle of four paintings from Roch’s final days to surround the saint’s remains. St. Roch Visiting the Plague Victims (1549) is arguably the first representation of plague in Venetian art. Facing this work is St. Roch in Prison Comforted by an Angel, completed near the end of Tintoretto’s overall work in the Scuola in 1567. Both are of cinematic scope—sprawling, dark, and filled with pathos. Tintoretto had a great feel for the placement of his compositions, considering the height and angle of a work to the viewer and maximizing those effects to narrative advantage. Here seen from below and to the side, each work spirals into view, drawing the eye up into both the fictive space of the painting and the real space of the reliquary-altar, where Roch’s body is preserved.
Not far away, in the sestiere of Dorsoduro, another plague saint gets his due. Built on the site of a medieval hospice, the church of Saint Sebastian, or the Chiesa di San Sebastiano, received its own cycle of paintings, this time by the Renaissance master Paolo Veronese. Sebastian may be best remembered for his willowy body pierced with arrows—long a favorite for artists. Many forget the early Christian martyr survived this first attempt at execution. With spent arrow in hand, as depicted by Veronese, Sebastian went to reprove Diocletian for his sins—an insult for which the pagan emperor finally had him clubbed to death and thrown in the Cloaca Maxima. Since buboes resemble arrow wounds, Sebastian became venerated as another saint to survive bodily torments.
In 1555, the church hired Veronese, then an emerging star of cinquecento Venice, to paint these frescoes and canvases for the ceiling, organ loft, and altar. A restrained technician in contrast with Tintoretto and his furious brush, Veronese filled every available space, from the golden-coffered ceiling on down, with paintings of Sebastian’s life and martyrdom among images of the Blessed Virgin, Esther, the Evangelists, and the martyrdoms of Saints Mark, Lawrence, and Marcellinus. Behind the high altar, Madonna in Glory with St. Sebastian and other Saints (1570) pulls the opulent program of heaven and earth together. This was the last work completed by Veronese for the church. After his unexpected death in 1588, the artist was buried here, joined by the remains of his family, a testament to his artistic achievements and this ethereal work.
As the Venetians turned to Sebastian and Roch, they also developed some of the first civic procedures for caring for the sick and curtailing the spread of epidemic disease. Long before our modern understanding of germ theory, in 1423 Venice began sequestering potentially sick visitors away from its populated islands. As thirty-day exclusions turned to forty, una quarantina di giorni gave us the word for “quarantine.” Our term lazaretto, for plague hospital, likewise comes from the name of the lagoon island by one of these early quarantine sites. And the Venetian “plague mask,” now a Carnevale favorite with its protruding nose, was the original medical prophylactic, encouraging “social distancing” while allowing space for perfumed sachets to filter out the airborne disease.
Venice’s grand institutions made no separation among faith, art, and medicine. All worked together in the power to cure. In the sestiere of Castello, the Scuola Grande di San Marco may have lost its famous paintings in the Napoleonic suppression of the lay confraternities. Tintoretto’s miraculous Miracle of the Slave, originally painted for the Scuola in 1548, now resides in Venice’s Accademia Gallery. But the opulent building, recently restored and now a medical museum, speaks to its early mission of charity and public health in the name of Mark, a healer-Evangelist. It is no coincidence that the Scuola now serves as the entryway to Venice’s modern hospital.
Saints and science still could not stop the return of plague to Venice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Between 1575 and 1576, some forty-six thousand Venetians, up to 30 percent of the city’s population, including both Titian and the painter’s son Orazio, succumbed to a particularly deadly episode. In 1630, another wave killed a third of the population. Yet the city survived. In thanks for this deliverance, the Venetian Republic erected two of its most notable landmarks: the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, known as the Redentore, designed by Andrea Palladio on the island of Giudecca; and Saint Mary of Health, the grand domed church designed by Baldassare Longhena and known simply as the Salute, built on a million wooden piles by the Punta della Dogana at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Both transformed the skyline of the Renaissance city: one with classical order; the other with the celestial wonders of the baroque.
While most visitors are oblivious to the sources of its beauty, Venice still commemorates its history of death and salvation. As in the age of the Doge, a feast parade marks each plague. On the third Sunday of July for the Redentore, and November 21 for the Salute, temporary bridges cross the canals to bring the islands together. They are still wonders to see and cross—like walking on water, as I felt crossing to the Salute during my visit there over that recent November.
We are all Venetians now, even arguing over the nature of our illness and the costs of our quarantines, as Venice famously did in 1576. Yet as we contemplate our own modern-day plague, St. Science alone seems little able to bring our islands together. It helps to think of Sebastian, Roch, and Mary—or, at the very least, the art and culture they inspired.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 53
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