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a word on art

Lockdown in Venice, across 500 years

If you had to draw a Venetian landmark what would it be? An iconic building or quiet backwater or maybe a favourite bar or restaurant?

Santa Marie della Salute is always prominent amongst Venetian views and has the most emblematic of domes sitting as it does at the head of the Grand Canal and to the side of the Guidecca.

Of course it has its origins in one of many terrible periods for the people of Venice. Plague regularly threatened the city over centuries. 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 as a centre of trade 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, Venetians were spurred to introduce and refine innovative measures to counter the spread of disease.

Many of these same fifteenth century measures – including quarantine, travel bans and self-isolation – we have seen adopted again in 2020.

When plague arrived in Venice in the summer of 1575, one of the most mobile and dynamic cities in Europe swiftly ground to a halt. Its population knew what was needed. Carnevale was cancelled; preaching and church services were stopped; shops, inns and taverns were closed; charlatans 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 and by 1577, when it petered out, a third of Venetians were dead.

Further plagues would come but by quick communication 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 could be stopped.

Venice could become eerily still, its merchants and residents knew the importance of lockdown. And so it would be again in 1630. In that year the city experienced an unusually devastating outbreak of the plague. As a votive offering for the city's deliverance from the pestilence, the Republic vowed to build and dedicate a church to Our Lady of Health.

The church was designed in the then fashionable baroque style by Baldassare Longhena. Construction began in 1631 and the church consecrated in 1681. Many of the objects housed in the church bear some reference to the Black Death.

Renaissance lockdown was a great skill developed over many centuries and the ending of it was something to be supremely grateful for.


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