Italy – The Great Plague of Venice

The Feast of Madonna della Salute, the Third Pandemic Plague, Patron Saints against the Plague, a painting of Tintoretto’s in Saint Rocco’s Church.

The plague struck Venice several times, in fact there have been three big pandemic plagues: 1348, 1575-77 and 1630-31. I’m going to tell you about the places, buildings and people that bring to us back to those terrible years.

The 21st of November the city of Venice celebrates the Madonna della Salute. And what were you meant do on this day? Obviously you went to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, and if you were a devout catholic, you could light a candle, you meet with people to eat some delicious “frittella” (fritters).
Even today you can cross a mobile bridge, the “Ponte Votivo”, a temporary votive bridge on boats that is build up over the Canal Grande to connect the area of San Moisé and Santa Maria del Giglio to the Longhena’s Church, it mainly functions to let the procession of pilgrims reach the Basilica itself. Yes, there was also a procession of pilgrims.
This feast is the anniversary of the third plague of Venice, but let’s try to understand a bit more about it, we move on from the huge fritter, the temporary bridge and the amazing Basilica, beautiful in every seasons and from every corner and let’s be explorers, not tourists!
Venice has always been on the front line against the ‘bubonic’ enemy coming from the East: mainly because Venice couldn’t afford to stop its commercial relationship with the Levant region, on which it based its fortune and richness.
Therefore Venice had to take measures to protect the public health. That’s why it created the “Lazaretto” (quarantine station for maritime travellers located on an island) and it was probably the first city in the world to develop a special health organisation against the plague.
Once in the city, the disease spread throughout: the plague left only the hope to spell it through art and its expressions.
In the North of Europe were popular iconographic representations of the triumph of death and the dance of death, the Danse Macabre. In Venice, instead, the popular piety has called the help of the patron saints: Saint Sebastian, Saint Roch and the Virgin Marie.
And it is exactly in Santa Maria della Salute that, during the dreadful plague of 1630-31 (the third and the last), the Republic of Venice made a votive offering to build this Church to Our Lady of Health (Salute).
The plague spread through Venice because of the Ambassador of the Duchy of Mantua, who was ill and moved away to the Saint Clemente island, he transmitted the disease through his carpenter sent to the city to set up his home.
The Republic of Venice took too long to set out emergency plan, this is also the reason why more than 30% of the population died during this plague.
The project was commissioned to Baldassarre Longhena, and he designed a round monument, “God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the shape of a crown” in dedication to the Virgin, where we still today celebrate the Liberation from the Plague.
During my walk I have met also another icon of the fight against the plague: Saint Roch. He was born in Montpellier in 1350, Roch went on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1367. On the way back he came across a village devastated by the plague. So he decided to help the sick but he got sick too.
In order not to endanger others, he retired into a forest where he is helped by a healing angel and a dog that brings to him fresh bread every day. Once recovered, he will return to Montpellier where he was not recognized and will end up in jail.
Saint Roch arrived in Venice in the 1485, when his relics arrive, they have found their place in the eponymous Church, which started to be built in 1489.
His cult was promoted by the Venetian authorities, because accepting to isolate himself, Saint Rocco represented the political line of the Magistrates of Health who had just built up the lazaret, where obviously nobody wanted to go.
What does it mean “Scuola di San Rocco”? The “scuole” were (confraternity) completely different from what we know, the school where you study, they were a group of lay people who practiced the same profession or practices of Christian devotion, as assistants to sick.
Therefore they were “ancestors of hospitals” and there were more than 300! Obviously the “Scuole Grandi” reserved for patricians were less, and among these there was San Rocco, established between the 1478 and still active today.
Jacopo Robusti, also known as Tintoretto, took care of almost of the entire decor of the ‘Scuola’ and the related Church located in the homonymous ‘Campo’ (square): a little square in Istrian stone, partly occupied by the back of the gigantic church of the Frari, in the sestiere (area) of Dorsoduro.
The inside of the Church glows red and what I would like to show you is one of Tintoretto’s masterpieces, the ‘telero’, painting “St. Roch curing the plague victims”.
Roch stopped in Acquapendente and decided to help out in the hospital where the untouchables were gathered.
Why is this painting so amazing? Because in this dramatic painting Tintoretto shows all its innovation in building of a theatrical perspective and lighting: he looks at the closed spaces as large boxes in dimmed light, with the perspective convergences of the gestures culminating in the action or gathered towards multiple sources of light.
Stage lights in which human figures are moving with their gestures. The movements of the characters are like chained in a single, dynamic dialogue.
We know that Tintoretto before painting studied his compositions at home, resorting to a kind of “theater-laboratory”, where he gave shape to wax models to get and then paint a dramatic, perfect chiaroscuro.
Besides, during the realization of his paintings he offers us a beautiful gap from the rules of perspective normally followed during in his time.
Yes, because the canvas was almost always addressed to a space at least half meter higher than the viewer (there was always a wooden plinth or something similar below) but Tintoretto does not lower the perspective of the work to make it meet the point of view of the viewer, at all!
The gaze of the viewer and the perspective lines that start from the composition of the painting they meet only in an imaginary place, outside the painting itself: in conclusion I was looking at this incredible scene of San Rocco as if from the bottom of the audience watching the show on a stage of a theater.
Does it sound strange to you? Then you have to come to Venice to discover this brilliant artist, who among other things found himself painting just during the second pandemic plague in 1575-1577…

Words: Berenice Dentis

Photography: Sara Ballarin

Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
Santa Maria della Salute
View of the Basilica from the temporary bridge
View of the temporary bridge
Temporary bridge on boats
Temporary bridge on boats
San Rocco
San Rocco
nizioleto of San Rocco
"nizioleto" of San Rocco
Inside of Saint Roch Church
Inside of Saint Roch Church
St. Roch curing the plague victims
St. Roch curing the plague victims
Detail of St. Roch curing the plague victims
Church of St. Roch
Church of St. Roch
Scuola di San Rocco
View of the School and the Church of St. Roch
View of the School and the Church of St. Roch