Venice and the Plague: Letters, records and faiths of health offices

03080435The Black Death reached the shores of Europe in 1348, carried there on merchant ships on the backs of rats stowed away as cargo amongst the spices destined for the European market.

By 1334, the plague had destroyed two thirds of China’s population and successive waves of the plague after 1348 took the lives of roughly one third of Southern Europeans. Including at least four variants; the plague was caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis which lived in the stomach of fleas who, as scientists believe, became sick, their digestive tract blocked, regurgitating numerous bacilli into the bloodstream of their rodent host, thereby causing the flea to move onto a new host upon the death of their rodent host.

Unfortunately for the Middle Ages, this host became man. This is how, in 1630, the Venetian Republic, again ravaged by another onset of the plague, began its descent towards its ultimate downfall in 1797 lead by the Ottoman Turks and completed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Tragically, up until this period, Venice had enjoyed the glory of being a commercial center of Europe.

From the exploration of the Venetian Marco Polo into China (1271-1295), Venetian merchants followed his route eastward to the Orient seeking the riches of the silk and spice trade–and the riches did come for the Venetian Republic. In a letter from Petrarch dated 1362 who came to see the wonders of Venice, he describes the love of the Venetians for the sea and adventure.

The Venetian commercial prosperity, which rivaled that of other sea powers in Renaissance Northern Italy (like Genoa) reached its most powerful in the XIV and XV centuries. If only the merchants could have imagined the horror that lie hidden between their boxes of precious goods that they shipped back to their beloved Venice–for the plague knew no social class distinctions and attacked all social strata, rich and poor, powerful and weak alike.

The Island of the Lazzaretto Nuovo will host, until  October 30th , the exhibition ‘Venice and the Plague: Letters, records and faiths of health offices. Documents and records of medical and postal history‘, featuring documents and records on the efforts made by the Serenissima Republic and other European Governments to contrast the spreading of plagues.


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