Coronavirus is not (fortunately) Venice’s new plagueHistorical Curiosities
Coronavirus is not (fortunately) Venice’s new plague
As recently as a month ago the Coronavirus or COVID-19 started to affect our lives causing much disruption. It appeared precisely in our region: the first Italian outbreak was identified in a small town in the Euganean Hills, in the province of Padua. Since February 21, 2020, this virus has inevitably also been the major talking point of news across all media channels, as well as of our daily conversations, in a crescendo of concern that in recent days reached its peak. Indeed, the WHO (World Health Organization) declared last Wednesday that we are now facing a real pandemic which, alongside Veneto and Italy, has already hit most countries in the world. It is natural that, in these circumstances, we resort to comparing this difficult time to the plagues of the past. But...can we really compare the new Coronavirus to the Plague?
Looking at the data, we can safely say that we definitely can’t. In fact, if we gather information on the various plague outbreaks that ravaged the world in the past, it’s immediately clear just how different the statistics are. Let's take our beloved Venice as an example: the black plague of 1348 killed about 70,000 people, that of 1423 saw the death of at least 40 individuals per day for three months and, in the great epidemic of 1630, more than 46,000 died out of 142,000 infected...
Although the Coronavirus undoubtedly displays worrying and rapidly growing numbers, but this is indeed a far cry from the devastating effects of the plague bacillus which, in addition to spreading rapidly, led to death of at least 70 per cent of the population. Granted, today we’re fighting against a virus that spreads incredibly quickly. However, we must bear in mind that it has an estimated mortality rate of less than 2% and that those who are at greater risk of experiencing complications in contracting COVID-19 are older people or those with pre-existing conditions.
What clearly sets the Coronavirus apart from the various plague outbreaks that hit Venice in the past is above all the fact that modern society is much better prepared to deal with the epidemic and, thanks to advanced medical research and intervention, will soon be able to eradicate it thanks to the discovery of a vaccine, which many teams of researchers all over the world are already working on.
Meanwhile, as research progresses, we are taking the right measures to fight the spread of Coronavirus by staying at home as much as possible, for our own good and that of our loved ones, and to avoid causing our national health system to collapse. After all, staying at home is not such a bad thing! Technology allows us to do lots of things without leaving the comfort of our sofa: working remotely thanks to smart working, playing games, watching movies and TV series, reading books and newspapers, keeping in touch with everyone, friends and relatives ... in short, you can’t get bored that easily!
But in the past, when all of this was not available, how did our predecessors deal with the various epidemics of the Venice plague and what remedies did they adopt?
Plague was a highly contagious disease, caused by a particular bacterium called Yersinia pestis which was transmitted to humans by fleas and rodents. This terrible disease arrived in Venice for the first time in 1348 from Dalmatia by sea, through merchant boats travelling from Caffa, the city where the pandemic began, and their sailors landing onshore. During the Middle Ages man and medicine did not have the knowledge at the time to recognize that fleas and rats were the vector driving the disease, as their presence was ubiquitous: how could creatures man had always coexisted with transmit such a disease?
The cause of the plague, therefore, was imaginatively attributed to external and uncontrollable agents such as the climate, stagnant waters, miasmas, the humidity of the air, demons, stars, divine punishments or a bad mixture, according to the theory of Humoral Pathology, of the four humors, that is blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.
As many and confusing were the theories about the origin and spread of this terrible scourge, equally bizarre were the plague cures, so much so that some of these are even worse in our eyes than the disease itself.
Here is a list with the weirdest ones:
Taking ‘Theriaca’. This was one of the sugariest remedies that only the rich could afford! It was a medical concoction of very ancient origin composed of imaginative ingredients such as viper powder, deer testicle or ‘unicorn horn’, opium and many others. In order for the concoction to be truly effective, it had to 'settle' for ten years and in the seventeenth century Venice became the undisputed producer of Theriaca on a global scale.
Bloodletting. This was one of the most popular methods for treating various illnesses and was practiced by applying leeches to body parts. However, at the time of the Black Plague, not everyone could afford it, so many people used to cut their veins, allowing blood to flow into a bowl.
Urine is another substance considered a panacea for all ailments. It was believed that bathing in urine a few times a day and drinking a glass or two of it could be helpful in alleviating the terrible symptoms of the disease.
Rubbing the patient's body with a live chicken. From the 1500s this strange treatment became popular. It involved plucking the feathers around the backside of a live chicken and placing it on the patient’s swollen area: the chicken was washed and repositioned on the patient until either the chicken or the patient healed from the disease.
These are just some examples of more than far-fetched practices popular during the Black Plague ...
There are other important facts about Venice that should be considered when discussing diseases. Venetians were very quick to react and the first ever to establish, in the first year of the 1347 plague epidemic, a judiciary that dealt with health matters, as well as to conceive of quarantine. The meaning comes from the word 'forty'>: people and ships had to stay in isolation for forty days before entering the lagoon of the Venetian Republic, in order to prevent the spread of any diseases from overseas, in particular the plague.
The first site chosen for this purpose was the Nazaretum, i.e. the place where a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Nazareth was erected in 1249 on a small island in the southern lagoon, today known as Lazzaretto Vecchio in Venice. In fact, it seems that the current word 'Lazzaretto' originated from folks’ distortion of the term 'Nazaretum'. In 1468, the island’s surface was not large enough, so another area was earmarked for the quarantine of goods and people, the 'Vigna Murada' island, later known as 'New Lazzaretto' of Venice. Even if these measures were not enough to stop the plague pandemics in that period, they have proven to be effective nowadays.
Switching back to the present day, we’ve seen the word quarantine reappear everywhere. Quarantining seems to be a method of preventing the spread of the Coronavirus. Thankfully, it’s ‘only’ for a period of 14 days, not for 40 days.
Today Venice, Veneto and Italy are under quarantine but we’re working hard to ensure this situation ends soon. And when it ends, we will be ready to face the world stronger, with our wonderful works of art and cities more beautiful and precious than ever... And, of course, we will celebrate! Just as it happened in 1577 when the Redentore Festival was organized, to remember the grace received from the city to end the plague. This year the Redentore will have an even stronger meaning: it won’t only be the revival of an annual historical festival, but it will be the Event that will allow us to celebrate all together our return to life after Covid-19! For this reason, we have dedicated an entire section to live to the fullest the 'Famous festival' 2020, the ‘Special Redentore in Venice’!
Because one thing we’re sure of: #AndràTuttoBene!
Venice, 17th March 2020
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