Silent Spring: Venice under the lockdown

This city is going to change .. forever .. We haven’t posted on the blog for a month or so, waiting the situation out, trying to understand the different reality that has taken over in Venice, just like in so many other cities worldwide. Today, 23 April 2020, Venice is still under lockdown, albeit there are a couple of changes expected to take place in the next two weeks. A few more shops will be allowed to open, but activities related to tourism, and even more so, international tourism, remain closed indefinitely as Italy is still under lockdown.

90 per cent of the workforce in Venice suffer when the tourism machinery comes to a full stop, as almost all tourist-related businesses depend on international tourism: Remember, this is a city that during the past 40 years, developed towards becoming more touristic than most other cities in Italy. Thus, tourism is our cluster risk in Venice.

People and businesses, especially during the past 10-15 years, were tying their economic wellbeing to the “Venice brand”: Hotels and B&B, restaurants, luxury shops, souvenir stalls and tourist guides, event managers, authors and bloggers.

Not just Venetian businesses, but the crisis hits others, working “from outside Venice”. Too much pressure and competition of a kind the city cannot take, and wasn’t created for: Venice wasn’t envisaged as “tourist attraction” but as capital of merchants, international traders, explorers and inventors, artisans, all selling luxury goods, the capital of La Serenissima Republic of Venice.

Today, tourism is by far the major, and sometimes only, source of income for the residents, who often work invisibly behind the scenes, which is why our city has been hit by the Corona lockdown so much more than other cities in Italy whose economy is more diversified. Venice will have to face an additional task, that of re-inventing herself.

As I hinted above, in the case of Venice, history is repeating itself, and we are repeating a basic lesson. Because you must know that Venice, during the two-and-a-half-year span 1574-1576 was in a situation very similar to this one, and the government chose the economy over public health. A risky decision which proved lethal as you will see. The Venetian government had very good reasons for doing that, but in hindsight, their decision proved utterly distructive. I’m coming to this in a minute.

I decided to write this post after six weeks, during which the people living here in Venice centro storico were not well enough or in the mood to talk or write, still reflecting and collecting information about this new situation. Gathering strength and ideas, for it’s people you don’t meet on social media that are now taking care of Venice. Her residents.

So how is Venice doing now, in spring 2020? Without tourists, the hotels, restaurants, guides etc. aren’t working. We don’t know yet when the Italian borders will be open again for tourism, we cannot say as of now how the situation will evolve, if there will be another peak of the disease, and when there will be a remedy or vaccine, if or not the virus may mutate. It might well take this year, all of 2020.. In short, Venice is suffering like many other cities in the world. And the terrible truth is that we don’t know which businesses (hotels, bars, restaurants, etc) will around once the crisis is over ..

Sometimes, images can sum up the situation much better than a long story. So in this post, I’ve included images of Venice taken during the past weeks, tying them to a story taking place in April 1576. And when you have read through this story, you will also know how Venice is doing now, and where Venice is on her journey in April 2020.

On 20 April 1576, Venice wakes up to a tantalizing sunlight, reflecting the calm water patterns on sunbaked facades. It’s un anno precoce – spring arrived early, and Venice is already green with chirping blackbirds and merlins building nests under the roofs. The only voices this morning are those of the birds because shops and ateliers are closed, bakeries, pharmacies, spice stores and markets are empty. This is a city still trying to get to grips with the bubonic plague, and has been suffering incredibly since June 1575. Merchants returning from the Levant in May 1575 fell ill with fever, their symptoms of febbre putrida were discussed by the State officials and doctors hastily called by the Doge and Maggior Consiglio. While some doctors urged to be on the careful side and take the patients to the Lazzaretto Vecchio island, away from the city, others claimed the fever could be an after-effect of the acqua granda (flood) of December 1574, when the water level in town reached 197 cm on Piazza San Marco (now, doesn’t that remind us of 2019??). During this acqua granda, sea water had infiltrated the drinking water wells (pozzi) in Venice, causing a number of diseases in spring 1575.

Following hectic disputes amongst politicians and experts, the Maggior Consiglio takes the decision in May 1575: The Arsenal shipbuilding factory and the Rialto warehouses shall keep open, and life in city shall go on as usually.

But why did the Republic hestitate in spring 1575, and not take decisive measures to contain the outbreak in time?

Just a few years earlier, more than half of the Venetian armada had been destroyed during the battle of Lepanto in October 1571: For this reason, the Venetian Arsenal was hastily rebuilding and restoring the ships, indispensable to keep up the delivery chains between Europe and the Levant, on which the merchants and the Republic of Venice depended for survival. For that reason, they had called in additional arsenalotti (Arsenal workers). In 1575, the Venetians focused on building ships, to be able to recover lost business (8000 arsenalotti lost their jobs when the plague broke out .. ).

But then, less than two weeks afterwards, Venice is beyond redemption: Quarantaine measures come too late, and by June 1575, people are locked into their houses. The Venetian military are patrolling the Lagoon entries, and the number of people fallen ill grows exponentially. The patients are taken out into the southern Lagoon every morning to the hospitals on the Lazzaretto Vecchio island, suspects and recovering survivors go to the island Lazzaretto Nuovo in the northern Lagoon.

On that 20 April 1576, more than 10 months later, Venice is still in a precarious lockdown. Several times a week, food is delivered to the Venetians, still not allowed to leave their homes. They are allowed to go downstairs to retrieve herbs and drinking water, though. As the shipbuilding activities have come to a complete standstill, the City government takes care of the jobless, providing shelter and food to avoid poverty. Doctors and state officials, in the streets of Venice, are wearing those beak masks which became famous in the world.

The Doge and Maggior Consiglio of Venice make a pilgrimage, pledging to build a splendid church dedicated to El Redentor – The Redeemer. He and his entourage arrive at the Church of San Rocco, where the Patriarch is celebrating a Mass Service. San Rocco is a Saint who in the 14th century took care of patients of the Bubonic Plague in Central Italy. The body of San Rocco (Saint Roch) was taken to Venice in 1485 (Chiesa di San Rocco). In this church they were praying for health in 1576, and there, the Patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia, celebrated a mass service in 19 April 2020, like his predecessor, using the same words. So many parallels to 1576: Now like in the past, we are still in the midst of the crisis, the future is more than uncertain, and we have to think of strategies to diversify the economy to overcome structural unemployment … challenging tasks ahead but as I gather, there are already so many ideas brought forward by neighborhoods and friends in Venice.

This story tells you how our ancestors coped with health emergencies, and which mistakes they made, but also how they tried to correct their mistakes .. Their experience has become an important part of collective memory in Venice, a warning to be precise. And in 2020, Venice is fighting to stand up and heal, behind closed doors.

We’ll be posting more often soon, 9 ideas for Venice and before this article, tips for you to discover Venice from a distance :-) Yes, we are all witnessing how Venetian history is turning a page.

Suggestions for you to learn more on the topic:

  • Paolo Preto, “ Peste e società a Venezia, 1576”, Neri Pozza Editore, 1978
  • Timer Magazine, “Venezia nel 1576 privilegiò  gli interessi economici alle misure sanitarie … e fu pandemia!”

2 responses to “Silent Spring: Venice under the lockdown”

  1. tensecondsfromnow Avatar

    Bravo! Thought provoking article about why we can learn from history. Tourists are both the iceberg and the lifeboat; stay safe!

    1. Iris Avatar

      Thank you so much! There’s a huge task ahead, Venice will reinvent herself, I’m positive … stay safe and much love! xx

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