Luca Bruno / AP
VENICE – Visitors to Venice could be forgiven for not realizing that beyond the magnificence of St. Mark’s Square and the romance of gondola rides lies a city that helped provide the basis for what the world knows today about pandemic control.
This is where the term “quarantine” originated, after merchant ships arriving in the 15th-century Venetian Republic were moored for 40 days (“quaranta giorni” in Italian) to determine if their crew was affected by the plague. The first isolated plague hospital was built there on a lonely island in the lagoon, the forerunner of today’s isolation wards for COVID-19. And it was in Venice that 16th-century physicians wore beaked masks filled with aromatic herbs to purify the air they breathed in treating patients — an attempt at self-protection that is a favorite choice for Venetian carnival costumes today.
Venice’s central place in the history of the fight against the pandemic provides a relevant background to this year’s Venice Film Festival, which opens on Wednesday with the premiere of Pedro Almodovar’s competition film “Parallel Mothers”. Almodovar developed the project during quarantine in Spain 2020, one of the sharpest in the West.
At a screening ahead of Tuesday’s opening, Italian director Andre Segre presents a short documentary made last year showing how Venice organizers dealt with COVID-19 on stage the first and only personal international film festival during the first year of the outbreak, a limited affair that nevertheless showed that it could be done. Cannes has revived this year after skipping 2020, and other major festivals have become largely virtual since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Scenes in Segre’s film — then shocking, now normal — show half-full cinema for Hollywood premieres, masked movie stars, cleaners in hazmat costumes and “blink, blink, blink” remote thermometers that measure temperatures at festival checkpoints.
Luca Bruno / AP
Similar precautions are planned for this year, with a huge barricade that will re-close public access to the red carpet and limited chances for fans to catch VIP taxis coming to the Lido. More than 10 testing stations have been set up for staff and festival visitors, who must show evidence of a negative test, vaccination or have recently recovered from COVID-19 to enter the screenings. Masks are mandatory indoors.
In other words, the show in Venice is underway – other premieres at the world’s oldest film festival include the debut of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” and Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer” – even as Italy deals with new infections caused by an infectious delta variant.
For Venice, however, this is really nothing new.
“The history of Venice is a history that teaches us how our city, the first among European metropolises, understood in advance how viruses could be managed,” said Simone Venturini, Venice’s head of tourism. “These repetitions are even more studied and recalled today because the Venetian model is a model that paradoxically is still used.”
Starting with the first confirmed plague to hit Venice – an outbreak in 1348 that killed at least a third of its population – the city introduced control measures even without an epidemiological understanding of how it was spreading, said Fabio Zampieri, a professor of medical history at the University. Faculty of Medicine in Padua.
Believing “bad air” was to blame for what became known as the Black Death, Venetian authorities closed churches and restaurants, canceled religious processions and ordered thorough cleaning of homes and public places, Zampieri said.
During the plague that broke out in 1423, the Venice Senate decided to close the entire city, banning people from suspicious places affected by the plague and punishing locals who gave sick foreigners shelter with six months in prison, he said. A year later, Venice opened the first “lazzaretto,” a hospital on an isolated island in a Venetian lagoon dedicated exclusively to plague victims.
Michelle Locke / AP
That concept would turn into a real quarantine years later, an isolated place for people suspected of carrying the plague – merchant ship crews – to wait 40 days of surveillance while their cargo was disinfected, he said.
During the plague of 1575-1577, physicians increasingly used masks with a beaked nose filled with aromatic herbs to try to protect themselves from patients, still not realizing that the plague was mainly transmitted by fleas infected with bacteria on rats rather than “bad air.” “
“It was still a key experience for the history of medicine, the history of health care and the history of treating infectious diseases,” Zampieri said.
After the plague of 1630 wiped out about a third of the population again, tired Venetians thanked the Virgin Mary for not taking even more lives: they built the church of Santa Maria della Salute (St. Mary of Health) across the Grand Canal from St. Mark’s Square, one of the most visible and the most famous images of the city.
The central location of the huge basilica with octagonal domes at the top of the Venetian customs port was entirely intentional, to show the city’s gratitude for surviving and bouncing off the plague, said art historian Silvia Marchiori, curator of the Venetian Patriarchate Manfrediniana Museum.
“When you arrived in Venice, you arrived from the sea, not from the mainland, so you had to notice this large temple built of white Istrian stone to attract attention,” she said.
To this day, Venetians worship the icon of the Mother of God in the basilica during one of the city’s main religious festivals on November 21, a day dedicated to praying for good health, she said.
Whether through prayer, public health policy, or discipline, Venice as a whole did relatively well during its last pandemic. The city made an extraordinary decision in February 2020 – when the coronavirus was just beginning to be detected in northern Italy – to cancel his famous carnival. It remained locked during the worst pandemic, observing neighboring Lombardy and even parts of the surrounding Veneto region infected with infections and death in one of the hardest hit countries in Europe.
Venice has been rewarded with a steady return of visitors this spring and summer, just in time for celebrations marking the city’s 1600th anniversary, a film festival, sailing regattas and star-studded Valentina and Dolce & Gabbana fashion shows.
It’s all part of Venice efforts to attract visitors who stay, to spend and appreciate the city’s history and art, not the picnickers who ride the gondola down the Grand Canal and call it the day, said tourism chief Venturini.
“These are the pillars on which we are building post-COVID tourism,” he said.