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Venice for Halloween Inspiration

Venice for Halloween Inspiration

“So what will you be for Halloween?”

My daughter’s reply, “A Vampire!”

My son:  “A Lego Vampire. And Daddy will be Count Dracula.”

“Who will you be, Mommy?”

A plain-clothes adult giving out stickers and candy.

Then again, maybe I’ll dip into our Venice experience.

Masks

Venice, the city of masks. 

During the Carnevale, people don them along with fantabulous garb.

This was the kind that caught my attention.  The shop owner explained it’s the mask of the Dottore or Medico della Peste.  The Plague Doctor.


I wanted to get one except we already had two fragile Venetian masks painted by our children to bring home along with Murano glass.  Venice was our first stop in Bella Italia and who knows what else we’d pick along the way.

But the story of the beaked mask is something I took along with me.  

May I pour you some cider and history?

“Now I will tell you how mankind almost died out.” -Mattheo Villani (1283-1363), Italian historian, died of the plague

La Salute


Across the bustle of tourist-packed San Marco is the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, St. Mary of Health or Deliverance.  It is in the quieter sestiere of Dorsoduro.

We crossed the Grand Canal aboard the traghetto, the gondola ferry,  at the cost of 2 euros/passenger at S.M. del Giglio to reach Salute.  The other way to get there is with leg power over the Accademia Bridge.

The city of Venice was Western Europe’s trade center between Asia and the Byzantine Empire.  This made her exposed and vulnerable to the Black Death.  When the Black Death swept over Asia and Europe, it claimed lives in Venice from 1348 to the 1600s.

During the plague outbreak of 1630-31, La Serenissima lost a third of her inhabitants.  An estimated 46,000 out of a population of 140,000 died. Where to turn to, in this desperation?

Doge (Elected Leader) Nicolò  Contarini gave a solemn vow in the name of the Venice Senate that if the Virgin Mary would save Venice from the plague, that a church will be built in her honor, as the Madonna of Good Health.  

Doge Nicolò Contarini, alas, was not spared from the plague.  But the vow was kept by those who survived.


The contest for the church design was won by a then unknown 26-year-old, Baldessare Longhena.  

It took 50 years to build the church.  At least 100,000 pylons (wood pilings) were sunk in to reinforce the tip of Dorsoduro.  The church was constructed of Istrian stone and marmorino, brick covered with marble dust.   The dome was designed by Longhena to look like a crown.

The inside of the church is octagonal.  Inside are paintings of Tintoretto and Titian.  The great painter Titian also succumbed to the plague, but not until (at least) his late 80s.




At the altar is Josse de Corte’s sculpture complex Queen of Heaven Expelling the Plague.   The Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus as a humbled Lady Venice asks for her help.  The request appears to be answered:  an angel drives out the Plague, represented by an old woman to the Virgin’s left.

Plague Churches

People in Medieval times did not know the cause of the Black Death.  

Could it be punishment for sins?  

Some sought the forgiveness and help of Heaven.  

And Saints.

La Salute is the grandest of the plague churches in Venice.

There are to my knowledge at least four other votive churches in Venice associated with the plague outbreaks:

  • Il Redentore – designed by Andrea Palladio on the island of Giudecca in the sestiere of Dorsoduro
  • Chiesa di San Rocco – Church of St. Roch, in the sestiere of San Polo and in the area of the Frari Church and Scuola di San Rocco.  
  • Chiesa di San Sebastiano – Church of St. Sebastian in the sestiere of Dorsoduro
  • Chiesa di San Giobbe – Church of St. Job in the sestiere of Cannaregio

A church art-lover and student of history can go on days visiting these churches but the rest of the family gave an ultimatum: Just one more church to visit, Mommy!  We need our gelato.

Vampires 

When knowledge is not there, superstition and fear take its place.  

Were there vampires –and witches– in Venice?  

We know better, right?  

But in Medieval times, it was also believed that vampires, the un-dead,  spread the plague.  It was believed that they would suck out the remaining lives out of corpses.  When strong enough, they went back to the streets of the city to spread the pestilence.  The vampires were thought to chew out of their shrouds and graves.  To prevent them from doing this, a brick was placed in the suspected vampire corpse’s mouth.

Quarantine and Lazarettos

It was not until 1894, during the Manchurian plague epidemic that Swiss-French physician Alexandre Yersin discovered the bacterium that we now know cause the plague:  Yersinia pestis.  It’s spread through rodent flea bites, contact with contaminated body fluid or cough droplets.

It was not until 1943 that the antibiotic streptomycin was discovered.  

So how did medieval Venice deal with the plague other than prayer (which, by the way, I do not discount) and making sure vampires did not get out of the grave?

Before the germ theory, people believed bad airs caused disease – the miasma theory.  Triaca  was a mixture of aromatic herbs and possibly amber.  It may have been good for other things but ineffective for the plague.


The Seat of the Venetian government and home of the Doge is the Palazzo Ducale in San Marco.  

Although the Venetian leaders did not know what caused the plague, they gathered as much of its infectious nature.  The word quarantine comes from the Venetian quaranta giorni.  Ships were isolated for 40 days before passengers and crew can go on to the city.

Lazarets were set up.  Lazaretto Vecchio near the Lido was set up in 1423 where those who were sick were cared for in a hospital and buried if they succumb to the disease.   Lazaretto Nuovo was later set up as the Venetian Senate deemed that not one place is enough for an effective sanitary policy:  Lazaretto Vecchio remained to be the “hospital” lazaret and Lazaretto Nuovo became a place to spend recovery in isolation and for those who need a period of quarantine.

Those who were in the hospital were cared for by doctors and nurses hired by the State.

Visits to Lazaretto Vecchio and Nuovo can be made through guided tours through Archeoclub of Venice.

Medico della Peste


We saw some glammed up versions of the Plague Doctor’s Mask and Costume.  

For Halloween, I’ll stick to Charles de L’Orme’s original design.  The simple beaked mask (Amazon delivery before Halloween), a black coat and hat, gloves, boots, and a stick.  

The purpose of the beak is to stuff herbs and spices.  I shall be protected from the bad airs.  

Happy Spooking!

-Kathleen PB



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