Friday 13 March 2020

How to read a painting of the plague - Michelle Lovric

Today I should be flying from London to Venice. But obviously I won't be. And even if I could get there, I would be confined to my home, required to fill out a form if I wanted to cross the city to see my friends. I could not go to the library or to see an exhibition. I could not go to my local bar for a cappuccino. A Venetian friend told me yesterday morning, 'It's as if we've all been sent to jail.' 

I wish I was on my way, though. I'd love to see Venice without the crowds and most of all without the cruise ships: restored thereby to the beauty of a Canaletto painting. Without the cruise ships, the air of Venice must be safer to breathe, paradoxically, than it has been ever since the cruise ship blight fell on the city.

So, yes, beauty, but at what cost? 

Northern Italy is now paralysed not just by the corona virus but by fear of the corona virus.

This is not a new condition for la Serenissima. She is a city to some extent shaped by epidemics. As the crossroads and crucible of trade for centuries, Venice was also the place to which all major diseases eventually made a pilgrimage.

Plague, of course, was the sickness that terrified Venice above all others. When the disease struck in April 1464, the senate decreed that prayers should be said continuously in all the convents, monasteries and churches – for the plague was seen as a divine scourge. Two major plague outbreaks, in 1575 and 1630, killed off between a quarter and a third of the population each time. In 1575, one in two Venetians fell sick.

Historically, Venetians liked to portray their city as healthy in body and spirit. So it was a matter of scrupulous record that plague always arrived from the outside. The 1630 plague was said to have been imported via an ambassador of the Duke of Mantua when he was staying on the island of San Clemente. The ambassador seems to have contaminated a carpenter from Dorsoduro who happened to be working on San Clemente. That carpenter’s family were the first Venetian victims of this incarnation of the disease, one of the worst visitations on the city. (I noted this week that a Veneto politician has been keeping up the xenophobe blame tradition by asserting that corona virus was caused by Chinese people eating live mice. He himself is eating humble pie now, fortunately, and perhaps choking on it.)

Apart from plague, Venice was also subject to typhus, smallpox and cholera epidemics. Every ten years or so, sickness crippled the city. Sometimes, cruelly, two diseases arrived at once. Typhus and the plague were often twinned in the winter months. So it’s hard to write historical novels set in Venice without having your plots being contaminated by one illness or the other. Thus far, I’ve kept the plague fairly peripheral in my books, partly because it’s been done before and partly because the mechanics of the Venetian health measures were so detailed that they are laborious to explain and therefore somewhat fatal to novelistic pace. (Some things, like pageantry, are almost impossible to keep alive in words). However, I’ve needed to get closer to Venetian plague over the last couple of years when devising medical history tours of Venice for London’s Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, founded by Royal Charter in 1617 to promote the healing arts. (To this day, 85 percent of members are professionals in medical fields).

During last year’s visit, the Apothecaries were lucky enough to catch the end of Tintoretto’s 500th birthday party, magnificently celebrated in the Palazzo Ducale, the Accademia, various churches. The Scuola Medica at SS Giovanni e Paolo – always on our itineraries – hosted an excellent exhibition entitled Art, Faith and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice, which was also recorded in a superb book of essays by the same name (see left).

I saw the exhibition several times. From the first, I was captivated by a painting I’d never seen before. It’s by Domenico, son of the more famous Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto. Although Domenico’s work is generally decried as more workmanlike and of less combustible genius than his father’s, I think that this particular painting touches on greatness because of the simple pathos of its storytelling. You can read it like a book. And that's what I propose to do in this post.

Below is the painting, reproduced courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art (

The emotional message and story arc are very clear. Yet there is also so much going on here in the detail. Even its title is a short story in itself: Venice supplicating the Virgin Mary to intercede with Christ for the Cessation of the Plague, 1630–31.

This painting was commissioned for the congregation members at San Francesco della Vigna in Castello. Incidentally, at this church, the apothecary-priests made Four Thieves Vinegar, which they promoted as a cure for the plague. The apothecary shop there was so popular that the priests had to construct a separate entrance so that the customers did not disturb the prayers of the religious order. 
The striking central banner (above) reads: “Pray for me, I pray to your son for health, with the highest pity give aid to us against this cruel wound that devours us – placate His wrath, ceasing our sighs.” This banner separates the composition into two parts. Below, we see Venice personified, as usual, in a blonde, beautiful woman. She holds her arms open, showing both her considerable bosom (another Venetian trope) and her utter vulnerability. 
At her side is the lion of Venice’s patron saint, the healer Mark. The lion’s darkened face is contorted with grief. 
Above, in the heavens, the figure of Venezia finds her counterpoint in that of the Madonna, who in turn begs God to intercede on Venice’s behalf to close the ‘cruel wound’ of the plague. The city’s wound is of course spiritual and physical – she is haemorrhaging citizens; moreover, the plague manifests in the wounds known as buboes.

This painting shows also the practical side of mass death. Venice was supremely organised during episodes of plagues. Rules were laid down by the Magistrato alla Sanità and they worked all the way to street level. When it came to carrying away the dead, only licensed bearers, known as pizzegamorti, were allowed to handle the corpses. And so the painting fades to a miserable brown in the background behind the feminine personification of Venezia. Here you see the pizzegamorti at work, wearing their distinctive tunics marked with long red crosses. 

One of the essays in the exhibition's book explains how this painting developed. The modello or sketch (above) portrayed sprawled and splayed corpses piled up in the foreground. The final version replaced that grim sight with images of two female donors, whose beautiful faces (one of which is seen at left) show signs of graceful grief, echoing that of their patron saint. The essay theorizes that perhaps the donors had something to do with the sanitizing of the art.

Indeed other painters did not scruple to or were not prevented from showing the harrowing details of Venice in the grip of plague, as in this painting by Antonio Zanchi from the Scuola di San Rocco (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art ( It shows bodies being unloaded into boats and scenes of graphic distress and chaos that echo contemporary written accounts of the disaster.

The exhibition revealed that the words on the central banner of the Tintoretto painting were also adopted in litanies composed by Claudio Monteverdi who was the musical director of the Basilica San Marco in 1630, the time of this plague.

Paintings invoking Christ and the Madonna to intercede against disease were thought to have health-giving qualities. They were carried around the plague-plagued streets to sanitize them while such litanies were chanted by the priests. A miracle-working painting, the Madonna Nicopeia (looted from Constantinople in 1204), was borne around the piazza of San Marco in times of severe plague. It’s likely that Domenico Tintoretto’s painting was also paraded around the parish of San Francesco della Vigna. The shape and size of the painting makes this easy to imagine.

At that same time, the year of Domenico Tintoretto’s important painting, the city promised to build a votive church and establish a procession if the Madonna would intervene to save them from the plague.

The church of Santa Maria della Salute (Our Lady of Good Health) was the result. And in 1575, a similar prayer, this time to Christ the Redeemer, had already led to the construction of the church of the Redentore, or Redeemer on Giudecca. The festival of the Redentore is still celebrated today every July with a votive bridge for processions built in front of the church and massive fireworks at night.

When planning for the Apothecary tour last year, I was very excited at the prospect of showing them both the exhibition and the Domenico Tintoretto painting. So imagine my despair when I discovered that the Londoners would arrive in Venice one day after the closing of the exhibition. I couldn’t quite bear to deprive them of this painting. So I began to speak to people I know, working my way through a series of Venetian ‘no’s’ until I was directed by the eminent art historian Patricia Fortini Brown to Melissa Conn, the on-the-ground director of Save Venice, where she has thirty years’ experience overseeing the works of this American charity devoted to the restoration of buildings, monuments, manuscripts and more in the city. You can see Melissa here, talking about the restoration of Carpaccio’s Saint Ursula Cycle, also explaining modern philosophies and techniques of art conservation.

Save Venice had funded the Art, Faith and Medicine exhibition and the scholarship that was put into the book of essays, as well as restoring sixteen Tintoretto works in Venice. To my enormous relief, Melissa agreed to open the exhibition privately, two days after its official closure so that the London Apothecaries could witness the plague painting for themselves, the day before we set off in a boat to see for ourselves the mist-shrouded lazzaretto islands in the lagoon that once housed those afflicted with the plague or suspected of it.

Melissa not only arranged for us to see the painting, but accompanied us. As Managing Curator of the exhibition, not to mention a noted art historian, she was a font of wonderful insights into this picture, some of which I have recorded above.

So did this votive painting have effect? The 1630/1 plague did indeed dwindle. The sighs of the city ceased. Life returned to normal, for a while. 

In our current difficulties, it does not appear that anyone is commissioning any art, votive or otherwise, to represent a hope of redemption from the corona virus. If someone did so, I wonder what it would look like? A collage of selfies? An internet meme? So far I have seen a photo of a cake cooked in the shape of the virus and a few not-very-funny cartoons to do with a brand of beer.

And even if there were a meme that caught this moment and the world’s anxiety with any accuracy, would it have the staying power, profundity and beauty of Domenico Tintoretto’s painting? 

And is this because we no longer join faith, art and medicine as Venetians did in Tintoretto's day?


The churches of the Veneto are now closed by corona virus, along with the bars and shops. However, there's one parish priest on the Venetian mainland who has found a way to revive the trinity of faith, art and medicine.
Don Andrea Vena with his 'furgoncino dai fideli'
A video here shows Don Andrea Vena travelling around Bibione with a statue of the Madonna in a van, broadcasting prayers for all those affected by the virus, including the worried tourists. A modern priest, Don Andrea posts his itineraries on Facebook and keeps in touch with his parishioners that way too. Father Andrea pauses in front of cross-roads, shops and also the homes of the elderly, so they may be brought out to hear his comforting corona virus invocation to the Madonna, patron saint of Bibione. (Picture courtesy of Veneto Vox).

'Forte!' observes a man in the video, as Father Andrea finishes his prayer. 'Just great!'

Michelle Lovric’s website

Save Venice’s website


Ann Turnbull said...

This is such an interesting post, Michelle. Thank you!

michelle lovric said...

I am posting here a beautiful observation in response to this blog. It is written by my dear friend, Rosato Frassanito. I am posting it both in Italian and English so that you can enjoy Ross's words to the full. Many people are wondering how it must be inside a deserted Venice: now you can hear an authentic experience.

Vivo e lavoro a Venezia. In questo momento siamo barricati in casa per paura di contrarre il corona virus. La situazione che stiamo vivendo è di irrealtà assoluta. La stessa irrealtà che si respira quando si esce per andare a fare la spesa al supermercato, una volta la settimana. Venezia in questo momento è addormentata come in letargo, in attesa di essere baciata dal tiepido sole primaverile e svegliarsi più bella che mai, pronta per essere nuovamente ammirata da tutto il mondo. E' giusto che tutti ammirino tutta questa bellezza. Il mondo deve però saper attendere. Venezia merita rispetto.

I live and work in Venice. Right now we are barricaded in the house for fear of contracting the corona virus. The situation we are experiencing is of absolute unreality. The same unreality that you breathe when you go out to go grocery shopping once a week. Venice is now asleep as if in hibernation, waiting to be kissed by the warm spring sun and wake up more beautiful than ever, ready to be admired by the whole world again. It is right that everyone admires all this beauty. However, the world must know how to wait. Venice deserves respect.

michelle lovric said...

And here is a comment from another beloved friend, also an architect, Elena Romano, again both in Italian and English.
È molto interessate questo articolo How to read a painting of the plague - Michelle Lovric.

Come architetto, trovo straordinario il ruolo che la scrittura e la pittura hanno nella storia degli eventi grazie al loro approccio descrittivo attento e minuzioso.

In questo momento storico segnato dall’emergenza Corona-virus, le città inermi e desolate parlano del disagio sociale con le loro piazze vuote e le strade deserte.

Venezia, ancora una volta, non è estranea a questo problema.
Con i suoi palazzi colorati e vibranti, Venezia si specchia nei canali vuoti, mentre pezzi di cielo azzurro emergono stretti tra le calli e i campielli di una città deserta. In giro non c’è nessuno.

Venezia appare intrappolata in una “bellezza negata” perché priva di umanità! È un vuoto oscuro, obbligato, che nega ai cittadini di vivere la quotidianità negli spazi progettati per la condivisione, lo scambio e l’incontro. La percezione della città deserta perché la presenza umana contamina non è bella come una vista del primo mattino di un giorno normale, ma è inquietante!

La condizione dell’abitare rinchiuso in casa perché l’individuo infetta è tanto reale quanto assurda. Talvolta tra le calli qualcuno cammina con passo affrettato, viso schermato da mascherine di protezione, ed il capo chino. Ma l’individuo e gli spazi progettati dall’uomo per l’umanità non sono fatti per vivere in questo modo assurdo!

Very interesting, this article: How to read a painting of the plague.

As an architect, I find extraordinary the role that writing and painting play in the history of events, thanks to their mindful and meticulous descriptive approach.

In this historic moment of the Corona emergency, defenceless and desolate cities manifest the disruption of society, with their squares empty and their streets deserted.

Venice, once again, is not spared the disaster. With her colourful and vibrant buildings, Venice is reflected in the empty canals, while narrow pieces of blue sky emerge between the streets and squares of an abandoned city. When you walk, you meet no-one.

Venice appears trapped in a kind of " beauty denied" – because she lacks the presence of humanity! There is a dark compulsory void that denies citizens their right to pursue everyday life in spaces designed for sharing, exchange and meeting. The city, abandoned because of a human contagion, presents a view that is not as beautiful as dawn on a normal day, but something much more disturbing!

The condition of living locked up in the house because of individual infection is as real as it is ludicrous. Sometimes, in the streets. a person passes you with a hurried step, their face shielded by a protective mask, and their head bowed down. But both the individual and the spaces designed by humans for humanity are not made for this absurd way of life!