02 June, 2006

10. The Redeemer

Until about thirty years ago, and for nearly 400 years before that, as part of a commemorative deliverance celebration on the third Sunday in July every year, a bridge of boats was built stretching from the Zattere on the southern shore of Venice, where this photograph was taken, all the way across this waterway to the domed church on the far shore of the island of Giudecca.

The church was built by the celebrated architect Palladio, and it is the Redentore, the church of the Redeemer, itself a thanksgiving offering celebrating the deliverance of the city of Venice from a persistent outbreak of the bubonic plague which lasted from late 1575 until July 1577. On Sunday, 21 July of that year, the epidemic was officially declared over, but in the previous two years it had wiped out 51,000 citizens, including the artist Titian, Venice's favourite son.

The population of Venice at the outbreak was somewhere between 168,000 and 175,000, so the victims represented almost one third of the entire population at the beginning, and a little less than half of the number of survivors. The plague affected every family, whether high born or low life, and many families were completely wiped out. Given that almost anyone able to flee the city did so, it is not hard to imagine how deserted and depressing this normally thriving and busy metropolis would have seemed to the few left behind in 1576, as those around them succumbed to the plague.

There are moments when to live in a great city like Venice or Constantinople in its golden years is an attractive romantic fantasy. But try to imagine what life would really be like during something like a plague attack without antiseptics, antibiotics, or anaesthetics, and suddenly the past loses its allure as a place to visit.

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