16,000 Venetians Die of Plague This Month

16,000 Venetians Die of Plague This Month

“On this month in 1630, 16,000 inhabitants of Venice died of the Italian Plague.

The Italian Plague of 1629-1631 was one of the last outbreaks of the centuries-long pandemic of bubonic plague, which peaked in Europe around 1350 with the Black Death. Historians believe French and German troops fighting in the Thirty Years’ War carried the plague into Mantua, Italy, in 1629, infecting Venetian troops. As the troops retreated northward, the plague spread, first to Milan and then to Venice itself. In Milan, city officials implemented some of the first effective quarantines, but lax measures during carnival season saw infections skyrocket. By 1631, some 60,000 of Milan’s 130,000 people had died of the plague.

The menace moved on to Venice. The waterfront city was particularly vulnerable to plague pandemics due to its exposed location, numerous canals, and constant commercial contact with outsiders. In just one year’s time, between 1630 and 1631, almost a third of the citizens of Venice, some 46,000 out of 140,000, were killed by plague, with 16,000 alone dead in the month of November of 1630. The major loss of life occurred in spite of city officials enacting relatively sophisticated public health measures. What is likely the world’s first lazaret, or quarantine colony, was recently discovered on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, a small island in the south of Italy’s Venetian lagoon. In 2007, workers came across skeletons of plague victims there while digging the foundation of a new museum. The lazaret was opened during the Venetian plague outbreak, with anyone who showed symptoms of the plague sent there to recover or die. The measure may have prevented Venice from suffering even more fatalities, and probably contributed to its relatively quick recovery. Still, historians believe the dramatic reduction in that city’s population–and commerce–ultimately led to Venice’s downfall as a major commercial and political power.

After decimating much of Venice’s population, the plague moved on Bologna, Modena, Parma, Tyrol, and later Florence. Responsible for one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, the plague is thought to have originated in China by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, traveled along the Silk Route, then was carried by flea-infested rats aboard merchant ships to the Mediterranean and Europe. There have been three major outbreaks of the plague, with the second, the Black Death, shrinking the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400. The Italian Plague of 1629-1631 was one of the last outbreaks of the Black Death.”

Credit: Alamy BHN96F
Caption: A copper engraving by Paulus Fuerst (1656), depicting a plague physician wearing clothes thought to prevent infection. The plague doctor mask is still worn by Carnival participants.