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What happens when a new pandemic hits an ancient city?

How Venice is coping—cautiously—with the coronavirus.

By Cathy Newman
Published 16 Mar 2020, 09:55 GMT
Workers in Venice disinfected sites (the Rialto Bridge pictured here), a day after Italian Prime Minister ...
Workers in Venice disinfected sites (the Rialto Bridge pictured here), a day after Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte announced a nationwide lockdown on March 10, an unprecedented move to help contain the spread of COVID-19. Similar action is now in place across many European cities.
Photograph by Stefano Mazzola, Awakening/Getty Images

Until recently, the only modern-day contagion in Venice has been the plague of tourists, at least 23 million a year, that strains resources and infuriates residents of an improbable city—a mirage that lifts from a lagoon in the Adriatic.

But with the firestorm of COVID-19, an actual plague has emptied out the Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and other attractions in a city of gilded domes and lapping waves. In the wake of mounting affliction throughout all of Italy, La Serenissima—“the most serene one,” as Venice is called—is anything but. The latest number of confirmed cases in the country, more than 24,000 at press time, leaves Italy with the highest number of infections outside of China where the virus first broke out in December.

On March 8, at 3:30 a.m., Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte imposed a quarantine on the entire region of Lombardy and 14 other provinces including Venice, Parma, and Padua. As the infection statistics kept climbing, it was announced a day later that the red zones would be extended to include the entire country and its 60 million people. Schools, gyms, museums and other public venues are closed. Sporting events, which until recently, were allowed to be played in empty stadiums with no spectators, have been suspended and nearly all commercial activity has been halted.

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Silent streets and piazzas

No one can leave the city, writes my Venice-based friend Antonietta (Tonci) Poduie, except for a health or work issue. Poduie is one of 54,000 residents who live in the historical centre—the number drops each year as locals are squeezed out by rising costs and a diminishing stock of affordable housing. And now in addition to the routine flooding caused by the complicity of rising tides and sinking foundations, comes a viral pandemic with the malevolently regal name of corona (named for the pathogen’s crown-like form)—a wild card less predictable, infinitely more frightening, than the aqua alta.

Hugging and kissing are banned, Poduie writes. “Can you imagine asking Italians not to kiss and hug?” Like every other theatre, La Fenice, the city’s gilded bonbonnière of an opera house, is closed, though last week a string quartet played on stage before an empty house and was live-streamed on YouTube. (An appreciative virtual audience responded, the New York Times reported, with “an ovation of handclap emojis.”) It was the proverbial collaboration of insult and injury. The Fenice had just recovered from damage caused by record-setting high tides several months before.

Last month, Carnival was stopped with just two days to go (“somebody said it was like canceling Christmas the day after”), Poduie reports. “We hear it is an influenza but a very contagious and aggressive one and we need to stay, as much as possible, indoors and—I would add, pray—but not at Mass (they were cancelled).” Religious forbearance was not limited to Venice.

In Rome, the Pope live-streamed his Sunday audience and Wednesday afternoon prayer. Parishes have emptied holy water fonts, and, priests, until Mass was cancelled, placed communion wafers in the hand rather than on the tongue.

Masked revellers were able to participate in the “Plague of Doctors Procession” during Carnival, before the annual festival was cancelled Feb. 25.
Photograph by Andrea Pattaro, AFP/Getty Images

Containment Italian-style

More aggressively than most countries, Italy is acting to contain the pandemic despite the crushing certainty of financial disaster on top of an already sluggish Italian economy. Italy being Italy, some tried to game the system. When whispers of an imminent lockdown in all of Lombardy first made rounds (the draft was leaked), there was a stampede to the train station in Milan to evade containment. “We must not try and be clever,” the prime minister implored. Now, with the whole country under lockdown there are fewer avenues for escape and cleverness is moot.

The approach to containment has historical resonance. Venice and other city-states including Milan were the first to use quarantine during the Bubonic plagues in the Renaissance. Several “quarantine” islands sit in the Venetian lagoon as testimony to the past.

“Venice was at the crossroads of trade, with mixes of people, so to ensure commerce and well-being, it turned to a pragmatic approach,” points out Anna Marie Roos, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Lincoln in the UK. “City-states were small enough to allow for enough state control to initiate quarantine.” Buildings on the quarantine islands mostly housed the poor. The wealthy retreated to their country houses.

The long shadow of plague spans centuries. There were, Roos says, about 22 outbreaks of bubonic plague in Venice between 1361 and 1528, another in 1576 that killed a third of the population, and another in 1680 that felled 80,000 people in 17 months. The memory of plague is summoned by a common masked figure at Carnival: Dr. Peste, the embodiment of the plague doctor, who wears a long black cape and a mask with a long beak stuffed with herbs as prevention against the miasma of sickness.

The infectious culprit then was a bacterium, Yersina pestis, which lives in the guts of a flea. Measles, smallpox, flu, or typhoid could produce a spike in mortality, Roos adds, and were also called plague. In Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice, where the whiff of disinfectant first signals that all is not well, the offender is cholera.

Tourism takes a hit

Tourism in Venice has evaporated. According to Claudio Scarpa, director of the Venetian Hoteliers Association, 80 percent of the city’s hotels (there are 400 in the association, which includes the surrounding area and municipality of Mestre) planned to close temporarily and 90 percent of the 8,000 employees in the sector were expected to stay home. To date, tourism hotel losses have reached a billion euros, which includes damage from the tidal flooding in November. Larger enterprises with more financial support will have more resilience.

Smaller businesses will suffer most. On Tuesday, the day after the countrywide shut down, Giacomo Donato, an owner of La Feluca, a small family restaurant on the Calle della Mandola, had served lunch to a few nearby office workers. But with the sharply curtailed hours, it seemed hardly worthwhile; Italians eat dinner much later than the 6 p.m. restaurant closing time previously mandated.

Gondoliers, like other workers in Venice, saw a drop in business after the government shut down schools and universities March 5 in the wake of rising deaths from COVID-19. The country closed its borders March 10.
Photograph by Andrea Pattaro, AFP/Getty Images

On March 11, the decision was made for him when Prime Minister Conte ordered all shops and restaurants shut with the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets after cases increased by 30 percent in a 24-hour period.

The virus has illuminated a sobering reality, even for those who find tourism so disruptive. “When I crossed the Rialto Bridge the day after the suspension of Carnival and saw the Campo Bartolomeo completely deserted, my stomach sank,” Poduie’s friend Silvia Zanon, who lives on the Lido, said. “Though the internet was full of Venetians smug with the satisfaction of reclaiming their city, I could not join the chorus. Venice is not meant to be deserted. Beauty is useless unless it is shared.”

“Beauty,” Venice’s former Mayor Massimo Cacciari once told me “is difficult,” and Venice, so lethally seductive, is beautiful and difficult beyond words precisely because of “overtourism,” as it is called. (The ratio of visitors to residents is about 370 tourists for every one resident.) Like it or not, tourism drives the economy. It generates billions, but exact figures mislead because so much business is done off the books. Perhaps, Silvia and Giacomo Donato suggest, when the pandemic abates, there will be room to rethink how Venice might accommodate tourism in a more sustainable way, but for now there are more pressing matters.

“Be ready,” Poduie advises, her tone unmistakably grim, adding in closing: “Baci and abbracci…the only kind allowed…through the internet.”

Cathy Newman is a former National Geographic editor at large. Her magazine story on Venice won the international journalism prize from the Venetian Institute of Science, Letters and Arts in 2010. Follow her on Twitter. Antoniette Poduie contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This article originally stated that Carnival was cancelled after two days. It was shut down two days before it was set to end.
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