How To Treat A Virus: A Lesson From Baroque Venice

How 17th-century Venice and the bubonic plague catalyzed an architectural style that is known as the plague baroque.

Baroque Venice Plague Virus
Photo by Wolfgang Moroder / CC BY-SA

How 17th-century Venice and the bubonic plague catalyzed an architectural style that is known as the plague baroque

In previous pieces I have suggested that war is not the best model to use in planning our strategy against covid-19. Instead, I have argued that we should use the softer strategies that seem to work better, such as the ‘test, isolate and treat’ approach that we see being deployed worldwide. In this article, I would like to visit a historical example of what I will call ‘viral diplomacy’. The period is the 17th century, the place is Venice, and the disease is the bubonic plague. This combination catalyzed an architectural style that is known as the plague baroque.

The most impressive instantiation of the plague baroque is the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, which was completed in Venice in 1687. The church’s name can be translated as The Basilica of Holy Mary of Health and is frequently known simply as La Salute in Italian. Its altar, which was created in 1663 by Giusto Le Court, a Belgian sculptor who worked in Italy, depicts Mary and her putti driving the plague from the city. Her sobriquet puts an interesting gloss on her role; it is Panagia Mesopantitissa, which means Mary the Mediator or Mary the Negotiator. The sculpture depicts a scene in which she drives away the plague in return for the construction of a new church in her honor. This is the agreement that she negotiates.

Before we continue, let me say a little bit more about baroque art. Two art historians who are experts in the field, Tomaso Montanari and Erwin Panofsky, have noted that the word baroco is a kind of code that is based upon a set of three vowels (a-o-o) that is disrupted by inserted consonants. The ‘a’ represents a basic proposition and the two ‘o’s signify modifications of that proposition. In the case of La Salute, the barque code reads as: (a) Mary provides protection for the city, (o) by driving out the plague, and (o) by extracting payment for this service. She reconciles the problem of a plague-ridden Venice not by meting out concessions and demands to both the city and the plague to make a compromise, say by letting the plague stay as long as it does not ruin the city and by letting the citizens carry on as before as long as they do not give the plague too much slack. Instead she exerts her force on both sides without leniency: the plague must leave the city and the city must build a new church in her honor as repayment. The agreement that Mary negotiates is not between the city and the plague, as the composition of the altar suggests, but between the city and her. The plague takes no part in the deal. This is Mary laying down the law. Even better, this is Mary taking the place of the plague, as a more benevolent parasite. The city has a new master, but they are better off than they were before.

So what does this tell us about our current situation with covid-19? To answer that question, we can start by making some simple substitutions. In the place of the bacterium that caused the plague, Yersinia pestis, we insert Betacoronavirus pipistrellus, a name I have chosen since we know it is of the second of four coronavirus subgeneras, therefore beta, and that it most likely comes to us from bats, therefore pipistrellus. In place of the Venetians of the baroque era, we put you and me and everyone else in the world. In the place of Mary, we put the leaders of the various nations, or if you like you can substitute the World Health Organization.

Remember, in the baroque Venetian case, Mary establishes peace by treating plague and citizens separately. In the first instance, she makes the plague leave the city completely and presumably go back to where it came from. She does not kill it. In the second instance, she tells the citizens of Venice to rebuild their city and to construct a church in her honor, as thanks to her for driving the plague away.

How does this strategy map onto our current response to covid-19? It seems to be increasingly the case that we really do not have the power to rid our cities and nations of the coronavirus. As far as we can tell at this point, it is here to stay. So I am afraid we will not see any national leader achieving the miracle that is depicted in Le Court’s altar. The demands made on the citizens of Venice seem to resonate a little more soundly with our current condition, however. Governments around the world are demanding that citizens adhere to strict and radically new protocols, such as reduced mobility, physical distancing and enhanced hygiene and personal protection, including the wearing of masks. In this new authoritarian regime we see clear parallels to power as it is depicted in Le Court’s altar scene. Mary is less a negotiator and mediator and more a sheriff; she is the law and any suggestion that she was or could have been disobeyed seems to have been banished from artistic representations of the period.

Once the virus has been chased away, or vanishes the way other bacterial and viral pests have done in the past, it could be that historical depictions will register the occurrence as a win for medical science and good governance. If the disease agent disappears, speculation that it did so as a result of human medical and political interventions rather than as a function of its own agency might solidify into fact. If that comes to pass, we may very well see ourselves as figures on a stage. Citizens will be shown working to rebuild the public and private institutions and economies that were lost, such as schools, government offices and businesses. I would not be surprised if they became or included symbols of gratitude to the people who helped quell the pandemic. Covid-19 will be shown as absent, perhaps in the form of flattened curves on a grid, or maybe as the disused and discarded mask that is no longer needed.

It could even appear in a more personal form, similar to the plague figure in Le Court’s altar. I can see the editorial cartoon now. On the left, we have rows of healthy and smiling children sitting in their orderly rows of desks, ready to start the school year of 2020-2021. Standing over them, in the middle, is their teacher, the Mary figure, representing the restored state, protective in a way that is benevolent yet authoritative, implementing a new hygiene regime. On the right we see the coronavirus in its familiar spiky ball figure fleeing back to where it came from, driven out by the commanding state yet not being killed, just sent back to where it came from.

The epidemiology and virology of what transpired will no doubt be different from our representations of it after the fact, just as it was in 17th century Venice, but culture has its limits and scientific accuracy is never the privileged message. I hope, however, that we will have at least learned something about the the virus, ourselves, the globe, and the relation among us. As Roberto Burioni said recently on Che tempo che fa:“Dobbiamo prepararci ad affrontare una convivenza con questo virus. Potrebbe essere di alcuni mesi, fino a quando non troviamo una cura o un vaccino.” (We have to prepare ourselves to cope with this virus. It could be a few months, until we find a cure or a vaccine.) It was his use of the word convivenza or ‘cohabitation’ that I found strikingly resonant of past encounters with viral contagions.

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