It’s easy to imagine why plague outbreaks inspired terror among residents of European cities in the pre-antibiotics age. For the most part, the source and spread of the disease were poorly understood, even though officials took various measures to try to stem contagion. Plague took the young, the old, the sick, the vibrant, the rich, the poor.
As a waterlogged city, a major maritime port, and Europe’s gateway to the rest of the world, Venice was particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. Between 1456 and 1528 alone, there were fourteen documented plague outbreaks in the city. The 1510 outbreak, the setting for The Painter’s Apprentice, took the life of 32-year-old Giorgione, one of the city’s most celebrated painters, who we now know died in the Lazzaretto Nuovo.
The 1630 plague is probably the most well remembered in Venice, partly because it took more than thirty percent of the city’s population. But it’s mostly remembered because it inspired Venetians to build their famous church of Santa Maria della Salute as a votive offering for deliverance from the devastating outbreak.
The bubonic plague is usually contracted via a flea bite, but we humans didn’t figure that out until the turn of the twentieth century. Less commonly, it might be spread by exposure to an infected person, through a cough or a kiss, for example. The bacterial infection caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria brings on symptoms within one to seven days after exposure.
In sixteenth-century Venice, it must have been common to have been bitten by fleas, if you think about the number of rodents, cats, and other small animals in the city, not to mention the fact that everyone slept on mattresses stuffed with straw. A person might experience the first signs of plague like a sudden onset of flu: fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and general malaise. Within hours or days, painful, swollen lymph nodes around the neck, groin, and armpits might develop, eventually turning black and pustulant.