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Death in Venice

February 25th, 2020 | 13 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

In the summer of 1575, plague struck Venice. The city fathers tried to stem the contamination by requiring crews suspected of infection to stay on the island of Lazzaretto for forty days. These quaranta giorni are the origin of the term quarantine.

It was overkill: the incubation period of the Black Death is much shorter—three days or so. They were thinking of all the forties of time in the Bible, periods of purification: the Children of Israel in the desert for forty years, Jesus fasting for forty days.

We are on a water taxi on our way to the train station to head back to Trieste, our tickets bought. As far as we know, Venice is not under quarantine.

I sincerely hope that we are not quarantined here for all forty days of Lent. But if we were it would be somehow deeply satisfying to the part of me that loves Umberto Eco novels, that thinks that there’s got to be something in Kabbala, even if not something one ought to pursue very closely.

My fellow Mere Orthodoxy blogger Tara Isabella Burton had brought me to Venice for Carnevale, initiating me into its ways. “Take the water taxi to the Rialto and then come to the apartment and I’ll dress you,” she texted me when I arrived, at Santa Lucia station in Venice, from Trieste where we had been staying. This was a typical instruction.

And then there was the dress for the first night, and details about elaborate undergarments, stays and panniers and lacing, and more powder to be put in the wig, and then, in what would be the pattern for the next few days, to Caffe Florian. Founded in 1720, it was Byron’s caffe, and Goethe’s, and, because they permitted unaccompanied women as clients, Casanova’s; we went there for coffee and absolute vats of prosecco, and greeting the crowd of Carnevale friends that Tara’s made over the past four years she’s been coming. And then, at around eight or nine, the party would start.

The social world of Carnevale is complex and elaborate and I could not begin to describe it accurately: there are apparently public parties to which one can go, if one wants to pay €800; we did not go to them. Instead it was a series of private parties, what can be only appropriately termed a whirl of them, one every night.

And then it was Sunday, and when we woke up, there was coronavirus in Italy. Ten towns “on lockdown,” we heard, closed, with curfews; no one able to enter or leave; more than a hundred cases. When I walked out, there were Carabinieri on the street, having closed off one of the side alleys near us. Several of them were wearing anti-infection masks—not the little ones that the tourists had already been wearing, but more serious looking ones. “Coronavirus?” I asked one of them. “No,” he said, tersely. “No coronavirus here.”

I tried to go to San Marco but the square in front of the Basilica was jam-packed and the line to get in was enormous. I went instead to Santa Maria della Fava. There are no costumes allowed in the church, says a sign on the door: no masks. I don’t know whether that applied to the antiviral masks as well.

When I left, the news had changed. There were two cases in Venice. Then four. Then 32 cases in the Veneto, and 220 in Northern Italy. “They wouldn’t quarantine us?” we asked each other all of Sunday.

And then—“They’re cancelling Carnevale,” someone said. “How can they even do that? What would that mean?” It did seem like some kind of metaphysical impossibility, rather than simply a civic difficulty. You can’t make Lent come sooner; you can’t impose a time of fasting while it is still a feast.

But they did. The city government cancelled Carnevale. What it meant was that all public celebrations—the dancing and music in San Marco, the outdoor costume markets, the subscription parties—were cancelled. Public gatherings of any kind were forbidden, and so were private parties. The ban was to go into effect at midnight.

But that night was Hameau de la Reine, the Queen’s Village—named for the fantasy-farm that Marie Antoinette had had constructed outside the Petit Trianon. It was, in other words, the Versailles party.

We met up back at the apartment to get ready: a much simpler costume for this one, in keeping with the faux-simplicity of the Queen’s retreat: white chemise a la reine and a blue sash and slippers, and a red murano glass pendant necklace, and a black cloak. It wasn’t far—nothing is very far, and the bits that are, you can always take a vaporetto. But we didn’t need to for this one: we walked, arriving at the Pallazetto Pisani just as some of the rest of the Florian crowd did.

“Carnevale is cancelled!” said Tara mournfully.

“Well, we’ll see. Who knows what will happen at midnight?” said the woman who had introduced her to Carnevale, four years before, as Tara had now introduced me. “See, I brought—” And she put on a mask, a particularly well-made and sinister one of the crow-beak masks that one sees on the streets; that one had noticed, that day, as a contrast to the blue flimsy masks of the tourists and the dark masks of the military and police.

They were worn, originally, by plague doctors: specialists who were brought in during an epidemic, and who, because they were paid by city authorities, treated rich and poor alike. The beaks were stuffed with aromatics: ambergris, mint, roses, myrrh, sometimes laudanum. According to the miasma theory of disease, the plague was borne on bad odors, bad air. The masks would protect you from these scents, from direct contact with that air. They were invented by Charles de L’Orme, the chief physician to Louis XIII, and papier mache versions are among the most popular carnevale options.

The party was spectacular. Of course it was. There were seven rooms or so—seven public rooms—that we were using, plus balconies. There was a buffet dinner, which was an unnecessary challenge, because there were plenty of passed hors d’oeuvres. I can’t even guess how much Prosecco we went through.

And there was a general feeling, much discussed, that if we did get quarantined for weeks in Venice with only our eighteenth century clothes to wear and only prosecco to drink… well, there are worse things. We could tell stories to each other, we could reinvent our costumes every night. And isn’t there something strangely appropriate in all this?

Carnevale does actually feel like a community, even a family, in its own, slightly stressful, almost completely insane, and absolutely wonderful way. “That feeling of connectedness—it lasts for weeks afterwards,” said one of the crew, a woman whom I’d met in New York earlier. It’s the heightened awareness, the vividness, the brief time, the sense that you’re getting at something behind reality.

And it’s not that different a kind of connection than the connection that crisis generates. Rebecca Solnit has written, in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, about what she calls “crisis communities:” the tent city that sprang up outside San Francisco after the earthquake and fire in 1906, which Dorothy Day experienced, and which the Catholic Worker movement was, on some underground level, an attempt to reproduce; the Blitz; 9/11.

I’d experienced it in Hurricane Sandy, and to a lesser degree in every snowstorm of my childhood, when New York City shuts down and grownups cross country ski down West End Avenue, and children, home from school, turn Central Park into a warren of snow forts. Maybe this time, you think, maybe this is the time that it all changes. Maybe this time, things won’t go back to “normal,” and we will just live in the enchanted world forever: the world of candles during power outages and picnics on the floor and the sense of meeting your family again, and meeting strangers who become family.

Alastair Roberts and I have workshopped a name for this phenomenon. “The Boccaccio Option,” we call it.

I will not tell you what happened at midnight on Sunday.

Last night, I went out—just to walk, just to see. The piazza in front of the Basilica was almost empty, occasional costumed people hurrying across in ones and twos, larger knots of carabinieri patrolling. The Basilica itself was dark, its gilded domes throwing back no light. I saw what it meant that public gatherings were forbidden: a group of students was gathered in front of the church, singing; the police came over, spoke to the leader. “Un po’ piu di tempo,” he asked, and they agreed, grudgingly. He led the students in a prayer, and then they dispersed.

The regular shops were open, and the regular restaurants. Most of the caffes on San Marco itself, though, were shuttered: Lavena, Quadri.

Florian, though, was open. Even coronavirus and civic ordinances, apparently, can’t close Florian. I walked up to the windows: I had never had the chance to look into it from the outside before, but now I could. I thought I saw one of our friends there, in the usual place, the banquette by the window, but I couldn’t be sure, and in any case I was dressed in street clothes. So I walked on by.

It did not feel like a public health measure. What it felt like was an attempt to ward off evil, to do penance in advance, to beg for this to pass over the city. I spent all night last night waking up and checking my phone to see whether we would be able to leave. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Tara, as we got on the train, “and we won’t be, till we’re out of the lagoon.” But I am out now, I’m on the train back to Trieste; they did not stop us at the border of the Veneto. Technically I am stuck in Italy: my ticket home is from Vienna, where I’m going to visit a new Bruderhof community, to visit Pater Edmund Waldstein, and to report a piece; Austria is not letting trains from Italy stop, at the moment.

We shall see.

Today is Mardi Gras. Tomorrow, Lent begins.

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Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.