Death Was Here
This plaque, placed in the dilapidated, soft-earthed cloisters on the miniscule island of Lazzaretto Vecchio by artist Herman De Vries, is part of the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Art 2015.
Walking in circles, for many people, conjours up visions of either exercise yards in prisons, or as part of a slow rehabilitation and recovery process in hospital. Either way, the theory goes that a small amount of physical exercise is better then pent-up emotions or neurosis, and that the mind is calmed and released from the mantra of repetitive steps.
Lazzaretto Vecchio was the first public hospital in the world (1423) to isolate and observe merchants trading with the Serenissima and pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, disinfecting and quarantining people and goods arriving from plague-ridden countries. It treated other diseases outside of plague epidemics, including leprosy.
The word quarantine comes from the 17th century Venetian quaranta, meaning forty. The significance of 40 days quarantine was probably related to the religion of the Benedictine monks that ran the hospital (40 days of lent) (40 days and 40 nights of rain for Noah), rather than for any medical purposes.
San Rocco, the French saint that travelled in Italy during the plague of 1367, is sculpted above the hospital entrance, along with Christ the Healer and Saint Sebastian. San Rocco is said to have survived the plague through self-imposed isolation on the river Trebbia and is often depicted cloaked as a pilgrim, showing the scars of plague on his left leg.
If patients survived more than five days of the plague they had a good chance of recovery. “They survived by themselves, by the strength of their immune systems rather than by any cure” the phlegmatic Dr. Simon Cohen observed, one of my companions for the visit.
But death was here alright: 1500 people were buried in the communal trench running across the centre of this island, their skeletons now exhumed and removed for scientific investigation. The title of De Vries’s exhibition “to be all ways to be” expresses the idea that the experience of and reflection on human existence takes many divergent paths, none of which is superior or inferior to the other. If you found yourself here during one of the last plague outbreaks of 1630, you might have been hard pushed to agree.