Used to fighting pandemics, Venice and Italy open the film festival with caution

Visitors to Venice could be forgiven for not realizing that beyond the majesty of St Mark’s Square and the romance of gondola rides lies a city that centuries ago helped provide a reference base of what the world knows today about the control of pandemics.

This is where the term “quarantine” was coined, after merchant ships arriving in the Republic of Venice in the 15th century were moored for 40 days (“quaranta giorni” in Italian) to see if their crews were affected. Plague. It was here that the first isolated pestilence hospital was built on a lonely island in the lagoon, a precursor to today’s COVID-19 isolation wards. And it was in Venice that sixteenth-century doctors donned beaked masks filled with aromatic herbs to purify the air they breathed when treating the sick – an attempt at self-protection that is today the preferred choice for Venetian carnival costumes.

Venice’s central place in the history of combating pandemics provides a relevant backdrop to this year’s Venice Film Festival, which opens on Wednesday with the premiere of Pedro Almodovar’s competitive film “Parallel Mothers” . Almodovar developed the project during the coronavirus lockdown in Spain in 2020, one of the toughest in the West.

At a pre-opening screening on Tuesday, Italian director Andre Segre presents a short documentary filmed last year showing how Venice organizers dealt with COVID-19 to stage the first and only international in-person film festival during the first year of the epidemic.

Segre’s film scenes – shocking then, normal now – feature half-full theaters for Hollywood premieres, movie stars in masked clothes, cleaners in hazmat suits and the “blink, blink, flashing ”of remote thermometers taking temperature at festival control points.

Festival director Alberto Barbera said on Tuesday that he hopes the 2021 edition of the festival will mark the “reopening which was not the case last year”. But unlike the Cannes Film Festival, which has come back to life this year in France after skipping 2020, Venice still has to comply with Italy’s strict anti-COVID restrictions.

A huge barricade again blocks public access to the red carpet and fans are unlikely to catch the VIP water taxi arrivals on the Lido. More than 10 testing stations have been set up, and festival-goers must show proof of a negative test, vaccination or recent recovery from COVID-19 to participate in screenings. Masks are mandatory inside.

In other words, the Venice spectacle continues – other premieres at the world’s oldest film festival include the debut of “Dune” by Denis Villeneuve and Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer” – Even as Italy faces new infections brought on by the highly contagious delta variant.

For Venice, however, this is really nothing new.

“The history of Venice is a story that teaches us how our city, first among European capitals, understood in advance how to deal with viruses,” said Simone Venturini, Venice’s head of tourism. “These recurrences are studied and recalled even more today because the Venetian model is a model which paradoxically is still used. “

Starting with the first confirmed plague to hit Venice – the 1348 epidemic that killed at least a third of its population – the city implemented containment measures even without epidemiologically understanding how it spread, said Fabio Zampieri, professor of the history of medicine at the University. of the Faculty of Medicine of Padua.

Based on the belief that “bad air” was the root cause of what became the Black Death, Venetian authorities closed churches and restaurants, canceled religious processions, and ordered a deep cleaning of homes and public places, Zampieri said.

During the plague that broke out in 1423, the Venice Senate decided to lock down the entire city, prohibiting the entry of people from places suspected of being infested with the plague and punishing residents who gave refuge to sick foreigners. six months in prison, he said. A year later, Venice opened the first “lazzaretto”, a hospital on a remote island in the Venetian lagoon dedicated exclusively to victims of the plague.

This concept would turn years later into a full-blown quarantine, a secluded place for people simply suspected of carrying the plague – the crews of merchant ships – to wait 40 days of surveillance while their cargo was sanitized, he said. declared.

During the plague of 1575-1577, doctors increasingly used beaked masks filled with aromatic herbs to try and protect themselves from the sick, still not realizing that the plague was mainly carried by fleas infected with bacteria on rats, and not “bad air”. “

“It was always a pivotal experience for the history of medicine, the history of healthcare and the history of infectious disease management,” Zampieri said.

After the plague of 1630 again wiped out around a third of the population, the tired Venetians thanked the Virgin Mary that even more lives were not taken: they built the Church of Santa Maria della Salute ( Sainte Marie de la Santé) on the other side of the Grand Canal. of St. Mark’s Square, one of the city’s most visible and iconic images.

The central location of the huge white octagonal dome basilica at the tip of the Venice customs port was quite intentional, to show the city’s gratitude that it had once again survived and rebounded from the plague, a declared the art historian Silvia Marchiori, curator of the Patriarchate of Venice Manfrediniana Museum.

“When you arrived in Venice you came from the sea, not from the land, so you must have noticed this great temple built in white Istrian stone to attract attention,” she said.

To this day, the Venetians venerate an icon of the Virgin in the basilica during one of the main religious festivals in the city on November 21, a day dedicated to offering prayers for good health, she said. declared.

Whether through prayer, public health policy or discipline, Venice as a whole fared relatively well during its latest pandemic. The city made the extraordinary decision in February 2020 – as the coronavirus was just starting to be detected in northern Italy – to cancel its famous Carnival. It remained locked down during the worst of the pandemic, observing neighboring Lombardy and even parts of the surrounding Veneto region was the victim of infections and deaths in one of the most affected countries in Europe.

Venice has been rewarded with a constant return of visitors this spring and summer, just in time for the celebrations marking the 1600th anniversary of the city’s founding, the film festival, sailing regattas and the star-studded Valentino fashion shows. and Dolce & Gabbana.

It’s all part of Venice efforts to attract visitors who stay, spend and appreciate the history and art of the city, rather than the day trippers who take a gondola ride on the Grand Canal and call it a day, said tourism chief Venturini.

“These are the pillars on which we are building post-COVID tourism,” he said.

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