Here we are, many months into a pandemic, coming to the realisation that we have to find ways to live alongside the corona virus. Many of us in the West who are younger than seventy are fortunate that we have never experienced such levels of disruption to our lives; no wars, no famines, no deadly ubiquitous infectious diseases. Of course with regard to disease, there are some exceptions such as HIV and more recently the Ziko virus, but recent challenges are nothing like those encountered in eighteenth century Europe.
18th century Europe was well acquainted with the threat of not one but many endemic infectious diseases such as small pox, malaria, tuberculosis and venereal disease. Plague by then was much better controlled, possibly because it was less virulent but mostly thanks to strict public health measures that imposed quarantine and restrictions on personal movement. Given how badly Northern Italy was affected earlier this year by the first wave of Covid 19, it is ironical that the Venetian Republic was the first region to introduce these measures in the 14th century. Ports across Europe soon copied Venetian public health stratagems of building lazaretti for the sick, quarantining crews and fumigating vessels and their goods. The last major plague epidemic in Europe occurred in the busy port of Marseille in 1720. Had the port authorities carried out their usual strict public health measures that included sending vessels with suspected plague cases to a special quarantine island, the epidemic may have been avoided. In contrast, despite Venice’s constant commercial contact with the East it avoided any new outbreaks of plague in the 18th century.
No public health systems are full-proof. As is clear from recent regional tiering in England, they rely on the public’s cooperation. In 1744 , a nineteen old Giacomo Casanova was determined to avoid the quarantine that was required on moving across from the state of Bologna to the Venetian Republic.
Plague in Milan 1660
Milan plague 1660
Venetian sanitary rules were very strict so this was going to be a delicate undertaking. Casanova knew that it was possible to travel freely between the state of Mantua and Venice. But first he had to get from Bologna to Mantua. He accomplished this by lying, claiming he had come from Modena because there were no travel restrictions between Mantua and Modena. Once in the state of Mantua his driver took him to a town situated on the River Po called Revero. There they pretended that they had driven from Mantua where the travel certificates were usually issued. The bribed driver claimed that he had lost his but Casanova, who represented himself as a Spanish officer bragged that he had travelled to Revero to meet the Duke of Modena on important business. He was so credible that the authorities of Revero not only issued him with a certificate to confirm that he had travelled from their city, but also showed him considerable respect, not even demanding to see his certificate from Mantua. With the Revero certificate he was able to cross the Po and by the evening arrived in Venice.
Once in Venice he visited his guardian the Abbé Grimani, who was astonished to see that Casanova was no longer a cleric. The young man explained over dinner that he had abandoned the church to become a soldier but left the Spanish army just ten days previously. In doing so he made a huge faux pas, being unaware that one of Grimani’s guests was the Director of the Sanitary department! Casanova’s admission that he had unlawfully crossed the Cordon sanitaire resulted in the Director accusing him of lying, convinced that it was impossible to cross the cordon without undergoing quarantine. Although Casanova was indeed lying about having joined the Spanish army, he was not about crossing the river Po at Revero. As an apparent military man he could not countenance being called a lier so stormed out.
A few days later Grimani prevailed upon Casanova to explain to the Director how he managed to cross the cordon and avoid quarantine. Rather than being punished he was thanked for his honesty. We are not told what happened to the unfortunate individuals in Revero who had been deceived by Casanova’s chutzpa but it is not hard to imagine .
Casanova's Guide to Medicine is available for preorder from February 2021 from Pen and Sword Ltd
If you would like to know more about Casanova also visit : casanovashadows.com where you will also find a graphic novel by David Thompson and Kevin Butters .
For more about Venice and Casanova see ; kathleenanngonzalez.wixsite.com
©All images from Wellcome Collection of Images CC BY .