Venice's Art of Pestilence – Piety and the Plague: A Four-Part Course with Dr. Susan Steer

Venice's Art of Pestilence – Piety and the Plague: A Four-Part Course with Dr. Susan Steer


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From apocalyptic terror to the creation of sublime masterpieces, this short course is an investigation into the plague art and architecture of one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

In the middle ages, the city of Venice became a major European power and one of Europe's most successful maritime economies, trading in luxury goods between Europe and the Middle East. However, along with the silks and gemstones, Venice's ships repeatedly imported death into the city in the form of bubonic plague. After the first apocalyptic experience of plague in the 1340s, Venice developed novel strategies to contain the disease and manage its destructive effects, through innovative measures like isolation hospitals and quarantine facilities. At the same time, people were encouraged to appeal to protector saints, raise altars in their honor, and the city built churches in a bid to persuade the Almighty to stop the plague. From the ghostly buildings of the old plague hospital, through some of Venice's greatest Renaissance and Baroque monuments, we will consider the places of plague in the city. We will also discover the little-known shrines dedicated to protector saints and learn about the plague symbolism embedded in many Venetian artworks.

Led by art historian Dr. Susan Steer, this course is an in-depth examination of the extraordinary art and architecture which was prompted by the brutal experience of the disease. Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away from this course with an increased understanding of the experience and management of pandemics in one of Europe's greatest cities and an understanding of the meanings embedded in some of its most important artworks and monuments.

Lecture 1: Experience of Plague and Measures of Containment

The first lecture will focus on the experience of pandemics in Venice from 1347 through 1631 and is based on contemporary testimonies and documents. It will consider how the plague was understood by the terrified populace, how doctors responded, and how the government - developed novel measures like isolation hospitals and quarantine.

Lecture 2: Appealing to the Saints

Our second session will focus on popular piety in response to the plague and the establishment of "scuole", societies intent on purging sin through self-flagellation. We will also examine the images of protector saints, like St Christopher, St Sebastian, or St Rocco, which can be found in many sites in Venice. Participants will (re)discover artworks in some of Venice's most famous sites, as well as lesser-known corners of the city, and learn to recognize and decipher plague imagery embedded in these objects.

Lecture 3: Relics of Rocco

In the third lecture we will hear how in the 1470s prominent individuals promoted the cult of St Rocco, and how his supposed relics were appropriated by two Venetians in circumstances that mimic the acquisition of the relics of St Mark. The lecture will examine the magnificent shrine and meeting rooms of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco with their extraordinary decorations by Jacopo Tintoretto, and consider the underlying meanings of the cycles of canvasses and how they arguably responded to the great plague of 1576.

Lecture 4: Monuments of Hope

The fourth and final lecture will consider the great plague churches of Il Redentore and La Salute, brilliantly innovative structures sponsored by the government and designed by famous architects. We will see how their designs respected the rigid social hierarchy, and the Venetian ceremonial choreography, yet allowed all the populace to be involved in celebrations which marked the end of two of the city's worst pandemics. These sites acted as beacons of hope in desperate times and remain the focus of great festivities to this day.

Susan Steer Ph.D. is an art historian specializing in Medieval and Renaissance Venice. Susan has an extensive teaching background, lecturing on Italian art for universities in the UK and in Italy. She has also worked as a paintings researcher at museums in the UK and has published on Italian Renaissance and Baroque art in leading specialist journals. She has lived in Venice for over 20 years.

How does it work?

This is a four-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in Venetian history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $140 for four lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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