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The Bubonic Plague and the Impact on Venice

ICE Case Number 147, August 2005

by Cara Murphy

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information



1. Abstract

The Black Death reached the shores of Europe in 1348, carried there on merchant ships on the backs of rats stowed away as cargo amongst the spices destined for the European market. By 1334, the plague had destroyed two thirds of China’s population and successive waves of the plague after 1348 took the lives of roughly one third of Southern Europeans. Including at least four variants; the plague was caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis which lived in the stomach of fleas who, as scientists believe, became sick, their digestive tract blocked, regurgitating numerous bacilli into the bloodstream of their rodent host, thereby causing the flea to move onto a new host upon the death of their rodent host.(1) Unfortunately for the Middle Ages, this host became man. This is how, in 1630, the Venetian Republic, again ravaged by another onset of the plague, began its descent towards its ultimate downfall in 1797 lead by the Ottoman Turks and completed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Tragically, up until this period, Venice had enjoyed the glory of being a commercial center of Europe. From the exploration of the Venetian Marco Polo into China (1271-1295), Venetian merchants followed his route eastward to the Orient seeking the riches of the silk and spice trade--and the riches did come for the Venetian Republic. In a letter from Petrarch dated 1362 who came to see the wonders of Venice, he describes the love of the Venetians for the sea and adventure. The Venetian commercial prosperity, which rivaled that of other sea powers in Renaissance Northern Italy (like Genoa) reached its most powerful in the XIV and XV centuries.(2) If only the merchants could have imagined the horror that lie hidden between their boxes of precious goods that they shipped back to their beloved Venice--for the plague knew no social class distinctions and attacked all social strata, rich and poor, powerful and weak alike.

2. Description

A city of enormous wealth and prosperity due largely to its success in trade and shipping, Venice was devastated by the plague in 1630. While many European cities were hit hard by the plague, Venice is an important case study for several reasons.

First, Venice, being a port city, built its economy on its maritime trade routes. Despite fierce competition with the city-state of Genoa, the Venetians had become the mercantile power in the Adriatic through government lead efforts to ensure the wealth of the Republic (efforts which included signing treaties for peace in the region, as well as building up the military fleet to protect its mercantile interests).(3) At the time, doctors and scientists were unable to trace the cause of the plague back to the ships that were bringing the very livelihood to the city. However, as mentioned, it was these same ships that were carrying the plague in the form of rats and fleas. Venice was more impacted than cities that were inland and protected from the transportation of these disease-bearing animals. It was actually Venice’s great success with ships carrying precious spices and materials that actually brought about its ravage.

Second, the political structure of Italy was different than others of Europe at the time.(4) Composed of city-states, each city was left to manage with the devastation of the plague on its own. While they often attempted to work together, the loss of life had a much greater impact on each city than it did on centrally organized nations such as France. In Venice, eighty thousand lives were lost in just seventeen months. On the 9 th of November, for example, five hundred and ninety-five died. These enormous fatalities greatly affected the city. Even the Doge, Nicolò Contarini passed away, leaving the new Doge, Francesco Erizzo to rule in his place.(5) With limited numbers left to fight and defend its territories, in 1669, Venice lost the island of Crete to the Ottoman Turks and in 1716 Morea also fell to the Ottoman Turks. Not more than a century later, in 1797, Venice surrendered sovereignty to Napoleon’s invading French army, which ended 1,070 years of republican government. (6)

The plundering of the plague can thus be seen to have brought about the beginning of the downfall of the reign of power of the Venetian Republic. While the Venetian military attempted to ensure the protection of the all important shipping routes, its weakened state left the shipping lines open for attack. Rich and poor, powerful and weak alike all had their lives claimed by the Black Death. As prominent figures died, the infrastructure of the city began to slowly crumble, as did the military might. Even the Doge Nicolò Contarini, in the name of the Senate, before his death, made a solemn vow to build a church to the Madonna of Good Health, if only the Virgin would free the city from the disease. Moreover, he promised that every year, on the 21 st of November, the day of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple, he would follow a procession to the church. After his death, the Doge Francesco Erizzo fulfilled the vow, demonstrating the depth of the city’s dread of the disease that they did not understand and could not control.(7) By the time that the plague had run its course, politics in Venice had been forever altered.

3. Duration


4. Location

Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Country: Italy (Venice)

5. Actors

The Venetian Republic was greatly impacted by the plague. However, other Northern Italian city-states also suffered from the plague of 1630; Milan and Tuscany were hit hard by the plague in 1630 causing the city dwellers to try to escape to the countryside to avoid catching the deadly illness.(8) As they traveled southward, the plague was carried to the areas of Naples, Rome and Genoa (1656-1657). During this new wave of the plague, it is believed that nearly seventy percent of the population of Northern Italy and Tuscany succumbed to the disease, making the plague of 1630 an Italian epidemic.(9) Historical accounts also point to the plague ravaging the city of London in 1630 (while indications suggest that the plague of 1665 was more devastating to the city than that of 1630) (10) other records show the plague reaching as far as the port city of Boston in 1636. (11)

The link between port cities and the plague cannot be discounted. Had the plague not been able to travel with the rats on board merchant ships from port to port, it probably would not have spread in the manner that it did and perhaps would not have been as devastating. The fact that the Italian city-states of this period were so successful as sea traders presents a clear correlation to their infection with the disease.

But while Northern Italy was suffering from the Black Death, the Ottoman Turks were continuing their attacks upon the Venetian Republic. How did the Turks avoid such a similar fate? The plague is believed to have originated in China in the early 1330s, reaching Baghdad and Alexandria by 1347. Thus, the illness was not unknown to the Turks by 1630. Some historians theorize that the Middle East had been so depopulated by the death caused by the disease and by the flight of the villagers as they sought refuge in the countryside from the contagious city-dwellers, that perhaps the illness simply subsided in the region. It is also possible that the rats that are thought to have carried the disease either died out in the Middle East or were replaced by another type of rat that did not carry the plague-bearing fleas.(12) Whatever the reason, the Ottoman Turks of this period were not suffering from the plague as were their Venetian adversaries, enabling them to overtake the Venetians in battle.

II. Environment Aspects

How can a plague affect the downfall of the Republic of Venice? It is difficult to imagine the illness as being the direct cause for the wars between the Venetians and the Ottoman-Turks. The Turks did not capitalize on the illness and weakness of the city-state to attack the empire, as they began their attacks prior to 1630. However, one must not discount this important factor in the Turks military strategy, as they surely had learned of the great illness that befell the Venetians, and many other port cities of the period. But did the plague affect the Turks themselves? According to historians, after the initial plague infection in the Middle East, it was not until 1831 that a flood and plague devastated Baghdad, which allowed the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, to reassert Ottoman sovereignty over Iraq (a part of the Ottoman empire).(13) Therefore, the plague of the 1630s did not seem to have greatly affected the Turks.

Since the plague is not a natural resource, per se, that may be fought over (such as oil or water), one probably would therefore consider the plague as having an indirect impact, as a result of more general issues. In this case, the general issues concerned are land and territory disputes, as the Turks fought to gain a foothold in the European continent, as well as control over key trade routes that the Venetians occupied. Another area, upon which the plague indirectly impacted, was the economic prowess of the Venetian Republic. A port city, the plague struck the Republic’s trading capacity, due to the death of important merchants and their employees as well as fears to trade with a city fraught with illness. “The economy underwent abrupt and extreme inflation. Since it was so difficult (and dangerous) to procure goods through trade and to produce them, the prices of both goods produced locally and those imported from afar skyrocketed.” (14) A city riddled with economic problems also had problems funding a war, and sought peace with the Turks if only to preserve their commercial pursuits (a single war in Candia cost the Venetians twelve million Ducati--the Venetian gold coin). (15)

Thus, Venice suffered from scarcities, both economically as well as militarily due to the loss of life and destruction that the plague brought about indirectly with its ravages upon all walks of life, from the very rich to the very poor.

6. Type of Environmental Problem

Health – During the Venetian Plague, the most evident Environmental Problem was the loss of human life in the city of Venice itself. The plague, as previously mentioned, is thought to have been carried by rats and fleas on boats from port town to port town, which is why Venice, a significant mercantile city-state of the time, was hit so hard by the plague.

7. Type of Habitat

Temperate – Venice is located in Northern Italy. Temperatures in Venice range from 0.45°C to 29.6°C. Rainfall in Venice varies from 87.0 to 363.0 (mm/month). (16)

The city itself is built upon over 100 low-lying islands in a salt-water lagoon. The lagoon is sheltered from the Adriatic Sea by the Lido (a sandbank) and other small strips of land. However, because the city is built upon such low-lying and muddy islands, the Venetians invented techniques unique to Venice to fortify their city structures. Using timber and stone, the Venetians drove piles into the islands. Upon these piles, they then built a structure of wood, followed by brick and then stone for each house or building. While susceptible to fires, some of these structures have stood for over 400 years. (17)

Another characteristic of Venice, due its construction upon such low-level islands, is flooding. With heavy rainfall in Spring and Fall, it is common to have flooding in many of the streets and squares throughout the city, called "Acqua Alta", although it is believed that the flooding occurs more in correlation with the astronomical tides than due to these heavy rains. (18)

8. Act and Harm Sites:

As previously mentioned, the plague is believed to have originated in China and to have worked its way westward to Europe along the Venetian and Genovese trade routes. The Republic of Venice was never able to fully recover from the destruction that the plague brought upon the city-state.

III. Conflict Aspects

Up until the 14 th century, Venice was the leading power in the Mediterranean. However, with its occupation of Gallipoli, the Ottoman-Turks attained their first strong-hold in Europe as they sought to expand their empire, and from that point on, were not to be stopped in their advancement westward (19), until they reached Vienna in 1683.(20)

In 1384, a Turkish embassy was established in Venice, because as one Venetian stated; “Since we are merchants we cannot live without them”. At the court of Murad I, promises were exchanged for peace and friendship between the two powers, and the Treaty of 1406 allowed for Venetians to circulate freely within the Turkish Empire without an increase of the taxes that they were subject to as merchants. (21)

The conflict began between the Venetians and the Turks on March 29, 1416 after the Turks devastated Eubea and Cicladi. The Turks then proceeded to take island after island (Rodi in 1522, Chio in 1566, and Cypress in July 1570) from the Venetians, until the arrival of the plague in Venice in 1630.(22) With an already demoralized military and mercantile fleet, the plague was the final blow to the Venetian Republic.

The island of Crete was attacked by the Turks in August of 1645, beginning the War of Candia (1645-1669). (23) While the plague of 1630 left 80,000 Venetian civilians and soldiers’ alike dead (24), the War of Candia resulted in the loss of 108,000 Turks and 29,088 “Christians” (generally Venetians, Greeks, and French volunteers who came to the aid of Venice). (25)

After the loss of Crete to the Turks, the Venetians continued to fight for their honor and territory, despite the peace treaty which was signed at the end of the War. However, with such a great cost to Venetian lives, the wars with the Turks continued to diminish the Venetian Republic both in size and in strength. The close succession of the battles also did not leave enough time for the society to regenerate after the plague and previous battles. The military power was simply being drained out. Moreover, without a strong military protecting them, the merchants of Venice, who were the backbone of the Venetian economy, struggled to trade, and the merchants too, suffered from the loss of lives during the plague.

Between the economic and military defeats, Venice was a weakened city-state. As Venice continued to battle with the Turks, more lives were lost in military campaigns up until Napoleon’s order to Maggior Consiglio to abolish the Venetian Constitution on May 12, 1797.

In all of this military conquest, it is important to remember who was the real enemy of the Venetians however. Without a face or King to parlay with, the plague silently took the lives of seventy percent of the Northern Italian population during the plague of 1630. With no cure and no real understanding of how the disease was transmitted or could be contained, the Venetians were truly at the mercy of the Black Death, for their losses would not be purely economic or loss of rule; with the plague, Venetians spoke in terms of loss of a population.

9. Type of Conflict


10. Level of Conflict

Interstate - High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

It is difficult to know the exact numbers of those who lost their lives during the Venetian and Ottoman-Turk battles. However, to begin to have any idea, it is known that in the War of Candia alone, 108,000 Turks and 29,088 "Christians" (Venetians, Greeks, and French volunteers who came to the aid of Venice) perished.

One might also consider that the plague of 1630 took the lives of 80,000 Venetian civilians and soldiers.

Thus, including both Venetians and Turks, one might estimate that the fatality level of dispute was 1(6) or perhaps upwards of around 300,000 lives lost.


Today, Venetians still remember their historic past when they celebrate Carnival each year. Dressing up in masks and costumes, a popular mask is that of the Doctor, who can be seen in the above photo wearing round glasses with a long pointed nose. Thought to imitate the breathing devise that they used to hold vinegar in, the doctors hoped to ward off the plague, or at least the bad odors of the sick and dying. The doctors also carried a long stick in order to touch the sick with, to avoid contaminating themselves with the disease.


IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Indirect (Disease)

Inverse relations – A rise in Variable A (plague) causes a decline in Variable B (financial/economic resources) in Venice. Variable B could be considered a “level (total) variable” while Variable A would be considered an “auxiliary variable (used to consider other types of impacts)”.

13. Level of Strategic Interest

Regional – the Venetian plague occurred at a time when many other Northern Italian city-states were also being re-affected by the plague. Moreover, when the plague had finally run its course, the Venetian Republic was so decimated that its trade and military forces never recovered from the losses suffered in 1630. The Ottoman-Turk Empire benefited from the Venetian downfall in the region by taking over strategic shipping islands. The final blow to the Venetian Republic was dealt by Napoleon in 1797. All of these conflicts occurred in the Mediterranean Region.

14. Outcome of Dispute:

Yield – On the 12 th of May 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte delivered to the Venetians the “Pasque veronesi” (the Veronese Easters), which abolished the Venetian constitution.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

ICE Cases:

Amphetamine - A case study on the use of Amphetamine as a drug, creating conflict over its illegal trade.

Lucky - A case study on the US detonation of a nuclear bomb "Bravo", creating nuclear fallout in Japan.

Opium-Burma - A case study on the production and trade of Opium.

Vineland - A case study on climate change and the conflict associated with it.

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

“Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe”. For background information on the initial wave of the plague in Renaissance Europe.

“Virtual History of Venice”. For a chronological timeline of Venetian history.


(1)"Decameron Web".

(2) Diehl, Charles, La Repubblica di Venezia, Roma 2004.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Mignone, Mario B., Italy Today: At the Crossroads of the New Millennium (New York: Peter Lang Publishing) 1998.

(5)“Venice Tourist Board: 1630 la peste”.

(6) Diehl, Charles, La Repubblica di Venezia, Roma 2004.

(7)“Venice Tourist Board: 1630 la peste”.

(8)"Plague Anointers in Milan".

(9)"Italian Plague of 1629-1631".

(10)"Plagues and Epidemics".

(11)"Historical Boston - The Black Death".

(12)"Black Death".

(13) “The Ottoman Period: 1534-1918”

(14)"Decameron Web".

(15) Diehl, Charles, La Repubblica di Venezia, Roma 2004.

(16)“World 66: Average Temperatures and Rain”.

(17)"Venetian Architecture".

(18)"Venice Weather".

(19) Diehl, Charles, La Repubblica di Venezia, Roma 2004.

(20)"Ottoman Website - Chronology".

(21) Diehl, Charles, La Repubblica di Venezia, Roma 2004.

(22) Ibid.

(23) Ibid.

(24)“Venice Tourist Board: 1630 la peste”.

(25)“La guerra di Candia".

-The Venetian Flag is Courtesy of: "Bandiere dei popoli - Veneto".

-The Images of Venice are Courtesy of: "Wallpaper, cartoline, immagini di sfondo e fotografie gratuite a soggetto di veneziano".

-The Map of Italy is Courtesy of: "CIA - The World Fact Book - Italy".

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August 2005