The primary source for this project was the register of death records (registro dei Necrologi) from the year 1740 produced by the Provveditori alla Sanità, an office of Venetian government. The purpose of the Necrologi was to monitor public health and to prevent contagion. The priority of the record keepers was to identify the cause of each death in the city in order to understand potential centers of contagion and to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Each record lists the name of the deceased, his or her age, the cause of death, the duration of the disease, the parish in which the deceased resided, and the name of the doctor who provided treatment.
One interesting element in the Necrologi is the use of illustrations on the part of the notary to signal exceptional cases. For example, the record of a person condemned to death by hanging would include a drawing of a hanged man in the margin, a murder would be marked by a knife or sword, and the death of a person older than100 years would be often marked by a drawing of a sun.
Our project revolved around the supposition that there is a connection between social behavior and causes of death.
Based on Peter Burke’s suggestion, in his 1978 volume Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, that social behavior is influenced by the religious calendar–revolving periods of the sacred and the profane–we chose to concentrate on two key weeks in the year: the last week of Carnevale and Holy Week (the seven days before Easter). These two weeks had an influence over the way people experienced life through traditions, customs, celebrations, holidays, and social behaviors. Carnevale was considered a time of disobedience, misbehavior, and excess that was left behind during Quaresima (Lent), which marked a return to discipline and penance. During Carnevale people were permitted to overeat and to drink in excess, there were more frequent social gatherings, and promiscuity was prevalent. There were crowds in the streets and people gathered together in small spaces. Further, visitors from outside of Venice were potential carriers of infection.
Gabriel Bella, Carnevale di Venezia, Fondazione Querini Stampalia
Carnevale was also a key moment for the government to manage social discipline by allowing a period of excess on the part of the people. A significant example of this paternalistic attitude on the part of the government is the albero della Cuccagna (Cuccagna tree), a pole decorated with food that people climbed to take advantage of the offerings left there by government administrators who watched the spectacle gleefully. In contrast, Quaresima was a period of penance and sobriety in which all of the excesses of Carnevale were pardoned.
The choice of the two weeks to be analyzed was thus based on the opportunity to verify whether the occurrence of death and illness were truly tied to social behaviors in these two very distinct periods of the year.
We used the data from throughout the year to establish trends and to verify the presence of peaks. For each record examined, we transcribed the sex of the deceased as well as their age, parish of residence, and cause of death. Using these entries, we created comparative charts of the data to test our hypothesis.
We found, in fact, that our hypotheses were not supported by the data. There was not an explicit link between causes of death and social behavior: during both weeks, nearly all of the deaths were from natural causes, most commonly “spasmi” (32%), “febre” (6%), and “mal di petto” (4%). The deaths were concentrated in the most populous districts of the city, though we cannot affirm with any certainty that there is a connection between the economic status of the deceased and their capacity to protect themselves from illness. Nevertheless, the number of deaths in the week of Carnevale and in the days immediately following Fat Tuesday is greater than the number of deaths during the week of Easter. The cause of this difference, however, is probably connected to the climate in March that would have been more hospitable to lung infections and malignant fevers.
Acknowledging that exceptional cases are not statistically significant, we would like to point out a few extraordinary deaths which we found in the records: the case of a 70-year-old woman found dead in the waters of Venice on April 16, 1740 in Santa Maria Formosa, that of a 22-year-old man “caduto da una altana” (fallen from a roof terrace) in the neighborhood Quintavalle Castello on March 17, that of a man of unknown age, sentenced to work on one of the Doge’s galleys, who died of gangrene on a gondola, and the miscarriage and death of a 34-year-old nun of Sant’Eufemia on March 6.
Provveditori alla Sanità.Necrologi (1537-1805). Inventario analitico, edited by Monica del Rio, Archivio di Stato Di Venezia, 2005.