Given the terrifying nature of the Black Death, it’s hard to understand why Titian didn’t leave Venice in 1576 when he had the chance. He certainly had the means. Fabulously wealthy, he was the most famous artist of his day. Friend of kings and aristocrats, Titian could do whatever Titian wanted. And yet he stayed in his house in the Cannaregio, watching as the skies filled with the acrid smoke of the dead being burned across the lagoon on the dreaded island, Lazzaretto Vecchio, where plague victims were brought to die.
Sixteenth-century Venice was like a petri dish. Swampy and unsanitary, conditions in the overcrowded city had always been an invitation to disease. But this was no ordinary sickness. The Black Death struck like lightening, wiping out entire families in days. Bringing agonizing pain, it was often followed by an ignoble death, as disfigured bodies were stripped of their clothing and carted off to be disposed of in mass graves. People prayed and prayed. And those who could, fled to the hills.
The 1576 outbreak in Venice was particularly virulent. Records tell us by June of that year, 25,000 Venetians had shuttered their homes and left the city. The poor had no such luxury. Most stayed, hunkered down in overly crowded rooms, as authorities patrolled the streets, pausing only to paint crosses on the houses of plague victims. The signs of the plague included a red blotchy rash, followed by swollen lumps that appeared around the victim’s armpits, groin, and neck. These buboes—from which we get the name bubonic plague—came with fever, shivers, and terrible dizziness. If the patient began vomiting blood, everyone knew that person would be dead within a day, sometimes in a matter of hours.
Scientists today tell us that the Black Death was caused by a bacterium that originated in fleas. Like its viral counterparts—Ebola, smallpox, HIV, and, yes, COVID-19—the bacterium that causes Black Death is zoonotic. That is to say, the sickness originates in animals and jumps to humans.
In Titian’s day, people didn’t know to stay away from rats with fleas. They thought the plague was caused by bad air. No less an authority than Aristotle had taught that the conjunction of Jupiter and Mars brought noxious vapors. People living in crowded Venetian ghettoes or near swampy areas with miasmatic mists tried to avoid “polluted air” by covering their noses with perfumed handkerchiefs. The medico della peste, or plague doctor, could do little more than keep track of the dead and help draw up wills for the dying. These doctors devised their own protection against the foul air: a kind of medieval hazmat suit, cloaking the body from head to foot in a long black robe. They wore gloves and wide-brimmed hats to signify that they were doctors. Most eye-catching of all were their beaked masks. Functioning like a natural respirator, the beaks were typically stuffed with purifying herbs, such as rose, chamomile, camphor, and myrrh. Doctors also carried canes which they used to enforce what we now call “social distancing.” They made for a terrifying sight.
Titian’s Pietà, depicting the dead Christ after he has been taken down from the Cross, is the artist’s last work. Still in Venice, today it hangs in a long, narrow hallway upstairs in the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Stepping back to try and see the large work, you immediately bump against the wall behind you. And so you shift to the left, where the lousy lighting shines right in your eyes. You then try the right, where you are met with another glare, this time obscuring the painting. As you move around, trying to find the sweet spot, it dawns on you that you are standing in front of one of the most powerful works of art ever painted.
Titian, a painter best known for his almost otherworldly use of vivid color, has created a picture submerged in blackness. Using copious amounts of ocher and bone black (made from charred animal bones), he depicted the moonlit space in front of the tomb, where Mary, the Mother of God, is cradling the lifeless body of Christ. Nearby, Mary Magdalene seems about to flee the scene, screaming in disbelief. In the bottom right of the picture is a tablet with two men kneeling, figures representing the painter and his son Orazio in the conventional poses of donors. Titian also painted himself as part of the painting proper, on his knees, gently holding the left hand of Christ. You can almost taste the growing horror of what has happened, as the greatest artist in the world, a man of fame and fortune, reaches for the hand of his Lord, pale against his own living flesh, begging for salvation.
Why didn’t he leave when he had the chance? With a home in the hills and money in excess, it is possible he felt himself too frail to travel. He was in his late 80s by then, an advanced age at that time. Another possibility is he felt it unseemly to abandon his assistants and servants. Some scholars have wondered if perhaps he didn’t feel sheepish about fleeing God’s will and the inevitability of death. We will probably never know the answer to the question of why he didn’t leave when he had the chance. All we are left with is this dark painting of the painter, half-clothed and in supplication before the heavenly vision of the Pietà.
But it would be to no avail, for both Titian and his son were dead from the plague before the painting was completed.