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Physicians of Venice

André Fabre                                                          July 13 2014 



This book is an homage to the doctors of Venice. Along centuries, they gave an outstanding contribution to the glory of their city. The Serenissima was indeed a city loaded with mysteries. The book presents the secret storyof the Venetian doctors never published until now

The very first great Physician of Venice was Tommaso Rangone(1493-1577), physician and soothsayer but also great patron of the Arts : he is portrayed in the foreground of three celebrated Tintoretto paintings and his statue is still standing above the porch of Chiesa San Giuliano, few yards from Mercerie.

All along XVIth and XVIIth centuries, the "Golden age" of Venice, stands an impressive gallery of great medical figures

In first place comes Giovanni-Domenico Santorini (1681-1737), genuine Venetian, born and dead in Venice where he had in charge the small but superb Ospedaletto now Mecca of classical Venetian music. Also, Santorio Santorio (1561-1636), one of the creators of experimental medicine and Nicolò Massa (1485-1569) whose Anatomy Treatise has been the Grays Anatomy of many generations of medicine students.

 Leonardo Fioravanti (1518-1586) lived (and died) in Venice, he is credited to have been first to perform an ablation of the spleen : this was back in 1546 in Palermo.

A specialplace should be given to JeromeFracastoro (1478-1553) : physician of princes, humanist and poet.Greatpioneer in the fieldof infectious diseases, one of his poems got an outstanding fame: "The French disease", story of ayoung and handsome shepherd named "Syphilis" ("Companion of love") disfigured by ahideousdisease. By chance, a new medication, the "guaiac", had just arrived fromAmerica andSyphilidis could be healed.

As early as XIIIth century, the University of Padua, twin sister of Venice, had been a leading centre for all medical sciences and overall, anatomy, with such great names as Benedetti (1450-1512) "maestro" military surgeon, Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714) initiator of Occupational medicine and Charles Patin the outcast physician of Louis XIV, Girolamo d'Acquapendente (1537-1519), creator of the great Amphitheatre of Padua, Giovanni Santorini (1680-1737) founder of anatomical pathology, and the most celebrated of all anatomists, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) who spent 7 years, at the zenith of his career, in Padua.

By tradition, Venice had close links with Orient : the young physicians often started practice in Eastern territories of Venice : Greece and Cyprus. Thus, Guido da Bagnolo (1320-1370), royal physician at the court of Cyprus, Andrea Alpago (1450-1520), who brought from Damas the works of Avicenne, Prospero Alpini (1553-1617) physician at the Italian consulate in Cairo, founder of Tropical botanics and Jacopo Pilarino (1659-1718) who brought back from Orient the first attempts of antivariola vaccination.

It should also be cited the story of a reat adventurer and (maybe) physician from Venice, Nicolò Manucci (1638-1715) : he roamed an highly adventurous life all over India before settling down as a rich merchant in Goa.

The story of the Jewish physicians of Venice would deserve a whole chapter : at the end of XVth century, arrived in Venice many Jews driven from Spain by racial persecutions : they were confined inthe sadly famous "Ghetto" in Cannaregio, the northern "sestiere" of Venice. Among them David de Pomis (1525-1593), Isaac Cardoso (1804-1683)and later Vincenzo Dandolo (1758-1819). A most fascinating figure was, in early Middle Ages, Pietro d'Abano (1257-1316), brought to the Tribunal of Inquisition for such crimes as claiming that celestial bodies are moved by the laws of Astronomy and not by angels or demons

In Venice, "hospitals" as "Mendicanti", "Ospedaletto" or " La Pietà", were, as Goethe wrote in a letter, "Genuine Temples of music : Goethe came to La Pieta to hear the choir of the young female musicians pupils of Vivaldi:  in a burst of enthusiasm, he exclaimed " I never imagined that such voices could exist .."

The physicians of Venice, a city so widely open to all epidemics from Orient, had a major role during all major plague epidemics spreading the city (1345, 1575, 1630 and many others), as well as the frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. As a memorial to the Great Plague, still stand in Venice two magnificent Basilica : Il Redentore on the Giudecca waterfront and, at the entrance of Grand Canal, the monumental Santa Maria della Salute.

Venice was first, in History, to devise a comprehensive system of protection against communicable diseases : the so-called "Lazaretti" scattered on three islands of the Laguna..

The second part of the book is dedicated to "Physicians visitors of Venice". Many names could be given here, starting with Dr. Jacob Spon (1647-1685), erudite French-Swiss physician who spent, in 1675, several days in Venice before sailing to Greece. He brought back a complete report of his visit published in 1678 as "Voyage d'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce et du Levant".

For the great physician poet, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) the trip to Venice remained only but a dream, beautifully expressed in his book "Prince of Venice". Nearly a century later, Dr. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) arrived to Venice right after a dreadful experience in the Siberian KZ camps. Amazed by the beauty of the "Serenissima", he left in his letters many highly picturesque notations on "magica Venezia"

Pr. Adrien Proust (1834-1903), attended as specialist of Tropical diseases, many medical meetings in Venice. Stirred by his enthusiasm, his son, Marcel Proust arrived in 1890 to Hotel Danieli in company of his mother (and his close friend, Reynaldo Hahn). Ten years later, Marcel came back to Venice in a last pilgrimage, but alone.

Dr. Freud (1856-1939), claimed all his life to be a true fanatic of Venice : "Our heart goes to the South", he wrote in one of his letters. In company of  his wife, his brother or his daughter, Anna, the future great psychoanalyst, Sigmund visited Venice at least six times, maybe seven (biographers still discuss on that point). For him, the Serenissima remained the "City of the Dead", built on alabaster poles[1] above the Léthé, the underworld river  bringing, according to the Ancients, oblivion to all who drink its water.

Dr. Léon Daudet (1867-1942), highly controversial French writer, came in visit to Venice in company of his whole family. Unfortunately, his father, the great Alphonse Daudet, contracted after a "shell party" at the Lido, a severe typhoid fever and had to be urgently repatriated to Paris. Léon, shortly after, got sick and had to stay in bed for a whole month. However he kept intact his love for Venice where he returned many years later, lodging in "grand style" at the Vendramin Calergi Palace, now converted in gambling Casino….

 Dr. Destouches (1894-1961), better known as Céline, left in his celebrated book "Journey to the End of the Night" some sarcastic comments on the Serenissima: "In Venice, young man, floats everywhere a sumptuous fragrance of death". 

Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), physician gone best-seller author, was fervent disciple, in his books as in life, of the great Venetian seducer, Giacomo Casanova. Unfortunately, Venice turned out to be fatal for his beloved daughter and Schnitzler never came back, except for  pilgrimages to the Lido cemetery.

At the end, come all "escort physicians" following their notorious patient in visit to Venice : Dr. Francesco Aglietti (1757-1836), friend and physician of Lord Byron, Axel Munthe (1857-1949), the great author of "Story of SD$S", escort to the future Queen of Sweden and Dr. Pietro Pagello (1807-1808) who had George Sand as patient during her honeymoon n Venice with Alfred de Musset

The book ends up with a pilgrimage to the high places dedicated to the great Saints Healers of Venice : San Panteleimon, "the all-compassionate " , San Luca, "the Evangelist" and Santa Lucia, "Patron of the Blind".

Farewell to Venice is for everyone a gruesome moment, Venice will stand forever and forever as "City of dreams"as well as"Dream City".

Over centuries the Serenissima has sent a message of pride and seduction but also of tenacity and courage.

Her destiny was magnificent but the physicians of Venice had a major role in this great adventure.


   Book published by L'Harmattan Editions, Paris, 2014

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[1] Daphné  du Maurier (1907-1989) on this point came close to Sigmund Freud “The experts are right, … Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying. One day the tourists will travel here by boat to peer down into the waters, and they will see pillars and columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone. (Echoes from the Macabre,  Ed. Victor Gollancz, 1976)

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Date de dernière mise à jour : 25/07/2014

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