VENICE, Italy—The British-American author Henry James once wrote that there was nothing more disagreeable about Venice than the visitors. But clearly, he had never seen the northern Italian city without them. While it may seem enviable to wander aimlessly along the canals of Venice during the last days of the COVID-19 lockdown—as if someone handed over a key to the world’s most beautiful museum for you to visit alone after hours— it isn’t at all what it is cracked up to be. There are moments of magic, like being able to hear birdsong and church bells and Venetian voices wafting from the open windows. But this city was built on tourism, and it feels eerily haunted without it, with only the eyes of a thousand Carnival masks staring from the empty stores.
It must be said that paradise in a pandemic is no paradise at all. It’s hard to smell the draping jasmine through a suffocating face covering and even harder to take a picture wearing sweaty disposable gloves—both of which are mandatory in most public spaces in Venice for the foreseeable future. The desolate streets are lined by closed storefronts, some with hastily scrawled signs that warn that the business has “ceased operation,” never to open again due to the pandemic.
The rebirth of post-pandemic Venice is one of the most intriguing prospects in modern day tourism to come out of the global health crisis. And this city is no stranger to pandemics and rebirth, with the Black Death some 700 years ago killing off thousands in the city. The Italian word for “quarantine” was born at that time when the city enforced 40 days of isolation on the Lazaretto islands. Lazaretto Vecchio was where those with the plague were sent to convalesce or die, and Lazaretto Nuovo was where ships coming in with goods from overseas had to quarantine for 40 days, or quaranta giorni.