13 June 2013

How they died in Venice, Part One

Detail from icon of church of S. Giorgio dei Greci.
Georgios Klontzas, 16th C. Complete icon, 47 x 71.5 m.
Museum, Istituto Ellenico, Venice.

Several years ago, the Istituto Ellenico published a necrology of the Greek community in Venice 1569 through 1810. This consists of the Greek listed in the death register of the parish of S. Antonin, which included the neighborhood of the Greek church, S. Giorgio dei Greci. The Council of Trent, in one of its wiser decisions, had required that each parish church was to keep a record of deaths in the parish, regardless of religion, and so as of 1569 we have names and causes of deaths for Greeks. 

* 1586, 4 September. Dona Maria Papadia died, age 40, in childbirth.
* 1598, 4 July. Piero, son of Mastro Andrea, tailor from Cyprus, 1 year old, from smallpox after 6 days.

I worked with the first 500 names in the necrology, from 1569 to 1655.  A little more than half of these names were of men. It is difficult to be confident the numbers for gender, but for children under a year, 48 boys are listed in comparison with 17 girls. I estimate at least 30 more girls.  Unfortunately, we have no idea whether all the Greeks who died in the parish of S. Antonin were included -- I think not. The register depended on someone's going to the parish clerk and reporting the death.  We have no idea how many Greeks lived in that parish or in Venice at any particular date. But the information we do have gives us glimpses into who some of these Greeks were and what kind of lives they had.

* 1583, 14 April.  Margaritta died, daughter of Sr. Balgian Sosomena, Cypriot, 1 year old, two months after a beating.
* 1611, 10 February.  Geronimo, son of Nicolò, Cypriot, about 22, took off with a boat, and fell in the water and drowned.

* 1617, 8 June. Stamatello Coliva from Corfù. He was sick for 8 days on the galley of the Most Illustrious Zorzi, and 4 days on land with fever. He was visited by the Most Excellent Sr. Costantin di Medici

Costantin di Medici was the attending doctor.  We know nothing about his abilities as a doctor -- his name only appears for deaths, but we learn that his own wife died in childbirth.  The doctor Pasqualin Giavanelli lost 2 sons in 6 months, and the doctor Hercole Stavrinos lost two newborn daughters in two years. 

The necrology shows that 16[6] newborns died out of the 500, 62[20] infants in the first year of life out of that 500. For the largest single infant death diagnosis, 28[14] died from tetanus: that is a common killer in the 3rd-4th-5th worlds today and can come from any injury, but especially from infection of the umbilical cord.  The next causes were smallpox and dysentery.

A number of children die from vermi, worms -- no adults.  Worms most frequently kill because they can cause lethal anemia.  Two of the children here died from "suffocation by worms" -- they may have strangled on their vomit, or this may describe the intestinal blockage that worms can cause, or the anemia and the ultimate inability to take in oxygen.  Malnutrition in a population makes its presence visible in intestinal disorders among the young, and intestinal disorders generally seem to be blamed on worms.  So what is interesting here is that the diagnosis may have more to do with ideas about worms, than with an actual medical reason.

What we get in these death reports, particularly with the deaths of the children, is the brutal reminder that they died mostly because of the lack of cleanliness.  We have to envision the near-impossibility of being clean in an urban environment before running water -- clean hands (and fingernails), clean cloths, clean water, clean utensils for food.  Nearly all the infant deaths relate to something readers here simply take for granted, but something that is not at all simple. 

* 1595, 5 December.  Yanni, son of mastro Zorzi, Greek tailor, age 3, sick from worms and smallpox for 6 days.
* 1596, 29 September.  Momolo, son of mastro Andrea, Cypriot tailor, infant of 16 months, sick for several months from worms.
* 1598, 8 May.  Christina, daughter of Sr. Zorzi, Greek tailor, age 4, sick from fever for a year.
* 1599, 16 November. Yanni, son of Zorzi, Greek tailor, born in the night.
* 1614, 31 August.  Veneranda, daughter of Bona of Constantinople, age 3, suffocated by worms yesterday evening at 4 hours of the night (10 p.m.).

To be continued:

Οι Αποβιωτηριες Πραξεις Ελληνων στο Αρχειο του Ναου του Αγιου Αντωνινου Βενετιας (1569-1810) /
Gli atti di morte dei Greci nell'archivio della chiesa di Sant'Antonin di Venezia (1569-1810).

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