Positioned at the center of the Mediterranean and once home to one of history’s most expansive and powerful empires, the Italian Peninsula has been the site of some of the Western world’s greatest accomplishments in the time of Christ. Although Rome remains historically the most significant city in modern-day Italy, for much of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice served as a premier hub where European and Levantine politics, culture, and trade would intermingle. The city was founded in roughly the eighth century when Byzantine citizens settled on an island in the Venetian Lagoon to avoid Lombard invaders on the mainland of the Italian Peninsula. The Venetians eventually adapted to their new island and eventually would establish a sprawling trade empire in the Mediterranean region.
Beginning in the 14th century, Venice spread onto the Italian mainland and created the Venetian Terraferma, through which they were connected with the rest of the Italian Peninsula, particularly Rome, Milan, and Florence. Venice wanted to establish itself as a new and improved Rome, one without the stain of paganism on its history. As Venice sought to conquer more land in the Terraferma and around the northern part of the Adriatic Sea, they began to absorb former Byzantine trading ports and began to trade with foreigners in the Middle East. The lagoon transformed into a bustling harbor, and on the main island, people of diverse backgrounds lived and worked together with a strong sense of each other’s equality, which explains the fluidity of Venetian social circles, according to Loren Partridge. However, despite the Venetian port's thriving, it proved to be incredibly dangerous for the citizens living in close quarters on the island in the middle of a lagoon.
While plagues have been documented heavily throughout much of human history, none has ever been more catastrophic than the strain of bubonic plague that gripped Europe in the fourteenth century. Although there is no sure origin of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, that decimated entire populations of settlements, historians have generally pointed to the major outbreak’s origins to East Asia, where it traveled along the Silk Road and eventually spread throughout Europe. Because Venice was so involved in international trade in the Mediterranean region, particularly the present-day Middle East, during this time, it was inevitable that some sort of pestilence would break out on the island, but understandably so, no one could have predicted the widespread death that came with the Black Death.
In times of plague and pestilence following the fall of the Roman Empire, a great devotion to Saint Sebastian emerged. According to Legenda Aurea, Sebastian was born in the third century near present-day Milan and served as a Roman soldier under the Emperor Diocletian, a renowned persecutor of Christians. The section on Saint Sebastian says that he converted to Christianity after seeing the bravery of Christian martyrs and eventually compelled close companions to convert, including a Roman prefect who was cured of a plague when he renounced his pagan idols. When Diocletian learned of his conversion, Sebastian was sentenced to death at the hands of archers, but he survived the execution, returning to Diocletian’s court to rebuke him in the name of God, as depicted in Veronese’s St. Sebastian Reproving Diocletian. Upon this act, Diocletian ordered the soldiers to club Sebastian to death, and Sebastian died a Christian martyr. Because his intercession to God contributed to the cure of the Roman prefect, Sebastian became widely associated with the cure of plagues, especially in cities throughout the Italian Peninsula.
In many cities and villages where medical knowledge was severely limited prior to the Renaissance and modern era, much of the care of the sick was left to the religious in the Catholic Church. In fact, cities and villages often adopted a “plague saint” to protect them from pestilence in addition to a patron saint. Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and cultural hub of Europe, relied on Saint Sebastian’s intercession after the city’s bishop constructed an altar in Sebastian’s honor as a last resort to stopping the Black Death. Shortly thereafter, the plague ceased, and the bishop built a church dedicated to Saint Sebastian in thanksgiving for his intercession.
As the center for the Renaissance, Florence was incredibly influential in how the arts developed after the Middle Ages. Because of the great devotion to Saint Sebastian following the cessation of the Black Death, artists began to feature him as a male nude in their pieces as an alternative Christ. In doing so, the beauty of Sebastian uncovered body became one of the major themes in depictions of him. As a protector from plagues, his likeness was sought after by many patrons who commissioned works of art of Saint Sebastian, and the “plague saint” with a sculpted physique became something of a celebrity in Renaissance art, appearing alone and amongst other holy men and women in both religious and historical works of art.
The people of Venice were particularly vulnerable to plagues during the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance. With waves of disease being an almost absolute certainty, the Venetians armed themselves spiritually when medicinal remedies proved futile against pestilence. As a sort of warrior against the plague, the Venetians, like many Europeans, turned to Saint Sebastian for his intercession and ultimate deliverance from the plagues that tortured and killed so many citizens. Though his likeness, in Venetian art especially, evolved during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, his protective nature transcended time and served as a comfort to Christians in the wake of distress.
 Partridge, Loren W. Art of Renaissance Venice: 1400 - 1600. Oakley: Univ. of California Press, 2015, 2.
 Partridge, Loren W. Art of Renaissance Venice: 1400 - 1600. Oakley: Univ. of California Press, 2015, 6.
 Dols, Michael W., and John Norris. "Geographical Origin of the Black Death." Bulletin of the history of medicine 52.1 (1978): 112. ProQuest. Web. 27 Apr. 2016, 112.
 Jacobus, William Granger Ryan, Eamon Duffy, and Jacobus. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, 99.
 Jacobus, William Granger Ryan, Eamon Duffy, and Jacobus. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, 114.
 Bonser, W.. 1956. “Medical Folklore of Venice and Rome”. Folklore 67 (1). [Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., Taylor & Francis, Ltd.]: 1–15. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.bc.edu/stable/1259125, 1.
 Mormando, Franco, and Thomas Worcester. Piety and Plague: From Byzantium to the Baroque. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2007, 100.
 Mormando, Franco, and Thomas Worcester. Piety and Plague: From Byzantium to the Baroque. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2007, 114.