Mayor vows Venice will bounce back from yet another plague as city marks 1,600th birthday under COVID lockdown

Venice celebrates 1,600th birthday
Venice celebrates 1,600th birthday 03:16

Venice — Italy's "City of Canals" marked its 1,600th birthday on Thursday, but there was little to celebrate. As CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay reports, the once thriving tourist destination — along with much of Italy — is back under lockdown as a third wave of coronavirus sweeps across Europe.

Venice is known for its carnival and other festivities, but with no one around to celebrate, it was hard for Venetians to sing happy birthday on Thursday, exactly 1,600 years after the first stone for Venice's first church is believed to have been laid. 

In the landmark St. Mark's Square there wasn't a tourist in sight. Dozens of celebrations have been planned over the course of this year, but it's anybody's guess whether they'll actually be held.

For three centuries, the history of Venice has been told through cups of espresso in St. Mark's Square, at the iconic Caffe Florian, where artistic director Stefano Stipitich told CBS News that "everyone from Andy Warhol to Grace Kelly" — even Casanova — has come to soak up the culture. 

Europe hit by third wave of COVID infections 02:27

The Florian itself also just marked a birthday — it's 300th, making it Italy's oldest café. But just like Venice, it isn't celebrating. The doors are closed and the chairs are sitting unoccupied on the tables.

"This is the situation we're in," Stipitch told Livesay. "All of Venice is on top of the tables. It's a disaster."

Venice has gone from one extreme to another during the pandemic: Tens of thousands of daily tourists, many arriving on cruise ships, used to barrage the city and distress the locals. Once a ship even slammed into a pier causing damage and considerable debate over the merits of welcoming such an influx every day.

Venice cruise ship crash sparks protests 03:00

Now they're all gone, and that is depriving the ancient city of 90% of its annual revenue.

But COVID-19 is hardly Venice's first bout with disease in its 1,600 years. The city even gave us the word quarantine — or "quarantena" in its original Italian — for the 40 days sailors used to have to spend in isolation on one of the city's islands to keep them from spreading the plague.

The Black Death, as it was known, gave birth in the 17th century to a haunting doctor's mask that has become an enduring image of deadly disease. The long nose helped to ensure social distancing, according to costume designer Stefano Nicolao.

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An illustration shows the type of mask typically worn centuries ago by doctors in Europe during outbreaks of the plague, or Black Death. CBS News

Mayor Luigi Brugnaro told CBS News that the Venetians have quite simply seen it all before.

"Tourists will come back," he said. "But we'll have to manage them more responsibly."

And if a city as important as Venice can bounce back, he added, so can the rest of the world.