Giovanni de Ventura

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Pieter van der Aa 1728 map of Pavia

Giovanni de Ventura was a municipal plague doctor for the town of Pavia.[1] He was a certified physician from a university and had a degree.[2]

Contract 1479[edit]

When Ventura negotiated a "spectacular" plague doctor contract in 1479 with the town of Pavia to treat plague patients, he was fresh out of school and desired to start a medical career. He became a plague doctor for the city of Pavia, which involved a sixteen-clause contract with the city.[3] The salary he received was 30 florins per month (plus full citizenship and a free house),[4] which was five to six times the salary of a skilled person of the time – the average skilled person earned about 60 florins per year, where Ventura received 360 florins per year.[2][5][6]

Ventura was also to receive an adequate completely furnished house in an adequate location with supplemental living costs. He also received a cash advance and a severance package when he left at the end of his contract which consisted of two months' pay. He was not to require a fee from a plague patient, since the town was paying him, unless they offered freely. If the town had too many plague victims that his salary was not obtainable, then he was free to leave with no further obligations. Likewise, if he received pay and died before his normal services were performed, his heirs (perhaps parents) were not obligated to return any of that advanced pay.[7]

The most important of the "benefits" of his contract with the city was a full town citizenship, as he had immigrated to the area from the countryside. He was not initially a town citizen. This gave him the possibility of setting up a more lucrative practice in the city after his contract ended. This benefit was the most attractive to him. In return for the contract benefits, he was to treat and take care of all plague and infectious patients of the town. He was to see the plague patients two or three times per day or more if necessary. Ventura was not to go around the city unless escorted by a designated city member – so as not to spread the contagious disease. Ventura could see only bubonic plague patients and was prohibited from seeing other patients with other illnesses.[8] This was covered in Clause 16 of his 1479 contract with the city of Pavia:

Master Giovanni should not be allowed to move around the city in order to treat patients unless accompanied by a man especially designated by the Community.[5][9]


As a professional doctor of that time Ventura was to uphold certain standards. These included ethical codes and professional dress. He was to be well mannered, bold, cautionary of dangers, and not practice false cures. Additionally Ventura was expected to be friendly, cordial, polite, compassionate, chaste, sober and merciful. He was to work with his colleagues and be kindhearted to them. He was also to be wise and professional in his prognostications. Likewise he was not to be greedy for money. His dress was to be like that of a professional clerk of the time. He was not to swear or use bad language and was not allowed to double talk or give ambiguous answers. In addition Ventura was to be courteous at the city major's table and kind to the guests. He was to be a man of few words. Ventura was to treat his patients with dignity and high moral standards, especially his female patients. He was not to have chit-chat conversations with the mistress of the house, the daughter, or the female servants.[10]

Beak Doctor[edit]

Modern writers often refer to the protective suit that plague doctors wore at the time. Because of the beak-like characteristics of the mask, plague doctors were also known as a "Beak Doctor."[11] The beak doctor costume consisted of a heavy overcoat, made from leather or oiled or waxed fabric; a mask of glassed eye openings; and a cone, shaped like a beak, to hold scented substances.[12] A wooden cane pointer was used to help examine the patient without touching.[13] However, the beak doctor costume was not invented until around 1619 (during the Second Pandemic). He would most likely have dressed like a professional clerk.


Historian Carlo M. Cipollia speculates that Ventura did not have a family himself. While there are no records to show one way or the other, he thinks that in all likelihood Ventura did not have a wife or any children. This speculation is based on Clause 4 of the 1479 Contract that does not seem to indicate a house for a family. However, there is indications that perhaps he had living parents by Clause 8. This clause stipulates that should there be advance pay and Ventura were to die before the services were fulfilled for this pay, then his heirs shall not be required to make restitution of any part of his salary that might remain unearned.[14]


  1. ^ King, p. 371
  2. ^ a b Gottfried, p. 126
  3. ^ The Contract of a Plague Doctor[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ Byrne (Daily), p. 169
  5. ^ a b The Contract of a Plague Doctor
  6. ^ Miskimin, p. 66
  7. ^ Miskimin, p. 67
  8. ^ Miskimin, p. 65 These were physicians or surgeons, especially hired by an infected town or village in time of an epidemic, who were responsible for the treatment of the plague patients only and had to refrain from intercourse with the rest of the population.
  9. ^ Miskimin, p. 70 ...the real reason behind the clause was to ensure that the doctor would not intermingle with other people. The deputy's function was to monitor Giovanni's movements.
  10. ^ Gottfried, p. 127
  11. ^ Ellis, p. 202
  12. ^ Byrne (Encyclopedia), p. 505
  13. ^ Pommerville, p. 9
  14. ^ Miskimin, p. 68

Primary Sources[edit]

  • Pavia City Archives, envelope 443

Secondary Sources[edit]

  • Byrne, Joseph Patrick, Daily life during the Black Death, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, ISBN 0-313-33297-5
  • Byrne, Joseph Patrick, Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues, ABC-CLIO, 2008, ISBN 0-313-34102-8
  • Ellis, Oliver C., A History of Fire and Flame 1932 , Kessinger Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-4179-7583-0
  • Gottfried, Robert S., The black death: natural and human disaster in medieval Europe, Simon and Schuster, 1985, ISBN 0-02-912370-4
  • King, Margaret L., Western civilization: a social and cultural history, Prentice Hall, 2002, ISBN 0-13-045007-3
  • Miskimin, Harry A., The Medieval City, Yale University Press, 1977, ISBN 0-300-02081-3
  • Pommerville, Jeffrey, Alcamo's Fundamentals of Microbiology, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2010, ISBN 0-7637-6258-X

Further reading[edit]