The “quarantine”: an intuition of the fifteenth century that put Venice at the forefront in preventing epidemics outbreaks

11 August 2021

Venice, 5 August 2021- The concept of “quarantine”, the forty-day period of isolation reserved for people suffering from contagious diseases and aimed at preventing their expansion, is a true Venetians intuition dated back to the fifteenth century that put Venetians at the forefront in preventing epidemics outbreaks. It was exactly in these years, in fact, that the citizens of the lagoon understood that only segregation could stop the spreading of certain contagious infections, like the plague. They decided to create a place, the so-called “Lazzaretto Nuovo”, located about two miles northeast of Venice, near the mouth of the harbour of the Lido, intended to host for a long period of forty days people and goods, from all over the world, potentially infected and contagious. It was 1468 and this hosting structure was added to that of the first, so called, “old” Lazzaretto of 1423 which constituted, instead, the first public hospital dedicated to contagious diseases in Western history, located on an island in the Bacino San Marco. 

“Venice, with this intuition placed itself at the forefront, anticipating everyone else- say Giorgia Fazzini of the Ekos Club and Archeoclub of Italy in Venice-, even going against the superstitions of the time, Venice understood that the plague was contagious and so decided to create the first public hospital for contagious diseases on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio. Later on, in 1468, it figured out that, since the cure for the disease was unknown, a “plague prevention” was necessary and decided to establish the quarantine practice on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo”. 

The Lazzaretto Nuovo, an island of nine acres of which almost 40.000 square foots made up of buildings, was truly dividing the lagoon from the city of Venice and was seen as the preventing symbol of a progressive method in treating contagious diseases that showed how Venetians, already in 1468, had a really intuitive and forward- seeing mindset in that field of medicine which today is still faced with this kind of approach.

“Today quarantine, as a Venetians invention, is becoming a quite hot topic, with the two-year of Coronavirus- says Giorgia Fazzini- since both the international informative and diplomatic network and the daily practices can be compared precisely with what Venice understood and created in the fifteenth century and that the contemporary world still practices today in all the countries affected by Sars-Cov-2. The “lazzaretti” network was not just a health care system, but also an international intelligence system.

The one of Lazzaretto nuovo is the only island in the venetian lagoon that was recovered and brought back to the community with a non-profit project and today is still renowned by dozens of local and international realities and by thousand of people that visit it each year through guided tours, workshops, exhibitions, and events. However, the most important aspects of this island are three and cover three different fields of study, from the historical and archaeological one to the project concerning the recovery of the island, passing through the environmental care. Especially the recovery plan, promoted in 1977 and up till the present days, makes this place a true lifelong learning stage. 

From the historical point of view, the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, lived all the different habits which characterized the more than sixty islands of the lagoon of Venice: the agricultural one, since this place was used for crops and livestock, the religious one from the end of the XI century when the island was owned by the Benedictine monks of San Giorgio Maggiore, the healthcare one during the spread of the plague in the fifteenth century and, finally, the military one when during the 1800s the island was used as a defensive system on the lagoon. 

Definitely, the most important period for the island of Lazzaretto nuovo is that of the Serenissima Republic, when it was involved in the healthcare field eventually becoming the quarantine lazzaretto passing through which was essential to reach the city center of Venice. All the goods, people and boats coming from plague suspected places, and therefore, from the different ports of the Mediterranean with whom Venice cooperated, being the connection between East and West, had to pass through here and spend a period of forty day before entering the city. 

The island, moreover, it's also very important from the environmental point of view, as it hosts the “path of whales”, the nature walk of the Ecomuseum that tells about this very particular environment of the lagoon ecosystem. That of whales is an endangered environment, in fact almost 70% of it disappeared in the last century, but it has had an essential impact both ecologically and on the landscape, as well as on the economy, on the land and on the identity of Venice and its citizens. The “path of whales”, which you can still visit today, follows the military walkway of the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo and extends beyond the city walls for about half a mile. 

Besides the historical- archaeological and environmental importance, the Lazzaretto Nuovo also acts as a deposit for the archaeological heritage of the State. In fact, the structure hosts with no charge all the finds of thousands of archaeological researches, thanks to the agreement that occurs between the associations Ekor Club, Archeoclub of Venice and the Ministry of Culture. 

“Another not widely known gem of the island - concludes Giorgia Fazzini- is having one of the first systems of phyto-purification of Italy, a technology that allows purification of the wastewater, supporting a low environmental impact”. 

The Lazzaretto Nuovo is an island which demonstrates not just the great intuitive mindset of the Venetians, but also the true beauty of the ecosystem that is enclosed in the lagoon which has made Venice a unique place in the whole world and that, still today, we can admire in this place that preserves, with the finest care, its origins.