It’s not surprising that the word quarantine originated in Venice. The concept of quarantena, meaning a duration of forty days, was exactly how long medieval Venetian authorities felt was sufficient to figure out whether or not a ship–or a person–might infect someone else with bubonic plague.

Venice is not a land mass at all, but rather a cluster of hundreds of islands. Some are connected by bridges, but many stand lonely in the Venetian lagoon. It’s these islands where Venetian authorities began to send citizens who developed the tell-tale signs of plague.

 

Lazzaretto Vecchio

The Lazzaretto Vecchio was established around 1400 on a small island off just beyond the Lido of Venice.

Lazzaretto Vecchio (from lazzarettovecchio.it)

As plague epidemics recurred over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, authorities began to send only the sick to Lazzaretto Vecchio. They sent the recovered, as well as family members of the sick, to Lazzaretto Nuovo (below).

The Lazzaretto Vecchio seemed like Hell itself. From every side there came foul odors, and indeed a stench that none could endure; groans and sighs were heard without ceasing; and at all hours clouds of smoke from the burning of corpses were seen to rise far into the air. Some who miraculously returned from that place alive reported, among other things, that at the height of that great influx of infected people there were three and four of them to a bed.

–From an account of the plague houses by the 16th-century Venetian notary Rocco Benedetti

 

Mass grave of plague victims discovered at the Lazzaretto Vecchio in 2004-2007

In recent years, archaeologists have discovered more than 1,500 skeletons stacked in the mass graves of Lazzaretto Vecchio, and estimate that there are many thousands more to be found, since as many as five hundred people per day may have perished there at the height of an outbreak.

 

Lazzaretto Nuovo

Also called Vigna Murata, originally this island housed the monastery of Santa Maria di Nazareth. In 1468, the Venetian authorities established the Lazzaretto Nuovo, or “new pest house” here to handle the large numbers of citizens who, while they did not show signs of illness, were exposed to the plague through family members.

Lazzaretto Nuovo (from lazzarettonuovo.com)

The island was also a large quarantine depot where merchant ships unloaded their goods and be treated before they went ashore. By the seventeenth century, armed boats patrolled the lagoon to stop any ship that might try to offload its cargo in Venice before being examined for signs of contagion.

If the Lazzaretto Vecchio was Hell itself, then the Lazzaretto Nuovo was Purgatory.

 

Poveglia

This island, famously available for lease in 2014, was also used briefly for plague quarantine in the last years of the Republic, 1776 to 1814. Some people refer to it as the Lazzaretto Nuovissimo (“newest plague house”). It’s one of the eeriest places in Venice!

Poveglia

 

Further Reading:

Richard John Palmer, The Control of Plague in Venice and Northern Italy, 1348-1600. Dissertation, University of Kent, 1978.

Jane L. Stevens Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals: Public Health for the City in Early Modern Venice. New York: Routledge, 2012.

M.C. Valsecchi, “Mass Plague Graves Found on Venice ‘Quarantine Island’,” National Geographic News. National Geographic Society, 2007.

Venice: A Documentary History, 1450-1630. David Chambers and Brian Pullan, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Renaissance Society of America, 2001.

 

Research is one of my favorite things about writing a book. I hope you’ll take the time to explore more of this behind-the-scenes section of my web site to learn historical tidbits related to The Painter’s Apprentice.

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