Did you know that the people of Venice invented the concept of ‘quarantine’. Venice was a busy sea port, trading with the whole of the Mediterranean region. Ships arrived in the lagoon from Turkey, Egypt, Greece, North Africa, Spain and France. When a ship arrived from foreign shores and was suspected of carrying disease it was held on an island, located at the edge of the lagoon for a period of forty days.

Forty days was the period of time deemed necessary to isolate people, so that you could be sure they would not introduce disease or infection into your population. Forty in Italian is ‘quaranta‘ and from this the term ‘quarantine’ was taken. As early as the 15th century the Venetians appointed government officials to supervise the ‘quarantine’ of any groups of people or individuals showing signs of illness. These people were kept isolated from the citizens of Venice, in a deliberate strategy to limit the spread of disease.

A quarantine island was established in the lagoon at Lazaretto Vecchio in 1408. It was used as a hospital and medical isolation area for centuries. Later a second quarantine island was created at Lazaretto Nuovo. The idea of isolating sick people and thus containing the spread of disease was a success. Recently archaeologists working on Lazaretto Vecchio discovered several mass graves, they suspect there are many more waiting to be uncovered. Many of those who died there were strangers on foreign soil, they died leaving no personal record behind.

Venice’s creation of a ‘quarantine’ procedure was a necessary reaction to the plague which arrived in Venice at regular intervals over the city’s thousand year trading history. Most notably in the 1340s, 1570s and then the 1630s. The sixteenth and seventeenth century plagues both resulted in the construction of magnificent churches, built to praise God for delivering the city through such terrible ordeals.

Venice - Health guidelines from the archives 19th century
Venice – Health guidelines from the archives 19th century

Key Points:

  • Venice was an international trading city for centuries. On at least three occasions the plague arrived in the city, killing many, many members of the population.
  • As a response to disease arriving in the city – usually brought by a ship arriving from far away, Venetian authorities established a ‘Quarantine’ island at the entrance to the lagoon. Ships and their crews were held on the island until the risk of contagion had passed (generally regarded as a forty day period).
  • Many other countries copied the Venetian example.
  • New York – There were two islands in the outer harbour of New York, used as quarantine islands. These were Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island. Ships were not allowed to proceed to Ellis Island, where immigrants were processed and allowed entry in the USA until sick or contagious individuals had disembarked at one of the quarantine islands.
  • I’ve written about Venice, Health and Quarantine at: https://educated-traveller.com/2020/04/01/venice-health-quarantine-and-santa-maria-della-salute/
  • Just a few days ago the Financial Times (London) discussed Italy and the impact of the COVID-19 virus. They compared the two regions of Lombardia and Veneto regions. It makes for interesting reading: https://www.ft.com/content/9c75d47f-49ee-4613-add1-a692b97d95d3
  • The Header photo shows Dirk Bogarde, who starred in the 1971 film ‘Death in Venice’. The story is about a writer, coming to the end of his days. He takes a holiday on The Lido of Venice, whilst the city suffers an outbreak of cholera. The film was inspired by Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella.
Venice - Quarantine Island of Lazzaretto Vecchio with Lido di Venezia in background. Beyond that is the Adriatic Sea
Venice – Quarantine Island of Lazzaretto Vecchio with Lido di Venezia in background. Beyond that is the Adriatic Sea
  • Written: 8th April, 2020

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