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Defending Venice against the Black Death

By Jo-anne van Ooijen

Coming from the steppes of Asia, the Black Death travelled along the Silk Routes to the shores of the Black Sea, where it boarded merchants’ ships to the Italian port cities. It first reached Sicily in 1347. Without any knowledge of its cause, medieval Europe was virtually defenceless. Important hubs of trade and traffic such as Venice were especially vulnerable to contamination. The first horrific epidemic of 1348 carried off an estimated third of Venice’s population. In response, the Venetian Republic adopted a series of preventive measures that evolved into a sophisticated system of early public health protection.

When the plague reached Venice in January 1348, the city council appointed a crisis committee to deal with the situation. The committee began by imposing sanitary measures such as the daily collection of the bodies of deceased and strict regulation of burials (on distant islands in the Lagoon). It also tightened security measures to maintain public order, because panic and desperation could quickly lead to riots and violence.

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All ships approaching Venice were inspected for any signs of disease or deceased. Vessels or cargo that were suspected were burned, and any dead or sick crew were taken away immediately. Later, these checks were moved to the outer edge of the Lagoon, where islands could be linked by chains, effectively closing off the Lagoon from the Adriatic, except for one controlled point of entry.

Although the cause of the plague was unknown, the Venetians were quick to realize that containment measures were the best chance of keeping outbreaks away from the densely populated city.

The first institution of a temporary lazaret was 1377 in Ragusa (present day Dubrovnik), which was part of the Venetian Republic, the Stato da mar. Although it is unknown exactly how effective this attempt to hold off contamination was, more lazarets were opened in the Venetian Lagoon and other Italian cities in the next decades.

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In the Lagoon, a small island facing the Lido was assigned as a hospital for infected patients in 1423. It came to be known as Lazzaretto Vecchio or ‘old lazzaretto’. The term ‘lazzaretto’ points to the pre-existing church of Santa Maria di Nazareth. The general term of lazaret is also connected to the biblical Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. During the peak of the recurring plague outbreaks, the island was in effect more like a prison from which the Plague sufferers had little chance of escape or survival. Lazzaretto Vecchio was an important step forwards in the Venetian health care system, illustrating the administrative solidity of the Republic even in times of calamity.

As outbreaks of the plague continued to occur, the system of prevention became more elaborate, consisting of different lines of defence. The first was an ‘early warning system’ in the form of pigeons to carry messages from far away colonies in the East and other points around the Mediterranean that could alert the city council when new contaminations were approaching.

The next level consisted of the closing of all entrances to the Lagoon except for one, which allowed for strict control and examination of all arriving ships and their crew, whether foreign or Venetian, for any signs of the plague. For a city as dependent on trade as Venice, this was a drastic measure.

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In 1468, the island of Vigna Murada was assigned as a second detainment centre, called Lazzaretto Nuovo. This islet, some four kilometres from Venice in the northeast of the Lagoon, served as a quarantine in the modern sense of the word.

If a contamination was suspected at the checkpoint at the entrance to the Lagoon, the ship would then be guided to Lazzaretto Nuovo, where ship, crew and cargo would be kept for forty days – quaranta giorni: the origin of the word ‘quarantine’. During this period, the cargo was fumigated with rosemary and juniper (herbs also used inside the doctors’ masks) and the crew was closely monitored. Although fumigation was of course not an effective method for decontamination, it may have at least chased away rodents that carried diseases.

The impressive building Tezon Grande was used for storage and can still be visited today on Lazzaretto Nuovo. Interesting inscriptions survive on its walls, testimonies of the origins and voyages of crews that stayed on the island.

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If after forty days the Plague did not manifest itself, ships would be allowed to continue to Venice proper. Otherwise, the unfortunate crew would be transferred to Lazzaretto Vecchio, the containment island for infected plague sufferers, where they would stay for the – usually very short – remainder of their lives. During the outbreak of 1485, the Magistrata alla Sanità was installed. The responsibilities of the earlier ad hoc crisis committee were absorbed in the permanent governance structure of the Republic.

The progressive approach to public health care provides an interesting insight into the administration of the Lagoon. It shows that the city of Venice ran a tight ship, also in times of crisis. Although the preventive measures could not keep the plague at bay during the following centuries, it is very probable that they did protect Venice from much, much worse.

In the 18th century, Lazzaretto Nuovo fell into disuse. Like Lazzaretto Vecchio, it was used for military functions by the Austrian and subsequent French troops, its walls fortified as part of the defence line and its buildings turned into storage rooms for ammunition and gunpowder. Today, both islands are the site of archaeological investigations and have the attention of the Italian Ministry of Culture and heritage protection organizations such as Venice in Peril.

Jo’anne van Ooijen studied Art History at Leiden University and International Law at Maastricht University. She pursued a PhD in Architectural History in Leiden, writes on medieval Mediterranean architecture, and – most of all – aims to travel to her heart’s content. You can follow her on Academia.edu.

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This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: 15th century map of Venice/em>

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