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Lazzaretto Vecchio

The world's first quarantine island

Lazzaretto Vecchio from the air

Located just off the Lido, this six acre islet was initially dedicated to St Mary Nazaretum (of Nazareth), and served in the 13th-century as an asylum for poor and sick pilgrims waiting to ship out to the Holy Land.

In 1432, when memories of the Black Death were still vivid, the island became Europe’s first public hospital for contagious diseases, used to isolate victims of plague and leprosy. Even so, devastating plagues struck Venice like clockwork (in the 15th century, even the Doge, Giovanni Mocenigo, wasn't spared; other major outbreaks occurred in 1576 and 1630). Medical knowledge was such that either patients died, or didn't; the latter were sent to recover in the nearby Lazzaretto Nuovo.

Although quarantining patients was credited with sparing lives in Venice, conditions were still appalling. In 1576, when up to 500 were buried every day, Venetian chronicler Rocco Benedetti wrote:

It looked like hell ... The sick lay three or four in a bed. Workers collected the dead and threw them in the graves all day without a break. Often the dying ones and the ones too sick to move or talk were taken for dead and thrown on the piled corpses.

In time ‘Nazaretum’ was corrupted to lazaret or ‘Lazzaretto’ – the name given to all such hospitals and quarantine islands in Europe.

In the 20th century the island became a military garrison, and then a home for stray dogs. In 2004, when work began on a planned (and still unopened) museum on the island, diggers began to find bodies of plague victims. And more bodies. The skeletons have been taken to Lazzaretto Nuovo, with plans to make them available for researchers into medical conditions in Italy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The island, appropriately enough, was used as the base for vampire Klaus Kinski in the film Vampire in Venice (1986).

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Hours: In recent years the Lazzaretto has been open two or three times a year; check the (Italian) website


Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Chris 73, Wikimedia Commons