As Death in Venice readers will recall, Venice was continuously haunted by disease, especially after the Black Death halved the population in 1348. By the mid 15th century, the ill or suspected ill were sent to the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, while this island, the 'New Lazzaretto', became the place where thousands of ships' crews and passengers at a time would spend 40 days after sailing into the lagoon, lodged in a hundred rooms (all en-suite with their own kitchens, a great innovation for the day) with doctors constantly doing the rounds, examining them for signs of any infectous disease that would send them to the dread Lazzarretto Veccchio. Apparently the food was good, and many looked upon their stay at Lazzaretto Novo as a chance to rest and relax after the trials at sea.
Here too all suspect cargo, all the fabrics and spices coming into the city, were quarantined and fumigated, inside the enormous Tezon Grande warehouse, stretching over 100m long —least known of the wonders of Venice, and still bearing centuries-old graffiti of stuck passengers and porters.
Originally the island had no greenery and was entirely paved with bricks— trees or plants were thought to spread germs. Over the course of the 1700s, however, it was slowly abandoned, and became part of Venice's military defences under the Austrians, a role continued by the Italian military until 1975. Abandoned since then, it has returned to nature and become an archaeological site, excavated by Gerolamo Fazzini.
During outbreaks of plague in Venice, however, thousands of sufferers were brought here and put in temporary houses, and as on Lazzaretto Vecchio, mass graves were discovered. In one, archaeologists found the skull of an elderly woman with brick wedged into her mouth, which some believe may be evidence that the Venetians, like some northern Europeans, believed in 'Shroud Eaters' (a kind of zombie that makes horrible chewing noises as it eats bodies, and who causes death from a distance). One of the ways to stop a Shroud Eater was to jam a brick in the mouth of a suspect corpse. Whether that was the case here, no one will ever know.
Image by Regione Veneto