Lazzaretti - institutions connected to the plague, by Stephanie Dolezal

St. Roch and the Story of his Life

Titian, Saint Roch and the Story of his Life, 1520s, Woodcut. British Museum, London. 

The outbreak of the plague in Venice wrought havoc in the urban and social fabric of the city. The plague first arrived in Venice in 1348, then twenty-two times between 1361 and 1528, again in 1576, and most severely in 1630.[1] A widespread epidemic as destructive as the Black Death was unprecedented to Venetians, and the city was unprepared for its sudden arrival. The physical construction of Venice and its urban conditions facilitated the quick and deadly spread of the plague throughout the city. Meanwhile, underlying ideologies on morality, medicinal practices, and social status shaped the Venetian response to the outbreak of the plague in the early modern period. Lazaretti Vecchio and Nuovo emerged as the product of the convergence of these ideologies’ solution to the plague. 

The Black Death hit Europe in 1347, after it was brought in from the Black Sea by Genoese galleys.[2] The disease, more specifically the Bubonic plague, was carried by fleas on rats and transmitted to humans.[3] The Bubonic plague usually killed the infected persons within three days, after manifesting horrifying symptoms. It not only killed the infected swiftly, but it moved across Europe swiftly, wiping out approximately a third of the population in a single outbreak.[4] The disease, transported into Europe on ships, quickly and easily entered Venice—a hub of maritime trade. The water that filled the city was already contaminated from the lagoon and it soon became a facilitator of the plague through the veins of the city.[5] The humid air and close quarters allowed the disease to fester and be transmitted easily between individuals.

The unique physical construction of the city too easily facilitated transmission of the plague, and resulted in drastic response by the Venetians to maintain control over outbreaks. In 1423, Venice established the first plague hospital in the world: Lazaretto Vecchio. Established at the site of a former monastery, infected individuals (typically the poor) were transported to the Lazaretto for a quarantine for forty days. The sites former identity as a monastery is not coincidental. Much of the response to the plague was religious-based. The Lazaretti were run by a Prior and Prioress, confraternities donated to the plague hospitals and aiding of the sick, and the sick were quarantined for forty days due to biblical standards.[6] Forty days was the length of the flood in the Old Testament, the time Moses spent on the mountain, and the length of temptation of Christ in the wilderness.[7] In fact, contemporary responses to the Lazaretti even viewed them as embodiments of both Paradise and Hell.[8] Much of the Venetian response to the plague was based on religious standards and catered to religious needs.

However, the medicinal practices and institutions used to care for the sick developed to new standards in response as well. As early as 1258, the Venetian government enforced medicinal standards through the office of the Giustizia Vecchia.[9] Physicians typically followed the standards set by Avicenna, an Arabian physician, who modeled his practice on the Hippocrates’ theories on diseases. Avicenna determined that the plague derived from the corruption of the air, and as such physicians promoted isolation of the sick.[10] Additionally, this brand of medicine promoted purification of the air through perfumes and fragrant. Also at this time, Public Health Offices began to be established, in addition to the confraternities, as indication of the civic interest in public health and wellbeing.[11]

Besides the health motivations for construction the Lazaretti, the plague also posed a massive economic threat. As the disease was continually introduced to the city via foreign merchants, the spread of the plague was heavily linked with and affected commerce. Thus, Lazaretto Nuovo was constructed as a preventative site in 1468. Incoming merchants, immigrants, and visitors were quarantined along with their cargo for forty days. Patients faced one of three outcomes from this quarantine period: (1) death after the plague manifested, (2) tenative relocation to Lazaretto Vecchio to finish rehabilitation or further monitoring, (3) release into the city after being cleared by doctors. Lazaretto Nuovo became the first line of defense for the health of the city, and its success closely affected the success of the city.

Venice was ill-prepared for the arrival of the plague. The tight quarters, consistent humidity, and polluted water allowed the plague to fester and spread rapidly throughout the city. However, deep religious beliefs coupled with growing civic concerns for public health resulted in Venice’s unique and rapid response to the plague. The Lazaretti marked a harmonious convergence of modern medicinal practices, religious ideologies, and practical necessities to relatively effectively combat the plague.


Essential Bibliography:

Crawshaw, Jane L. Stevens. Plague Hospitals: Public Health for the City in Early Modern Venice. The History of Medicine in Context; Variation: History of Medicine in Context. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.
Palmer, Richard. “The Control of Plague in Venice and Northern Italy 1348-1600.” University of Kent at Canterbury, 1978.
Pullan, Brian S. Poverty and Charity: Europe, Italy, Venice, 1400-1700. Collected Studies Series; Variation: Collected Studies.Hampshire: Variorum, 1994.

[1] Brian Pullan, Crisis and Change in the Venetian Economy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Taylor & Francis, 2005), 151. This is by no means a comprehensive list of every instance that an outbreak occurred in Venice, but rather a shortened list to show its frequency and span of centuries.

[2] Richard Palmer, “The Control of Plague in Venice and Northern Italy 1348-1600” (University of Kent at Canterbury, 1978), 1.

[3] Palmer, X.

[4] Jane L. Stevens Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals: Public Health for the City in Early Modern Venice, The History of Medicine in Context; Variation: History of Medicine in Context. (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 2.

[5] Crawshaw, 1-2.

[6] Crawshaw, 7 and 15. Gauvin A. Bailey et al., eds., Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 138.

[7] Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals, 7

[8] Crawshaw, 45-54.

[9] Palmer, “The Control of Plague in Venice and Northern Italy 1348-1600,” 3-4.

[10] Palmer, 11.

[11] Palmer, 12. 

Lazzaretti - institutions connected to the plague, by Stephanie Dolezal