The Built Context and Map of the Lazaretti

Click here to view an interactive map of the Lazaretti

Little remains today of the original structures of Lazaretto Vecchio and Nuovo. The sites were repurposed by Napoleon at the turn of the nineteenth century into military bases, and have deteriorated significantly since. Lazaretto Nuovo, for instance, has mostly collapsed and now functions as part museum and part nature reserve.[i] But despite the sites’ current state of disrepair, from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, the lazaretti were highly structured sites that attempted to control the plague through spatial restraints. Form influenced function, and vice versa. The urban environments that were affected by the plague began to be characterized by a tension between highly segregated, distanced, and regulated spaces and a necessity to remain interconnected.

The nature of the plague forced the plague hospitals to be constructed on distant and isolated islands outside the main city. They had to be far enough to prevent the spread of the disease, but close enough to effectively transport the sick to the hospitals. The first site chosen for Lazaretto Vecchio was an island close to the Lido (fig. 2). The location was ideal from an economic stand point as well, as it far from the city proper, close to the mercantile entrance of the lagoon, and opposite Murano—perhaps as a protection against the glass industry. Additionally, as previously discussed, the island was a former monastery to Santa Maria di Nazareth.[ii] The prearranged built environment was well-suited to the Venetian practice for healing the sick.

Notably, the site contained a central church that was surrounded by small wards and warehouses. The religious nature of the built environment connected charitable confraternities in the city with the lazaretto, as well as providing a site for the ill to heal spiritually.[iii] The lazaretto then function as a site of caring for both body and soul, in the face of the plague. When patients were too ill to attend services at the church on the lazaretto, the wards would be utilized for religious congregations. The wards allowed hospital staff to more effectively treat patients, foster communities within the lazaretti, and keep watch over nefarious activities—such as theft and sexual conduct.[iv] There would often be multiple patients to a bed, and numerous beds to a ward. The interconnectedness within the lazaretti was essential for providing physical and spiritual care to patients. Additionally, the open wards allowed for air circulation—essential for ventilating out “bad air.” Beyond their inherited religious form, Lazaretto Vecchio and Nuovo were transformed to fit the needs of the hospital. They both developed tall perimeter walls about twelve feet high to represent and function in a fortress-like manner, both to confine those inside and restrict those outside.[v] Yet, they both had numerous landing stations to receive the sick and release the cured. Noticeably on the plan for Lazaretto Vecchio, there are separate docks for the warehouses, the patients, and the Prior.

The lazaretti generally followed traditional Italian hospital designs, but differed in significant ways specific to Venice and the plague. The open ward-style was typical of Italian hospitals, as seen in Santa Maria Nuova in Florence (fig. 9).[vi] General hospitals also had central churches within the compounds, as despite the rise in medicinal practices, spiritual heaing was equally important and promoted. In the aforementioned Santa Maria Nuova, small chapels were attached to individual wards, but the lazaretti in Venice only had a central church.[vii] Also notably different in the lazaretti is the fortress-like floor plan, warehouses for large quantities of goods, the separate ports, and the design of the Prior’s residences.

Finally, the sites had to dedicate living space to the Prior and Prioress who tended to the ill.[viii] As it would be highly undesirable to have the Prior become infected, certain architectural measures had to create a further miniaturized quarantine on the islands themselves. Particularly on Lazaretto Vecchio, the Prior’s living quarters were actually assigned to an even smaller island adjacent to and south of the lazaretto (fig. 2). It was divided by a small canal, but connected via a private bridge to the Prior’s gardens. The gardens provided a space of clean air to function as the Prior’s own daily disinfecting experience. This liminal space acted as a buffer between the segregation and interconnectedness. Noticeably this buffer zone was a garden which connected through the church—ideal sites for physical healing through open air circulation, and for spiritual healing respectively. In the sixteenth century, due to reportedly unruly behavior by patients, the ward windows that overlooked the Prior’s gardens had to be permanently closed.[ix] This incident marks the precarious shifting boundaries between interconnectedness for effectiveness and segregation for safety. The Prior’s house exemplifies this tension of static isolation and dynamic interconnectedness in the treatment of the plague. Healthy and sick had to be divided by the architectural space and built fabric, yet needed to be connected to treat and control the plague.

Lazaretto Nuovo exhibited many of the architectural forms of Lazaretto Vecchio, yet differed in distinct ways as a preventative site. Like Lazaretto Vecchio, Nuovo was also laid out in a square, fortress-like plan (fig. 3). These segregating walls were particularly important to keep out thieves who would attempt to steal the cargo and goods being stored on the lazaretto.[x] Ports strategically faced the entrance to the lagoon to welcome incoming ships—securing the required interconnectedness between foreigners, plague victims, and the city. Additionally, the Prior’s residence was also further segregated from the fortress-like site, as it was set outside of the traditional perimeter of Lazaretto Nuovo—although it was not a separate island as it was in Lazaretto Vecchio. Finally, the site was also centered on a church, for spiritual and physical healing. Little evidence of the interior of the church remains; it was destroyed by Napoleonic occupation. However, as Lazaretto Nuovo was largely a preventative site, and dedicated to disinfecting goods, the architecture served the materials of trade more than people’s bodies and souls. Most notable is the tezon grande, constructed in 1561 (fig. 8). It was a pillared warehouse that ran 102 meters long, and 22 meters wide. It stored the merchandise and goods of incoming merchants and patients for mass disinfection. The tezon grande had seventy archways that allowed for ventilation, and release of “bad air.”[xi] This architectural site not only differs from Lazaretto Vecchio, but emphasizes the contradictory necessity of openness and transparency on a fortress-like site of segregation.

The functionality and use of the built environment on the lazaretti was determined by the Public Health Office, which also determined the function of the city’s and outlying island’s built environment during epidemic. As previously discussed, the plague posed a massive economic threat by transmitting the plague via cargo. Incoming merchants and goods were mandated to be quarantined on Lazaretto Nuovo before entering the city proper. The seriousness of this mandate was emphasized by the physical structure of the Public Health Office itself (fig. 4). It was located opposite the Palazzo Ducale, beside Jacopo Sansovino’s building for the Mint, on the bacino. It stood as a sentry to the Grand Canal, mirrored by the Dogana, the customs house, across the bacino. These civic offices symbolically and literally guarded the economic heart of the city. Merchants and their goods would be stopped by at least one of the two sites—ensuring economic stability. Moreover, the Public Health Office’s location stood sentry with the Doge’s palace to the entrance to San Marco piazza. It symbolically projected Venice’s dominance and control over civic, religious, economic, and medicinal affairs.

As much as the Venice relied on segregation to mitigate the plague, the entire system equally relied on their interconnectivity with the city. The built environement simultaneously enforced segregation, and demanded interconnectedness. The lazaretti on two outlying islands as sites of segregation for the infected, were nonetheless reliant on the Public Health Office to regulate policies and control circulation of people and charitable within the city. The city also used its own built environement in times of crises for emergency quarantine and disinfection. Form influenced function, and vice versa. The urban environments that were affected by the plague began to be characterized by a tension between highly segregated, distanced, and regulated spaces and a necessity to remain interconnected.


[i] Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals. 5.

[ii] Crawshaw. 20.

[iii] Palmer, “The Control of Plague in Venice and Northern Italy 1348-1600.”188. See also, Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals. 15.

[iv] Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals. 66.

[v] Crawshaw. 62.

[vi] John Henderson, “Healing the Body and Saving the Soul: Hospitals in Renaissance Florence,” Renaissance Studies 15, no. 2 (2001): 188–216. 205.

[vii] Henderson. 207.

[viii] Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals. 15.

[ix] Crawshaw. 64-65.

[x] Crawshaw. 222-223

[xi] Crawshaw. 68.