There are many small islands in the Venetian lagoon, once home to convents, hospitals and communities. But these places have now been largely abandoned for a variety of reasons (from the Napoleonic suppressions of religious orders to military ease- ments and subsequent decommissioning) and many are seriously dilapidated. They once had very precise functions, though, and were connected to Venice’s city centre by navigable channels along which the Serenissima’s trade was conducted, heading to- wards the Adriatic routes or the river routes of the interior. They had guest accommodation for stopovers, and in adverse weather conditions acted as shelters with cavane (refuges) for the boats, which at the time were rowed.
These islands made up the vast territory of a single great city and were the site of many economic activities: from salt works to various kinds of production and cultivation, along with fishing, milling and many industrial activities. Some of the islands were also used for health purposes.
A sea port, international emporium and epicentre of an econ- omy based on trade between europe and the east, in the middle ages Venice was the arrival point of the Mediterranean routes and others from all over the then known world. But along with precious eastern products, the ships also brought unknown and incurable diseases to the lagoon, which prompted Venice to im- plement special defences. In 1423 a place to isolate those ill with plague was set up (the first hospital of this kind) on an island near Lido, at the time with a convent named Santa Maria di Nazaret (which gave the name ‘nazaretum’ and then ‘lazzaretto’).
A second lazzaretto, called ‘Novo’ (New) was founded in 1468 on the opposite side of the city for observation and the prevention of contagion. This island has a strange and interest- ing history. ‘Suspected’ ships and crews, generally arriving from the east, had to stay there in isolation for forty days (giving the term quarantena / quarantine). The goods were subject to es- purgo (sboro / purging), that is, they were disinfected. Different procedures were adopted according to the type of material (silk, cotton, wool, carpets, fabrics, hides, furs etc.): from exposure to air, the smoke of aromatic substances (juniper, rosemary), vin- egar, boiling water and salt water.
Original writings and drawings dating from between the end of the 16th century and the start of the 17th still adorn the walls of the 16th-century Tezon Grande, the main building on the Lazzaretto Novo, which has recently been completely re- stored by the Ministry of Culture. They were left by guards, merchants and bastazi (porters) and comprise a very interest- ing historical-epigraphic ‘corpus’. There are many trade marks, travel stories and drawings of ships, galleys and galleons that had arrived from Constantinople/Byzantium, Napole de Ro- mania (Nauplia), Cyprus and Alexandria, along with dates, symbols, letters, names, decorations, coats of arms and reli- gious, esoteric and mysterious signs. Along with the archaeo- logical finds displayed in cabinets from the excavations still being carried out on the island (ceramics, coins, glass, metallic and bone objects for personal use), they document the unique life that was lived on this kind of ante litteram ellis Island.
A lay Priore, an executive of the health Magistracy (a spe- cial office charged with organising the general Venice health system), was appointed for four years to ensure the proper op- eration of the Lazzaretto Novo. Defined as the custode geloso, or ‘careful custodian’ of the island, the Priore had to record the movements of goods and passengers, wills and inventories in special registers. he had to supervise the operations of purging the goods, personally carry out the fumigation of letters with crivello e foghèra, impound arms and prevent hubbub, gambling or fishing in the surrounding channels. he was also responsible for supplying the wells, for ensuring that the vivandieri prof- fered the food in baskets attached to poles of three or four ells in length and for signing the Fedi di sanità, or health clearance certificates after the periods of quarantena, making particularly sure that the passengers paid the costs of any damages to the housing before they left. We know that he wore a blue cape, black trousers, red stockings, a wide brimmed hat and went around armed. he had to keep all the keys and lock the doors at dawn and sunset. If anyone fell ill, he had to immediately iso- late him from the others and have him taken to the other Laz- zaretto, called ‘Vecchio’ (Old), which was a proper hospital. In periods of plague, he had to supervise the work of doctors, priests, bastasi and pizegamorti (gravediggers). he was assisted by a doctor, the classical, emblematic figure of the plague, with his mask in the form of a long, hooked beak, hat, glasses, stick and large black gown. Such clothing was actually all designed to protect him from possible infection, which was thought to be conveyed by air. The mask was a kind of filter containing disin- fectant aromatic herbs: rosemary, garlic and juniper.
The Lazzaretto Nuovo is one of the few minor islands in the lagoon to have had a positive fate. It was decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in 1975 and, although there was initially a period of abandon during which serious acts of vandalism occurred, the work of some voluntary associa- tions managed to stop this and ensure that this considerable heritage was protected, while also fostering a general salvage project with important restorations works.
The island is now a very interesting historical-monumental and natural area, surrounded as it is by barene, in the northern Venice lagoon. It can be visited by public transport on Saturdays and Sundays from April to October, at other times by reservation.
Gerolamo Fazzini is an Italian archaeologist and president of the Ekos Club NPO, concessionaire of Lazzaretto Nuovo island