Venice overcame plague with island hospital in lagoon

First in history in 1423, visits now possible online

16 April, 17:53

    Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), 'The island of Lazzaretto Vecchio' Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), 'The island of Lazzaretto Vecchio'

    (by Rosanna Codino

    VENICE - As part of the Italian culture ministry's #museichiusumuseiaperti initiative, it will be possible to visit Venice's Lazzaretto Vecchio through an online tour. The lepers' island and hospital was the first ever in history and was set up by the Doge's Republic in 1423. It now serves as a historic symbol of the human struggle against the plague.

    The island, Santa Maria di Nazaret, is at the center of the Venice lagoon opposite St Mark's basin, where in 1249 a church and hospital were run by Augustinian monks. In 1423, for the first time and on the orders of Doge Francesco Foscari, who had lost four of his eleven children to the plague, it became a place for the isolation of the sick and those suspected of being infected. This was the first move by a non-religious head of state to protect their citizens' health, whereas prior to this it had been the task of the Church through religious orders.

    The measures brought in were very similar to the ones seen today, such as isolation, since there was no effective treatment for the plague. The island was organised on very strict rules on the basis of protocol for the lodging and assistance to the ill, food supplies, clothing and the belongings of those buried on the island. This was entrusted to the prior and prioress, who were given four-year terms and could not leave the island unless they were summoned by the health magistrate and had a white star sewn onto their clothing.

    They were assisted in their management of the ill by a doctor, cleaning staff, a cook, a chaplain, undertakers, and porters: an entire community dedicated to the public health emergency. The Lazzaretto Vecchio island has for years allowed limited access to the public on guided tours and special openings.

    Between 2014 and 2019, some 17,000 people visited it with the help of volunteers.

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