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What It's Like to Tour Venice's 14th-Century Quarantine Island

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 9/18/2020 Julia Buckley
a large lawn in front of a house © Gillian Price/Alamy

“Shoot,” says Marco Paladini, our guide, to a woman holding a temperature gauge, as we file through the thick-walled entry of the Lazzaretto Nuovo. “Go on, shoot.” She lifts the device to the first in line’s forehead, and presses the trigger. There's a communal breath out as he’s waved through.

Tensions are running high because this is Venice’s "quarantine island," which reopened for guided tours starting September 12. A 14-acre island in the Venetian lagoon, roughly two miles northeast of the city center, the Lazzaretto Nuovo is where public health measures that combat epidemics were born. Quarantine, social distancing, even disinfecting our groceries—they may be new concepts to us, but the Venetians were doing it 700 years ago. 

Normally, the island would have opened in April for guided tours. This year they were thwarted by Italy’s national lockdown. Businesses across the country have gradually been reopening since May, but the volunteers from Ekos Club and Archeoclub di Venezia, which run the island for the Italian state, waited until now, when the summer crowds have dispersed and Italy’s infection rates remain relatively steady.

Suddenly, the woman with the temperature gun is shaking her head.

“Let’s move to the shade and see if it goes down,” she says to the woman who’s just failed two temperature checks. The third time around, her temperature is down, which is good news, since we all rolled in on the same boat.

The temperature gun, hand sanitizer, and surgical masks are thoroughly 21st century, of course, but the theory behind them, and our modern-day quarantine protocols, was established in Venice. Throughout the medieval period, a series of plagues ravaged Europe, and the Black Death, or bubonic plague, wiped out around a third of the continent between 1347-1359. In an unnerving parallel of today, it arrived on the continent in Italy—Sicily, to be precise—brought by a fleet of ships that had come from the Black Sea, the disease having already worked its way across Asia.

a herd of sheep grazing in a large body of water: Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo, also known as Venice's quarantine island © Courtesy Lazzaretto Nuovo Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo, also known as Venice's quarantine island

As one of Europe’s major trading centers, Venice was at high risk of contagion, and the Venetian Republic took swift action, immediately appointing public health magistrates in 1347, and later making travelers from high-risk destinations land on an island in the lagoon. This was Santa Maria di Nazareth, or Nazarethum—which became known as the Lazzaretto, or “lazarette” in English: the name for a hospital for plague victims, which was in use well into the 19th century.

That island became the Lazzaretto Vecchio, or Old Lazarette—and is not currently open to visitors (partly due to COVID-19 regulations). But as the plague stretched on, in 1468, the authorities designated another island, further away from the city, as the New Lazarette, or Lazzaretto Nuovo. Here, every ship entering the Venetian Republic would have its crew and cargo brought ashore and disinfected—either through fumigation with medicinal herbs like rosemary and juniper, or by dousing with vinegar or covering with ash. Before being allowed in the city, the crew would remain on the island for 40 days; a “quarantena,” in Venetian.

Paladini tells us this as we tour the island—first on a 40-minute nature trail around the perimeter, and then inside the walls that enclose the island, built by the Austrians when they occupied Venice and turned the Lazzaretto into an arms depot. 

On the trail, we learn about the history of the lagoon, the barene (salt marshes) on which Venice was built, and the history of the island. After its quarantine days were up, it was used as a military base until 1977, when the government handed over the running of it to locals. Despite the pandemic, they felt it important to open this year, says Archeoclub di Venezia president Gerolamo Fazzini.

“We started [the tours] later than usual, partly to recoup the money, and partly in the hope of a rebirth,” he says, standing at the gatehouse, his donations pot beside the hand sanitizer. Rebirth for the country that was hit by 2020’s pandemic so fast and so heavily? “Well, that too, but mainly for the island,” he says. “We can’t make anything else from it. There are no palazzos to turn into hotels.” Coronavirus, of course, is not the only plague facing modern Venice. Around 70 percent of the population has fled the city in the past 70 years—an exodus that locals put firmly at overtourism’s door.

Our outside loop of the island complete (it’s not remotely claustrophobic until you imagine spending 40 days there, the stench of vinegar and smoke in the air), Paladini leads us through the gatehouse—inside quarantine island itself.

Five hundred years ago, this would have been a miniature city: dozens and dozens of cottages, each housing socially distanced crews and foreign merchants. Life wasn’t bad—everyone got their own space, and even their own cooking area, to avoid cross-contamination. Doctors wearing infection-fighting masks—not our neat surgical ones, says Paladini, but those great bird-like contraptions with long beaks stuffed full of vinegar-soaked sponges and rosemary sprigs that we associate with carnival today—did the rounds, checking daily on the "guests." If anyone was showing symptoms or running a fever, they were immediately removed to the Lazzaretto Vecchio. Quarantine island was meant to be just that: quarantining to avoid infection. The idea was for everyone to leave the island alive.

Today, those houses are gone—the Austrians dismantled them to use the bricks for the perimeter wall that we just trekked around. Instead, we walk across a lush green lawn, and along a pretty avenue of mulberry trees, to the one remaining structure from its quarantine days: the enormous Tezon Grande warehouse. A vast brick building, every bit as huge as an aircraft hangar, it dominates the island and the lagoon, too—it’s the second-biggest building in Venice, after the Arsenale shipyards.

Named after the Venetian dialect for “big roof,” the Tezon Grande was the hub of the Lazzaretto. With arched, colonnaded walls ensuring a constant breeze of fresh air (they believed that stagnant air spread the plague), it was here that ships’ wares were decanted and sanitized, then stored on the rafters of that enormous roof while the crew were confined to their cottages. Having quarantined myself for 14 days earlier this year, I can imagine how they felt.

I spent my quarantine on my smartphone; but back in the 16th century, they occupied themselves with art. Inside the Tezon Grande—dark, stagnant, and not a little plaguey today, since the Austrians bricked up those airy arches—the walls are slicked in graffiti: crests and symbols for the shipping companies, proclamations painted large, and caricatures sketched by bored quarantiners.

Although this wasn’t a place where people came to die, some succumbed. Near the waterbus stop where we’d all piled off the boat is a cemetery: one half for the Christian dead, another for Muslims—another marker of Venice’s trading history.

The measures taken on the Lazzaretto Nuovo have been adapted through the ages—even Ellis Island and its West Coast equivalent, San Francisco’s Angel Island, were a type of lazarette. “Lazarettes and quarantine are both key concepts of today’s pandemic measures,” Fazzini tells me proudly as we walk toward the boat stop—and our return to civilization.

“They teach us that we must respect the health laws that we’re given, and take an equal part in the projects and measures to combat contagion," he says. "We’re part of a global community and we all have to help.” 

The Lazzaretto Nuovo is open for two-hour guided tours (in Italian) on weekends through October (10 euros, or $9.20). In other years, it’s open April to October. The vaporetto line 13 departs from Fondamente Nove and takes around 30 minutes (the Lazzaretto Nuovo stop is only on request). 

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