Venice is normally a crowded place, and that is how most people know it. What most people don’t realise, however, is that important elements of Venice and its history are actually outside the city, in the surrounding lagoon.
Boat tours in traditional Venetian boats or, for the more adventurous, in kayak opens up a multitude of possibilities for new discoveries.
One such gem of the Venetian lagoon is the Lazzaretto Nuovo, immersed in the marshes just north of the city.
Lazzaretto Nuovo is where the Venetians invented quarantine in the late 1400s.
The great plague epidemics of the 1300s devastated the city of Venice, and left behind a severely frayed social fabric. The Venetians realised that the only protection was in isolating the sick, and preventing the decease from spreading.
Consequently, they created a system of safeguards, to keep the plague at bay. These included isolation of the sick, forced quarantine of those deemed at risk, and disinfecting of goods and ships.
The quarantine and disinfection station was on Lazzaretto Nuovo.
The precautions were very efficient, and they kept Venice mostly safe from the bubonic plague for centuries. As other cities and states saw what the Venetians did, they copied it. This is why there are lazzaretti buildings in a great many harbour cities around the Mediterranean.
Experience taught the Venetians that about forty days in isolation were sufficient to ascertain if a person carried the contagion of the black plague. Forty of something in Venetian (and Italian) is a ‘quarantina’, hence the word ‘quarantine’.
Lazzaretto Nuovo was in a state of total disrepair some forty years ago, but with a huge effort many volunteers have saved the island and it is now a museum with guided tours in several languages.
The island of Poveglia, about 8km south of Venice, is another of the ancient Venetian plague islands. Poveglia, like most other lagoon island, boasts of a long history going back to late antiquity.
In the Middle Ages, Poveglia was the most important town in the southern lagoon. However, during the War of Chioggia 1378-81 the retreating enemy razed the town to the ground. The evacuated residents never returned.
For centuries after the uninhabited island was mostly a shipyard for emergency repairs. In the 1780s, however, Poveglia became the Lazzaretto Nuovissimo. The Lazzaretto Nuovo was no longer fit for purpose after three centuries of service, and scheduled for demolition.
The plague was a diminishing concern in the 1800s. Gradually the facility on Poveglia morphed into first a Navy hospital, and later, in the 1930s, it became a civilian hospital for respiratory deceases, mostly tuberculosis.
It was a state of the art hospital for its time, but it weren’t to last long. Around Christmas of 1969 salt water polluted the island’s wells, and without a plentiful water supply the hospital couldn’t function. All patients were evacuated in haste to other hospitals in the vicinity, temporarily so everything was left behind as it was, but the hospital never reopened.
Fifty years later, the island is now an overgrown ruin. Collapsing buildings, caved in roofs, and bits of vandalised hospital furniture, equipment and fittings litter the place.
You can visit Poveglia in a rented boat, with or without a guide.
The fate of these two islands is all to common, unfortunately. Much of the cultural and historical heritage of Venice is scattered around the lagoon, but it is often abandoned and neglected.
About René Seindal
René Seindal is a Danish historian, guide and photographer. He lives in Venice since 2010, with his Venetian wife and two dogs. René never gets tired of fooling around in boats, and he has prowled the canals of Venice and most of the lagoon ever since he arrived there. He rows Venetian style in his gondola, and he’s an expert kayak coach and guide. According to his wife, he owns more boats than he should.
History Walks Venice by René Seindal
Boat rental with or without a guide at Classic Boats Venice, www.classicboatsvenice.com.
Kayak tours with a guide in the Venetian lagoon, at Venice Kayak, www.venicekayak.com.
Article published in the The Mediterranean Lifestyle magazine.