A Brief History of Quarantine


Quarantine is a potent word. It’s one
we’ve all had to get used to in the recent crisis. The idea of quarantine can
be terrifying but what exactly is it and how can it help. I’m in Venice which like
many cities at the moment is silent and empty. But this isn’t La Serenissima’s first experience with quarantine. The very concept of the idea of isolating
people to prevent the spread of disease was developed right here about 700 years ago In 1347 Venice was the wealthiest
trading nation in the Western world. Silks, spices and slaves were brought
here along the Silk Road from China from Persia and from the ports of the
Mediterranean. At its height the Venetian Republic controlled territories which stretched from Brescia in the north of Italy to the shores of the Bosphorus. Venice was wealthy enough to afford mercenary armies to control her territories but there was one enemy against which even Venice couldn’t protect herself: Plague. Between 1347 and 1359 Europe was in the grip of the pandemic known as the Black Death. Between 30 and 60 percent of the
population lost their lives. This document from the archives of the city of Ragusa explains how the Venetians decided to protect themselves. Their
solution to this deadly disease which respected no borders? Quarantine. The word quarantine comes from ‘quaranta’,
the Italian for 40. This is the number of
days of which all ships their cruise and cargoes were required by law to remain
isolation on small islands in the Venetian Lagoon until they could be
certified as being free of disease. The Venetian Lagoon is full of islands. Two of them, the Lazzaretto Vecchio in the south and the Lazzaretto Nuovo in the
North were designated quarantine locations, the former for prevention, the
latter for the treatment of anyone who was infected. By 1468, the Lazzaretto Nuovo
was the world’s most sophisticated quarantine station. A century later
according to the Italian chronicler Sansovino, it had so many rooms that it had
the appearance of a castle. The number of chimneys attached to the Lazzaretto shows the importance of thorough disinfection.
Ships cargoes and their unfortunate crews were fumigated with a mixture of
herbs which include juniper and rosemary. The practice of quarantine was painful
to endure but it kept people safe. The Lazzaretto contains evidence of
how sailors and merchants from Cyprus, Istanbul, Egypt and the Peloponnese
passed their time during their enforced isolation. The incarcerated men painted
on the walls, made music, played football, and organized gambling while they waited to be cleared. Venice’s strict quarantine rules became one of the principle foundations of the city’s enduring political and commercial success.
It’s even referred to in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – which is set in Verona – at the time part of the Venetian territories. “The searchers of the town, suspecting that we both were in a house where the infectious pestilence did reign, sealed
up the doors and would not let us forth.” Venice’s policy was not a hundred
percent foolproof. The Church of the Redentore, the Redeemer, was built to celebrate the delivery of the city from an outbreak of plague in the 16th century. Venetians still celebrate the Feast of the Redentore in July every year when a bridge is built across the Giudecca Canal to allow people to pass over and give thanks. Yet still, thanks in part to quarantine, the Venetian Republic survived to become the longest-lasting empire the world has ever known. Only in the 18th century were the Lazzarettos abandoned; around the same time Britain introduced its own first quarantine policy in 1710. Quarantine is a frightening prospect. Being cut off, alienated and lonely are universal terrors shared by everyone. Why should we isolate ourselves if we believe ourselves to be
healthy? The answer is quarantine, the practice which began here in Venice and which will help us all to survive.

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