The Lazzaretto Vecchio is an island of great historical importance, located in the central lagoon of Venice, close to the Lido, on the opposite side of St Mark’s Basin. Its surface is about two and a half hectares in size, of which 8500 square meters are covered by buildings, a historical and monumental heritage of great interest.
In 1423, the island was chosen by the Senate of the Serenissima Republic to establish a hospital – the first in the world – for the treatment of plague-infected people. From the name of the island, dedicated to St. Mary of Nazareth, came the term Nazaretum and then Lazzaretto (probably because of its proximity to the nearby island settlement dedicated to St. Lazarus). To distinguish it from the other Lazzaretto which was used as place of quarantine and called Nuovo (“New”; established in 1468 on the Vigna Murada – “walled vineyard” – an island near the Lido’s harbour), the hospital island, in the following decades, was called Lazzaretto Vecchio (“Old”).
The island was progressively enlarged by reclaiming the surrounding mudflats. In these areas, recent archaeological excavations have revealed the presence of mass graves containing thousands of skeletons dated back to the plague epidemics of the XVI – XVII century. Successively the Lazzaretto Vecchio was also used as a place of quarantine and decontamination of goods.
Around the middle of 1800 it was designated as a military depot and therefore some of the oldest buildings were demolished including the church, the Romanesque bell tower, two gunpowder towers (“torresini da polvere”) dating from the fifteenth/sixteenth century and the remains of medieval structures. After the military uses, ended in 1965, the island has been used as a municipal dog pound for thirty years.
In recent years the island has undergone major interventions by the Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage. In 2008 a significant part of structural works (rebuilding of walls, roofs and banks) were completed for the purpose of creating the National Museum of Archaeology of the City and the Lagoon of Venice, where finally the extraordinary materials recovered from thousands of archaeological researches carried in the lagoon could be displayed in a philological and unified way, and where to reconstruct the evolution and transformation of the city of Venice from ancient times to today. The project was then suspended for lack of funds. Pending future funding, the island has so again risked abandonment and degradation.
Since September 2013, the Archaeological Superintendence of Veneto has implemented a memorandum of understanding for the security service, public use and minor maintenance thanks to the free contribution of the Archeoclub of Venice, the national local branch of the Archeoclub of Italy and registered in the Registry of Volunteer Organisations of the Veneto Region. The Archeoclub of Venice has already been operative for decades in the Lazzaretto Nuovo island with educational summer camps and the supervision of the depot of the archaeological finds. This convention – with the public opening of the two Venetian Lazarets – has allowed a combination of great historical, cultural and monumental interest, with particular reference to the history of Healthcare. With a view to relaunching the project of the exhibition and cultural center for the city of Venice, thanks to the work of Archeoclub members, the collaboration with other associations and by word of mouth, more than three thousand people were able to visit the island between 2014 and 2015, during the six monthly special openings and visits by appointment.
With its great historical buildings, the pictorial evidences on the walls and given its great location, the Lazzaretto Vecchio is particularly impressive and worth a visit.
(In 2015 the island was part of the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, chosen as “sanctuary” by the artist and only exhibitor for the Netherlands, Herman de Vries).