By Marina Inì, The University of Manchester
Many lazarettos are close and have too much the aspect of prisons, and I have often heard captains in the Levant trade say, that the spirits of their passengers sink at the prospect of being confined in them.
The English prison reformer and philanthropist John Howard summarised in the few lines above expectations and the emotions associated with the experience of quarantine stations (lazarettos or lazzaretti as they are known in Italian sources) in the eighteenth-century Mediterranean. While Howard visited many lazzaretti and was also quarantined in the quarantine stations of Venice, his treatise, An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe (1789), did not include many references to passengers’ experience of quarantine. The excerpt above, while short, gives an interesting insight into how emotions could be influenced by the expectations and ideas associated with quarantine. While writing my PhD dissertation, I wondered if the experience of the lazzaretti could have been influenced by the preconceived ideas and widespread opinions associated with quarantine and the architecture of quarantine. That is, if quarantine had a negative connotation because passengers expected to experience specific feelings once in isolation and if this was always the case. This idea was also greatly influenced by my own experience of quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic. I found myself thinking that my own brief experience of quarantine and isolation in my college en-suite room in Cambridge could have been influenced by my own anxieties and expectations. Could I have had a different experience if I had changed my outlook and embraced the brief time in isolation? Indeed, looking back, I remember that the experience had also some positive moments.
Early modern quarantine stations were surely different from my own college room. Established in several states of the Italian peninsula, the Venetian mainland and territories in the Adriatic and Ionian seas, Malta and France, lazzaretti were used to quarantine travellers, merchants and goods coming from the Ottoman Empire and regions occasionally hit by plague outbreaks. They were vast complexes usually in key trading ports and trading hubs and provided the vast majority of space for the disinfection goods while also providing accommodation for passengers who could also decide to spend the quarantine onboard their ships (a common choice for sailors as this reduced the costs).
As the architectural form of lazzaretti was dictated by the need for isolation from the outside and compartmentalisation on the inside, they share many features in common with military architecture and prisons as reminded by Howard: usually built in an isolated location, often surrounded by water, they displayed high walls, few openings and towers (see Figure 1 above).
Inside, the functional division of the different sectors promoted separated paths for staff and the possibility to separate people and goods to avoid mixing different quarantine goods (see Figure 2 above). Space for passengers was usually provided in the accommodation quarters where small groups of people could be hosted in separate housing units, usually on two levels furnished also with a fireplace and latrines (see Figure 3 below). Passengers usually had access to some delimited space in a common courtyard. The areas in which passengers could walk were usually limited to avoid spreading the contagion. Their stay, which could amount to three days to 40 days (usually 15 was the average), was dictated by strict rules and by a routine made of religious services (mostly Catholic rites and always Christian) and the distribution of food. Passengers did not have much choice when it came to activities to pass the time. The regulations of several lazzaretti forbade any kind of distraction that might favour the mingling of different quarantine groups, such as ball games, dice and card games, dances, and eating together. At night, passengers were locked inside their accommodation until after sunrise, when the doors reopened.
It is not surprising that, as Howard wrote, ‘the spirits of passengers sink’ when faced with the idea of isolation inside lazzaretti. However, this conclusion is supported by very few contemporary descriptions as it is not easy to find direct accounts of passengers’ experiences in quarantine. A useful insight is provided by the graffiti left in the Lazzaretto of San Pancrazio in Verona. Partially destroyed at the end of the Second World War, some of the inscriptions have been luckily copied. The writings have different tones but in general, it seems that passengers used the lazzaretto’s wall to express what we see today as frustration:
If time passes you cannot buy it back
nor there is anything more precious than time.
Why, then, gentlemen, so much time
do you let us stay here, losing time?
Maybe one day you won’t have time
to think too about the lost time.
Thus, if you got here at such a good time
Give us freedom, by now it’s time.
And again, in a less polite manner:
Curse this lazzaretto
and the screwed cuckold who put it here
and cursed a hundred times
the thief that guided us inside.
However, there is one that stands out as it reports a different experience:
A thought surprises me, and I am sure
that the mind of few will take it in
the lazzaretto seems a suspected place
if it is too hard for freedom.
But blessed the heaven that it is our good fate
to lead us to love this retreat
that boasts of cleansing the body with ease.
This anonymous passenger felt different in quarantine which surprised them. The graffito, on one hand, confirms Howard’s comment: passengers’ anticipation of being confined in the lazzaretto was generally the same and this passenger did not expect to experience quarantine in any other way. On the other hand, this source confirms that indeed, the passenger lovedthe time in quarantine, meaning that a different experience of quarantine from that portrayed by Howard was possible. While we do not know if this passenger’s experience was shared by others, it surely presents a different picture from that painted by Howard and the one we can discern by analysing the secluded architecture of lazzaretti. The survival of the content of this graffito reminds us that doing history, and especially the history of emotions, relies on those few sources that survived and that historians must be careful with generalisations. The fact that this rare writing survived brings to light a deeper understanding of past emotions and experiences, reminding us that both emotions and history have many nuances.
Marina Inì is an early modern cultural historian interested in history of medicine and urban history of the early modern Mediterranean. She holds a BA in Beni Culturali from the Università degli Studi di Trento, an MSc in Architectural History and Theory (University of Edinburgh), and a PhD in History (University of Cambridge). As of January 2022, she is Lecturer in Early Modern History at The University of Manchester. Her PhD has analysed the study of quarantine centres and has focused on the impact of quarantine in shaping the socio-cultural history of the shared Mediterranean area. On the subject, her article ‘Materiality, Quarantine and Contagion in the Early Modern Mediterranean’ was published in Social History of Medicine (2021) and her chapter on the architecture of quarantine centres is forthcoming for the collection Public Health in the Early Modern City in Europe, edited by Mohammad Gharipour and Anatole Tchikine (Palgrave Macmillan).
This post is part of the ‘Building with Feeling’ series of blog posts.
 John Howard, An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe; with Various Papers Relative to the Plague: Together with Further Observations on Some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals; and Additional Remarks on the Present State of Those in Great Britain and Ireland (Warrington: printed by William Eyres, and sold by T. Cadell, 1789), 23.
 ‘Se tempo passa più non si riacquista/né vi è cosa preciosa più del tempo./ Perché dunque, signori, tanto tempo/ ne fate star qui dentro a perder tempo?/ Forse che un giorno non avrete tempo/ di pensare pur voi al perso tempo./ Dunque, se gionti siete in sì bel tempo/ Dateci libertà, che ormai n’è tempo’ (1612); quoted in Pellegrini, ‘Il Lazzaretto Di Verona’, 181.
 ‘Sia maledetto questo lazzaretto/ e quel becho fotù che lo piantò,/ e sia per cento volte maledetto/ quel ladron che dentro ci portò.’ Ibid.
 ‘Un pensiero mi sorprende, e sono sicuro/ che nel genio di pochi avrà ricetto/ il Lazzaretto par luogo sospetto/ se per la libertade è troppo duro (…) Ma viva il ciel chè nostra bella sorte/ci conduce ad amar questo ritiro/ che il corpo vanta di pulir con aggio’ (1739); Ibid.