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13. A fumigated letter from the Lazzaretto in Verona

By Marina Inì (@MarinaIni_)

During my research trip in Verona, I came across a striking document among the letters from the Lazzaretto in Verona to the Chancellor of the Health Office of the city.[1] The letter, written in 1738, was not important for its content, but rather for its aspect: the colour of the paper was brownish yellow with a lighter part in the middle, which seemed to be the imprint of an object. This made me question why there were only a few letters with these marks. The reason, it turns out, lies in the complexity of the protocols of the lazzaretto and in the Early Modern theory of contagion.

The lazzaretto was a place where travellers and their belongings, including items of trade, were quarantined when crossing the borders of Venetian territory. Seclusion from the outside was extremely important, however, communication with the Health Office in the city also remained vital. This was done in writing by the Chief Keeper and the Guardians of the lazzaretto. As opposed to the Chief Keeper, Guardians lived inside the quarantined areas of the lazzaretto, as their role was to control the people inside the building.

Thus, the guardians were those most at risk of contracting the disease and our letter is indeed signed by two of the Guardians, Benini and Cirighin. As it was believed that the seeds of the plague could also be carried by objects, their letter could spread the disease into the city. To avoid contagion, the letters were usually fumigated and disinfected with scented smoke. Thus, the marks shown on this letter are an imprint of the tongs used to hold the letter above the fire during this procedure!

Image: Archivio di Stato di Verona, Ufficio di Sanità, b. 19, 1 november 1738. By kind permission of the Archivio di Stato in Verona.

References:

[1] Archivio di Stato di Verona, Ufficio di Sanità, b. 19

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