Early Modern Quarantine and Present Social Distancing

By Marina Inì (@MarinaIni_)

The past few months have been unexpected and distressing for everyone. As an Italian citizen originally from Lombardia, the centre of the outbreak in Italy, I strongly felt the anxiety caused by COVID-19 weeks before the declared global pandemic. As a historian, however, I have been especially puzzled and even intrigued by the news around me. My PhD dissertation examines quarantine centres, called lazzaretti, as plague prevention strategy in the eighteenth-century Mediterranean, focusing on the Venetian territories (which included Italy but also the Balkan peninsula and the Ionian Sea), Malta, different states of the Italian peninsula, and France. Suddenly, my topic has become extraordinarily relevant in the ongoing circumstances. Deep down, every historian knows that historical research, even the most specific and peculiar topic, helps to understand the present day. But never would I have imagined that my topic on early modern quarantine could resonate so much with current events, nor that I would be writing my dissertation on quarantine while preventatively isolating myself amid a global pandemic.

Quarantine of apparently healthy subjects was first adopted in 1377 in Dubrovnik. The word comes from the Italian quaranta, or “forty”, referring to the number of days of isolation, a figure that had religious and symbolic resonance but which was also chosen based on the experience of past plague epidemics. Established in the fifteenth century as plague hospitals during outbreaks, lazzaretti soon started to also be used as a preventative measure in non-plague years. Before entering cities and crossing borders, travellers, merchants, sailors and goods coming from infected or suspected places were quarantined inside vast complexes built near important trading centres and in port cities. Perfected by the Republic of Venice, a transnational system of Mediterranean lazzaretti was devised in order to allow and protect commerce with the Levant, a region that was always considered infected. The system required a highly sophisticated level of coordination through incessant correspondence between different Health Offices, the use of health passes to certify the provenance of ships and cargoes, and constant revision of shared quarantine protocols.

In researching and writing about the procedures used in lazzaretti over the past few months, I cannot help but notice the striking resemblances with the system that we have adopted since the start of the COVID-19 emergency. Both the measures undertaken in the lazzaretti and those that we are adopting today are preventative measures, targeting apparently healthy subjects. At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, travellers coming from specific countries (such as China and later Italy) were asked to isolate at home for 14 days. Similarly, in lazzaretti the provenance of cargoes and passengers was one of the key factors in determining the need and then the length of quarantine — which could vary from few days to months, with an average of 14 days. As mentioned above, the Levant and neighbouring regions were always considered dangerous but other locations were also constantly monitored for news on plague outbreaks.

Once inside the lazzaretto, strict rules on isolation and segregation were imposed. Each quarantined group of passengers was isolated from the other and no direct or indirect contact was permitted with other groups or with the staff. To enforce this, each group had a guardian who had to ensure that the prescribed distances were kept when interacting with staff or non-quarantined people (such as priests and visitors). A physician working for the Health Office in Genoa affirmed that ‘that the sphere of infection does not extend beyond five geometrical paces from [the patient’s] body.’[1] In the lazzaretto of Ancona, the regulations stated that 8 paces of distance had to be kept to avoid contagion while rods were used as measures of reference and to hand over objects (as in image 1, above).[2] This is incredibly similar to the measures of social distancing that we now have to adopt when going out for activities such as grocery shopping and exercise. The government advice is to keep at least two metres between people of different households when outside and supermarkets all over the country now show marks on the floor to help customers line up at the till at a safe distance apart (image 2, below).[3]

Image 2

The appearance of COVID-19 has also brought close attention to surfaces and potentially contaminated objects as the virus can spread through indirect contact.[4] Indeed, “wash your hands” has been a much-repeated mantra since the start of the epidemic. In lazzaretti, huge efforts were made to avoid touching objects that could potentially be infected. For instance, money used by passengers to buy food was submerged into vinegar or seawater before making the payment. Furthermore, goods were divided into those believed to be more susceptible to contagion and those considered safe. Porous surfaces, such as textiles, as opposed to smooth ones, were believed to more easily retain the seeds of the disease and were disinfected thoroughly during the quarantine. A recent study published by The New England Journal of Medicine states that COVID-19 can survive for different amounts of times on different types of surfaces such as copper, plastic, steel and cardboard.[5]

Lazzaretti are not in use anymore but the procedures adopted inside are still relevant today. How our cultures and our societies respond to events, such as the current pandemic, is deeply rooted in our past and many of our social constructs still resonate with those of the past. Quarantine is still adopted today and has been adapted by scientists to suit contemporary medical knowledge, but it is important nonetheless to remember that it has a long and interesting past.


[1] 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), 34.

[2] Archivio Comunale di Ancona, Antico Regime, II, Ufficio di Sanità, 2, f. 171 v.

[3] https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html

[5] https://www-nejm-org.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2004973?query=featured_home

Image 1: Luigi Pallavicini, detail of a fresco in Palazzo Benincasa showing the Lazzaretto, Ancona, XVIII century. Photograph by the author.

Image 2: Marking on the floor in a local Sainsbury’s supermarket. Photograph by the author.

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