The Lazzaretto Vecchio is an island located in the central part of the Venice Laguna, very close to the Lido and opposite the San Marco basin. It has a surface area of about two and a half hectares, of which 8,500 m2 are built. It also has a very interesting historical and monumental legacy: since 2000 it has been designated the seat of the future National Archeological Museum of the Venice Laguna.
-The first lazzaretto in the world-
In 1423 the Senate of the Republic of Venice decided to create – for the first time anywhere – an ‘ospitale’ to isolate those infected with the plague. The name of the island, Santa Maria of Nazareth, gave rise to the term “Nazaretum”, which later became “Lazzaretto”. To distinguish it from the other Lazzaretto, known as the Lazzaretto “Novo” (built beginning in 1468 on another island near the port on the Lido), which served as a quarantine station, it was referred to as the Lazzaretto Vecchio, as it is still called today. Over the centuries, the island was enlarged several times, and dry land reclaimed from the shallow waters around it. In this area, archeological digs have revealed the presence of mass burial sites containing thousands of bodies, the victims of several waves of the black death in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In the mid-eighteen hundreds, the ‘ospitale’ was converted into a military armory, and some older buildings were demolished: the church, with its Romanic bell tower, the two gunpowder towers and the remains of the medieval structures. After it was decommissioned in 1965, for thirty years it served as the city’s dog pound.
-The museum conversion-
The new millennium brought significant new interventions on the part of the national government. Between 2004 and 2008, an initial phase of structural restoration was undertaken, with the aim of turning it into the seat of the National Archeological Museum of the Venice Laguna, which would finally provide a reconstruction of the history of the city of Venice, from ancient times to the present day, with displays featuring objects found in thousands of archeological sites around the Laguna. The project was then suspended until further funding became available, and the island again risked falling into disuse and abandonment.
In September 2013 the Veneto Region Archeological Authority (Soprintendenza Archeologica del Veneto) issued a protocol authorizing a surveillance service, public visits and small maintenance works, with the voluntary collaboration of the Venice Chapter of the Archeoclub d’Italia, which was already active on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, along with the Ekos Club association. The coordinated conversion of the two Lazzaretti Veneziani into museums would constitute a binomial of extraordinary cultural and monumental interest, providing an example for our times.
Thanks to the dedication of the volunteers and a lively buzz around the project, more than seventeen thousand people came to visit the island from 2014 to 2019, and there was much media coverage. Other things worthy of note resulting from the actions of the associations include the return of the ancient wellhead that had been stolen, an extremely rare case of the restitution of a work that had been thought lost forever, and the publication of an important study on the epigraphic writings and materials lost or transferred elsewhere.
The renewed interest of the general public and the widespread support for continued use of the asset, which is important to the city’s identity and has already received conspicuous public funding, caused the Ministry of Culture, in January 2020, to officially allocate new funds for restoration and the relaunching of the museum project (since 2017, the island has been overseen by the Veneto Region Museums Authority (first the Polo Museale del Veneto, now the Direzione Regionale Musei Veneto).
Even today, with its imposing historical buildings, artwork and unique location, the island is particularly fascinating and well worth a visit.