Italy
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Milan
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Early Modern

The dreadful "Lazzaretto"

An ancient pandemic site that in the Milanese tradition, it is still a name that conveys darkness and terror
Ptolemy
27 May, 2022
Painting of the Lazzaretto of Milan
Painting of the Lazzaretto of Milan

There is a place in Milan with a very relevant story and contemporary for these times.

In Via S. Gregorio, near the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas, stands a stretch of a red brick wall, apparently meaningless and elusive to the untrained eye. However, this place stood right outside the ancient medieval walls of the city, and this unique part of the red wall belonged to the Lazzaretto of Milan.

Lazaretto of Milan in the 1704 map of Milan
Lazaretto of Milan in the 1704 map of Milan
The Lazzaretto was founded as a hospital and isolation centre for epidemic patients and, for safety reasons, was located outside the city. As a result, it played a fundamental role in 1630 CE after the spread of the Black Plague, also known as Leprosy. At the time, this disease struck and scourged the inhabitants, especially centres of high population density such as large cities and extensive suburbs. It affected all social classes, especially the working class, the most exposed.

The origin of the name

In the Italian language, the name 'Lazzaretto' can be traced back to the leper Lazarus in the Gospels or the Venetian island of St. Mary of Nazareth, also called 'Nazarethum”, from which derives the mispronunciation 'Lazzaretto'. This island, off the Venetian lagoon, was a perfect place to isolate incurable patients or those suffering from contagious diseases.

Moreover, it was the first place where people practised quarantine to prevent contagion outbreaks from ships headed to Venice’s harbour.

A literature insight

The Lazzaretto is closely linked to the famous Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, as it is one of the primary recurring references in the author's masterpiece 'I Promessi Sposi' (The Betrothed). This is a story of daring adventures between two lovers in Lombardy, Italy, during the 17th century CE. The writer, who lived about a century and a half after the setting of his novel, brilliantly describes ways of life, traditions, historical facts and scenes from everyday life, allowing us to mentally and emotionally identify with his story.

Frontispiece of the second edition of Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (1840) (Francesco Gonin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Frontispiece of the second edition of Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (1840) (Francesco Gonin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In his book, the author dedicates special attention to the Lazaretto. He tries to divulge and familiarise his readers with the terrible situation. In search of help and somewhat forced, thousands of people arrived at this sad and dangerous place at the mercy of degradation, filth and contagion.

The situation is well described in the novel, and the author communicates with brilliant examples of the population's fear, which appeal to divine salvation without shelter and medical knowledge. Between hatred, chaos, and fear, there are many cases where people hide signs of contagion to avoid falling victim to a twisted 'hunt for the sick'.

The Lazzaretto was first mentioned in "I Promessi Sposi" during Milan's famine in 1628-1629 CE. Manzoni explains the deep reasons for the famine in Chap. XII. Specifically, in 1627-1628, the Milanese territories were affected by bad weather and, above all, by failures and squandering of the war for the succession of the nearby Mantua and Monferrato. In addition, the State imposed unbearable taxes on the landowners, and the soldiers plundered fields and food reserves, which were already scarcer than usual. This was undoubtedly a facilitating background for the spread of the disease that bent the whole of Italy and Europe.

This place is an emblem of the binomial between the writer and his native city. A simple stretch of a red brick wall can hand down the memory of hardship and suffering shared by all the Milanese of the time, well-illustrated in the novel.

Today, apart from the book's narrative, we can imagine an unhealthy place riddled with disease, poverty and hardship, unfortunately, the ultimate destination for many.

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