Dubrovnik, the Birthplace of the Quarantine
In the medieval era, plague was a common occurrence. The Black Death epidemic, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, wiped out more than one third of the population. With no known cause and no known cure, this devastating disease and its consequences were largely attributed to God’s wreath.
Back then it was observed that diseases like leprosy and plague spread by healthy and sick people being in close contact, or by touching infected personal artefacts, clothes or furniture. Those with symptoms were sequestered from those without symptoms. The people in isolation lived much like we did this past year: locked down and socially distant in their homes.
In the south of the Adriatic coast, the city of Ragusa, as present-day Dubrovnik was known at the time, was no stranger to outbreaks. Plague had killed a quarter of its population in the 12th century; some 150 years later, only a quarter survived. For a port and trading hub that Dubrovnik was back then, it was necessary to reduce the risks posed by mercantile traffic. It was the backbone of its economy; life had to go on.
Back in 1377, as a way of preventing outbreaks and protecting its inhabitants, the Great Council of Dubrovnik decided to require trentina – 30 days of isolation – for ships, crews and travellers arriving from pestiferous areas, or those presumed to be so. Ships were required to provide a patente – a certificate issued in their harbour of departure, stipulating the health conditions in the region. Those coming from places which had been free of epidemics for longer than a few weeks were granted access to the port; all others had to decontaminate on the desolate islands of Mrkan and Bobara by the small town of Cavtat. Dubrovnik so became the first Mediterranean port to separate potentially contagious people and merchandise from the heathy population.
When Dubrovnik claimed suzerainty to the Ottomans in the 15th century and established favourable trading conditions within the Empire, its trade with the hinterland increased. This spotlighted the need for an organised quarantine space not only for those coming by sea, but also by land. This gave birth to Lazareti, erected in 1642 at the intersection of the mainland and naval trade routes: the Ploče gate, the eastern entrance to the walled old town of Dubrovnik.
An impressive stone complex of ten rectangular storage halls roofed with red tiles, grouped by two around five open courtyards, Lazareti are a sight to behold from the sea and land. Initially, travellers were to quarantine in small houses on the plateau in front of the complex, but their numbers quickly outgrew the accommodation available, so an upper gallery was added in the halls for people to sleep. The quarantine now lasted for forty days, living up to its name – quaranta means forty in Italian.
With so many different people sharing the complex, Lazareti became a hubbub of life. Merchandise was aired and washed here, decontaminated with vinegar. Letters were steamed with boiling vinegar and coins soaked in it. A doctor checked in to monitor the health of those quarantined. At the first occurrence of symptoms, travellers were removed and taken to isolation. The guards kept order, or at least tried to; they weren’t always successful in preventing quarrels and fights. Even food and wine deliveries were made to quarantined travellers from town – at their own cost, of course.
Lazareti remained a public health centre well into the 1800s. After losing their original function, they were left to their own demise for over a century. Recently restored, today they are the best-preserved quarantine building on this side of the Mediterranean. Dubbed ‘the creative district of Dubrovnik’, Lazareti today remain a splendid venue where you can take in folk dance performances and see the work of local cultural initiatives. And you can take a moment to appreciate that quarantine no longer lasts for forty days.