Did You Know about Dubrovnik’s Historical Quarantine Centre?

Did You Know about Dubrovnik’s Historical Quarantine Centre?
The historical Lazaretto of Dubrovnik was built in the 17th century, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Lazareti, outside Dubrovnik’s old city in Croatia, may not be the only old quarantine centre in Europe but it was one of the earliest and the most well planned at that

Uttara Gangopadhyay
August 19 , 2021
06 Min Read

Located in southern Croatia, Dubrovnik is a popular tourist destination on the Mediterranean coast, whose natural beauty forced even a polemicist like the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw to call it ‘paradise on earth’. But little did people know that the lazaretto, right outside the walls of the old city and now renovated into a popular cultural centre, would serve as a grim reminder that the world has not seen the last of pandemics and the efficacy of quarantine centres.

As countries scrambled to commission hospitals and other buildings as quarantine centres to contain the spread of COVID-19, a walk down the corridors of medical history reveal that Dubrovnik, or Ragusa as it was known in the Middle Ages, had realised that it was important to keep visitors from foreign lands, especially traders, separate from the resident population for a fixed period, to prevent the spread of contagious diseases such as leprosy, plague or cholera. Ragusa, a key port city, used to receive a lot of merchant ships from across the world. Traders with goods from the Ottoman Empire arrived via the caravan road to the eastern suburb of Ploce.

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A post shared by DavorDjopar (@davor_djopar) on Jul 13, 2019 at 2:42am PDT

Ana Bakija-Konsuo in the monograph titled ‘Lazaretto in Dubrovnik’ (edited by Ante Milosevic and published by Institute for Restoration in Dubrovnik), writes that Dubrovnik was the first Mediterranean port (in 1377) which decided to keep people, animals and merchandise coming from infected areas by sea or land, separate from the healthy population. The proclamation said that to prevent the spread of the pandemic, all ships and trade caravans arriving from infected areas had to compulsorily undergo 30 days of isolation.

According to Bakija-Konsuo, after Ragusa built Europe’s first temporary plague hospital on the island of Mljet, quarantine facilities throughout Europe eventually became known as ‘lazarettos’. Shelters for lepers were called lazaretto after their patron saint Lazarus. Dubrovnik authorities began with open-air containment zones and went on to try various methods such as creating containment areas in nearby islands to constructing lazarettos. After a quarantine facility built in Dance Bay, outside the city walls, proved inadequate, the city fathers decided to build a larger one. The lazaretto at Ploce, on the eastern gate of the walled city, was the last to be built, commissioned in 1590 and completed in 1647. Locally it is referred to as Lazaret or Lazareti. It was built at a strategic point to accommodate traders coming via the caravan routes as well as by sea.

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In the monograph, co-authors Antun Bace and Ivan Viden pointed out that ‘the quarantine (lazaretto) in old Dubrovnik was primarily an institution, not a building, even though the complex of buildings at Ploce became a synonym for it today’. According to them, the functioning of this complex has to be seen in the context of the entire surrounding area of Ploce, which consisted of ‘an entire assortment of buildings (guardhouses, horse stables, fountains, sinks for bathing livestock, houses called the Han and Cardak for accommodation of the merchants, etc.) because without them the organization of quarantine and trade would not have been possible. Located north of the Lazaretto were the ‘tabor’ where trade was conducted.

Although it is not exactly known when the lazaretto ceased to be a quarantine area, especially after Dubrovnik ceased to be a republic (following the French occupation of the city state in 1806), it was probably around 1872, said Bakija-Konsuo, citing records from the National Archives in the city.

Today, the renovated lazaretto stands as a grand complex, with several multi-storied buildings, five courtyards, arched openings, and a couple of guard houses. Organised at two levels, it can be reached by car from the public road. The complex now houses exhibition centres and clubs, and art exhibitions and concerts are held on a regular basis.

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A post shared by Lazareti (@club_lazareti) on Oct 2, 2017 at 2:24am PDT

Interestingly, the isolation practised in Europe to contain the spread of infectious disease was initially for 30 days and then changed to 40. Although there are many theories as to why it was changed to 40, the Italian word for 40quarantagave its name to the practice, quarantine.  


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