Lazaret, the Original Quarantine in Split

Daniela Rogulj

March 14, 2020 – As the coronavirus craze takes over Europe, it is good to remember that Split was once one of Europe’s leading quarantine cities.

Slobodna Dalmacija writes that it all started on the Lazaret Coast, where the Tourist Palace and taxi stand sit south of the Green Market (Pazar) today. It was here, at the end of the Middle Ages, that one of the most important commercial and health buildings on the Adriatic was built – the famous Split Lazaret.

During the periods of peace between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, with interruptions during the war years, Dalmatian cities were essential import and export ports of the Venetian-Ottoman trade: business flourished in the Republic of Dubrovnik, the Turkish Neum, but the liveliest was often in Split.

The European standard was clear – large ports had lazarets (named after St. Lazarus, the patron saint of the sick), where not only the loading and unloading of goods took place, but also the disinfection in times of frequent plagues. Namely, a strict and mandatory 40 days of quarantine were put in place in order to detect and prevent possible contagion.

The city’s port, the busiest of all on the eastern Adriatic coast, lacked adequate space for these jobs. The goods were stored in the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, but the isolation of citizens from infrequently infected Eastern goods was poor.

Therefore, in the 16th century, a plan was developed to build a spacious and important lazaret for the citizens.

The draft was made by Daniel Rodriguez (Rodrigo), a Venetian Jew of Portuguese descent.

Seeing that the Turks wanted to establish its own lazaret at the mouth of the Neretva, as did the people of Dubrovnik, the Venetian Republic accepted his plan. In 1580, Rodrigo began with his own means of building a quarantine, a lazaret, and then the state continued, but under his supervision.

But everything has its price. According to art historian Dr. Dusko Keckemet, as compensation for his plan and expense, Rodrigo demanded that the Venetian Republic receive a colony of Jews exiled from Spain to Marjan, according to which its laws were much more lenient than other European countries that did not favor them.

The settled Sephardic Jews were given a part of the settlement within the walls of the Palace, an area whose name we have inherited through the informal toponym ‘Get’, and their successors over the centuries have left a large mark. The Lazaret of Split attracted abundant goods, not only from the Middle East but also from the Far East. Therefore, Split bore the prestigious title – ‘the golden ring between the East and Venice’.

The space was rebuilt several times, and relatively quickly became one of the best-equipped lazarets in Europe at the time.

Dr. Kecskemet states that it exceeded the length of the facade of Diocletian’s Palace in size.

It was about 200 meters long and about 100 meters wide.

Protective health regulations were stringent, but they did not always prevent infectious diseases. Before the quarantine was built, epidemics of “black death” were more frequent in Split, in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, but after the lazaret was built, they were less frequent. They were recorded in 1607, 1731, 1763 and last in 1784. The extent of the tragedy is evidenced by the fact that between March 29 and July 30, 1784, 1264 people died and the city had only a few thousand inhabitants at that time.

The lazaret had several courtyards with wells running sulfuric water for rinsing goods, health workers, security guards, caravan barns and warehouses for goods. It also included the church of Sv. Roko, which was affected by epidemics, especially plague, and a special room for conversations of isolated people with the outside world.

According to Professor Snjezana Perojevic from the Department of Construction Heritage at the Faculty of Civil Engineering, Architecture and Geodesy, goods suitable for the transmission of infection were subjected to a rigorous disinfection process, which was carried out in three primary ways: aeration, immersion, and boiling.

Washing was performed in water with vinegar or in the sea. The animals were also washed with vinegar water and had to go through the pools before entering the village. All textile raw materials, leather, fur, woven and knitted fabrics, carpets, bedspreads and even tobacco were ventilated.

The job of a disinfectant is also fascinating, as they had to spend the prescribed quarantine time with the goods and inspect it with their bare hands. After all, their good health was considered a guarantee that the goods were not infected.

Travelers arriving from the East had to spend forty days in quarantine.

Caravan traffic declined drastically in the nineteenth century, with the development of steamboats and the construction of the first modern roads to the hinterland, which was then bounded by the current border with BiH, then between the Austrian and Ottoman Empire.

Lazaret thus was transformed for the military, customs and financial purposes, and the wooden Veseljković theater was built in one of the courtyards.

Part of the space was later converted into city prisons where citizens were imprisoned until the capitulation of fascist Italy.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the citizens of Split intended to demolish the old lazaret and thus release a better view of the Diocletian’s Palace from the sea.

Neither citizens nor conservationists considered it a cultural monument; such status was reserved for church and residential buildings.

As Professor Perojevic pointed out in her work, the importance of the lazaret exceeded the economic benefit, which was modest for the city. Its meaning was more social, because while the lazaret was active in Split, it was where different civilizations came together. 

The first city hospital in Split was founded in 1783 by the will of the Ergovac brothers and was housed inside the Cornaro bastion.

It bore the name of St. Lazar, and was later renamed Civil Hospital. Due to significant needs, the construction of a new hospital on the outskirts of the city was sought, for which plans were made as early as 1905 but were not realized due to World War I.

With the interest of Dr. Jaksa Racic, director and then mayor, the construction of a new hospital complex at Firule began in 1931. According to scientist Livia Brisky, his first pavilion was intended to treat infectious patients.

On the hill we today call Lazarica, an infectious ward was opened in 1933.

From April 1941 data, the much larger pavilion at Firule, demolished 15 years ago to build a new maternity ward, had 62 beds and 15 cradles. As early as 1942, it was said that the infectious ward needed urgent reconstruction, and at that time, three doctors, two nurses, one analyst and six nurses worked there. On June 3, 1944, the Firule building was bombed and needed immediate rehabilitation.

The relocation of the General Hospital began in 1975 in a new complex at Firule, whose first facilities were built in 1939.

You can read more about the 16th-century Split Lazaret on TCN.

To read more about lifestyle in Croatia, follow TCN’s dedicated page.


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