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The First Quarantine

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“Liberty is not sold for all the gold in the world.” This was the motto of the Republic of Ragusa, which from 1358 to 1808 was a wealthy city-state built around maritime trade, like Venice and Genoa. Over time, Ragusa came to be known by its present name: Dubrovnik. Even for the standards of the time, this popular tourist destination at Croatia’s southern tip was small, with fewer than 10,000 people living within its walls. But its massive merchant fleet more than made up for this. With hundreds of ships at its peak, Ragusa had a greater fleet than Venice, despite having a tenth as many citizens.

Dubrovnik vista
Dubrovnik’s quarantine station is the long building running along the sea, below the harbor.

Ragusa’s leaders and diplomats have become a popular topic of study in some circles, because of their ability to negotiate the trade agreements that brought Dubrovnik independence, prosperity, and peace for centuries, even as wars raged around it. One of the Republic’s secrets was the freedoms it offered its citizens. Although aristocratic, its government was small, limited, and almost free of corruption. The Rector, the Republic’s leader, served term limits of just one month. He had barely moved into his palace before having to hand over the reins of power to his successor, and having to wait another two years before he could run for office again. 

Cavtat today — a nice place to be stuck for 40 days

Birthplace of the Quarantine

An example of Ragusa’s unusual competence was its medical policy, beginning in 1377 century, when it established the first quarantine system. Venice later coined the term “quarantena” (“forty days,”) but the idea was based off of Ragusa’s “trentino” (“thirty days,”) the length of time visitors coming from places where diseases were endemic were held in isolation. The Grand Council’s decision, announcing that foreigners and citizens alike coming from infected areas had to spend a month in the nearby town of Cavtat (at the end of a popular land route) or the uninhabited island of Mrkan, can still be found in the city’s archives. 

Rather than stay in Cavtat itself, people were kept on the islet of Bobara, in addition to the islets of Mrkan and Supetar. Food and water were brought in by boat, and modest barracks were built, which could be assembled or destroyed quickly. When these islets were filled to capacity, the scenic islets of Koločep, Lopud, and Šipan, just west of Dubrovnik, were also used. For the townspeople, Ragusa organized medical and pharmacy services, city cleaning, sewers, drinking water, garbage collection, hospitals, and other public health measures, which along with the quarantines helped the city escape some of the pandemics which hit other trading hubs. 

In 1426, the Grand Council elected its first “kacamorti,” supreme medical authorities who had broad emergency powers during epidemics. They recorded the names of everyone who fell ill, and the locations of their homes in one book, while in another they took down the relatives of the sick, and when they were sent into quarantine, the earliest known records of this type. By 1457, the Republic’s government was using these statistics to track the movement of infectious diseases across Ragusa, and within households. 

Dubrovnik's Old Town harbor
Dubrovnik’s quarantine station (behind the boats) as seen from the Old Town’s harbor.

The Lazarettos

Over the years, many other locations were used for quarantines, but in 1590, the Ragusa Senate decided to build a large lazaretto (quarantine station) complex in Ploče, near the city walls at the city’s eastern entrance, right by the Old Town’s harbor. Much as Venice brought us the word “quarantine,” it gifted us the word “lazaretto,” named for the island where a quarantine station was built. Ragusans were hesitant to let the facility be built so close to the city, so construction only began at the end of 1627. This modern facility had eight residential buildings, with five courtyards, each entered through a separate entrance, secured with bars and locks. Visitors had to stay for at least ten days, but usually stayed for a full 40 days, while guards made sure they had no contact with the outside world.

In 1784, a wall was built to cut the lazarettos off from land. By then, the lazarettos were run by the health magistrate, a group of five nobles charged with combating epidemics. This department was paid for by tariffs and customs fees, a major source of government income during that mercantilist era. As trade by land increased, the facility came to be devoted to merchants who arrived at the Republic’s terrestrial borders, while sailors were quarantined on their ships, anchored just offshore from the facility. This system was active until 1808, when the Republic was conquered by Napoleon, and became just another part of his Kingdom of Italy, although the lazarettos continued to see use for some time. The lazarettos, which can still be visited just beyond Dubrovnik’s Ploce Gate, did not just save the city’s lives and independence for centuries, but the lives of untold thousands, by spreading the concept of the quarantine, which for much of history was one of the few effective ways to control disease.

No Quarantine Required

Nowadays visitors to Dubrovnik don’t need to quarantine, and the lazarettos have been converted into a “Creative Hub”, hosting exhibitions. Why not drop in on your next vacation in Croatia?

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