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D - 26: Il Lazzaretto di Varignano

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Two days into this summer’s sailing, we round the last cliff of Cinque Terre. To our left the small town of Porto Venere comes into view, dominated by the castle of the famous Doria family. In front of us, the Bay of La Spezia opens. It is a major Italian naval base. The eastern part of the bay though has been converted to leisure boating and is full of sailboats and motor yachts.

Porto Venere with the impressive Doria Castle

Continuing north into the bay we come across three military fortresses which once housed naval artillery. La Spezia became a naval base in 1861 but some of the hills were fortified far earlier to deny the Ottoman Fleet anchorage. The Santa Maria Fort was built in 1569, a few years after Andrea Doria died. It is a classical star-shaped Renaissance fort.

Italian COMSUBIN Base Teseo Tesei – the Italian Navy Seals

What caught my eye just after the Santa Maria Fort, however, was the COMSUBIN base (“Comando Reggruppamento Subacqui e Incursori = Group Command Divers & Raiders). Not because my old friend Victor was a US Navy Seal but because the place was labelled “Lazzaretto” on one of the old maps I consulted. How did a naval base get such a name? My curiosity was piqued

“Lazaretto” between Fortezza S. Maria and Fortezza S. Andrea


Turns out the place actually was a Lazarette – one of the places ships from abroad had to quarantine for 40 days before being allowed into a harbour. It was not the harbour of La Spezia which was to be protected, it was Genoa and all of Liguria. “Lazzaretto” was the place where every ship that planned to sail to any place in the Republic of Genoa had to stop first.

1347 was the year of the big Black Death in Genoa. But it was not the only time the Bubonic Plague struck. Pandemics often reoccur. Were it not for human complacency – we just went unprepared through the Wuhan pandemic – these events would be less devastating. Genoa suffered from Bubonic Plague outbreaks three more times, 1477-1479, 1629-31 and 1656-57. As we just experienced, borders close quickly in such times. Then business collapses. Pandemics were always severe, both in loss of lives and loss of revenues. A few hundred years earlier, starvation often followed. A town cut off from its surroundings with no income cannot survive. Luckily, we solved the starvation part! If you are interested in the history of pandemics, I recommend George Kohn’s Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present.

The plague of 1656-57 hit Genoa particularly hard. All Italian States cut their ties with the Ligurian capital. This time, insulation worked. Florence could keep the plague away from its territory. Not so Genoa - it learnt a lesson the hard way. Even though the Republic had built a quarantine station in Foce on the untamed Bisagno river to the east of the town walls, the disease jumped the confines and spilt into the town proper. The site was too close, impossible to control since the ships could not safely anchor. The price for this failure was high. Genoa remained isolated for almost two years.

Lazzaretto La Foce just east of Genoa

The Genovese Senate decided urgently in 1656 that a new Lazzaretto, much further way, had to be built. One where ships could harbor without having to land. Varignano, the small peninsula between the two Fortresses Santa Maria and Santa Andrea was quickly identified as the ideal place. The soldiers of the forts could keep an eye on the Lazzaretto and the quarantined ships around it. If necessary, they could enforce the quarantine with their guns. It goes without saying that nobody in La Spezia and Porto Venere liked the plan. The local opposition was vocal and able to delay the building for almost 50 years. But by 1724 it was opened.

Plans of the New Quarantine Station – Lazzaretto di Varignano


The new building was spacious and airy, following the reasoning that bad odours were responsible for the spreading of diseases. What better than fighting them with fresh air and lots of sunshine. Microbiology had not arrived yet. The Lazarette’s architecture reminds me of the Dome des Invalides in Paris which was built around the same time.

We talked in an earlier blog how Genoa withered after it was subject to the French continental blockade. No ships arrived any longer. The Lazarette in Varignano thus became empty and had no further use. The building was handed over to the Ministry of Defense in 1808 and still belongs to it. Albeit to the Italian now and not the French any longer. After three hundred years it was recently opened to the public for the first time. But the opening hours are not regular and I am not sure whether or when we can visit. We have to play it by the ear.

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