Friday, June 15, 2007

On average the Venetians who lived during the glory days of the Republic were rather small, just five feet five inches in height; they were well nourished, and if they lacked sugar and fat the result was excellent teeth with no cavities.

These are among the first findings of a group of archaeologists exploring a treasure trove of Venetian history that has been locked away and forgotten for centuries: the graves of Lazzaretto, an island in the Venetian lagoon whichbecame the world's first isolation hospital.

Following an outbreak of the plague in 1348, the Doge and his advisers put their minds to thinking up a way to prevent a recurrence. The upshot, at the beginning of the 15th century, was the world's first isolation hospital occupying the entire small island.

In 1630 the hospital was dissolved and the island taken over by a military garrison; later it was used to hold stray dogs. In the 1960s it was abandoned altogether.

Now it has become the subject of intensive study. Backed by Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the quango directing the building of the underwater gates designed to protect Venice from flooding, the archaeologists have uncovered more than 1,500 skeletons of Lazzaretto patients.