The island of Lazzaretto Vecchio in the lagoon of Venice is the site of the world’s first quarantine. From 1403 to 1630, when successive waves of plague ravaged Italy and the rest of Europe, visitors to the wealthy and prosperous merchant republic of Venice were required to remain on the island for forty days until their health condition could be made known, the idea being that during their confinement, any disease they were carrying would manifest itself. The goal of the Republic was to safeguard its citizens from contagious disease. Even though contemporary society was unaware of the exact mechanism of transmission of various illnesses, long observation had taught them that people exposed to the sick often fell ill themselves.
The H3DE Project will analyze more than 1,200 skeletal samples from Lazzaretto Vecchio and the site of Castro de Volsci near Rome and build a comprehensive picture of Venice from the height of its empire in the 15th century. The materials from Castro de Volsci, dating from the sixth and seventh centuries, will permit comparisons with the earlier disease environment through time and space and offer potential insights into the first pandemic in history, the Justinianic Plague.
Using cutting edge techniques such as proteomics, genomics, and metabolomics applied to dental calculus, we will detect the pathogens of victims, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Through ancient DNA analysis of targeted pathogens, we will gain crucial insights into the evolution of strains of illness, understanding of which has crucial importance not only in historical time, but for the present day, as we seek to understand the adaptation of microbes in our own world. Moreover, using isotopic analysis we will ascertain the diet of the victims and, correlate these with archival and climatological data from Venice to render the most comprehensive picture of disease, public health, and the environment to date.