Places to Explore
Get close to plague pits and surgical tools at these featured attractions
Medical museums and sites to visit
1 LAZZARETTO VECCHIO VENICE
The oldest purpose-built quarantine station, the eerie Lazzaretto Vecchio was established in 1423 on one of the smaller islands of the Venetian lagoon to protect the great mercantile city from the ravages of the plague. With ships arriving from Asia and Africa, Venice was especially vulnerable to the spread of disease and all those infected regardless of social status or wealth were condemned to crowded bunkhouses on the reclaimed mudflats of Lazzaretto Vecchio.
Though much of the earlier structure was pulled down in the 19th century to build a barracks, archaeological work continues to uncover much of its gruesome early history.
Graffiti can be seen from the 16th century when bubonic plague ravaged the city and as recently as 2006 a mass grave of 1,500 neatly buried 15th century skeletons was discovered, proving that this ill-fated island still has secrets left to yield.
Lazzaretto Vecchio can be visited on Sundays from April to October, or through specially booked tours. Find out more at lazzarettovecchio.it.
2 FRANCISCAN CHURCH AND MONASTERY DUBROVNIK
Built in 1317 and greatly embellished in the following centuries as testament to growing wealth and influence of the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik from 1358 to 1808), the primary duty of the monastery’s Dominican friars was the care of the sick and although it remains a fully inhabited monastery, the beautiful cloistered medicinal herb garden can be visited by tourists along with the pharmacy, which first opened in 1317 and is the third oldest in the world.
This ancient pharmacy was originally the monastery’s primary source of revenue and is still a working shop, as well as Old Pharmacy Museum, meaning that the dispensing of prescriptions to the modern inhabitants of Dubrovnik sits side-by-side with a selection of medieval and early modern medical implements. Much like the monastery itself, the pharmacy’s 700-year story is far from over.
Franciscan Church and Monastery is open 9am to 6pm April to October, and 9am to 2pm November to March. Admission is 40 kuna.
3 Museum of the order of st John
Now known in their modern incarnation as St
John Ambulance, the medical mission of the Order of St John dates back to 1080, when a group of monks established a hospital in Jerusalem to care for sick and injured pilgrims visiting the Holy City.
The Hospitallers – as they became known – gradually transformed into the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades, to defend by sword the pilgrims they sought to heal, first by providing armed escort for pilgrims and eventually leading and fielding armies.
The museum’s gatehouse location is all that remains of the 12th century Clerkenwell Priory, once the English base of the Order of St John, and taken from them during the reign of Henry VIII. Most of the knights fled for Malta, but three who did not were executed as traitors for their loyalty to the Pope. The Museum of the Order of St John contains not just materials and records referring to the 150-year history of the St John Ambulance, but Medieval manuscripts detail land grants and royal privileges, coins from the Crusader states and seals of the priors, as well as numerous archaeological materials from the lost Clerkenwell Priory.
The most interesting items in the collection reflect the power and prestige of the order’s early modern patrons, including a cannon commissioned by Henry VIII for the defence of their island fortress of Malta, and a crystal cross gifted by by Pope Pius V in 1565.
The Museum of the Order of St John is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Admission is free. Find out more at museumstjohn.org.uk.
4 SINT-JANSHOSPITAAL BRUGES
One of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in Europe, Sint-janshospitaal was founded in the 12th century to care for pilgrims, travellers and the sick, and remained in operation as a place of healing until the 1800s when it moved into a new site, now a conference centre.
The museum, which is located in the gothic infirmary, contains paintings and sculptures of healing saints, as well as reliquaries and six 15th century panels by Hans Memling, which are testament to the wealth of the order and the belief that curing the soul would cure the body.
A unique time capsule of medieval healthcare, the original herb garden and apothecary can still be visited, as well as the 17th century pharmacy. The hospital contains many original surgical instruments, silverware, jars, bottles and pots, as well as a document dating from 1188 that details the daily duties of the lay brothers and sisters.
Sint-janshospitaal is open Tuesday to Sunday 9.30am to 5pm. Find out more at visitbruges.be/en/sint-janshospitaalsaint-johns-hospital.
5 SANTA MARIA NOVELLA PHARMACY FLORENCE
One of the world’s oldest continuously operational pharmacies, the company of Officina Profumo-farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella was established in 1612 but its gloriously ornate head office, store and museum is heir to a much older legacy.
The building was originally part of a Dominican convent and infirmary, and medicinal herbs have been cultivated on the site by curious friars since at least 1221.
One of Santa Maria Novella’s most famous products, The Queen’s Water, is a perfume first brewed in the 16th century for Catherine de’ Medici, the future Queen of France, while its oldest product, Rose Water, was made and sold by the monks as far back as 1381. A less pleasant origin surrounds the Vinegar of Seven Thieves, which was a protection from bubonic plague, and according to legend allowed seven thieves who knew the secret recipe to raid diseased households with impunity.
Santa Maria Novella is open 9am to 8pm and guided tours of the museum are available. Admission is free. Find out more at smnovella.com.
The faded grandeur of the barracks
The beautiful internal courtyard of the monastery
Lazzaretto Vecchio, seen from the air
Renovated in 2010, the Museum of the Order of St John is one of London’s hidden gems
Santa Maria Novella still sells its classic concoctions
The beautiful waterfront exterior of the hospital
Sint-janshospitaal houses a collection of religious art
Glazed earthenware jars used to keep oil