Lazarettos function through webs of exclusion. One of the governors (intendants sanitaires) of Marseille’s famous Lazaret d’Arenc emphasized that he could not bring his own father within the triple walls of that forbidding sanitary fortress (though one doubts the father would have been so inclined). Yet, one space of the lazaretto, perhaps the eeriest, was always open: the parlatorio. This institution, shared by nearly every nineteenth-century lazaretto, provided a mechanism for friends, family, business associates, and diplomats in a port city of arrival to speak to arriving travelers in quarantine.
Every step in the lazaretto featured a high—stakes delineation of personal space—step too close to a traveler from another ship that arrived after yours and your own quarantine could be extended for weeks, make a mad dash for freedom and face the death penalty. But even among such other examples, the apparently more flexible area of the parlatorio featured the most rigid and overt markers of separation of the entire institution. Parlatorios typically featured a large room, divided by a small channel of water or iron grills, in which the “healthy” stood to one side, with the suspect on the other. In between, stood several “solemn and ab-surd” guardians (lazaretto guards specifically charged with overseeing passengers’ quarantines or disinfecting ships) often holding large staffs, with which they nudged the two classes of travelers apart. Describing a mess of “strange dresses, strange languages . . . jabbering and grimaces . . . the opposite speaker fearing nothing so much as touching you, and crying out and receding at the same time,” the British cleric John Henry Newman was clearly disturbed by the Lazaretto of Malta’s parlatorio. Lamenting the “inconsistent rules” that prohibited touch but allowed “the free communication of breath,” he dubbed the institution “ridiculous.”
But the very architecture of parlatorios was designed for a theory of contagion that posited touch as the preeminent source of risk. Parlatorios were internally consistent with many other rules of quarantine. Mrs. Griffith, the wife of a British colonial official who also performed quarantine at Malta in the 1830s described “a very narrow escape,” in which she “was sitting just under the staircase, talking to le Docteur Ferrari, when one of the passengers from above dropped the end of a cigar nearly upon my head. Had it touched me, and the guardian observed it, I should have been liable to fresh quarantine.”2 Gradations of hypothetical contagiousness separated each traveling party within the lazaretto walls, and the same concerns applied to lazaretto staff members. Guardians, like those they watched over, cycled through phases of suspicion while observing quarantined passengers and ships, taking on the same status as their assigned traveling party, and after such tours of duty, safe once more, performing other duties in the lazaretto.
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