Italy: Isola di San Michele, Venice's island of the Dead

Photo: Dan Kitwood
What?
Venice's main cemetery- located on its own little island.

Why visit?
San Michele seems like it's floating in the Venetian lagoon- just beyond the shore and seemingly out of reach.

In fact, this is where Venetians bury their beloved ones. 

A great place to start exploring the more than 100 quirky and unusual islands of the Venetian lagoon, only about five of which see regular visitors.

Where?
Between Venice proper and Murano. Map.


WHEN MINOR SIGHTS first studied a map of Venice, planning a trip, we weren't too excited by the idea of locating San Marco or the Rialto bridge. Instead, our interest was piqued by the square blob floating just to the north of Venice proper. Why was it there? Why was it green? Can you take a gondola there? Is there any gelato? Questions, so many questions.  
Turns out, in Venice, the dead have their own island.

This is nothing new: having more islands than one could possibly use, the Most Serene Republic has a long tradition of allocating whole islands to a single purpose. Glass factories were relocated to Murano because their ovens had a dangerous tendency to burn down whole neighborhoods. And the tiny island of Poveglia became a dumping ground, quite literally, for plague victims, and later for lunatics.

But although having an island cemetery seems perfectly in line with Venetian traditions, San Michele was only established as the city's principal cemetery once La Serenissima had been unceremoniously disposed of by Napoleon Bonaparte, who came, saw, and conquered the Republic in 1797, envious of Venice's more than 1000 years of glorious history and republican tradition (something he didn't manage to achieve himself.)
San Michele as seen from Murano, with a Venetian bus in the foreground. 
Bonaparte, whose anal-retentive obsessive-compulsiveness saw him rewrite whole legal systems and impose new government regulations overnight, decided that Venice's old cemeteries were unsanitary and decreed that the whole lot had to be moved offshore. Literally.

San Michele's curiously rectangular shape suggests the island is not a natural creation. Yes, there has been an island here since well before Napoleon and other tourists came to gawk at the sights. But San Michele only achieved its current form in the 19th century, when the need for more space (those dead do tend to pile up) led to some land reclamation, giving the island its current linear shape.





The name is not accidental: Saint Michael, the Archangel, is the angel of death, using his scales to pass judgment on who can, and who cannot pass through the Pearly Gates. Like the bouncer of an exclusive Elysian discotheque. 

St. Mike has his own church here: the eye-catching church of San Michele in Isola was built in 1469. It was built following the latest fancy Florentine fashion, known as the Renaissance, and was the first example of this upstart style in Venice. Many others were to follow.  

It's built of the classic white Istrian marble that looks ridiculously classy, and which became Venice's signature building material. Palladio rather liked the idea of a white church facing the water, and, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, ripped off the concept for his San Giorgio Maggiore. 
So what else is there to see on this island? As you would expect, it's rather quiet. The dead are not a rowdy bunch. There's not a single Bengali seller of masks and other trinkets around. You'll look in vain for 'Murano' glass shops, with their mass-produced-in-China wares. If you've had enough of having your eyes poked out by selfie-sticks on Rialto bridge, you'll breathe a sigh of relief at the lack of people here. Is this really the most touristy town in Italy? 

Add to that the opportunity to wallow in mild melancholy (which we enjoy doing, at least occasionally), for which there's no better time than a grey, wintry day, when the island emerges slowly from the fog, a suitable setting for a subdued yet fascinating visit. Now you know why Thomas Mann called his book 'Death in Venice'. But, much to the Venetians credit, even when Napoleon had them down, they never lost their urge to prettify everything. Many of the graves are opulent, sumptuous affairs.

















Admire the sculptures, then count the cherubs. Or sad-looking women. Or the portraits of important-looking men, all forgotten. Memento mori. There's a handy map at the entrance- look for your favourite posh Venetian family, like the Michiel or Da Mosto clans, or some of the very minor foreign celebrities buried here, like Ezra Pound, Diaghilev and probably the least minor of them all, Stravinsky.

A short post mortem: San Michele is actually not the final final resting place for most of the deceased. If at some point your family stops coughing up the annual graveyard fees, your bones will be unceremoniously dug up and dumped on another island, further out in the lagoon. Your dusty bones will end up on Sant'Ariano, Venice's official ossuary, which, legend has it, is covered in human bones, but sadly off-limits. Because in Venice, even crumbling bones have their own dedicated island...


Getting there:
Dead easy. (Sorry we couldn't help ourselves.) From Fondamente Nove, take the Murano-bound 4.1 or 4.1 Vaporetto. The journey takes the grand total of five minutes.

Useful links:
New York Times: Venice's Isle of the Death

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the nice article and beautiful pictures! It is certainly on my list for one of my upcoming trips.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Katia, glad you enjoyed it. What other places are on your list, if we may ask?

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    2. Sant Erasmo is certainly on it. Any other suggestions outside the main island of Venice?

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    3. Sant' Erasmo sounds nice, but we haven't been. I'ms ure you've heard of Torcello. If you go to Murano, it's easy to leave the glass shops and tourists behind and check out the church of Santa Maria and San Donato. It's beautiful with Byzantine mosaics.

      I've also heard good things about San Lazaro degli Armeni but didn't have enough time to check it out myself.

      Enjoy your trip!

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