As the boat neared San Michele, the gleaming white walls of San Isola came into view, almost as if it was floating on the water. An elderly lady fellow passenger enquired as to my reason for being the only person disembarking at the Cimiterro stop. The crowded waterbus quickly sped away on its way to Murano, the glassmakers island. Then I entered the place where the dead rule, where silence is absolute and there was a strong sense of ‘Enter if you dare’.
The hurly burly of San Marco was far behind me as the atmosphere of San Michele, the true Isle of the Dead surrounded me. Once away from the crowds the streets were deserted under the glaring sun. De Chirico images seemed to around every corner. I had been able to see San Michele’s high walls and tall cypress trees from the Fondamente Nuovo quayside on the main island. I wasn’t sure if they were to keep the living out or the dead in.
San Michele is the closest island to Venice and was a former fishing port. Its creation was, like London’s Magnificent 7 Victorian cemeteries, a response to overcrowded city graveyards which resulted in Napoleon issuing a decree on burials. Due to the lack of space most burials are disinterred after 12 years and taken to the ossuary island of Sant ‘Angelo. However its most famous residents,Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, Diaghilev and Joseph Brodsky all most definitely rest in peace. Venice has two cemeteries; San Michele mainly for Protestants and Catholics and a Jewish one on the Lido.
Coducci designed its grand Renaissance church, San Michele Isola, which was the first one built in Venice and commissioned by Franciscan monks in 1469. The monastery on the island was established in the 10th century and was extremely successful and wealthy. The cloister and funerary chapel still remain and more recently political prisoners were housed in the now former monastery.
There were only a few other visitors exploring and it seemed as if every inch of space had been utilised. There are wall graves, conventional graves and huge columbariums with their contents placed in large drawers stacked on top of each other. The effect is rather like a succession of filing cabinets.
It was difficult to navigate my way around as there didn’t seem to be any site plans or maps visible and I wandered into the main part and was surprised by how the monuments and mausolea stretch on into the distance. Poppies brightly stud the grassy gaps between them. On November 1, All Soul’s Day, chrysanthemums, the Italian flowers of the dead, are everywhere on the island. Diaghilev and Stravinsky lie in the Greek and Russian Orthodox sections and Ezra Pound is in the Evangelic or Protestant part. Jan Morris, the travel writer, has written of being enchanted by the island’s ‘seductive isolation’ and it is absolutely silent here. The only sounds during my visit was the water lapping at the steps of a three window doorway and a fight between what sounded like a cat and a seagull on the other side of one dividing wall. I could almost understand the claim that tourists commit suicide in Venice just so they can be buried on the island. An Englishman from Staffordshire is said to have ‘left us in peace Feb 2 1920.’
In many ways it’s very like a British Victorian cemetery with its carvings and statues of mourning women and sorrowing angels. One wall grave had putti or cherubs holding flowers as decoration. One seemed to be screwing his eyes up against the sun even though his luxuriantly carved locks cast a shadow
A mourning woman in beautifully carved robes, her hand clasped around her face as if she had toothache stood by a grille as if waiting to be admitted to a seedy club.
In the columbarium Elisa Marcosanti’s columbarium drawer is decorated by putti with oddly awkward legs to ensure that they fit into the space.
Venice has always been celebrated for its mosaics and the Mazzega memorial boasted a particularly lovely example in a portrait of the deceased.
There didn’t seem to be the same quality to more contemporary examples which looked amateurish in comparison in my opinion. A huge statue of a woman in a hooded robe stood in the centre of one section and looked as if she was clutching her stomach in pain.
As I wandered amongst the tightly packed memorials and monuments looking for the famous incumbents I came across a plain little mausoleum with its own set of steps leading up to it. The couple coming towards me seemed oblivious to my presence and so I ventured inside. There was an ornate and painted table with candles, a crucifix, small statue of St Anthony and cards and envelopes. There was no indication as to whom it commemorated, no family name and , as I felt I was intruding I crept away.
A sculpture of a couple kissing mystified me; was it Death and the Maiden or the departed saying goodbye to the sorrowing mourner? Certainly the figure of Death looked female…
But San Michele didn’t feel crowded and I wouldn’t agree that the statues and memorials are grotesque as one writer stated. Some of the larger statues were very plain. A huge statue of Gabriel, looking like a piece municipal architecture, dominated an area as he held his trumpet on one hand and looked hopefully skyward. He looked as if he’d been bought off the peg compared to the riot of angels, Franciscan friars, angels and weeping women. As I explored further I came across a stack of numbered concrete posts and photographs which I assumed came from disinterred burials.
There was so much to see in San Michele and I was aware that I only saw a fraction of it due to lack of time. I never found any of the famous incumbents as it was easier to let my feet and camera wander where they wanted to. The cloister also eluded me but on a return visit….
As the waterbus sped away back to the mainland I saw a modern sculpture in the waters of the lagoon. It seemed to portray St Peter on a boat afloat on the waves. From the quayside San Michele vanished behind it s anonymous walls again and you could easily pass it by with no idea of what its purpose was. I hope to make a return visit one day and wander once more amongst the silent mourning women to look out through the triptych window out onto the ceaselessly flowing water and hear nothing but the waves.
All images are scans from prints from films.
All images and text copyright Carole Tyrrell
First published in Friends of Nunhead Cemetery quarterly journal.