Cimitero di San Michele in Isola
30121 Venice, Italy
Telephone: 041 5224119
Size: 4 acres
Number of interments: Difficult to say, since most Venetians are only granted a 10-year lease on their graves, before their bones are removed to an ossuary.
Open: The island is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. during the winter, or until 6 p.m. April-September. The Church San Michele in Isola is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., and again in the afternoons from 3-4 p.m.
Attention: In connection with Obscura Day 2011, Context Travel is offering a private tour of Venice’s cemetery island. More information is here.
Ever since Napoleon closed the city’s churchyards, Venetians have buried their dead on an island near Murano. No one seems to offer recurring tours of San Michele in Isola, but you can catch a vaporetto on the Fondamente Nuove, at the northern edge of the city, and wander the island for yourself. The Cadogan guidebook Italy: Three Cities suggests you get a rough map from the caretaker, but he wasn’t around the day I visited. I still had a wonderful time.
Originally there were two islands: San Michele in Isola and San Cristoforo della Pace. The Venetian churchyards were first emptied onto Cristoforo, but when that didn’t provide enough space, engineers joined the two islands by filling the canal between them. To this day, San Michele in Isola remains the main civil cemetery for Venice.
The cemetery island takes its name from the Church of Saint Michael, which has existed on the island since the 10th century. In 1212, it became a hermitage of Camaldolesian friars. Mauro Codussi built the “new” church, the first Renaissance chapel in Venice, in 1496. Dedicated to the archangel Michael, who will hold the scales on Judgment Day, it was restored in 1562 and several times since.
Grave monuments lining the wall of the cloister begin to hint at the impressive skills of Italian sculptors showcased in the cemetery. The most breathtaking relief depicted a seated nude holding a book across his hips; the pages read “Sacred to the Honor of” in English. Death, wimpled like a nun, grasped his shoulder and leaned close to whisper in his ear.
In a garden dedicated to servicemen, a brilliant Murano glass mosaic sparkled on a monument to the ambulance drivers of World War II. On a field of gold, four white-coated men leaned above a bleeding soldier. It was one of the most graphic tombstones I’d ever seen.
Inside the Reparto Greco, the section for the Orthodox faith, composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera lie in graves along the back wall. When I visited, a pair of white roses with long stems crossed adorned the slab over Stravinsky’s grave. A red silk poinsettia, anchored in a pile of stones, burned like crimson flame on the lower left corner. Above that, a curving stalk of lavender reminded me of a treble clef.
Not far from Stravinsky stands the monument to Sergei Diaghilev. Atop Diaghilev’s grave rested a pair of weathered pointe shoes, wrapped in their own faded pink satin ribbons. What a beautiful tribute to the impresario of the Ballet Russe, who brought Russian dancers to the West and changed the history of ballet.
Tucked away in a tattered garden called the Reparto Evangelico lay Protestant foreigners who died while visiting Venice. It struck me as poignant to see graves in Italy that read “Hier ruht” and “Here lies” instead of “Requiescat en pace.” A rusted iron cross, tilted against the weathered brick wall, bore the simple legend “Auf wiedersehen.”
A stele on one grave showed a praying mother, shrouded from head to ankles, begging as a Pre-Raphaelite angel led her child away. Even though the girl stretched a hand back toward her mother, her feet had already left the surface of the earth. A gang of cherubim sang above, but their false cheer seemed mocking to me, cruel.
A grave that caught our attention was bounded by a low curb and blanketed with ivy. It belonged to the Russian poet Josef Brodsky, whose life had been turned upside by reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Venice seemed a long way away from Leningrad, where Brodsky was born, and Brooklyn, where he died.
Also buried in the Reparto Evangelico is the poet Ezra Pound. Despite an hour’s searching, I couldn’t find his monument when I visited. The caretaker’s map might have come in handy.
My review of the guidebook to Italian cemeteries, Permanent Italians.
Find A Grave has a map.
Information about the other graveyards in Venice.