San Michele is one of the most intriguing islands of the Venetian lagoon. You can see the island from the shore in Venice, but the secrets of its cemetery are well-hidden behind a large wall. It is certainly worth a visit. You can browse through the Venetian history in peace and quiet, on the basis of the life stories reposed at this resting place.
Writing a post about a cemetery is a difficult balance. On the one hand, I want to share with you how beautiful and peaceful the San Michele island is. On the other hand, I also want to respect the privacy of the deceased and their relatives. When I go to a cemetery, I do this to pay respect to the dead and to reminisce about the moments I enjoyed with them. I will therefore tell you a few fascinating stories related to some of the people who are buried here, after I first describe the history of the island. At the end, I will also give you some practical tips for your visit.
History of the San Michele island
The San Michele island has been inhabited for a long time by the Camaldolese monks, a branch of the Benedictines. In 1469, the monks asked Mauro Codussi to build the Chiesa di San Michele in Isola next to their monastery. The result was one of the first renaissance buildings in Venice. It has a big dome and a large statue of an angel above the entrance. The white façade is made of Istrian stone. The Capella Emiliana, designed by Guglielmo dei Grigi, was added in 1530.
The monastery of San Michele has been used by the Camaldolese monks and later by the Franciscan order. It even served as a prison for a while. One of the most famous residents in the monastery was Fra Mauro. This monk, who never travelled the world, created the most important world map of the Middle Ages. He could be considered as the personification of Google Earth in the 15th century. Traders from all over the world came to Venice to buy and sell their precious goods. This was the ideal working area for Fra Mauro. He asked every traveler to tell him stories about the countries and regions they had visited before they arrived in Venice. Based on this information, he drew a beautiful and very detailed world map. It is currently under restoration, but afterwards you will be able to admire it again at the Marciana library on the San Marco square (see my post: 7 authentic libraries that will amaze you in Venice). If you want to know more about Fra Mauro, this article of Atlas Obscura is very interesting to read.
In 1804, when Napoleon had invaded Venice, he commanded that it was illegal and unhygienic to bury people on the main island. Considering the acqua alta and the fact that Venice is built on poles, I have to agree with him on this point. Hence, Gian Antonio Selva designed a cemetery for the San Michele island in 1808. This Venetian architect had already been in charge of the original Teatro La Fenice. The cemetery was inaugurated in 1813. The current structure with different sections was designed by architect Annibale Forcellini in 1860. The burial ground is used by different religions such as the catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches. The Jewish community has its own cemetery at Lido since the 14th century, whereas Muslims have a separate section at the Marghera cemetery.
Between 1835 and 1839, San Michele and the neighbouring island San Cristoforro delle Pace were merged into one. The land reclamation works also gave the island its rectangular size. This expansion was necessary to create more space.
When the capacity of the cemetery reached its limits, a new regulation was put in place in 1995. People can now only rest on the island for 10 or 20 years depending on the location of their grave, or for 99 years if they are buried in a family tomb. Afterwards, the remains are either moved to another cemetery or cremated, depending on the wish of the family.
As of 2007, David Chipperfield Architects from the United Kingdom added several modern extensions to the island. The sections ‘The courtyard of the 4 Evangelists’ and ‘St. John the Baptist’ have already been completed. The ‘Three Archangels’ with three sub-courts with a porch (S. Michele, S. Gabriele and S. Raffaele), gardens and fountains, will soon be handed over to the cemetery authorities. The monastery is no longer inhabited by the Franciscan order since 2008. In total, San Michele has now a capacity of 80,000 plots.
Long-lost but fascinating memories
When I walked around the cemetery, I did not only pay attention to the design of the graves. I was merely interested in the names and dates of the deceased. Some of these intrigued me, so I did a bit of research on them when I got home. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a lot of love stories hidden beneath the tombs. There is also a wide variety in the nationalities and backgrounds of people who are buried at San Michele. Some moved to Venice to start a new life, others to be cured or just to be buried. This clearly shows the importance and the charisma of Venice in the world, especially in the past. I hope these stories will bring the memories of these individuals back to live again.
Princess Catherina Petrovna Troubetzkoy née Moussine Pouchkine (1816-1897) is buried in the Greek section. As a young woman, daughter of a Lieutenant-General, she was the mistress of the Russian tsar Nicolaï I. When she got pregnant, he didn’t want his reputation to be damaged by this incident. He therefore obliged her to marry Sergeï Troubetzkoy, a cornet of the Cavalry Regiment. After she gave birth to her bastard daughter Sofia, she fled Russia and started a new life in Europe. In Paris, she married Nicolas Vel and got a second daughter Marie. They moved to Venice, where she lived for 20 years. She spent her time between Palazzo Moro and a villa in the countryside. When she died at the age of 81, her funeral was held at San Giorgio dei Greci. Her daughter Marie and her husband Louis Martin Ennès, who lived at Lido, were later joined with her in her grave at San Michele.
The grave of E.H. Douwes Dekker (1819-1874) in the Evangelist section took me by surprise. When I saw the name, I assumed it was of the well-known Dutch writer Multatuli. However, when I googled his day of death, it seemed that he died a few years later in Germany. I then discovered it is actually the grave of his first wife, Tine or Everdine Huberte Baronesse Van Wijnbergen Douwes Dekker. You might recognize her name from his book ‘Max Havelaar’. In the past, some women chose to be buried under the name of their husband, hence my confusion. Even though she left her unhappy marriage and moved to Venice, she didn’t want to get rid of his name. She died at the age of 54, after a short and painful disease. Her tombstone shows the beautiful inscription ‘Son souvenir vit dans le coeur de ceux qui l’ont aimée’ (Her memory will last in the hearts of those who loved her). It has been restored by the Multatuli Museum.
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. He is buried in the Greek section, next to the grave of his second wife Vera. She had been his mistress for almost 20 years until his first wife and cousin, Katya, died of tuberculosis. He lived in Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland and France, but never in Venice. He was however very fond of the city, where several of his works including ‘The Rake’s Progress’ were first performed. It was his last wish to be buried at San Michele in the vicinity of Sergei Diaghliev. This Russian ballet impresario produced the first performance of his masterpiece ‘Le Sacré du Printemps’ in 1913. You can watch the funeral and the procession of his coffin by boat to the island in this YouTube video. The Fondation Igor Stravinsky still keeps the memory of the composer alive. Feel free to contact them if you want to support the memories of Stravinsky.
Christian Doppler (1803-1853) is a well-known Austrian scientist and mathematician. He moved to Venice in 1852, which was occupied by Austria at that time, when he got ill. He needed a warmer climate to improve his health. His wife Mathilde stayed in Austria with their children. He lived at Riva degli Schiavoni 4133, where you can still see a memorial sign. Doppler was confined to bed for 5 months before he died from tuberculosis, or pulmonary disease. Dr. Pitany informed his wife just in time for her to arrive in Venice five days before his death. He is buried near the entrance of the cemetery, within the cloister outside the church. Dr. Peter M. Shuster (also an Austrian mathematician and physicist) was the first man to locate his tomb. It was in a terrible state and totally neglected, but it has been restored in the meantime. If you are interested in knowing more about Doppler, you can read Dr. Shuster’s book ‘Moving the Stars: Christian Doppler, His Life, His Works and Principle, and the World After’.
In the military section, you will see a row of 18 white crosses for French pilots and marines of the CAM Venise (Centre d’Aviation Maritime). 9 of them were killed on October 31, 1916 when a bomb from their plane ‘FBA 150 ch n° 321’ accidently exploded while they were attaching it. 15 French and 3 Italian men died that day on the Sant’ Andrea island. The other soldiers on the cemetery died from diseases, or incidents with a boat or plane. One thing which I hadn’t realized before is that the Italians refer to World War I as from 1915-1918, whereas in other parts of the world it is most often 1914-1918. Italy didn’t take part from the beginning. When they joined the war in May 1915, the Italian army asked France for material support to guard the North Adriatic region. As the Italian aviation was not up to the level of the enemies, France sent a squadron of water planes. This was the start of CAM Venise.
Layout of the cemetery
When you walk from the vaporetto platform onto the island, you will immediately see the monastery and the San Michele church on your left side. The cemetery is in front of you and reaches as far as you can see. I was really amazed by its size, which is approx. 450 m on 400 m. The design provides several partitions with walls, trees and paths so it doesn’t feel as one large area. This gives a more intimate feeling when you visit the graves of your relatives.
The cemetery is divided in sections. The majority of the catholic sections are numbered. There are also separate areas for the Greek Orthodox, protestant foreigners, military, priests and nuns.
You will notice different types of tombstones on the funeral grounds. The majority are individual gravestones, often beautifully decorated with pictures, statues or glass ornaments. In the new section, these individual tombs are put in a wall, for a more efficient use of the limited space on the island. There are also many family graves of wealthier families. Originally, these were positioned in the curved wall of the cemetery which holds 38 vaults. There are also several small buildings which serve as a family grave and which are spread over the cemetery. Some are real architectural jewels, such as the one in art deco style and the cubistic structure in black and white in the catholic section or the small temple with lots of mosaic in the Greek section.
Practical tips for your visit to San Michele
The San Michele island is located between Venice and Murano. It can be reached by vaporetto 41/42 from Fondamente Nuove, from where it takes approx. 5 minutes. The cemetery covers quite a large area, so a visit takes approx. 1.5 hours.
A map of the cemetery is available at the entrance. It indicates the different sections and the graves of some famous people such as Ezra Pound, Joseph Brodsky, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Schlumberger, Christian Doppler, Frederick Rolfe, Horatio Brown, Sergei Diaghilev, Luigi Nono, Catherine Bagration, Franco Basaglia, Paolo Cadorin, Zoran Mušič, Helenio Herrera, Emilio Vedova, and Salvador de Iturbide y Marzán. There are no facilities on the island, besides a toilet and a vending machine. In summer, remember to take a bottle of water and something to protect your head. There is almost no shade on the island, so it can get very hot.
Even though many tourists visit San Michele, it is in the first place a cemetery and not a tourist attraction. Keep this in mind when you visit the island. Many locals wander around to mourn about their loved ones, so keep your distance and behave appropriately. The dress code is similar as in churches, i.e. no shorts or naked shoulders. It is also not allowed to take pictures. I think this is of the utmost importance to respect the privacy of the deceased and their families. Hence, the pictures in this article come from official sources, with the exception of those of the island seen from the lagoon.
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