The Venetian lagoon is surely one of the most majestic places in Europe. A hundred islands sleepily sunbathing in the bay, frozen in some sort of timeless beauty, linked together by 400 bridges. But taking a closer look at it, the adventurous explorer would notice an island looking oddly unfamiliar in this picture-postcard landscape.
About 200 yards off the sandy shores of Lido, the foundations of an octagonal stronghold stand out. Farther away, a church’s bell tower shoots through the thick vegetation swallowing the surrounding buildings. A spirit of desolation emanates from this green, lifeless piece of land devoid of traffic and lighting. Silence itself seems to inhabit Poveglia.
That has not always been so. While the island welcame its first citizens as soon as the 5th century A.D., its population really started to rise when it was given a military role. Considering its strategical location at the entrance of the Venetian lagoon, Poveglia was converted into a defensive fort under the rule of the Republic of Venice, back in the 17th century. At the time, the city was longingly looked at by neighboring powers – especially its great rival Genoa and the Ottomans at the outbreak of the Cretan War – hence the building of five octagonal strongholds along the edge of the island to fortify it.
Although diplomatic tensions soon eased, Venice’s superiority in international affairs eroded. To top it all, the Black Death sweeping across Europe in the early 17th century decimated Italian cities: the epidemic killed one out of three Venetians between 1629 and 1631.
To prevent further bloodshed, Poveglia was immediately placed under the local Public Health Office (Magistrato alla Sanità) responsibility, which in turn converted it into a quarantine spot. Vessels shipping goods and people to the city were ordered to check in at the island so as to undergo various medical tests. A sailor stopping by Venice decribed in his diary the strict regulations of the quarantine process he experienced:
“I am on board the ship Ulysses; she has not finished her quarantine, and is subject to all the rigours of the sanitary laws. Since my embarkation I am myself considered as one infected with the plague. This letter will be taken up with pincers, and put into a tin box, and it will come to you stabbed, sprinkled with vinegar, and fumigated.”
Soon enough, hundreds of bubo-covered corpses were piled up ‘like lasagna’ (Italian know-how dies hard) in hastily-dug plague pits. Others were burned immediately on the north shore of the island – nowadays, some estimate that 50% of Poveglia’s soil is made of human ash. Overall, between 100,000 and 160,000 plague-stricken victims were said to have succumbed on the island. But its tragic fate did not stop at the end of the epidemic: in 1922, an asylum for the mentally ill was built on Poveglia, as demonstrated by modern sightings of railings-covered windows or rusty bed frames scattered across the floor. A dark rumor holds that the doctor who ran the asylum, haunted by the island’s gloomy past, threw himself from the top of the bell tower…
In 1968, when the hospital eventually closed its doors, Poveglia returned to the desert it was before the Italian Renaissance. Since then, vines have encircled the island’s facilities, the elements eating away their foundations. A thick layer made of rotten books, scalpels covered with rust and dampness-swollen beams still blankets the grounds. And despite many scary stories heard around the lagoon, no ghosts keep haunting the grounds… none but the vanishing Venetian glory’s.
- Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras & Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Wolrd’s Hidden Wonders, 2016, éd. Marabout, p.68.
- Ferdinand Freiherr von Geramb, A pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and Syria, 1840.