Armchair Travel – Venice

San Michele – The Isle of the Dead

When I was working on the Stravinsky post last week I knew that I had at least one photo of his grave site in Venice from a trip back in 1999. The problem was finding it – and a real problem it was. It was stored somewhere on a back-up drive that could only be accessed from my old MAC (2009). In my search I ended up doing something that resulted in having to do a system restore from a backup. (Always have a back up!!!!!!) But find that photo I did as well as some wonderful photos from an incredible three day cruise of the lagoon of Venice in a restored fishing boat. But more about that another time.

Before embarking on the cruise we spent several days strolling through Venice and renewing our love affair with La Serenissima. And that included a visit to Isola di San Michele, the cemetery Island. (Note that the photos were taken with one of the first digital cameras I owned and resolution was nowhere near what is is today. Also I was trying to use some of the more artsy effects that were available for a few of the photos.)

A view across the Lagoon to Isola di San Michele – the cemetery island of Venice.
photo: Wikipedia – Source: Current restricted for “sock puppetry”.

Fortunately back in the late 1990s Venice, in general, wasn’t the madhouse that it was to become and very few tourists made the five minute journey on Vaporetto 41/42 from Fondamente Nuove to Cimitero. Most of the passengers disembarking where carrying flowers to honour family or friends buried on the Island. As I have remarked in the past I am an inveterate “tombstone tourist” but always consider that respect must be paid to the deceased and privacy given to their loved ones.

Isola di San Michele is certainly amongst the most peaceful and beautiful cemeteries I have wandered through. Created at the command of Napoleon in 1804, it was designed by Gian Antonio Selva and opened in 1813. Strangely though there has been a Jewish cemetery at San Nicolò on the Lido since 1386 AD until Napoleon’s decree four centuries later there had been no common Christian place of burial. Prior to the inauguration of San Michele burials had been in church floors for the wealthy or under paving stones for the merchant class – not the most sanitary of practices during Acqua alta. What happened to the poor or plague victims doesn’t even bear thinking about.

“The church at the corner of the island is beautifully cool, austere and pallid, and is tended by soft-footed Franciscans … The cemetery itself is wide and calm, a series of huge gardens, studded with cypress trees and awful monuments.

“Not long ago it consisted of two separate islands, San Michele and San Cristoforo, but now they have been artificially joined, and the whole area is cluttered with hundreds of thousands of tombs–some lavishly monumental, with domes and sculptures and wrought-iron gates, some stacked in high modern terraces, like filing systems.”

The World of Venice – Jan Morris


As Jan Morris, wryly but almost affectionately, says some of the monuments are in glorious bad taste and indeed others have almost the air of filing cabinets. One of the most touching sections is the Children’s Cemetery – row after row of small monuments, often topped with cherubs, and niches in columbaria and vaults.


There are two Accatalico or Non-catholic sections: the Reparto Greci (Greek Orthodox) and the Reparto Evangelico (Protestant). Side by side these two burial grounds are separated from the rest of the cemetery by enclosing walls.

As I mentioned earlier in the week Igor and Vera Stravinsky are buried in the Greek Cemetery. A few feet away is the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario.


The Protestant Cemetery has an air of neglect about it – overgrown shrubs, uncut grass, and toppled grave markers. It could be thought of as being either Gothic romantic or just plain rundown.

When we visited many of the graves were recent and the dead that occupied them in 1999 would no longer be there today. Though certain families have vaults and plots the Isola is only 62,000 m2 (670,000 sq ft) and space is at a premium. Remains are exhumed after 12 years and either cremated and moved to a columbarium or the bones are taken to an ossuary.


Towards the end of the 20th century the need for additional space was recognized and in 1998 a competition was held to design two sections adjacent to the existing Isola. Given the vagaries and machinations of local politics work was not begun until 2004 and finally completed in 2017. Pictures suggest that compared to the old cemetery there is a sterility to the design that is at odds with the picture that Jan Morris paints. Once the world is once more open to travel I have every intention of return after all they gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

The word for April 13th is:
Ossuary /ˈäSHəˌwerē/: [noun]
1. A container, room or building in which the bones of dead people are placed.
Mid 17th century: from late Latin ossuarium, formed irregularly from Latin os, oss- ‘bone’.
Though we in North America may find this a strange practice it has been common in Europe since – as witness the Latin ossuarium – early times.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

2 thoughts on “Armchair Travel – Venice”

  1. Venice is a sadness for me as I doubt I will ever see it in person. Even if I did I sense I would see something long passed in beauty – or underwater.

    1. I remember the first time I flew into Venice thinking – I will either love or hate this place. I love it unconditionally and it’s beauty has been fading for nine centuries. Ask Ruskin, or ask Jan Morris.

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