Isola di Poveglia has served over the centuries as a safe haven, military base, mental hospital, plague quarantine island and mass grave.
Today, Poveglia still maintains its frightening reputation and some locals still believe this “Island of Ghosts”, is riddled with unhealthy spirits; due to its dark history. Visits to the island are prohibited, mostly because of safety concerns over the building structures.
This small island is located due south of the Piazza San Marco, Venice and just off the northern coast of the Lido. A small canal divides the island into two parts. This ancient settlement with its original name “Popilia”, probably refers to the poplar trees that once grew there.
Nowadays, Poveglia is a collection of abandoned, decaying buildings and overgrowth; dominated by the bell tower, which is all that remains of the old church of San Vitale. Behind the fences and warning signs, there are the remains of the old institution, abandoned in 1968 – beds, mattresses, industrial kitchens and machinery, peeling walls, collapsed roofs and wooden beams.
Nature seems to be claiming the island back and everything has been covered with an overgrowth of vegetation. Could it be destined one day, to become a luxury resort for the wealthy, or a public space and facility?
Above: Isola di Poveglia, from the Lido. The only remaining octagonal fort in front, right of centre.
One of the first settlements in Venetian lagoon, the island is first mentioned in chronicles of 421, when people from Padua and Este fled there, to escape the barbarian invasions of Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun; during the decline of the Roman Empire.
In the 9th century the island’s population began to grow and in the following centuries its importance grew steadily; until it was governed by a dedicated Podestà.
Around 864, the doge was killed and two hundred of his slaves fled to the island and presumably led quiet lives.
In 1378, during the war of Chioggia, Venice came under attack from the Genoan fleet; the people of Poveglia were moved to the Giudecca. The island remained uninhabited in the subsequent centuries.
Above: Satellite image of the southern lagoon, with Poveglia, bottom left.
They found a purpose however, when Poveglia Island, along with several other small islands; became a colony and dumping ground (lazaretti); for victims of several waves of the bubonic plague, in 1576 and 1630. As Venice was a hub for international trade, it welcomed ships from around the known world, making the island republic especially susceptible to the spread of disease.
At times, barges were necessary to ship the bodies. Anyone stricken with even mild symptoms was quickly stripped away from their families and society and taken to the island. Once there, they spent up to forty days in quarantine where they either died, or rarely recovered. Authorities incinerated thousands of bodies on Poveglia Island to prevent further spread of the disease.
(Rocco Benedetti, 16th century Venetian chronicler wrote: “The sick lay three or four in a bed … Workers collected the dead and threw them in the graves all day without a break. Often the dying ones and the ones too sick to move or talk were taken for dead and thrown on the piled corpses”).
From 1645 onward, the Venetian government built five octagonal forts armed with naval artillery, to protect and control the entrances to the lagoon. The Poveglia octagon is the only one of four, that still survive.
In 1776, the island came under the jurisdiction of the “Magistrato alla Sanità” (Public Health Office) and became a check point for all goods and people; arriving and departing from Venice, by ship.
In 1793, there were several cases of the plague on two ships and consequently the island was transformed into a temporary confinement station for the sick. In 1805, this role became permanent, under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte; who also had the old church of San Vitale destroyed.
The old bell-tower was converted into a lighthouse. The lazaretto was closed in 1814.
In 1922 the existing buildings were converted into an asylum for the mentally ill and later used as a nursing home and long-term care facility; until its closure in 1968.
Afterwards, the island was briefly used for agriculture and then completely abandoned.
In 2014 the Italian state auctioned a 99-year lease of Poveglia, which would remain state property, to raise revenue, hoping that the buyer would redevelop the hospital into a luxury hotel.
The highest bid, said to be of €513,000, was from Italian businessman Luigi Brugnaro; he planned to invest €20 million euros in a restoration project. The lease did not proceed because his project was judged not to meet all the conditions set out. Other sources suggested that the deal was annulled because the bid was too low. Brugnaro, initially fought the cancellation of the lease, but after he became mayor of Venice, he renounced any intentions to the island.
In 2015, a private group, “Poveglia per Tutti”, was hoping to raise €25–30 million for a new plan to include “a public park, a marina, a restaurant, a hostel and a study centre”, according to The Telegraph. Today the island still remains vacant.
BUILDING AND STRUCTURES
The surviving buildings on the island consist of a cavana, a church, a hospital, an asylum, a bell-tower and housing and administrative buildings for the staff. The bell-tower is the most visible structure on the island, and dates back to the 12th century. It belonged to the church of San Vitale, which was demolished in 1806. The tower was re-used as a lighthouse.
The existence of an asylum on Poveglia seems to be confirmed by a sign for “Reparto Psichiatria” (Psychiatric Department) still visible among the derelict buildings.
A bridge connects the island on which the buildings stand with the island that was given over to trees and fields. The octagonal fort is next to the island with the buildings; but unconnected to it.
The island contains one or more plague pits. An estimate published by National Geographic suggested that over 100,000 people died on the island, over the centuries and were buried in plague pits. Another source, Atlas Obscura, provides an estimate of 160,000 people.
Above: Aerial view of Poveglia and its buildings and the octagonal fort.
Below: The Plague Doctor
The islands dark history, has generated a wealth of stories, novels and TV productions.
Here are a selection below.
A doctor allegedly experimented on patients with crude lobotomies. According to various reports, the doctor jumped from the bell tower in the 1930’s, after claiming he had been driven mad by ghosts. He later died. Decades later, nearby residents claimed to still hear the bell, although it was removed many years earlier.
The island has been featured on the paranormal shows “Ghost Adventures” and “Scariest Places on Earth”.
Poveglia was also featured in the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz as “Malagosto“, the main assassin training centre for SCORPIA.
A dark Polish graphic novel by Roman Pietraszko and Maciej Kur, titled “Żyjesz?” (Are you alive?), is set on the island of Poveglia, during the Plague. It focuses on a sick girl and boy, trying to escape from the island, while being hunted down by the plague doctors.
An island inspired by Poveglia, is the main location in the Sandman graphic novel “Endless Nights”, in the first story “Death and Venice”.
The island is owned in the 18th century by a rich nobleman and alchemist, who finds a way to shield his palazzo, himself and his guests from the ravages of time; to repeat the same day over and over. The narrator visits the island as a boy and later as an adult, where (like Poveglia), it has been long since abandoned with a reputation of being haunted.
Linda Medley’s graphic novel “Castle Waiting” refers to Poveglia as “The Island of No Return”. The character Dr. Fell was driven mad attempting to treat the plague victims.
In the novel “The Dark Temple” by R.D. Shah, the island is one of the centres of the cult of Mithraism; with an underground Mithras temple (Mithraeum), in a cavern.
Above: Old photograph of two men on the island with a selection of tools.
Please see my other posts in the series “Islands of the Lagoon“: HERE
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