The Island of San Michele
The Island of San Michele, the main cemetery of Venice, since the early 19th century; is located between Venice and Burano.
A visit to San Michele offers an important insight into the history and culture of Venice and its inhabitants. Coupled with a contrasting visit to Burano, it makes a great day out away from the city.
Formerly two islands, joined together between 1835 and 1839; the island of San Michele also known as the “Island of the Dead“; is occupied only by religious buildings and many tombs.
The church dedicated to Saint Michael, the holder of the scales on Judgement Day, a fit guardian of the sleep of the faithful dead.
In 1804 following Napoleon’s conquest and the fall of the Republic, he commanded that it was illegal and unhygienic to bury people on the main island.
There are two churches on the island, the large San Michele in Isola and the smaller San Cristoforo. The monastery of San Michele has been originally used by the Camaldolese monks and later by the Franciscan order. Since 2008, there are no inhabitants of the monastery.
The island can be readily distinguished by its high walls and cypresses and on the aspect facing Venice can be seen an elaborate central gateway and laterally several viewing portals; that add to cemetery’s character.
Above left to right: Campanile, Cappella Emiliana, Church of San Michele and Monastery buildings.
The island of San Michele is off the northern shore of Venice, and can be distinguished by its high walls and cypresses. The island is on the route of the regular vaporetto services 41 and 42 to Murano. The stop is called “Cimitero” and is a few minutes away from the Fondamente Nuove, in the district of Cannaregio.
A combined trip of the cemetery and Burano, fits in well with sightseeing schedules and can be recommended.
The cemetery covers quite a large area, about 450 x 400 metres, so allow up to 2 hours to take it all in.
The actual church of San Michele opening hours are restricted – closed at lunchtimes and may be shortened still further, if services are taking place.
Space is limited on the island, although an enlargement is under way; burials are squeezed in tightly. A new regulation was put in place in 1995 and Venetians are only guaranteed a few years of rest on San Michele. After a period of around ten years, remains are exhumed and stored in an ossuary or moved to other sites, According to relative’s wishes. The few exceptions to this rule are tombs belonging to notable Venetians or foreign celebrities. Discreet noticeboards around the entrance, list the timetable for exhumations).
(Please note: Even though many tourists visit San Michele, it is primarily a cemetery and not a tourist attraction. Keep this in mind when you visit the island. Many locals visit to mourn their fairly recently deceased loved ones; so, keep your distance and behave appropriately. The dress code is similar as in churches – no shorts or naked shoulders.
Photography is not allowed.
The present cemetery was originally two separate islands; San Cristoforo della Pace and Isola di San Michele. They were only joined together between 1835-9, when the channel between them was filled in and the space enlarged to give its present rectangular appearance.
San Cristoforo della Pace
The island of San Cristoforo, contained a 14th century church and monastery, by Pietro Lombardo. A protestant cemetery had been established there since 1719 and later Napoleon founded a larger monumental cemetery in 1807.
The church was demolished around 1810, which resulted in its works of art being destroyed or sold, mostly out of Italy.
The cemetery actually opened in 1813 and consisted of walled fields, with a small octagonal chapel and a pair of neo-Egyptian portals; based on a project of 1808 by Giannantonio Selva.
In 1825 the cemetery was expanded over to San Michele and between 1835-9 the channel between the islands was filled in.
Rebuilding took place from 1870 to neo-Gothic designs by Annibale Forcellini from 1858. In the 1880’s a neo-medieval church was built with an adjoining neo-renaissance entrance.
San Michele in Isola
The original church was founded in the 10th century and dedicated to the Archangel Michael; the holder of the scales on Judgement Day, a fit guardian of the sleep of the faithful dead.
Tradition holds that Saint Romuald, founder of the order, lived circa the year 1000 on this island; perhaps attracted by its insularity relative to the main islands of Venice itself.
The first documentation available, shows that permission for an enlarged church dedicated to St Michael, was granted to the monastic order of the Camaldolesi in 1212; under the assent of the Bishops Marco Niccola and Buono Balbi. The church was consecrated in 1221, attended by Doge Pietro Ziani.
(Note. The Camaldolese – Latin: Ordo Camaldulensium, are monks and nuns of two different, but related, monastic communities that trace their lineage to the monastic movement begun by Saint Romuald. Their name is derived from the Holy Hermitage (Italian: Sacro Eremo) of Camaldoli, high in the mountains of central Italy, near the city of Arezzo).
Left: The gothic entrance doorway to the right of the church at the vaporetto stop, leads to a 15th century cloister.
Amongst the monks who lived here were Fra Mario Capellari, who became Pope Gregory XVI, and the famed cartographer Fra Mauro (photo at bottom of post) . This monk, who never travelled the world, created around 1450; the most important world map of the Middle Ages. It can be seen at the Marciana library, on the Piazza San Marco.
The church was enlarged and consecrated in 1221. Rebuilt in its current form between 1469-78 by Mauro Codussi, who had previously worked for the Camaldolesi in Ravenna. This was his first building in Venice, begun when he was in his late 20’s and Venice’s first church in the Renaissance style. The design of the facade and its sole use of Istrian stone, was very influential on Venetian church architecture. When it was finished, a monk of the community wrote, “The facade, now complete and perfect, shiner of such a beauty so that it turns in itself the light of the eyes of all those who walk or sail by“.
In 1810 the monastery was suppressed by the Napoleonic armies, during his occupation of the Veneto. The monks continued their communal existence as the faculty of a college, until that too was dissolved in 1814. The community then transferred to Padua. At that point, many of the remaining monastic buildings were demolished; the land began being used as a cemetery.
- Exterior. The church has a tripartite facade divided by Ionic pilasters, with two superimposed levels. The lower one is characterised by a smooth ashlar, with a central portal with a triangular tympanum and two high arched windows in correspondence of the aisles. The upper level, included between the Ionic pilasters, has a large oculus, around which are arranged four polychrome marble disks. This second level is surmounted by the curved pediment, while the sides are connected by two other curved wings, with fine shell-shaped ornaments.
- Interior. The church is divided into three naves by round arches supported by columns. Each nave is covered with coffered ceilings and ends in a semicircular apse. There’s a modest monument (with his ashes), inside the vestibule to Paolo Sarpi. Also, a monument to benefactor Andrea Loredan, can be seen in the chancel.
The hexagonal Cappella Emiliana to the left of the facade was funded by the will of Margherita Vitturi, the widow of Giovanni Emiliani.
(Note: Thomas Coryate in his “Crudities” of 1608, describes Margherita as a ‘rich courtesan, who hoped to make expiation unto God by this holy deed, for the lascivious dalliances of her youth’).
It was built between 1529 to c.1535 by Guglielmo dei Grigi and repaired by Sansovino in 1560-62. The gothic doorway to the right of the facade leads to a 15th century cloister.
In 1835-39, the canal which divided the islands of San Michele and San Cristoforo was filled in, to enlarge the cemetery founded on the latter island by Napoleon in 1807 and the monastery here, passed to reformed Franciscans.
Recently the building was restored by the British organisation “Venice in Peril”, and now it gleams like new.
Ruskin wrote rather critically:
“The little Cappella Emiliana at the side of it has been much admired, but it would be difficult to find a building more feelingless or ridiculous. It is more like a German summer-house than a chapel, and may be briefly described as a bee-hive set on a low hexagonal tower, with dashes of stonework about its windows like the flourishes of an idle penman. The cloister of this church is pretty; and the attached cemetery is worth entering, for the sake of feeling the strangeness of the quiet sleeping ground in the midst of the sea”.
Built in 1460, it is 40m (130ft) in height, with electromechanical bells and is an unusually complex design; with brick relief decoration and a dome with a stone pinnacle.
The Gothic Doorway to the right of the facade, leads to a 15th century cloister.
THE ISLAND IN ART
Left: View North from Fondamenta Nuova of Venice of San Cristoforo, then San Michele, with Murano in background (1722), by Canaletto
Right: “The Island of San Michele by Francesco Guardi”
Above: Francesco Guardi (Venice 1712-1793). “The lagoon Venice, with the islands of San Michele and Murano behind“.
LOST ART OF THE ISLAND
Giovanni Bellini painted “Saint Jerome between Saints Peter and Paul”, for the altar of the funerary chapel of Grand Chancellor Giovanni Dedo, in San Cristoforo in 1505. Zanetti said it was in a poor state in 1771 and it’s now lost.
Another lost Bellini from this church is, “Saint John the Baptist Between Saint Jerome and Saint Francis” with a lunette depicting the “Virgin and Child, St Clare and St Veronica”. (which went to the then Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin and was presumably destroyed in 1945; where paintings from the Berlin collections were being stored, to protect them from bombing.
An altarpiece by Francesco Guardi was also destroyed. A “Virgin and Child with Saints”, by Alvise Vivarini is said to be in Berlin; but may have been the one destroyed in the same fire mentioned above.
Also a “Virgin and Child with Saints”, by Giovanni Agostino da Lodi (previously thought to be by Basaiti) painted for the ferrymen of Murano, is now in San Pietro Martire on Murano.
THE CEMETERY LAYOUT
Disembarking from the vaporetto platform onto the island, the cemetery is in front of you and immediately see the San Michele church, the Cappella Emiliana and monastery and on your left side.
The cemetery is large – the island being around 450 m x 400 m in size and has now a capacity of around 80,000 plots; divided up into many sections. Without a map, it is a rather confusing site – one is available on entry.
There are no facilities on the island, besides a toilet and a vending machine. If visiting in summer, remember to take water and sun protection; as there is little shade and it can get very hot.
There is 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, for artistic inspiration, to be cured, or just to be buried. The cemetery gives an insight as to the past importance and the charisma of Venice in the world.
The map indicates the different sections and is the quickest way to locate the graves of famous people; such as Ezra Pound, Joseph Brodsky, Igor Stravinsky (photo below), 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.
The cemetery is divided in sections, by walls, trees and paths; so, it doesn’t feel as one large area and gives a more intimate feeling going around.
The majority of the catholic sections are numbered. There are also separate areas for the Greek Orthodox, protestant foreigners, military, priests and nuns.
Notice different types of tombstones on the funeral grounds. The majority are individual gravestones, often decorated with pictures, statues or glass ornaments. Some of the offerings on more recent graves, may be not to everyone’s taste; but all are beautifully maintained. In the new section, these individual tombs are put in a wall ,which holds 38 vaults, (above left); a more efficient use of the limited space on the island. There are also many family graves of wealthier families.
There are also several small structures, which serve as a family grave that are spread over the cemetery. Some are real architectural jewels, such as the one in art deco style and the cubist-like structure in black and white in the Catholic section; or the small temple with lots of mosaic in the Greek section.
As of 2007, David Chipperfield Architects from the UK, added a program of several modern extensions to the island. The sections “The Courtyard of the Four 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; are reaching completion.
(Note: The Jewish community has its own cemetery at the Lido since the 14th century, whereas Muslims have a separate section at the Marghera cemetery).
Please see my other posts in my new series: Islands of the Lagoon