San Michele – Venetian Death Island

San Michele

I’m ready to walk through the nooks and crannies of Venice endlessly. In theory. I’m head over heels in love with these promenades and bridges with steps, these low arches and shabby walls. But sooner or later my feet get tired of the stones, and I just want to relax among the greenery and space for a change. And yes, you can find those in this city, you don’t necessarily have to return to the continent for a breath of space. I want to tell you about one of these places, not too far from the central squares.

The island of San Michele is halfway between the main part of the city (the historical quarters / sestiere) and the center of glass production (the Murano Islands). Here make their only stop between the Canaregio area and Murano by vaporetto passenger ships.

The main attraction of the island is the only city cemetery in Venice. And, if ever there were any others, the information about them has not come down to us anyway. For Russian tourists this cemetery is interesting first of all because here are buried ashes of several famous Russian composers: choreographer Sergey Dyagilev, composer Igor Stravinsky, journalist and writer Peter Weil and, of course, poet Joseph Brodsky.

A bit of history

Once upon a time San Michele was, firstly, two islands at once, and secondly, there was no cemetery, but only a church and a monastery. The church, San Michele-in-Isola, was built more than 500 years ago, during the heyday of the Venetian Republic, or rather, shortly before its decline.

The monastery housed an extensive library. And then times have changed, on the place of the monastery organized prison.

To this day, the island is still surrounded by a brick wall.

Cimitero San Michele (Cimitero San Michele)

The eternal problem of the Venetians is the lack of living space. And not just living space: for centuries, even after death, they had to deal with the lack of territory. Venetians buried their dead relatives wherever they could – some near churches, some right in gardens and cellars. Ironically, in order to give the residents of the city a chance to rest in a more organized and environmentally friendly way, the power itself had to die – only in the XIX century by order of Napoleon, who conquered the Republic of Venice, the city allocated a place for the official cemetery, prohibiting all these spontaneous burials where it was. And at the same time, they also increased the area for future burials by filling in the canal and connecting the two islands into one.

It didn’t help for long, but it didn’t solve all the problems. Today in Venice, people continue to die (at least more die than are born), and there are not enough places to bury them. To some people this may seem cynical, to others – on the contrary, a reasonable and effective business solution, but the bare facts are the following: every 10 years Venetians exhume remains to make room for the new dead, unless the relatives of the deceased decide to “extend” it for another term. Relatives have to pay extra fees just to keep the bones smoldering quietly in the ground. This applies to ordinary people whose tombstones are not historical monuments, and who were not fortunate enough to be a celebrity. As for celebrities, there are usually foundations, which pay for staying of their mortal remains in their permanent place.

If you do not know all these ambiguous facts or try to forget them successfully, in general, when you first meet San Michele is pleasantly surprising. And not just the first time. I stopped here almost every time I was in Venice. The island always brought a fresh jolt of variety to the busy schedule of walks through the Venetian labyrinths. For all its fabulousness Venezia Serenissima can sometimes tire with its stones, steps, narrow passages and crowds. For such cases, there is always the cozy corner of San Michele, located very close to the big noise and tourist frenzy. After a break in the open sea, a breath of fresh breeze, and a splash of salt on the face, we arrive here and find ourselves in a quarter that is unaccustomed to Venice’s verdant surroundings. It’s quiet, it’s easy to breathe, and even in the middle of the day and during the hottest seasons, there aren’t too many people here. The atmosphere is not depressing, because, strange as it may seem, it is not at all cemetery-like on the island. Much more the area resembles a suburban park.

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So, we arrived at the stop Cimitero (San-Michele). From the pier of the vaporetto go through the gate behind the wall. Behind the gate there’s a courtyard with neat lawns and an expressive semi-circular building.

Walking in a straight line through this courtyard, we arrive at the entrance to the cemetery itself.

Where to look for famous graves

It is not difficult to find the graves that interest us. It is enough to understand the structure of the cemetery. There are three main departments:

  • Catholic,
  • Orthodox (Reparto Greco),
  • Protestant (Reparto Evangelico).

Shall we look for Brodsky? Well, you’re wrong. Brodsky belongs to Protestants, because the atheist poet wasn’t accepted into the Orthodox branch, and the Catholics didn’t really need him.

The stone has a brief name and years of life, and everyone knows who this is, especially those for whom the inscription is in Cyrillic. On the opposite side of the tombstone is inscribed in Latin: Letum non omnia finit , which translates to: “Not everything ends with death.”

An unexpected location and a contradictory proverb – this is by no means a complete list of paradoxes accompanying the last journey of our great disgraced poet (who, even in life, was not inclined to go with the flow). If you want more – please: to find Brodsky’s resting place is helped by a conspicuous neighboring grave of his “fellow poet”, the Italian American Ezra Pound, whom the poet himself could not stand and with whom he by no means wished to lie next door. Iosif Alexandrovich even specifically asked for this in his lifetime, but, as you know, a man assumes. I had never heard of Pound before and learned about this author only in connection with his posthumous neighboring, but when I read a little about his life, this personality also seemed to me rather unsympathetic. And most people who read my text are unlikely to like him: Pound’s views were openly fascist and anti-Semitic. In the ’40s he supported Mussolini, and in the postwar period he ended up in an asylum. But now what is left of him can serve as a good guide for posterity.

As for landmarks, in order to make it easier to understand where what grave is located, you can use the scheme. They say that you can get this map in the cemetery administration. To be honest, I never went to the administration, so in this case – only from the words of other tourists. And here is the scheme:

To make it even clearer, I’m attaching the view of the island from the height of Google Earth. Compare the map and the photo and pretty quickly you’ll figure it out.

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It’s immediately obvious from the diagram that Stravinsky and Diaghilev are a stone’s throw away from Brodsky’s grave. As a matter of fact, when you walk towards the Orthodox and Protestant section, you’ll see a big list on the sign: Ezra Pound , Diaghilev , Stravinsky (that’s right, yeah. Ezra Pound still outdid our poet with his posthumous fame – either his creative work had some value after all, or, more likely, we have here the effect of the glory of Herostratus in its classic form; but, never mind, let’s leave it to the Venetians to choose whose names to put on the tablets, and not to meddle with our own rules in other people’s monasteries and graveyards.)

If on Brodsky’s grave admirers mostly put letters with their own and other people’s poems, then Diaghilev’s pedestal is studded and hung with ballet shoes, which ballet fans from around the world leave here.

And here Igor Stravinsky lies not alone, but with his beloved wife Vera.

These graves are of less interest to me. I love music, including classical music, but not in the ballet genre. I am sadly not so well acquainted with Stravinsky’s work and biography.

In the Orthodox part of the cemetery you can find a lot of other Russian names, though not as big. No surprise there.

Of celebrities not associated with Russia (except Ezra Pound), San Michele grounds are the resting place of physicist Christian Doppler, discoverer of the eponymous effect, French soccer player Elenio Herrera, and many others.

However, the emotions after visiting this place are rather bright and positive, despite the fact that there are so many dead people around, and despite the fact that we now know about the mercantilism of the Venetian authorities, who even after death do not let people sleep well and evict non-payers without unnecessary ceremonial “eviction”.

But there is perhaps one place in San Michele that brings to mind truly sad thoughts. This is the children’s cemetery (Recinto Bambini). It is on the way from the entrance to the Protestant and Orthodox sections. Most depressing are the numbers on the stones: very short sections. There is even a grave of a girl who lived in the world for 3 days. At any rate, there used to be. Should stay, as ten years have not yet passed since her short life.

Hours of Operation

Entrance to the cemetery is free. It is open from early morning:

  • during the spring and summer season (April-September), 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m;
  • in autumn-winter season (October-March) – 7:30-16:00.

What else to see

In keeping with tradition, I’ll start with a rosary, but end with a cheer. Yes, of course, the main thing for which many Russians usually go to San Michele is the tombs of great countrymen. However, the island and besides this there are many interesting and beautiful places. I would even dare to say that more interesting and more beautiful, but of course, this is a matter of taste.

A church with a chapel

The most notable of the other sights is the already mentioned San-Michele-in-Isola Church and Emiliani Chapel . The chapel looks like a typical Venetian building: it’s made of red brick, as most buildings of the time are supposed to be. The church itself, although very old (1469), is built of white stone. The architect is Mauro Codussi.

How to reach

The map shows a mini route around the cemetery:

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I confess frankly, my beloved woman and I are drawn to this island not for the stones, bones and names, and not for the domes either (after all, cathedrals and central Venice are overflowing). What we like most about San Michele is the area between the pier and the cemetery, the semi-circular square and the courtyard by the church.

If you go straight from the vaporetto stop and enter the gate, instead of stomping towards the graves, you turn left from the very square with the semi-circular building, you can get to the courtyard of the church of San Michele. It’s a beautiful enclosed courtyard with columns. It is reminiscent of something ancient, although of course it was not created before the church itself.

At one time it was possible to walk out of this courtyard through an arch directly into the sea.

And to the left of the exit you could sneak up to the white stone church from the water side.

On our last visit (Venice Carnival 2017), having escaped from the pandemonium and bustle of Piazza San Marco, these were the places on San Michele we chose for a romantic retreat in our mystery masks and costumes.

But that archway with the exit to the sea turned out to be closed during the carnival period. Unfortunately, I don’t know if this is temporary or for good.

Dante and Virgil.

Well, there’s another famous landmark that you can’t leave out when talking about the island of San Michele, although it’s not located on it. The fact is that there is almost certainly no way you can get past this landmark on the way to the island. It’s right in the sea. It is a monument to Dante and Virgil .

Here we can fantasize and imagine that the boat is sailing across the river Acheron, and the travelers are going straight through the afterlife to meet the souls of the dead. In a sense, it is, because the bow of the rook looks just at the island of San Michele.

The monument was erected in the middle of Venetian waters, interestingly enough, again by our compatriot Georgy Frangulyan (although originally from Tbilisi). No matter how you slice it, but speaking of the island of San Michele, now and again you stumble on a Russian trace.

Why you will not be able to avoid this monument on the way to San Michele, I will tell you right now, that is in the next section.

How to get to the island

It is only possible to get to the island by water. You can take a water cab, but it’s expensive. The best way – vaporetto – Venetian passenger river streetcar (if you are in Venice for more than one day, you probably already have the appropriate tourist card-ticket). Learn more about the vaporettos, routes, and tickets in this article.

San Michele is the Cimitero stop (it translates as “cemetery”). Vaporettos № 4.1 and № 4.2 stop here. You can get on at any stop, through which these two routes go.

If you are not on the same side of the tracks, the nearest way to get there is at the large transfer station Fondamente Nuove (Fondamente Nove/”New Promenade”), where you will catch number 4.1 or 4.2. To Fondamente Nuove it is not difficult to take another flight. In some central areas it is even easier to walk to the waterfront. For example, from the Rialto Bridge or from the station by land is faster than by water.

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At Fondamente Nuove there are a lot of marinas, get on at pier B, at the board catch the word Murano – that’s the direction we need to go in the direction of the island. From here we will have one stop.

Infrastructure

Where to eat on the island? In two words: not here.

If you want to walk around the island a little longer, stock up beforehand with dry rations or have a hearty meal elsewhere. This article on our website details the different places to eat in Venice, from inexpensive eateries to posh restaurants.

Of course, San Michele has no accommodation either, so you have to take a vaporetto here anyway. Of course, for the endless water everywhere and we love Venice. For a list of places to stay overnight in Venice, click here.

Island of San Michele

San Michele is a small island in the Venetian lagoon between Venice and the island of Murano. It is known for its cemetery, which is often compared to Paris’ Pere Lachaise cemetery, where famous people, including Russians, of culture and art are buried.

History and architecture of San Michele Island

The name of the Venetian island comes from the name of the 10th century church dedicated to the Archangel Michael. In the past, the island served as a marina for boats and was called Cavana de Muran. In 1212, the monks of Camaldolé settled on the island, leaving behind a most important cultural legacy: a library of 180,000 volumes and 36,000 manuscripts.

After the Napoleonic conquest, it was used as a prison for political prisoners and then, after a brief Franciscan presence, from 1829 onwards it was annexed to the nearby island of San Cristoforo and became the cemetery of the city of Venice.

On the island there is the famous church of San Michele in Isola, realized on a project of the architect Mauro Codossi in 1469. It is considered to be the first example of Renaissance religious architecture in Venice.

The facade of the church of San Michele is made of Istrian stone, imported from the island of Brazza, valuable for its unique and innovative features. The church was the predecessor of the church of San Giacomo in Sebenico, whose architect was Giorgio Orsini, who worked first in Venice and then between the shores of the Adriatic. The sculptor’s handwriting was the constant use of Istrian stone in his sculptures and buildings. It is believed that the Venetian Adriatic Renaissance began with these two works.

San Michele Island and Russian culture

Members of the Russian intelligentsia visiting Venice tend to visit San Michele even more often than the natives. They come from all over the world to worship the tombstones of the great representatives of Russian culture of the beginning of XX century: Joseph Brodsky, Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Dyagilev.

According to tradition, on Brodsky’s grave poems and cigarettes are placed instead of flowers. On the grave of “Firebird” composer, who is buried together with his wife, one can often see theater tickets. To the monument of Sergei Diaghilev, director of the famous company “Russian ballet”, organizer of the “World of Art” society and Russian evenings in Paris, ballet fans from around the world bring pointe shoes, which under the influence of weather conditions and sea salt are aesthetically integrated into the stone sculpture. By the way, Diaghilev died in the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the island of Lido, where the events of the film Death in Venice by Luchino Visconti, based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Mann, unfolded.

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Stravinsky’s grave was chosen as the place of pilgrimage for the main character in the final episode of the film “Youth” by the talented Italian director, Paolo Sorrentino. The film is shot with deliberate disdain for Venetian topography – the hero takes a long loop through the canals until he finds the tomb of his idol. The figures of Russian culture of the Silver Age are rarely known to ordinary Italians, which is why this island is mostly appreciated by Russians. But an unexpectedly famous Russian character in the cemetery of San Michele island was a Russian girl from the distant province of Kursk, buried there in 1907, long before her famous “neighbors.

Death in Venice the Russian way – the story of Sonia Kailenskaya

The creation of this sculpture and the story behind it is entirely consistent with the poetics of the Silver Age. It is dedicated to a Russian girl – Sofia Kailenskaya, known here as Sonia Kaliensky . According to Italian biographers, she was born in 1885 in Kursk Province and came from a not poor, perhaps even aristocratic family. The girl spent her days mostly traveling around Europe in search of love.

Thus, the young Sonia, at her 22 years of age, after experiencing adultery and disappointment, riding through the Old World, visited Italy in February 1907 and found herself in Venice at the height of the carnival. She stayed at the famous luxury Hotel Danieli near Piazza San Marco, where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Lord Byron had stayed in different years before and after Sophia. Goethe, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, Dickens, Proust, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, John Ruskin, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, Leonard Bernstein, Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and the list of its famous guests could go on and on.

But despite the general merriment of carnival night and the prosperous surroundings, Sonia could not overcome the pains of love and killed herself with a fatal dose of laudanum, a sleeping pill fashionable in those days among young ladies for settling scores with life. A rose was found on the dead girl’s chest, and in her hand was a picture of the perpetrator of her fatal suffering.

The family decided to bury her in Venice and commissioned the decadent sculptor Enrico Butti, who was fashionable at the time, to create a tombstone for their daughter. The artist created a life-size bronze monument with the figure of a young girl supported by three hooded figures. Sonia is depicted at the moment of her death, languidly prostrate on a bed, wearing a nightgown of very light, slightly wrinkled fabric. Italians love the work of their sculptor, as well as the passion of feelings that lay in the story of its creation, and are not lazy to put a fresh rose on the chest of the girl every time to recreate that tragic moment of the last day of her life.

To get to the island of San Michele from Venice

The island is located in Italy to the north of Venice on the way to the island of Murano. One must orient oneself to the towering chapel and cypresses of the central alley of the cemetery. You can get to the island by vaporetto, the city’s water transport.

From the stop “Fondamente Nove” take bus number 41 or 42 every 10 minutes, the terminal station is the island of Murano, but you must get off at the stop “Cimitero”. Visiting the cemetery is free.

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