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If you are jostling with the tourist crowds between the Rialto and San Marco, you might hardly credit that there is a corner of Venice which is even more overcrowded. Hop on a vaporetto for the short ride to ‘Cimitero’ to find Igor Stravinsky rubbing shoulders with Sergei Diaghilev. Where else in Venice will you find American and Russian poets (for example Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky) in quiet communion with thousands of ordinary Venetians?
The Isola di San Michele is Venice’s island of the dead. It lies in the lagoon between the Fondamente Nuove and the glassmaking island of Murano. Indeed, the view of the cemetery from the Fondamente Nuove is one of the most celebrated of Venetian waterscapes. The severe red walls of the Isola di San Michele contrast with the lovely off-white stone of the Renaissance façade of the Church of San Michele and the adjacent Cappella Emiliana.
Venice’s first Renaissance church
The cemetery island is worth a visit even if name-checking dead poets isn’t your kind of fun. You’ll get a chance to see Venice’s very first Renaissance church. It is a very fine piece of architecture, dedicated to the Archangel Michael who is often represented in Western art as weighing the good and evil works of the deceased. St Michael and his scales are thus heavily embedded into the Catholic iconography of death and Paradise. So he’s a safe choice as patron of an island of the dead. It was a prescient decision to dedicate the place to St Michael, for this was not always an island of the dead. It was only in the early nineteenth century that the island was converted to a cemetery—part of a clean-up program designed to make the main Venetian islands a little more sanitary.
Visiting the island
Most vaporetti pass by the island without stopping. It is only those on Routes 4.1 and 4.2 which routinely serve Cimitero, and it is certainly worth a stop. This little island is a haven of silence just a short ride from the crowded heart of Venice. Local families often head out to the island on a sunny Sunday in spring or summer, but if you want to witness the Isola di San Michele in its most sombre mood, visit the cemetery on All Souls Day (Giorno dei Morti), celebrated on 2 November each year. Whatever day you visit, the Isola di San Michele is a quiet reminder that Venetians have refined the business of death and burial into a high art.
This is the first of two posts on Venice by Nicky and Susanne. Their second post looks at other islands in the Venetian Lagoon.
For more tips on Venice, check out EuroCheapo’s city guide.