All but abandoned, the island of Poveglia has in recent history served merely as in an eery sight for boats passing by in an otherwise dreamy lagoon. No waterboat nor water taxi will take you there, and other than perhaps some brave fisherman and vintners, it’s a largely avoided and unspoken about part of Venice’s long and fascinating history. When you start to dive into this seemingly shy island’s back story, it’s pretty easy to understand why people are so horrified, or at the very least aim to avoid it entirely. There’s enough doom, gloom, bones, and misery there to make even the most skeptical person feel a cold shiver down their spine!
Venetians were extremely smart about use of the lagoon and its many islands historically, in terms of safety, defense, and space. For example the islands of Murano and Burano are dedicated to glass-making factories, not by chance but by design: the fire hazard these factories introduce made shifting them all to an uninhabited island an intelligent safety measure (both then and now). Poveglia also served particular needs, although not pleasant ones. This island has been a place for quarantining and treating plague victims as well as their inevitable burial location – in makeshift mass graves where thousands upon thousands of bodies were haphazardly dumped during some especially bad epidemics (consider that the city of Venice lost 50,000 people to the 16th century black plague alone). It later also served as a mental hospital location, where it’s rumored that unspeakably horrible things were done to its patients (and some suicides followed).
I have never had the (mis)fortune of stepping foot on this island, but I can say that it gave me massive chills each time I’ve floated by it, even before I knew its sinister history. And I can’t help but wonder: what brave, brave soul manages those vines and wines that result on such sordid soil?
For a more intimate look at the island (by an arguably unspookable journalist), take a look at this great article which includes amazing pictures and insight on this forgotten place – Strange Geographies: The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia
Aubrie “Toil and Trouble” Talarico