Strange Geographies: the Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia
A quarantine station, a dumping ground for plague victims, more recently a mental hospital -- the tiny island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon has served many unpleasant purposes over the years, but today it stands empty, a crumbling collection of abandoned buildings and weeds run riot just two miles from the glittering palaces of the Grand Canal. Legends and rumors about Poveglia are nearly as pervasive as the weeds, and they read like a horror story: that so many people were burned and buried there during the black plague that the soil is 50% human ash; that local fishermen give the island a wide berth for fear of netting the wave-polished bones of ancestors; that the psychiatrist who ran the mental hospital was a butcher and torturer who went mad from guilt and threw himself from the island's belltower, only to survive the fall and be strangled by a "ghostly mist" that emerged from the ground.
Weary of an island in their beloved lagoon being characterized as a "festering blemish ... the waves reluctantly lapping its darkened shores" (from a book called TRUE Hauntings from Around the World, emphasis not mine) or "nothing more than a cesspool of pure dread" (according to the hyperbolic host of a show called Ghost Adventures), Venetians have done what they can to tamp down overheated rumors about Poveglia. They deny being frightened of the place and tend not to mention the plague pits or mental hospital when discussing the island's history; a recent article in Venice magazine claimed that the institutional ruins which dominate Poveglia were nothing more than a rest home for the elderly.
But as long as the island remains tantalizingly off-limits to tourists and crammed with rotting buildings that are just a gondola ride from some of Europe's priciest real estate, rumors will keep flying and people will keep telling scary stories about it. I wanted to sort out the truth from the rumors, the legends from the dismissive shrugs of the locals. In Venice for five days to write about the city for mental_floss (the first installment is here), I couldn't pass up exploring the "island of terror." What I found there was both stranger and more innocuous than anything I had heard.
As it turns out, getting to Poveglia isn't as easy as it sounds. While upwards of three million people descend upon Venice and a few of the more touristy resort islands around it each year, virtually no one goes to Poveglia. According to most travel guides, the island is "not visitable," and the idea of flagging down a water taxi on the Grand Canal and asking for a ride to a far-flung island of abandoned buildings was laughable. (People have tried it; it doesn't work.) It took a few days to find a boat operator who would agree to take me there, and while it wasn't cheap, it included a whole day on the lagoon during which I could visit a few other islands too, if I wanted, and it even included lunch, cooked on a propane burner right on the boat.
Approaching the island, the first thing you see is the bell tower. It's the most visible and also one of the oldest structures on the island, the only remnant of a 12th-century church that was abandoned and destroyed hundreds of years ago. The tower was turned into a lighthouse in the 18th century, and now serves no purpose other than as a landmark (unless you're a suicidal, possibly-legendary mad doctor).
Next you see the island's octagonal battlement, known as "the octagon," which was built in the 14th century to repel Genoese invaders. (The Genoese and Venetians had a bloody rivalry for centuries.) In addition to the countless others who are supposed to have met their untimely ends on Poveglia, the octagon was used by English soldiers during the Napoleonic wars to ambush French commandos. Prisoners were taken ashore and burned (this "almost became a habit," according to one history book) and -- again, this is a rumor -- destroyed French ships still decorate the bottom of the lagoon around the octagon.
We navigate to one side of the octagon and come into a little canal, where the mental hospital is revealed behind a stand of trees. (The building may have served other purposes, but I can only describe it as what it looks like -- somewhere insane people are incarcerated.) We slide up to a landing, tie the boat to a strut of the mental hospital and hop ashore. That's the octagon on the left, the hospital on the right.
The place strikes me as anything but a "cesspool of dread." Maybe it's the sun and the salty air and the teal water everywhere, but even covered with abandoned buildings, it doesn't seem creepy in the least. (Of course, I hadn't gone inside them yet -- past the fences and the warning signs -- so the jury was still out.) I found one local history book that confirmed the island's use as not a retirement home exactly, but as an institution used to house "aged indigents," who I suppose in America would be better known as old homeless people. Still, the picture this book paints of their lives on Poveglia seemed more or less consistent with my cheerful first impressions:
Aged people, who were to be seen sunning themselves happily upon its lawns, or on aged ships, still laid up in a neighboring channel, pitifully streaked with rust and salt, their only attendants the skeleton crews who maintain their engines ...
The aged indigent home was abandoned in 1968 and the island has been empty ever since. Twenty years ago, work crews hastily erected scaffolding all along the main buildings' frontage -- not to fix them up, my guide told me, but merely to delay their falling down. Oh, and this photo puts to rest another rumor: that fishermen won't go near Poveglia. Those sticks placed at intervals along the concrete below -- those are fishing nets.
But the indigent home was merely the last of Poveglia's institutional incarnations. Its first was as a lazaretto, a quarantine island for maritime travelers, one of three in the Venice lagoon. Lazaretto Vecchio, just a stone's throw from Poveglia, opened in 1403, the first institution of its kind. Plague and disease were huge problems in the medieval world, especially in trading centers like Venice. But Venice had some of the strictest sanitary laws anywhere, and even though they didn't understand how germs and infections worked, they knew that isolating sick travelers was an effective way to prevent or lessen the severity of outbreaks. It was Venice that coined the term quarantine, which is derived from the duration travelers were required to stay at a lazaretto before they could be issued a clean bill of health and continue on their way -- forty days. Quaranta giorni.
But confinement in Poveglia's lazaretto wasn't always, or even usually, a death sentence. It was more like purgatory: boring, though not necessarily unpleasant. Most wayfarers had their own room, sometimes even their own little apartment. They were fed well and drank together and they could send and receive mail (though outgoing letters were, according to an 1831 inmate of Poveglia's lazaretto, "stabbed, sprinkled with vinegar, and fumigated" before leaving the island).
But during the full fury of a plague outbreak, of which Venice underwent many, there's little doubt that the lazarettos tuned from Purgatory into Hell. Venice considered itself lucky that, thanks in part to its relatively strict sanitation laws, it lost merely a third of its population during one 16th century outbreak. (The death toll on the mainland of Italy was, by comparison, far worse.) Panicked officials shipped anyone displaying symptoms of plague, be they commoners or nobility, off to the lazarettos. Doctors wore long-nosed masks stuffed with herbs in an attempt to filter sickness from the air they breathed.
During the worst outbreaks, the islands were quickly overrun with the dead and dying, who were hastily shoveled into grave pits, and when those were full, burned. There are surely such grave pits on Poveglia, though their locations are unmarked and unknown. Local lore holds that the part of the island traditionally used for growing food held most of the bodies.
Work crews on nearby Lazaretto Vecchio were digging the foundation for a new museum when they came across one such grave pit, filled with the remains of more than 1,500 plague victims.
Archaeologists immediately set to work examining the grisly find, and discovered something even more shocking: a vampire. Which is to say, someone who was thought to be a vampire back in the 16th century. The tip off: there was a brick shoved between its teeth, which it was believed would starve the vampire, better known in historical parlance as a shroud-eater.
As far as bricks and vampires go, there's a sound, albeit medieval chain of logic at work here. An MSNBC article about the vampire's discovery explains:
During epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh corpses and diggers would chance upon older bodies that were bloated, with blood seeping out of their mouth and with an inexplicable hole in the shroud used to cover their face.
"These characteristics are all tied to the decomposition of bodies," Borrini said. "But they saw a fat, dead person, full of blood and with a hole in the shroud, so they would say: 'This guy is alive, he's drinking blood and eating his shroud.'"
Modern forensic science shows the bloating is caused by a buildup of gases, while fluid seeping from the mouth is pushed up by decomposing organs, Borrini said. The shroud would have been consumed by bacteria found in the mouth area, he said. At the time however, what passed for scientific texts taught that "shroud-eaters" were vampires who fed on the cloth and cast a spell that would spread the plague in order to increase their ranks.
To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be forced into the vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.
Imagine, then, what horrors may lie waiting to be discovered in Poveglia's plague pits, which remain unexplored. Estimates that sound impossible but which I've seen on a number of websites, in a book and on that stupid episode of Ghost Adventures place the number of people who were burned or buried here in the hundreds of thousands. Looking at the numbers, I suppose it's possible: in just the plague of 1576 alone, Venice lost 50,000 people (which, creepily, is the current population of Venice) -- and there were at least twenty-two outbreaks of plague in the two hundred years before that. If that sounds staggering, unimaginable even, it seemed so to Venetians of the middle ages, as well. Here's how a 14th century Italian named Giovanni Bocaccio described it:
The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth.
So yeah, I think it's entirely believable that Poveglia's soil is littered with bones. It's entirely common. What's uncommon is to know where they are -- to be able to say yes, that island -- because such were the sanitary laws of Venice that there was actually a place for the sick to go, to be quarantined, and to die.
This jungly part of the island, most recently a small vineyard, is where the pits are thought most likely to be. And speaking of burning things, looks like someone thought this was a good spot for a little campfire action. Who wants a hot dog?
Okay, back to the insane asylum. Which is -- yes -- what was built here in 1922. For some reason, the wikipedia page on Poveglia claims that "the institution in question was not a mental hospital," which is total bunko. How do I know, despite the controversy, that at least part of this place housed mental patients?
Simple: I found the sign.
Also, if you poke around in the bushes a little, you'll find all the bars that used to be on the windows. (I assume they weren't there to keep burglars out, or old people in.)
What's more, the place is very, very institutional feeling, from the drab paint on the peeling walls to the stacks of beds and bedframes I found in several rooms.
There's a little chapel inside the hospital, too, its walls greening with mold, pews broken by vandals. It seems like something you'd only need on an island whose residents were not allowed to leave.
The boundary between indoor and outdoor no longer means much here. There are vines growing into every window, and ceilings collapsed into piles of beams and roofing tiles that are themselves slowly being covered with vegetation.
Despite all this apparent creepiness, I never felt ill at ease while picking through the ruins of Poveglia. It was a bit like I imagine exploring the ruins of Mayan temples would be -- more like you're in a strange kind of park than a horror movie.
The floor of one room was totally covered, a half-inch thick in some places, with the torn-out pages of Italian books.
Some of the more accessible rooms had been spray-painted with graffiti -- evidence, rumor has it, of "raves in the nineties."
Here's a clever play on words.
Despite the grime and debris that seemed to cover everything -- or perhaps because of it -- little details stuck out, like the tile pattern in this once-handsome floor.
Or this door's peeling paint.
There was plenty of evidence around that this had been a large institutional operation responsible for the care and feeding of lots of people -- like this industrial kitchen.
These must have been some of the first electric washing machines available.
I have no idea what this was for, but it looks serious.
This was called il manglia or "the mangler," used for wringing out wet sheets and clothes.
Behind the main hospital building were a few smaller structures that looked like they might've been staff housing. (Perhaps it belonged to the mad doctor himself.) The underbrush had closed around this building so aggressively that I almost didn't see it.
Around the side of the house was this classy granite clawfoot tub. I want one!
Inside the house were a few partially-furnished rooms with sofas moldering in corners and curtains still in the windows. This trunk seemed an especially promising find -- though it was, unfortunately, empty.
This stairwell was in a building filled with sinister-looking industrial equipment. Through the window is the canal and the octagon beyond it.
It led to a roof, where these little observation towers look out onto the lagoon, and given this view, I couldn't help but be cheered. It was strange: if any place in the world was haunted, this place was. But regardless of its history as a burial ground and quarantine hospital and insane asylum and lord knows what else, the weather and the rampant greenery made it feel like a happy place, somewhere I wouldn't mind being stuck for a few weeks, if it were the 16th century and I was suspected of carrying the plague.
Someplace, even, where you might stop for a picnic. Which, in fact, is exactly what I did. When I'd finished exploring the island and returned to the boat, I found that my guide, who'd stayed with the boat while I was gone, had set out a table and prepared a wonderful Venetian feast: sauteed polpo, or octopus, polenta with prawns, a nice fritto mixto, and a risotto made with stinging nettles that she had harvested from the underbrush growing into the windows of the abandoned mental asylum -- all prepared on a single propane-fired hotplate, and followed up with desert wine and some traditional almond cookies. Honestly, it was one of the best meals I had of the five days I was in Venice.
All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon on the most haunted island in Italy.
Prints and high-resolution digital downloads of photos from this essay are here.