The Lost Islands of Venice
Sant’Angelo in Polvere
A s we landed on a beach of old bricks and oyster shells, there was suddenly a deafening noise, like a thunderclap, and the skies above us filled with ducks frantically flapping their wings before disappearing over the lagoon. “Volpoche! Volpoche!” Stefano cried out, using the Italian word for shelducks, whose name is a contraction of volpe (fox) and oche (geese). Bigger than most ducks, they nest in the lairs of foxes and other mammals, and here on Sant’Angelo in Polvere they are attracted to the abundant rabbit holes. They are also said to mate for life.
But this island was once famously—or infamously—a place of less enduring liaisons. The first monastery was built here as early as 1060. It passed from one religious order to another and eventually turned into a convent that, over the years, acquired a reputation for loose morals. Fishermen rowing home to the Lido from the main market at Rialto took to stopping at the convent and spending their earnings on sexual favors. Things got out of hand. In the early 1500s Venetian authorities, alerted by the fishermen’s wives, sent troops to evict the promiscuous nuns, who were removed to Giudecca, closer to the city.
In the 16th century the Republic transformed Sant’Angelo in Polvere into a gunpowder depot and built a fortress to protect it. But the depot blew up when it was struck by lightning in 1689. The Austrians built a new military facility here in the 19th century and made sure they wrapped the two powder magazines in lightning-resistant armor. Though their roofs collapsed long ago, the buildings still stand, like empty boxes caged in useless metal carapaces, separated by a steep mound filled with rabbit holes.
“Beware of the ghosts,” Maurizio Crovato warned me when I told him I was going to visit Poveglia, a shrinking island that faces the old harbor of Malamocco, on the Lido. Back in the days of the Republic, Poveglia was used on and off as a quarantine station against the plague. “Legend has it,” Crovato said, “that anyone approaching the island will hear the wailing of those who died there.” It turns out there are all kinds of ghosts on Poveglia.
The island’s earliest claim to fame dates from a.d. 809, when its residents blocked the advance of Pipin the Brief’s Frankish army into the lagoon. During the tenth century the population grew to several hundred, and houses with vineyards and gardens were clustered around the Romanesque Church of San Vitale. Poveglia thrived for close to four centuries, thanks to its monopoly on tugging rights in and out of Malamocco. The island enjoyed considerable autonomy from Venice and a number of privileges—among them the right of its representatives to kiss the doge on the mouth once a year. But when the Genoese threatened the lagoon during the war of 1379–81, Poveglia’s residents were removed to Venice (it’s not clear whether this was to protect them or because they were conniving with the enemy). Few returned after the war, and by 1527 there were only eight people living there. Napoléon later had the church torn down and its old steeple refitted as a lighthouse.
What’s there today are remnants of the island’s last incarnation, as a center for the care of the elderly, built a century ago and closed due to a lack of funds in 1968. The buildings are now entirely overgrown with ivy. The park is a jungle.
Poveglia’s last resident was Renato Scarpi, a caretaker who carved out of the ruins a shelter he shared with his cats and dogs until his death, in the mid-eighties. Walk into the main building now and the kitchen, with its rusty turn-of-the-century stoves, survives in a time warp. Next door, the laundry room, with washing vats and mechanical driers, is nearly intact. And upstairs, in the large communal bedrooms, dozens of spring beds are stacked up as if waiting to be taken away by movers.