The Lost Islands of Venice
On the opposite side of the lagoon, I took the number 13 vaporetto at the Fondamenta Nuove heading toward the island of Sant’Erasmo. After a 20-minute ride, I got off at Lazzaretto Nuovo (the vaporetto stops here only upon request) and was greeted by Gerolamo Fazzini, an amiable archaeologist who has devoted much of his life to restoring the island’s historic quarantine station and happily gives tours (in Italian only; 39-339/179-7011).
Once covered with vineyards and orchards, the island was taken over by the Republic in 1478 and converted into the city’s main center for preventing the plague. All merchant ships had to dock here before entering Venice. Tons of merchandise—mostly spices and fabrics from the East—were unloaded and stored in Tezon Grande, a 360-foot-long brick building with open arches along its sides through which the goods were taken out every day to be ventilated. The ships’ crews had to stay for 40 days, and the men were lodged in comfortable houses built along the island’s perimeter wall. Each had its own bathroom and kitchen, an extraordinary luxury for the time.
“This was a very efficient citadel for preventing the spread of disease,” Fazzini remarked as we walked the grounds. “Several thousand people lived here at any given time. The Republic made sure the food was satisfactory and the accommodations comfortable so that sailors and merchants would agree to be quarantined. In fact, they looked forward to spending time here, after months at sea in awful living conditions.”
The island was paved entirely with Venetian bricks—there were no trees or plants because they were thought to spread germs. Doctors made regular rounds, and all suspected cases were shipped to Lazzaretto Vecchio, an island near the Lido where plague victims were sent to die.
After the fall of the Republic, Lazzaretto Nuovo was used as a military outpost, first by the French, then by the Austrians, and was later abandoned. “By the time I came along, in the mid-seventies,” Fazzini said, “the place was buried under thick layers of vegetation.” Now the island has been cleaned up, and the restored buildings are open to the public. It’s particularly beautiful in the spring. Tezon Grande stands like a monument in a vast meadow that, on the day of my visit, was covered with daisies and buttercups. Adding an element of refinement, there’s an allée of mulberries planted by the Austrians more than 200 years ago.
San Francesco del Deserto
Of all the islands in the lagoon, San Francesco del Deserto (Saint Francis in the Desert) is the easiest to recognize from a distance: Cypresses around the old monastery form a distinctive spiky silhouette. It is not, like the other islands on my tour, abandoned, though its only year-round inhabitants are a half-dozen monks.
The easiest way to reach the island is to take the ferry from Fondamenta Nuove to Burano, where, following the monks’ instructions, I sought out Massimiliano, an easygoing Buranese who keeps his blue-and-red bragozzo moored by the carabinieri station. He agreed to take me to San Francesco and back for about $13.
The island is well-tended and peaceful (along with cypresses, there are olive groves, linden trees and alleyways bordered with rosebushes and hydrangea), and it holds a special place in the hearts of Franciscans. In 1220 Saint Francis of Assisi, returning from Egypt on a Venetian ship, came here looking for a secluded spot for prayer and built a hut near the remains of an old Byzantine chapel. According to Franciscan lore, the birds in the lagoon made such a racket, he couldn’t concentrate on his prayers, so he asked them to quiet down—and they did.
Saint Francis left after a couple of months, but the island’s owner, a Venetian patrician named Jacopo Michiel, had a little church erected on the site of Francis’s hut. In 1233 he donated the island to the Franciscan Order, and it has been an important place of worship ever since. A larger church was built atop the older buildings in the 15th century, and the three different layers are still visible today.
In 1810 Napoléon sent the monks away and turned San Francesco del Deserto into a military base. But the Franciscans were able to return in the mid-1800s. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, in Venice on his honeymoon, donated the island to the patriarch, who handed it back to the Franciscans.
These days as many as 25 people a weekend come here on spiritual retreats (isola-sanfrancescodeldeserto.it). Guests are expected to follow a rigorous routine. “We pray seven times a day, starting at 6:45 a.m.,” said Father Sebastiano. “This isn’t a place to find some peace and quiet and do one’s own thing.”
If you want to explore the lagoon without crowded ferries or timetables, Cristina della Toffola will take up to nine people in her bragozzo ($475 for a full day; veniceboat.org), and Manola Scarpa of the Laguna Fla Group takes up to 15 ($400 for a full day; lagunafla.it).