The Lost Islands of Venice
Scattered across the lagoon—and far from the familiar itineraries—an archipelago of abandoned islands is filled with ruins and largely forgotten stories.
Inevitably, there comes a point when every Venice lover looks beyond the glittering city out to the string of islands spread out across the lagoon. There are the well-traveled spots: Murano, famous for glassmaking; Burano, home of Venetian lacemakers; Torcello, with its Byzantine mosaics. But arguably more intriguing are the abandoned islands— the ones filled with ruined monasteries, churches, overgrown gardens and fantastic, if largely forgotten, stories from the days when they were thriving communities of the Most Serene Republic.
Their decline began with the fall of Venice, in 1797. Napoléon shut down the monasteries, plundered the churches, removed the residents and converted many of the islands into fortified garrisons. The Austrians, who took over from the French after the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, added barracks and powder magazines. After Venice was absorbed into the new Italian state, in 1866, the islands remained under military control but gradually lost their defensive role. The buildings crumbled, the vegetation grew thick. Erosion from wind and tides and shifting sands did the rest.
“You don’t have to go to the Amazon to find an impenetrable jungle,” says Maurizio Crovato, a journalist and author of several books on Venice. “These abandoned islands will do just fine.” In the seventies, Crovato and his twin brother, Giorgio, rowed from one end of the lagoon to the other, documenting the ruins. The result was a beautiful and poignant book, The Abandoned Islands of the Venetian Lagoon, recently reissued in a bilingual edition by San Marco Press.
This forgotten archipelago is not part of any regular tourist itinerary, but by hiring an experienced boatman, visitors can see most of the islands, or at least sail close to their shores. The reward is a thrill of discovery that’s now harder to find in Venice’s crowded streets and canals.
Once, the city was viewed as gracefully sinking. Now that more apocalyptic scenarios prevail, with water levels expected to rise as much as several feet in this century, I can’t help thinking about these ruined remnants of the old republic as a portent of possible things to come for Venice—and as silent witnesses to the lagoon’s constant change.
San Giorgio in Alga
On a sunny day in early spring, my friend Stefano Morassutti picked me up in his old wooden topa, a long and narrow outboard commonly used in the lagoon. Heading south from the western end of Giudecca, about a mile out we reached San Giorgio in Alga, named after the seaweed that grows profusely in the surrounding waters.
First colonized in the 13th century by Benedictine monks, this tiny island became a popular halfway station between the mainland and Venice. During the Renaissance it was an important center for humanism and had a famous library. Prints from the 17th and 18th centuries depict a large monastery, a major church and several palaces. Foreign dignitaries stopped here before making their formal entrance into Venice. Now reduced to ruins half-hidden by brambles, San Giorgio in Alga retains a romantic allure.
After mooring our boat by the ruins of a great palace, Stefano and I set about exploring vaulted passages, marble archways and staircases that led nowhere. I tried to imagine the magnificent ceremony held on the island in 1782, when Doge Renier greeted Pope Pius VI as he stopped here.
The wild privet had grown so thick that we struggled to make our way across the island, scaring ducks and wood pigeons at every step. At the end of what must have once been a delightful flower garden, we came upon a large concrete anti-aircraft bunker built by the Nazis. Climbing on the roof, we peered out across the lagoon. It was the same view German soldiers had some 65 years ago, anticipating an Allied invasion.