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The Lost Islands of Venice

© San Marco Press, IL Circolo Dipendenti Carive & IL Consorzio Venezia Nuova

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.

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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.

Poveglia

“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.

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Lazzaretto Nuovo

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).