30 August 2008

Death in Venice

I wonder how many tourists notice the “Cimitero” station on the vaporetto map but never think of spending an hour or so there. That station is the only stop on San Michele, the fortress-like island that is Venice’s cemetery. It’s a strange and fascinating place, well worth a visitor’s time.

Napoleon did Venice few favors when he came to conquer, but one was this: he made the decision to situate the Republic’s burial ground away from the main inhabited islands, as a sanitation measure in a place with a history of devastating plagues (69 outbreaks between 954 and 1793, the last). Since then San Michele (originally the two islands of San Michele and San Grisostomo, which were joined to increase burial space) has become something wonderful to see, somehow all the more odd in that its forbidding, heavy brick walls appear to float on the lagoon waters. Get off the boat and step inside those walls…

I did, and I found a place unlike any other I had ever seen. To begin, the grounds are much larger than one would imagine from viewing the island as the vaporetto approaches. They seem to stretch on forever. One has the sense of being in a pasha’s lush, walled garden. And it’s eerily quiet.

There are thousands of individuals resting in peace here, mostly stacked in row after row of mausoleums that look like big, white filing cabinets. There are also family sepulchers and single graves with traditional headstones. Grave decorations run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, not to mention the downright cheesy. Perhaps the most poignant sight is the little row of children’s graves near the entrance. I’m told there is also a somewhat unkempt Protestant cemetery on the grounds too, but I did not find it.

I have heard a grim adage in Venice. “San Michele,” people say, “is where Venetians at last become landowners.” But here’s a macabre fact – until a short time ago, most people buried at San Michele stayed only ten to twelve years, after which their remains and headstones were removed and unceremoniously dumped on a grim little island called the ossuario (boneyard) or “the island of snakes.” Nowadays they are merely tipped into a mass grave on another part of San Michele after their ten years of solitary slumber.

Of course, some illustrious individuals have merited undisturbed resting places. There are many “Golden Book” names inscribed on permanent markers (some of which are defaced!), as well as those of Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, and Joseph Brodsky, to name but a few. Franciscan Fra Paolo Sarpi, Venice’s tireless advocate for separation of church and state, and near-martyr for same, is buried right at the entrance. (Indeed, Franciscans still tend the grounds here.) Sergei Diaghilev’s grave is sometimes adorned with the ballet slippers of the dancers who have come to pay homage.

Myself, I dislike the practices of burial and entombment. It’s very creepy to me, the idea of being boxed up and put away, left in darkness forever on this somber, lizard-infested island, with lively, timeless Venice just a short journey over the waves. I would prefer to have my paltry ashes sprinkled from the crest of Rialto Bridge, preferably on the last night of a particularly beautiful and exciting Carnevale. At least from that damp grave I might still be able to see the moonlight on the water and hear the serenades of the gondolieri.