On most trips to Venice you will tend to find that there is far more to see and do than you will ever manage to fit into your visit. To stay for an extended period of time however makes things a little different. The city is in actuality a very small place, and with an economy geared almost exclusively towards tourism it can be an expensive place to try and call home. Here in Scotland it is easy to entertain yourself without spending money, as there is a bounty of free museums and galleries to immerse yourself in. In Italy they are not so fortunate.
As a UNESCO heritage site in its entirety, you often hear of Venice referred to as one big free museum in itself, which in a way it is, and this is something I took full advantage of. However, it is a small place as I said, and given enough time, which I had, you can explore it all. For this reason, my quest for free heritage took me on the unexpected pleasure of visit to Isola di San Michele, or as some refer to it, “Cemetery Island.”
On paper this sounds like a remarkably morbid day out, and unsurprisingly some people commented that it was an odd way to spend a day off in Venice. What was surprising though, is that nothing could be further from the truth. What you find at San Michele is that for an island dedicated solely to laying the dead to rest, it is brimming with life. It’s a refreshingly green space; something that is hard to come by in Venice when the Bienale grounds are closed and the January trees are bare. The mere sight of grass is a rare treat but combined with the rolling swathes of flowers it is a truly beautiful sight. For a 200-year-old cemetery there are very few forgotten graves. To appropriate the popular Albert Camus quote, even in “the midst of winter,” you can find an “invincible summer” at Isola di San Michele.
Despite its unexpected natural beauty, it is San Michele’s collected history that provides its real intrigue. If the city of Venice is an open-air museum, then its adjacent Cemetery Island most certainly is too. The most obvious of its collected points of interest is the Chiesa di San Michele all’Isola, built in 1469 by Mauro Cadussi and is the very first example of what is now Venice’s famed renaissance architecture. The cemetery is also the sight of several notable graves, including Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, the physicist Christian Doppler, pioneering Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, and the modernist poet responsible for the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Ezra Pound.
However it is in its subtleties that San Michele functions as a fascinating museum. By progressing through the islands generally linear chronology of tombs, the graves of Cemetery Island form a series of timelines, revealing a number of histories on top of the individuals they represent. For example, the designs of the headstones over time are very telling. The earliest examples are awash with grandiose catholic imagery, which dominate and often spill out into their surrounding environment. As a nation that still retains a powerful Christian identity, the religious imagery of the graves never ceases, but there is a definite “tapering down” of it displayed over time. The most striking change in design trends comes as you progress into the interwar period of the 1920s and 30’s, where the headstones take on the austere simplicity of the art deco styles popular with the fascist movements of the period and its instantly recognisable accompanying typography. As you move through the 50’s and into the present you finally see a shift to graves representing the individual above faith and ideology. Although smaller they become more personal, with a softer, warmer image that is indicative of the increasing personal freedoms that their compatriots of the 200 previous years, for whatever reasons at the time, did not share.
Another interesting change that occurs at around the 1920’s mark is brought about by the advent of photography and the curious catholic tradition of furnishing headstones with portraits of their deceased. While a little jarring at first to those not used to them, they are fascinating historical documents. When collected they form almost 100 years worth of formal photography styles, hairstyles and “Sunday Best” fashions. Once again there is a visible change in attitudes over time too, with a relaxing of the imagery used. As you walk around the newer graves you see a tendency to shy away from the strict family portrait compositions of the past, in favour of more informal, natural shots. You begin to see people in their everyday clothes and in everyday situations, often as younger Venetian men and women, socialising or relaxing by their boats.
While one should never forget the purpose of a cemetery, there is more to discover there than just people. The graves at San Michele when viewed collectively provide fascinating source material. Unlike a proper museum however, there is no contextual information or interpretation given, it is simply a case of choosing to see more. I saw evolutions in design, technology, social attitudes and conventions, and even fashions. You may find others.
You can even pinpoint the social and economic histories of the times, with a prominent Jewish orthodox section that alludes, for example, to the multiculturalism of Venice that came with its great maritime trading history, but also provided an economic disparity in its people, that continues to be fostered today in its current manifestation as a tourist attraction. For every ornamented 19th century monolith there is a counterpart crucifix made of sticks, and among the granite 21st century headstones there is at their polar extreme an occasional concrete block, annotated heartbreakingly in marker pen.
As you reach the end of the newest of San Michele’s columbarium you will even see, possibly for the first time on your Venetian visit, construction, as the cemetery continues to be extended. Providing a stark reminder of the progression of time, in comparison with Venice itself which is frozen in it. While the city concerns itself only with preservation and restoration, the construction at San Michele means that the historical timelines you can observe through its graves will continue to grow.
Venice is a heritage site, Isola di San Michele on the other hand is inadvertently an ever-evolving museum, just not in the traditional sense. It’s a creation of accidental community cooperation over hundreds of years, and it is self-curating. Self-curating both in that the information it contains comes naturally to it, and in that it is the responsibility of the individual visitor to decide what they can learn from it. As the old saying goes, “dead men tell no tales,” but there are stories to be found as long as you know where to look.