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San Michele in Isola 
Jpg: Philip Resheph


Just opposite the Fondamenta Nuove, halfway between Venice and Murano, this is the island where any tour of the lagoon begins. But for many Venetians it is their last stop, as San Michele is the historic  site of the city's cemetery. Early in the  morning, the vaporetto is packed with Venetians coming over to lay flowers. This is not a morbid spot, though - like  Père Lachaise in Paris, it is an elegant and explorable city of the dead, with more than one famous resident.

An orderly red-brick wall runs round the  whole of the island, with a line of tall cypress trees rising high behind it - the inspiration for Böcklin's famously
 lugubrious painting Island of the Dead. The vaporetto only takes a couple of minutes, stopping at the elegant Convento di San Michele in Isola (open  7.30am-12.15pm, 3-4pm, daily). Built by Mauro Coducci in the 1460s, this striking  white building of Istrian stone is Venice's  first Renaissance church, with a tripartite façade inspired by Leon Battista Alberti's Tempio Malatestiana in Rimini. The  grounds of the Franciscan monastery that used to extend behind the church were seconded for burials when the city was under Napoleonic rule, in an effort to stop Venetians digging graves in the campi around the parish churches. Soon it was the only place to be seen dead in. Most Venetians still want to make that last  journey to San Michele, even though these days it's more a temporary parking-lot than a final resting place. The island reached saturation point long ago, and even after paying through the nose for a plot, families know that after a suitable period - generally around ten years - the bones of their loved ones will be dug up and transferred to an ossuary on another island, leaving just a plaque.

Visitors enter the cemetery (open 7.30am-4pm daily) through a dignified  arch, marked by a fifteenth century  bas-relief of St Michael slaying a dragon with one hand and holding a pair of scales  in the other. Beyond are the cool cloisters of the restored monastery, whose brothers look after both church and  cemetery. They also hand out rough maps  of the cemetery layout, which are indispensable for celebrity hunts. In the Greek and Russian Orthodox section is the elaborate tomb of Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev, who introduced the Ballet Russe to Europe, and a simpler monument to the composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife. The Protestant section has a selection of ships' captains and passengers who ended their days in La Serenissima, plus the simple grave of Ezra Pound. There's a rather sad children's section, and a corner dedicated to the city's gondoliers, their tombs decorated with carvings and statues of - you guessed it - gondolas. Visit the cemetery on the Festa dei morti - All Souls Day, 2 November - and the vaporetto is free, as thousands of Venetians cross the lagoon to pay their respects. (

Special thanks to Philip Resheph, of London,
a friend of the JSS Gallery, for sending me this image. 

Copyright 1998-2005 Natasha Wallace all rights reserved
Created 1/3/2000