Half an hour away by vaporetto, Venice‘s waterbus, from the chaos of Saint Mark’s square, is the Isola San Michele, a stopping point between the city of Venice and the island of Murano. Circling the city of Venice by boat towards the north, the lagoon is paved with small islands, but Isola San Michele turns heads. It is a small island surrounded by terracotta brick wall punctuated by arched tips at regular intervals. Cypress trees peer over the wall giving the appearance of a floating garden in the lagoon, until you pass round the front of the island and notice a grand entrance with three arched gates with white steps disappearing into the water. Above the gates is a simple white cross, marking the entrance to Venice’s Island of the dead.
There is a sense of serenity when you step off the vaporetto onto the unstable platform at Isola San Michele. It is one of Venice’s best-kept secrets, as most tourists will continue on the boat to Murano. The cemetery is both tranquil and surreal. Venice as a city is silent after the cruise ships go home, there are no cars and the only sound you’ll hear are the occasional footsteps echoing through the alleys and sometimes a church bell. In the cemetery the silence is broken only by birdsong. Walking between the tall cypress trees, you are aware of crunching gravel beneath your feet and you feel something is out of place.Unlike Pére Lachaise in Paris, Venice’s cemetery is surprisingly “modern,” there are no tombs or mausoleums dating back for centuries, no hoards of tourists scouring the graves name-hunting. Here, the graves are tightly packed line by line, with the path lined with cypresses running down the middle towards the grand arched gates where the coffins are carried up from funerary gondolas. If you’ve seen the cult classic, “Don’t Look Now,” the front view of the gates, as approached by boat, look familiar. From the waters, the gates are an ominous “momento mori,” a reminder of our mortality; looking out from the inside through the wrought iron, you glimpse the city of Venice lingering in the distance across the waters, a peaceful reflection of life.
Walking away from the central division of the cemetery, you’ll find the neo-classical mausoleums and tombs dating back to the 19th century that belong to prestigious Venetian families. Memorial walls for the dead, circle the island’s perimeter, while rows of tall white columbarium walls, containing plaque-covered niches for cremated remains, close in on small pathways as you head back to the vaporetto jetty.
While Isola San Michele is not one of the great monumental cemeteries – like those found in Paris, Milan or London – Isola San Michele is a curiosity, it is after all the resting place of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound. A key player in Venice’s history, surrounded by the calm waters of the Venetian lagoon, almost forgotten behind its terracotta walls and under its cypress trees – welcome to Venice’s Island of the Dead.