Cimitero di San Michele
More background info:
This general cemetery for Venice
goes back to the very early 19th century when the city was occupied by Napoleon
. Around that time it was found that burying bodies on the main island was unsanitary – the same happened in many cities across Europe (see e.g. the Central Cemetery
or the Catacombs
Originally two islands separated by a canal they were merged into the present single one by filling in the canal in 1836. The name comes from the church Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, a 15th century early Renaissance edifice that once served a monastery. But save for the church this monastery was demolished in the 19th century when the islands were turned into Venice’s main cemetery.
Burials are both in regular graves but also in several large columbaria for urns with ashes. The cemetery is still in use today, and you can witness coffins being shipped in on special hearse boats – something that is probably unique to Venice
Several famous people are buried here in Cimitero di San Michele, including many artists and scientists, e.g. composers Igor Stravinsky and Luigi Nono, American modernist poet Ezra Pound and the German physicist Christian Doppler (after whom the Doppler effect is named), to name but a few.
Out of these four only Luigi Nono was actually Venetian, i.e. born in the city, Doppler was from Austria
and Pound from the USA
, and both died in Venice, whereas Russian-born Stravinsky’s body was brought here after his death in the USA in 1971, as he had requested.
There’s an interesting contrast to be noted between Pound and Nono here, both of whom were controversial in terms of their political-ideological orientation, but in totally opposite ways. While the groundbreaking modernist poet Ezra Pound was drawn towards fascism and actually collaborated with Mussolini
’s regime and expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler
, Luigi Nono, in contrast, was an anti-fascist, atheist and Marxist communist
. Both, however, received much praise for their art in which they were part of the avant-garde. Luigi Nono’s contribution to modern classical music was especially extreme, like the man himself …
Most of the cemetery is Roman Catholic and takes up more than the southern half of the island. The ordinary people’s graves here are limited to ten years of occupancy, after which the bones are transferred to an ossuary and the grave reused – as space comes at a premium here, like almost everything in Venice
. Prominent people’s graves are exempt from this ten-year rule. The same applies to the small Protestant section, as that sees hardly any new arrivals these days. It is there that some of the foreign famous names are to be found (including Stravinsky and Pound).
What there is to see:
You can see the island from the north side of Venice
’s historic city, especially from the eastern part of the Cannaregio district. Isola San Michele is almost perfectly rectangular, the southern half has a high brick wall around it, and this is what you mainly see from the old town and the boat on approach to the island.
When you get off the boat and head straight on from the jetty there’s a plaque for Christian Doppler on the south-facing wall of the first building you pass. Whether his grave is in the same location I haven’t been able to work out.
Carry on straight and you will eventually come to the non-Catholic historic section, which has its own wall encircling the patch. Ezra Pound
’s grave is in the northern half of this section, but when I was there I failed to find his rather humble small gravestone. The Find A Grave website wasn’t all that helpful and Google Maps has it wrong too. But with a bit more research back home I was finally able to pinpoint the location (see below
I had no trouble finding Igor Stravinsky’s grave in the southern half of this part of the cemetery. Right next to him is buried his wife Vera in an identical grave design with a white marble slab. Also in this section you find many a gravestone with Cyrillic inscriptions, for other Russian Orthodox people buried here. Several other foreign names can be spotted – English, German, Spanish. And overall this is the most atmospheric part of San Michele, with some pretty sepulchral art and quirkily tilted tombstones.
North, east and south of these sections are large tracts of columbaria for the burial of urns with ashes of the deceased – evidently a popular approach in space-restricted San Michele/Venice.
The south-easternmost section has some larger family tombs, but the rest of the main cemetery is just a field of small rather humble graves, some in green meadow-like patches of grass, cornered by four sections with full-size stone graves.
The northern end of the cemetery complex has a curved wall of colonnades semi-wrapped around the top section. It is in this part that Luigi Nono’s grave can be found.
All in all
, most of this cemetery lacks the Gothic allure and splendid sepulchral art that characterize other graveyards in Italy
– in particular the fabulous Monumentale
! But the non-Catholic sections have a certain such element. And then there are the graves of famous people. So it’s still worth the short crossing by boat if you are visiting Venice with a bit of time to spend beyond the standard tourist sights. It can certainly provide respite from the hustle and bustle of the central tourism trails.
roughly halfway between the eastern part of the Cannaregio district of old Venice
and the outer island of Murano.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy and cheap by vaporetto (water bus).
Details: You can get there by boat only, the cemetery’s water bus pier (simply called “Cimitero”) is served by vaporetto line 4.1/4.2 one stop from Fondamente Nove pier C or D (or via several more stops from the train station pier or from San Zaccaria or any stop in between).
Access to the cemetery is free of charge.
Nominally there’s a no photography rule in place here, but I saw quite a few photographers eagerly shooting away, so I felt encouraged to also take a few pics – but made sure that this was done as discreetly as possible.
Time required: depends on how keen you are to try and locate all the famous graves and explore the rest of the island. I made do with under an hour … but then again I didn’t systematically search for all those famous people’s graves.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Venice
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see under Venice
San Michele combines especially well with a visit to Murano, the lagoon island famous for its glass art. Just get back on the same vaporetto line and carry on a stop or two.
- Cimitero di San Michele 1 - on its own island
- Cimitero di San Michele 2 - graves
- Cimitero di San Michele 3 - Stravinsky grave
- Cimitero di San Michele 4 - unstable English grave
- Cimitero di San Michele 5 - German grave
- Cimitero di San Michele 5b - little scribe
- Cimitero di San Michele 6 - mosaics
- Cimitero di San Michele 7 - modern columbarium
- Cimitero di San Michele 8 - field of graves
- Cimitero di San Michele 9 - water hearse