May 10, 2013

Location #6: Poveglia Island

This is a place I've been eager to do since I started this site. Known by several names, including The Venetian Island of the Dead and The Plague Island, it is better known as Poveglia.

This island is most infamous for being the dump site of victims of the black plague as it swept through Italy, but that is not the first misfortune to take place there.

The earliest recording of Poveglia comes from 421 AD, when people from Padua and Este fled there to escape barbaric invasions. In the 9th century the island gained residents, and prospered until it was governed by a dedicated Podestà. This led to many wars on Poveglia, as many barbarians still wanted the people who fled there. The Poveglians won most of these wars, but in 1379 Venice came under attack from the Genoan fleet; the people of Poveglia were moved to the Giudecca, and the Venetian government built on the island a permanent defensive building called "the Octagon," still visible today. The island remained uninhabited otherwise in the following centuries


In 1777 the island came under the jurisdiction of the Magistrato alla Sanità (Public Health Office), and became a check point for all goods and people coming to and going from Venice by ship. In 1793, there were several cases of the black plague on two ships, and as a result the island was transformed into a temporary confinement station for the ill; this role became permanent in 1805.

In the 20th century the island was again used as a quarantine station, but in 1922, the existing buildings were converted into an hospital for mentally ill and long-term care. This went on until 1968, when the hospital was closed, and the island, after being shortly used for agriculture, was completely abandoned. As of today, the island is entirely abandoned, and is closed to tourists and the public.

Legends have arisen about the island throughout many years, and it's difficult to figure out how much is fact and how much is fiction, as very few people are allowed on the land and locals avoid it at all costs. One legend, which can be heavily collaborated with facts, says that during Roman times it was used to isolate thousands of plague victims, and during the three occasions when the Black Death spread through Europe, the island was effectively used as a lazaretto and plague pit – it was considered an efficient way of keeping the infected people separated from the healthy. According to this, over 160,000 people died on the island throughout its history. It is said that the ground covering the island is 50% human ash, and rose over five feet in height. Recently, mass graves have been found on the nearby islands of Lazaretto Nuovo and Lazzaretto Vecchio containing the remains of thousands of plague victims. Poveglia has yet to be fully investigated.

Another tale surrounds a building raised in 1922 on the island, which was used for various purposes, including a mental hospital. The legend states that a particular mental health doctor tortured and butchered many of the patients, before going "mad" and jumping to his death from the bell tower. According to that same legend, he survived the fall, but was 'strangled by a mist that came up from the ground'. Its ruins remain to this day.

In the daylight, Poveglia looks like a beautiful, lost city, overgrown with trees and flowers as nature quickly takes back one of its islands. However, as night falls, the beauty fades and the unsettling chill creeps in, and makes it a bit harder to simply dismiss the legends surrounding this famous island.


  1. That last sentence ........

  2. It's for sale now.