Four miles south and slightly east of the Venice train station sits the small island of Poveglia. It is uninhabited, and police boats patrol the area to keep tourists away. The locals want nothing to do with it.
The island first came to be referenced in chronicles in 421 AD, when people from Padua and Este fled there to escape the barbaric invasions. In the 9th century the island started to be intensely populated, and in the following centuries its importance grew steadily, until it was governed by a dedicated Podestà. There were many wars on Poveglia, as many barbarians still wanted the people who fled there. In many cases the Poveglians won 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 fortification, called “the Octagon,” still visible today. The island remained uninhabited in the following centuries; in 1527 the doge offered the island to the Camaldolese monks, but they refused the offer. In 1661 the descendants of the original inhabitants were offered to reconstruct their village on the island, but they refused to do so.
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 plague on two ships, and consequently the island was transformed into a temporary confinement station for the ill (Lazzaretto); this role became permanent in 1805, under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, who also had the old church of San Vitale destroyed; the old bell tower was converted into a lighthouse. The lazzaretto was closed in 1814.
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. Presently, the island is closed to locals and tourists and remains under control of the Italian government
In recent times, some legends have arisen about the island. According to legend, 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 version, over 160,000 people died on the island throughout its history. The island used in 1576 to accommodate those hit by the plague was not Poveglia, but Lazzaretto Nuovo.
Another legend surrounds a building erected in 1922 on the island, which was used for various purposes, including usage as 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. The institution in question has been described as a retirement home, but evidence on the island shows that despite the controversy, at least part of the building housed mental patients.
From the web page “Island of Madness“:
Today Poveglia is uninhabited and tourism to island is strictly forbidden. Every now and then the lapping waves on the shore uncover charred human bones.
Several psychics have visited the island the abandoned hospital, but all of them left scared to death of what they had sensed there. Every now and then daredevils dodge the police patrols to explore the island, but everyone who has made it there have refused to return saying that there is a heavy atmosphere of evil and they the screams and tortured moans that permeate the island make staying there unbearable.
One report from a misguided thrill seeker who fled the island says that after entering the abandoned hospital, a disembodied voice ordered them, “Leave immediately and do not return.”
Italians are naturally a superstitious lot. Fortune tellers and other psychic types make a pretty good living there, so ghost stories of this nature would tend to grow in the telling, and mass hysteria about a place with a sordid history is not unexpected. Regardless of the stories that surround Poveglia, it certainly had a colorful past.
Salt Lake City has its very own haunting legend, the story of Emo’s Grave; I have spent a lot of time in the cemetery documenting graves and I’ve been there. It’s creepy enough even in the daytime. As for Poveglia, the Google Earth image above looks very forbidding indeed, with wild vegetation, tumbledown buildings and interiors exposed to the open sky. Even if visits were allowed, this is not a place I would want to go exploring.
Fortunately, there are some who have braved the perils, and posted an interesting report and some on-the-ground pictures of the area – these do nothing to dispel the aura of decay and strangeness that surrounds the island. Click through for more.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
 We’re Calabresi. I know.