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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of Isola di San Michele in Venice

What is Isola di San Michele?

Isola di San Michele is a walled island with a church and former monastery that’s served as Venice’s cemetery since the early 19th century.

Isola di San Michele

Isola di San Michele History

The Island of San Michele is the site of Venice’s extensive graveyard. In the Middle Ages, corpses were generally buried close to parish churches. However, following the Napoleonic Edict of Saint-Cloud, which prohibited burial within cities, new areas outside the urban limits had to be set aside in which to lay the dead to rest. As a result, the island of San Cristoforo della Pace, next to San Michele, was transformed into Venice’s cemetery. Unfortunately, this resulted in the complete demolition of all of San Cristoforo’s buildings, the foremost of these being the glorious 15th-century church (and monastery) by Pietro Lombardo. The island, and therefore the church, were named San Cristoforo della Pace (or ‘of the Peace’), because the Venetian prior of the order was said to have been instrumental in the signing of the treaty between Venice and Milan in 1454.

Once San Cristoforo had been entirely populated with tombstones, the channel between the two separate islands was filled in, thereby affording more space for the dead. Unlike the historic structures of San Cristoforo, many of San Michele’s buildings still exist. The original island was used to moor boats from Murano, but a monastery for Camaldolese friars was built in the early 13th century. Their church, tucked away at the northernmost tip of the island, was extensively rebuilt by prominent architect Mauro Codussi in the 15th century, and still retains much of its original style. The building is generally considered the first Renaissance church in Venice, influenced by the Tuscan model of Leon Battista Alberti. The structure elegantly faces the sea, and its façade is a refined example of Renaissance architecture. It’s harmoniously split into three from left to right and into three architectural orders from top to bottom. The monastery had notable guests, such as Fra Mauro, draftsman of the famous medieval world map, and was used as a jail for political prisoners by the Austrians (the patriot Silvio Pellico was incarcerated there). Make sure you find the cloister decorated with floral motifs; it’s a welcome oasis of peace.

Today’s expansive neo-Gothic graveyard, planted with towering cypress trees, was designed by Annibale Forcellini, and was completed in the 1870s. Following an international competition in 1998, which included 146 entries, British architect David Chipperfield was chosen to enlarge it. Fra Paolo Sarpi, the reformer friar, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, the physicist Christian Doppler, the poet Ezra Pound, the writer Joseph Brodsky, the actor Cesco Baseggio and the psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, are all buried here in the grounds.

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