Poveglia Island is a rather small, inconspicuous looking island located between Venice and Lido in the Venetian Lagoon in northern Italy — but it has a rather interesting history… One involving plagues, mental asylums, ‘barbarian’ invasions, hauntings, wars, Napoleon Bonaparte, and forced deportations.
The island even served as an attempted place of refuge for some of the Roman elite during the slow collapse of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent turmoil that followed it — in particular, many of the elite from the cities of Padua and Este are thought to have fled there, as centralized Roman control over the region slowly disintegrated.
The island is currently off limits to visitors — locals and tourists alike. After a short period of agricultural use following the closure of a large mental hospital in 1968 the island was completely abandoned, and has remained relatively untouched since then. The mental hospital in question was “built” in 1922 — though it was essentially just a repurposing of older structures already present on the island, some of which had been there for quite some time. (Something to note, Poveglia Island is distinct from Ex Poveglia — another island located about three kilometers west.)
Some of the more interesting events in the island’s history are detailed below:
• “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 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.”
• An interesting 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, butchered, and ate 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 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.”
Some images from the island:
Image Credit: Screen Capture