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'The world's most haunted island'


Venetians are fascinated by dead things, horrors, prisons, freaks and malformations.Jan Morris, Venice

Located between Venice and the Lido's harbour of Malamocca the uninhabited island of Poveglia has an eerie reputation as the most haunted island in Italy. It actually consists of three islands; the two larger ones linked by a bridge while the third tiny one still has the walls of one of the five octagonal forts built by the Republic in the 17th century to defend the entrances to the Lagoon.

Poveglia was inhabited off and on from the 5th century, when it was first settled by refugees from Padua. In 810 the residents famously blocked Pepin's advance into the lagoon. In 864 it became a refuge again when supporters of Doge Pietro Tradonico escaped here when Tradonico was murdered by the nobles. The islanders were given exclusive ship towing rights at the nearby Lido port of Malamocco; they built a church called San Vitale, planted gardens, and had their own independent podestà as governor. One of the more curious privileges enjoyed by the islanders was the right to have their representative plant an annual kiss on the mouth of the doge.

Things began to go wrong for Poveglia in 1379, when Genoa attacked during the War of Chioggia, and the entire population was moved to the Giudecca for safety. Afterwards, only a few returned to the island, and in 1776, it was taken over the Magistrato allà Sanità to quarantine goods coming into Venice, similar to the nearby Lazzaretto islands. After 1793, when plague was discovered aboard two ships docked here, the island was sealed off. Other doomed sufferers of infectious diseases were sent there from Venice, often in boats with dead bodies. Rumours have it that much of the soil on Poveglia is made of some 100,000 bodies, thrown into pits and burned, whose ghosts haunt the island.

Napoleon, who continued the island's use as a quarentine station, demolished the island's 12th-century church of San Vitale, leaving on the bell tower to use as a lighthouse. In 1814 the station closed.

As if that weren't enough, in 1922, a hospital for the mentally ill was built on Poveglia and operated until 1968. There are rumours of an evil director who performed experiments on patients, including lobotomies, before the ghosts drove him insane and he threw himself from the church tower. In 1968 the hospital was closed as well, and officially declared off limits, although occasionally journalists and visitors interested in the paranormal have visited. Today although much is covered in brambles and ivy, it is a secret Venetian playground and picnic ground, one the last public islands left in the south lagoon.

In May 2014, Venice, desperate to raise funds to pay its debts, auctioned off a 99-year lease to the 18-acre island of Poveglia to Italian businessman (and mayor since 2015) Luigi Brugnaro for €513,000, who intended to spend €20 million on restorations, for a resort or private clinic. Residents, furious at losing their public space after several other islands were sold for luxury resorts raised a half million in a counter offer. The government deemed that Brugnaro's plans didn't meet a number of criteria, and he has since declared he was no longer interested. Another organization, called Poveglia per Tutti ('Poveglia for everyone') has been raising money for the island's restoration, but nothing has happened since.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Image by Angelo Meneghini