Sunday, 22 December 2013

Paying tribute

While in Venice, I wanted to pay some kind of homage to my Venetian forefather. So on our way to Murano, the island world-famous for its hand-made glass, we hopped off half way in the Venetian lagoon on the cemetery island of San Michele. The island that is for the most part surrounded by terracotta brick walls is only a few minutes away from Cannaregio, the northernmost of the Venetian districts.

The vaporetto stop is located by the 15th century monastery of San Michele that has also served as a prison once. Some earlier visitors had left their tributes, small religious busts and figurines, by the entrance to the cloister (see the first photo of this post).

I didn’t expect to discover anything. I had read that the cemetery was established only in 1807 in the Napoleonic era when burials were suddenly considered unsanitary on the Venetian mainland and the main islands. My ancestor born in 1734 had already reached the end of his life here in the north with two marriages and nine children two years earlier.

Furthermore, I do not know his born name as it was almost certainly localized at least to some extent when recorded in the Finnish parish register. It would have been impossible to recognize any tombs of his younger relatives in any case.

Chapel of San Rocco.

The current cemetery island was originally two islands both of which were named after their 15th century church: the Roman Catholic San Michele in Isola and the Greek Orthodox San Cristoforo della Pace. The islands used to be separated by a canal that was later filled.

San Michele in Isola.

San Cristoforo, rebuilt in the mid-19th century.
We walked slowly along the paths lined with giant cypresses to the other end of the large cemetery. It was a warm October afternoon full of brilliant sunshine. The sections with hundreds and thousands of tombstones are separated by pavements with terracotta brick walls under which the most prominent or wealthy people had their final resting place.

The cemetery is still in use but no longer that final. It has been fully packed for ages and therefore some unusual practices are being followed. People are granted their burial plot on the cemetery island for some 12 years only. After that the bones are dug up to release space for the never-ending string of new departed.

The war graves are among the permanents on the island.

The bones are no longer transferred to a dedicated ‘bone yard’ on the island of Sant’ Ariano a bit further away in the lagoon. These days you have the option to have the remains put in a small metal box for final storage, for a fee of course. Despite the lovely setting of the Isola di San Michele, it is easy to believe most of the Venetians are now buried in the smaller cemeteries and on the mainland.

Statue of San Michele.
Tombstone of Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian ballet impresario who 'found' Stravinsky.
Tombstone of a Russian aristocrat, a princess by her first marriage.
The practicality of the bone removal might have shocked us had we known about it at that time. As we were in the dark, it simply felt good to make the symbolic gesture of strolling around the graveyard as a tribute to my few drops of Venetian blood. I am planning to return to spend some more time there exploring the lovely carved busts, tombstones and memorials with their angels and Madonnas in more detail (some photos of those we spotted this time can be found in my following post here). After all, those are more important than the actual bones, I believe.

San Michele in Isola with Cappella Emiliana on the left.

View from Murano towards San Michele.


  1. I visited San Michele while studying landscape architecture and found it a fascinating contrast with the Swedish cemeteries which were also part of my research. It is an amazing place!

    1. I think the Swedish cemeteries are much like those of ours, often in a grid pattern with rather large plots although both of those traditions are changing.

  2. I found this fascinating with the link to your family history. I have always wanted to visit the islands off Venice. I wish you a very Happy Christmas.
    Sarah x

    1. We were so lucky someone we didn't know anything about was so seriously interested in genealogy he had studied all the family branches from this ancestor. Before that we had no idea about such a connection. Happy holidays to you too!