Friday, 5 October 2012

Death in Venice

The Isle of San Michele, Venice / Original by Mario Vercellotti

The islands of Venice only have a small resident population, but there remains the problem of burying the dead. There isn't enough room for the bodies and there isn't enough acid to dissolve them, Breaking Bad-style, besides which where would the acid go? Into the lagoon, but what of the fish? And so in the early 1800s the isle of San Michele was picked as the designated dead person storage area, a function it retains to this day. It's a small, square island to the north of San Marcos, a short trip on the 4.1 or 4.2 to Murano. I decided to have a wander around with my Mamiya C3.

San Michele
Mamiya C3 / 65mm f/3.5 / Kodak Ektar 100

Mamiya C3 / Fuji Velvia 50

Death is forever; burial in San Michele is not, as the bodies are removed after a few years and transferred to the mainland. It makes for an odd tourist destination. The atmosphere is calm, vastly different from the hustle-and-bustle of San Marco, but it's impossible not to feel something of an interloper. Much of it resembles Brompton Cemetery in London, overcrowded and in a state of elegant ruin, although there are obvious signs of constant work and fresh flowers.

Some of the burial arrangements are similar to Manarola, on the Cinque Terre, with above-ground sarcophagi. For example, here are the burial plots at Manarola:

Manarola / Yashica Mat / Fuji Velvia 50

And here is an equivalent scene in San Michele:

There are also traditional gravestones in old-fashioned soil, and a modest chapel complex in one corner. The sculptures are seemingly designed to illustrate the ever-watchful presence of Death, who is not choosy about his next travel companion. Young, old; man, woman; he has a place for you within his cape.

Mamiya C3 / 65mm f3.5 / Kodak Portra 160VC

I mention feeling like an outsider. San Michele has a few famous graves, but the vast majority of people buried there are ordinary people like you or I, who admittedly lived in a much nicer environment and got to be buried in Venice, rather than dumped in a mass grave. The famous dead folk include top ballet pimp Sergei Diaghilev, classical upsetter Igor "Eye-Gor" Stravinsky, and Ezra Pound, fascist. Stravinsky's wife is also buried there; if you stand on her tombstone you can get a better view of Igor's.

There's also a new, partially-empty section, which is still under construction. Death doesn't stop; he will never stop.

"We get to carry each other"

I come back to this picture every so often. There's the man, his wife, one two three four five six seven eight children. The girl on the left looks strong. Ten people, now just names.