The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth.
-Giovanni Bocaccio, The Decameron
Buon Halloween a tutti!
To celebrate the spookiest day of the year, I have uncovered an old Italian legend that is guaranteed to send a chill down your spine! I did a bit of research because I was curious about what stories and legends Italians shared around their campfires. I came across a scan of this old book in Italian from 1837 (you can see it here), that contained the history of l’isola di Poveglia (the Island of Poveglia), a small island in the Venetian lagoon. It is about 18 acres (7.25 hectares) in area, and has been referenced in history since around 421 A.D., when some mainland people (mainly from Padua and Este) fled there to escape barbaric invasions. Its history since then has been eerily dark and grim.
It was heavily populated starting around 800 A.D., but when Venice was attacked by the Genoans in 1379, the entire population was moved off the island. It was then fortified by the Venetians and remained uninhabited until the late 1700s. The reason it remained uninhabited during all of those centuries remains unclear. The Venetian government tried to offer habitation of the island many times during those centuries, but every offer was turned down—even by the decendants of the island’s original inhabitants. What about that island would repel so many people and cause them to decline such an offer? We may never know…
In the late 1700s, the island fell into the hands of the Public Health Office, and was used as a kind of “customs control” for all goods and people traveling in and out of the Venice lagoon. After many people were discovered to be ill with the plague, the island became what is known as a Lazaretto, or a quarantine area for plague victims. In fact, the term quarantine originated from the Venetian dialect word for quaranta giorni, or forty days, which was the amount of time slated for isolation before entry was permitted. The plague of 1576 killed 50,000 people, or a third of its population alone. This, however, was far less than the mainland victims, partly due to the Venetians’ strict quarantine policies. There were many Lazaretti in existence in Venice throughout the centuries in which the Plague took its toll on the people of Europe. During this time, it is said that this particular Lazaretto became more or less a corpse factory, and was used as a plague pit to dispose of the bodies of the plague fallen. It is for this reason that fisherman even today will avoid the area, for fear of catching more than they bargained for.
That alone is enough to provide the island with a more than sinister reputation. However, there is more…
In 1922, l’isola di Poveglia became a venue for a psychiatric hospital. The site was adorned with a ward that exhibited a beautiful bell tower. It seemed like the reputation of the island could finally be redeemed with such a beautiful structure on its grounds.
It was the patients of the ward that first began to realize that something was not right with the place. They began to report whispers coming from the walls, and some even claimed to have seen apparitions of the plague victims themselves. These reports, of course, fell on deaf ears; because after all, there is a reason they are in the psychiatric ward, right?
In time, however, the sole doctor of the hospital began to hear their cries for help, and being the ambitious doctor he was, initiated “treatments” involving electrocution and other methods on the poor patients that were nothing short of torture. Oblivious to the suffering he was inflicting on his patients and determined to find the cause of their madness, however, the doctor soon began to question his own sanity after he began to see the apparitions himself.
It is not known what was the instigator, whether it was by choice, by the hands of his patients, or some other dark force, but shortly after the doctor began seeing the apparitions, he fell (dove? was pushed?) from the top of the bell tower on a silent night. The fall did not kill him, however, and he was able to get back on his feet. That is, until what has been described as a grey mist rose from the ground, wrapped around him and crept into his nostrils, choking him to death.
After the incident, the hospital was shut down and the island became uninhabited once more. Several people have shown interest in purchasing the island, and one family in particular that wanted to turn the island into a vacation spot came extremely close to making the acquisition. However, upon attempting to stay for a period to evaluate the property, the family fled the island shortly before nightfall on the first day. They refused to speak of what had happened to them there, and all that is known is that something had occurred that caused their little daughter to require fourteen stitches on her head.
Even today, the island is off-limits to the public, and those that venture there and evade the small group of police that guard the island out of curiosity have reported unbearable screams and pained moans coming from the property.
Is this all legend woven together from pieces of truth throughout the history of the Italian people, or is there more truth to this story than first suspected? We may never know, as everyone that tries to make the island public is repelled by the dark forces that seem to keep the desolate island resting in peace. Perhaps that is all they want…
For a gallery of photos from the island and the hospital taken by an incredibly brave photographer, visit this site. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.