‘Kim, do you think we’ve got time to see Igor Stravinsky before we go?’
No, my friend and I hadn’t travelled back in time to meet the 20th century Russian composer of The Rite of Spring. We were on Isola di San Michele, Venice’s cemetery island out in the lagoon. And time was running out to explore it before the last water bus of the day departed.
You could describe the island – which is actually two islands linked by canal – as a symbol of Napoleon’s military might. He invaded and dissolved the Republic of Venice in 1797, sanctioning a few years later for burials to take place away from the oft-flooded centre of Venice. Even despots can possess a regard for hygiene, then.
In any case, the history of the island predates Napoleonic upheaval. It is named after the church of St Michael that was built there, the first Renaissance church in Venice. A monastery was home to a branch of Benedictine monks and there was even a prison on the island for a time. Different kind of home I expect.
If you look at a picture of the island from the sky everything looks so ordered, like scaled up vegetable patches. But on the ground, once through the entrance it doesn’t feel that way, and you really forget you’re surrounded by water. A very thoughtful place.
We had time to visit Stravinsky’s grave in the end, and those of his neighbours: expat American poet Ezra Pound, Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, writer Joseph Brodsky – and Venetians from all walks of life. It’s less starry than Père Lachaise Cemetery and the map isn’t entirely accurate, but it adds to the casual glamour of the place.
As you’d expect from a working cemetary, you can’t take photos within the walls, though if you’re lucky as we were to catch a sunset on the way back, you’ll find it compensation enough.
And what if we had missed the last water bus? Well, we would have been in good company.