San Michele Cemetery, Venice, Italy

Isola di San Michele - Venice's island of the dead

The island of San Michele has been the city of Venice's cemetery since the early 19th century and is located across the waters from the Cannaregio district, and quite close to Venice. Since all of Venice is situated upon a collection of islands, it stands to reason that its cemetery would be on an island as well. The Isola di San Michele (St. Michael) is truly an island of the dead. Originally two islands that were joined together, Isola di San Michele's only structures within the outer walls are churches and row upon row of tombs.



Cemeteries are not usually tourist destinations. However, in Italy there are literally thousands of graves that are the final resting places of famous people who are, literally, part of history. Remains are often placed in tombs that resemble chests of drawers, with one deceased in a drawer with another above it, all the way to the roof. On the 1st and 2nd of November, Italian families make pilgrimages to graveyards to place flowers, usually chrysanthemums, at graves or tombs. In Italy, chrysanthemums are considered flowers for the dead, making them quite inappropriate as gifts for the living. In Venice, additional ferry runs to Isola di San Michele are scheduled for the 1st and 2nd of November.


Tombs and memorials of eminent historical figures are generally easy of access, and most often located in churches and basilicas. There are a few exceptions. This is particularly so for non-Catholic cemeteries. For example, Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and in Venice too, visitors will find a great many famous names among those laid to rest in the non-Catholic sections of Isola di San Michele.


Isola di San Michele
Isola di San Michele - Venice's island of the dead


Isola di San Michele is recognized as a landmark of interest to tourists, so there are signs directing visitors to the areas containing graves of historical figures, however, many of the tombs are the resting places of the recently deceased and are likely to be visited by bereaved families. Thus visitors should follow the rules of decorum and modest dress that apply when visiting Italian churches.


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There are two churches on the island. The larger is San Michele in Isola, and the smaller is San Cristoforo. San Michele has a white facade of Istrian marble and overlooks the lagoon. It was designed by Mauro Codussi and erected in the 1460s, making it one of the earliest Renaissance churches in Venice. The church's opening hours are restricted, but even so if a service is taking place there is no admittance to the general public. It's advisable to time your visit to be able to see both San Michele inside and out, and to view the interior of the lovely adjoining Cappella Emiliani. Unfortunately, Cappella Emiliani can only be admired through a doorway at the back of the church. The chapel is perched on the edge of the lagoon, so it can also be admired from the terrace outside, which is prone to flooding, and from passing ferries. Although metal barriers protect Cappella Emiliani from some of the wash from passing boats, the seaweed clinging to everything attest to it's precarious position. Recently the building was restored to an almost new condition by the British organization, Venice in Peril, so it is a sight to behold.


The Isola di San Michele cemetery is divided up into a great many sections. Signs provide visitors with directions to the Orthodox and Protestant cemeteries. However, other sections are difficult to find without a map. Just wandering about can be interesting though. One area contains the simple memorials of nuns, and the less humble graves of priests. There is even a section for gondoliers. The Orthodox area is a charming walled garden crawling with lizards. Against the far wall visitors will find the tombs of Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky. Other graves around the walls are those of exiled Russian princesses and count. Ezra Pound is buried in the Protestant section, located to the left of the central path.


San Michele is off the northern shore of Venice, on the route of the regular vaporetto waterbus services 41 and 42 to Murano, and the trip itself is a Venice experience and a great sightseeing opportunity. The stop is called Cimitero and one stop from the Fondamente Nove.