San Michele and the Art of Venice Past

The cemetery island of San Michele beckons from across the lagoon

Sonia Kaliensky lies above her tomb, hauntingly realistic in bronze.  Her cold hand shines in the sunlight, polished smooth by the touch of many strangers. An aristocratic Russian beauty, she killed herself in her room at the Hotel Danieli in Venice, Italy on February 6, 1907, a victim of an unhappy love affair.  Now she lays interred forever on the isle of San Michele off the shores of Venice proper.

The tomb of Sonia Kaliensky

These things were told to me by Antonio, a lithe middle-aged man who wandered aimlessly about the cemetery, smoking and occasionally sitting in between hitting on me like the red-blooded Venetian he was.  Leave it to the Italians to combine love and death so effortlessly.

One of many courtyards within the former Franciscan monestery

I had not come to San Michele for a date, but rather, to stroll in solitude among the dark cypress pines that peaked above the glowing terracotta walls surrounding the island.

The bell tower

  These walls stared out at me from across the lagoon as I stood on the Fondamenta Nove and I was determined to visit.

The Piazza San Marco may be the biggest draw when visiting Venice, but when the tourists, pigeons and souvenir carts wear thin, vaporetto lines 41 and 42 will drop visitors at this haven of peace before heading on to Murano. 

Walking through the gates, it’s apparent the island had its beginnings as a monastery, but what’s not readily apparent at first is the sheer magnitude and stunning beauty of the funerary art within, for the tomb of fair Sonia is only a sample.

Established as a cemetery by Napoleon, it is maintained by the Franciscans whose church, San Michele, was built in 1469. 

Yet another stunning courtyard within San Michele

I made my way first through the cool shade of the loggia courtyard, admiring one worn crypt after another until I arrived at the church which gleams blindingly white against the blue green depths of the lagoon to one side and the evergreen darkness of what must be thousands of cypress to the other.

Stunning art abounds within the walls of San Michele church

Hidden treasures abound within the church, for few tourists visit on a regular basis, and the echoes of one’s own footsteps ring out loudly within her stone walls.  She is replete with glorious nooks and crannies and, like so many ancient Catholic churches, drips with beauty from her worn inlaid floor to her stunning ceiling so high above.

Pictures don’t do this justice

As delightful as the church of San Michele is, even more rewarding is the joy of ambling through the cemetery itself, stumbling upon statute after carving after bass relief, concocted by unsung Venetian artists to memorialize those long dead and possibly forgotten.  It leaves you breathless to say the least.

A domed crypt awaits to be explored

One can easily spend hours exploring her cool depths for her avenues of cypress escort you from one treasure to the next.  Whether it be peering out through the main gates to Venice proper or hunting the graves of such famous inhabitants as Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky, San Michele is nothing if not engaging.

One of many glorious statutes

Stunning mosaic portrait

As I stood on the jetty awaiting the vaporetto back to the Fondamenta Nove, I couldn’t help but think how, once again, Venice has managed to get it right.  What elevates Venice so in our imaginations is how she manages to take such everyday things as walking, shopping, praying, eating and living to such a magical level.  That Venetians have done the same with death should not come as a surprise.  While the modern dead now only rest in peace on San Michele for 10 years before moving mainland to a more permanent interment, it’s a 10-year respite I wouldn’t mind for myself.

From the inside looking out – the view out of the main gates toward Fondamenta Nove

The locals drape this lovely statute with rosaries as they leave San Michele

This ancient plaque is dissolving in the wind

An avenue of cypress beckons

Italians make even funerary art sexy

In San Michele, it’s wise to look up


A Day in the Life of Venice – Part II

Today my lunch consisted of a stale oatmeal raisin cookie left over from a Friday-night fundraiser combined with a generous smear of chunky peanut butter on a slice of Wonder Bread from the middle of the package which, unlike the slices near the open end of the package, didn’t glow green when placed under a black light.  As for the peanut butter, it was smooth when I bought it, but I’ve long since learned to not make eye contact with my food because, after all, a mom’s got to do what a mom’s got to do.

But why so pathetic a lunch, you ask?  Because, a) I didn’t plan well over the weekend and b) we live miles and miles away from the nearest store of any kind so on any given day, we have no choice but to make do with what’s on hand.

While I love living in the middle of nowhere, it usually requires a level of organization and planning that escapes me all too often.  If I don’t make a list and carry it with me, then I won’t know what to buy at the store, but if I carry the list with me, my husband and kiddies can’t add things to it so it becomes useless anyway.  You can see my problem.  And please don’t get me started about toilet paper.

So, today I munched on a stale cookie and dubious peanut butter and laughed.  Today I foraged for what’s on hand.  Last week, hunky Italian men with names like Renaldo and Luca delivered handmade pasta, fresh seafood and bottles of wine to me while I murmured “grazi” before “accidently” dropping my fork so they would have to bend over and pick it up. 

Sadly, as you can see, today’s lunch was a bit of a downgrade.

So forgive me if I tend to dwell on my Venetian adventure.  Because, had I been in Venice, even if I didn’t WANT to go out to eat (which I don’t see happening any time soon), I could have waddled just a few blocks to the nearest market where fresh produce, gallons of wine and unimaginable piles of seafood would have beckoned to me like Renaldo’s and Luca’s bent over behinds.

Which leads us to today’s blog entry – Part II of the every day life of Venice.  Let’s start with the food, shall we?  And while you’re reading this, I’m going to go burn that peanut butter….

Tomatoes the size of my head – what’s not to love?

This is my idea of a sandwich shop!

Don’t even get me started on the fresh seafood.  I live in Indiana, after all.  The closest thing to fresh seafood around here are the snapper turtles in Flatrock River.

As for the wine, I like to buy in bulk, don’t you?

Should my peanut butter make me violently ill, I’ll have to call 911, but in Venice, I could go to the hospital in style.

Not to mention, the hospital pharmacy is just that darn cool.  I wonder if they carry Viagra…

On second thought, maybe I WILL just go out to eat.  Just think of the time I’ll save by not having to do dishes.

The real question is, which ristorante do I pick?  Decisions, decisions….