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