Friday, November 22, 2013

Venice’s Proveglia Island Part l

This island is just one of several islands located in the Venetian lagoon. Today, tourists are not allowed on Proveglia. The legends that surround this “infamous” island have continued to become more and more exaggerated over the years. 

It is often stated Poveglia is the most haunted spot in all of Italy. This island’s very dark history does point to the fact that it is probably haunted but this activity is so interwoven with legend it is difficult to separate the two.

The Medieval Venetians were ahead of the curve in Europe when it came to public health and sanitary laws--this is impressive since at this time people didn’t know much about germs and how they spread. When the Black Plague hit Europe in the 16th century Venice already had been using the island of Proveglia to quarantine * travelers who entered the lagoon on ships that had signs of plague. 

When the Black Plague reached Venice it is estimated that over 50,000 people ** who were stricken with this terrible disease were forced to stay on the island. When they died they were buried on the island. Combined with earlier outbreaks of plague in the late 15th century the island altogether has over 160,000 victims buried in its soil. ***

At the time of the Black Plague conditions in the islands hospital called Lazzaretto Vecchio were horrendous. This 16th century plague was much more deadly than previous outbreaks. About 500 people a day died on the island.

Photo: Ransom Riggs
According to 16th century Venetian chronicler, Rocco Benedetti:

“The sick lay three or four in a bed. Workers collected the dead all day and threw them in graves without a break. Often the dying ones and the ones too sick to move or talk were taken for dead and thrown on the piled corpses.” ***

Despite this large number of dead Venice because they isolated the sick lost just one third of their population to the plague. In comparison other areas around Europe where almost completely wiped out. 

Proveglia's few lucky patients that survived were taken to a nearby island's Lazzaretto Nuovo to convalesce.

* The word quarantine was first coined and used in Venice.

**Venice at this time was a world trade center so archaeologists who have studied the remains state they represent many cultural backgrounds including African and Asian. 

Photo: Ransom Riggs
*** On Proveglia in the late 15th century plague victims were buried in neat rectangular trenches wrapped carefully in white sheets. But the 16th century plague created so many victims that the Monatti or corpse handlers were overwhelmed. They dug holes and unceremoniously dumped the bodies in. When these pits became full they started to burn the bodies.

In Part ll of this post entitled, "The Legends that Surround Proveglia Part ll" I share both the traditional and more recent "exaggerations" told about this island being haunted.

Update: This island is now up for sale. 

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