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On the Italian coast of Laguna Veneta, famous for the city of Venice, you’ll also find a tiny island of seven acres more terrifying than anyone you’ve read in fiction. Despite its proximity to Venice, it was closed from all public access and the Italian government is closely guarding even its surrounding waters.
The grounds of a barbarian slaughter, plague, doomed monks, and a lunatic asylum, this is the place where the soil is 50% human ash. Welcome to Poveglia…
If Beelitz Military Hospital is a magnet for evil then what could we call Poveglia? A breeding ground of sorrow may be fitting, but it certainly doesn’t cover the current state of the island, and that’s where the story gets considerably more disturbing, but let’s start at the beginning.
The first time we hear of Poveglia is over fifteen hundred years ago in 421 AD when the peoples of Padua and Este fled from a barbarian onslaught and took shelter on the island.
The new residents of Poveglia built themselves a well-fortified town over the years, but over those same years they watched as their numbers dwindled through successive attacks from the barbarians that robbed them of their first homes. Despite the attacks the Poveglia survived and continued to live on the island for another thousand year creating a distinct culture.
However, this part of the story as with all others does not have a happy ending. In 1379 war broke out between the city states of Venice and Genoa. Betrayed by their allies the Venetians, the Poveglians fought for their homes when it was declared that the island would be annexed by Venice, the town raised and a fort constructed.
The Venetians won the war and defended their home, but the fort was lost. The wars left the island barren and uninhabited for the next two hundred years until Venice offered the island to Camaldolese monks who refused the gift out of a belief that the island had become a place of darkness. Some less superstitious monks however did take the doge up on his offer and began to establish a monastery in the ruins of the Venetian fort.
This is the end of this part of the story, because as legend tells the monks were never seen again. Rumours would spread that the ancient spirits of the Poveglians that died fighting the barbarians were still defending the island, and the island would once again be considered a cursed place and left uninhabited for another hundred years.
We’re beginning to see a pattern here; horrible stuff happens on the island, people get scared off, a century or two passes, people forget and come back, horrible stuff happens on the island, and so on and so on. In 1777 Poveglia would become the jurisdiction of the Venetian Public Health Office, the Magistrato alla Sanità. For the first few decades it would be used as a customs house for incoming ships to Venice.
The customs house would grow into a small village, and… then everybody died of the plague. By the time Napoleon Bonaparte arrived and took the island in 1805 he would find nothing but streets lined with dead bodies and a small population of the dying.
In what was possibly the first sensible decision made on Poveglia Napoleon isolated the island as a place where he could ship his own plague stricken peoples. Nobody knows the exact number, but it’s believed that over 1000 people were cremated in make shift conditions on the island over the 14 years that Napoleon held it.
The island was again uninhabited for another two centuries. What’s better than shipping plague victims to an island that has seen barbarian slaughter, forced migration, and monks that vanished without a trace? Shipping insane people to that same place.
In 1922 the existing buildings on the island were converted into a long term care facility for the mentally ill. From articles such as Athens Lunatic Asylum we know that asylums of the time were anything but a place of health.
The tortures carried out within these walls would shock even the worst of modern day torturers. In 1968 in the last days of the facility a doctor of some notoriety went mad and began not just torturing the patients, but butchering them as well. According to legend the doctor met his end jumping to his death from the bell tower; he survived the fall, but was strangled by a grey mist that came up from the ground.
So what’s the grand total? Obviously nobody knows the exact number, but historians estimate that over 150,000 people have met there end in somewhat horrifying ways on this tiny seven acre island.
After that last bout it seems the Italian government learnt its lesson and not only vacated the island, but had permanently barred any access from the public. In fact as much as we can know there was no permission granted to access the island even for research or government employees, until recently that is.
The island has been opened back up, construction begun on the old asylum, and it will soon be used as a tourist spot.