IT wasn’t so much what Giovanni said but how he said it.
A stout, balding, no nonsense sort of fellow, the local cold meats delivery man gave no hint of drama or exaggeration in a Venice bar where word had spread two Australian journalists planned to spend the night on the infamous Poveglia Island.
Walking over to our table, the big man nods upwards in our direction as he takes a seat, lights up a cigarette and draws deeply through gritted yellow-stained teeth.
“Watch out for Paolo, he is the bad one, he was a doctor there, he will cause you troubles,” he starts, exhaling a billow of Lucky Strike smoke above our heads, as if picking up on a continuing conversation.
“I know them all Paolo, Marco, Giorgio. Giorgio is okay friendly fantasma …. My father would take me fishing there as a boy and when I was older I stayed there myself for 15 nights. When I came back I told everyone what happened to me, the ghosts what they did, Paolo’s ghost mostly, pushing me — whoosh, whoosh — always pushing, and things moving.
“They all say ‘Nane’, they call me nickname, ‘you are crazy’. Now everyone says the same thing about the island.
“And you want to go there, so you tell me who is the crazy one?”
As quickly as he advanced on our table, Giovanni now retreats back to the bar, apparently content his duty is done. At a table next to ours another man turns slightly.
“He is right,” he says, over one shoulder before he turns back around to slug his distinctive orange Aperol Spritz aperitif.
It’s not clear what Giovanni was right about — Dr Paolo being a bad spirit, he himself being mad or us. Seems wrong to ask. One or all should probably have been obvious.
Now as our boat splutters rhythmically across the Venetian lagoon towards the island as the blazing Italian early summer sun loses its edge, it’s clear the question should have been asked.
Poveglia has for some time been the tale that Venetian parents tell wide-eyed children who plead for a fright they know they will later regret.
It’s death and ghosts and doctors wearing Medico Della Peste masks; those distinctive scary white masks with the long hook beaks you see in carnivals now but which were used as a misguided form of protection by physicians in the 17th century to deal with plague victims. The masks are intrinsically linked to this area as the plague’s toll was so huge on the local populace it spelled the downfall of the Republic of Venice.
Poveglia has been inhabited intermittently since the 9th century, abandoned for several centuries with its fortunes rising and falling like a Venetian tide.
In 1776 it was taken over by the Magistrato ally Sanita (Public Health Office) as a quarantine station for goods moving from the Adriatic Sea into the Venice Lagoon.
When in 1793 two ships entering the area were found to have been carrying plague sufferers, the island became a confinement station. Other plague sufferers were forced to the island to die, shipped over in some instances with the bodies of tens of thousands who had already succumb to the inevitable and were now to be burnt and buried on the island in pits. Its grounds are said to hide the remains of more than 100,000 bodies, overgrown blackberry bushes now hiding mounds that were once humans.
In 1922 the 18-acre site became an asylum for the mentally ill and it was during this period experiments including lobotomies were said to have been performed. The hospital was shut in 1968 and the island was abandoned and has been sealed off to the public by government authorities to this day. Not that any locals or tourists would go there anyway. Even fishermen stay away although some use an outer seawall to dry their cray and crab pots and nets. Stories persist however, as have the sightings of spectres and hauntings and hearings of moaning from a time past that has now earned its reputation as one of the world’s most haunted islands.
The last warmth from the island disappears fast in the evening, as the sun’s finger-like rays pull away across the shimmering waters of the lagoon to the fist of the Dolomite Mountains.
For much of the day it brings so much life to Poveglia, illuminating the large ramshackle rooms of the island’s clutch of buildings and ruins that throughout history have been marked by death and suffering. A bell tower, long bricked up, stands imposingly over the site including the former hospital, asylum, prison and small chapels.
Darkness fill the crevices of the buildings, and our minds as we are left to wander alone along overgrown pathways and cluttered corridors of the hospital. There are no street lights just a sliver of moon and an old pocket torch.
There’s little to do now but wait, although for what we are not sure.
The island is littered with remnants of human occupation from many generations. Old wooden shutters fall off ancient hinges as ivy with stems or trunks the size of a man’s forearm snake their way into rooms. Terracotta roofs of buildings have collapsed, in part bringing old reed and mud style plaster ceilings crashing to the tiled and stone slab floors.
In some rooms cast iron lion claw feet baths sit rusting where they have sat from decades before as do hundreds of hospital beds, gurneys, steel bedside tables and surgical instrument benches, too much for anyone to bother to have cleared out.
A ceiling fresco in apparently what was a chapel peels away and only two or three pews remain, which no doubt were once full of Catholics praying for better times. Greying shower and partition curtains sway in the breeze to the sound of cooing from pigeons who have adopted the tops of the white-tiled cubicles. Scaffolding was erected after the hospital closed to preserve the imposing structures but that is now having the opposite effect after years of clinging to the sides of soft red brick walls and falling masonry.
Now in the dark, with only the torch and mobile phone to illuminate a ring of light around me
I check my shadow. It is distorted by the torch beam bouncing off other things in the room that was an asylum, including old beds and pungent mattresses.
Hairs are now up on the back of my neck and in an instant I decide to move. Walk more, clear the mind. A heavy dew is now descending so best to keep moving anyway.
There is no sight in the all enveloping darkness, so now our ears burn to tune hard into surrounding sounds.
Rustlings are more pronounced and I point the torch here and there into the far reaches of the rooms and corridors. There are plagues of rabbits including albino ones running about the place, I saw them earlier scurrying about in what had been an orchard and is now a wild canopy of barbed blackberry spines and honeysuckle. Lizards and millipedes also abound and the rustling surely could be them.
We had earlier seen the remains of three large gulls torn apart and in various states of rot so perhaps a wild dog or some such is on Poveglia. Perhaps we are not alone after all.
There’s also the wind blowing through the dilapidated buildings blowing leaves and refuse about; a whistle here a low hum there. Across the way I can hear bells toll from the Santa Maria dell Assunzione on nearby Lido island. There are, apping waves and further still the faint sounds that are the din of a distant tourist-boat in Venice.
Earlier I had literally stumbled on a chiselled stone block covered in bramble and read its message: “Ne Fodias Vita Functi Contagio Requiescunt MDCCXCIII”.
Mobile phone reception on the island is intermittent but after a while the annoying turning wheel that tells me the phone is thinking about helping stops, and Google tells me the message roughly warns “do not dig there are contagious bodies here”.
The pungency of the site, buried and or burnt bodies or not, is overbearing and makes breathing difficult. Dank rooms are covered in mould and mildew or now even trees that have decided to assume residency. The entire island is in an advanced state of decay, man’s achievements and or his failures being allowed to be consumed by nature in all its forms.
It is suffocating in parts, asbestos sheeting smashed in one room’s huge industrial kitchen, still littered with ovens and giant mixing vats and pots, an alarming find.
NO sleep now at all and finally sunrise brings relief. Again light creeps into rooms and contorted shadows — my own or otherwise — disappear to whence they came. No ghosts seen or heard but terror enough to etch on minds-eye an image of times past. There is something here, but what it is, is not clear. Perhaps it’s just a sense or desire that human’s presence on Earth could surely not just disappear when they depart and all that’s left is just bricks and beds to record their tale of being.
And then a sign.
We walk back through rooms we’d photographed in the dark and all is as it was except in the chapel. An already misplaced steel hospital side table that was to the extreme right when we saw and photographed it just a couple of hours earlier is now on the extreme left of the room. This was no trick of the mind, the move was clear and captured digitally.
Perhaps this was one of Giovanni’s “friends”. We won’t ever know, and sometimes it’s best not to ask.
This article was written by: Charles Miranda in Poveglia, Italy
News Corp Australia