Poveglia: Italy’s Island of the Damned

Set sail for Italy's most haunted isle, where the wails of restless souls still echo in the night.

Italy’s Venetian Lagoon is a thing of beauty from the shores of Venice. The tranquil body of water opens up to the Adriatic Sea and is dotted with charming islands. Murano is known for its glassblowing products and Burano for its brightly colored homes.

But there is one desolate site steeped in darkness and madness – Poveglia Island.

Poveglia lies between Venice and the long coast of Lido, a barrier island that separates the mainland from the Adriatic. Its first inhabitants arrived in 421, seeking refuge from barbarian invasions of mainland Italy.

For centuries, the islanders lived in peace, until an attack by a Genoan fleet in 1379 cleared Poveglia of its population.

At the same time, the Black Death raged through Europe, and Poveglia gained a dark new purpose – it became a quarantine site for the diseased and the dead. Corpses were hauled off in heaps, while doomed souls showing even the slightest symptoms were banished to its shores.

Plumes of smoke rose over the island as corpses were burned in large pits of fire. It’s believed that as many as 100,000 people were incinerated there – leaving a blanket of ash upon the ground and fields of bones along the beach.

poveglia island

Subsequent outbreaks plagued the region well into the 1700s, and the island doubled as a confinement station for suspect ships wishing to enter Venice. By the early 1800s, the Black Death finally subsided and the flames calmed. Yet, according to local fishermen, something remained on Poveglia – the tortured souls of those whose last days were consumed by fever and fire.

Such paranormal experiences intensified in 1922, when a mental institution was established on the island. Patients reported numerous sightings of restless spirits. At night, some heard wailing so loudly, they were unable to sleep.

But because the witnesses were deemed insane, their claims were largely ignored.

And it’s here that Poveglia’s history takes a truly disturbing turn. Rumors surfaced of a sadistic psychiatric doctor who conducted brutal experiments on his patients while the asylum was running. The man had a knack for lobotomies – particularly those performed with drills, hammers, and chisels. Patients were taken to the hospital’s bell tower, where the shrieking was muffled within the structure’s thick walls.

It wasn’t long before the doctor lost his mind, possessed by the souls buried beneath Poveglia. There was just one way out of his madness. The doctor climbed the bell tower and threw himself to the ground, joining Poveglia’s legion of dead.

Mad doctor or no, the hospital closed in 1968, after which ownership of the island fell into the hands of the Italian government. An investor briefly acquired the site, but soon abandoned his purchase for mysterious reasons. A wealthy family also expressed interest in buying Poveglia, but after one night spent on the island, they fled and refused to return. In 2014, Poveglia was auctioned to a businessman named Luigi Brugnaro. He has yet to announce just what he plans to do with his new purchase.

poveglia island

For now, Poveglia is off-limits to the public, but that doesn’t stop the curious from venturing ashore. Psychics, ghost hunters, and urban explorers with a taste for the macabre frequent Poveglia, entranced by its dark and bloody history.

The site’s crumbling structures stand in stark contrast to the picturesque piazzas and charming cobblestone streets of nearby Venice. One intrepid visitor claims to have entered the ruins of the former asylum, only to be greeted by a bellowing voice: “Lascia subito, e non tornare mai più.” (Leave immediately, and never return.)

Photos courtesy of Tommaso Gastaldi.

[Via Atlas Obscura; Daily Mail]

Published on 16 Jun 2015