For a holiday respite, I devoted my Friday posts through December and January to recounting a trip I took to Venice in 2007. Using photos and notes from the trip, I highlighted the urbanist issues of day-to-day life in perhaps the most famous car-free city in the world.
I reached the end of January without exhausting the stories and insights that I’d hoped to share. Venice is too fascinating to leave with tales untold, so I’ve continued with occasional Friday posts into February and beyond. Today will be another of those extra posts.
In the history of this blog, I’ve mentioned cemeteries exactly one time. But the subject may have found resonance with the readers. The mention was in a comparison of Savannah and Charleston. After earlier posts which balanced the two cities on elements such as restaurants and parks, I tried to sum up the comparison by deciding in which city I’d prefer to live. I came down in favor of Savannah for several reasons, one of which was the way they embraced their cemeteries, acknowledging the circle of life.
I was comfortable in my conclusions, but expected the post to quickly slip beneath the waves of the constantly churning internet. I was wrong. Slightly more than a year later, barely a week goes by without another twenty to thirty people reading that post. By total readership, it’s the most popular post I’ve ever written, by a factor of more than two.
I don’t know what draws people to that post. It might be Savannah residents pleased that I gave the nod to their fair city. It might be Charleston residents astonished that I could cast aspersions on their racial progress. Or perhaps the reference to Savannah cemeteries was the key factor.
In any case, it seemed appropriate to check if the cemetery reference was key by writing about the Venetian cemetery. Plus, the San Michele Cimitere is worth writing about.
For many years, Venetians buried their dead beneath the paving stones of their courtyards and pedestrian ways. I recall one particular courtyard where an estimated 25,000 plague victims had been buried, but most of the burials elsewhere in the city were unmarked. (That practice must add a little spice to the life of contemporary utility workers. Every shovelful of dirt for a utility trench offers a possible surprise.)
In the early 19th century, a Venetian doge finally decided that downtown burials were a bad idea. He directed that all future burials would be on the small island of San Michele, between Venice and the glass-making island of Murano.
It was a reasonable decision. San Michele already had a chapel and a small graveyard. Expansion was a reasonable course. And likely profitable to the family that owned San Michele.
The vaporetto to Murano makes a scheduled stop at the San Michele dock. I hadn’t necessarily planned on visiting San Michele, but while traveling to Murano one day made the abrupt decision to disembark for a look around.
It was a good decision. San Michele is a tidy little cemetery, tightly oriented and well-maintained. I can’t think of a single U.S. cemetery that projects quite the sense of order of San Michele. It offers a number of settings, from enclosed gardens to broader expanses. And several of the chapels provide colonnades to help slake my insatiable need for more colonnade photography.
In a model seen more often in Europe than in the U.S., there are too few plots at San Michele to meet the demand from Venice. So most plots aren’t sold, but are instead rented for twelve years, after which the remains are relocated to a cemetery on the mainland.
Within the U.S., I know some New Orleans cemeteries follow a similar model, although they rent for the shorter period of seven years. Here in California, the concept of moving remains may seem macabre, but it’s a reasonable strategy in a place with little land area and a long history.
I have a couple of anecdotes to share from my time wandering about San Michele. In a far corner, I came across the grave of Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who first introduced Russian ballet to the western world. I didn’t know that he’d been buried in Venice and was pleased to have found his gravel by chance.
I was even more pleased to see that he hadn’t been forgotten. Decorating his grave were tokens left by other visitors, used ballet slippers, ballet programs, and tickets from recent ballet performances.
I’ve seen similar tributes at the graves of sports figures, such as Joe DiMaggio’s grave in Colma, but it was my first time to see a similar reaction to someone in the arts. Especially when Diaghilev has been gone for 85 years. In a world where many of us will be forgotten 85 days after we’re gone, it’s good to see that some fame is more long-lasting,
As I neared the end of my visit, I came across a custodian who was locking up a chapel. To my surprise, hewas wearing a San Francisco Giants ballcap. It was worn and frayed, but still clearly a baseball cap. Being a baseball fan, I was intrigued to learn how a Giants cap ended up on the head of an elderly, stooped custodian in a Venetian cemetery.
But I feared that he would have little English, so kept my words to a minimum. After wishing him a good day in one of my few Italian phrases, I pointed to the cap and asked “San Francisco Giants?” He looked back impassively.
Thinking that Barry Bonds might be too recent and too controversial, I went further back in my next effort “Willie Mays?” Still nothing.
Going for an Italian connection, I tried “Joe DiMaggio?” There was no Giant connection, but the San Francisco tie was strong. Nonetheless, there was still no reaction.
So I rolled out my final effort, a true incendiary subject for many Giants fans, but with an impeccable Italian tie. “Tommy Lasorda?” Still an impassive stare.
I wished him a good day and headed back to the vaporetto stop, resigned to never knowing how the cap found its way to Venice. I only hope that the custodian got a good laugh of his wife that evening when he told her about the demented American tourist.
San Michele may not have the proximity to Venice that the Colonial Cemetery has to downtown Savannah, but having a regular vaporetto stop that serves only the cemetery may make it even more a part of everyday life. As in so many things, Venice had responded to its unique setting with urban solutions that feel right.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)