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Italy's Abandoned Poveglia Island: The Hype and the History Explained

With the amount of rumors and legends around the horrors of this island in the Venetian lagoon, I wanted to take a closer look at the real history of one of the world's most infamous and supposedly haunted places: Poveglia, Italy.

The island of Poveglia and the octagonal fort structure

You've probably heard of it one of two televised ways; Scariest Places on Earth in the 1990's, or Ghost Adventures in the early aughts. It's a very different viewing experience per each show, so if you were lucky enough to catch the late 90's episode that detailed this place, you started out on a relatively informative and sane path. If all you know is Zak Bagels' demonic possession episode from his brief evening on the island, you may have some misguided information. Put both TV shows in the back of your mind, and let's straighten things out with some understanding of this place throughout history.

Venice is a fascinating city, precariously situated in a lagoon on the northern Italian coast; a protected and sunny area of the Mediterranean Sea. Allowing for large shipping operations, the Venetian harbor has historically been a central hub of trade and commerce. As one of the top tourist destinations in the world, it now sees hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. However, Poveglia itself remains illegal to visit, albeit somewhat attainable when the right boat captain is paid for a day on the water. Explorers and tourists alike have been able to access the island after it's mystery and fame reached a fever pitch post-Ghost Adventures episode. With more popularity, the island has also ben subject to many rumors.

Amy, June 2015 in Venice

The first inhabitants of the island of Poveglia are documented from the 5th Century AD, when people moved there to flee Barbarian invasions. Over the course of several centuries, various battles were fought on the island and invasions continued as the city grew. While it did not have many permanent inhabitants for very long, it did in fact serve as one of the earliest hospital-style institutions in Italy, a lazaretto.

Poveglia has not had any archaeological digs or investigations into the substructure of the island, but neighboring islands have turned up extremely gruesome clues to the possibility of Poveglia's similar use. Plague pits were found during the excavation of a foundation on Lazaretto Vecchio, with bodies tightly packed and piled together in a hasty burial. The use of Poveglia in a similar manner, with unidentified pits believed to be somewhere in the more overgrown acreage, is comparable due to its historical use as a checkpoint.

Gondola ride through Venetian canals, 2015

Venetians had some of the strictest sanitary laws in Europe, and knew that quarantining or separating populations of sick individuals from healthy ones, was one way to stop the spread of diseases coming into their city. The distant islands of the lagoon became quarantines or lazarettos, and boats coming into port would have to stop for health inspections there before being let into the city proper. This is evidence that Poveglia did indeed house quarantined people, sick and probably very bored during their time, for a required 40 days. "Quarantine" came from the Venetians: "forty days" translates to "quaranta giorni."

The use of the island at various points in history is documented again during Napolean's use of it as a munitions storage. The lazaretto itself was closed down in 1814. The buildings were used again as a checkpoint for about a decade in the late 1800's before becoming an insane asylum in 1922. The asylum buildings remain visible and still semi-intact, if not in dangerous condition. It was apparently during it's time as a psychiatric hospital that stories of the supernatural began to circulate. Being an isolated location, speculation as to the paranormal occurrences there would have only increased, mixed with the already disconcerting history of it's use. With plague victims likely buried there at various points of disease outbreak in Venice, death was well associated with Poveglia by the time the asylum was created from several historic structures still intact.

One of the more widely told stories of the asylum years of Poveglia is of a doctor who allegedly committed suicide there. He is said to have leapt from the bell tower after being haunted by the victims of his many illicit lobotomies and deranged medical experiments performed on unwitting patients-turned-victims. However ghoulishly it's told, there is no record of any doctor or surgeon committing suicide on the property. This was likely a legend, spurned by the storyteller capable in all of us, and later utilized extensively in the narrative of various TV shows. It makes for a gruesome tale, but not a factually accurate one.

It was in 1968, just as the height of the paranormal's first saturation of popular culture was coming into focus, that the hospital facility closed for good, and all staff and patients left the island. The rumors continued circulating from this point on, and I point out it's relation to 1960's and 70's pop culture, (the Amityville case, The Exorcist, etc), to provide an example of how available the environment was during that time to enable such stories, rumors and legends to take hold and solidify.

Haunted or just abandoned and containing a morbid history, the island is open to private tours as more people want to experience what is left behind on Poveglia. It's mystery is still very haunting and pervasive, especially in how visible its former use and subsequent decay is. Hundreds of years of occupation, embattlement, agricultural attempts, and institutions have given the island a reputation that precedes its very mention. While nearly unimaginable outside a ghastly horror novel, the reality is still macabre, but in truth reflects the very normal and affected aspects of changing Venetian society. Over time, its use changed as to the needs of the city it sits adjacent to. From quarantine health station, to makeshift emergency cemetery, to facility for the mentally ill and at last the elderly, Poveglia Island deserves its rightful understanding as it lays silently in the Venetian lagoon, letting an ablution of time and seawater, and curious onlookers, list by.

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I'm Amy L. Bennett, a writer, multimedia artist, recovering archaeologist and YouTuber from Upstate, New York. I've been invested in all things strange and unusual since my dad gave me the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy when I was way too young. Along with my fiancé, Ryan, we've explored countless haunted locations in the US and abroad in search of the Weird.
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