San Michele in Isola
The Cemetery


San Michele in Isola
Mauro Codussi 1469-78

The original church was founded in the 10th century and dedicated to to the Archangel Michael. A monastery was built too and housed monks of the Camaldolesi order from 1212 to 1818. Amongst the monks who lived here were Fra Mario Capellari, who became Pope Gregory XVI, and famed cartographer Fra Mauro - there's a  Fra Mauro Crater on the Moon named after him. (See far below right for an image of his mappamundo.) The church was enlarged and consecrated in 1221. Rebuilt in its current form 1469-78 by Mauro Codussi, who had previously worked for the Camaldolesi in Ravenna. This was his first building in Venice, begun when he was in his late 20s, and Venice's first church in the Renaissance style. The design of the façade and its use of Istrian stone solely was very influential on Venetian church architecture.
The hexagonal Cappella Emiliana (see photo right) to the left of the façade was funded by the will of Margherita Vitturi, the widow of Giovanni Emiliani, who was the son of Bishop Pietro Emiliani of Vicenza who has a monument in the Frari. Thomas Coryate in his Crudities of 1608 describes Margherita, who was the sister of humanist Daniele Vitturi, as a 'rich courtesan' who 'hoped to make expiation unto God by this holy deed for the lascivious dalliances of her youth'.) It was built 1529 to c.1535 by Guglielmo dei Grigi and repaired by Sansovino in 1560-62. The gothic doorway to the right of the façade leads to a 15th century cloister (see photo below right).
In 1835-39 the wide canal which divided the islands of San Michele and San Cristoforo was filled in to enlarge the cemetery founded on the latter island by Napoleon in 1807 (see below) and the monastery here passed to reformed Franciscans.

Restrained and basilical, with flat coffered ceiling and a gallery (see photo right.) There's a modest monument inside the vestibule (with his ashes) to Paolo Sarpi. Also a monument to Andrea Loredan, a benefactor, in the chancel.

Ruskin wrote
The little Cappella Emiliana at the side of it has been much admired, but it would be difficult to find a building more feelingless or ridiculous. It is more like a German summer-house than a chapel, and may be briefly described as a bee-hive set on a low hexagonal tower, with dashes of stonework about its windows like the flourishes of an idle penman. The cloister of this church is pretty; and the attached cemetery is worth entering, for the sake of feeling the strangeness of the quiet sleeping ground in the midst of the sea.

40m (130ft) electromechanical bells
Built between 1546 and 1560, an unusually complex design in brick with relief decoration and a terracotta lantern and dome with a stone pinnacle.

Lost art
A lot of Bellinis have passed this way! The Priuli Triptych of 1510-12 (see below) was painted for the Chapel of the Cross here, built for Pietro Priuli, who died in 1493. The central panel of the Virgin and Child is flanked by two panels - Saint Peter and a Camaldolese monk on the left, Saint Mark and another monk, plus the kneeling donor, on the right. It's a work that always had and studio added to Bellini's name, and some recent scholarship has given it to  Bellini's friend and collaborator Vittore Belliniano. It's now in the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf.

The very landscape-dominated, Flemish-influenced, but oddly incoherent, Resurrection by him (with worryingly giant rabbits, supposedly symbolising life; and a cormorant, symbolising death) now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, was painted for Marco Zorzi's chapel here in 1476. And his Virgin with Doge Agostino Barbarigo was moved here from the Doge's Palace in 1501 - it's now in San Pietro Martire on Murano.
A superior Virgin and Child with Saints Peter, Romuald, Benedict and Paul (The Boldù Altarpiece) painted by Cima de Conegliano for the Boldù chapel here has been in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie since 1821. A small altarpiece depicting Four Camaldolese Saints by Giandomenico Tiepolo is now in the Castelvecchio in Verona.
Two Graduals (choir books used during the mass) were  illuminated for San Michele by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci from the famed scriptorium at Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence in the 1390s. They were his last works and have pages all over the place, with many in the V&A in London and the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York. The leaf containing the initial S (see right © the V&A) is from the beginning of the Mass for Pentecost. In the upper register, the Virgin prays with the Apostles (including Matthias who was selected by lot to replace Judas) as the Holy Ghost descends; in the lower the elders of all nations (differentiated by their clothing) wait for enlightenment.

The island in art
The Island of San Michele by Francesco Guardi (see right). Église à Venise avec Gondole (1831?) by Alexandre Hesse (see below right). L'Église San Michele près de Venise (1883) in the Musée d'Orsay, by Henri Rouart, is a more straightforward view of the front. An oil painting now in Toledo called Campo Santo from 1842 by Turner features San Michele.

The monastery in fiction
 A Mapmaker's Dream by James Cowan is a novel about Fra Mauro and the creation of his map of the world.


San Michele in Isola - Isola della Conoscenza is the catalogue of an exhibition in the Marciana Library in 2012, in Italian, full of essays and illustrations.

Opening times 8.45 - 11.30

Vaporetto Cimetero










Fra Mauro's Mappamundo in the Biblioteca Marciana












Interior photos above by Brigitte Eckert


The Cemetery

The monastery island of San Cristoforo had had a Protestant cemetery since 1719 when Napoleon founded a larger monumental cemetery there in 1807. As in other cities in Europe this was prompted by the realisation that city centres could no longer comfortably hold their dead in sanitary conditions. Especially if that city was regularly flooded. It opened in 1813 and consisted of walled fields with a small octagonal chapel and a pair of neo-Egyptian portals. All of this based on a project of 1808 by Giannantonio Selva, the noclassical architect of the original Teatro La Fenice, and  San Maurizio in Venice, the church that now houses a museum of baroque musical instruments.. In 1825 the cemetery was expanded over to San Michele and in 1835-9 the channel between the islands was filled in. Rebuilding took place from 1870 to neo-Gothic designs by Annibale Forcellini from 1858, this work resulting in the cemetery's current form. In the 1880s a neo-medieval church was built with an adjoining neo-renaissance entrance. In the 20th century British architect David Chipperfield added courtyards with basalt-clad walls.

San Michele's four acres include fields for Protestants and Orthodox faiths, as well as the majority Catholics, with smaller areas devoted to nuns, priests, children, war dead and gondoliers. The lack of the free-standing monuments and chapels found in other cemeteries in Italy has been put down to limitations in space and the lack of sheltering loggias. The cemetery's characteristic constructions are the avenues of 8-foot high crammed white marble columbariums. Venetians are now buried here for a specified numbers of years, after which their bodies are exhumed and their remains cremated and either put into a columbarium niche or scattered in the lagoon. But this policy has only been in effect for 70 years or so - the older graves were leased for eternity.

Famous burials here include Igor Stravinsky, who never lived in Venice, but debuted a number of his works here, Frederick Rolfe, Horatio Brown, Sergei Diaghilev (in the Orthodox section), Joseph Brodsky, Olga Rudge and Ezra Pound. The last three being in the Protestant section.









San Cristoforo
















Cannaregio :: Castello :: Dorsoduro :: Giudecca :: San Marco :: San Polo :: Santa Croce :: The Islands :: Demolished