hidden europe 17

Venice: the islands of the mad

by Michelle Lovric


Venice has a long tradition of exiling her problems to preserve her serenity. Gunpowder, lunatics, lepers and amputees had no place in the heart of the city. Michelle Lovric visits the islands of the lagoon in search of hidden Venice.

The islands of the Venetian lagoon, and especially those islands which were reserved as sanatoria, quarantine stations or mental institutions, have long appealed to the literary imagination. Shelley described a visit to San Servolo asylum with Byron in his poem ‘Julian and Maddolo' (see quote on page 20). For Shelley, San Servolo was "a windowless, deform'd and dreary pile". Four decades later, the French writer Théophile Gautier evidently judged a trip out to San Servolo to see "les idiots décrépits" as a Venetian highlight. Gautier perceptively commented that adapting the monastic cells for use by madmen had been no great task. In more recent times, San Servolo was the setting for Jeannette Winterson's 1987 novel ‘The Passion'.

For this issue of hidden europe another novelist with a passion for Venice, Michelle Lovric, takes a look at the Archipelago delle Malattie - the islands reserved for the diseased, the deranged and the deformed.

The first time I stumbled into the Archipelago delle Malattie it was in search of cats and the ghosts of women who had succumbed to madness. That was back in the days when San Clemente had not yet been sanitised and made into a preserve for the pampered rich.

The vaporetto edged gently into the landing stage at San Clemente. A few eyebrows were raised that I really wished to alight here. Once ashore, I was greeted by an old man with a dog and an enviable repertoire of scatological dialect. The message was clear: "Go away!" Venetians are great cursers. I spotted a gateway to a lush overgrown orchard and darted through it, the guard's ripe rant trailing behind me.

San Clemente was a wilderness of wildflowers, vines and medlars. The fat orange fruit hung like Chinese lanterns in the branches. I picked my way around a vast stone building, empty-windowed, echoing with the cries of cicadas.

Then I heard the miaows.

At the back of the old asylum which had once housed Venice's lady lunatics were four tall wired enclosures, each containing dozens of cats. They were prowling, scrapping with one another, feeding, lying in the sun. Also in each cage were a couple of devoted Venetian women who came out to San Clemente on the vaporetto every day to feed the island's feline inhabitants. As I approached one of the cages, dozens of cats threw themselves against the wires of their enclosures, pushing their paws through the wires to me. One of the women explained "They have food. What they need is a caress."