I have long admired an oil painting in the Metropolitan Museum; The Isle of the Dead by the19th century Swiss romantic artist Arnold Bocklin. It is one of five versions that Bocklin painted of this subject. A figure bound in burial cloth stands behind a white-draped coffin in the bow of a rowboat. The oarsman has his back to the viewer, as does the figure he is transporting. They are approaching a small, solitary island with burial vaults hewn into the jagged rocks rising up from the sea. Clusters of tall cypress trees stand on the island; much like the ones I saw out of the bus window during my first moments in Italy; so very Italian in their formation. The mass of trees appear as a black hole in the center of the canvas with the figures being drawn towards its vortex. The sky forms an ominous backdrop as if a storm has just passed (or is it approaching?), but the island itself is bathed in warm light; aglow against the pitch darkness of the sky. The subject is a poetic musing on death; painted in an attempt to provide comfort to a young widow in her bereavement.
Bocklin’s haunting, enigmatic portrayal of death fascinates me, but I had always assumed that the dramatic landscape elements in The Isle of the Dead were pure fancy – that was until my first visit to Venice. Barbara and I were on the #12 vaporetto heading out to the island of Torcello, the site of Venice’s oldest cathedral. Torcello was once a thriving community with a population of about twenty thousand during its heyday in the 14th century. Today only about one hundred people live on the island and few tourists bother to take the forty five minute boat trip. On its way across the Venetian Lagoon, our vaporetto passed the Cimitero di San Michele, Venice’s cemetery island. The cemetery’s tall, orange brick walls appear to rise straight out of the lagoon with a profusion of dark cypress trees growing behind them. Bocklin’s painting was my first thought when I laid eyes on the island cemetery and I am sure that I am not the only person to have made that connection.
Arnold Bocklin was well acquainted with Italian cemeteries. The artist spent most of his professional life in Italy and at twenty five years of age married a Roman woman, Angela Pascucci. She gave birth to eleven children, five of whom died in infancy. The actual inspiration for The Isle of the Dead is said to be the so-called “English Cemetery” (actually owned by the Swiss) in Florence. Bocklin lived in Florence for many years in the neighborhood of the cemetery and his seven month old daughter Maria Anna is buried there in an unmarked grave.
Venice’s maritime situation has presented the city with daunting challenges over the centuries. One of those has been the ongoing problem of what to do with its dead. Dry ground has always been at a premium, and the solution for burial is not quite as simple as digging a hole. At one time the dead of Venice were interred all around the city, but during Napoleonic rule it was decreed that all residents must be buried on San Michele for reasons of public health. There was already a basilica and convent there, so the island was divided up into sections with the largest and best maintained plot reserved for Catholics. Protestants and Orthodox, share the remaining sections. Jews are buried in their own cemetery out on the Lido. The exiled American poet, Ezra Pound died in Venice two days after his eighty seventh birthday and was buried in Cimitero di San Michele. Joseph Brodsky and Igor Stravinsky are among the other notables buried there, however unless you are either very famous or very rich your rest in San Michele will not be eternal. Due to the shortage of ground, after about ten years of decomposition the remains of the deceased are disinterred and gathered to one of the more space-efficient communal ossuaries.
An ongoing project for renovations to the cemetery island includes a crematorium. Until quite recently the Catholic Church had expressly forbidden the practice of cremation. Although contemporary Catholic doctrine still gives preference to burial over cremation, restrictions have become increasingly relaxed. The Church continues to mandate that what is left of the cremated body be properly buried in consecrated ground. Keeping a loved one in an urn above the mantle or scattering their ashes into the Venetian lagoon from the gunnels of a bobbing gondola is still a violation of Catholic doctrine and so the Cimetero di San Michele will continue to play its role in Venetian life – and death.
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Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn, as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.