The Dark History Of Poveglia

CULTURE | August 23, 2019

Poveglia Island. Source: (horizontimes.com)

Located in the Venice Lagoon off the coast of Northern Italy is a small island with a big history. A history of disease, torture, and death. That island is Poveglia and, due to its dark history, it is believed to be one of the most haunted places on Earth.

Its history wasn’t always so disturbing. The island began as a place of refuge in the early 5th century when it was inhabited by Italians who had fled the mainland due to the barbaric invasions by Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun, though historians speculate that the island may have been inhabited as early as 2000 B.C. by a group of proto-Italians known as the Euganei. The small size of Poveglia, as well as its location among the other islands of the lagoon, made it much easier to defend and the residents of the island lived in peace until the 14th century.

The town of Chioggia. Source: (Wikipedia.org)

During the Chioggia War with Genoa, which began in 1379, the residents of Poveglia were forced to move to another island in the Venetian Lagoon. Poveglia was then converted into a military outpost, complete with an octagonal fort and naval artillery which allowed Venice to control the lagoon. After the war, the island was left abandoned for two hundred years, until the Bubonic Plague in 1576.

Bubonic Plague quarantine. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The first bubonic plague swept through Venice in 1348, resulting in the death of approximately half the population. By the time it returned in 1576, they knew more about the disease and how it spread. They knew they needed to quarantine the infected in order to keep the disease away from the healthy population. At first, deceased plague victims were kept in large burial pits outside the city, but when that wasn’t enough they began shipping the dead bodies to the islands in the lagoon.

Black Death ships. Source: (pinterest.com)

As the epidemic spread, anyone who showed symptoms of the plague was shipped off to the islands along with the corpses and soon Poveglia became a colony for the sick and dying. It was rare for anyone sent to the island to recover. Thousands of bodies were burned in an attempt to stop the epidemic. In some cases, the body was burned before the victim died. When the plague returned yet again in the 1630s, the process began all over again. In 1777, Poveglia became a checkpoint where ships were inspected for the disease before being allowed to the mainland. In 1790, two ships were found with cases of the plague and the island again became a quarantine colony.

The main structure on Poveglia Island. Source: (travelchannel.com)

In the early 20th century, the island became home to residents who were mentally ill rather than physically ill. The government turned the island’s existing buildings into a poorly constructed asylum. Like many mental institutions of the time, the patients were sent there for exile rather than treatment. Legend has it that a doctor in the 1930s experimented on the patients before killing himself by jumping from the bell tower. Some versions of the story say he was haunted by the island’s ghosts and either jumped to escape them or was pushed by one of them. In any case, the institution shut down in 1968 and the facility was briefly used as a geriatric center before that closed as well.

In 2014, an attempt was made by the government to auction the island off, but it was unsuccessful. Today the island is abandoned and traveling there is prohibited. Poveglia has inspired multiple novels and been featured on Ghost Adventures and Scariest Places on Earth.   

Tags: italy | Poveglia, history of

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.