The abandoned islands represent an important opportunity for the future of the lagoon. But due to a lack of pioneering projects there is an urgent need for viable solutions. The transformation of Poveglia aims at a radical valorisation of one of the most known islands by turning the illusionary mirage of abandonment into a vital oasis. A new oasis in the lagoon which is first of all productive (both in physical as well as in metaphorical ways), mainly public (with a big offer of open spaces and accessibility for visitors) and pleasant (offering a high comfort level in all aspects with exceptional views to nature and the lagoon).
The origin of Poveglia's name is according to different hypothesis either derived from the name of a Roman family Popilia or Pupilia, the strong presence of poplar (lat. pioppo) trees, or from the proximity to an important trading road close-by, called Popilia Annia, linking Rimini and Aquileia. Popilia later morphed into Poveggia o Povegia as documented by early maps.1 Its first significant settlement started 421 when it hosted refugees mainly from Padova but also from the east. They arrived to Poveglia due to the ‘Lombard Invasion’ of the terra firma in the 5th century AD. However, after some centuries (809 AD) this first population had to leave the island again. This time they fled from the troops of emperor Pepin (son of Charlesmagne) who occupied the lagoon from the eastern end.
After almost a century of abandonment the doge decided to send again people to colonise Poveglia resolving this time another of his pressing problems: In 864, the previous doge Pietro Tradonico was murdered during a revolt that destabilised the political power of the ruling dynasty. To avoid further problems the new doge offered the followers of the revolt the island of Poveglia together with many privileges. In this way he could hold them on distance and reinforce his power. In the 12th century the sum of the dwellings increased to 800 and became economically stable thanks to prospering effects of fishery and salt production. By growing in importance the inhabitants established a local tribunal which later become a Podestà (administrative entity). Subsequently the church of San Vitale was erected in the 13th century.
Caused by the war of Chioggia in 1379 between the Genovese and Venetian powers, the inhabitants had to be moved to Giudecca leaving the island abandoned again. Giving up its residential character Poveglia was fortified for military defense by adding an octagonal fortress, the ottagono. From the 15th century, Poveglia became a place to isolate infected victims of plagues just like other islands in the lagoon (Lazzaretto Vecchio (1423) and Lazaretto Novo (1468)). The use as a quarantine, as we will see, represents an important theme in Poveglia‘s history until the 20th century. Countless people passed away lacking of sufficient medical knowledge and treatments; among those victims famous Renaissance painter Giorgio da Castelfranco (1477 - 1510) who died in Poveglia due a pestilential infection. He used to be a student in the painting workshop of Giovanni Bellini in Venice together with Tizian. It was only in 1745 that Poveglia got new stimulus. The campanile of San Vitale was renewed and complemented by a new clockwork by Bartolomeo Ferracina (1692 - 1777). In the following decades new ideas arouse for the future of the island: in 1782, the Magistrato alla Sanità, decided to open a check point for all goods and people entering the lagoon. In the newly established Lazzaretto Nuovissimo the authorities intended to protect Venice from plagues by introducing a system of ‘contumacia’. Contumacia consisted of certain expurgation procedures that prepared goods and people before entering the city. At that time chlorine steam, as well as inhalations of sulfur were applied. Some decades later steam and smoke of medical herbs substituted previous practices. From 1793 it took up again its function as quarantine station due to a severe pestilential plague.
Between 1797 and 1805 the island was affected by a dramatic shift of political powers: after the official end of the Venetian Republic with the abdication of doge Ludovico Giovanni Manin, the Lagoon became part of the Austrian Empire (1798-1805). Shortly after it was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte for the French which initiated a time of secularisation. This led to the demolition of the church of San Vitale whereas its bell-tower was kept to function as lighthouse. Subsequently Poveglia became a military basis with a deposit of arms. During its military use the island was extended significantly. In 1808, sea ooze from previous excavation of canals was used to fill up the new northern part of the island. By the return to Austrian sovereignty Poveglia retook its function as lazaretto and expurgating check-point in 1814. The controling institution was the Magistrato di Sanità Marittima.
In 1922, a new chapter in the island‘s history opened with the establishment of a retirement home and a mental hospital. Sources talking about those times are full of terrifying details even though many of them are scientifically not sufficiently proven. A recurrent story talks about a doctor that was experimenting on a cure for insanity by very dubious surgeries: he apparently conducted lobotomies using primitive tools like hand drills, chisels, and hammers. ‘According to the lore, after many years of performing these immoral acts, the doctor began to see the tortured plague-ridden spirits. It is said that they led him to the bell tower where he jumped (or was thrown) to the grounds below.’ In 1968, Poveglia was abandoned completely apart from some minor agricultural projects in uncovered spaces. Plans, like the one of CTS (Centro Turistico Studentesco e Giovanile) to bring student housing to the island had never been realised. 1999 The Ministero del Tesoro took Poveglia off the list of cultural heritage to prepare a public auction.
The imminent sale by auction initiated a massive discussion about Poveglia. Its fate had little or no interest until that point, the island was only scarcely visited by Venetians. Suddenly it was in the middle of attention and raised not only questions about Poveglia’s future but also generally about the social and political status of such an island. Indeed it was the threat of loosing it which brought public consciousness back. The crucial issues concerned the antagonism of public vs. private, tourism vs. cultural heritage and capitalism vs. society. Taking into consideration the case of Poveglia together with other islands it can be argued that the mentioned questions revolve all around similar discrepancies: should the state be legitimated to sell public goods to private investors? What is the importance of islands as public goods? How does private interests effect them? These questions are closely related to the dynamics described by David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology and geography. Harvey relates neo-liberal politics with the prioritisation of income generating private ventures over collective projects in favour of citizens i.e. wider public.
The abandonment of the Island brought decay and deterioration to Poveglia. Precious buildings have perished. Not only the physical image was literally ruined but also the presence in the collective memory as being a meaningful place. At this point we can trace certain leitmotif reappearing in the history of Poveglia. Firstly there is the role of the island as symbol of ‘white hope’. That is to say that Poveglia served as last resort, a place of cure and rehabilitation in critical times. By that it assumed a significant social relevance serving the common good of the whole city. The fatal connotations of illness and death triggered its presence to be commonly suppressed. It can be argued that the claim to keep the island public alludes to a strong anxiety: losing Poveglia for the public is put on a level with losing its social value. The second important fils rouge is the slow but constantly expanding stratification i.e. many heterogeneous layers. The newer parts relate back to the existing ones by means of reinterpretation and recomposition. Powerful examples are the artificial infill of the northern extension beyond the canal and the octagon in the south which completely changed the appearance of the island. Furthermore we find a successive addition of buildings with different languages, materials and construction techniques. The heterogeneity is reinforced by a broad spectrum of diverse facades reaching from rather austere to highly decorated, neogothical ones. The tower that we find on the island is a perfect example of the historical superimposition of older and newer layers. Among the newer layers there is also the vegetation which has grown literally to a dominant and considerable extent.
Since its abandonment in 1968, buildings started to deteriorate progressively due to missing maintenance and the vandalism of occasional visitors. It was however a matter of time until the built fabric would give in to both alteration and serious decay. The major factors for decay have been the exposure to weathering and the high level of humidity in the lagoon. Over the years many roofs have partly or completely collapsed. Finishings disintegrated and exposed brick or concrete surfaces directly to the rough conditions. Decomposing windows and doors enhanced the decay further on by allowing vegetation to enter. In addition, the soil has been chemically contaminated due to accumulation of waste and orphaned items. Signs of decay reach, moreover, from biological colonisation such as lichens, mosses and ferns, rust stains up to delamination and cracks in wood pieces, as well as spalling, efflorescences on both brick and concrete. Given this broad amount of decay and the restraint of evaluation sources we decided to implement a simple but sound classification to assess the potential for reuse.
The idea is to apply a 3-step grading system to both roof and facade. The three steps determine the current condition reaching from intact over damaged to destroyed state. By the combination of these two parameters we arrived to the conclusion that there are some buildings (such as the Jetty) which cannot be restored without disproportional measures. The case of complete destruction applies, however, just to a small amount of buildings. The condition of the remaining ones will be the basis to articulate different strategies for their reuse.
Concerning the strengths of Poveglia there are first of all the precious existing buildings which are not only a living witness of the past but can also host new functions that benefit from the strong identity of the architectural features. The island is, furthermore, the perfect place for retreat because of its high degree of privateness and its relatively small area and manageable scale.
Restricted by its natural boundaries one of the key weakness is the remoteness which complicates transport, construction and maintenance. The advanced state of decay and deterioration has moreover decreased the chance of investments which can be seen as further downside. In addition, there is the direct exposure to the weather as well as the dubious reputation to be haunted by ghosts, both implying possible difficulties. Among many opportunities for the future of Poveglia one of the central ones is surely the creation of new spaces for the public that could reactivate the given heritage without being limited to exploitative privatisation. Furthermore the island could become a role model for the reutilisation of other abandoned islands. The major threat could be the funding shortage and bureaucratic paralysis in case of public appropriation. Last but not least there is also the aspect of widespread superstition which could handicap the valorisation process.