As a means of paying off its public debt and appeasing budget guidelines for the European Union, Italy is auctioning off its famously feared and unsurprisingly deserted island, Poveglia. Residents and travelers are shocked at the announcement as most who have heard of the island’s sordid past never dare to speak its name, even though there is a popular local adage that states: “When an evil man dies, he wakes up in Poveglia.” The island has been referred to as “the most haunted place on the planet,” “the island of madness,” or quite simply “hell,” but regardless of its reputation, the haunted commune of Poveglia will be going up for auction next month.
On the surface, the 17-acre island within a Venetian bay appears a charmingly rustic, lush, and hospitable retreat from the bustle of the busy city. The supposed oasis is only a stone throw’s from Venice, nearly a ten minute boat ride from Saint Marco Square. However, neither residents nor tourists dare to travel to the nearby seemingly luxuriously lush location. Rumors circulate that the soil on the island is made up of 50 percent ash, and that visitors to the compound return to the mainland either possessed or full of stories of visions of ghosts.
There is a strong case for why the island is deserted and why “The Island of Madness” being up for auction has caused such a stir. Near the end of the 18th century, the en route island was used as a depot for Europeans afflicted by the plague. Sanctioned as a checkpoint for ships heading into Venice, after a few carriages deposited plague victims in 1793, Poveglia was quarantined and only victims of infectious diseases were permitted entry. This was the reality on the expansive grounds for over a century. Without a doubt, the island was home for a multitude of unsettling deaths during this time.
Then in the 1920s, rumors emerged that what was thought to be a hospital for the elderly on the grounds was actually a playground for a “progressive” psychiatrist who performed experimental lobotomies on mental patients who had been institutionalized in his care. The doctor apparently lived alone on the island with his patients and exacted a series of consecutively torturous procedures on his subjects until he drove himself to madness, jumping out of the hospital’s bell tower to his own death. There is no knowing how long his maimed patients survived after their caretaker took his own life.
For the last 50 years, Poveglia has been rather quiet. Its gardens are still green and its structures still appear sound and stately. Most of the only visitors are ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts who make the pilgrimage for the sake of the spectacle and to take lurid photographs. As it is still owned by the Italian government, they are offering a 99-year lease to whomever would like to reclaim the jaded landscape on Poveglia, and turn the island of madness into something other than history’s haunted paradise.
Opinion by Stacy Feder