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Poveglia: The Truth Behind The Most Haunted Island in Italy

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Mystery. History. And most of all, a spooky incarnation of so many ghostly tales come to life. Does that sound up your alley? If so, you’ve come to just the right place.

You’ve likely heard of the Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island, but what do you know about the inspiration behind it? It might come as a surprise to you to learn that there’s some truth in the film, and it comes from a place in beautiful, historic Europe… more specifically, northern Italy.

The real tales behind Poveglia, the most haunted island in Italy, are difficult to discern. Its history is composed of many lost and found stories, some of which have long burrowed their way into the island’s soil, into the island’s bones. But what’s the truth? We’ll uncover it together.

A Brief History of Poveglia Island

An aerial view of Poveglia Island in the Venetian Lagoon, Venice, Italy.
Codrin / Adobe Stock

Before you set foot ashore, allow us to introduce you to Poveglia: the world’s most haunted island. A small, lesser-known piece of land between Venice and Lido, this locale has experienced more dark history, tragedy, and mystery than a Stephen King novel. Where, how, and when, may you ask? Don’t worry—we’ll fill you in.

Located in the famed Venetian Lagoon, Poveglia is a long-standing piece of land with a colorful (or colorless, depending on how you view it) past. In fact, its history stretches back quite a while—the island first appeared on the historical record in 421, and it was populated for a time until residents fled in 1379. War broke out, which led to its subsequent abandonment.

Between the centuries, the Venetian government constructed forts to fortify the entrances to the lagoon; one of these, aptly dubbed the Poveglia Octagon, is still standing today.

Later years brought disease to Italy, and the island came under the jurisdiction of the Public Health Office. Consequently, Poveglia became a designated quarantine station. It operated as such for a time before a mental hospital was built on its grounds—the very same one that would close in 1968, accompanied by many appropriately supernatural rumors.

A Forbidden Path to Walk

A landscape shot of Poveglia Island, as seen from one of its broken down buildings.
Jean-Patrick / Adobe Stock

As we said, rumors spiral in the face of mystery. It’s just the nature of things, like gossip or storytelling, or secrets. People crave tasty morsels of forbidden fruit, don’t they? When something is off-limits, they seem to yearn for it more, as if its inaccessibility creates an unavoidable black hole—sucking you in endlessly.

It’s true that Poveglia Island has long been abandoned, although its status as “forbidden” is more or less a formality, due to its being state property. Trespassers are not welcome, but most would avoid traversing its ground, anyway. With a history like Poveglia’s—and a documented one, no less—the haunting stories practically tell themselves.

There have been attempts by individual businessmen and private groups both to rebuild the structures on the island, turning it from a former psychiatric hospital to something that befits a landmass of its caliber; that is, “a public park, a marina, a restaurant, a hostel [and] a study center” (according to The Telegraph).

It’s unclear if the island will be rebuilt and redesigned in the future. As of the writing of this article, Poveglia remains abandoned, untouched, and unwelcome to visitors.

See Related: Most Haunted Places in the US

Staggered Skeletons: Poveglia’s Few Remaining Structures

Poveglia Island's landscape, as seen from a foresty area beside one of its many abandoned buildings.
Jean-Patrick / Adobe Stock

If you were to step ashore on Poveglia, it might not immediately be apparent that the island’s abandoned; it’s divided into two parts, split down the center by a canal, and the remaining structures linger on either side. As of now, there are a handful of surviving buildings, including a church, the remnants of an asylum, a bell tower, and accommodations for the would-be staff once upon a time.

What else do you see? There’s a bridge that connects the split halves of the island—it’s since been overtaken by trees, other flora, and just natural decay. The Poveglia Octagon is somewhat adjacent to the island itself – unconnected, but near.

From your position on the beach, you might just see the bell tower—as the most visible structure on the island, it’s most likely to catch your eye. Once, it was part of the church of San Vitale, only to later be repurposed as a lighthouse. The church has since been demolished.

See Related: Amazing Ancient Ruins & Archeological Sites of the World

The Existence of the Asylum: Fact or Farce?

Poveglia's famed asylum, now abandoned and broken down, its windows shattered.
Jean-Patrick / Adobe Stock

We touched on Poveglia’s history, but we haven’t gotten into specifics—and the truth is, the reality behind it can only be described as sad. In fact, there have been attempts, even in recent years, to scrub some of those tragic memories from the public record; but if you ask us, as time goes on, it’s important to preserve them.

The actual existence of a mental hospital—or asylum, depending on your preference—has been debated, as some refer to the building as a “nursing home” or “long-term care facility” instead. While this could’ve been true prior to its shutdown, the asylum on Poveglia Island was very much real.

There are artifacts to be found, exploring the rotting, abandoned buildings, one of which is a sign: A wall that reads, “Reparto Psichiatria,” or Psychiatric Department, is still visible amidst all the vines that cover it. It was actually photographed by Ransom Riggs in his 2010 photo essay, wherein he documented his visit.

The Island of the Dead

Inside one of Poveglia's structures, internally destroyed and reclaimed by nature.
Jean-Patrick / Adobe Stock

The story behind the asylum doesn’t end there. Between the years of its designation as a quarantine station and the building of the hospital, more rumors cropped up.

According to legend, a crazed doctor employed by the asylum illegally experimented on psychiatric patients. The story says that he conducted rather crude lobotomies, most of which undoubtedly would result in death. There’s no confirmation of this rumor nor reason to believe it’s true; however, is it so unlikely on an island so touched by suffering?

Other reports claim that in the 1930s, the bell tower was the scene of a crime. A troubled doctor (the doctor of botched lobotomy fame perhaps?) who worked on the island committed suicide. He leaped from the top after claiming he was “driven mad by ghosts,” and later, he succumbed to his injuries.

The creepiest part? Residents of the island said they still heard the bell toll, although it was removed from the tower decades before. Talk about spooky—that’s right out of a horror movie!

If you think that wasn’t bad enough (spoiler alert: it was), it only gets worse. Poveglia island is thought to be home to at least one plague pit, if not more; these mass graves would’ve been constructed following the epidemics of the day, and while we don’t have a confirmation on numbers, it is estimated that a minimum of 100,000 people died over the course of the island’s grizzly past.

Said deaths were likely plague victims because, at the time, the island was sealed off to prevent the spread of disease. Still, what a legacy to have—acres of bodies left untouched. We can only hope that somehow, some way, their spirits rest.

Impact in the Modern Era

A plastic chair, tipped over amidst debris inside one of Poveglia's buildings.
Jean-Patrick / Adobe Stock

A small island like Poveglia shouldn’t hold this much tragedy, but if humans are skilled at anything, it’s making a story out of abandoned and historic places. This is clear by the sheer popularity of the subject matter. For instance, since gaining national (and international) attention, Poveglia Island has been featured on several paranormal television shows, video clips, and other media: Most notably, Ghost Adventures and Scariest Places on Earth.

In a similar vein, Poveglia is said to be the source of inspiration for the 2010 film Shutter Island; however, this has never been confirmed by the director, Martin Scorsese, or any others involved with the project.

Poveglia: The World’s Most Haunted Island?

Aerial view, closer up, of Poveglia Island, behind its old bell tower.
ingusk / Adobe Stock

Now that you know the truth behind the world’s most haunted island, what’s your take? Is it a supernatural free-for-all doused in human ash and the Black Death? Or is it closer to an old yet beautiful building in one of many haunted places steeped in local tales?

Whatever you believe, there’s one takeaway: Despite veritable centuries of horrible stuff, the stories persist. Tell the tale of Poveglia, and follow it as it grows and changes—but not literally! Don’t go to the island! Never that.

That said, if you ever get the chance to visit a mass burial ground, here’s our advice: Tread carefully and don’t be surprised if you end up with a ghostly tagalong.

See related: Best Tours in Italy: Food, Walking & Bike Tours

Where to Stay and Things to Do Nearby

Visiting Venice? While Poveglia itself is government property (and thereby does not offer accommodation), you can absolutely stay nearby. There are a few places to stay that are not only charming but provide a great view of the haunted island in Italy.

As you know, Poveglia Island is located in the Venetian Lagoon—this puts it just off the coast of Malamocco, Veneto. You’ll be close by if you stay in this apartment with an intimate lagoon view.

Dive a little deeper into Venice, and you’ll find the beautiful Relais Alberti and Hotel Excelsior. Each is relatively close to Malamocco and the center of town.

Maybe ghost-hunting isn’t going to work out. In that case, you can always take a boat past the island yourself or try something else: Challenge yourself to experience Venice in a day; take some time to visit St. Mark’s Basilica; check out their other island tours—tours that, for the record, are decidedly less haunted.

See Related: Venice’s Grand Canal: The Most Intriguing Street in the World

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What island in Italy hosts an insane asylum?

Poveglia Island, located in the Venetian Lagoon, hosts a famous mental hospital. Opened in 1922, the asylum is said to be the site of human experimentation at the hands of one particular doctor; it’s since closed, shutting its doors officially in 1968.

Why is Poveglia Island forbidden?

Technically, Poveglia Island is state property. This deters trespassers, alongside the fact that it’s widely considered to be cursed. As of the writing of this article, its abandonment persists in the face of several attempts to restructure the island’s amenities.

Is Shutter Island based on Poveglia?

While it’s been said that Shutter Island isn’t based on a true story, the similarities between the film and the history of Poveglia are difficult to dismiss. It’s likely the former was inspired by the psychiatric hospital on the island, but there hasn’t been a direct confirmation from director Martin Scorsese.

Is Italy’s haunted island for sale?

The short answer is no.

The long answer? Yes, it was. It went up for auction in 2014 in an attempt to relieve some of the Italian government’s public debt. There, Italian businessman (and future mayor of Venice) Luigi Brugnaro attempted to lease the island for a 99-year term. It fell through, however, leaving the island vacant.

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