Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Island of the Dead - Venice, Italy

Gods' aid, let not my bones lie in a public location
With crowds too assiduous in their crossing of it;
For thus are tombs of lovers most desecrated.
May a woody and sequestered place cover me with its foliage
Or may I inter beneath the hummock
of some as yet uncatalogued sand;
At any rate I shall not have my epitaph in a high road.
---from Homage to Sextus Propertius by Ezra Pound

(Venice, Italy) That image is of the Island of San Michele, where Venice buries her dead. November 1 is All Saints' Day and November 2 is All Souls' Day, or the Day of the Dead, here in Italy. There is a free shuttle vaporetto out to San Michele and back so everyone can tend to the tombs. The American poet Ezra Pound is buried here in Venice on the Island of the Dead, and also happened to die here in Venice, most remarkably, on All Saints' Day, two days after his 87th birthday on October 30, 1972.

Today is October 31, or Halloween, which has been one of my favorite holidays ever since I was a child. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would spend a good week decorating my house with dead bodies and skeletons, and setting up a proper graveyard under the white birch tree. I attracted kids from miles around, and some adults, too. 

In fact, the first year I moved into the house in Los Feliz, back in 1988 before it was properly furnished, my sister and I decorated every room with a different spooky theme: the coffin room, the fortune teller room, etc. and threw a huge party complete with sound effects and lighting -- I even got the Frankenstein monster from Universal Studios to come, since he was a friend of mine.

It was all in good fun, and there was certainly nothing religious about it, more like a Disneyland Haunted Mansion theme. To me, any holiday that can inspire Serious White Men to get creative, dress up in costumes and loosen up a bit is providing a service to mankind. One of my favorite costumes was worn by a fellow who was normally very... uptight. He dressed all in white and carried a big black felt marker, calling himself "Graffiti Man," and had people sign his clothes all night. To me, Halloween in the States reflects Carnival in Venice more than the Day of the Dead. 

When I solidly arrived in Venice in 1998, after deciding to make it my home (I had been here several times before, but that is another story), I had one of the few carved pumpkins around, and there were no celebrations except a small one in Campo Santa Margherita with the students. Halloween has been slowly growing more popular, with shop windows filled with cobwebs and witches.

This is what the Catholics think about that:

Halloween 'pagan' says Church group

'Don't trample on our culture,' bishop says


(ANSA) - Vatican City, October 29 - Halloween is pagan and against the spirit of Christianity, an influential Catholic Church group said Friday. Chiming in with the Vatican's annual warnings on the festival, the (Pope) John XXIII Association said: "Halloween was born as the perpetuation of a pagan cult which evolved over time and linked up with esoteric and occult practices". "We are faced with a sort of revival of neopaganism which, as such, is in open contrast with the spirit of Christianity". 

"Does our society really need all these messages exalting horror," asked the association's head, Giovanni Paolo Ramonda.

"At a time which should be devoted to the holy memory of our saints and souls, people unthinkingly set up 'noir' banquets, crime dinners and afternoons for children in macabre masks. "Everyone should be reminded that Halloween comes from an ancient pagan ritual in the British Isles practised by the Druids, the Celts' ferocious priestly caste".

The Northern League also disapproves:

The Northern League party, which jealously guards northern Italy's Celtic past, also came out against the feast this year, accusing it of being "inauthentic". "Halloween is not part of our identity," said the Northern League's mayor of the town of Calalzo di Cadore, Luca De Carlo.

Click HERE to read the entire ANSA article.

It may surprise some of you to learn how fierce the Northern League is about their Celtic roots, but if we take a quick look at a map, you will see that the Celts were here in Northern Italy and Austria before the Romans came along and started started conquering everyone. 

Overview of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures.     The core Hallstatt territory (HaC, 800 BC) is shown in solid yellow,     the eventual area of Hallstatt influence (by 500 BC, HaD) in light yellow.     The core territory of the La Tène culture (450 BC) is shown in solid green,     the eventual area of La Tène influence (by 250 BC) in light green.The territories of some major Celtic tribes of the late La Tène period are labeled.

The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain, which was a festival to welcome the dark part of the year.
From Wikipedia:
Samhain (play /ˈsɑːwɪn//ˈs.ɪn/, or /ˈsn/)[1] is a Gaelic festival held on October 31–November 1. The Irish name Samhain is derived from Old Irish and means roughly "summer's end".harvest festival with ancient roots in Celtic polytheism, it was linked to festivals held around the same time in other Celtic cultures, and continued to be celebrated in late medieval times. Due to its date it became associated with the Christian festival All Saints' Day, and greatly influenced modern celebration of Halloween.

It also had a dark element. From Wikipedia:

"The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family's ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual."

I don't know what goes on in other parts of Italy, but in Venice, the Day of the Dead is still a big holiday. There are special colorful treats called fave or "beans" in the shop windows. I found an interesting article that appears to be from the early 1900s called "All Soul's Day - Venice" from a website called "Old and Sold."

"There is one old custom connected with this festival of the dead which still survives in Venice, and recalls a Latin, or even an earlier superstition. The pious man in Ovid's " Fast rises at midnight to fling black beans behind his shoulder. Nine times he flung his beans, and then the ghost was laid. The Venetian does not fling away his beans; he eats them. In Venice this custom of eating beans through the octave of All Souls' is extremely ancient. The monks of every cloister in the city used to make a gratuitous distribution of beans on All Souls' Day to any of the poor who chose to come for them. A huge caldron was placed in the middle of the courtyard and the food ladled out to the crowd. The gondoliers did not come with the rest, but had their portion sent down to them at their ferries. This grace was granted to them in consideration of the fact that all the year round they rowed the brothers across the canals for nothing. In-deed, though the custom is almost extinct, they still do so you may sometimes see a brown-cowled friar crossing a ferry with no other payment than a pinch of snuff or a benediction. 

As the Venetians grew more wealthy true beans became distasteful to the palates of the luxurious, who were yet unwilling to break through the custom of eating them on All Souls' Day. The pastry cooks saw their opportunity, and invented a small round puff, coloured blue or red or yellow, and hollow inside; these they called fave, or beans; and these are to be seen at this time of the year in all the bakers' windows. If a man should happen to be courting at this season it is customary for him to make a present of a boxful of these fave to his lady. But the pious mind has never been quite at ease under the gastronomic deception; and so, though you may hate beans and keep your hands from them as scrupulously as any pupil of Pythagoras, should your cook chance to be a good Catholic you will assuredly, about the month of November, have beans set before you for dinner in Venice."

For me, there is a way to celebrate each holiday, Halloween, All Saint's Day and the Day of the Dead, though I do share the Church's concern that the commercialism of Halloween could consume the other two days entirely as it seems to have done in the United States -- though I really don't see that happening in Venice since mass at the Basilica was standing-room-only this morning, and the cemetery is always full with people tending tombs every single day of the week, holiday or not. It would be interesting to know how the Day of the Dead was celebrated by the ancient Venetians, and whether masks were involved. 

Also buried on the Island of the Dead:  Igor StravinskyJoseph BrodskyJean SchlumbergerSergei DiaghilevLuigi NonoFranco Basaglia and Zoran Mušič

Ciao from Venice,


  1. Just left Lawrence Carroll's opening in Cologne tonight and found your blog while doing some research on his work. He and I have a mutual friend in LA who suggested I see the show tonight.

    I was raised in Columbia,SC (Navy Brat) lived (many years) the West Village in NY, spent some downtime in LA and then scuttled off to Europe ... Small word.

    I enjoyed your piece on his exhibit in Venice.

  2. Thanks, Richard, for stopping by and letting me know. Here is a cut & paste link to the Lawrence Carroll blog: