Sunday, November 3, 2019

Honoring Death in Venice - A Bridge Across the Lagoon

Dante's Barque by Georgy Frangulyan in Venice, Italy - Photo: Cat Bauer
Dante's Barque by Georgy Frangulyan - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) A haunting bronze statue floats in the Venice lagoon between Fondamenta Nuove and the Island of San Michele, where Venice buries her dead. Two figures stand in a boat. The figure in the front seems to challenge his taller companion, looking back at him, face to face, while his outstretched arm points in the opposite direction, toward the Island of the Dead.

"Dante's Barque" was created by the renowned Russian sculptor, Georgy Frangulyan, after he saw the image in a vision. The two figures in the boat are Virgil and Dante, living souls who journey through the underworld in Dante's Divine Comedy. Frangulyan said the island of San Michele "is a point on land from which the path to the other world -- and for certain souls, the way back -- may be traced with some clarity."*

Frangulyan said he remembers going past the Island of San Michele, and he just saw this "thing" -- a vision. "I saw it, and then began to look around -- there were so many people standing there, I thought they'd see it at any moment... sometimes you get this extra-clear image of something, and that's what happened. I understood that this place was the only place for this to happen."

The floating sculpture grew out of a small sketch that Frangulyan drew of his vision back in 1998.  He designed a pontoon system that took into account the risk of flooding, and the danger of the boat going under. He originally planned to have the sculpture complete by 2000, in time for the new millennium, as an event to commemorate the changeover.

However, one cannot simply plop a sculpture into the Venice lagoon, and after making its way through bureaucracy and permissions, it was finally installed in 2007. Some say it is Dante and Virgil crossing the Acheron river, the boundary between the entrance to hell and hell itself, but, if so, I wonder -- where is Charon, the ferryman of Hades?

Bridge to the Island of the Dead, Venice Italy - San Michele cemetery
Bridge to the Island of San Michele - Photo: Cat Bauer
This year, for the first time since 1950, there is a floating bridge that connects Fondamenta Nuove to the Island of San Michele, and until November 3, Venetians and residents have the bridge to themselves since you must have a Venezia Unica card to get across. After that, it is open to the public until November 10.

It was a moving experience to walk across the lagoon and to the cemetery on All Saints Day. I have always felt a deep connection to San Michele, and after having lived in Venice for over two decades, have personal connections to certain tombs. There is special poignancy in tending someone's tomb, but also a kind of comfort and joy. They say the veil between this world and the Otherworld becomes thin at this time of year, allowing spirits to pass through more easily. It is a beautiful celebration and remembrance of those who have gone before, and going across the water by foot instead of by boat made the experience even more meaningful.

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

The atmosphere on All Saints Day was festive, with thousands of people, old and young, making the journey across the new bridge. In addition to the locals, it seemed like many Venetians had arrived from the mainland, toting flowers and candles to honor the ancestors. It was well organized, with an information booth just inside the entrance equipped with maps detailing where every tomb was located in case you forgot where the nonni were. Around 4pm I asked the girl who was counting the entries with a clicker how many people had come, and she said about 13,000. Finally, a place where Venetians outnumbered the tourists!

There were colorful plastic watering cans around the fountains, brooms and movable ladders with wheels so that all the tombs could be attended to. It may sound strange, but San Michele at this time of year is a cemetery full of life, where the living and the dead truly share the same space and time.

Perhaps, what Georgy Frangulyan said is true: that Venice's Island of the Dead is the one place on land from which the path to the other world -- and for certain souls, the way back -- may be traced with some clarity.

Bridge to the Island of the Dead, Venice Italy - San Michele cemetery
Visiting the ancestors - Photo: Cat Bauer
I just checked, and was surprised to see that I have written about the Island of the Dead at least five times before, starting back in 2010, so if you would like to learn more, just click the links:

The Island of the Dead - Venice, Italy



All Saint's Day and Ludovico De Luigi's Great Day



Island of the Dead - San Michele, Venice - All the Saints and All the Souls


Cat Bauer

1 comment:

  1. A haunting bronze statue floats in the Venice lagoon between Fondamenta Nuove and the Island of San Michele, where Venice buries her dead. Two figures stand in a boat. The figure in the front seems to challenge his taller companion, face to face, while his outstretched arm points in the opposite direction, toward the Island of the Dead.

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