The Venetian Lagoon is home to dozens of small islands. They have been settled, conquered, defended, abandoned, and resettled with frenzied gusto across the aristocratic power struggles that defined Northern Italy since the Roman Empire. Weathering centuries of frothy tumult has forged each of these islands with a distinct identity and heritage. Some are quite iconic: Lido is the very template of the breezy, summer vacation villa. Murano is synonymous with its glasswork. And then less than two miles from Venice one finds Poveglia, a place associated exclusively with madness, horror, and restless souls.
The Romans, Doges of Venice, Napoleon, and Mussolini all agreed that Poveglia serves best as an involuntary home for the inconveniently suffering and dying. Every time the plague flared up in the Veneto during the Middle Ages the afflicted were exiled to Poveglia to promptly die alone and abandoned. Mass graves are so numerous that some estimate 50% of the island's soil consists of decomposed human remains. In 1527 the island was offered to the Camaldolese monks as a retreat, but the brothers wanted nothing to do with it. Instead, it just continued as an impromptu prison, Lazzaretto, and Napoleonic battleground.
The worst was yet to come in the 20th century. In 1922 Poveglia became home to an infamous sanatorium in a particularly heinous era for such institutions. The prevailing tale of Poveglia's “hospital” is about a doctor who loved conducting gruesome experiments on his helpless patients. He allegedly tortured, disfigured, and killed tenants until one day he fell to his death from the hospital's bell tower. Some claim his patients threw him off while others are assured he was driven mad by vengeful ghosts, depending which makes for a better story at the time.
Poveglia's sanatorium closed in 1968. The Italian government has forbidden travel there ever since, despite its location in the heart of one of Europe's largest tourist hubs. Special exemptions can be sought, but few are granted. Some of the only recent visitors have been TV crews shooting for ghost-hunting reality series, possibly the island's worst atrocity yet.