by Roderick Conway Morris

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San Marco Press

Abandoned Islands: Thirty Years On

By Roderick Conway Morris
15 May 2009


Scattered across the lagoon to the north-east and south of Venice are some sixty islands and islets, most of them now deserted but many of which were once inhabited, some by populations numbering hundreds, even thousands.

In the mid 1970s, twin brothers Giorgio and Maurizio Crovato set out in their traditional 'sandolo' to explore the more than 200-square-mile expanse of these waters in search of these lost worlds, combining their passion for rowing, photography and history. This gave rise in 1978 to an exhibition and a book, 'Isole abbandonate della laguna: com'erano e come sono' (The Abandoned Islands of the Lagoon: as they were and as they are). The book sold out almost immediately and has since become as difficult to find as some of the lagoon's most remote islets.

To mark the 30th anniversary of its publication, this evocative and useful study has been revised and republished with an Italian-English parallel text, 75 black & white photographs, and 17 in colour showing the current state of the main islands, 35 reproductions of old engravings and historical extracts from various periods.

Some once thriving islands with names redolent of the Roman and Byzantine eras - Ammiana, Ammianella, Centranica, Costanziaco - have sunk beneath the waves. The enticingly named Monte dell'Oro (Mound of Gold) is now a mud-flat known to local fishermen as 'Motta dei Cunicci' (Rabbit Bank).

In Roman times Torcello was recorded as having 30,000 inhabitants. There are now around a score. Where the vaporetto landing now stands there was once a considerable monastery, S. Tommaso de' Borgognoni ('of the Burgundians', on account of its onetime inmates, Cistercians from that region), a lofty church and campanile, all have which have vanished.

The scandalously promiscuous nuns of S. Angelo (later called 'della Polvere', of the Powder) were forcibly evicted in 1474. Somewhat tardily, in 1689, a lightning-bolt struck the convent, igniting the 800 barrels of gunpowder then stored there, virtually leveling the place. Yet some abandoned islands have been revived over the the last 30 years: for example, Certosa now has a marina, San Servolo has become the lively home of Venice International University, and San Clemente has been restored as a luxury hotel.


by Giorgio and Maurizio Crovato

240pp, San Marco Press

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024