Perhaps my first excursion into an abandoned industrial building was when I woke early one morning and broke into the abandoned gasworks on the wrong side of the tracks in Bathurst. I was 18, and with my flatmates and the neighbour boys we went over a fence and under another and we were inside amongst the concrete, steel and broken glass that sat silent in the dawn light. Somewhere I have pictures that tried and failed to capture what was so fascinating, but I think it was the added ingredient of my churning, guilty conscience that added to the beauty. There were machines of inexplicable function, graffiti, a rope noose hanging from a beam, and a 3 metre promotional rocket, with ‘cooking with gas’ stamped on the side.
Since then I have rarely trespassed into dilapidated industrial zones, but I get a thrill passing the lacy ironwork of old gas tanks, closed up warehouses get me swooning, and I dream of one day overseeing a loft conversion of a warehouse or sub station.
Which leads me to Venice. Industrial decay is not the first thing that pops to mind for most when thinking of the floating jewel of a city, but since Napoleon’s invasion, and subsequent takeover by the Austrians, minor islands that once housed monasteries and convents passed from places of contemplation, to military installations, and then to ruin.
Day two of this adventure had been a long time in the planning, but on our first day there we found ourselves, just Beppe and I, with a boat and nothing to do but satisfy our curiosity.
It was an article about the uncertain fate of the island of Poveglia that had revived a mild curiosity about the lagoons islands, and we set off to find it. Poveglia had a spotty history of occupation and destruction, passed a period as a quarantine station, a plague hospital and then an asylum for the mentally ill in 1922, which was then abandoned in 1968.
Legends abound around the maltreatment of the inmates of the asylum, including crude lobotomies performed by the hospital director, who later threw himself from the imposing bell tower to his death.
The island has at least two plague pits filled with the remains of at least 100,000 people who died on the island, and is considered cursed by Venetian residents and has been described as the most haunted island in the world. Naturally I wanted a look.
We approached the island through the proscribed canals, marked by regular pylons in the shallow lagoon, passing the newly refurbished San Clemente, now a luxury hotel, and the completely ruined San Spirito. I had expected to find an impediment to our visit- fences or some sign of authority, but we tied off on the quay and started looking around with just a little trepidation.
The first room we entered was filled with old laundry machines, the metal rusted but the uses evident; washing machines, steam mangles and drying racks, in the room next door the imposing barrels of two autoclaves. I only knew what these were thanks to a visit to Sydney’s quarantine station. An elegant wrought iron stairway led up to a roof level, where the flapping curtain of the asylum building stopped my heart for a moment.
We picked our way through ruined rooms in the main building, heaps of plaster and reeds fallen from the ceilings, hospital furniture overturned as if thrown about by phantoms, most probably by thrill seekers less respectful of the past. In one room piles of rusted bed frames, in another roof tiles lay deep on the floor, caved in by the creeper that now provided a green canopy overhead.
The kitchen still held the bones of the exhaust hood and the heady, overturned range. We didn’t dare brave the staircase, and we didn’t press on past the first few buildings, as creepers blocked the paths and we were not brave enough to alter the location at all. The air was ominous, and we came back out onto the quay euphoric, happy to find the boat hadn’t floated away. I realised then I had been holding my breath.
I didn’t see any ghosts, but it was a fascinating visit to a singular island. The moniker of ‘Island of the damned’ is a bit unfair.
I do also have to mention lunch. We found a trattoria in the village of Malamocco on Lido, and toasted our adventures over sard in soar and the local seafood pasta, which tasted even better with the relief of surviving Poveglia.
We returned the boat to Venice, surprisingly without incident (did you know boats don’t have brakes?) and found our way to the local bars for a couple of much deserved Spritz.