Author: Tony F.
Date of Trip: February 2008
People come from all over the world to experience the uniqueness that is Venice and some remain — transfixed by the place — and live out the remainder of their days in this fascinating city. This has always been so: Venice has invariably attracted the adventurer, the romantic, the exile and the artist, and when their time came they were taken on their final boat ride to the cemetery island of San Michele. And what a fascinating place to explore!
On entering the cemetery from the vaporetto stop the visitor is faced with direction signs to the three graves that most visitors come to see — those of Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky (with his wife Vera beside him) and Serge Diaghilev — perhaps this is because every guidebook to Venice mentions them. As always with such famous names their gravestones are covered in flowers or, in the case of the ballet impresario Diaghilev, pairs of ballet shoes as well!
But linger a little longer, there is much more to see. Many of the tombstones lead one to uncover another history about which little is known. Why is the grave of Aspasia, ‘widow of HM Alexander, King of the Hellenes’ here and not in Greece? How did she come to die in Venice?
Princess Aspasia was a commoner when she married Alexander in 1919 and the couple had to flee to Paris to escape the scandal that followed their wedding. Because of this she never took the title of queen. However the marriage was short lived as the following year her husband died from blood poisoning after being bitten by a pet monkey. In 1922, two years after the death of her husband, Aspasia was created a Princess of Greece by royal decree, but she remained an exile.
Aspasia died in Venice on 7 August 1972 and was interred there. Her remains were later transferred to the royal cemetery plot in the park of Tatoi near Dekeleia, 23 km north of Athens.
One doesn’t have to look very far to find more members of royalty who are buried there: Princess Catherine Bagration, died 2 June 1857 and, with that surname, she would have been a member of the Georgian royal family. Likewise Princesse C Troubetzkoy, who lived from 1816 to 1897, must have been a member of the former Lithuanian royal family. Both gravestones display the families’ coats of arms. There are probably many more minor royals buried there so a thorough search of the cemetery could be quite fruitful.
One of the most poignant gravestones is the double headstone to Sarah McLean Drake and Janet Drake ‘In Ever Loving Memory of Our Darling Mother and Sister Who Perished in the Steamer Disaster Near the Lido, Venice 19th March 1914’.
The ‘steamer’ was in fact the late afternoon vaporetto departure from S. Maria Elisabetta on the Lido for the short lagoon crossing to San Marco, which in those days would have been steam powered. On board were about 50 passengers. Soon after departing a seaplane appeared overhead and seemed to circle for some time over the Lido before finally heading off towards the Arsenale. This was in the very early days of aviation and it would probably have been one of the first seaplanes to be seen in Venice. Obviously everyone on board was watching it and unfortunately the helmsman, ship’s engineer and stoker all left their posts and joined the passengers on deck so that they too could have a better look.
Unknown to them a torpedo boat, the 56T of the Italian Royal Navy, was bearing down on them. The torpedo boat sounded its horn and it was only at that instant that the crew of the vaporetto realised the danger they were in but by then it was too late to avoid a collision. A total of 14 were killed in the accident: four remained unidentified but the others were Italian apart from one French national and the mysterious Miss Drake and her mother. Also lost was Lieutenant Bossi of the Italian Navy who drowned attempting to save others.
The accident came as a massive shock to all the residents of Venice, and beyond, and the city was said to be in ‘deep mourning’. Theatres and restaurants closed their doors and receptions that had been arranged in honour of the visit of German warships were cancelled. The King of Italy sent a telegram to the Mayor of Venice saying “The queen and I have heard with great sadness the news of the terrible occurrence. We mourn with you with all our hearts and wish to express our greatest sympathy for the families of the victims of such bad fortune.”
The incident made the news around the world with the Times’ Rome correspondent filing the story under ‘Venice Shipping Disaster’ with the sub-heading ‘Steamer Cut in Two’
One simple headstone therefore can reveal some fascinating stories if one is prepared to spend time doing the research.
Standing out amongst all the gravestones due to its size and pristine condition is the one to Sir Ashley Clarke, British Ambassador to Italy from 1953 to 1962, who died on January 20th 1994. His gravestone records him as being an ‘Honorary Citizen of Venice’ and ‘Founder of the Venice in Peril Fund’. Clearly here was a man who loved Venice and there can be no finer resting-place than amongst all those famous and not so famous people who lived and died in this great city.