Madhu Jain wanders off the tourist trail to pay homage to Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky at the San Michele cemetery
I’ve never met anyone called Romeo. Somehow, one believed that Shakespeare’s Romeo, the name that is, was sui generis. At best a nickname. Nor did we have to go to Verona; we met him in Venice during a sultry European summer this year. He was a friend of a friend, and proved to be our guide to a Venice we did not know, despite several visits and avid consumption of guide books.
Romeo is Venetian, by birth and descent. It’s not easy to come across or befriend a true Venetian in Venice, weary as the old guard is about the tourists who, in season, outnumber the locals. Romeo showed us a magical Venice by night, away from the Grand Canal. We followed him as he briskly led us through a labyrinth of tiny calles; some of these alleys so narrow that an obese person wouldn’t make it through them.
We saw quiet, odd-shaped piazzas with whimsical churches that tourists invading Venice like locusts were yet to discover. We ate al fresco, simple but simply delicious pizzas on an almost full moon night in a trattoria where the diners appeared to be primarily locals.
Our newfound friend also introduced us to an unforgettable Venetian couple. They inhabited a Venice almost untouched by this century, and much of the one before. Lili, an artist in her mid-70s, runs the Centro Internazionale della Grafica di Venezia (International Centre of Graphic Arts, Venice). Here, she helps international and Italian artists make etchings and lithographs from their artworks on old-fashioned manual printing presses. Her husband, Silvano, a decade older, is a retired chef.
Later that week we went to their home for dinner once again guided by Romeo. It was as if we had taken a vaporetto to the 18th century. The dinner table in a low-ceilinged small room bursting with old books, paintings and etchings was a long log around which a dozen of us sat for a delicious 16-course meal (yes, I counted!) conjured by Silvano and Lili. It really was time travel: one of the guests, whose family had lived in the Jewish quarter for generations, was the author of a cookbook with recipes from 18th century Venice. It had beautiful illustrations, undoubtedly off the presses in Lili’s studio.
The lady from Rome, who spoke only Italian and had a smile that might have tempted Federico Fellini to immortalise her on celluloid, specialised in old books and worked in a library in Rome. But it was the feast itself that was of another time: grilled green figs; braised fennel; tender, tiny artichokes baked in the oven; giant tomatoes called ox hearts; grilled veal—the list goes on—helped down by a light, sprightly local white wine.
We were on the fourth floor. The voices, not always melodious, of gondoliers passing by below wafted upwards intermittently. Gondolas were stacked up in a cavana across the narrow waterway. Someone at the table mentioned that there was a corner of the island cemetery of San Michele reserved for gondoliers. Apparently, if you listened intently you could hear them singing—or so the legend goes.
It wasn’t just the phantom singing of the gondoliers that drew us next morning to San Michele, the burial ground for Venetians since 1837, prior to which most of them were buried under paving stones within the city. It was more like a literary pilgrimage. We also learned at dinner that Ezra Pound, the expatriate American poet who was a major literary figure of the 20th century, was buried here. As apparently were many foreign artists, writers and musicians who came to Venice to live—and die.
San Michele is in the Venetian lagoon, a little north of Venice. Two islands were joined together to form San Michele, which derives its name from the medieval church dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. I had seen it years ago from a waterbus on my way to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. From a distance you could see the spears of the cypress trees that towered over the high brick walls like sentinels. But I had never been tempted to get down, put off perhaps by the depressing name of the waterbus stop, Cimitero.
Barely a dozen people get down at Cimitero. Most of them carry bouquets of flowers and rush to the graves of the ones they have lost. The others, obviously tourists like us, stop to admire the elegant San Michele church with its façade of Istrian marble. Designed by Mauro Cadussi and built in 1469, it is said to be the first Renaissance church in Venice. We don’t linger here. We’re on a pilgrimage of sorts; we have to find Ezra Pound’s grave.
It isn’t easy to find. We hurry through the Gothic archway adjacent to the church and on through an airy cloister to the burial grounds. While alive, Venetians, foreigners and those belonging to different religions or denominations—and in some cases even professions—may have been neighbours; in death, they are segregated. Apparently, there is one section for priests, another for nuns; one for sailors and another for soldiers.
The signs directing visitors to various parts of the cemetery are clear enough. But once we find the section for foreigners, and inside it, even one for Protestants, Pound is nowhere to be found, even after an hour’s search.
Fortunately, a gardener guesses the object of our search and takes us to a grave we have passed a number of times. Many literary pilgrims have gone back disappointed, unable to find Pound’s grave. No wonder: it is a small slab with the poet’s name inscribed on it. The grave is almost buried under an overgrown bush, with just a withered, long-stemmed red rose placed in remembrance by an admirer who managed to find it.
Buried next to Pound is Olga Rudge, a violinist and musicologist who was the poet’s companion. Pound coined the term imagism and played a major role in defining modernist literature and promoting fellow poets like WB Yeats, TS Eliot and William Carlos Williams. However, his being indicted and imprisoned for supporting the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini rendered him an untouchable for a long time after the war. Rudge supported him through these dark phases of his life. Pound wrote about Venice in his famous epic poem, The Cantos; the last stanza of which he dedicated to her.
Their neighbour, but for a few graves, is Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-born poet exiled from his homeland. He lies here, alone. But evidently remembered by fans of his writing: fresh and wilted flowers, pebbles and acorns, carpet his more elaborate grave. Recent legend has it that an admirer left a fedora on it. Brodsky died relatively young, but he did so in a place that was the closest to paradise for him. He once told an interviewer: “If I had to live a different incarnation, I’d rather live in Venice as a cat, or anything, but in Venice. Or even as a rat.” The place itself is “so beautiful”, Brodsky said, that you didn’t need anything else, not even love.
For Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario and founder of the revolutionary Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909, Venice was the ideal place to die. His tomb, as flamboyant as he was in life, is in the walled garden of the Greek Orthodox part of the cemetery. In a letter to his stepmother in 1902, Diaghilev wrote: “And so I am convinced I will end my days here, where there is nowhere to hurry to, where one needn’t make any effort to live . . . Does the Doge’s Palace exist, and San Marco and the evening sea air? All this forms a truth so delicious that I feel that I can emulate Wagner in one way and will come to Venice to die. Wasn’t that a masterstroke on Wagner’s part?”
Diaghilev did manage to die in Venice. His grandiose tomb with a dome over the headstone is the easiest to find. There are ballet slippers placed here by admirers who stopped by to pay tribute to the man who brought together some of the most creative artists and musicians of his time: Serge Prokofiev, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Joan Miró, Nicholas Roerich and Vaslav Nijinsky.
Igor Stravinsky composed much of his path-breaking music for the productions of Diaghilev, including the score for The Rite of Spring. Choreographed by Nijinsky, it caused a near-riot when it was premiered in Paris in 1913. Two groups in the audience started fighting with each other. The crowd responded with catcalls and threw vegetables at the stage. The collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky endured for 20 years, until the impresario’s death in 1929.
Death, though, did not separate them. Stravinsky’s tomb is in the same row, just a few graves away from Diaghilev’s. It could not be more different: a simple slab with the composer’s name across the top and a cross at the other end. The tomb is covered with twigs, pebbles, stones and flowers that are long past their prime. Identically designed, his wife Vera Stravinsky’s tomb lies next to his. Stravinsky loved Venice and held the premieres of The Rake’s Progress, Canticum Sacrum and Threni here.
Diaghilev’s and Stravinsky’s coffins were taken to San Michele on gondolas. The time for those elaborate rites of final passage is long over. The cemetery is almost houseful. No wonder there’s a 12-year time limit for staying here and many of the graves are exhumed, the remains taken to another island.
Twenty years ago, Romeo and his wife Patricia decided to disperse their ashes here. She went before him. He asked the authorities for permission to carry out her last wish, but they refused: the cemetery was too crowded and she was not Venetian. Not one to take no for an answer, Romeo persisted. Finally, on a beautiful, sunny October morning two years ago, he immersed her ashes in the Venetian lagoon from San Michele while their friends tossed roses into the water. Patricia, like many before her, rests in Venice forever after.