I have always been drawn to places of stillness. A mountain peak or an empty church have a quality of being that only silence can bestow. In the waters of the Venetian lagoon, there is an island that from time immemorial has honored the virtues of deep tranquility and calmness: San Francesco del Deserto.
Located a few miles from Burano and inhabited by only six Franciscan friars, it retains a profound and otherworldly beauty. History and legend mingle to tell us that before Saint Francis landed in these parts, there already was a chapel dedicated to the Madonna. Upon his return from Egypt and the Orient in 1220, Saint Francis created a cenobite community in this spot. Years later. a noble Venetian bequeathed the island to his religious order. It was only twice left by the friars: in 1440 for health reasons (it was “deserted”) and during the Austrian occupation of Venice, when the place was converted into military barracks.
Closed off to public vaporettos and fenced off by spears of dark cypresses, it is only accessible for just four hours of the day. Two thirds of its surface remain out of bounds. This is a world outside of this world. Do not expect magnificent architecture reminding you of the exquisite beauty of the big city across the water. This is a place of almost crude simplicity yet charged with an eerie energy.
What does this idyllic setting represent in today’s world? The waters of secular reality threaten to submerge this island of spirituality and prayer as if whatever message it brings us could be just a faint and odd echo of the past. Do not fool yourself, at San Francesco del Deserto you can be stroked by a burning cinder when you least expect it. Then you will have to make room in your heart for the immensity of this silence.