Mysterious Venice: ghosts, murders and unnerving legends
The labyrinth of alleys, squares, stairs, bridges and porticos, combined with the fog, the tricks of light reflected in the water, the abandoned areas, buildings that are mostly in ruins, the sudden glimpse of a gondola… all of these can play on your imagination in Venice, the city of mysteries par excellence.
The Most Serene Republic of Venice made the ideal background for books or films brimming with secrets, and it saw some of its real intrigues turned into spy stories. Individuals like Casanova became symbols of the passions created by lies and trickery.
Venice’s Carnival, one of the most famous in the world with its masks and costumes, also lends itself to mysteries, as does the Venetians love of gossip, and oral accounts have filled with city with stories that vacillate between truth and legend, the occult and science, tall tales and poetry.
Take, for example, Calle della Morte, literally “Death Alley”, whose very name is a piece of history. The alley is found near the Church of San Giovanni in Bragora and, as the story goes, people who were condemned to death by the Council of Ten were tricked into coming here to be killed. Today, it would be considered government-sanctioned murder. Most likely, it is a legend perpetuated by the Venetians’ fear of the executions that, in actual fact, took place in Saint Mark’s Square between the columns of SS. Mark and Theodore. This was also the only location where gambling was permitted. This institution originated with Nicolò Stratonio, an engineer from Bergamo, who invented a method of raising the columns with a system of wet ropes that were left to dry, thus shortening in length, a technique called “water on the ropes”. As compensation, Stratonio asked if he could manage the city’s dice games, which were prohibited at the time. The Republic granted him the license, with two conditions: that he change his name from Nicolò Stratonio to Nicolò Barattieri, and that gambling would only take place between the 2 columns.
In San Lio, in the area known as Castello, beside the Church of Santa Maria della Fava, a skull protrudes from an external column, a factor which has contributed to this area having a rather grim reputation.
Even some of the most fascinating buildings in Venice have not been able to escape gossip and supposed curses. Ca’ Dario, one of the most beautiful buildings lining the Grand Canal, built in the style of the 1400s and with an asymmetrical façade, is notorious for the legend that its owners either go bankrupt or die a violent death.
Whether the owners were famous or unknown, Italian or foreigners, they usually came to a bad end after buying the residence. The Barbaro family went bankrupt shortly after purchasing it. The Englishman Radon Brown lost his fortune and committed suicide in 1842 together with his lover. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the French poet Henri de Régnier lived here until a serious illness forced him to return to his homeland. In 1970, a count from Turin, Filippo Giordano delle Lanze was killed by a sailor with whom he was having a relationship. The murderer then fled to London, where he himself was murdered. At the end of the 1980s, the building was acquired by the financier Raul Gardini, who was later implicated in the Tangentopoli government corruption scandal and committed suicide in 1993. If you are feeling reckless, and have several million euros to spare, this may just be the house for you.
Locals also talk about vindictive ghosts who live inside the so-called Ghost Hall. It is an elegant building from the 1500s that is found along the foundations of Gasparo Contarini in the Cannaregio area, and that faces the island of San Michele, where the cemetery is located.
At one time, this was the site of cultural meetings and philosophical debates, but its reputation deteriorated, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Perhaps it is the setting, exposed to fog, wind, and the noise of the sea, which gives the impression of being in contact with the spirit world.
At one time, there were various areas of the city where you were in danger of being assaulted, robbed or the victim of revenge. One such area was Rio Terà degli Assassini, near St. Mark’s Square. To prevent ambushes or murders at night, the government of the Republic of Venice first ordered that the alleyways had to be illuminated by small lanterns that would be lighted by the parish priests. In the 1500s, the government decided that everyone moving about at night had to carry a lamp or, in the case of nobility, have servants carrying lamps. Then in the 1700s, street lamps were installed that made the city safer at night.
There are other more salacious aspects of the city emerging from the maze of alleys in Rialto, involving the so-called Bosom Bridge. It gets its name from a decree issued by the Senate that forced the prostitutes who worked in the area, at the castelleto, to sit topless on the windowsills of their homes with their legs hanging out, in order to attract customers. The reason? The Senate wanted to dissuade men from the “sin” of sodomy. In the 1500s, many men were convicted for this crime and sentenced to be hung between two columns in St. Mark’s Square, and then burned.