Venice in Italy is customarily sold to us as the most romantic place on Earth.
In a sparkling marketing spiel, we are presented with cuddly images of canals and gondolas in which couples hold hands and profess their love to each other to last them a lifetime. It is all so cutesy and sweet. So heart-warming. Ah, it almost brings tears to my eyes.
Put your gush-o-meter aside though as today I want to reveal to you another side of Venice. I want you to see the city’s pale, ghostly face of mystery which will make you shiver in your boots and double-check that at night you are tightly tucked in bed with not even a toe peeking from underneath the duvet.
For, with its:
- curving alleys abruptly ending on the edge of yet another dark canal,
- deep wells in the middle of its many squares,
- dense fogs that envelop the lagoon in their ghostly embrace;
- gothic palaces that after dark make you feel like you are in an eerie dream; and
- confusing labyrinthine character,
Venice is a place where you can feel the weight of many centuries and many intertwined human stories that didn’t necessarily have the Hollywood happy ending.
Before it was reduced to a romantic spot in present days, Venice had a glorious history based on a complex political system, strong international trade and an ever flourishing art scene. It was an empire the influence of which was felt all over Europe, the Mediterranean and further afield. Yet, its command centre had been erected on a series of tiny islets spread over a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea.
In that ever inhospitable environment, people built their lives on water and in a very close proximity to one another. It was a diverse society where every sin and virtue could flourish. From:
- an active red light district where ladies of the night would walk around bare-breasted; to
- dozens of monasteries continuously fed the young flesh of the surplus daughters of the local noble families,
Venice had a myriad of facets and even more secrets.
Many of them led to the creation of fascinating legends which still hold the city on water in their enthral if you know where to look beneath the cheap veneer of romance.
So, today I want to take you on a walk through the mysteries of Venice where tragic stories, ghosts and monsters lurk waiting to grab hold of your imagination.
Sit tight and brace yourself. Time for storytelling!
Haunted Venice – Legends, Mysteries and Stories to Creep Yourself Out About the Most Romantic Place on Earth
I. Underground Crypts and Stories
The existence of underground spaces and crypts in Venice is all the more amazing considering that the city lies on water and St. Mark’s Square is currently only 85 cm above sea level.
Here are some of the most fascinating underground crypts in Venice and the stories attached to them:
1. Crypt of St. Mark’s Basilica
Venice’s most famous church – the splendid St. Mark’s Basilica – hides a secret. For there, underneath its marbled floor lies a crypt fashioned out of the earliest buildings of the basilica. Nowadays, the crypt is rarely open to visitors. You either need a special permit to access it or you have to join a guided tour.
If you have a chance to go down there though, don’t miss it. For the crypt used to be the place where in 1094 the remains of St. Mark’s – the patron saint of Venice – were laid to rest in secret. They were only discovered in 1811 locked up in a wooden box which had been hidden in a pillar. The relics had been concealed there in fear that an attempt could be made to steal them in the same way they had been stolen from Alexandria in Egypt by two Venetian merchants in the 9th century.
It’s interesting to note that while most of St. Mark’s relics remain in Venice, in the 20th century some were returned to the Coptic Church in Egypt which had been established with the help of the Saint himself. The Coptic Christians also believe that the head of St. Mark never actually left Alexandria and is there to this day.
2. Flooded Crypt of the Church of San Zaccaria
The 15th- century Church of San Zaccaria is only a short walk away from St. Mark’s Basilica. I love its harmonious facade with its arched windows and curved gables. Inside you will find original paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Tintoretto, Anthony Van Dyck and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo to mention but a few of the world-renowned artists whose works grace the church’s interior.
Most interestingly though the Church of San Zaccaria has a flooded crypt housing the tombs of eight of the earliest Venetian doges. In 1105 a terrible fire destroyed the original church that stood above the crypt together with the adjacent monastery. It’s said that over 100 nuns perished. They had taken refuge in the crypt which still exists today underneath the high altar of the rebuilt church.
The crypt can be visited during the opening hours of the Church of San Zaccaria. There is a small fee.
3. Crypt of the Church of San Simeone Piccolo
The Church of San Simeone Piccolo is the first splendid sight you see as you walk out of Venice Santa Lucia train station.
With its impressive dome and on the edge of the Grand Canal buzzing with Venetian boats, the church is a sight to behold. Most visitors to Venice are perfectly content to see the church only from the outside.
A little-known fact though is that the Church of San Simeone Piccolo has a very interesting underground crypt. You can visit it for 2 euros. The church’s guardian will give you a lit candle to hold while you are in the crypt as it is very dark down there.
The crypt is covered with frescoes depicting scenes from the Last Judgement and the Old Testament. There are 21 chapels. Eight of them are walled up and have not been explored. Inside the other chapels, there are tombs of local parishioners. Click here to see photos of this crypt and read my impressions of visiting it.
II. Haunted Buildings and Islands
When the fogs come rolling in from the lagoon on a cold winter evening, the whole of Venice takes on a rather ghostly look. As I discovered for myself one cold February evening several years ago when I got lost in the maze of streets between Rialto and St. Mark’s Square. After walking for what felt like hours, I somehow emerged at Campo San Stefano. Which was quite out of my way.
The campo was devoid of people and any sign of life. It was only about 7 pm but the darkness was only pierced by a handful of weak street lights. In the middle of the campo stood an old water well and I remember feeling both attracted to it and absolutely sure that I had to give it a very wide berth.
Surrounded by the fog, cold and darkness and feeling rather lost, it was only too easy to get that foreboding feeling of being in a film noir where at any second now something terrible was about to occur.
The scary thing is when you get that unmistakable feeling when the sun shines brightly in Venice. As there are spots in the city and the lagoon that always feel dark, drab and cursed no matter if it is night or day. Here are some of the most famous ones:
1. Ca’ Dario – The House of No Return
Ca’ Dario is a gorgeous house towards the end of the Grand Canal. It has a stunning facade made of Istrian stone richly decorated with marbles and circular medallions.
Yet, the house has been marred by numerous cases of violent death or bankruptcy for the last five hundred years. In the 15th century, the daughter of the first owner Giovanni Dario – who was the Secretary of the Senate of the Republic of Venice – killed herself after her husband went bankrupt and her son perished in a fight.
Over 12 people who have owned the house have died either by their own hand, by sudden illness or in violent circumstances. One of them was the manager of The Who – Christopher Lambert.
There is an inscription on the facade of the palace which reads Urbis Genio Joannes Darius (Giovanni Dario to the Genius of the City). People have pointed out that the anagram of this otherwise noble saying actually means Sub ruina insidiosa genero (I bring treacherous ruins to those who live under this roof).
Other theories speculate that the palace had been built on top of an old Templar cemetery which, apparently, accounts for the incredible lack of luck its owners have.
2. Casin degli Spiriti – The Cursed Annexe of Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo
You will find Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo, on the Fondamenta Gasparo Contarini in the Venetian sestiere of Cannaregio. Its annexe is known as the ‘House of the Spirits’ (Casin degli Spiriti). This is a small building built in the 16th century to host meetings between the Venetian philosophers, artists and learned men of the era. It’s said that people like Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian would be regular visitors at its heyday.
However, later on, the palace and its annexe were abandoned. Strange noises could be heard at night coming from their direction. Some said that the place was cursed and that religious cults would congregate there to invoke demons and spirits. Others believed that the empty rooms of the Casin degli Spiriti were haunted by the ghost of Pietro Luzzo da Feltre. He was a 16th century’s painter who was in love with Cecilia, Giorgione’s model and lover. His affections rebuffed, he killed himself in the building.
The Casin degli Spiriti also served as a hospital where thousands of Venetians died from the plague. Later on, the building hosted an anatomical theatre where autopsies were performed.
In 1929, the bodies of four people were found in the Casin degli Spiriti. Apparently, they all missed their heads and their right hands.
Then a truly gruesome murder was linked with the Casin degli Spiriti in 1947. A woman called Linda Civetta was killed, then dismembered, placed in a trunk and submerged in the lagoon right in front of the cursed building. The reason for her murder was a large amount of money she had on herself. Linda lived in Belluno where she managed her family’s bar. She had arrived in Venice to buy cigarettes to re-sell on the black market which was flourishing after World War II. Linda was killed by Bartolomeo Toma who was a gambler and his accomplice Luigi Sardi who was a gondolier. The trunk with her body was found two weeks later by a local fisherman.
Due to all these incidents, it is said that to this day the fishermen of Venice refuse to fish in front of the Casin degli Spiriti.
3. Palazzo Mastelli del Cammello – The House of the Mysterious Statues
Palazzo Mastelli stands on Campo dei Mori in Venice and is adorned with some curious statues. They depict three men with rather startled faces plus one of them wears a rather large turban. In addition, there is a bas-relief with a camel.
There is an old Venetian legend claiming that the statues are the petrified former owners of the palace. They were three rich silk and spices merchants – Rioba, Afani and Sandi – who tried to scam a rich Venetian lady by selling her some low-quality textiles for a very expensive price. She had been recently widowed and had inherited a tailoring workshop. Discovering the scam, the widow cursed the money she paid and when the dishonest merchants touched it they (and their camel!) turned into stone.
Curiously enough, Venetians also believe that if you touch the nose of the statue of Sior Antonio Rioba, you’ll have luck in your business affairs. This belief was born after the statue lost its original stone nose in the 19th century and it was then re-done with a piece of iron. Recently the statue of Sior Antonio Rioba was the victim of a rather unpleasant incident. On the night of the 30th April 2010, the statue was decapitated. Its stone head was discovered on the 3rd May and the statue was restored.
4. Poveglia – The Most Haunted Place on Earth
The island of Poveglia is, undoubtedly, the most famous haunted place in the Venetian lagoon and, allegedly, the most haunted place in the world, too.
Centuries ago, during the many outbreaks of plague that devasted Venice, the plague victims, both still alive and dead, would be taken to Poveglia to die there and be buried on the island. The island became one giant burial ground with over 160 000 people laid to rest there.
Later on, a psychiatric hospital was built on Poveglia where it is said, patients were experimented on and tortured by the main doctor. He later committed suicide by throwing himself off the hospital’s tower. Apparently, he didn’t die instantly but succumbed to his injuries afterwards.
Many ghost sightings have been recorded on Poveglia. Currently, the island is off-limits and the surviving structures on it seem to be in a serious state of disrepair. Locally it is believed that Poveglia is cursed and that its soil is mixed with the ashes of the people who died and who were buried there.
III. Skeletons of Renown
After all, aren’t we all just a bag of bones?! There are two legends in Venice the motor of which is a skeleton. Here they are:
1. The Bell-Ringer Who Wants to Buy His Skeleton Back
It’s said that there was once a Venetian man who was of a considerable height. He also happened to be the bell-ringer of the St. Mark’s Campanile – the huge bell-tower on St. Mark’s Square.
A Venetian scientist offered a large sum of money to the bell-ringer in exchange for his skeleton. The bell-ringer greedily accepted the advanced payment and started going out every night drinking himself to oblivion. Soon, his excess drinking led to his premature death.
Posthumously, the bell-ringer bitterly regretted the deal and, it’s said, that to this day he haunts the Bressana Court next to the Basilica of S.S. Giovanni and Paolo in Venice. There he begs the passers-by for alms trying to collect as much money as possible in order to buy his skeleton back.
Curiously enough, the actual skeleton of the bell-ringer nowadays is exhibited in Venice’s Natural History Museum. It can easily be seen that the bell-ringer was, in fact, a truly tall man in life.
By the way, another version of the legend states that the skeleton leaves the museum at night in order to ring the twelve bells of the St. Mark’s Campanile.
2. The Usurer’s Burning Skeleton
If you walk across Campo de l’Abazia in the sestiere of Cannaregio at night you may come across an old man with a large sack on his back. He will beg you to help him. Don’t do it and don’t look him in the eye.
If you do, the legend says, he will turn into a burning skeleton and frighten you to death!
This is the usurer Bartolomeo Zenni. Apparently, he was a very tight man in life. On 13th May 1437, there was a terrible fire at Campo de l’Abazia. Zenni refused to help his neighbours who were trying to save their children from the flames. Instead, he grabbed his sack of gold and jewels thus forever condemning his soul.
IV. Famous Ghosts
With depopulation and environmental issues knocking hard on her door, there is a palpable fear that Venice will become a ghost town in our lifetimes.
At the same time, with its confusing labyrinthine character, Venice has always been a fertile ground for ghosts of the spectre kind. There are so many ghosts and spirits wandering the streets of Venice that it would take a book or two to tell the stories of them all.
So, here are only some of the most famous Venetian ghost stories. Are you scared yet?
1. The Jealous Nobleman
Jealousy is a dangerous drug as one 16th-century Venetian nobleman called Loredan found out for himself.
Loredan married the niece of the doge but was so jealous that ended beheading her in front of her powerful uncle. The doge refused to taint his hands with Loredan. Instead, he ordered him to take his wife’s body to the Pope in Rome and ask for forgiveness. The Pope also refused to see him.
Loredan returned to Venice, still carrying the decomposing body of his beloved. Then, in a bout of madness, he threw himself into the lagoon. On hazy nights, they say, he can still be seen coming out of the water, carrying his wife’s head at Campiello del Remer on the Grand Canal.
2. The Faithful Soldier
In the Giardini della Biennale in the sestiere of Castello, you will find an imposing statue of Garibaldi – the hero of Italian Unification. Pay close attention to the bronze statue of the soldier standing proudly on guard right behind Garibaldi’s back.
This soldier is Giuseppe Zolli – a young man native to Venice who was so dedicated to Garibaldi that he swore an oath to always guard the back of the Italian hero.
Zolli – a student at the University of Padua – joined Italy’s Independence War in 1859. He became one of the Camice Rosse (Redshirts) – the volunteers who followed Garibaldi. After his death, Zolli was buried on the island of San Michele – the cemetery of Venice.
Zolli’s statue was placed at its current spot in the Biennale Gardens after a curious incident in 1921. This is when people started reporting sightings of a ghostly soldier dressed in a red shirt who would trip and tug passers-by in the vicinity of the Garibaldi’s monument. Since Zolli’s statue was added, there were no more sightings.
3. The Saddest Ghost Story of Them All
They say that on foggy nights a small floating coffin with four lit candles on its corners appears in the waters lapping the island of San Michele (where the cemetery of Venice is).
At this place on 29th November 1904, a vaporetto (a water bus used to transport people around Venice) collided with a gondola. Several of the gondola’s passengers drowned. Among them was a small girl – Giuseppina Gabriel Carmelo – whose body was never found.
4. Always a Bride, Never a Wife
If you walk across Campo San Piero in the sestiere of Castello at night, you may come across the apparition of a young bride. This is Tosca who is looking for her ring finger with her wedding ring attached to it so that she can marry her beloved.
Tosca was a beautiful but impoverished girl from Treviso who was betrothed to marry a much older yet yet very rich nobleman. She fell in love with a young hunter and escaped to Venice with him. The jilted nobleman found the young lovers there, killed the hunter and cut off Tosca’s wedding finger shouting that if he couldn’t have her, nobody would.
Tosca took her own life on 22nd September 1379. To this day, they say, her ghost wanders the streets of Venice dressed as a bride and looking for her ring finger.
5. The Philosopher’s Ghost
Giordano Bruno – a 16th-century Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet and cosmological theorist – bravely opposed (among many other things) the then-accepted geocentric doctrine of the Catholic Church.
He was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition on 22nd May 1592 based on the denunciation of the local patrician Giovanni Mocenigo. It was, in fact, Mocenigo who had invited Giordano to Venice. Yet the patrician soon felt unhappy with the teachings he received from the philosopher and started to dislike him as a person.
From Venice Giordano Bruno was extradited to Rome, tried for seven years and burned at the stake.
Allegedly, he repays the betrayal of his former host Giovanni Mocenigo by haunting his palace – Ca’ Mocenigo – in Venice. Apparently, on the anniversary of the philosopher’s death, strange occurrences related to water happen there. For example, pipes would burst flooding the rooms. Others believe that the face of Giordano Bruno, engulfed in flames, can be sometimes seen (but only by ladies over 85 years old) in the upper right window of the palace.
V. Cryptids and Legendary Animals
It wouldn’t be a compendium of scary stories about Haunted Venice if we don’t mention a cryptid or two. And some real-life legendary animals for good measure, too. Keep reading to find out the animal legends that Venice is famous for.
1. The Serpent at Punta della Dogana
Punta della Dogana is the triangular edge which cuts between the Grand Canal and The Giudecca Canal and points straight into the Basin of St. Mark. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Venice, as just further up from it is the rather photogenic body of the Santa Maria della Salute Church.
Now, you may not believe it, but, allegedly, in the depths of the water just off the tip of Punta della Dogana lives a large serpent. Something like a distant cousin of Nessie from Loch Ness.
Several fishermen have sworn to have seen this serpent appear out of the dark waters on moonless nights. One such witness even claimed to have seen the serpent eating a whole seagull.
Now, the image of anything eating a flapping seagull doesn’t really inspire much horror, wouldn’t you agree? Yet, head over to the Punta della Dogana on dark moonless nights totally at your own peril.
2. Murano’s Dragon Bones
Murano is a pretty island just off Fondamente Nove in Venice. The island is famous for its centuries-old glassmaking traditions. And for something else, too.
Namely, Murano’s Church of Santa Maria and San Donato has in its possession some dragon bones. Hung behind the church’s altar the bones are said to be of the dragon which was slain by the hand of St. Donato himself.
Well, recently, it has been established that the bones are actually from a whale. But don’t let this spoil a good story for you!
3. Mummified Crocodile Gods
In one of largest rooms of Venice’s Natural History Museum, you will come across three rather ominous looking mummies.
Locked in a glass display in the room dedicated to the Venetian explorer and adventurer Giovanni Miani, there are two mummified crocodiles between which lies a mummified woman.
Miani was trying to find the source of the river Nile when, in a cave, he found the three mummies. He deduced that the woman must have been a priestess serving the crocodile god Sobek.
4. Clara the Rhinoceros
Clara was an Indian rhinoceros who toured Europe for 17 years.
Unused to seeing such exotic animals, large crowds would flock to gaup at Clara in many European cities. Clara became quite the sensation and during her long European voyage she posed for numerous painters, was studied by zoologists and met several royals.
The rhinoceros arrived in Venice in January 1751 in the midst of Carnival. She was immortalised in a Pietro Longhi‘s painting which nowadays can be seen in Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice.
5. The Rampaging Elephant
Today, the only ‘elephants’ you could see around Venice are the huge cruise ships which keep besieging the city on water. Yet, in the past centuries, real elephants would sometimes come to Venice as part of circus or a travelling show.
There is a tragic story about an elephant in Venice which in 1819 managed to escape its cage on Riva degli Schiavoni and trampled through the sestiere of Castello. The terrified animal caused much damage along the way like a broken entrance door, destroyed wooden staircase and even a toppled over well head. Terrified Venetians ran to hide and a group of soldiers pursued the elephant with their rifles.
Finally, the elephant ran inside the Church of Sant’Antonin where its foot broke through a tombstone thus impeding the animal’s further escape.
The elephant was caught and, unbelievably from our modern point of view, it was condemned to death. The animal was executed on St. Mark’s Square with a hand cannon called culverin.
6. The Doge’s Cat and Other Legendary Venetian Cats
Venice is famous for its cats – fluffy balls of love that live on its squares and are fed by the locals. Cats have always enjoyed a certain status of deference in the city on water where rats would easily proliferate otherwise.
Not to mention that the symbol of Venice is a lion which is, after all and as any cat would tell you, just a big… cat!
Some of the most famous cats in Venice of all times are:
- Nini – the cat of the Doge Francesco Morosini. This Venetian Doge loved his cat so much that he would take it with him everywhere, even when he would travel to wage war. On the other hand, he never married and, it’s said, he was a misogynist to the bottom of his heart. When his cat died, Morosini had it embalmed with a mouse between its front paws. Nowadays, you can see the Doge’s cat in Venice’s Natural History Museum.
- Ninni – a 19th-century cat which, upon its death in February 1894, had a statue erected in its memory and poems dedicated to it. During its life, Ninni had the run of a cafe called Caffe Toppo (‘toppo’ meaning ‘mouse’ in Italian) which is also known as Caffe dei Frari. The cat was so well-known that people would flock to see it and even sign their names in a special Visitors’ Book.
- the cat of the custodian of the St. Mark’s Campanile at the start of the 20th century. This poor cat perished when the bell-tower crumbled to the ground on 14th July 1902. The cat was the only casualty!
Click here to discover the hidden gems of Venice – 101 Things to do In Venice, Italy Off the Beaten Track
VI. Eighth Witches and a Melusine
Many unorthodox ladies lived in Venice through the centuries. From courtesans able to compose elaborate poems and having their own literary salons to nuns who would freely entertain in more ways than one the Venetian noblemen, Venice was a hotbed of activity any day and night.
Among the most memorable stories of Haunted Venice are those about the witches and, some say, even mermaids who made the city on water their home. Let’s learn a bit more about them:
1. The Possessed Witch
Elena Draga was a woman of many talents and, most remarkably, of many different personalities. She was, she said, possessed by evil spirits and could divine the future and perform magical rituals. After the plague in 1582, only two spirits remained in her – one was mute and the other was called Faraon Drago (which explains Elena’s moniker).
Elena openly complained of the terrors to which the spirits subjected her – from physical maladies to the desire to finish with herself. Curiously, Elena was tried for witchcraft several times and each time she managed to talk herself out of being prosecuted. Not a small feat.
2. The Seven Witches Who Travelled to Egypt and Back in One Night
This is a curious story in which a Venetian fishing boat is used every night by seven witches to travel around the world to practice witchcraft. The owner of the boat, a fisherman, soon suspected that his boat was being used by somebody else.
One evening, he hid on the boat and waited. The seven witches soon arrived, said an incantation and headed straight to Alexandria in Egypt. They arrived in a record for that period time. The witches moored the boat and went on their business. The fisherman, completely stupefied by the night’s events, also came out of the boat and picked a branch off a date palm which was covered with fruit. He then hid back in the boat.
Later on, the witches returned, said their incantation and.. woosh!, the boat flew quick as the wind to Venice. The fisherman was not discovered by the witches and he used the branch covered with fresh dates (which at the time grew only in Egypt) to convince his friends that, indeed, he had been on that incredible journey.
3. The Melusine and the Brick Heart
A Melusine is a mermaid with two tails. There is a well-known Venetian legend telling the story of the poor fisherman Orio who fell in love with a Melusine. They got married but the Melusine fell ill and died after birthing three children. However, even after her death as a human, she would return to the house in the shape of a snake, to tidy up and take care of the household and her kids. This continued until Orio saw the snake and, unaware that it was his beloved Melusine, he killed it thus losing her forever.
To remind us of this tragic love story, there is a red brick heart built in the wall of Sottoportego dei Preti in the sestiere of Castello. Allegedly, this is where Orio’s house used to be. It is widely believed that if you touch the heart you will find luck in love within a year.
VII. Notable Statues
In Venice, even statues have stories and legends attached to them. As you may have deduced by reading the stories, told above about the statue of Sior Antonio Rioba and the monument of Giuseppe Zolli.
In addition, here are two more stories about notable statues in Venice.
1. Gobbo of Rialto
Just opposite the ancient Church of San Giacomo di Rialto, you may notice a small marble statue of a hunched man. There is a small platform resting on his shoulders and neck. On the back of the statue, you will see a small staircase which leads up to the small platform on top.
This is the famous Gobbo of Rialto. Gobbo in Italian means ‘hunchback’. The statue was made by the sculptor Pietro da Salo’ in the middle of the 16th century.
The Gobbo was placed in the most frequented place in Venice – the Rialto Market – and it was used as a high spot from where the latest decrees and criminal convictions were read to the nobles, the merchants and the populace of the city on water.
2. The Statue of the Madonna dell’Orto
The statue of the Madonna dell’Orto is in the church of the same name in the sestiere of Cannaregio. It was made by the local sculptor Giovanni de Santi. He put the statue in his garden after it was rejected by the priest of the local church which at the time was dedicated to St. Christopher Martyr.
The wife of the sculptor noticed that the statue would glow in the night. Soon people started to arrive in their droves to worship the statue which was considered miraculous.
The statue was placed inside the church on 18th June 1377 and soon afterwards the name of the church was changed to the Church of Madonna dell’Orto (Madonna of the Garden). You can still see the statue in the church to this day. It’s in a side chapel which is very peaceful and quiet.
VIII. Deathly Toponyms
Venice has so much history attached to it that even the names of its streets, canals and bridges have a story behind them. Curiously enough, some of these toponyms sound rather deathly. Here is why:
1. Rio Tera’ degli Assassini and Ponte degli Assassini
The Assassins’ Street and the adjacent Assassins’ Bridge are two places in Venice where many murders and robberies were committed in the past centuries.
The street was narrow and dark. Venetian noblemen, eager not to be seen, would often choose to walk through it on their way to the nearby brothels. Caught in that tight spot they were an easy prey for robbers and murderers. Hence the name of the street and the bridge.
There is a very famous Venetian legend referencing the Ponte degli Assassini. Here it is:
In 1507 a humble baker Piero Tasca (also known as Piero Faccioli or Piero Fasiol) was beheaded in Venice. Under torture, he had confessed to the murder of a noble Venetian. In fact, the poor baker had come across the nobleman lying dead on the corner between Calle della Mandola (where the brothels used to be) and the Bridge of Assassins (Ponte degli Assassini).
Piero picked the bloody knife off the ground seduced by the silver blade and the gems adorning the handle. He was then found with this incriminating evidence in his possession. The real murderer confessed to his crime on his deathbed only a few weeks after Piero’s beheading.
This grave miscarriage of justice led to the birth of the phrase Recordeve del poaro fornareto (Remember the poor baker) which the Secretary of the Council of the Ten – the most important judiciary body of Venice – allegedly, would utter to the councillors prior to the passing of a sentence. This fed into the myth of the Republic of Venice in so that its grandeur was such that it was not afraid to admit to a mistake. In remembrance of the poor baker, two red candles used to be lit every night between two arches of the south side of the St. Mark’s Basilica.
2. Calle della Morte
You will find Calle della Morte (literally, Death Alley) near the Church of San Giovanni in Bragora in the sestiere of Castello. The story goes that people who had been condemned to death by the Venetian Council of Ten would be tricked to come to this street where they were quickly killed.
3. La Chiesa degli Omicidi
Apart from having an underground crypt which is filled with water (see point I above), the Church of San Zaccaria in Venice is also the place where two doges were murdered. For this reasons it is also known as La Chiesa degli Omicidi – The Church of Murders.
It needs to be noted that the two murders took place in the old building of the church which was later destroyed in a fire. The current church building was erected in the 15th century.
The doges that were murdered there were:
- Pietro Tradonico – murdered on 13th September 864. He was the first murdered Venetian doge. Tradonico was then buried in the crypt of the church;
- Vitale II Michiel – murdered on 28th May 1172. He was also buried in the crypt of the church.
In total, there are eight doges buried in the crypt of the Church of San Zaccaria. It’s said that all of them died a violent death.
4. Ponte dei Squartai
Squartai means ‘quartered’. It is thought that the Bridge of the Quartered (which is close to Piazzale Roma in Venice) was one of the four points where one quarter of the body of an executed criminal would be placed to warn off the populace against committing crimes.
To be quartered, you had to have committed one of the two most serious crimes: you either had to have betrayed the Republic of Venice or committed a sacrilege. Once the body of the criminal had been quartered, the four pieces were placed at the four cardinal points: towards Mestre (hence the Ponte dei Squartai), towards Chioggia, towards the port of San Nicolo’ and towards Padua.
By the way, for serious crimes committed by members of the clergy in Venice, the punishment was to be hung from the top of the St. Mark’s Campanile locked in a cage. This was called ‘supplizio della cheba’ (in English, torture in a suspended cage).
IX. Venice’s Own Sweeny Todd
Every town has one really gruesome story that makes all other stories, urban legends and historical myths about it pale in comparison.
In the case of Venice – a fertile ground for all sorts of human and spectral deviations – this is the story of Biagio Cargnio (or Biasio as his friends would call him).
Well, nowadays he is known as the Butcher of Santa Croce!
At the start of the 16th century, Biasio had an inn in Venice where he sold sausages and cooked rich stews. He closely guarded his recipes and would sell his tasty food rather cheap. His inn was very popular. That’s it until a hungry diner found a child’s finger completed with a fingernail in a sausage (others say, in a stew!).
Blasio, allegedly, was actually killing children and cooking their flesh. Once his terrible secret was revealed, Blasio’s hands were cut off and hung like sausages around his neck. He was then beheaded between the two pillars on Piazzetta San Marco and his body was quartered.
Blasio’s inn was razed to the ground and Venetians did their best to delete all references to him. To the point where the story of Blasio cannot be historically verified. Yet, to this day, on the Grand Canal there is a small waterfront path called Riva de Biasio. A vaporetto stop is attached to it.
Venice is a multilayered city of history, traditions and beliefs.
Many historical events in the city on water have grown to become veritable legends. On the other hand, many Venetian popular beliefs and stories have evolved through the centuries to such extent that their roots go deeper in the psyche of Venice than some historical facts.
The above list of legends, mysteries and stories about Haunted Venice will show you that there is more to this unique, beautiful city than the cheap marketing veneer or cookie-cutter romantic holidays.
Would you dare to dig deeper?
Would you dare to discover Venice’s centuries-old ghost stories, cursed palaces and terrifying legends?
Be my guest! Creep yourself out to your little heart’s content…
And, remember, whatever you do, don’t walk between the two marvellous pillars – one crowned by the Venetian Lion and the other by St. Teodoro and his dragon – right by the splendid Doge’s Palace. For this was the spot where executions would take place in Venice for centuries. Even nowadays, walking between the two pillars – Venetian believe – brings some very bad luck! You’ve been warned.
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