Gondoliers who can walk on water? Monster masks that can ward off the devil? Haunted palaces, meandering ghosts and magic stones? Venice is a city of legends and lore where calle leads to a new mystery, and through every sottoportego is a new tale. And guess what? You can visit them all. Here are La Serenissima’s most intriguing:
Witches Wake-Up Call
Tick tock says the witches’ clock. If you follow the labyrinthine streets behind the Accademia Gallery, you’ll wind up in Calle della Toletta. Look for a yellow house and look up. Hanging off the exterior is the “witch’s clock”. Legend says that a witch and would remind her customers of payments due with a magical alarm clock. Later, residents hung an alarm clock on the building in jest until it was removed. Neighbors noticed strange happenings, odd sounds and random accidents and immediately returned the clock to its location. The unexplained events mysteriously stopped. Again, the clock was taken down, only to repeat and now it’s permanent.
Death in Venice
The fearful Council of Ten ruled Venice from 1310 to 1797 and relied on hundreds of informants for information. Venetians spied upon each other, anonymously sharing secrets with the council who would decide a course of action- imprisonment and/or earth. Death in Venice was pretty blatant. The council used the area between the columns of San Marco and San Todaro (Piazza San Marco) city-sanctioned deaths giving it a bad luck reputation. Even today, superstitious Venetians don’t walk between the columns.
To add a little gruesome to the Council, the Calle della Morte was the designated “death alley,” a kill zone for condemned people.
The Giant of Corte Bressana
There is a giant that lives in Castello sestiere. After midnight, the streets around the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo after midnight, are playground to a giant. According to legend, the Giant was one of the last bell ringers of St. Mark’s Bell Tower. At nearly seven feet tall, the gargantuan Bell Ringer was such a local celebrity the allegedly, a scientist offered money for his skeleton. The giant agreed, betting that he would outlive the scientist and the deal would be nulll but to the contrary, he died first.
Residents say that ever since the giant’s skeleton went on display at the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia, he’s been angry and every night his bones walk out of the museum to Piazza San Marco. He climbs to the top of the bell tower, rings the bells and then walks the streets toward his home on Corte Bressana (Castello) begging for money to buy back his skeleton.
The Holy Grail
One of the world’s most coveted artifact for would-be Indiana Jones is the Holy Grail. According to legend,Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood in the chalice which was hidden for centuries and eventually secreted away to Glastonbury by the Knights Templar. But Venetians know its not in England but in Venice, hidden in the Basilica of San Pietro in Castello in marble throne of the Apostle Peter (one of spoils from the crusaders).
House of the Spirits
Every sestiere has a story, and my favorite is from Cannaregio. On the edge of the Fondamenta Nuova is the beautiful 16th-century palace Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo. For centuries, the palace has been known as the Casin degli Spiriti, a home for Venice’s restless spirits and a den of dark magic, attracting cults, orgies, pirates and smugglers.
Looking at its exterior you’d wonder how any one entered or exited for its windows are completely walled up thanks to painter Pietro Luzzo who, tormented with unrequited love, shot himself on the palace grounds. Supposedly, Luzzo’s ghost began appearing in the palace’s windows after he died, prompting the owner to cover fill them with bricks. According to some, Luzzo continues to haunt, returning to the palace on dark evenings to scream his broken heart.
This article first appeared in Marriott Traveler, April 2019.