Have you heard about gondoliers who walk on water? How about monster masks believed to ward off the devil? In Venice, a city steeped in legends and lore, every calle (street) and sottoportego (alleyway) leads to a new mystery and every corner reveals a new tale. Even haunted palaces and meandering ghosts are part of its charm. And the best part? You can explore them all. Come and discover the most intriguing tales of La Serenissima.
Witches Wake-Up Call
As the clockw tick and tock, mysterious happenings occur in Calle della Toletta. To find the infamous clock, venture through the labyrinthine streets behind the Accademia Gallery, and look for a yellow house. Legend has it that a witch once used a magical alarm clock to remind her customers of their payments due. After the clock was removed, odd sounds, accidents, and strange occurrences started happening, causing neighbors to reinstall the clock, and the unexplained events ceased. Despite attempts to remove it, the witch’s clock remains a permanent fixture on the yellow house, a testament to the enduring legends and lore of Venice.
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.
Take a walk back in time
If you want to unravel the mysteries in period style, consider conversing with a codega. During the heyday fo the Serene Republic codega, lantern-bearers who would guide Venetians through the dimly lit calle. Those labyrinthine streets were shrouded in secrets and nighttime brought out both the best and the worst, so a codega was key.
If you find yourself staying at one of my favorite hotels, Baglioni Hotel Luna (located in a lovely palazzo near San Marco and overlooking Isola di San Giorgio), ask for a private codega tour. You’ll get the Venice vibe.
A version of this article appeared in Marriott Traveler, April 2019.