The Secrets of the Grand Canal

De Citra, De Ultra: mysteries, anecdotes, curiosities about the most beautiful boulevard in the world

Behind the windows of the palaces on the Grand Canal, the most prestigious and important in Venice, lie the hidden legends, mysteries, curiosities, plots and passions of the Serenissima. Over the centuries, the thousand-year old history of the Republic unfurled within these rooms. At their balconies have stood the most beautiful courtesans, the most highly acclaimed poets, the most astute rulers, the most prestigious guests, who have made Venice the legendary city that it is.


“The Secrets of the Grand Canal” – published by Studio LT2 – tells all of these stories as it “navigates” through history: in fact, along the banks of “the most beautiful boulevard in the world”, as it was defined by the French ambassador Philippe de Commynes over five centuries ago, in a double journey De Citra and De Ultra, on one side and the other of the city – the history of the Serenissima comes alive with its events, its secrets, or simply its anecdotes, enchanting one and all with the voices of the past: a journey to discover the unfamiliar, curious and legendary aspects of the Republic which, in this fascinating book, reveal more about Venice and the extraordinary history that took root on the islands of the lagoon.


Hundreds of characters who, palace after palace, window after window, parade through these stories to remind us of what an extraordinary window onto History this unique waterway of ours really is: Gabriele D’Annunzio who was half-blind when he wrote “Notturno”, Dante Alighieri who began to converse with a fish in front of Doge Soranzo, Antonio Canova who sculpted his first works here, Lord Byron who swam in it daily, Eleonora Duse who found peace nowhere but here, Giacomo Casanova who held his first sermon as an abbot before dedicating his life to “other things”, Pope Alexander III who worked as a servant boy, Francesco Morosini whose conquests would bring new glory to the Republic, Rudolph Valentino who saved an heiress from its waters, and Napoleon Bonaparte, Pietro Aretino, Peggy Guggenheim, Giordano Bruno, in an incredible survey united by the flow of the centuries in the waters of Venice’s major thruway. But along with History obviously goes legend, mostly passed down by oral tradition: so the Grand Canal too, along its banks, becomes the home of terrifying or gentle ghosts, of devils and witches, of sea monsters and stone crocodiles.


Finally, the book does not talk about famous legendary figures alone, but also about the magnificent buildings that have their own curious or extraordinary stories to tell, and which, despite the passing of time, are still here to tell them: stories like the one of the palace cut in half, or the palace that was never completed; of the building with the sculptures that describe a family tragedy or the graffiti that speak of the ancient times of the plague; of the majesty of Cà Balbi, built out of spite, and of the fussiness of the “House of Desdemona”, of the palace with a curse and the dome without a church; of the Rialto bridge, and the bridge of the Constitution.


With its double cover “The Secrets of the Grand Canal” is a reversible book, which can be read from one side or the other: starting from each of the two sides the reader can explore both banks of the Canal – coming and going – so that the book becomes a unique and entertaining object. It also includes a graphic image of each palace on the Grand Canal, and can therefore be read as a guidebook. Finally, it features the black and white photography of professional photographer Gianni Canton.


The following are excerpts from the book:


The discovery of America… by the Venetians

Cà da Mosto is one of the most characteristic palaces along the Grand Canal, thanks to the eleventh and twelfth-century Veneto-Byzantine architecture that probably makes it the oldest building along the main waterway in Venice. This palace was once the home of the Da Mosto family before it became the hotel “del Leon Bianco” between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, patronized among others by Emperor Joseph II and the Grand-Duke Paolo Petrovich, son of Catherine the Great of Russia, with his wife Maria Feodorovna.


This was the birthplace of one of the most famous Venetian navigators of all time, Alvise Da Mosto. Pursuing his thirst for exploration in the mid-fifteenth century, he became one of the first to travel through the regions of the Senegal and Gambia rivers for the benefit of the Portuguese crown, with a mission to establish trade relations with the natives and discover the sources of the gold that the Europeans habitually bought in the African ports of the Mediterranean. In 1456, he discovered the Cape Verde islands.


If some years earlier another Venetian navigator, Pietro Querini, had discovered stockfish after an adventurous shipwreck in Norway, towards the end of that century Giovanni and Sebastiano Caboto, father and son, sailed up the coasts of North America, landing in Terranova; they then pushed on as far as Labrador, and so became the first explorers to navigate all the way up the coast of Canada, and sail the coasts of southern Greenland in the name of the English crown.


But there is even more in the matter of Venetian travelers and explorers: it seems that America was actually discovered by Antonio and Nicola Zen, who sailed from Orkney, in Great Britain, in 1398, at the command of twelve ships belonging to Prince Henry of Sinclair. They navigated along the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, all the way to Nova Scotia and New England. They wrote a report of this expedition, ninety-four years before Christopher Columbus made his epic journey. The discovery of a Venetian cannon off the coast of Terranova a few years ago seems to confirm the account left by Antonio and Nicola Zen.


Where did he find the time to write?

Between the new house and the old one, the double palace in the centre, built in the sixteenth century, housed its most famous tenant in 1818. George Gordon – Lord Byron, moved in, wrote Percy Shelley, with fourteen servants, two monkeys, five cats, eight dogs, a crow, a sparrow, two parrots and a fox. “And the entire troop”, noted Shelley, “walks around the apartments as if each one of them were the master”. His stay in the city became legendary, with the wild gallops on the Lido, the lessons in Armenian at the monastery on the island of San Lazzaro and the exhausting swims down the Grand Canal, attempts by Lord Byron to quell his perennial–and romantic–melancholy. This is where he began to write Don Juan, undoubtedly inspired by his own adventures, where it was hard enough to distinguish truth from legend.

In Venice it was rumoured that there were two entrances to Palazzo Mocenigo: one for the girls of Castello, the other for the girls of Cannaregio. The writer himself, in two letters, makes an extraordinary (and probably incomplete) list of his lovers, which revealed the name of singer Arpalice Tarruscelli, “the prettiest Bacchante in the world”; or Lady Da Mosta, who Byron said gave him the only gonorrhea he had ever paid for. Then there was the Lotti, the Spineda, the Rizzato, and again “the Eleonora, the Carlotta, the Giulietta, the Alvisi, the Zambieri, the Eleonora da Bezzi, who was the King of Naples’ Gioacchino’s mistress, at least one of them”. The list continues with “the Teresina of Mazzurati, Glottenheimer and her sister, the Luigia and her mother, the Fornaretta (Margarita Cogni, the real queen of the Englishman’s harem), the Santa, the Caligari, the Portiera, the Bolognese figurante, the Tentora and her sister, cum multis aliis. Some of them are Countesses”, wrote Byron, “and some of them Cobblers wives, some noble, some middling, some low, some are splendid, some discrete, others of no importance, and all whores”.