Veneziænigma

Thirteen centuries of chronicles, mysteries, trivia and extraordinary events between history and myth

“Veneziænigma” represents a mosaic reconstructed piece by piece to reveal the enigmatic essence of Venice, delving deep into the past to the dawn of a history that has lasted for thirteen centuries. A history dense with events, balanced between myth and reality, of which it offers a complete and well-documented map, divided into six scenarios that reflect the six Sestieri of the city. The reader can thus cross the threshold of appearances and move into a different, “subtle” and more mysterious Venice, made of signs honed over time, by allegories and arcane codes to decipher. Chronicles, customs and traditions, folk tales and legends passed down through time, become the key to discovering hidden truths, fascinating places, facts and people, the protagonists of extraordinary events that testify to the ancient splendour and power that once belonged to the “Dominante”. An apparently disorderly collection of legends and trivia, anecdotes and mysteries, ominous tales and fun facts. In a slow city caught up in a fast world, these stories ran the risk of disappearing forever, swallowed up by the inevitable frenzy we are accustomed to living in, because these are stories that needed to be told, and no one has the time (or will) to tell stories any more, or even listen to them.

 

Stories of doges and courtesans, people and sometimes animals, aspects of a Venetian identity that has been lost (or simply left behind, with no regrets): you can hear them from the stones of the city, if you just stop to listen for a moment. So here they are, the stories of yesteryear, written down elsewhere but never gathered all together (or identified in the places where they took place): the story of Biasio the sausage vendor who made a delicious stew by cooking child meat, of the poor Fornaretto unjustly put to death for a crime committed by a nobleman; the story of a devil disguised as a monkey and enticed out of a wall, which still bears the signs, by a courageous friar; or that of a blood-red rosebud, the first given by a young man to his beloved as a sign of commitment, in a tradition that was destined to be perpetuated.

 

And stories that have never been written: of the ghosts of children in ancient orphanages, of lights in the night in an abandoned mill where the body of a saint was buried, of improvised vampires that attack young girls in broad daylight, and the thousand anecdotes of life as it is lived in a unique and extraordinary city, that deserve to be told simply because this is where they saw the light. Yes, the places. The fact that Venice is essentially the same city as it was in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (not to speak of earlier centuries, all stratified in its marbles and bricks), makes it possible to tell these stories and to indicate their precise, almost topographic origin. “Veneziænigma” is a gathering of places which bring back to life, as if by magic, creatures that have lost their bodily humanity, but re-emerge between these pages to announce their message of hope or death, of pain or joy, so alive, so present, so vibrant and exciting still today.

 

The book contains dozens of black and white photographs by Gabriele Gomiero, a photographer from Venice and Vicenza, now living in Treviso. They have their own special autonomy between the pages of the book: oblique, unusual, original points of view. A language that not only complements the language of words, but blends with it to create a harmony between the image and the text that is hard to achieve. The book is published by Elzeviro.

 

The following are excerpts from the book:

 

The wrath of Lucrezia

F. was twenty years old towards the end of the 1940’s. That evening, he prepared to listen to a symphonic concert on the radio that stood on his bedside table, comfortably stretched out on the bed of his room in his family home on the Giudecca. The disposition of his room was such so that he could see anyone coming up the stairs from below. The young man had shaded the light of his little bedside lamp to create a soothing listening atmosphere.

 

One hour into the concert, around midnight, the young man averted something strange: a luminous sphere was coming up the stairs just as a person might have done, bobbing at the height of a head: about thirty centimeters in diameter, the sphere was glowing, surrounded by a halo, and sported barely distinguishable features. As it reached the top of the stairs, it came to a halt. Speechless and terrified, F. sought desperately to understand what was happening.

 

Suddenly, the globe lurched towards the young man, who realized in horror that the glowing mass concealed the features of a woman with a hideously drawn, evil and threatening expression, coming straight at him in a rage. F. whipped away the cardboard he had used to dim his lamp. The vision disappeared in an instant, but left him in such a state of anxiety that he did not sleep a wink and kept the light on all night, though he did not breathe a word to either his brothers or his mother.

 

Fifteen years later, his family gathered again for Christmas dinner. Towards the end of the evening, the conversation turned towards the subject of ghosts and witches. It was then that F., who was then thirty-five years old, decided to tell his family about the strange incident that had taken place so many years before. One of his sisters, who was ten years older than he was, could not believe her ears: “I saw her too!” she exclaimed. Sixteen years prior to her brother’s vision, when she was only fourteen, she saw the same woman but full-height, her body glowing and dressed in sixteenth-century garb. “I was not afraid, said the sister, because she was smiling as she came towards me, she looked benevolent”.

 

A ghost that hated men and smiled at women. Who could it be? Why did she behave this way? Who had lived in that house before, and what could possibly have happened to that glowing woman? F. carried these questions around in his head for years, before making up his mind to look into the matter: his research into places, times and events led - and still lead – straight to the story of Lucrezia Cappello.

 

Lucrezia was 36 years old when, on July 11 1602 according to the criminal records of the Council of Ten, in their home on Rio della Croce, “Sir Zuanne Sanudo son of Alvise, without cause stabbed his wife Donna Betta (Lucrezia) Cappello in her bed with a knife, five times as a result of which she died on the spot”. Zuanne was Giovanni, her exceedingly jealous husband, who had forced her under duress the night before to confess to infidelities she had never committed. The couple had five children, three boys and two girls.

 

The man fled and was condemned in absentia to be banned and beheaded, and a reward of two thousand ducats was offered for his capture. Giovanni Sanudo pleaded for grace many times, begging to take care of his children, who had been orphaned by his own hand: “My poor wife – he wrote to the Lords of the Serenissima – innocently lost her life..”, recognizing that he had been blinded by jealousy. He was given a safe conduct, renewed over and over until 1621, when he was granted absolution by the Cappello family in the form of a “peace charter”, allowing him to return to the city.

 

The parish records of the church of Sant’Eufemia, to which Lucrezia belonged, give a double version of her death: at first alleging that she had been struck down “for five days by a malady of the heart, then killed” alluding in a way to a merciful (though improbable) act of euthanasia. But these words were later crossed out by a fretful hand that recorded the second cause of death: “..by many wounds”.

 

Thus Lucrezia Cappello returns with her impalpable tread, to pace the stairs and floors of the house that was once hers, manifesting her wrath towards men and her kindness to women. Though her family forgave the man who had taken her life, she did not, and despairs for having been torn from the world in the prime of life, for no other reason than blind, obtuse jealousy. “The parish believes she should be made a Saint” wrote the bishop of Canea Domenico Bollani to Sir Vincenzo Dandolo, as he described the crime.

 

The devil’s guardian

The story we will tell takes place in 1552, and is one of Venice’s best known legends. It took place in a house belonging to the Soranzo family, and concerns a large bas-relief representing an angel embedded onto the façade overlooking a canal not far from Piazza San Marco. The entire area is known as “dell’Angeo” because of this winged figure that, with its right hand, blesses a globe that it holds in the left hand. Above the angel’s head is a small hole: the Venetians say that this is why the sacred image was placed on the outer wall of the home.

 

In this house, in 1552, there lived a lawyer employed by the Curia Ducale. In spite of his sincere devotion to the Virgin Mary, he had accumulated great wealth by dishonest means and to the detriment of a great many poor people. One day he was fortunate to invite Matteo da Bascio, the head of the Capuchin Order – a man in odour of sanctity – to lunch. Before sitting down however, he wished to show his guest something of a rarity: a small tamed monkey so intelligent that it could perform household duties. At the sight of the monk, however, it rushed off and hid under a bed refusing to come out again.

In his Divine Grace, Father Matteo saw that this creature’s skin concealed nothing less than the devil himself. Imperiously he commanded: “In the name of the Lord I order you to say who you are and what you are doing in this house”.

“I am Satan”, replied the monkey, “and I am here to steal the spirit of this lawyer, whose behaviour I find most becoming”.

“They why, if you so crave his soul, have you not already killed him and taken it back to Hell with you?” responded the Friar.

“For one reason only”, said the Demon, “and that is because every night before he goes to bed, he commends his soul to God and to the Virgin Mary. If he had forgotten his prayers just once, I should have taken him back with me long since, to his eternal torment”. Hearing this, the Capuchin friar hastened to command God’s enemy to leave the house immediately; but the Devil resisted saying that he had orders from on high not to eave the place without first doing some harm.

“Then harm you shall do”, ordered Father Matteo, “but it shall be no more than that which I command you. You shall make a hole in this wall and this shall serve as an eternal admonishment for what has happened here.” The Devil had no choice but to obey and the monk, nearing the table laden with food, chided the lawyer about his past. During the conversation the monk took hold of the tablecloth: “Look”, he said, squeezing one edge until, miraculously, it bled profusely. “This is the blood of all the poor you have oppressed with your cheating and extortion.” The lawyer cried bitterly and promised to give back his ill-gotten gains, thanking the holy man for the mercy he had received. But one fear remained: what of the hole in the wall through which Belzebub could come back just as he had left. It was then that Father Matteo provided the solution: the hole should be defended by the image of an angel – because at the sight of the holy angels, the evil angels flee. And so, for five hundred years, the angel of Cà Soranzo has stood guard over this hole in the wall, lest the Devil should return.