Lovers look at Venice with heart-eyed gazes, tourists with their mouths wide-open in surprise, the charming old lady on the water has something for everybody, but as every seductive woman she has dark secrets too: “The Queen of the Seas” at night glimmers through the stars in the sky and through the lights reflected in her dark waters, many inexplicable and gruesome events happened here in Venice.
Shadows and doubt will metaphorically accompany the few stories you are about to read:
Among the very well-known delicatessens offered at Biagio Carnio’s small butcher shop there was the “sguaseto”, a medieval dish consisting of a soup made out of boneless meat scraps. His recipe was so appreciated that he was famous with both Venetians and visitors.
Around midday of an ordinary autumn day of 1503, a bricklayer entered Biagio’s shop, starving after a hard day of work in a palace near-by, he sat and ordered the speciality. While enjoying his “sguaseto” the poor man turned pale in finding, on the bottom of the plate, a small human finger.
With difficulty he convinced himself to stay calm, and overcoming the horror, he put the macabre evidence in his handkerchief, paid and left. He ran to look for members of the City’s Watch: incredulous and disgusted they immediately armed themselves and rushed through the streets, erupting into Biagio Carnio’s shop. Upon entering the storage room they found the grisly remains of other children; without doubt the same children that in the past months had gone missing all over Venice.
With cold-heartedness and no trace of regret the butcher confessed. Magistrates announced the verdict and the murderer was taken back to his shop where they cut off both his hands, dragged him by a horse through the street to the Piazzetta and beheaded among two columns. His shop was demolished in order to erase every trace of the brutality that happened there.
Sailing on the Grand Canal not far from the train-station, one of the vaporetto stops is called Riva de Biasio, which is said to be entitled to Biagio Carnio. The legend says that in memory of the cruelty happened there, in Campo San Zan Degolà where the shop was, there is the reproduction of a Biasio’s head.
During the 25 years spent by Marco Polo in China, the merchant had the chance to work closely with Khubilaj Khaan. During one of his frequent sojourns at court he madly fell in love with one of the Emperor’s daughters: Hao Dong. The Venetian merchant could not help but be charmed by her incredible beauty and soft voice, and they were quickly married. She would patiently wait for the traveller, sometimes for months, to return after every trip. One day Marco Polo had to go back to Venice, Hao Dong decided to leave her adored country once and for all to follow her beloved husband, but once there she received the coldest welcome: The Polo family was jealous and did not want to share Marco’s endowment with her. It did not stop there, she was also widely derided by the Venetian public for her “alien” fairness. Hao Dong, left alone by her husband who had to go on another trip, had nothing but her singing to help her cope with the pain; so she would endlessly sing from her balcony, people passing by would stop enraptured by the beauty of her voice, despite her foreign language, she would fill the street with sadness dedicated to her faraway land where she had been honoured as princess.
After a couple of months Marco Polo was captured by the Genovese, one of his sisters lied to Hao Dong that he was killed. The poor bride that night, destroyed by the pain, set her dress on fire and jumped from the balcony to her death.
Ever since that gruesome night in Corte del Milion, many have heard a sad and melancholic song in the air, others have also seen a wandering spirit holding a small blue flame, it is said to be the ghost of the unfortunate Hao Dong. According to some, recently, during the restoration of Teatro Malibran’s foundation, the remains of a small woman wearing oriental dress – including a tiara with Khubilaj Khaan’s emblem – were found.
During the sixteenth century plague outbreak in Europe killed 25 million people. From 1630 -1631 it killed 50.000 people, one third of Venice’s 150.000 residents. Panic stricken, with no chance of defeating the disease, doctors wearing long-nosed masks would ship anyone displaying symptoms to the many hospital islands in the lagoon. During the peak of the plague these islands were covered with dead bodies, who were thrown into mass graves and burned. Several of these mass grave pits were found, unmarked, also on the island of Poveglia.
Whilst digging the foundation for a new museum in the Lazaretto Vecchio, a crew came across one of these grave pits filled with the remains of more than 1,500 plague victims. Archaeologists were called to examine the bones and they found something shocking: a vampire. The body had been ritualistically disfigured by having a large rock forced into its jaws.
Since no remedy seemed to work against the plague, the popular belief was that the epidemic disease was connected to vampires: the nachzehrer (“the night devourer”). Protestant theologist Philippus Rohr in 1679 presented his Dissertatio historico-philosophica de masticatione mortuorum, trying to explain how to recognise those members of society who were most likely to become vampires. They were said to chew their own shroud in the tomb, spreading the disease, waiting to rise from their grave.
Morphologically these dead bodies were said to appear flexible, with smooth skin and their stomach filled with blood that would spill from their mouth.
During epidemics graves would be reopened often to bury new corpses and when diggers would found these characteristics they would exhume the body and force a rock or a brick into their mouth to stop them from ever rising and killing again.
Poveglia is the resting place of many thousands who died in a brutal way, who knows what is left to be found, what is certain is that its haunted reputation is in no doubt.