If you head away from the hustle and bustle of the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), you’ll head into the stranger, more magical part of Venice. It’s in the tangle of narrow streets and courts that you enter the realm of Venetian legend.
One such legend characterises the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the Castello district, to the north of Venice City. The square is home to the huge Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo (St John and Paul). The names John and Paul refer to obscure Christian martyrs, not the Apostles. Completed in the 1430s, it’s one of Venice’s largest churches.
Next door stands the Scuola Grande di San Marco. Isn’t it phenomenal?
The Scuola was one of the Venice’s original six ‘great schools’ (aka public institutions). Founded in 1260, the Scuola needed to be rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1485. Nowadays, it’s also part of Venice’s city hospital (complete with ambulance boats berthed in the neighbouring canal).
Incidentally, it houses a small medical museum if you go through the main doors, and up the stairs to the right.
But what about the Venetian legend?
The tale of the Beggar and the Levantine starts with a man named Cesco Pizzigani. A talented stonecutter, his hands created the perspective effects on the right-hand side of the facade.
I don’t know how much of this portico Cesco created. But it’s astonishing all the same.
According to the Venetian legend, Cesco’s wife fell ill in 1501. Medical care at the time was rudimentary at best. He near bankrupted himself in search of a cure, even selling his shop in the process. Sadly, none of the cures worked and Florinda passed away.
Grieving the loss of his wife and destitute, Cesco resorted to begging on the steps of the Scuola Grande. I can’t even imagine how galling it must have been, to ask for money beside the artistry you created.
To pass the time, Cesco scratched pictures into the marble using an old nail. Boats passed along the canal, offloading their goods in the square. One of his drawings of such a ship is still visible on the marble.
Well, I say still visible – they’re difficult to spot. I must have looked like a right weirdo loitering outside the main door, peering at a marble pillar. Thankfully, I’m no stranger to looking weird.
Enter the Levantine
A Venetian woman nearby had given birth to a son. His father was a Turkish chap known as a Levantine, since he came from the Ottomon Empire. He lived on the island of Giudecca with other wealthy Levantine merchants.
The son lived with his father, even dressing in the same Turkish fashion, and paid visits to Castello to see his mother. He struggled with his identity, being half Venetian and half Levantine. Neither community fully accepted him, and he blamed his mother (though, apparently, not his father, who had no problems fathering a child with a woman who was not his wife).
Being a temperamental sort (which could explain why neither community wanted him), he frequently beat his mother during violent outbursts. His mother put up with them because she loved her son so much.
Sadly, one night, he went too far. In a fit of rage, he stabbed his mother in the chest. He even tore out her heart. Sanity finally took hold and he realised what he’d done. Dropping the knife, he fled from her small home. He ran towards the bridge beside the Scuola but he tripped on the first step. He dropped his mother’s heart, which rolled away.
A voice rang out in the square, coming from the heart. “My son, are you hurt?”
Grief-stricken (and hopefully overcome with guilt), the Levantine dashed along the Fondamenta Mendicanti away from the square. Upon reaching the Fondamente Nove, he threw himself into the waters facing the Isola di San Michele.
The island now acts as the city cemetery. So it’s a fairly apt spot for self-annihilation.
Cesco sees it all
According to the Venetian legend, Cesco the beggar saw everything from his perch on the Scuola steps. He scratched the scene into the marble beside him, freezing the tragic moment in time.
If you look really hard (and I did), you can still see a small figure, wearing a turban. In his hand rests the heart of his mother.
That’s not all. On cold nights, the Levantine still prowls the square, his sad moans the only sound in the silent square. Many believe he continues to search for the warmth of his mother’s love.
If you find yourself in Venice, and you’d like to find the carving, you’ll need to go right up to the portico of the Scuola. As you’re looking at the doors, look to your right. You’ll see a pillar with the below artwork on it.
Walk past that, and look at the bare marble of the doorway itself. The ships and the figure are carved there.
Who knows if such a Venetian legend is true? The old scratched drawings give it a certain air of authenticity. Plenty of people believe Cesco Pizzigani really existed. While the story of the Levantine might be fanciful, anything is possible where Venice is concerned!
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