The Jewel of the Adriatic is a gorgeous wonder, filled with masks, bridges, alleyways, and mystery. But there are also ghosts in Venice, often only seen in the brief half light when daytime gives way to the night.
Being the intrepid ghost hunter that I am, I went in search of them during my trip to Venice earlier in the month. While I didn’t bump into any spectres, I definitely noticed a peculiar chill in the air when the shadows lengthened and the tourists scurried back to their hotels…
Come with me now and meet some of the ghosts in Venice, and learn more about their peculiar lighting system involving the body parts of the dead…
1. The Devil Plays a Trick
The title of this tale should give you a clue as to its content. We’re going to start off in Campo San Martino, not far from the brick heart we found last week in the sotoportego dei Preti.
According to the legend, a black magician lived here between the 15th and 16th centuries. By all accounts, he was a cruel and brutal man. Many believed him to be in league with the Devil himself.
One night, he was out later than anticipated. At first, he believed the full moon would guide him home. Instead, clouds gathered across the sky, blocking out any light from above.
The magician swore to himself. He refused to beg for aid from any of the saints. Such an act would be beneath him! Who better to ask than Satan?
He called out to Lucifer, telling him to throw him a torch.
Surprisingly, someone (or something) indeed passed him a lit torch, which appeared in his hand. Satisfied, the magician continued on his way home. He thought nothing of it when he made it back and left the extinguished torch in the woodbox for future use.
The magician would have left it there indefinitely, had one of his maids not been cleaning. He came running when she screamed for help, for there in the woodbox lay the charred arm of a dead man.
Thankfully, being a black magician, he found the whole affair rather amusing. The tales don’t explain what he did with the arm afterwards, but I like to think he kept it to use it again. But the story leads us on neatly to…
2. The Helpful Dead
The story concerns the churchyard of Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna. Sadly, it’s surrounded by a massive wall so I wasn’t able to take any photos of the churchyard itself. Italy doesn’t have the same attitude towards graveyards as other European countries I’ve visited. But anyway.
One November 2, a man was out late at night. Darkness falls early in Venice, its tall buildings blocking the failing daylight. Being a good man, he feared robbers lurked in every shadow and he cursed himself for having no means of making a light.
The man spotted lights moving in the churchyard and he hurried closer to see if anyone had a spare. A parade of men moved slowly around the edge of the graveyard, each holding a candle.
One of the men, gaunt and melancholy, paused when he saw our hapless wanderer. He crossed the graveyard and handed his light to him.
“Best not be out here so late without a light!”
Our hero agreed, took the offered light with many thanks, and hurried home.
The following morning, he discovered the grisly truth. The light he’d used the night before was now a dried, shrivelled hand. He almost fainted to realise he’d encountered one of the many ghosts in Venice.
Still, he wasn’t about to rob one of the dead of a body part. That night, he returned to the churchyard of Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna. The parade of men continued their patrol around the edge of the graveyard. All but one held aloft a light.
The man ran up to the lost soul who had helped him the night before. Swallowing his fear, he gave him the dried hand. The ghost smiled, and his hand became a light once more.
I have to wonder if this story has any links to the English tale of the Hand of Glory.
Ghosts in Venice
A city as old as Venice surely doesn’t want for ghost stories. We’ve already visited the stretch of water between the Fondamente Nove and the Isola di San Michele – AKA the Venice cemetery island. It was here that the murderous Levantine threw himself into the water after killing his mother.
The choice of the island for a cemetery makes sense within a city like Venice. A Napoleonic edict required city officials to bury the dead away from population centres. The authorities chose the Isola di San Cristoforo della Pace in 1807. 30 years later, they filled the canal between the island and its neighbour, the Isola di San Michele,was filled to create a single cemetery island.
But I digress. The island, and the waters around it, has links with other ghosts in Venice.
In November 1904, a terrible fog rolled in around the city. A vaporetto captain reluctantly set off for Burano to take workers home after a long day. Two gondolas full of people from Murano also set off from the jetty. (Murano is literally on the other side of the cemetery island) The gondoliers gave the vaporetto a ten-minute head start.
The fog thickened out on the water and the vaporetto captain decided to turn back. The gondolas were right behind him and he didn’t see them in time. The vaporetto split one gondola in two, throwing its passengers into the water. The Burano workers hauled four of the passengers onto the vaporetto’s deck, but five – all women – disappeared.
A long search ensued well into the night.
The following morning, rescuers found one woman clinging to a post. She died minutes after reaching Murano. Search parties found two more dead later that day. Yet there was no sign of Teresa Sandon or a little girl, Giuseppina Gabriel Carmelo.
In September 1905, Teresa’s sister reported a harrowing dream. Teresa came to her, telling her she was bound at the bottom of the canal between the cemetery island and the Fondamente Nove. If her sister prayed for her, she’d be released.
Ten days later, a battered body turned up nearby. Her sister identified Teresa by the scarf around her neck. Giuseppina never resurfaced, though some say she rides the waves in a floating casket, lit by candles on foggy nights.
Who knows if these tales are true?
But when you wander the labyrinthine streets of the city at dusk, pay attention to the flicker that catches your eye. Who knows who – or what – wants to talk to you…
You can find more tales of ghosts in Venice in Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories by Alberto Toso Fei (affiliate link). Or sign up below and get more folklore posts like this one in your inbox once a week.
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