Myths and Stories of Venice
VENICE • INSIDE STORIES
The secret stories behind ancient Venetian monuments
The Venetians covered their city with roadside sculptures, monuments and shrines on buildings. The majority of these small structures have a story and a reason for being placed where they are. Exploring the city becomes even more interesting once you discover these stories and reasons. Here are some short myths and stories that we know of.
1. The worried head sculpture
On the street of ‘Calle della Testa’ in Cannaregio, you will see a sculpture of a head on a building. The head appears worried and shocked, which suggests to the viewer that it is seeing, or has seen, unpleasant things.
And, as a matter of fact, this head has indeed seen many unpleasant events, as it was the letterbox belonging to one of the most active Serenissima executioners of the 15th century. It is said that the Republic passed on convicts’ names and chosen dates of execution to the hangman by way of the sculpture.
The Venetian Republic, or La Serenissima (Italian for the ‘most serene republic of Venice’), existed for over a millennium, from 697 until 1797 AD, and therefore is the longest-lasting republic to ever exist. According to Venetian traditional tales, a working-class woman is one of the reasons why the Republic of Venice is striving to be the longest-lasting republic in history. She was called Giustina Rossi, but was better known as Lucia.
On 15th June 1310, Baiamonte Tiepolo, accompanied by some other noblemen, launched an attack which sought to overthrow the Serenissima government. As the rebels were only a few metres from St Mark’s Square and getting ready to launch their final attack on the Doge’s Palace, Lucia, as she was cooking in her home, heard loud noises outside and opened her window to look out and see what was going on. As she did so, she lost her grip on the heavy mortar she was holding, hitting and immediately killing the rebel troops’ flagbearer in the process.
This created huge panic amongst the rioters, who thought they had been caught and trapped. Thus, the Serenissima were ensured an easy victory.
The Doge Gradenigo personally thanked Lucia. He promised to never increase the rent she paid for her apartment, and to extend this to her heirs. The Serenissima honoured this promise until it finally fell in 1797, almost 500 years later.
Since 1861, there has been a bass relief on the outside wall of the apartment, precisely where this remarkable event is said to have occurred, depicting Lucia at the very moment when she dropped the mortar.
If you are on the Mercerie and walking in the direction of St. Mark’s Clocktower, on the right you will see the sign of “Sotoportego del Cappello". Sotoportego is the Italian term for an alley that passes underneath a building. When you reach the end of the alley, look up and above you, you will see the sculpture in honour of Lucia, ‘The Old Woman of the Mortar’.
3. Imposing lion statues in front of the Arsenal
These lion statues are the protagonists of an interesting Venetian legend.. The legend goes like this:
In November 1719, the city of Venice saw two days of terrible storms. After this dramatic weather incident, two massacred bodies were found close to the Arsenal. Initially, the police believed that the victims had been attacked by wild animals, but were soon forced to rule out this hypothesis due to a lack of evidence. Six days later, there was another stormy night, and another corpse was found: this time, it was that of Jacopo, a young petty criminal who lived in the area with his wife Giovanna.
When news of the deaths spread, the Venetians started panicking: was there a serial killer on the loose somewhere in the city?
Two days after Jacopo’s seeming murder, Detective Enrico happened to overhear an argument and decided to move closer to listen to what was being said. There was Giovanna, yelling up at the windows of a tall house which belonged to an elderly merchant, Fosco, who was said to be a usurer. He heard her shouting “I know you are responsible, you are the killer!” To which Fosco replied, “Beware, woman! Your arrogance will be punished on the next stormy night…”
Thus, Detective Enrico immediately became suspicious of Fosco. It was known that Fosco never left the house, however, so surely this old man could not be behind the brutal slaying of the three victims? 10 days later, though, another storm broke out and went on until night. This reminded Enrico of the threat he had heard Fosco make to Giovanna, and so he went out in the dark and hid in the shadows close to the Arsenal to keep an eye on the square in front of the gate. Several hours later, at 1 a.m., a fire arch formed in the sky. Suddenly, Fosco appeared in the middle of the square. He immediately bewitched the guards who were on duty at the gate, and then walked slowly towards the lions and ran his hand over them, muttering old enchantments as he did so. Then, a shiny globe appeared in the air and a lightning strike hit the first lion. The young detective was in complete awe as he watched the big marble lion slowly coming to life.
Just then, Giovanna and her friend Jolanda came round the corner and headed down the street leading to the square. At that moment, a second strike of lightning hit the other marble lion, and they saw the figure of the first enormous lion running towards them. Enrico, still frozen to the spot in terror, nevertheless managed to force himself out of his hiding place to run to the scene. Just as he did so, a third strike of lightning struck the last lion and revealed a horrific scene: the first lion was tearing Jolanda’s body to pieces. Enrico drew his sword and ran towards Fosco, stabbing him to death with his blade.
A gigantic roar erupted and there was a flash of blinding light. Everything went quiet, apart from the rain which continued to pelt down. Now, nothing was moving: the lions were stone once more, Jolanda’s body lay lifeless on the floor, and Giovanna herself was on the ground in a state of shock. On the ground next to Enrico’s sword, however, was a heart of stone. It was Fosco’s heart, and represented the centre of his power, the force which had allowed him to bring stone figures to life…
Even though the lions were stone once more, the third lion’s head was still alive and moving, and it continued to roar and bite the top of its marble body. When he saw this, the heroic and courageous Enrico again leapt into action and seized his sword to cut off the lion’s head. It flew high into the air and exploded into thousands of pieces.
After this terrible night, investigations were conducted and it was found that Fosco was not only a usurer, but also a wizard who had been fooled by Jacopo and thus wanted revenge. He had decided to kill the other two men first to cloud the investigations and confuse the authorities. As Giovanna had seen through his plans, she too had to be eliminated.
Although Giovanna actually survived the attacks, she was unfortunately never able to live peacefully again and had to be taken to a madhouse following the dramatic events.
4. The Rialto Golden Head
This is probably one of the best-hidden details in Venice, which you will have to look very closely to find: la Testa d’Oro, or “golden head“.
This statue is located 20m from the Rialto Bridge on the San Marco side, in a very busy area full of ‘banchetti’ (souvenir stands) and shops. Passers-by often fail to notice it, as it is suspended 6 metres above the ground and overlooks a continuous flow of pedestrians.
The golden head is a different kind of statue to the others we have discussed, as it is not in memory of a person but instead the remains of a reputed shop: the most important spice shop in Venice, in fact.
The spicery “Alla Testa d’Oro” was around in a period when few people were able to read, and so the owners wanted it to be easily recognisable by anyone. As a result, they devised this clever solution. The shop was famous because of a secret mixture, “Theriachia d’Andromaco”, a cure-all panacea which they started to produce in 1603. It was so remarkable that they were the only shop to receive permission from the Serenissima itself to produce it three times a year, while everyone else was only allowed to create their recipe once.
The shop continued to trade for over 240 years and even, remarkably, survived the end of the Serenissima, as well as successive foreign dominations by Napoleon, then Austria and later Italy. This was all thanks to the legendary properties of the “Theriachia d’Andromaco”. In the 1940s, however, laws were introduced which forbade the use of psychotropic drugs. As a result, opium was banned and so it was no longer possible for the original recipe to be produced.
5. Shrines and votive niches
Street altars, also known as edicole, are religious shrines that visitors to Venice will find all over the city and are a subset of material culture. They are rarely found in churches, but instead mounted on walls at street level. A frame is either set into or mounted on the wall and may contain a framed picture, a small statue or flowers and candles. Most street altars exist for religious purposes, and as such they frequently present the religious icons of the city in question’s various scuole. The location of these pieces is also significant with regard to their history; some were intended to act as strategic sources of light in dark alleys, while others were erected as thanks to God for divine protection. They are all maintained by the Venetian people, and serve as prayer sites. There are 109 street altars located in Venice altogether.
6. Sottoportego della Madonna
Located in the district of San Polo, there is an alley, famous for its restaurant “Trattoria all Madonna”, with an entrance that catches the attention due to a large wooden sign. This sign is engraved with a phrase that recalls an event which took place there in 1177: “Pope Alexander III, who was chased by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, fled to Venice, and it seems that he slept under this porch on the first night.”
In commemoration of this occurrence, the carved sign has a sleeping Pope sculpture as a shrine. The Pope gave a special blessing at this location for anyone who enters and prays before the shrine, or at least so says the wooden plaque above the entrance.