Friday, May 13, 2011

Haunted Venice, Part One

I've been working my way through the four itineraries described in Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories; here are the highlights from the first walking tour:

The tour begins at the gothic church Santi Giovanni e Paolo and wends its way over to the campo de Gheto Novo. At the Gothic church, author Alberto Toso Fei entertains us with the story of the Bell Ringer's Skeleton. In this 19th century tale, a curiously tall bellringer is approached by a medical doctor who, marveling over his strange proportions and giant hands, convinces him to sell his body to science. The bellringer accepts, as the doctor pays up front. Now I bet you think you know where this is going, right? But no, no body-snatchers here. The bellringer merely assumes he'll outlive the aged doctor, and happily takes the money to the tavern every night thereafter, where he drinks and drinks to his heart's content. Unfortunately, the bellringer, who's never had so much money all at once before, goes a tad overboard and ends up drinking himself to death. Whoops! Guess who's body's on display at the Museum of Natural History right now? Sucker! Watch the booze kids: that's the moral of this story. Ghost quotient: medium. The spectral skeleton apparently climbs up the tower to ring the bell at midnight, then stumbles down to the street to beg the passersby for enough money to buy himself back. Might've been scarier if the premise wasn't so wryly amusing. [Disclaimer: "ghost quotient" is an entirely meaningless criterion I just invented now to make this sound more fancy.]

Along we walk, and, strangely the author skirts the tour past the Island of the Dead, possibly because he disdains the obvious... although he does tell the perfect story to imagine whilst staring out over the water: The Cosmographer who stole Lucifer's Dreams. Fra Mauro, a monk living on San Michele in the mid-1400s, was an amazing cartographer who left a treasure trove of maps when he died. The only strange thing about him: he never once left Venice to visit any of the places he drew. This is how he did it: he saw the images in dream -- not his own, mind you, but the dreams of the devil, which he (get this) projected onto the cloudy skies above Venice. Art! Hubris! Proto-cinema! I love it. But, as all things the devil wrought, these dreams sometimes slipped out of his grasp and moved through the skies freely, terrifying townspeople and directing witches on their way to the sabbath. Some say they can still be seen up there on cloudy nights, when a storm rages... Weird quotient: high. This story is pure awesome.

We keep toddling along on our imagination tour just until the fondamenta dei Mori, where we stop at number 3399. There, we learn the story of Tintoretto -- yes, the painter -- and how his daughter was nearly tricked by a witch. Apparently a beautiful, mysterious woman told the little girl that she could become a nun if she hid her communion wafers instead of eating them in church, and instead took them home and hid them. Once she had ten, she'd become a nun. The girl obeyed the woman but halfway through the plan, freaked out and spilled it to her pops. Tintoretto was wise in the ways of the witch and knew the old crone would recruit the girl to the craft once she got the ten wafers. He told his daughter wait five more days, then invite the woman into the house to get the wafers. Of course, once the witch crossed the threshold, the artist "rushed her with a knobby stick" until she screeched, changed herself into a cat and flew out the window. Witch factor: medium to high. I like the idea of the witch recruiting a youngster through deceit, like a drug pusher.

Finally, at the Gheto Novo, we learn of the Plague of the Children, a twist on the Pied Piper tale, where the sins of parents are thrust upon their sons and daughters. In the summer of 1576 there was a Plague in Venice and many people died. But in the Jewish Ghetto, a strange thing happened: only children died. One after the other all the children perished, but not a single parent died. They begged the rabbi to find a solution and he pored over esoteric books like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for days and days to no avail. Finally one night he had a dream: in his dream he saw little children playing and dancing in the graveyard. He tore the shroud off one of the children, whose ghost returned the next night to beg for it back. "I cannot return without my shroud," the ghost child said. The rabbi refused unless the child could tell him the cause of the Plague of the Children, and the child told him it happened because a woman had killed her newborn. Well, they brought that crazy bitch to justice and, sure enough, no child died in the Ghetto again... for the rest of the summer. Little lamb* quotient: High. I love the idea of a ghost child wailing, "Give me my shrouuuuud!"

There are far, far many more stories than these; I've merely selected my favorites. No doubt any ghost aficionado will find their own favorites if the buy the book, and no doubt the tour will be even more impressive if walked while glimpsing the macabre floating island of death and such things. But for now, I am content with my virtual tour, and happy to let myself imagine what the ghosts themselves might look like something even someone present at the scene might be forced to do (ghosts have a strange habit of being uncooperative with tour groups and often failing to appear on demand).

One last little bit of business: nowhere in the book does the author mention how long it would take to walk this route, though I doubt it very much matters since time has no meaning in the land of the dead....

Join me next week for part two, where for wizards and mermaids and sainted mothers.

* Little lambs mark the graves of dead children in Green-Wood Cemetery.

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