5 Ghosts that Haunt the Streets and Canals of Venice

Venice is the perfect city for ghosts … the Gothic architecture and otherworldly atmosphere create a setting for dreams and nightmares! Here are five ancient and modern folk tales of encounters with the supernatural … that have their foundation in real occurrences!

The Burning Skeleton of Bartolomio Zenni 

There have been sightings of an elderly man carrying a large bag over his shoulder, staggering up and down the Campo del’Abazia on dark winter nights, begging for help with his burden. Anyone unlucky to listen to him and approach will see him suddenly transform … into a skeleton burning with the flames of hell, the skull eye sockets fiery pools of hate! This is the specter of Bartolomio Zenni, an aged moneylender. the story goes that he was so miserly that on the evening of May 13th 1437, when a fire broke out on the opposite side of the canal, he was too occupied with saving his own horde of coins that he ignored the cries of help from the neighboring houses. The bag was too heavy for one person to carry – and he could not move fast enough. Cornered by the rising flames, Zenni lowered himself into the canal and tried to swim to safety, but he would not let go of the bag, which dragged him down to a watery death.

Several nights later, he was seen again, by Venetian folk clearing the rubble from the fire, carrying the same bag. He seemed in great pain and asked for the people around to take the bag from his shoulders. Those around immediately recognized him, and shied away from him. After a few seconds the old man’s body transformed into a blazing skeleton, crying for help.

It is said that Zenni’s soul will only be free from damnation when he finds someone to take the bag away from him … and as that’s not likely to happen, his burning bones will keep wandering the alleyways of Venice …

The Cursed Island 

Poveglia, the ‘cursed island’, lies between Venice and Lido in the Venetian Lagoon. Between the 4th century and the 18th century, it held a modest population and was used as a check point for all goods and people coming to and going from Venice by ship. In 1793, there were several cases of the plague on two ships, and consequently the island was transformed into a quarantine station for the sick. This role became permanent in 1805, under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, and has led to the undying rumors of the island being haunted by the restless spirits of plague victims. It is a fact that there are plague pits holding the unmarked remains of mass burials … but nobody knows how many.

In the 20th century the island was again used as a quarantine station, but in 1922 the existing buildings were converted into a psychiatric hospital for the long-term care of the mentally ill. Rumors began to spread about the head doctor’s twisted experiments, in which he’d allegedly been using the countless patients on the island as human guinea pigs. Those same rumors say that in the mid-30s, crippled by the guilt of his actions, the mad doctor committed suicide by throwing himself off the bell tower, which still stands at the entrance to the island today. According to locals, it’s not uncommon to hear the sound of a bell chime echoing from the ruins of the hospital late at night, even though it was removed many years ago.

After 1968, when the hospital was closed, the island was briefly used for agriculture and then completely abandoned; they could not succeed in growing crops in the island’s soil. The island was closed off by the Italian government, and it is forbidden for boats or ships to land there.

The Music Written on the Waves

The area around the Bragora will always be linked with the musician and composer Antonio Vivaldi, composer of the “Four Seasons”, who died in 1741. After his birth in 1678, he was extremely weak, and two months later was subjected to “exorcisms and oils” in the local church. he overcome his childhood sickness and grew up to become music-master of the nearby Pieta, a conservatory of orphaned girls. He composed over 450 concerti, but apparently there is one work that we will never be able to hear …

One legend says in those first two months of his life the child’s soul was under the control of the Devil himself, who knew he would become one of the world’s greatest musicians, and wanted to use his talents for his own evil ends. The exorcism in 1678 expelled the evil spirit but it returned throughout Vivaldi’s adult life, threatening to take over his waking consciousness. Vivaldi fought against the influence, and devoted his life to good works; in fury, the Devil prevented him from writing down the greatest melody he had imagined, and the last and most beautiful work went with Vivaldi to his grave. Or perhaps not … On quiet winter nights, it is said that Vivaldi’s celestial symphony can be heard on the wind, drifting from Heaven across the waves … the spirit of Vivaldi trying to communicate his ideas to the living, by writing his music on the water …

Casanova – the Man who cannot Die 

Casanova is best remembered for his talent as a great seducer and for an adventurous escape from the Piombi, the terrible prisons of the Ducal Palace; but it is often forgotten that he was a philosopher, poet, mathematician, Freemason, spy, and master of the Occult. Ever since his childhood, he was fascinated by the esoteric arts of magic, and learnt to conduct many rituals out of sheer curiosity. Legend says that Casanova formed an alliance with Giuseppe Balasamo – the infamous Count of Cagliostro. Apparently Cagliostro traveled to Venice incognito on many occasions, where he instructed initiates – including Casanova – in how to pursue the Philosopher’s Stone, and the secrets of eternal life. There are persistent rumors that Casanova, unlike Cagliostro, succeeded in performing the necessary rituals for eternal youth, and is still alive, living in Venice under a series of assumed identities. Officially, Casanova died on June 4th 1978 at Dux in Bohemia; but there is no tomb … and the exact site of his grave has been ‘lost’, and remains unknown …

The Palace of Death  

Cà Dario, a palace on the Grand Canal built at the end of the 15th century, is known locally as “The House of No Return” because it is believed to eventually kill or ruin all of its owners. The stories began soon after its construction, when the daughter of its first owner, Giovanni Dario, committed suicide in the house after her husband went bankrupt and their son was killed in a fight. Over the centuries, more than twelve of the palace’s owners have died in mysterious circumstances including famous people such as Christopher Lambert (manager of The Who) who committed suicide, Nicoletta Ferrari who died in a car accident, and industrialist Raul Gardini who killed himself under suspicious circumstances. Five other owners went bankrupt and three of them had severe accidents.

In case you’d like to test the theory for yourself … the palace is currently for sale …

Enjoyed this? Venice is one of the settings of “The Mists of Osorezan” – try a sample chapter here!

(All photos in this article were taken by J P Catton … except the one right at the top, which was grabbed off the internet.) 


About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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