When I wrote about the lack of weird tales set in Venice I did not of course mean a lack of ghost stories, of which the city has plenty. She has a Casino deli spiriti (House of the Spirits), a calla della Morte (Street of Death) and the Ca’Dario, the so-called Haunted Palace.
Venice has a plethora of ghosts, wizards, demons, supernatural lions and stone hearts, sneezing ghosts of stillborn babies, floating coffins thoughtfully bedecked with candles so the ferries won’t run into them, and squids with human eyes. Many of these treasures are handily collected in Alberto Toso Fei’s Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories. This is my favorite kind of book. Alberto knows what we spectre-loving visitors to Venice want. He has mapped out the phantoms by district then given a walking tour of each, punctuated by pauses for increasingly more grisly stories.Possibly my favorite in this collection features Doge Enrico Dandolo. Dandolo led the Fourth Crusade to the infamous sack of Constantinople in 1204, and thus links to’ The Dark Crusader’, Geoff Gillan’s new Dark Ages Horror on the Orient Express scenario. Venice appears to have always had a rather uneasy relationship with Dandalo’s memory. My trusty 1914 guide, A Wanderer in Venice, wonders why there no statues or monuments to his name. This ghost story reflects that communal disquiet. In myth, Dandolo is condemned to pace around the walls of S.S. Giovvanni e Paolo in the Castello district. With two burning coals instead of eyes, and carrying a sword by the blade, he must eternally bloody his hands to atone for the innocent blood he shed. The passer-by is advised not to try to assist this grim spectre. Any attempt to help may only add to the total sum of blood.
The S.S. Giovvanni e Paolo also holds a grisly relic, another odd link to the themes of the Horror on the Orient Express. The ill-fated Marcantonio Bragadin was one of the Venetian heroes of the siege of Famagosta in 1571. When the city was taken by the Turks, Bragadin was flayed alive in punishment for his resistance. Then his head was cut off, his body quartered, his skin was stuffed with straw and paraded around the city mounted on a cow. The stuffed skin was taken back to Constantinople as a trophy of war, where nine years later it was stolen from the Arsenal of Constantinople and returned to Bragadin’s family. The family buried the remains in a niche in the south aisle. When the niche was opened in 1961, by a family descendant, it was found to hold a lead urn containing several pieces of tanned human hide.This fresco is exceedingly tame by comparison with contemporary 16th century portrayals of martyrdom, and was memorably snubbed by J.J. Norwich in his monumental A History of Venice as “distinctly disappointing”.