Venice, Italy is famed for its dizzying canals, bustling waterfront cafés, and the many picturesque palazzi that all carry an undeniable lean as the city slowly sinks. That small city charm is evident today, but the vibrant, touristic culture did not always exist. Venice’s dark history houses everything from secret Nazi bases to plagued insane asylums and public executions; and though these horrors are just whispers now, their physical locations remain.
So, come explore the island and its surrounding lagoon – if you dare.
1| Isola di San Lazzaro degli Armeni
Venice is a northeastern seaport made up of over 100 small islands with many of them linked together by bridges. The island of San Lazzaro’s (St. Lazarus) history dates back to 810, but it was not put into use until 1182 where it would serve as an isolation dumping ground for the poorest of the sick and dying. As the name St. Lazarus suggests, the island became saturated with leprosy and was deemed a perilous leper colony. With the disease’s easy transmission and symptoms ranging from large and painful skin lesions to nerve damage and uncontrollable muscle weakness, one can imagine the suffering that occurred on this desolate island with ill-equipped hospital access and medical care.
Once leprosy began to subside in the mid 16th century, the island was ultimately abandoned. San Lazzaro has since gone through many renovations and additions over the last few centuries and is now the home to a large monastic complex. Tourists are welcome, and if you choose to go, perhaps you will view this peaceful monastery with a far darker and more curious lens than the majority of its other visitors.
2| Carnevale di Venezia: The Plague Doctor’s Mask
As one of the oldest festivals in the world, the Carnevale di Venezia’s famous masquerade costumes and masks have become solidified within Venetian culture. The first record of la Carnevale dates back to 1268 where locals and visitors alike would spend several months of the year in masked disguise. However, a festival that once was used to celebrate the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday would spiral into masked individuals taking advantage of their concealed identity to commit theft, prostitution, and far more violent crimes.
As the 17th and 18th centuries approached Europe, so did the infamous Black Plague. With millions dying, and out of desperation for a cure, the plague doctor was born. Severely uneducated and practicing “medicine” based on myth and legend, these doctors dressed in outlandish costumes and masks in an effort to prevent themselves from succumbing to this sickness. Most notably, an angular and eerily shaped beak-like façade was the mask of choice. Stuffing the beak with ambergris, lavender, mint, and camphor was believed to prevent disease transmission, though many plague doctors were killed by the very thing they believed they could cure. As time passed, the beak-like mask was disassociated with the plague doctors, and today, ironically, is the most popular mask worn during the carnival.
3| The Columns of San Marco and San Todaro
In Venice’s city center sits Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), one of the leading tourist attractions. Every visitor to Venice has surely made a point to stroll through this impressive façade with its famed shops, restaurants, and buildings. Perched on the edge of the piazza, within steps of the lagoon, stand two massive and unsuspecting columns. Each bear a symbol of two prominent Venetian saints – St. Mark the Evangelist as a winged lion, and St. Todaro, the city’s first protector.
Why and how these columns arrived in Venice is still shrouded in mystery, but experts estimate they were erected around 1127 by Nicholas Barattieri. The government granted him gambling rights to occur between the two columns, which at the time, was illegal. Bartierri’s death later marked the end of a gambling free zone between the columns, and in the 18th century, they became the site for very public executions. In fact, many superstitious Venetians still avoid walking between the columns… would you?
4| Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria
A church condemned by doge (Venetian royalty) assassinations dating back to the 9th century, the Church of San Zaccaria is a lesser known, spectral treasure of Venice. The interior hosts a dazzling mix of Gothic and Renaissance art and architecture as the church was expanded, burned, and rebuilt over the centuries. What lies beneath in the crypt, however, is the most ornate of all.
Step below the foundation, and you are met with a muddled and flooded crypt that holds the tombs of eight early doges. Submerged by the water of Venice’s lagoon, the crypt appears to double in size from its reflection. Some call it darkly romantic, and some just call it ghostly. Either way, this stunning site is not to be missed.
5| San Servolo Insane Asylum
Venice’s “Island of the Mad” housed a psychiatric hospital for the mentally ill from 1797 until its closure in 1978. Medical treatment for the mentally ill was essentially nonexistent up through the 18th century with many individuals imprisoned in these “madhouses” left to waste away in isolation.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the Museum of Madness was created to preserve the history of this hospital, including its progression of mental illness care through the centuries. One can visit the museum to see its exhibitions that include actual chains, handcuffs, and straitjackets (among many other items) used as restraints.
6| The Vampire of Venice
During an archeological dig on the Island of Lazzaretto Nuovo in the Venetian lagoon, a female “vampire” skull was unearthed among a mass grave site for plague victims. A large, angled brick had been jammed into her mouth, preventing her jaw from closing. This technique, albeit, disturbing, was commonly done to suspected vampires in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The fear of vampires during this time was widespread, and many believed the corpses could chew through their burial clothes to spread infection to the living. As corpses rotted, releasing blood and fluid, the burial cloth draped over the face would moisten, tear, and sink into the mouth making it appear as if this individual had chewed through. The practice of wedging large items into the mouth therefore prevented this fear from coming to life – literally.
7| The Secret Nazi Base of San Giorgio in Alga
A lesser known island centrally sits in Venice’s lagoon, often overlooked by both visitors and locals. San Giorgio in Alga began as a Benedictine colony in the 11th century, but saw much change through the years that ultimately left the island abandoned in 1717 after a massive fire.
By the 1800s, a political prison had been established and was used to house Venetians who voiced strong counter militant attitudes. The island was gradually militarized, and by World War I, bunkers had been constructed but quickly abandoned. However, while the rest of the globe was consumed with the coming of the second World War, the small island of San Giorgio in Alga was, in fact, not abandoned after all. This seemingly unsuspecting island would serve as a secret Nazi base to train its divers how to plant German mines under the water and under the shadow of night.
One can marvel at the crumbling façade of San Giorgio in Alga with its natural decay, but perhaps be cautious of the deep waters lurking around its shore.
8| The Venetian Jewish Ghetto
The world’s first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516, far before World War II where many believe the expulsion of Jews began. The term “ghetto” is actually derived from the Venetian dialect of ghèto, the name of an old copper foundry in the area where Jews would later reside.
Though Venice was one of the few areas that tolerated Jews, it by no means treated them with respect. The designated area of the ghetto was walled off from the rest of the city and locked each night at sunset. Outside of the walled ghetto, Jews were forced to wear special colored hats or badges to identify them as separate from the rest of the Venetian community. Jews were also succumbed to only certain, lowly professions, thereby further restricting the few rights they did have. Wandering through the Ghetto Vecchio today can bring a sense of heavy sadness, but visiting the historical monuments and museums there provides an opportunity to better understand the truth and triumph of its history.
9| Palazzo Dario
The Dario Palace, or Ca’ Dario as it is known in Venice, has been deemed the “palace that kills.” Constructed in the late 15th century by Giovanni Dario, what once was considered a beautiful blend of Renaissance and Gothic architecture has now been overshadowed by the many untimely deaths of those associated with Ca’ Dario.
When Giovanni Dario died, the estate was given to his daughter, who would later commit suicide along with her husband’s death by stabbing. Nearly all future owners would suffer violent murders, financial ruin, and numerous suicides through the early 2000s. Ca’ Dario is now owned by an unnamed American buyer who is perhaps risking, and testing, their unlucky fate in the hands of this evil facade. The palazzo is currently closed to tourists, and likely for good reason. Would you visit this superstitious estate?
10| Poveglia Plague Island
Poveglia has one of the darkest and most sickening histories riddled with torture, disease, and death. Like many other small islands in Venice’s lagoon, Poveglia served as a quarantine dumping ground during both the Bubonic Plague in 1348, and again during the Black Death in 1630. The notable difference on Poveglia compared to other Venetian islands involved the heaps of massive group burnings of the dead and severely ill – tens of thousands, in fact.
Fast forward to the late 1800s where Venetians were exiled to Poveglia again, but this time, for mental illness. Poveglia’s insane asylum was barely a step above a prison. With poor care and no means of rehabilitation, being banished to this institution was essentially a death sentence. Rumors still linger that in the 1930s, a psych doctor was running bizarre and tortuous experiments on patients, and at the hands of a psychotic break of his own, he later hurled himself from the top of the tallest bell tower of the asylum. Visitors to the island are prohibited, and locals intentionally avoid it due to its dark presence.