The witches of Venice, between magic filters, legends and tortures: stories of women banished from the Serenissima

29 October 2021

Venice, October 29th, 2021 - Spells, blood of the condemned, love potions. A handful of beans and a prayer to the Virgin Mary to understand if the beloved man was faithful, a glass of water lit by a candle, a palm reading. Witches and soothsayers according to the Inquisition – in reality illiterate women subjected to terrible tortures such as whipping, cutting off of the ears, or the ban from the city. But they were never burnt alive at the stake, not in Venice, which in its punishments always behaved differently, never truly subjugated to the Church. On the scariest night of the year, the famous night of Halloween, lives and faces of Venetian witches re-emerge from the State Archives: stories of stregizzi, sabbaths, gatherings of witches and wizards, imprisoned spirits, sexual magic, rituals and even legends handed down through the centuries by the Serenissima Republic, which this year celebrates the 1600th anniversary of its mythical foundation. No "trick or treat", but women in the flesh who, behind the doors of the narrow Venetian streets, performed occult practices of magic. Suffice it to say that, during the sixteenth century, there were about 1600 trials in the city for "strigaria, maleficio, arte magica and superstizione" (i.e. sorcery, curses, witchcraft and superstitions). The witches were tried by the court of the Inquisition, which was based in St Mark's Square, while the punishments and tortures were inflicted publicly, between the two columns of St Mark's. As explained by Manuel Meneghel, a tour guide in Venice, most of them were actually prostitutes or courtesans who mainly produced love spells. 

"The Jewish Ghetto, in Cannaregio, played an important part in the spread of black magic texts, such as the Clavicola Salomonis", explains Meneghel, "The documents of the Inquisition allow us to locate the homes of these women accused of being witches. We know their names and why they were tried". Among them, the courtesan and sorceress Emilia Catena, who was accused of having practiced necromancy rites on the corpse of a newborn child. She denied it, but admitted to having done it on a cat and was exiled. In this period – we are talking about the 1580s – Emilia invested part of her earnings in buying lands on the Venetian mainland and thus became an agricultural entrepreneur, a rare figure in 16th century Venice. Even the poetess Veronica Franco herself underwent a trial for witchcraft, from which she was acquitted".

Sometimes, however, the women remain in the shadows, as it is the case of Giovanna Semolina, the "neighbourhood" witch who was contacted by wives to keep their husbands away from courtesans. According to official documents, Semolina prescribed the making of a lazzaro puzzolente: a concoction based on cat excrement, wolf fat and earth collected between the two columns of Saint Mark’s, the place where capital punishment was carried out (therefore, being soaked in the blood of the condemned, it was believed to bear magical power). Such poultice was then used to grease the doors of the home of the courtesan who was the object of the curse, and the devil was invoked to make the odour pervade the whole house and the courtesan herself, so that the husband would no longer be able to approach her and betray his wife. "This has come down to us - explains Meneghel - because a husband denounced the witch Semolina, and even his own wife had some problems for having used such methods". The official documents also highlight a more "intimate" Venice that is otherwise hardly apparent. "For example, the 15th century witch Graziosa was condemned for having made a Contarini nobleman fall in love with her through a love potion", he recounts, "so we learn about the practices of erotic magic to which people were devoted at the time, with love potions that even contained parts of navel dust". Testimonies of witchcraft also come from Giacomo Casanova himself, who admits being the protagonist of a series of sexual magic practices.

Venetian legends that have been handed down for centuries are also linked to the world of witchcraft. "There’s the story of a boat leaving for the Sabbath every night with 7 witches on board - says the guide – One time, a curious neighbour decided to hide himself inside the boat: but when the witches arrived and pronounced the magic phrase "away all seven", the boat did not leave, because there were 8 people on board. Not knowing that they had a guest, the women then began to think why the magic phrase didn't work. Hypothesizing that one of them might be pregnant, they said "away all eight" – and the boat left the shore and reached Alexandria in Egypt, where the Sabbath was held. On his return, our mysterious passenger brought back from his journey the twig of a date tree he had found there, which allowed him to prove his adventure". But also the presence of the famous "Moors" in the homonymous campo is linked to a legend of witchcraft. It is said, in fact, that the Moors were merchants transformed into stone by an old woman, cheated by them on the value of some fabrics, who invoked the intercession of Mary Magdalene. "There are trial papers - explains Meneghel - with lists of formulas that prove that the witches did not only ask for the intercession of spirits to perform magic, but also that of the saints". And magic is often linked to the name of the island of Murano.

"Murano is often connected to sorcery. For example, we have evidence of a sabbath that took place on the island, a libertine gathering attended by noblemen and noblewomen, who are said to have mated with a statue with blasphemous features. Even the legend of the boat "away all seven" takes place in San Canzian, coincidentally where the ferry to the island of Murano used to leave from". The sestiere of Dorsoduro also preserves a mysterious story: the legend of the "alarm clock" in calle de la Toletta. As a matter of fact, it is said that this old alarm clock, which still hangs today, marked the time when spells were performed by a witch living in the area. When the woman died, the house was abandoned, as people thought it was haunted by ghosts and that strange noises and phenomena were happening. Legend has it that a barber who practiced in that same street, in order to spite someone, had asked to hang an alarm clock on the building and since then the unexplained events stopped bothering the inhabitants. Removed the alarm clock after many years, the phenomena of black magic returned and ceased only when another alarm clock was placed.