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

Venice, November 2021 – Magic formulas, blood of the condemned, homemade invoices to create love filters or heal someone for a few pennies. A handful of fava beans and a prayer to the Virgin Mary to understand if the beloved man was faithful or unfaithful, a glass of water lit by a candle, the counting of the rings of a chain or the reading of the hand. Witches and sorceresses, healers and soothsayers, according to the Tribunal of the Inquisition, but in reality much more often illiterate women, who were plagiarized and subjected to terrible tortures, such as the whip, the cutting off of the ears, or the ban from the city and the public flogging. But they were never burned at the stake, not in Venice, the Serenissima, which always showed an attitude of tertiarity with respect to the temporal power, never subjugated to the Church. On the scariest night of the year, the night of the “sacred spirits”, the state archives reveal stories and faces of Venetian witches, not only legendary figures, whose lives can be reconstructed thanks to the records of the Inquisition. Stories of “stregizzi”, of sabbaths, of meetings of witches and sorcerers, of imprisoned spirits, of sexual magic, of rituals and also of legends handed down through the centuries of the Serenissima Republic, which this year celebrates the 1600 years since 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. It is enough to think that, in 1500, in the city there were about 1600 trials for “strigaria, maleficio, magic art and superstition”. Witches were tried by the tribunal of the Inquisition, which had its seat in Saint Mark’s Square, whereas punishments and tortures were inflicted in public, between the two columns of Saint Mark’s. As Manuel Meneghel, a tour guide in Venice, explains, most were prostitutes or courtesans, whom people turned to mostly for love spells.

“The Jewish Ghetto, in Cannaregio, had an important role 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 appears Emilia Catena, a courtesan and sorceress, accused of having practiced necromancy rites on the corpse of an infant. She denied it, but she admitted to have done it on a cat and was removed from the city. In this period, we are talking about the eighties of the sixteenth century, Emilia invested part of her earnings by buying lands and fields in the mainland and thus became a figure of agricultural entrepreneur rare in sixteenth-century Venice. Veronica Franco herself underwent a trial for witchcraft from which she was acquitted.

Sometimes, instead, they were women who remained in the shadows, like Giovanna Semolina, the “neighborhood” witch who was contacted by wives to keep their husbands away from courtesans. From the documents it appears that Giovanna prescribed the realization of a “lazzaro puzzolente”: a preparation based on cat dung, wolf fat and earth collected between the two columns of the small square because that was where the death sentences took place and therefore, being soaked with the blood of the condemned, it was believed to be the bearer of a magical power. With this poultice the doors of the house of the courtesan object of the curse were anointed and the devil was asked so that the smell would pervade the whole house and the courtesan herself, so that the husband would not have been able to approach her and betray his wife. “This has come to us – explains Meneghel – because a husband denounced the witch Semolina and his wife had some problems because she used these methods”. And from the documents also resurfaces the tale of an “intimate” Venice that is hardly apparent. “For example, the fifteenth-century witch Graziosa was condemned for having made a Contarini nobleman fall in love with her through a love potion – she recounts – so we learn about the practices of erotic magic to which they were devoted at the time, with love potions that contained parts of navel dust”. Testimonies of witches come from Giacomo Casanova himself, who admits to be the protagonist of a series of sexual magic practices.


Also linked to the world of witchcraft are Venetian legends that have been passed down for centuries. “A boat left for the sabbath, every night, with 7 witches on board – tells the guide – A neighbor, curious, decided to hide inside the boat, the witches arrived and pronounced the magic phrase “away for seven” but the boat did not leave, because there were 8 witches on board. Not knowing they had a guest they began to think why the magic phrase didn’t work, hypothesizing that one of them might be pregnant they said “away for eight”: the boat left and got lost in the Venetian fog until it reached Alexandria where the sabbath was held. On his return, our mysterious passenger brought back from his journey a twig he had found there, a date palm, which allowed him to try his adventure”. But also the presence of the famous “Moors” in the homonymous field is linked to a legend of witchcraft. It is said, in fact, that the Moors were merchants transformed into stone by an old woman after being cheated on the value of some fabrics. The merchants would have been affected by her curse, through the intercession of Mary Magdalene. “There are trial papers – explains Meneghel – with lists of formulas where we have the proof that witches did not only ask for the intercession of spirits to perform magic, but also that of saints”. And magic is often linked to the name of the island of Murano.

“We also have evidence of a sabbath that took place on the island, a libertine gathering attended by noblewomen and noblemen, who would have coupled with a statue with blasphemous features. On the other hand, the legend of the boat “away for seven” takes place in San Canzian, as chance would have it, where the ferry to the island of Murano used to leave”. The protagonist of a mysterious story is also the Dorsoduro district, with the legend of the “alarm clock” in calle de la Toletta: it is said that the old alarm clock, still hanging today, marked the time when the spells and witchcraft were performed by a witch who lived in the area. At the death of the woman, the house remained closed, in a state of abandonment, because it was said to be haunted by ghosts and that strange noises and phenomena occurred continuously. Legend has it that a barber, who practiced in the street, to spite someone had asked to hang an alarm clock in the building and since then the unexplained events stopped bothering the inhabitants. Removed after many years, the phenomena of black magic returned to manifest themselves and ceased only when another alarm clock was placed.



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