Death in Venice

Nighttime staring at a street sign in Cannareggio
Nighttime staring at a street sign in Cannaregio

This week I returned from a fantastic 5 day trip to Venice. I’d be lying if i said reacclimatising has been easy, especially given that we left blazing sun to return to a sea of fog over the Tyne. Looking out of my bedroom window each morning, in my more pretentious moments, I have felt like Caspar Friedrich’s wanderer above the sea of fog (It appears I am now even starting to think within my period of study!).

Wanderer above the sea of fog by Caspar David Friedrich. 1818
Wanderer above the sea of fog by Caspar David Friedrich. 1818. Courtesy of wikipedia.

As with my earlier trip to see family in Cornwall, I managed to do a little bit of study amidst all the sight seeing. So, this weeks blog is about Venice. Like Venice it will be packed with art, death and decadence. Enjoy.

We were staying just off Ponte Chiodo in Cannareggio, in a little hotel that turned out to be just ten minutes walk from the ominously named Executioner’s House. I had to go and see it. The house was on a street named Calle Della Testa, which roughly translates as ‘the street of the head.’ We were soon to find out why. Halfway along this very thin Venetian street you come out into a small square and directly in front of you there is a house above a shuttered shop, with a small bust of a head on the wall. It is easily missed and there is no accompanying signage or plaque, just a series of graffiti scrawled shutters below.

The Executioner’s House on Calle Della Testa, Venice, complete with some typically Venetian graffiti.

On closer inspection you can see that the mouth of the head is agape. It is believed that the open mouth was used to post notes in, containing the details of impending executions and notifying the executioner that his services were required. There are a few executioners houses in Venice, but this is the most clearly defined. This ominous symbol of justice is easily lost amongst the splendour of the surrounding streets these days, but no doubt in the 15th Century a full mouth would’ve been a spine-chilling symbol.¹


When I looked into famous executions in Venice, time and time again my sources referred me to Eugene Delacroix’s painting of the Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero  (1818). The artwork depicts the execution of the Venetian Doge Marino Faliero who was executed for treason in 1355. The Doge, sometimes translated as Duke, was the chief magistrate and leader of the Most Serene Republic of Venice for over a thousand years. Doges of Venice were elected for life by the city-state’s aristocracy.

The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero by Eugène Delacroix. Courtesy of the Wallace Collection London.
The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero by Eugène Delacroix (1818). Courtesy of the Wallace Collection London.

Months after his election as Doge, Marino Faliero attempted a coup d’etat  against the Venetian aristocratic elite. It was poorly planned and culminated in his ritual decapitation and the hanging of ten co-conspirators in front of the Doge’s Palace in St Mark’s Square.

As a result of his treason, Faliero is the only Doge that does not have his likeness in the famous gallery of ducal portraits, which commemorates all Doges, in the Ducal Palace. Instead, his place is covered with a painted black veil, bearing the text Hic est locus Marini Falieri decapitati pro criminibus (This is the place of Marino Faliero, who was decapitated for his crimes).³


Faliero's picture in the Great Council Hall. The black shroud painted in its place bears the Latin phrase, "This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes." Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Faliero’s picture in the Great Council Hall. The black shroud painted in its place bears the Latin phrase, “This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On a slight departure from the seriesness of executions, my girlfriend and I have a dog and Venice is a dog lovers heaven. It appears that Venetians love the sausage dogs of all shapes, cross breads and sizes. I say this, because in our pathetic attempt at embracing the language, we took to referring to each good one we saw as a Doge (oh how the venetians laughed!). Now, back to the subject at hand.

Ironically, my final stop on the holiday was to be the first place I had seen on the boat ride in from Marco Polo airport; the floating cemetery island (Cimitero di San Michele). Five minutes from Venice and in plain view from the mainland, this walled city of the dead is a site to behold. Surrounded by ornate entrance gates on two main walls and home to the majority of Venice’s deceased, this is a truly remarkable burial spot. With such a beautiful site for a final resting place it is unsurprising that studies have shown that Venice is a popular place for foreign suicides.

The lagoon city and the end of life are favourite companion themes in literature and cinema, best exemplified by Thomas Mann’s classic novella Death in Venice, on which Luchino Visconti based his celebrated film starring Dirk Bogarde. According to researchers at the universities of Padua and Venice, Venice remains a pre-eminent “symbol of death”.

Romance of Venice makes it suicide city. Daily Telegraph. 20th November, 2000

Cimitero, Isola de San Michele. View from Venice.
The walled exterior of the Cimitero, Isola de San Michele. View from Venice. Courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s a place of simple but staggering beauty and wonderfully serene. Just five minutes ride on the Vaporetto (Venice’s water bus) from the Northern most shore of the mainland, you step off a glorious, green oasis. The contrast to Venice is marked, as for all its architectural beauty Venice lacks big green spaces, most of the lush greenery is hidden tantalisingly behind the many private walled gardens. The Cimitero though is a beautiful green space, a sort of walled garden of grief, replete with gravestones, gothic archways and faded grandeur.

Unsurprisingly, like most things in Venice, even at the Cimtero everything comes with a price. Due to limited space, residents are only kept for a maximum of ten to twelve years on the island at which time their bodies are exhumed and taken to ossuaries on the mainland. Only families that can pay considerable amounts may stay for longer. People of all denominations are buried there, except for Jews who have a seperate cemetery on the nearby Lido. Famous inhabitants include Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound.

In writing this I came across an article in the New York Times (NYT) that does the experience of visiting the cemetery far more justice than I could ever do and is well worth a read. One of the things that struck the author of the NYT piece as much as it did me was the nature of the tombstones and graves.

Used to the lichen-covered gray tombstones of English churchyards or the numbingly identical rows of white markers in many American cemeteries, I was unprepared for what lay before me: a tumult of colour and an astonishing variety of monuments…the stone monuments were ingeniously individualistic…each gravestone held a glassed-in large photograph of the deceased. Suddenly the cemetery seemed, in a strange reversal, alive with people who were embodied in their stones.

Venice's Isle of the Dead by Susan Allen Toth. New York Times 16th May, 1993. 

In many instances the graves have stones that only half cover the area, with open segments for trees and plants to grow out of and cover the area. All these elements add up to a wonderful whole of life and vibrancy – the residents may be dead, but their resting place is alive.

Cimitero di San Michele (Venice) courtesy of Wildflower.
Cimitero di San Michele (Venice) courtesy of the Wildflower.

I cannot speak highly enough of Venice and if you get a chance in your lifetime to go, you should grab it, it’s a magical experience. For now though, I must settle back into my adopted Geordie homeland. My only reminders of Venice will be an old print that I bought of the Grand Canal and my very own Doge, Remy.

Doge Remy of Walker.

1.Venice for Rookies: Venice Travel Guide by Bianca Reyes
2.Venice's Isle of the Dead by Susan Allen Toth. New York Times 16th May, 1993.
3."Crowned, and Discrowned and Decapitated": Delacroix's The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero and its Critics. Taken from C19th Century art Worldwide

Distraction 1: Brideshead Revisited.

To go with the Venice trip, my girfriend recommended Brideshead Revisited as holiday reading. I have tried this book before and been bored by it, but this time i loved it and it was a great accompaniment to the trip. Especially seeing that the book group I attends’ offering this month was one of the most disturbing things i’ve read in a while – I was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond. The heady, bohemian lifestyle of Brideshead was a welcome relief. Although for another, much funnier explanation of Venice you can’t beat Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe fame’s, effort when he was thirteen.

Distraction 2: Morissey and the Carabinieri

Occasionally, of an evening, I heard the sound of ambulance boats charging down the canal. They made a distinctive sound that I couldn’t quite place in the first few days. Then it clicked. I had heard it on a song from Morissey’s album The Ringleader of the Tormentors. On further examination it appears the album was recorded in Rome and based largely on the Italian police force. Morissey said of Rome, “It is as stunningly beautiful as Los Angeles is, it is also essentially a police state. The city belongs to the police, no one else. Everywhere you go there are police – watching, watching, and waiting for any reason – for no reason – to jump on people.” From my part, we didn’t see a single Police officer in a whole time in Venice, so perhaps Morissey would enjoy it more there – may even help him get back to his former glory as this tune is good, but nothing on his Mancunian inspired miserabilism with The Smiths.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s