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Prisons and hooks – the dark past of Campiello de la Cason

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Although it has definitely taken its time, giving us mild days even in October, we can officially say that autumn has arrived also in Venice. The days have shortened and the fog over the lagoon makes the city even more inebriating.

It is the time of chestnuts, pumpkin, warm soups that enliven the soul, “ombre” (glasses of wine) in the “bacari”, and stories around the fire. And the most magical and intriguing festival of the year is also just around the corner.

Originating from an ancient Celtic holiday, Samhain, during which, according to tradition, the realm of the living could meet up with the afterlife, Halloween today is mostly an occasion for masquerading and partying, rather detached from what was once a dark Witches’ Night. And that’s a shame, because in a world as material-bound as today’s, it would be nice from time to time to be able to take a “vacation” from rationality and indulge in mystery.

For this reason, since at Hostaria Bacanera we’ve always been in love with tradition and authenticity, we will be taking you today to discover some of the most creepy aspects of the Serenissima: the old prisons and the “ancorette.”

Traditionally, Venice was a mercantile city. Its location favored trade, and the city was a crossroads of merchants from all over the world full of glitz and riches. However, the considerable amount of money circulating in the city also favored the development of other, decidedly less respectable businesses, including smuggling, gambling and prostitution. Although these activities were not considered illicit at the time, they were still the source of disturbances caused by unpaid debts, rivalries and jealousies. To prevent the city from sinking into chaos, justice in the Serenissima was a very serious matter. Considered incorruptible and absolutely impartial, it looked no one in the face and acted with an iron fist against criminals and crooks from all walks of life, in the name of legality and Christian values. If on the one hand the noble palaces resounded with music and laughter, on the other, i the calli and alleys echoed with the screams of tortured men and the sighs of prisoners who crossed the eponymous Bridge (Bridge of Sighs, Ponte dei Sospiri) to go before the inquisitions.

But where to put all the unfortunates? To adequately meet the needs of justice, Venice was swarming with prisons. Each Sestiere (neighborhood)had its own prison, in which thieves, cutthroats, debtors and women of ill repute all ended up; war crimes, on the other hand, were served in the Gabioni di Terranova in Riva degli Schiavoni, where Napoleon’s Gardens stand today; then there were the Rialto prisons, unfortunate home to heretics and murderers. However, the most serious crimes were served in the prisons of the Doge’s Palace, where the Pits were located, a set of very small cells with a single plank as a bed. Here the living conditions were appalling and the terrible smells reached even passersby outside the building, light was almost nonexistent day and night, the cell ceilings were so low as to prevent standing, and isolation was total.

In Venetian dialect, prisons were called “Casone,” or “Cason,” and by now it will surely be clear to you where the prison in the Sestiere Cannaregio was located: right in our Campiello de la Cason, today a delightful little square hosting Hostaria Bacanera, once a dreaded address of forced residence.

Further emphasizing the square’s dark past, if you look closely, on one of the walls you can still see the “Ancorette,” small hooks from which the limbs of those condemned to death by quartering were hung, as a horrifying warning to the rest of the population.

There are several of these Anchors scattered around the city, all characterized by the same sad story. But today it seems that touching them brings good luck….

Have we scared you enough?

Happy Halloween!