Category Archives: Venice

The Beaked Mask of Venice

The bird-beaked Venice mask

The bird-beaked plague doctor’s mask

We saw this eery beak-masked mannequin on a recent trip to Venice. It’s an excellent way to advertise the mask shop it stands outside of course, and it harks back to devastating times in Venice’s history.

Venice was hit many times by the plague, with outbreaks occurring in 1348, 1462, 1485, 1506, 1575–1577 and, disastrously, 1630–1632 when over 32% of the population died as a result and of course the doctor coming into contact with the sick needed something to protect him. Interestingly, plague doctors were normally less-qualified than proper physicians, who had a habit of fleeing cities once the disease hit.

The mask pictured above represents the type used to protect against the awful smells (miasma) that were thought to spread the disease. There was a respirator within the beak filled with sweet-smelling flowers like roses and lavender, camphor or a vinegar-soaked sponge and eye glasses (very steam punk) to protect the eyes while still allowing the doctor to see.

Plague doctor from Rome

Roman plague doctor from a 17th century engraving. (Wikipedia)

Other key parts of the doctor’s outfit were the long leather or waxed gown that protected the body, the traditional physician’s hat, full length boots, gloves and a wooden cane that was carried most probably to examine patients from a distance and keep people away.

Can you imagine lying in a fever, scared stiff that your time has come, being tended to by someone wearing an outfit that must surely disturb you even more?

The beaked mask appeared not just in Venice, but throughout Europe. It’s been immortalised in this historic city, however, by its appearance in the Commedia dell’Arte (through the character of the Medico della Peste) and the Carnavale, where it’s still one of the most common masks seen in the annual festival.

Traces of the plague in Venice

Lazzaretto Vecchio is a quarantine station where visitors and residents exhibiting signs of the plague were transferred. It’s an island near the Lido and one can imagine that life there couldn’t have been the slightest bit pleasant during the worst of the plague years. In 2004-2005, 92 burial locations were discovered on the island, with the remains of some 1500 victims and their artefacts uncovered.

At the moment, Lazzaretto Vecchio can’t be visited, although this will change – preparations for a new archaeological museum were being made when the graves were found.

Another quarantine island is Lazzaretto Nuovo which can apparently be visited on a guided tour, although the link to a site with more information isn’t currently working. (Here it is, just in case it comes live again


Santa Maria della Salute

Santa Maria della Salute (Wikipedia)

Plague Churches

Another remembrance of the plague are the impressive churches built as thanks for deliverance from this terrible disease (and to hasten the end of the latest outbreak).

There’s a procession to this day in commemoration and it crosses from the city of Venice to the grand church of Santa Maria della Salute along a temporary bridge of barges and wooden boards, taking place every year on November 21st.

The construction of Salute began in 1631, a year after the disease hit in 1630. Other plague churches include Il Redentore on Giudecca, which was finished in 1592, a number of years after around 25% of the population had died in the 1570s outbreak, San Rocco, San Giobbe and San Sebastiano.

Some historians believe that the devastation reeked by the plague on Venice caused the downfall of this previously immensely powerful city, and where traces of the disease have largely disappeared in Europe, it still hangs over Venice to this day: with a little help from a strange beaked mask.

Ghostly Goings-on and Mysterious Happenings in Haunted Venice


 This is a guest post by Sarah Murphy

It may seem strange but Venice isn’t just the sinking city of Europe, it also happens to be one of the more haunted cities of the world. When you think about it, it starts to make sense: thick foggy nights, empty alleys and water walkways every which way you turn. Not only is it easy to get lost in Venice, it also happens to be a common spot for flickering shadows, time loops and ghosts. And ghouls and vampires appear all over the place.

You may have heard of Poveglia, an island separate from Venice that no one is allowed on because of the terrible ghost stories and cursed legends surrounding it (and supposed diseases). Instead, we will look at some spots that you can visit in haunted Venice itself.

Casa D'Ario

Ca’Dario, Venice (


The Ca’Dario is a castle, palace or house (depending on who you ask) built off the Grand Canal of Venice around 1486. This palace has had a string of deaths and misfortunes connected to it for every owner since the original one died. That is over 500 years of documented evidence of tragic and strange deaths, accidents or unusual situations that either happened to the owner of the place or someone incredibly important to the owner. Probably the most famous owner of this place is Kit Lambert, the manager of The Who, who fell down the stairs after a major downward spiral in his life.

Many of the deaths and accidents are in rather strange circumstances, with quite a few car accidents happening in the last 50 years. Although the place is currently owned by a private organization rather than an individual, it has been up for sale for a number of years but no one else wants to test the curse that seems to have befallen this canal-side property. It has gained such a reputation that it is now often called the ‘house of no return’ by locals.

Luckily you can still view the inside and much of this place if you come along for some of the art exhibitions that still take place there. Because there is no specific owner, there haven’t been any major accidents surrounding it recently, but it continues to be one of the most cursed homes in all of Italy.

Casa Degli Spiriti

This place is also known as the House of the Spirits. And if the previous house didn’t have enough spirits for your taste, this one is full of them. There are all sorts of legends surrounding it, including the stories of religious sects and cults performing major religious and magical rituals within it. These are said to have cursed the Casa with spirits and demons that often escape.

The most famous is a spirit, wandering the house after he committed suicide in it over his unrequited love for his muse. This spirit is Luzzo, who is well known for painting the ships around the Venice canals. His ghost is often the explanation today for cries coming from the home and doors randomly shutting.

The most recent death to occur was when a woman was stuffed in a trunk and sunk in the lagoon that surrounds the house in the 1950s; and even that isn’t the end of the story: all the pipes burst at once during a more recent renovation.

The place can still be visited, but can be difficult to get to, as it’s in the middle of the lagoon. Many locals are afraid to go near the place, so don’t expect to find a guide to take you without a hefty fee.

If you would like to find out more about the haunted places of the Venice area, you can find all sorts of tours focusing on that subject. The best option as always though, is to look things up yourself and find some of the good haunted places, or even ask some of the locals about the ghost stories they’ve heard. Every town has at least a few, though of course Venice isn’t just any town.

Sarah Murphy has worked in Dublin for the last two years as a blogger, web content manager and marketing coordinator. A trained journalist and travel junkie by nature, she regularly travels to Italy for business and to experience some of the tours of Venice, where she mostly spends her time learning how to blow glass from the pros.

Seven Fascinating Facts From Venice, City of Firsts

As preparation for our recent trip to Venice, I read two very excellent books on the subject: Venice by Jan Morris and Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd. What struck me about the city on reading them (and I would absolutely recommend both) was the number of Venice firsts.

Here’s Quirky Travel’s list of Venice’s Fascinating Facts and they’re all Firsts (mostly):

17th century Venetian mirror in Museo del Carmen de Maipú, Santiago, Chile

17th century Venetian mirror in Museo del Carmen de Maipú, Santiago, Chile (Geolocation)


The mirror as we know it, a layer of flat or ‘plate’ glass on a thin sheet of reflecting metal was possibly invented in the 16th century by a German or Flemish inventor – it’s not known exactly who came up with the method.

However, what we do know is that it was the Venetians in Murano – already experts in glass manufacturing – who began making these mirrors on a large commercial scale. By the seventeenth century it had become the largest mirror-manufacturing city in the world.

The method for making the perfect reflective surfaces was kept secret for a long time and as a result, mirrors were extremely expensive.  In 1683 a Venetian mirror belonging to the deceased French minister Colbert was sold for three times the price of a Rubens painting!


For all you city planning enthusiasts out there, the concept of formally zoning a city originated in Venice.

If you’ve ever played Sim City you’ll know that city zones are industries separated by location. Peter Ackroyd gives as examples cloth-stretchers who were located in the west and tin-smiths to the north-east of the city. San Niccolo had Fishermen and silk-workers were concentrated in the Dusoduro district, Sestiere di Castello sailors and shipbuilders. The Lido specialised in recreation and acted as a seaside resort and of course Burano was the centre for glass-making.

Aldus Manutius' dolphin and anchor logo

Aldus Manutius’ dolphin and anchor logo (Wikipedia)

Paperback book

As well as inventing Italic type, establishing the use of the semicolon and the modern appearance of the comma, Aldus Manutius the Elder in the fifteenth century came up with the idea of the compact book in the form of the ‘octavo’ – similar to what we now know as the paperback book.

The simple notion behind these portable reading materials was to create something that could be carried easily in saddlebags. Virgil’s “Opera” was the first published in this format.

Incidentally, Aldus used a dolphin wrapped around an anchor as his company logo – have a look at Doubleday’s logo


The extremely negative connotations of the word Ghetto originated in Venice.

The word probably originally came from ‘gettare’ – the casting of metal or ‘getto’ (that’s the noun for a metal cast) which was concentrated (see previous item on zoning) on the edge of the Cannareggio district.

700 Jews were enclosed on the site of a former metal foundry there from 29th March 1516 and the Jewish community remained in the area until the 18th century when Napoleon arrived and the Ghetto was disbanded.

Completely surrounded by water, two bridges were the inhabitants’ only entrance into the city and both were closed off at night.

Gondola detail and reflection, Venice


Ha – you would think the gondola would be on this list, but the boat may have originated in either Malta, Turkey or Avignon. (There’s a great post about gondolas on the Bosphorus here)

We do know that they were being floated around Venice as early as 1094, however, as it was documented that the Doge declared that ordinary people could build there own gondolas from that time. By the the sixteenth century there were 10,000 gondolas on the canals.

Did you know that the reason they’re black is that in 1562, ornamentation on them was banned by a government who were down on self-expression?


Pisa and Florence are in competition for the title of inventor of the eyeglass, however, the College of Optometrists think that they were most likely invented in the Veneto region, and that’s good enough for me.

Their development probably occurred around 1286 and by the fourteenth century, thousands of pairs were being made in Venice and transported around the world. Here are some beautiful handmade glasses still being made in the city.

Venice Lido

Venice Lido


When an average Briton thinks of a lido, a 1930s outdoor swimming pool and surrounding facilities springs to mind. The deck with the swimming pool on a cruise ship is known as the ‘lido deck.’ Lidos in Italy and other areas of Europe are simply beaches. But where did the term originate? Venice, of course.

The Lido in Venice is an island that comprises of an 11km (or 18km or 20 km depending on who you read) long sandbar in the Lagoon of Venice. It’s the city’s main protection against the ravages of the Adriatic.

The first bathing facilities were set up on one of its long stretches of beach in 1857 and the word soon became the generic word for beach resort (and draughty swimming pool).

And finally

Venice is still a mesmerising city for different reasons, but it’s good to remember what an influence it’s been on human history.

Venice Acqua Alta: We were there!

Venice acqua alta

When wheels are useless: during the acqua alta in Venice

We’d been expecting at the very least chilly weather, perhaps a bit of rain and slightly elevated water levels for our November city break in Venice, but we hadn’t expected water levels to have risen some five feet, with 70% of the city under water on the day after we arrived, but that’s we got. Welcome to acqua alta 2012!

For those not already in the know acqua alta happens between autumn and spring and is a result of Adriatic high tides in the Venetian lagoon, made worse by local rainfall and increased baromatic pressure, subsidence caused by the natural sinking of the soil level in the lagoon, and perhaps a little global warming.

A siren woke us at 5:30am on the first morning, followed by a little electronic tune, four notes only, reminiscent of the tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The notes were repeated over again a few times. The whole thing sounded again at 6:30am. We didn’t know at that stage that it signified some serious flooding.

We found out later that one tone tells you the water will peak at 110cm above normal, two notes 120cm or more, three of the tones will probably end with a rise of over 130cm and our particular combination warned of a level of 140cm or more – in the end we got 150cm – exceptionally high water. In fact, it’s the worst flooding in the city in 22 years and sixth highest since 1872.

Two chaps having their photo take, Venice acqua alta 2012

The sight that greeted us when we got up that morning was spectacular – there seemed to be a river flowing through the street below us (we were on the first floor). Prepared locals had their wellies and waders on, tourists flip-flops, trainers and some rashly had bare feet. But there was a lot of good humour.

A shop opposite had set up a table outside piled high with wellington boots; outside another two local men were having their photo taken by a photographer they were toasting with their espressos (photo above);  a husband stops to snap his wife and kids who are obviously having a ball:

Photo opportunities during the flood, Venice 2012

My husband bravely offered to go and get us some boots. (He’d borrowed a pair from a guy on his way out of the b&b to get there). This is him at the welly boot stall:

Wellie boot stall, Venice acqua alta 2012

To be fair they only cost 15 euros per pair and we didn’t see them priced any higher than 20 euros that day, even though the shopkeepers really could’ve charged what they liked.

The water was so high as we stepped outside our building that the water emptied into the wellies straight away, but we were still thankful for them as we wandered through the sodden streets.

A in his wellies, Venice acqua alta 2012

St Mark’s Square was the worst affected area. Waders-only were the order of the day further into the square – this was taken on the edges of the deepest part:

Lion's head, St Mark's Square, Venice floods 2012 

And you’ll have seen this picture of nutcases further in:

Venice acqua alta in swimming costumes

We were wondering if someone leaving the tap on at this fountain near the Rialto Bridge had caused the whole thing:

Somebody left the tap running, Rialto, Venice during acqua alta 2012.

Thankfully, the water dropped significantly the next day, although it took a couple of days for the water to clear from St Mark’s Square.

Although we weren’t able to see the Doge’s palace or the basilica as a result of the flooding, we wouldn’t have missed this experience for the world, and we hope that the planned flood barriers (that sound similar to the Thames Barrier) get put into place sooner rather than later.

Because even with the threat of a waterlogged visit, we haven’t been to a more impressive and atmospheric city in a long time and November, with our expectation of fewer visitors realised, is a fantastic time of year to visit.