Among the many ingredients of La Serenissima’s enduring and unique charm there are ancient and dark legends

In Venice every street corner holds a mystery. No other city in the world has been so successful in creating legends and atmospheres poised between the wings of imagination and the cruelty of reality. La Serenissima is a place where, even today, you are never far from the vestiges of an ancient and dark kind of magic. As we approach the western border of the Castello district, headed towards the Cannaregio, we find the Gothic walls of the cathedral dedicated to the saints John and Paul, the final resting place of many of the city’s doges and illustrious citizens. On one side we have the facade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which has hosted the city’s hospital for over two centuries. With its marble trompe-l'œil archways and portals adorning the ground floor, the façade is, undoubtedly, one of Venice’s most fascinating architectural landmarks, but there is another element which can leave visitors fascinated and a little disturbed, a legend that has haunted the portal of this building for the past five centuries. The story begins with a stonemason, one of the artisans who created the splendid façade of the School. The stonemason spent all his money in a vain attempt to find a cure for his wife’s illness and, having lost everything, survived thanks to the charity of those who stopped to admire the splendid doors that he had carved out of many different types of stone.

Not far away lived a woman with an equally troubled past: she had born the illegitimate child of a Jewish Levantine merchant who lived on the island of Giudecca, but the man abandoned her and took the boy away. The woman lived alone and never married, consumed by grief and longing for her lost child, while her son lived with his father, dressing in Turkish garb and adapting outwardly to his father's traditions, while secretly feeling torn by a profound inner conflict. The boy was never fully accepted by his Venetian fellow citizens and he also couldn’t really fit in the local Turkish and Jewish communities he lived in, he grew up hating the only person who really loved him, the only outlet for his frustration: his mother. One evening, driven insane by anger, the boy killed his mother and ripped her heart out of her chest.

In his madness, he ran through the city holding his mother’s heart in his hands. As he reached the School, he stumbled over the bridge and fell to the ground. From the heart, then, the voice of his mother asked the boy if he was hurt. The young man heard his mother’s voice and was overwhelmed by remorse, he threw himself into the waters of the lagoon and drowned. But our poor stonemason had witnessed the terrible scene and decided to immortalize it by adding it to the other reliefs on the school’s facade: so, to this day, small against the outlines of the majestic ships and vessels, we can still see the shape of a man wearing a Turkish hat, holding a heart in his hands. Speaking of hearts, this is a story that could easily break ours, but as we wander across the shady alleys of the city, we come to realise that stories such as this one are what gives Venice its restless charm: all the more enticing because, somehow, they speak to the darkest part of us. Fortunately, here in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, we can stop to catch our breath under the umbrella of one of its many bars: with a chilled glass of Organic Masottina Prosecco Brut in our hands, we gaze once more at the beautiful architecture of the Basilica and the School and our heart is suddenly whole again.