Our journey through the fascinating legends of Venice continues: Palazzo Mastelli, in the Cannareggio district, warns of the fate that awaits the greedy
Like the cops and gangsters of American movies, the adventures of Venice’s merchants are part of the city’s lore, mythological representations of society and its perversions, of the many vices and human virtues that are far from absent in the modern world. Perhaps, they just don't possess the same sinister, eerie magic anymore. One of these tales tells of a merchant, a certain Rioba who, with his two brothers, came to Venice in 1122 from Morea (as the area of the Peloponnese was called under the rule of Byzantium). The three, all ruthless merchants, made their fortune by trading sugar, spices and drugs, soon they invested their money in the edification of those buildings, such as Palazzo Mastelli, which, even to this day can be seen standing on one side of Campo dei Mori (Square of the Moors, an homage to Rioba and his brothers) that runs from the Rio della Madonna dell'Orto to that of the Senza. On the foundations of the palace, the three had their Speziera, known as the camel’s because of the bas-relief depicting the desert animal on the facade of the building overlooking the Madonna dell'Orto canal. However, our tale focuses on three other sculptures: three statues, to be precise, of as many men wearing middle-eastern garb. The Moors, the three brothers: two are portrayed wearing a style of headdress similar to a turban, while the third, in the corner, dons a very peculiar iron nose, and can be seen carrying a large vessel.
According to the legend, the brothers were famous for their deceitfulness: "May our Lord turn this hand of mine into real stone, if what I am saying is not true!" Messer Rioba was fond of saying when conducting his business dealings, to protest his good faith.
The three Moors thus lied and scammed their way into the city’s elite, forging powerful connections and amassing such a fortune that no one dared to challenge them. One day, a widow came to their Speziera and, in a desperate attempt to improve her family’s difficult circumstances, asked the brothers for a fair price. Messer Rioba, to reassure her, repeated once again his famous saying and reassured her of his trustworthiness. As soon as the latter paid the merchant what he had asked for, the coins in Rioba's hands turned to stone and so did his arm. Meanwhile, the other brothers also began to see their flesh turn into stone: perhaps, just as they were toasting to the success of their latest fraud. The story might inspire you to raise a glass yourself, to celebrate three criminals finally getting their comeuppance – with a bottle of Masottina Extra Dry Prosecco Superiore DOCG, of course. Legend has it that the woman was none other than Mary Magdalene in disguise, in a last attempt to redeem the brothers of the Morea. Alas, it was not to be: the next day, the servants, not finding their masters but only their statues, decided to place them where we can happily admire them today.