To me, there’s no city in the world that can top Venice, Italy. That glittering vision resting on a lagoon, filled with architectural wonders, a hotbed of musical and artistic creation throughout history, glowing with pink and gold. When I first visited the city, nearly twenty years ago, I fell in love immediately with the winding paths leading to one bridge after another, carrying me along past Byzantine churches and crumbling Renaissance palazzos. This first trip to Venice was taken in summertime, so my impressions were colored by heat-- a shimmering, intense wave that sent me back to the hotel and ready for bed long before the sun dipped below the horizon. It wasn’t until many years later that I had much of an opportunity to explore Venice at night.
But it is this darkened and quiet Venice that takes up the most space in my imagination. Perhaps it’s fueled by too many movies like Don’t Look Now, but I seriously love the depictions of Venice as enigmatic, shadowy, and even dangerous. And it’s easy to feel that way when you’re walking in Venice at night. Without cars or streetlights or other modern comforts, you might feel like you’ve stepped back in time and that around any given corner, you could find… anything. Your eyes start playing tricks on you as they attempt to focus through the mist and darkness. The lapping waters of the canals echo around the decaying buildings and equally confuse the mind-- was that a gondola I heard? Or did someone fall into the deep, black water?
All of this lends Venice this air of inscrutability and mystery. And over time, locals and visitors alike have reveled in this sensation as fodder for myth-making and storytelling. Some stories really stick, lasting for centuries and becoming embedded into the city itself, through its buildings, monuments, and specific locations. And there’s one building that has had plenty of legends built around it. This particular elegant structure had an illustrious past, having once been a meeting place where Italian Renaissance artists discussed their craft, caroused, and gambled. But it’s also the location where relationships soured, crimes were committed, and death inevitably followed. Today, some people won’t even enter this particular building because it is feared to be haunted, cursed… or both.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, we’re exploring one of Venice’s most haunted locales, the Casino of the Spirits, supposedly inhabited by the ghost of a mad artist named Luzzo. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Venice during the Renaissance was a true sight to behold-- and one whose experience and manifestation of the Renaissance was different than anywhere else in Italy-- and i am not simply just talking about its unique and slightly strange placement on a lagoon instead of terra firma. I’m talking also about its history, which stems not from the conquering Romans of the South, but instead owes much of its heritage to the Byzantine empire, which took fair advantage of Venice’s port location on the Northern Adriatic Sea to establish the city as an important trade center. And its from Byzantium that Venice also received much of its aesthetic uniqueness-- like the mix of Byzantine and Italianate architecture that defines its most iconic church, St. Mark’s Basilica-- think golden domes and mosaics mixed with a Latin-cross floor plan. The connection between the empire and the little port city stayed a cozy one until the end of the Middle Ages, when Venice burst onto the spotlight as its own maritime force to be reckoned with--and a center of great cultural, commercial, and artistic importance.
A truly Venetian style of Renaissance art developed within this one-of-a-kind city, dubbed “La Serenissima,” or the Most Serene City. And it praised different elements of fine art than its landlocked cousins, Rome and Florence, where iconic artists like Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, and Michelangelo lived and worked. Putting it in very basic terms, the Florentines, for example, praised a more linear approach to artmaking. To them, the line-- drawing, design, and all that it represents-- was the essence to the representation of the world around them. But to the Venetians, this wasn't the case. Their secret to art, especially painting, was color--the blending and layering of it, as well as its very liberal usage. In art-historical terms, sometimes people boil down this rivalry to simply saying that Venetians used brighter colors than Florentines, but this is technically not true. In fact, artists throughout the rest of Italy used colors that were extraordinarily bright as well-- one visit to see Michelangelo’s handiwork in the Sistine Chapel, post-restoration, will confirm this. But the difference is that the Venetians treated color differently, combining it and melding it in such a skillful way that some canvases almost exude an otherworldly glow.
Obviously these two approaches to artistic creation were, if not in opposition to one another, at least presenting a different way of looking at things-- and that, combined with geographic tensions, meant that there was a significant amount of rivalry between the creative factions of Venice and other city-states throughout the region. And the members of these groups would do what people are keen on doing-- finding members of their own tribe and hanging out together to revel in their joint interests. So it wouldn't be surprising to know that a lot of the Venetian art heavyweights-- Giorgione and Titian, in particular, along with their Florentine friend Jacopo Sansovino-- liked to hang out together to talk shop. When they met, they would spend hours discussing the merits of a particular pigment or the blending of tones to create a luminous cityscape, for example. But that wasn’t all they liked to do when they got together. No way. They also wanted to gamble, to drink themselves into a stupor, and to philander and womanize to their hearts’ content. And so, they really needed a meeting place-- their very own boys club-- in which to do their deeds. In good time, they settled on a particular location-- an elegant mansion on the outskirts of the city called the Palazzo Contarini del Zaffo. This palace-- a truly vast structure-- was commissioned by the politician Gasparo Contarini, who had it built on the site of an older Gothic building between the years of 1530 and 1540. Gasparo Contarini was part of a wealthy family who could claim the Duchy of Jaffa as part of his ancestral legacy, with Jaffa being a Venetian stronghold in the Holy Land, and part of Israel today. Though Gasparo himself worked in politics, one of his major interests was arts-- and in fact, he even commissioned the painter Giandomenico Tiepolo to create a huge fresco called the Apotheosis of Giorgio Contarini to celebrate and commemorate his family line. Gasparo loved to support the arts and artists as much as possible, so he was not only a patron of particular works of art, but he also offered an annex of his palace as a meeting place for his artist friends. It was said that not only was the annex of the palace a decent place to spend some time, but that it had such a magnificent garden it attracted the awe and attention of any of its visitors, be they artists, musicians, dancers, or simply the very rich. So, as you can imagine, the palazzo became one of the top places to throw lavish, inspired parties-- so much so that as early as the mid-1500s, when Giorgione, Titian, and friends began frequenting it, the palazzo developed a unique nickname: The Casino degli Spiriti-- the little house of the spirits. This sobriquet, at that time, referred to the energetic visitors and creative types who would carouse there. But over time, the name morphed and became something so different-- and so much darker.
Along with the main core of artists-- Titian, Giorgione, and Sansovino-- came others who would flit in and out of their soirées-- poets and playwrights, sculptors and painters. The writer Pietro Arentino was considered a close friend of Titian’s, and so he frequently joined the artists for their parties and discussions, as did Paolo Veronese, another prominent painter in the city becoming well-known at the time for his large-scale religious and mythological paintings throughout town. Veronese, though, it must be said, was about a generation younger than Titian and was very much inspired by him, but he didn’t get along particularly well with the elder artist. Because of this, he wasn’t a frequent guest at the Casino degli Spiriti. A person who was, though, was another artist-- a painter by the name of Luzzo.
From what little information there seems to be on Luzzo, we know at least the following-- his real name was most likely either Pietro Luzzo or Lorenzo Luzzo, though he also went by the name Pietro Luci as well. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, he may also have had another nickname-- Zarotto-- which historians believe was either given to him posthumously to commemorate his death in the province of Zara, now modern-day Zadar, in Croatia. Or it could possibly have been because Luzzo or Zarotto’s own father lived in Zara for a short while. For most of his life, though, he also went by yet another nickname-- Morto da Feltre. Let’s break this all down. The last part of the nickname--da Feltre, refers to his home of Feltre, in the province of Belluno, about 100 kilometers north of Venice. He was born there in the late 15th century. But the first part-- Morto-- means “dead,” or “dead one” and is variously mentioned as having been bestowed on him for differing reasons-- one, because of his utterly joyless temperament, or two, his almost corpse-like pallor-- or three, due to his known interest in exploring crypts and burial grounds. This little hobby struck his fancy after a visit to Rome as a teenager, wherein he studied under the tutelage of the painter Andrea di Cosimo. That grotto and crypt exploration seems to have had quite the influence on Luzzo, who was so inspired by the sculptural designs of crypt decoration that he began replicating its curving, arabesque styles in his paintings when he returned back to Northern Italy.
Almost immediately, people started noticing that Luzzo’s work was good-- quite good. Sure, he wasn’t a Michelangelo and certainly not a Leonardo, but his paintings held their own, and he started to get some attention for them. Word of mouth for Luzzo was so good that a towering figure in the world of Venetian art-- Giorgione himself-- requested Luzzo’s assistance for a huge fresco project on the facade of a large building on the Grand Canal, called the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Giorgione, alongside his pal Titian, had been commissioned to paint the entirety of the front of the Fondaco, which was a building of supreme importance to the German community in Venice, and had at the time only recently been rebuilt after a devastating fire in January of 1505. And it seems that Luzzo worked alongside Giorgione for between 3 to 5 years-- stories differ-- until the project was completed. (Side note-- this is a cool project, right? Well, unfortunately, you can’t really experience this work in its frescoed state today, as the super-salty and very humid climate of Venice meant that the building’s facade basically disintegrated over time, though there are a few remaining fragments, housed today in another palazzo called the Ca d’Oro.)
After around 1510, Luzzo traveled back and forth between Feltre and Venice, completing artworks in both locations for public and private commissions-- including some frescoes of his very own in Feltre. But when he was in Venice, he made sure to stop by the Casino degli Spiriti to carouse and imbibe with his cohort of Venetian creatives and intellectuals.
It is not known exactly when things took a turn for the worse for Luzzo. But according to his legend, it all began with a woman. At one of the gatherings at the casino, he met a dark-haired beauty named Cecilia--or Cecilia, if we’re going with the authentic Italian pronunciation. Cecilia had a sweet, cherubic face, with heavy-lidded eyes and one of those perfect rosebud mouths-- features that so beguiled men that she was simply known as “La Bella Cecilia,” or “the Beautiful Cecilia.” It is said, too, that she was a singer, and could entrance all within her sight with her deep and smooth voice. And one of those entranced was Luzzo.
There was only one problem. Cecilia already had a lover. And her lover was Giorgione.
Giorgione and Cecilia had one of those iconic relationships--he was the fine artist, and she was his model and muse. For ArtCurious subscribers, you’ll be familiar with some of the intricacies of this kind of arrangement from our last episode, about the artist and muse relationship. Scholars aren’t entirely certain how many of Giorgione’s canvases Cecilia actually sat for, but most agree that he was the inspiration for the Virgin Mary in one of his most famous works, showing the Madonna and Child seated on a high throne above St. Francis and another saint identified either as St. Nicasius or Saint Liberale. The work is more commonly known today as the Castelfranco Madonna. This work is located in Giorgione’s own hometown of Castelfranco, about 45 kilometers northwest of Venice, where you can see it today in the town’s cathedral. There, the Madonna is draped in luminous reds and rich green, holding the infant Jesus in one hand and calmly looking down with an ever-so-slight tilt to her head. To me, she looks so, so sad. And while that’s not unusual in depictions of the Virgin Mary, where artists liked to insinuate some kind of psychic foreknowledge of her son’s death onto Mary’s face, this one just seems extra down. Surely Cecilia’s legendary dark, hooded eyes really helped Giorgione achieved this effect, and perhaps much of the success of this gorgeous piece is due to Cecilia’s modeling and inspiration. The artist certainly may have thought so, as he inscribed a few lines on the back of the canvas, which read, quote “Come, Cecilia/Come, hasten/your love is waiting… Giorgio.”
From contemporary accounts that have made their way into the legend, Cecilia’s beauty and her singing voice weren’t the only traits that defined her. She was also somewhat capricious, prone to outbursts and fits of rage, and she was apparently not totally faithful to Giorgione. Because of this, she was described as equal parts angel and devil. But this didn't seem to matter terribly much-- overall, there was just something about her, and men couldn’t look away.
Which brings us back to Luzzo. You can almost imagine the scene, can’t you? There’s Luzzo, standing in a room flickering with golden candlelight, listening not only to the lapping waves outside the windows but to the most exquisite singing he’s ever heard. As he exits the palazzo and out into the misty night, his thoughts are filled with her-- of Cecilia. And it’s almost enough to drive him mad.
Like all the others at the Casino degli Spiriti, Luzzo knew that Cecilia and Giorgione were a couple but that Cecilia wasn’t exclusively Giorgione’s lover. So, Luzzo did what any other man probably wanted to do at that time, too-- he made his way closer and closer to Cecilia over a period of weeks until one fateful evening, he was able to gather up the courage… to proposition her. How romantic. She spurned him almost immediately, but Luzzo was not deterred. And so he sought her out, again and again, asking her to be his lover, to dine with him, to attend concerts and plays-- even just to sit with him during these meetings at the palazzo. And the more she turned him down, the more deeply he fell in love with her-- until at some point, he began to crack. And one night, after trying his luck with Cecilia one more time, Luzzo disappeared.
According to the legend-- which you can read today in Alberto Toso Fei’s book Mysteries of Venice-- Luzzo was gone, truly gone, and none of his friends or associates had any idea where he went-- and no one in Feltre was able to find him either. A few days after his disappearance, though, there was a strange sight. In one of the windows of the casino, a figure was seen to be hovering. Upon closer inspection, Venetians realized that they recognized the face-- it was Luzzo, standing in the darkened Casino degli Spiriti, all alone. But when people went up to visit their long-lost friend, they’d open the door to the room where Luzzo had been seen minutes earlier only to find… absolutely nothing. Even years later, sightings of Luzzo were commonplace-- standing in various windows, or even walking the palazzo’s halls. And then, the noises began. Some visitors claimed to hear long, desperate wailing-- only to come to the shuddering realization that it was Luzzo, crying out in despair from unrequited love. Luzzo, you see, had died-- by his own hand, in the very room where he used to enjoy the company of his like-minded friends.
The name of the Casino degli Spiriti, for all of Venice, now had a sinister connotation. It was no longer the lively and spirited meeting place of the highbrow artistic community, much to the chagrin of the Contarini family, who still hoped to foster support and discourse there. No, people started to stay away as the rumors of the ghost of Luzzo haunting the palace spread further and further beyond its own walls. Even years later, Venetians reported sightings of lights flickering in windows of uninhabited rooms, of moaning or crying emanating from the Casino, sounds, they said, of a man mourning unrequited love.
To be fair, much of this-- especially the purported sounds-- probably have more to do with the Palazzo’s isolated location than the paranormal, and the so-called screams and moans are most likely due to the particular noises made by the combination of the howling wind and the lapping waters of the lagoon. To the untrained ear, they may indeed sound like a lament of some type. But the claims of the hauntings just stuck-- and after the fall of the Venetian empire in the late 18th century, the Palace complex fell into a light state of disrepair after the Contarini family relinquished the location. Its slightly mildewed appearance simply seemed to corroborate the idea of a haunting for many Venetians.
But here’s the real deal. The story about Luzzo is most likely a complete fabrication-- or, at the very least, the artist that is most frequently associated with Luzzo-- Morto da Feltre himself-- didn’t meet his end in lovesick suicide. No, it turns out that he probably died a heroic death in 1519 in Zara, back there on the Dalmatian coast, where his own father had once lived. He was a soldier for the republic of Venice and was mortally wounded in the course of battle-- though even this story is a little bit questionable, since some scholars have dated his works into the 1520s. Regardless, even contemporaries of Morto da Feltre, such as the biographer and artist Giorgio Vasari, confirm a soldier’s death as the artist’s untimely end. And Vasari, as the first true documenter of the lives of Renaissance artists, wasn’t one to let a good story slip away, and so if something truly tragic happened, you better believe that he would have written that right up.
Even if the story of the suicidal Luzzo isn’t true, that doesn’t mean that the Casino degli Spiriti hasn’t had various run-ins with disaster and death over the years. For example, the nearby island of San Michele was transformed into a cemetery in the early 18th century, and frequently undertakers would use the palazzo grounds as stopovers on boating trips to transport fresh (or not so fresh) corpses en route to their burial. It’s been identified as a location where necromancers and black magicians would meet and perform arcane rituals to conjure demons-- though some historians have speculated that this rumor may have been instigated by a gang of smugglers and counterfeiters who once claimed the Casino as their hideout. Such rumors could undoubtedly help to keep away the curious and thus ensure the gang’s safety. And of course we don’t want to forget the Plague, right? Like nearly everywhere in Venice, the Casino degli Spiriti was once a holding place for bubonic plague victims during the 17th century outbreak that claimed nearly 50,000 lives.
That’s all ancient history, though, right? Well, the Casino’s haunting hold is still said to be strong, as it has claims to even more disasters in the 20th century. In 1929, inside the Casino, four bodies were located-- a priest, two brothers, and a gondolier, all missing their heads and their right hands. The heads and hands were never found-- and neither were the masterminds of the gruesome crime. About 20 years later, a local woman named Linda Cimetta was killed, dismembered and stuffed into a trunk, which was found floating right near the Casino. And even today, after a beautiful renovation and an allocation of the property to local religious institutions, there are individuals who won’t set foot anywhere near the Casino-- some local fisherman have even refused to sink their lines nearby. Because what would they do if their hooks snagged something bigger and scarier than a fish?
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast, a proud member of the Modest Podcast Network. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at K-A-B-double O-N-K-I dot com.
If you liked this story and are feeling all kinds of giddy about Venice, then I’ve got a recommendation for you! The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh--which, in full disclosure, is where I work as a curator-- currently has a spectacular exhibition on view called “Glory of Venice,” which is the South’s first exhibition surveying the development of Renaissance painting in Venice from the second half of the 1400s to the early 1500s. The show is gorgeous and features loans from some of the best museums in both Italy and the USA. On top of all that, your ticket also grants you entrance to another great exhibition featuring photos by Ansel Adams. Glory of Venice is on view through June 18, 2017, and you can find tickets and more information online at ncartmuseum.org.
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