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Cell in the Pozzi, next to the Doge’s Palace

De chi me fido guardami iddio
De chi no me fido me guarderò io

[God protect me from all those I trust
From those I trust not, I’ll protect myself.]
A prisoner’s inscription in the Pozzi

The Most Sinister of Police States

The origins of the black legend of Venice date from a few centuries before the fall of the Republic, starting from the creation of the new judiciary (1539) called Inquisitori di Stato (State Inquisitors), also commonly known as I tre babài or The Three Bogeymen. Two were chosen from among the members of the Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of the Ten) and were dressed in black (i negri, The Blacks), and one was a ducal counsellor dressed in red (el rosso, The Red). They sat in a room of Palazzo Ducale, under the roof painted by Veronese, the Red Inquisitor in the middle, and the two Black Inquisitors on the right and left.

The presence of the Three Inquisitors aroused the imagination of travellers and writers, and the most interesting accounts were written between the 17th and 18th centuries. There were different interpretations of the Venetian inquisition, depending on the political and religious background of the writers. We know that some of them exaggerated the power of the inquisition, others approved of it as a means of good administration and others dismissed it as undemocratic.

According to historian Paolo Preto, one of the books that most influenced the opinion of travellers and writers was Histoire du governement de Venise (1676) by Amelot de la Houssaye, French translator of Tacitus, Machiavelli and Sarpi, in which he extolled the merits of the Republic, but also exposed the absolute power of the Three Inquisitors, who could order to drown or strangle anyone plotting against the Republic, even the Doge himself. They could make servants kill their masters and afterwards get rid of the servants too, or pay spies to find out and report the actions of noblemen and citizens. This picture contributed to the image of a Venice where the citizens were suspicious of everything and everyone, and where it was dangerous to openly express one’s own opinion.

Example of a “Lion’s Mouth” at the Doge’s Palace. The inscription says: “Secret denunciations against anyone who will conceal favors and services or will collude to hide the true revenue from them”. Source: Wikipedia

The Boche de leòn (The Lions’ Mouths)

Paolo Preto also showed how travellers during the eighteenth century contributed to this view. For example, Goethe’s father, Caspar, wrote in his journal about the terror inspired in people by merely mentioning the Three Inquisitors, while it was thanks to L’espion chinois (1764), by Ange Goudar, that Venice became famous in all Europe as the city of spies. The Englishman William Beckford, who visited Italy in 1780, in his Italy: with some Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834), gave an interesting account of the Boche de leòn, bas-reliefs representing lions’ mouths, scattered around the city, into which anyone could post anonymous accusations:

The walls are covered in most places with grim visages sculptured in marble, whose mouths gape for accusations, and swallow every lie that malice and revenge can dictate. I wished for a few ears of the same kind, dispersed about the Doge’s residence, to which one might apply one’s own, and catch some account of the mysteries within; some little dialogue between the three Inquisitors, or debate in the Council of Ten.
William Beckford, Italy: with some Sketches of Spain and Portugal, 1780 (published in 1834)

It is interesting to see how this view hadn’t changed a century later, when Mark Twain’s words still echoed the terrors of the black legend:

At the head of the Giant’s Staircase, where Marino Faliero was beheaded, and where the Doges were crowned in ancient times, two small slits in the stone wall were pointed out–two harmless, insignificant orifices that would never attract a stranger’s attention–yet these were the terrible Lions’ Mouths! The heads were gone (knocked off by the French during their occupation of Venice,) but these were the throats, down which went the anonymous accusation, thrust in secretly at dead of night by an enemy, that doomed many an innocent man to walk the Bridge of Sighs and descend into the dungeon which none entered and hoped to see the sun again. This was in the old days when the Patricians alone governed Venice–the common herd had no vote and no voice.
If a man had an enemy in those old days, the cleverest thing he could do was to slip a note for the Council of Three into the Lion’s mouth, saying “This man is plotting against the Government.” If the awful Three found no proof, ten to one they would drown him anyhow, because he was a deep rascal, since his plots were unsolvable. Masked judges and masked executioners, with unlimited power, and no appeal from their judgements, in that hard, cruel age, were not likely to be lenient with men they suspected yet could not convict.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

The Jacobin Accusations and their Influence in Literature

The condemnation of the undemocratic system of the Republic of Venice was at its height during the Enlightenment. Montesqiueu in his Esprit des lois condemned espionage, taking the Venetian Inquisition as an example of despotism. Also, Pietro Verri, philosopher and founder with his brother Alessandro of the magazine Il Caffè, one of the most important examples of Enlightenment Milan, referred to the Three Inquisitors as the “most hateful tyrannical court”, because often people found themselves in prison without knowing why and with no possibility of defence.

It was during the Napoleonic campaign in Italy that the Jacobins started more openly to accuse the Venetian Republic and her institutions of being a police state where opinion replaced law and its interpretation was arbitrary. The black legend of Venice started to be widely known among writers, travellers and historians, influencing literature too. After the fall of the Republic, the Venetian Jacobins picked on all aspects of the suppressed institutions, contributing once more to the dispute about the “secret accusations” under the old oligarchy. During the three years of the Napoleonic campaign, there was fierce political propaganda against the horrors of the Piombi and the Pozzi, the Three Inquisitors, the Council of Ten, the system of espionage and the old institutions of Venice.

For historical completeness, we should say that some historians believe those accounts were exaggerated. According to Venetian historian Alvise Zorzi, the actions of the Three Inquisitors had been greatly exaggerated by the Jacobins and by 19th-century travel literature, and the legend was built around false documents created and exposed by a 19th-century French historian, Pierre-Antoine-Noël Daru, who transformed the accusations of the Jacobins historical truths. According to Daru, it was thanks to the French Revolution that we could know the secrets of a Republic ruled by a tyrannical and anti-democratic oligarchy. Even Giacomo Casanova contributed to the success of the black legend, probably exaggerating some accounts out of revenge, as he was too one of the victims of the Three Inquisitors.

As noted by Paolo Preto, one of the first examples of the black legend of Venice in English literature can be found in Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) where one of the characters in the novel is put in prison after being anonymously accused by someone who wrote his name in a sheet of paper and posted it into one of the various Lions’ Mouths around the city. But the archetypal novel of the black legend was The Bravo (1831) by the American writer James Fenimore Cooper, in which behind the mask of the Repubblica Serenissima (the “Most Serene Republic”) lurked a different reality: that of a ruthless authoritarian oligarchy.

The backyard of the Pozzi

The Piombi (Leads) and the Pozzi (Wells)

The methods followed by the agents of the inquisition were essentially two: poisoning or drowning by tying a rope around the prisoner’s neck, with a stone on the other end. According to historian Alvise Zorzi, the number of people sentenced to death was much lower than many historians have reported. Even the famous Piombi, the Venetian prisons joined to the Palazzo Ducale by the Bridge of Sighs, must have been actually less terrible than the legend suggested. They were on the floor above the palace’s archives, and were light and airy. From there, the prisoners could ask their families to bring them sheets and mattresses, and also order food and wine from the nearby trattorie. Honoré de Balzac noted that for such accommodation, in Paris there were people willing to pay a lot of money for the rent:

There are ten thousand zinc-covered garrets in Paris which are worse, and people pay up to two hundred francs a year for them – men of talent as well

In one of his letters, Casanova’s account was very similar to Balzac’s:

What are called ‘the leads’ are not gaols but small furnished lock-ups, with barred windows, at the top of the Ducal Palace, and the inmate is said to be ‘under the leads’ because the roof is covered with sheets of lead over the larch-wood beams. These leaden sheets make the rooms cold in winter and very hot in summertime. But the air is good, you get enough to eat, a decent bed and everything else you need, clothes, and clean laundry when you want it. The Doge’s servants look after the rooms and a doctor, a surgeon, an apothecary and a confessor are always at hand.
From Daily Life in Venice at the time of Casanova

Frontispiece from Giacomo Casanova’s Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la Republique de Venise, 1787

But because of his personal vicissitudes (he was arrested in 1753, accused of outrage against religion for his knowledge of cabalism and freemasonry and for keeping forbidden books in his library), Casanova was less indulgent in his account of the Piombi when he wrote the history of his life:

(…) the great heat and the want of proper nourishment had weakened me. It was in the dog-days; the strength of the sun’s rays upon the lead of the roof made my cell like a stove, so that the streams of perspiration which rolled off my poor body as I sat quite naked on my sofa-chair wetted the floor to right and left of me.
I had been in this hell-on-earth for fifteen days without any secretion from the bowels. At the end of this almost incredible time nature re-asserted herself, and I thought my last hour was come. The haemorrhoidal veins were swollen to such an extent that the pressure on them gave me almost unbearable agony. To this fatal time I owe the inception of that sad infirmity of which I have never been able to completely cure myself. The recurrence of the same pains, though not so acute, remind me of the cause, and do not make my remembrance of it any the more agreeable. This disease got me compliments in Russia when I was there ten years later, and I found it in such esteem that I did not dare to complain.

Giacomo Casanova, Histoire de ma vie

Together with the Piombi, another feared dungeon was the Pozzi (the Wells), in the basement of the palace. Though dark and wet, they were certainly not under sea-level as Casanova and others suggested. There was just enough light for prisoners not to be in complete darkness. They were also allowed to keep lamps, as proved by eyewitnesses and by the inscriptions on the walls, which could not have been written if the cells were completely dark:

Example of inscriptions still visible in the Pozzi. Some of them are more recent, as the prisons had been used until the 20th century.

These subterranean prisons are precisely like tombs, but they call them “wells,” because they always contain two feet of water, which penetrates from the sea by the same grating by which light is given, this grating being only a square foot in size. If the unfortunates condemned to live in these sewers do not wish to take a bath of filthy water, they have to remain all day seated on a trestle, which serves them both for bed and cupboard. In the morning they are given a pitcher of water, some thin soup, and a ration of army bread which they have to eat immediately, or it becomes the prey of the enormous water rats who swarm in those dreadful abodes. Usually the wretches condemned to The Wells are imprisoned there for life, and there have been prisoners who have attained a great age.
Giacomo Casanova, Histoire de ma vie

Casanova’s account, together with that of William Beckford in the 1780s, contributed to the belief that the dungeons were often flooded. Talking about the three Inquisitors, Beckford wrote:

This is the tribunal which holds the wealthy nobility in continual awe; before which they appear with trembling and terror; and whose summons they dare not disobey. Sometimes, by way of clemency, it condemns its victims to perpetual imprisonment, in close, stifling cells, between the leads and beams of the palace; or, unwilling to spill the blood of a fellow-citizen, generously sinks them into dungeons, deep under the canals which wash its foundations; so that, above and below, its majesty is contaminated by the abodes of punishment.
William Beckford, Italy: with some Sketches of Spain and Portugal, 1780 (publ. in 1834)

Many travellers in the 18th century still believed that the cells were below water. As a further example, Dickens’s description of the Pozzi was emblematic of a wrong account which eventually became an indubitable truth in the following century:

And, oh, God ! the cells below the water, underneath the Bridge of Sighs ; the nook where the monk came at midnight to confess the political offender; the bench where he was strangled ; the deadly little vault in which they tied him in a sack, and the stealthy crouching little door through which they hurried him into a boat, and bore him away to sink him where no fisherman dare cast his net — all shown by torches that blink and wink, as if they were ashamed to look upon the gloomy theatre of sad horrors; past and gone as they are, these things stir a man’s blood like a great wrong or passion of the instant. And with these in their minds, and with a museum there, having a chamber full of such frightful instruments of torture as the devil in a brain fever could scarcely invent, there are hundreds of parrots, who will declaim to you in speech and print, by the hour together, on the degeneracy of the times in which a railroad is building across the water at Venice ; instead of going down on their knees, the drivellers, and thanking Heaven that they live in a time when iron makes roads, instead of prison bars and engines for driving screws into the skulls of innocent men. Before God, I could almost turn bloody-minded, and shoot the parrots of our island with as little compunction as Robinson Crusoe shot the parrots in his.
Charles Dickens, Letter to Douglas Jerrold on 16 October 1844

In conclusion, many travellers and prisoners like Casanova certainly exaggerated their accounts of the prisons, and even though the tortures and punishments they wrote about were true, they were not different from the ones inflicted in other European countries. It was probably the Jacobin propaganda that contributed to the legend’s success, but it was also true that oligarchy, absolute power and corruption of the state represented a danger for the citizens, who could be secretly accused by those anonymous hands who dropped their names written on small sheets of paper into the Boche de Leòn.

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Letters from the Exile by Massimo Vangelista is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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