Today's Reading


Venice is never short of stories. Every street has a tale to tell, every stone a ghost. This one began with a face at a first-floor window. A young fellow, pale, stubbly features, gaunt, startled to be seen even for a fleeting second as he dashed away, vanishing behind the cracked and dusty tracery glass. Perhaps a spectre, a phantom, so a few of those around me might have thought. Or just my imagination, sparked by the curious day and the even more curious palazzo where I'd found myself.

Ca' Scacchi was supposed to be abandoned, not a soul living there for the best part of thirty-five years. It looked the part. An eccentric, crooked palace on the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro, between the Guggenheim and Salute, that I'd passed countless times on the vaporetto and always found a fascinating sight. Most other palazzi along this privileged stretch were private mansions, galleries, museums or hotels, smart, expensive, part of the international aspect of Venice that rarely interested me. Not this one. It was narrower than the rest and set at an angle that the city surveyors had begun to find alarming. There was a water gate on the ground floor, leading, I assumed, to the usual storage area customary in fifteenth-century palaces of its type. Above was the piano nobile, with long, dusty windows and a balcony. Over that stood another floor, almost as tall, though the windows there were tightly shuttered. Then a final, more modest top level, a place for domestic staff.

Circular glass ornamental windows were spaced along the facade like dead, blind eyes. Three funnel chimneys sat on the shallow terracotta-tiled roof, one of them decidedly wonky. The middle of the front was decorated with marble, pale pink geometric shapes. They framed the fading remains of decorative mosaics depicting a man and woman in medieval costume seated at a chessboard, something that always brought out the cameras among passing tourists. Though how many understood that scacchi is Italian for chess, or that, according to the history books, there was supposedly a life-size 'board' for matches with human players in the courtyard behind, I'd no idea. The only ugly element was a black and rusty iron balcony protruding from the second floor on the left, an early nineteenth-century addition that Ruskin had described in vitriolic terms.

Being unusually ornate and somewhat smaller than the grand buildings around, the place stood out, appearing to my uninformed eyes quaint, eccentric, the dream of an imaginative child gifted a collection of Renaissance Lego. While I always found Ca' Scacchi raised a puzzled smile and my spirits, most Venetians felt very differently and weren't reluctant to say so. The palace, you see, was cursed. Originally built for a city official under the Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, it had cast a dark and bloody shadow on many who'd come to live beneath its funnel chimneys over half a millennium. Bankruptcies, suicides, unexplained disappearances and at least two murders ran through its five-century history. Brave souls who'd wandered down the narrow dead-end alley that led to its Grand Canal side complained of tormented howls coming from within, spectral apparitions, the rank smell of rotting corpses from time to time, and a sudden chill in temperature even at the height of summer. So many stories had come to gather over the years that it almost appeared a relative to the notorious island of Poveglia across the lagoon, an equally hellish, tormented spot according to local lore. Though a couple of Venetians I knew who'd sailed there once and spent the night in a tent said it was a peaceful spot, undeserving of its reputation.

Ca' Scacchi had remained in the ownership of the family of the same name throughout, sometimes occupied by them, on occasion briefly leased to tenants. Mostly those who paid the Scacchi rent were foreign and ignorant of the palace's history and reputation until they moved in and, perhaps prompted by neighbourhood gossip, began to complain of ghostly visitations, mysterious sounds, odd illnesses and a prevailing atmosphere of doom and depression. When the Scacchis' fortunes began to wane in the 1970s, the palazzo went on the market with an international real estate agent for a while. A Hollywood star, a cinema action hero, who saw it during the film festival almost fell for the agent's patter and stumped up several million dollars, only to pull out after hearing hair-raising stories from a famous Italian director.

After that, the House of Scacchi was visited by tragedy again. The financier father and his wife died when their light aircraft crashed in the Dolomites after taking off from the little Nicelli airfield on the Lido. Another suicide, the authorities suspected, since the weather was fine, the plane was old but in airworthy condition and, when the bankers came to look at the books, the accounts were mired in debt.

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