Saturday, March 31, 2018

Venice Secrets - Crime & Justice - Instruments of Death and Torture at Palazzo Zaguri

VENICE INSIDER "Venice Secrets" at Palazzo Zaguri - Photo: Cat Bauer
"Venice Secrets" at Palazzo Zaguri - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) There are some nasty instruments of torture on view at Palazzo Zaguri, Venice's newest museum smack in the center of town in Campo San Maurizio. Don't be mislead. "Venice Secrets" is not a bloodthirsty exhibition, nor are all the torture devices from Venice. Rather, it is a device to draw you inside, and treat you to an fascinating lesson in history backed up by documents newly released by the State Archive of Venice about how criminal law was administered during the Venetian Republic.

Venetians were so notorious for their secrecy that in the 16th century, the papal nuncio wrote: "you are more likely to obtain a secret from God." In order to keep the peace in La Serenissima, an intricate system of police, spies and denunciations by ordinary citizens dropped into the Bocche di Leone (Mouths of the Lions) scattered throughout the city kept crime in check.

The Venetian Republic wrote things down, and stored them in the State Archive. Today, the Archivio di Stato still exists. It is one of the largest in Italy, and preserves more than 1000 years of Venetian history covering about 80km (50 miles) of shelves. It is enormous, and located inside the former convent of Santa Maria dei Frari. The Archivio di Stato has worked with "Venice Secrets" to present a cultural stimulus and a starting point toward further research.

Palazzo Zaguri in Campo San Maurizio - Photo: Cat Bauer


Palazzo Zaguri itself has been cloaked in secrecy and closed for decades, one of those mysterious palaces that you pass by every day and wonder about its past. The first information about the Venetian Gothic palace dates to 1353, after it had already been built. Throughout the centuries it was owned by powerful and influential families, and was an important center of social life for some of the most colorful Venetian aristocrats. Illustrious guests often attended sumptuous parties.

One of the last of the Zaguris residing at the palace was Pietro I Antonio (1733-1806), a great friend of the famous seducer, Giacomo Casanova. It is claimed that Pietro Antonio introduced Casanova to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was credited for writing the libretto to Mozart's infamous opera, Don Giovanni. Da Ponte was born a Jew, became a Roman Catholic priest, and was later thought to be an Anglican. He ended up in the United States as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College, which became Columbia University. You will learn a lot more about Casanova and Da Ponte after visiting "Venice Secrets," and why both of them left Venice on the run.

The first and second floors of Palazzo Zaguri were later acquired by the Venice Comune between 1905 and 1909 to build an all-girls school. Scuola Media Sanudo was transferred from San Aponal to Palazzo Zaguri in 1962 through 1983, and renamed Dante Alighieri. After morphing into offices for the municipality, it was then abandoned and put up for sale in 2007. It is now owned by Serenissima SGR SpA, a real estate fund, who plopped down €15 million to buy it. It is managed by Venice Exhibition, who sunk another €5 million into its two-year restoration, and have an 18-year lease. So instead of another hotel, we now have a privately-owned museum.

Venice Exhibition, based in Jesolo, is known for its zesty exhibitions so there is dramatic music and lots of ominous sound effects to entertain you as the narrator enlightens you about crime and justice in centuries past. Their flyer blares: "The Secrets and Most Cruel Side of Venice Revealed to the Public," and "Justice in the Service of Science. An Anatomical Theater with Real Human Bodies." That is true, but it is not as sensational as it sounds. 

Last Judgment by Giotto (detail) - Photo: Cat Bauer
BOOKSHOP - Ground Floor

You enter on the ground floor through a new bookshop, Libreria Zaguri, run by Alessandro Tridello, who has chosen an eclectic selection of books for your reading pleasure, some in key with the crime and justice theme, and others just because they interest him (Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff is there in English). After buying your ticket, and receiving your audio guide (in Italian, English or French), you climb a very steep staircase that had been boarded up when the palace was a school, all the way up to the mansardo, or attic. There you a confronted by a screen filled with images of Giotto's Last Judgment -- the beginning of a journey that aims to put some cracks in the myth of La Serenissma.

VENICE BLOG - Torture in Venice - Photo: Cat Bauer
Inside "Venice Secrets" - Photo: Cat Bauer
PRISON - Top Floor

On the top floor, you will find some instruments of torture, which are also displayed throughout the entire exhibition. Some are originals from private collections, and others are replicas. There is information about the infamous Inquisition prison of Narni, discovered by accident in 1979. Documents and diagrams about the construction of the prisons at Palazzo Ducale are on display. A replica of Giacomo Casanova's cell is up there, too, along with documents about the accusations against him from the Archives, and a lot more.

Water torture - modern-day replica for "Venice Secrets" exhibition - Photo: Cat Bauer
Water torture - modern-day replica for "Venice Secrets" exhibition - Photo: Cat Bauer
TORTURE - Third Floor

Apparently water torture has been around for centuries. Branding irons, instruments for slicing off hands and the stocks were also used to punish certain types of crimes. There is a heavy bell collar that had to been worn while walking through the city streets, so that everyone would know the perpetrator had done wrong. In Venice, at least in theory, suspects were only subjected to torture when ample evidence had been gathered against them and only when a confession was lacking. The Torture of the Rope was a Venetian favorite, which dislocated the shoulders.

VENICE INSIDER - Plastinated human body in "Venice Secrets" - Photo: Cat Bauer
Plastinated human body in "Venice Secrets" - Photo: Cat Bauer

The second floor details some of the many creative ways human beings have invented to put someone to death, including being boiled or burned alive, which was frowned upon in La Serenissima. The preferred method of capital punishment for the ordinary citizen in Venice was hanging; beheading was considered less dishonorable, and used for the nobility. In reality, the death penalty was considered barbaric. The total number of recorded executions carried out by the Venetian Republic from 810 to September 1791, and then by subsequent governments until 1804 -- nearly a thousand years -- came to 691. In contrast, the United States has put over 1,500 people to death since 1976 when the Supreme Court affirmed the legality of capital punishment.

It is also on this floor that you will find the "real human bodies." Actually, there is only one body, with the top of its head sliced off, its interiors, organs, muscles and veins exposed. There is also a human leg that looks like a very large turkey drumstick except for the very human foot. There is half a head, and an arm complete with shoulder, all plastinated. It is not as gruesome as it sounds. Venice placed great importance on the study of human anatomy, and required practitioners to attend at least one year inside the anatomy theatre of corpses in order to learn the causes of the most widespread diseases. In fact, in 1588, the nobleman Antonio Milledone, left his body to science, after suffering from severe respiratory illnesses.

Head crusher, 16th-18th century - Photo: Cat Bauer

It turns out that contrary to what had been believed to date, Venice fully backed the Inquisition, but controlled it in those limited cases in which its political, economical an social interests were affected. The Roman Inquisition was created by the pope in 1542 as part of its Counter-Reformation against the spread of Protestantism, and included prosecution of those suspected of heresy, witchcraft, sorcery and immorality, as well as the censorship of printed literature. The Inquisition even got Galileo, who had the audacity to claim that the earth revolved around the sun, and remained under house arrest until his death.

Chastity belt - 19th century

That is a very brief summary; there is much, much more to "Venice Secrets" at Palazzo Zarugi. In addition to the records of daring individuals like Casanova, Da Ponte, Paolo Sarpi, Veronica Franco and Giordano Bruno, there are many riveting stories of ordinary citizens who tangled with Venetian justice and the Inquisition. It takes a minimum of an hour and a half to get through the entire exhibition, especially if you take the time to read the descriptions of the installations in addition to listening to the audio guide.

 "Venice Secrets" was curated by Davide Busato, a Venetian historian and writer who, in additional to his own publications, has co-authored a couple of books with another Venetian writer, Alberto Toso Fei. If the aim of the exhibition is to be "a cultural stimulus and a starting point towards further research among the endless itineraries of study offered by the State Archive of Venice," as stated by Giovanna Giubbini, Director of the State Archive of Venice, then "Venice Secrets" has achieved its goal.

"Venice Secrets" opened on March 31, and runs through May 1, 2018, from 10am to 10pm. The price of admission is €16 for adults, but there are plenty of discounts and reductions. Go to "Venice Secrets" for more information.

UPDATE - I have been informed that Venice Secrets is now part of two other provocation-sounding exhibitions at Palazzo Zaguri, which I have not yet seen:

Real Bodies - "The most complete exhibition in the world with over 50 whole bodies and 450 human organs. A special edition with anatomical findings inspired by Venice"

Human Art Exhibition. Leonardo da Vinci - "For the first time in the world an exhibition with real anatomical findings inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and anatomical studies. An extraordinary and unprecedented journey to discover the human body through the eyes of universal genius."

Go to Palazzo Zaguri for more information.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. There are some nasty instruments of torture on view at Palazzo Zaguri, Venice's newest museum smack in the center of town in Campo San Maurizio. Don't be mislead. "Venice Secrets" is not a bloodthirsty exhibition, nor are all the torture devices from Venice.

  2. Thanks Cat for this very interesting report.

    But why on earth is the show running only 1 months after all the money spent for the building, it's restauration, the research, the coding etc.?!!

    What's going to take place there next?

  3. Thanks, Brigitte, for reading my blog, and for your interesting (and logical)question. I wanted to know the same thing. No one on the premises seems to know the answer, and today is a holiday in Italy (Pasquetta), so we shall have to wait until at least tomorrow for an official reply.

  4. Hi, Brigitte - The staff at Palazzo Zaguri said: "We are thinking about prolonging the duration of the exhibition seen the produced interest. We are planning a huge exhibition “Real Bodies” (in half a building) and a Casanova permanent exhibition."

  5. Very strange in my opinion. I also wonder about the cooperation of ASV with this project. And I wonder about the crowd-funding base after all that money had been involved so far. Let's wait and see what will happen next...

    Thanks for your answer and research!

  6. I am still trying to wrap my head around it. It has the patronage of Venice City Council, Region of Veneto, Region of Umbria, Venice State Archive, University of Palermo, Museum System "Ateneo" Palermo, Narni Underground Assoc, Narni City Council, Friends of Venice State Archive. As you say, let's wait and see what happens next...

    Thanks again!