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The Prison House

When Byron apostrophised Venice in the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, his tone was ambiguous:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;

A palace and a prison on each hand …

He did not know, or failed to recollect, that the palace itself also contained a prison. An American visitor in 1760, James Adams, was appalled and discomfited by the atmosphere of the city. “For God’s sake let’s see to arrange affairs,” he wrote, “and get out of this vile prison.”

Fynes Morisson, in the early seventeenth century, reported that Venetian women were “locked up at home, as if in prison.” Dickens dreams of dungeons when he floats along the canals of Venice, and meditates upon scenes of dreadful night when “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 …” In the nineteenth century Venice became a true image of horror. The most famous adventure of the city’s favourite son, Giacomo Casanova, concerns his escape from the Venetian prison to which he had been consigned. With its slops thrown into the canal, and the scent of bilge water, the city sometimes had the smell of the prison-house.

Some of the most famous prisons in the world are to be found in Venice. The Bridge of Sighs itself, named after the laments of those about to be gaoled, is the most picturesque of all penitential emblems. It was not in fact given that name until the nineteenth century, largely by the happy inspiration of Byron; yet it serves the purpose, and the image, of Venice very well. When William Beckford rode in his gondola beneath the bridge he invoked the memory of Piranesi, the artist born in the Republic of Venice, whose enduring fame lies in his shadowy and vertiginous drawings of imaginary prisons. Despite his great success and renown in Rome, Piranesi liked to sign himself as “architetto Veneziano.” From his gondola Beckford looked up at the highest part of the prison and, snatching his pencil, “I drew chasms and subterraneous hollows, the domain of fear and torture, with chains, rocks, wheels and dreadful engines.…” These are some of the images summoned up by la Serenissima.

The most feared and hated institution of the city was a judicial committee known as the “council of ten.” It was created in 1310, as a direct result of a political conspiracy by a group of patricians, and it soon became an indispensable part of the machinery of state. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it had acquired a power equivalent to that of the senate itself. It concerned itself with the threat of lawlessness and unrest within the confines of the republic, and thus its remit stretched very far. It was an internal police force, small and flexible enough. It met in secret, every day of the week. Its members wore black mantles and became known as the “black inquisitors.” It employed secret agents in every part of the city, and relied also upon a network of anonymous informants. It never allowed the evidence to be given to the accused, and its witnesses could not be cross-questioned. The examinations of the accused were generally conducted in darkness, and from the room of the three leaders of the council was a staircase leading directly to the dungeons and the chambers of torture. Its verdicts did not permit any appeal. Banishment or death, by strangulation or by drowning, followed very quickly. It was, according to Rousseau, “a tribunal of blood, equally horrible to the patricians and the people.” There is no doubt an element of exaggeration in Rousseau’s account, and in those of others who liked to foster the myth of Venice as a dark and vicious place, but there can be no doubt that the reputation of the small council was the single most important element in the understanding of the Venetian polity. It symbolised the secret life of the city.

Prisons were in a real sense part of the literal and metaphorical world of the Venetians. A fourteenth-century notebook, kept by a merchant, contains a list of all the gaols of the city. The most notorious prisons in Venice were in fact part of the palace of the doge. It was ordained that the doge himself should hold the keys, with the unspoken suggestion that prisons supported the legitimacy and authority of the state. There were prisons on both sides of the Rio della Paglia that flowed past the palace; those on the ground floor were known as “the wells,” for the reason that water often collected in them, while those on the upper storey were called “the leads” after the slabs of lead that covered the roof just above them. Some of the individual dungeons had names, such as “the lion” and “the volcano.” The wells in particular had a reputation for noisomeness, with the suggestion that it were better to be entombed alive than to be lowered into these holes. But, as with most aspects of Venetian life, there is more than an element of fantasy and myth-making in these accounts. The supposed horrors of the Venetian gaols may be related to their proximity to water, but they can be construed as part of the shadow world behind the ritual and masquerade that touched every aspect of Venetian life. What depths of torture and depravity might somewhere lie concealed in this fair city? What is being masked? The answer may be—nothing at all. When the French forces invaded and overwhelmed Venice in 1797, only one prisoner was found in the wells. He had been imprisoned for sixteen years and, on re-entering Saint Mark’s Square in broad sunlight, he was struck blind and died shortly thereafter.

Casanova was imprisoned in the leads, and from the grating of his cell he saw rats of a “fearful” size wandering unconcernedly in the garret. When he asked his gaoler about the “scoundrels” imprisoned with him he was told that, on the contrary, they were respectable people who for reasons known only to the authorities “have to be sequestered from society.” It emphasised to him the “horrible despotism” to which he, too, had become a subject. Yet he escaped; he fashioned an iron bar into a spike, and cut his way out onto the rooftop. His narrative of imprisonment and flight is a central story of Venice itself.

It is generally believed that Casanova died in Bohemia on 4 June 1798, but there is an unofficial story that he secretly returned to Venice after the French Revolution and lived there in anonymity. It is also said that he practised certain necromantic rites that guaranteed him immortality. Some argue that he still lives in his uncorrupted body; others believe that he is reborn in every Venetian infant. He really does represent, therefore, the genius loci. He never really escaped, after all.

The image of the prison has often been used to conjure up the mood and setting of the city. Like the Jews in its ghetto its citizens are in a sense incarcerated, surrounded by water as if they were confined in Alcatraz. No citizen was allowed to leave Venice without official permission. That is why there is relatively little crime in the city; in a place where everyone is watching everybody else, there is nowhere to hide. The route to the mainland can easily be sealed off. The Venetian people were, in addition, heavily policed. By the fourteenth century there was one policeman for every two hundred and fifty citizens, with the laws enforced by the council of ten and the signori di notte or “lords of the night.” There were also the chiefs of the wards, and a secret force known as the sbirri. It was reported that the sbirri dealt with offenders by throwing their cloaks over them and then, having muffled them, led them directly to the prison. The elements of silence and concealment consort well with the popular image of the city. They are of a piece with coercive legislation and constant observation.

There is, or was, very little privacy in Venice. The people are packed closely together. The small communities of every parish were woven flesh to flesh. The private space is small indeed. Just as private interests were subordinated to public needs, and the individual subsumed within the larger community, so privacy itself was considered to be of little importance. All this may induce acute feelings of claustrophobia. The people cannot escape one another, let alone the clusters of islands on which they are immured.

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