My fascination with legends began in early childhood, thanks to the many fairy tales that were read to me and invented by my governess, a lady with a fabulous imagination. These stories, it strikes me, have stood the test of time because they contain inherent truths about people; they have much to teach us.
In The Echoes of Love, set in Venice, Tuscany and Sardinia, the hero, Paolo, is quite the storyteller. Through him, I share some of the most romantic and atmospheric tales of Italy. I would need to write several sequels, though, to cover the many Italian legends I collected!
Today, I’m sharing with you four Italian legends that captured my imagination.
The Devil’s Bridge
Across Europe are scattered dozens of ‘devil’s bridges’ – ancient stone arch bridges crossing waterways, each with its own chilling legend of soul-selling and Satan-enraging.
The Venetian Devil’s Bridge is on the lagoon island of Torcello, and its legend is the stuff of both romance and retribution. Here it is, as told by Paolo.
‘During the occupation of Austria, a young Venetian girl fell in love with an Austrian soldier. Her family disapproved of this union and the young man was murdered. The girl was so desperate that she went to a magician who made a pact with the Devil to bring the soldier back to life, in exchange for the souls of seven children. The contract between the Venetian girl and the Devil was signed and the meeting place was the bridge of Torcello. When the sorcerer and the girl went to the meeting, they saw the Devil and the young man on the other side of the bridge. The girl crossed the bridge and the lovers fled. When the time for payment came, the sorcerer and the Devil arranged a new meeting at the bridge, but on the way to the rendezvous the magician died of natural causes before he got there. And from that day onwards, it is said that every night the Devil appears on the bridge waiting for the souls of those seven children.’
I find this legend fascinating: clearly, it serves to keep Devil-fearing children away from the bridge at night. But what of the lovers? How did they manage to escape the Devil and flee? How had the girl convinced the magician to make such a pact, and how is it that the Devil did not hunt her down, given that he had raised the man she loved? How did the two fare after the resurrection – was the man the same? Did he appreciate what the girl had done?
It seems to me that these lovers escaped rather lightly! The usual moral in such tales is that one cannot interfere with death. I’d expect them both to pay a price – the resurrected man not himself now; the girl haunted and stalked by death. But it appears in this case the Devil lost, and love won out.
The ‘lost’ city of Atlantis
‘In between myth and history,’ says Paolo in The Echoes of Love, ‘there’s the theory that Sardinia could be the lost Atlantis.’ Venetia’s reaction is to laugh. Atlantis is a fictional island, after all… But Paolo is quite serious – and the theory has some academic backing.
I love the legend of Atlantis, as told by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. He explains the origins of the island thus:
At the beginning of time, the gods divided up the world, and Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes, took Atlantis as his domain. He made a mortal woman, Cleito, his bride and built for them a sanctuary at the top of a hill in the middle of the island, surrounded by rings of water and land, for protection. There, in their home, they raised ten sons, five sets of twins, who became the rulers of Atlantis.
Years later, the ‘godliness’ of the descendants of the original gods had diluted due to their intermarriage with humans. The kings began to bend Poseidon’s laws, acting as foolish humans, not gods, and thirsting for more power. The result was an epic war between the aggressive Atlantians and the defending Athenians. The Athenians finally won out, but the victory was pointless, for ‘there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished’. Farewell, Atlantians and brave Athenians!
One can just imagine Poseidon wielding his trident in fury at the Atlantians, and channelling all his power over earth and sea to sink Atlantis.
Whatever the truth behind the story – if any – it remains a favourite, permeating popular culture the world over. And if Sardinia is indeed Atlantis, well, that can only add to the romance of the place.
The ghost who protects lovers
Should you be looking to marry in Italy, you’d be wise to pick the Castle of Vincigliata. Not only is it a picturesque and romantic setting, surrounded by the rolling Tuscan hills, but it is supposedly home to the White Woman, an ancient ghost who has made it her quest to safeguard those who are in love.
Tuscany, 1200. Donna Bianca was a beautiful young girl whose hand in marriage was much coveted by the men of Tuscany. Bianca’s father was determined that she should marry for politics: to strengthen her family’s alliance with another. But Bianca wanted to marry for love. And she knew exactly to whom she would give herself: Uberto.
For Bianca’s family, it was bad enough that she entertained notions of marrying for love. But Uberto was out of question as a suitor, for he was of a family they had deemed their sworn enemy.
Giovanni, Bianca’s father, forbade Bianca to leave the castle, satisfied that this would end the love affair. But then fate intervened: on the battlefield Giovanni was moments from death when a knight saved him from his would-be murderer. When the knight lifted his helmet, Giovanni saw that his saviour was Uberto. What could he do but give his blessing for the young man to marry his daughter?
Come the day of their wedding, Bianca was standing in the tower of the castle looking out for her love. Finally, she saw him walking towards the castle, smiling up at her. But then, in the blink of an eye, hope was dashed to despair. Bianca’s brothers – who did not understand their father’s debt to Uberto – intercepted the young man. As she looked on, shocked, helpless, they stabbed him.
Bianca ran to Uberto, and fell by his side, but it was too late – the lips she kissed were yet warm, but still. Unable to live without her love, she died of a broken heart.
Ever since she has haunted the castle, a lonely ghost in a wedding dress, spotted with Uberto’s blood, to watch over any who would pledge their love for another, ready to defend them against evil.
Shades of Romeo and Juliet, don’t you think? Such a sad story, not least because the two lovers do not appear to be united in death: Bianca remains on the earthly plain. Or perhaps she dwells in heaven with Uberto, and simply visits the castle often to carry out her work. How pleased she must be that today the castle is opened up as a wedding venue! I imagine her standing at the back of the congregation for each wedding, looking on and smiling softly.
The tortured lovers of Fosdinovo Castle
At the heart of the Tuscan hilltop village of Fosdinovo lies its castle, medieval home of the Malaspina family, rulers of the duchy of Massa, and to the writer Dante when he was exiled from Florence. It’s a beautiful castle, not least for the breathtaking panoramic views it affords of the Apuan Alps, the Tyrrhenian coast, the Gulf of La Spezia, and, on a clear day, distant islands. But while this castle may appear to be straight out of a fairy tale, the associated legend lacks the ‘happy-ever-after’.
Bianca Maria Aloisia was born in the 13th century to the noble Malaspinas. She was expected to marry well, as befitting a woman of her social rank, yet none of the suitors that would please her family pleased Bianca, for she had fallen in love with the castle’s stable hand. Secretly, the two met for romantic liaisons, and with each union their love grew. Imagine, then, Bianca’s horror when one day her father announced that he had promised her hand in marriage to a knight. How she argued, but how that enraged her father. Finally, seeing that he could not persuade her to willingly marry the knight, he banished her to a convent to live a life of chastity.
But Bianca would not be so easily thwarted. Her lover tracked her down, and they resumed their secret rendezvous. The result: scandal, when a pregnant Bianca was ejected from the convent. The Malaspina family were horrified by this dent in their otherwise respectable reputation. And so they took action designed to signal to the people of their duchy their might and their ability to be merciless in the face of treachery: they took the lovers to the dungeons of the castle, separated them and tortured each while the other listened. Bianca’s lover did not survive long; but Bianca’s father tortured his daughter slowly, determined that she would renounce her love. Perhaps if she had, she would have lived – but Bianca stayed true to her heart. Her ultimate punishment was to be buried alive in the underground passageways beneath the castle, along with a dog, symbol of her loyalty to her lover, and a wild boar, symbol of her rebellion.
A tragic legend indeed, at once macabre and romantic. Merely a story? Perhaps. But if you visit the castle, you can see for yourself the torture room, and the underground passageways, and even, in the throne room, what appears to be a picture depicting a woman, a dog and a boar. And then there are the remains found in more recent times at the castle, those of a woman and two animals…