Do you ever wonder what happens when Florence sleeps? After the tourists retire to their hotels, museums lock their doors and the street vendors roll up their carts? What lurks in the abandoned alleys and behind the bolted doors of the palazzi? Ok, ok, clearly I’m getting into the Halloween spirit. But with a TV guide packed with horror movies, grocery store aisles overflowing with candy, and pumpkin stands on every corner how could I not? In America, at this time of the year, it is nearly impossible to not get caught up in that inexplicable desire to make your hair stand on end. In Florence, however, Halloween is just now, and very apprehensively, infiltrating the culture. So if you’re dying for a good scare, it’s up to you to seek it out. Thankfully, the 2,000 year-old town has had more than its fair share of time to write some ghoulish and grim tales into its history. Beneath the stories of artistic genius and architectural feats, lie the dark deeds of the past that Florentines would rather keep buried, and legends of spirits that they would rather not awaken.
Today we will take you on a walk around a darker Florence in which we will unveil moments from a more gruesome history, and chilling legends which still linger in the strade of the city. Beware, and please remember to take this walk at your own risk.
Distance: 3.3 km
Time: faster if you find yourself running for your life
The Open Window in Piazza Santissima Annunziata
To ease you into this terrifying trek we will commence with a tender story of lost love. Begin in Piazza Santissima Annunziata (most easily reached by following Via dei Servi out of Piazza del Duomo for approximately 5 minutes). Once in the Piazza, with your back to the church and facing the Duomo, look to the pink Palazzo Grifoni to the right of Via dei Servi.
Direct your attention to the window on the top floor, far right. Notice how the bottom of the left shutter is ajar. As the legend goes, centuries ago one of the Grifoni sons took a beautiful young bride as his wife. The couple, deeply in love, lived blissfully together in the Grifoni palace until the distressing day that the man was called off to war. He left his bride with the promise that he would return and they would be together again soon. She watched tearfully from her window as her husband departed. Clinging to her beloved’s promise she spent every day sitting at the window, shutter ajar, awaiting his return. Days turned into weeks and weeks into years yet the woman never lost hope in her husband’s parting promise and remained patiently waiting at her window. Decades later, when the woman died in this room, the window was finally closed. Instantly, a strong wind swept through the room, books flew off of shelves, lights flashed and the floor shook. When the window was reopened the chaos stopped. To this day, the window remains ajar, keeping peace in the palazzo and allowing the woman, even in death, to watch and wait for her lover.
To meet our next ghost, make your way to the San Lorenzo Market. Walk through the market and follow it as it curves to the left around the church. When you emerge from the market notice how the road forks. Follow the fork to the left on Via del Giglio. Within a few yards you will reach Via del Giglio 8 and see a small bronze plate by the buzzer that indicates that you have arrived at the Pensione Burchianti. Although unassuming on the exterior, this luxury hotel has hosted numerous celebrities and visiting dignitaries over the years. Locals, however, are certainly more apprehensive about spending the night in this pensione as they believe it to be haunted by three ghosts. In one room in particular, the room that Mussolini himself stayed in while in Florence, many have reported seeing an apparition of a small pinkish male ghost. Those who dare enter the room also encounter unexpected cold spots and an overwhelming sensation of being watched. Staff and guests continue to report apparitions of an old woman and small child roaming the pensione as well. If you have the money and a thick skin, rent a room for the night and let us know what you find….well, that is if you make it to check-out.
The Stone Head of Santa Maria Maggiore
After you snoop around outside the Pensione Burchianti long enough to see a ghost or two, walk to the end of Via del Giglio and head back in the direction of the Duomo (left). Two blocks before you reach Piazza del Duomo you will come to Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the oldest churches in the city, on the right side of the street. Go to the north side of the church and scan the wall from the sidewalk below (hint: look up). Notice anything a little disturbing? How about the small disembodied head looking down at you?
Who does this head belong to? Although Florentines have spun many theories about the stone head, the most common attributes its existence to a cursed monk. As the legend goes, a man accused of sorcery was being dragged to Piazza Santa Croce to meet his death by being burned alive. As he passed by Santa Maria Maggiore a monk leaned his head out a small window and shouted to the crowd below not to give the man a drink as it would prevent him from dying (something the monk must have learned in Sorcery 101 class). Unfortunately, the monk must have slept through the part of class which addressed never insulting a sorcerer. When he said these words, the angry heretic cast a spell on the monk which turned him to stone and trapped his head on the side of the church for eternity.
Dante in the Badia
To meet a more historically prominent ghost head to the Badia. To reach the abbey cut through Piazza del Duomo and exit onto Via Proconsolo from the southeast corner. Follow the road south and just past Via Dante Alighieri you will reach the entrance to the Badia.
**Sidenote: The tower of the Badia is that one element of the Florence skyline that no one can ever seem to name…now you’ll know it!
As the story goes, the Florentine poet Dante, who grew up just across the street from the abbey, spends eternity in his own personal eighth level of Hell haunting the grounds as he restlessly searches for his lover, Beatrice. Someone really needs to set him up with our mourning ghost in Santissima Annunziata – this many centuries later, I think it’s time for both of them to move on.
Are you scared yet? Ok, well maybe if ghosts and urban legends don’t do it for you, some chilling history about the city’s darkest deeds will.
Our next spooky stop is just across the street at the Bargello. Today, the Bargello makes for a classy and culture-filled morning of admiring Donatellos and Michelangelos. However, this now charming museum has a grim past. Since the 13th century the palazzo has served as a court, the headquarters of the police, a torture prison, and under the Medici Dukes a penitentiary. Although the prison cells are now replaced with paintings and sculptures, the chapel where criminals received their Last Rights before being escorted to their executions remains a chilling reminder of the palazzo’s dark past.
Executions, especially of high-profile criminals were often a fun weekend activity for the Florentines. The courtyard of the Bargello hosted countless executions which would have been open for the public to come cheer on the death of their favorite enemy. The execution of Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli, one of the last unjustified members of the Pazzi Conspiracy, attracted quite the crowd. Even Leonardo da Vinci himself attended the hanging providing us with this sketch of Baroncelli as he hung dead in the courtyard of the Bargello.
Speaking of Leonardo da Vinci…..
Ever wonder how Leonardo sketched such drawings in an age long before x-rays and CAT scans? Many are quick to make Leonardo out as a mad scientist and have spun some pretty chilling tales about his questionable collecting of cadavers. Some say he went to cemeteries at night to dig up bodies. One tale even suggests that Leonardo found the body of a pregnant prostitute washed up on the shore of the Arno, allowing him to be the first to accurately draw the fetus in the womb. Although these macabre tales give Leonardo a certain intriguing and creepy edge, he most likely acquired his cadavers from donated bodies at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.
Leo was not just interested in the dead but also the unnatural among the living. He was fascinated with physical deformities and was known to stalk people he found particularly intriguing through the streets to study their deformities from afar.
You know, I think Leo really would have taken nicely to Halloween.
Piazza della Signoria
Back to business! To see where the rest of the Pazzi family and allies were brutally tortured and executed, head to Piazza della Signoria. From the Bargello take Via Proconsolo south for one block. Turn right on Via dei Gondi to enter the piazza.
Rewind 534 years to April 1478. This now exquisite and charming piazza was then a lurid and bloody scene of Medici revenge. It was at this time that the masterminds behind the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy (an assassination and attempted assassination on the two Medici golden boys) were being tracked down, brutally tortured, humiliated and killed. The piazza became the epicenter and showroom for this retribution. No one was spared from the brutal retaliation. Florentines even had the young boys of the Pazzi family executed, leaving their bodies in the streets and in the piazza for their distressed mothers to find. The leaders of the conspiracy were hung from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio as a graphic reminder not to mess with the Medici.
If you are a Hannibal Lector fan this tale might sound familiar. The 2001 film set in Florence culminates with history-buff Hannibal hanging Detective Pazzi from a window of the Palazzo Vecchio just as his ancestors were.
The aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy wasn’t the only gruesome act to go down in the piazza. Over the centuries this town square proved to be the best place to make a bloody point. As we mentioned in Piazza della Signoria Part 1, the controversial friar/preacher Girolamo Savonarola was publicly burned at the stake in the piazza making for quite the gruesome display and yet another warning not to mess with the Medici.
Forte di Belvedere
Our final haunted hot spot requires the longest trek, but for the true ghost hunter, this former fortress is well worth the walk. To find the spooky site, cross the Ponte Vecchio to reach the Oltrarno. Take your first left and follow it until the road forks. You will veer right into a small covered street where you will find a red bicycle propped up against the left wall (seriously, that bike has been there for years). Begin the long trek up Costa dei Magnoli. Once you reach the top and you think your glutes can take no more, make a right at the Museo delle Porcellane. You will now see the large stone retaining walls of the fort and can walk around the structure on the very, according to Florentines, haunted labyrinth of streets.
The fort was constructed in the Middle Ages as part of the protective city wall. Over the years this part of the city, however, became far from a beacon of safety for the city. Rather, it was notorious for a high crime rate – beatings, muggings and murders. Moreover, it was this spot of land where women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake. Today it is said that these lost souls still linger in the alleys and at night their shadows can been seen against the stone walls of the fortress. Whispers come from empty alleys and the sounds of children laughing echo in empty squares.
During the daylight the now abandoned fortress offers beautiful views of Florence and a modern art collection to be admired for only 5 euro. Don’t let the scene fool you though, even the art itself seems as though it has seen things it didn’t want to.
And that’s how to make your hair stand on end this Halloween in Florence. If you are more comfortable getting a good scare within the comfort of your own home, I would recommend Hannibal, as I mentioned before, as an apropos horror movie of choice or The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, for a chilling nonfiction read about a serial killer in Florence.
If you’re not so into the Danse Macabre then maybe you would prefer to celebrate these days like the Florentines do – All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2). On these Catholic Holy days Italians celebrate the memory of the Saints and their deceased loved ones by going to mass, paying homage to their ancestors at cemeteries and topping it off with a large feast. Finish your feast with the traditional dessert of Ossi dei Morti (bones of the dead).
Scary or silly, make sure to celebrate! Happy Halloweek everybody!