Halloween is certainly not an Italian tradition (we celebrate I Santi, All Saints’ Day, and I Morti, All Souls’ Day), but it provides me with the opportunity to talk about “spooky Tuscany” and its many mysteries. That’s right: Tuscany is not just a place of peaceful landscapes, rolling hills, and winding roads; it’s also a region full of mysteries, macabre legends and ghostly presences. Are you scared yet? No? Keep reading then.
Many ghosts populate the ancient buildings of Tuscany. In every village, town and city there are stories about haunted houses, weird presences and inexplicable events. Even my village has a few. My great-grandmother used to work at the old Abbazia Ardenghesca as a maid. Once a powerful Abbey, the house was then a rich farm with a 10th century church still standing on its grounds. My great-grandmother used to tell me that the big turtles that every once in a while came out in the small churchyard in front of the church were in fact the monks that had come back in disguiseto supervise their abbey. She swore she had seen “real” monks, or rather their ghosts, walk around the church at night and suddenly disappear after realizing that they were observed. She claimed that, on the spot where she saw them disappear, the following day workers found some skulls while digging ditches for agricultural purposes.
She used to freak me out with these stories… For years I’ve been terrified of the old church and I’ve never been able to walk alone there just in case, you know…, her vivid imagination was actually a case of good memory!
She once told me that she had seen my great-grandfather’s ghost sitting by an old shack in the fields they owned. He had not spoken, she said, but he didn’t look too pleased. Who knows what she had been up to to provoke such a reaction (or at least to imagine it)!?!?
She used to tell me these stories when she walked me home at night. We had recently moved to an apartment in the new residential area of the village and the roads didn’t have street lights yet. So in the summer, after spending some time with the other kids in the old square of the village, she would walk me back home in the dark. I promise I’d have been much better off on my own, as I can still remember with terror some of the stories she would tell me!!! She used to say to me “don’t worry. You shouldn’t be scared because at night there are exactly the same things as there are in the daylight out there”. She would then pause, and add “it’s true, though, that at night we cannot see very well… and you know, you don’t know everything that’s out there…”. And we would walk so fast that my heart would almost come out of my chest, because, by the end of the walk, we were so scared that more than once my mum had to drive her back home!!! She had age as a good excuse, but I’d be ready to bet that she was terrified of walking back alone in the dark by that house where she had grown up and where she had once seen the ghost of her grandmother. I still walk past that house with suspicion after dark, I’ll give you that.
She once told me the story of Nanni (who he was, I don’t know). He had been locked in the church by mistake and he had watched in terror as the limbs of Jesus fell from the ceiling piece by piece and reunited to form the statue that is still standing on one of the altars. The statue had even cried blood for a long time after that performance… Do you think I’ve been able to pray alone in that church ever again?! Forget it! I don’t want to see any sacred limbs falling from that ceiling!
So, as you can see, I haven’t grown up to be a very brave person… too many spooky stories as a kid I guess. But I sort of miss that vivid imagination now. After all, it’s Halloween and a good spooky story would be suitable today… I have dug one out for you.
Veronica Cybo: she was a determined woman, who would not put up with her husband’s crap. She was the descendant of a feared family from the Lunigiana, the Cybo-Malaspina family, who had married a Florentine nobleman, Jacopo Salviati. He was a charming man related to the Medici family and was the counselor to Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Nevertheless, it seems she was not very happy with this arrangement and didn’t enjoy her new accommodation in the center of Florence. This, and the alleged fact that she would not give herself very willingly (or very often) to her husband, did probably put quite a strain on their marriage and the husband ended up finding a source of solace in his mistress, Caterina Brogi, the young wife of a rich 70 year old merchant.
When Veronica found out, she was certainly not happy about it, and she hired two killers to murder the young woman. On New Year’s Eve, helped by Caterina’s step-children, the two killers entered her house and killed her and her maid and cut their bodies into pieces which they spread throughout the city. Except for the head. In the 17th century, on New Year’s Day, wives would give their beloved husbands a present and Veronica had a basket delivered to her dear Jacopo with some fresh linen under which she had placed his mistress’ head.
Horrified, Jacopo had the Grand Duke find the killers and execute them. He could not do the same to his wife though, as she was the descendant of a noble family. So he had her exiled to Villa Cerbone, in Figline Valdarno. Over the years (she died at 86), she repented and led a very pious life. Interestingly, for centuries after her death, her tomb in the Cathedral of Massa was a popular place of worship. Maybe betrayed wives asking for help?! Who knows!
Anyway, Villa Cerbone is nowadays a hospital, Spedale Serristori, and a plaque commemorates those terrible events. Many people swear to have seen her ghost in the hospital. Some people say a mysterious woman in a long dress chatted with them for a while. A man reported that a nice lady reassured him on the positive outcome of his child’s operation. A doctor claimed that she pulled the sleeve of his scrubs. Others have said that they have felt sudden gusts of wind, or unusual perfumes, and a painter said that he found footprints in a room which he clearly remembered having locked before leaving. Everybody, though, agrees that the ghost of Veronica Cybo is a benign presence.
If you are interested in a different facet of Tuscany, check Secret Tuscany and the many great stories told by Claudio Aita: I love the legend of the Bishop Donusdei howling to the moon by the Castle of Crevole and the ghosts of the Strozzavolpe Castle!