4 Spooky Places to Visit in Italy Plus 1 That’s Off-Limits
Halloween is a more recent adoption in Italy, but not as we know it. It’s become one in a 3-day stretch of holidays celebrating the dead. All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1st), and All Souls Day (Nov. 2nd). Trick or treating isn’t really a thing, but costume parties sure are. How cool would it be, I thought, for us to put together a selection of spooky places to visit in Italy? Italy is an old country, there’s bound to be something there! I was right, but not entirely prepared for the sheer volume of bizarre locations and creepy histories.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here, these are some of the spooky places to visit in Italy, and one that’s so scary it’s off limits!
The “Vampire” of Venice – Lazzaretto Nuovo, Venice
The first on our list of Spooky places to visit in Italy involves a possible vampire, the plague, and a dash of witchcraft in Renaissance Venice.
Venice is home to a few lazzaretti or “plague islands.” These were places where the sick were quarantined to keep disease from spreading. Each of these islands usually has one or more plague pits where the dead were disposed of.
A Vampiric Discovery
During an excavation in 2006, the skull of a 16th century woman was found with a brick in her mouth. Back in the day, this was a practice to keep vampires from feeding on fresh corpses and spreading death and disease. These nasty ghouls were known as “shroud eaters” due to holes that would form around the mouth of their burial shrouds. Blood around the mouth was further proof that they were nibbling on their dead neighbors. Vampires were also thought to be harbingers of the plague and just evil in general. No god-fearing citizen would stand for leaving them go unchecked.
Obviously, these corpses weren’t really vampires. The spooky signs all point to decay rather than anything supernatural. Try telling that to the superstitious Venetians of the time. You’d probably be accused of being a witch!
Speaking of witchcraft, researchers believe it’s possible the so-called “vampire of Venice” may have even been considered a witch. Her age was determined to be in her 60’s or 70’s. While someone reaching this age in the 1500’s wasn’t unheard of, for women it carried a stigma. Apparently if you were an elderly widow, or unmarried, you were more likely to be tempted by dark forces. Go figure.
There is a third explanation: that all this is a coincidence. Plague pits were regularly dug back up to add more bodies, so a rogue brick could very well have found its way into the mix. Logical sure, but not nearly as interesting.
Plan Your Visit
If you decide to visit Lazzaretto Nuovo, the island hosts group tours on weekends from April – October. Right before Halloween! Perfect timing! Group tours can be requested for other days, by appointment only. Tours include the museum and a nature walk, featuring some beautiful views of Venice from the sea. If you still need more Venetian plague history, you can also visit Lazzaretto Vecchio.
Various Crypts & Catacombs
Let’s just say the Capuchin monks had some er…interesting ideas of how to honor their dead brethren. This next entry in our list of spooky places to visit in Italy is a two-parter. It probably goes without saying, but these are not a good choice for small children. Also, typical church dress codes apply here. No bare shoulders, flip flops, shorts, or skirts above the knees. Photography is not permitted, so please don’t try to take a selfie with the dead folks, okay? They didn’t die for this.
The Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo
Originally meant to house the local friars, the crypts became a popular choice for the wealthy citizens of Palermo. What better status symbol than being put on display in your Sunday best? In some cases, family members would change out their deceased relatives outfits. For an extra fee, they could hold hands with them while praying (shudder). If you didn’t pay the housing fees, your relative would be shelved and replaced. A clever, albeit morbid way to make more money for the church.
Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs is famous for one of it’s last residents. Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920 of pneumonia at age 2. Stricken with grief, her father sought the services of Alfredo Salafia to preserve his daughter’s body. He used a special embalming process to keep her from decomposing. She was given the nickname “Sleeping Beauty” due to her pristine condition.
Oh, and did I mention she also appears to open and close her eyes periodically? It’s not a blink so much as a gradual change over time. It’s believed that light and temperature shifts throughout the day cause the effect. Optical illusion or not, it’s pretty eerie!
Plan Your Visit
The catacombs are open year-round including holidays. From late October – March they are closed Sunday afternoons.
The Capuchin Crypt, Rome
I’m sensing a theme amongst the Capuchin monks…If you thought Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs were a little macabre, the Eternal City takes it one step further. Yes, those are all made out of dead people. Approximately 3,700 Capuchin monks’ worth of them. Each monk was buried for roughly 30 years in order to properly decompose. Afterwards they were exhumed with a recently deceased fellow taking his place. The skeletons were then used to decorate the crypts.
Bones from human skeletons compose elaborate sculptures and adornments all along the walls and frescoes. One room, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, contains the ominous inscription:
What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…
The passage of life and death is the entire point of these places. Equal parts impressive, creepy, and dare I say, strangely beautiful? Well done Capuchin monks, well done.
Plan Your Visit
The Capuchin Crypt is open all week long from 9am – 7pm.
The Witch Trials of Triora, Triora
Triora is a small, beautiful town in the Liguria region with a dark past. In the late 1500s a famine brought on by bad weather was believed to be the work of a witch. Much like in Salem Massachusetts, accusations got out of control. Many innocent women were tortured into confessions and put on trial. One woman died from torture and another jumped from a window to her death. Women found guilty of witchcraft were burned at the stake, or imprisoned. These practices went on for two years before the local Doge intervened, putting an end to the madness.
Today, Triora hosts a slew of more light-hearted activities related to it’s not so light-hearted history. Some of them are touristy, such as themed souvenir shops and such. There’s a museum you can visit, tours of the supposed witches’ homes, and festivals. One of which that even takes place on Halloween and hosts many activities and workshops, including some for the kiddies. Their fresh baked bread is a staple here, so make sure you try some while you’re at it.
Off Limits: Poveglia Island, Venice
Admittedly, this one is kind of infamous. Anyone who’s ever looked up scary places in Europe, or Italy specifically, has come across Poveglia. The story has all the trappings of a horror movie so I’ve got to talk about it. This will be a long one in our list of spooky places to visit in Italy, but it’s also the most interesting.
Poveglia was a normal island, but an attack by a Genoan fleet in 1379 caused residents to relocate to nearby Giudecca. The island was repurposed in 1776 as a checkpoint for ships coming and leaving Venice. That all changed in 1793 when two ships arrived carrying the plague. A lazzaretto was established on the island to house the sick. One or more plague pits were created to burn the dead and contain the spread. A practice that continued until 1814, and then again in the early 20th century. Grim, but necessary.
Rise & Fall of a Mad Doctor
Here’s where things really start to reach horror movie territory. In 1922, a few buildings were converted to be used as a psychiatric ward. The story goes that a doctor (if you can call him that) performed cruel, experimental treatments and lobotomies on his patients. Many of these people died. Haunted by his victims, he went mad (or madder, since you could argue he was already nuts). He either jumped from the bell tower to his death, or survived only to be strangled by mist. It depends on which version of the story you follow. The psych ward closed in 1968 and the island has been mostly off-limits since.
The most recent rehab proposition came in 2014. A wealthy Italian businessman wanted to make Poveglia the site of a luxury hotel, but the deal fell through. Probably for the best because that sounds like a catastrophically bad idea!
Haunted, or Just Abandoned?
Some thrill seekers and urban explorers out there claim to have set foot on the island. They tell of an oppressive presence, hearing cries and screams before even making landfall. There is an excellent account of a daytime visit on Mental Floss, painting a very different picture of Poveglia. Coincidentally, it’s by Ransom Riggs, the author of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Very appropriate.
Supposedly, 50% of the island’s soil is made up of human remains due to the plague pits. Although it’s estimated that 100,000 people have died on the island overall, without an excavation it’s hard to know for sure. It will be interesting to see if any archaeological work will ever be done on the site. A museum honoring the victims and giving a factual history of the island would get my visit.
Have you been to any of these places? Have some additional sites to add? Let us know in the comments!