Described by Henry James as a place of “endless strange secrets”, Venice has historically been regarded as a place of intrigue – its labyrinthine alleys, enclosed courtyards and shadowy archways creating a sense of drama, especially on winter nights when the sea mists shroud the dense network of canals in pitch darkness.
Today, this sense of mystery simply adds to the city’s romance and charm, but during the time of the Republic, Venice’s atmosphere of secrecy was highly potent and real, fueled largely by the existence of the notorious Council of Ten – a formidably powerful political institution responsible for maintaining public order, preventing espionage and uncovering conspiracies and treason. Under their authority, spying and covert investigations were rife throughout the city; their brutal torture methods were infamous, and executions were common. The result was a highly efficient regime of civic surveillance, fear and obedience – where no one was to be trusted.
Although this era has long since passed, of course, traces of the Council of Ten’s reign of terror can still be found around Venice in the form of bocche dei leoni, or ‘lions’ mouths’ – stone letterboxes, often carved into the shape of grotesque heads, where informers were once able to post accusations against their fellow citizens. Crimes could be of any nature or scale, ranging from adultery to financial extravagance and beyond – and if the accusation proved correct when tested under trial, the accuser would be financially rewarded, with their name kept secret by the Venetian State, to protect their identity.
In his Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote “These were the terrible Lions’ Mouths. … these were the throats down which went the anonymous accusation thrust in secretly in the dead of night by an enemy, that doomed many an innocent man to walk the Bridge of Sighs and descend into the dungeon which none entered and hoped to see the sun again.” In reality, anonymous accusations were not officially permitted; incriminating letters had to be signed, along with the signatures of two witnesses – but the quote effectively conjures up the sense of fear that swirled around the city during this period.
Fine examples of these Bocche dei Leoni can be found by the Church of Santa Maria della Visitazione on the Zattere in Dorsoduro, on Calle della Testa, Cannaregio, at the Church of San Martino in Castello, and in the Loggia of the Palazzo Ducale.