Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 3: Two Deaths & the Specter of a Curse

Don't look now? A demon-headed antique mirror in the apartment's salotto

Neither Jen nor I can remember exactly when we found out that one of the previous tenants of our "dream" San Tomà apartment had died while living in it. Whether it was before or after we signed the lease.

We do remember that we were assured by one of our pair of helpful real estate agents that, of course, the unfortunate man, an architect in his 40s, had not literally died in the apartment, but in hospital, of course. This information was conveyed in the most general terms, but it cast, retroactively, a whole different light on the woman and two teenagers we'd met who still lived in the apartment when we were shown it for the first time. It was painful to think of their pain, and I could only hope that their departure from the apartment was not a reluctant one necessitated by economic hardship, but a step out of the first pain of such a loss into the life that goes on after it.

As for our own relation to the apartment, I assured myself (somewhat uneasily) that such a history didn't matter. People, of all ages, do in fact die--in spite of all those companies pitching us products to prevent it. For all we knew, he could have been the victim of a traffic accident while driving on the mainland. When we asked the lawyer of our new landlady, La Signora, about what had happened, he brushed the question away with a terse reply that it (whatever it, the cause of death, was) had happened abruptly, quickly, as if to assure us it left no stain, literal or figurative, on the property.

Another real estate agent, the colleague of the first one, told us the man was separated from his wife and living apart from her and their family at the time of his demise. As if this detail, too, somehow diminished the weight or magnitude of his death. Or at least the impression it should leave upon us.

It was all so vague, but it wasn't really any of our business, was it? Whatever the cause of death, it hadn't occurred in the apartment. It was nothing criminal, just something very sad. We didn't find out any more information, and I suppose we didn't really want to. Out of respect for the man and his family.

Besides, we had already committed ourselves to the new apartment, as Death in Venice's Aschenbach has already committed himself to (or found himself irresistibly compelled to) his pursuit of the beautiful young Tadzio by the time he first notices the strong disinfectant being spread around the stifling city.

If the process of moving into the apartment had been a less laborious and tormented one, such history would probably have had little of the portentous about it. But five weeks after our lease began, actually moving into it was still a dicey proposition. By this time we'd purchased two large air purifiers that we kept running constantly. We hadn't yet entirely given up on the upholstered furniture, but after having them professionally cleaned, we'd bought cloth slip covers to conceal their ugly stains--and then bought some bright textiles to conceal the ugly covers. But even doubly covered I still didn't dare sit down on the damn things because of the red, burning, and itching skin I ended up with when I did.

Perhaps this was still just dog dander. Perhaps the apartment still just needed more airing out, and more sunlight let in--just needed, as La Signora's architect said, to be lived in. According to her, the previous tenants, the bereaved family, had lived there for only a short time, about a year. Before them there had been some Francesi (French people), who'd also been there for maybe a year. Before that it had sat for long years unused.

Indeed, La Signora's architect, over-worked and extremely sensitive, who was never anything less than sympathetic to our concerns and requests, told us one day, on the verge of tears, that she hoped our moving in would trigger nothing less than the "rebirth" (rinascita) of the old apartment.

The fact remained, though, that, like the first dove sent out by Noah from the ark, I could find no safe perch for myself. Or very few. The salotto, filled with upholstered furniture, was out. The master bedroom, devoid of a mattress (as the ancient one it came with was among the first things to be hauled away) and subject to an odd smell, was also out. The hallway and entry were usually still filled with things to be hauled off or repaired, and the bed in Sandro's room made me itch and burn. This left the kitchen, the guest bedroom/office, and a bathroom.

There were just two single mattresses left in the entire apartment and until we were certain we could really make the place livable we were reluctant to spend money on new ones--which themselves might become contaminated by whatever it was that was causing such strong allergic reactions in me (and lesser ones in Jen and Sandro).

Though I had some minor allergies, never in my life--not even in the worst settings--had I suffered allergic reactions of this intensity or persistence. Nor had Jen. Sandro had never had any kind of allergic reaction at all before this. 

And though I didn't admit it, even the "safe" rooms in the apartment weren't really comfortable for me. So while we continued to try to figure out how to rectify all the problems, I would eat dinner with Jen and Sandro in the new apartment, then retreat to our old apartment to sleep there in our old bed, while Jen and Sandro stayed in the new one, as it was just a four minute walk from his school (as compared to the 45 minute trip from our old place).

It was during this absurd period of trying to make the new apartment work that Jen met some of our new neighbors. There were not many of them--it was a small building and two of its apartments were, of course, let out short-term to tourists--but they were all welcoming and warm. And much more informative about the family that had lived in our apartment before us.

Contrary to what we'd been told by realtors and everyone who worked for La Signora, the previous tenants had lived there for a number of years, probably four. The father was a very friendly guy, popular with his neighbors, and had developed cancer while living in the apartment. Just over a year earlier, as he was undergoing chemotherapy, the family had given away their large furry dog.

Was there actually something profoundly unhealthy about the apartment? Jen and I now began to wonder.

But less seriously than perhaps you, Dear Reader, may yourself be wondering right now as you read this, distant as you are from the actual apartment's allure: the way the early morning light filled the salotto and bright reflections from the canal just outside its windows rippled on its 12-foot ceilings...

At this time Jen also recounted to me a brief incident that occurred as she and La Signora's architect conducted the inventory of the apartment's contents in early February. They'd been going through one of the large built-in cabinets near the dining table, filled with old plates and glassware and vases, some of them quite nice, some hand-blown, some we didn't dare use.

Coming upon a pair of delicate white china tea cups, hand-painted with fine flowers and a sinuous script, the architect had put one hand to her chest and exclaimed, "Oh, how very sad!" She picked one up and examined it, saying, "These are from La Signora's wedding. One for the bride, one for the groom." Jen saw that each had the date of the wedding in the 1970s, as well as one of the couple's names on it. After another sigh, longer, even more pained, the architect said, "He died just after the wedding." Then she added, "His saucer seems to be missing...."

Now Venice is an old city and every old residence in such a city has its own long history. In stories about Venice like those written by Thomas Mann or Daphne du Maurier ("Don't Look Now"), such details all add up, all mean something that only the doomed protagonist manages to miss. But, much as I have spent my life eye-deep in books, living in them and maybe even through them, our experience with the San Tomà apartment was not a book. Nor a movie.  

Rather, the bare facts we'd accumulated about the apartment consisted of the following: In the mid-1970s the current owner of the apartment, La Signora, had moved into it with her new husband, who owned it. Soon after their wedding, he died. We had no idea how. According to La Signora's tender-hearted architect (who did not meet La Signora until the 1990s), La Signora had always thought of this apartment as her home, but, for whatever reason, had rarely lived in it after her husband's death. So the apartment, beautifully furnished as it was, seemed relatively little used before the last few years, when it was rented, first, for a short time, to some French people (a family? a couple? we didn't know), then to an Italian family, whose father had fallen ill and died while living it.

Now, given this information, one could note--with more or less emphasis--that of the last three groups of people who had lived in the apartment, premature death had struck members of two of them.

Just how much were we to make of this? The temptation to dramatize it all--or maybe melodramatize it all--was strong. But perhaps precisely because it was so strong, and perhaps because the Venetian setting just off the Grand Canal seemed so ripe for it, we were determined not to let ourselves spin off too easily into romantic flights of fancy.  

Some friends of ours, however, had no such restraint.

They listened to our sheepish explanations of why we still hadn't fully moved into the new apartment, and our account of its particular history, and told us more than ordinary cleaning was needed.  
One, who'd generously let us use her extra-strength state-of-the-art vacuum cleaner to soap up and try to scrub clean an old oriental rug soon after our lease began, now told us nothing less than holy water from Lourdes would do.

"It sounds like Ca' Dario!" she exclaimed, referring to the famously elegant palazzo on the Grand Canal whose charming, marbled facade conceals a long history of awful premature deaths.

A thorough spiritual cleaning of the apartment was needed, she said, a good blessed scrubbing down of the whole place, using more than the mere detergent we'd previously employed. The water from Lourdes she was kindly offering us would have, she assured us, extensive and profound effects. It would clear out the heaviness that still plagued the air of the apartment. It would make it sparkle in a more than just physical sense.

Another friend recommended a thorough energetic cleansing of the apartment by a very gifted and learned French healer who was coming to Venice soon. He'd studied in Portugal with a famed healer there, and he would wipe the apartment clean of the dangerous energy that palpably filled it through the chanting of esoteric Portuguese incantations. 

It would cost us 100 euro.

By the time our concerned friends made these suggestions we were well into March. The lease on our old safe apartment, to which I still retreated most nights to sleep, would be up at the end of the month. Soon we would find ourselves having to live in the San Tomà apartment no matter what.

We had to make some serious decisions. What they were will be the subject of the next part.

[To go directly to Part 4, click on the following link:

Part 1 of this series can be read here:

Part 2, here:]


  1. Do you feel this apartment was trying to tell you something? (Insert "Night Stalker" music here)

    1. If it was, Anna, it sure took us all long enough to hear it! Perhaps if that "Night Stalker" theme had actually been audible when we first saw the apartment...