Monday, October 22, 2012


Rome is not alone in its infestation of ghosts and goblins. My own Florence (yes, I call it my own, though I have never been—but the origin of my family name lies there as does the setting of The King’s Agent as well as the trilogy that is my current work in progress—I have taken ownership of this place in the depths of my heart). In this, the third in my series of haunted Italian tales, it is to Firenze we go.

Countless sources claim the Pensione (hotel) Burchianti as the most haunted location in the city of flowers, some have gone so far as to call it the Castle of Spirits. Built during the Renaissance by the Salimbeni family, reports of the ghost of a child skipping through the halls in the dead of the night are as frequent as those that claim a ghostly maid cleans rooms and an elderly woman rocks an empty chair.

But perhaps the strongest sensations of unearthly presences are in the Fresco room (pictured). Here, it is said, the unwitting wanderer is overcome by the feeling of being watched. Here one feels icy cold breath upon their face. Here an indentation suddenly appears on the bed, as if someone has just sat. And here, employees as well as guests have reported seeing a pinkish, translucent male pacing about impatiently, as if he has longs to vacate the walls which have held him for hundreds of years.

The Forte di Belvedere, known more simply as the Belvedere, was built by the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici in the late 16th century, a testament to and a bastion of protection for the city control by the powerful family. In the Oltrarno district—across the Arno River from the majority of the city—the fortress served as a garrison for over a hundred years.

But it was not until the industrial revolution that such atrocities occurred at the sight as to send the ground into the darkness of the unhallowed. Here witches met their fiery fate, children were murdered, and suspected traitors were tortured. Such disquiet spirits have left their indelible imprint on the area: twisting through the labyrinth streets in the darkest hours of the night footsteps echo on empty cobble stones, voices bounce off the stone walls of empty alleyways, and children invisible to the eye sing and laugh, mirth to drive one to madness. Moving shadows, wraith-like apparitions wander along the length of the long walls of the fortress, only to skitter away with the break of day.

The work of Dante Alighieri plays a critical role in The King’s Agent. Studying the work of this creative genius, the depth of his creative soul is laid bare, a restless soul said to still be haunting the Abbey of Florence. Built very early in the fourteenth century, the Abbey is decorated by the art of none other than Giotto, also a major player in The King’s Agent. The writer’s lingering spirit is said to be forever searching for his Beatrice, the unrequited love of his life. Perhaps it is the lot of the true romantic to search for love through all of eternity.

There is a handful of things I truly long for in this life; to go to Florence—ghosts and all—is one of the most profound.

Friday, October 12, 2012


It is a story all too familiar; it is a story that feeds our sense of justice and horrifies us at the same time.

Francesco Cenci was a Renaissance nobleman; however, his bloodline did nothing to ensure his moral and ethical behavior (does it ever). Not only did Francesco abuse his wife (there were two), his torturous, indecent behavior he vexed upon his offspring as well, especially the young and beautiful Beatrice. His licentious lifestyle, combined with a vicious disposition, brought him to the attention of papal justice on more than one occasion, but as the dictates of the times held sway (giving lenience to the higher socially ranked), he was never truly punished as he ought to have been, spending no more than a night or two in prison. But justice found its way.

In 1598, in the Cenci household (a mansion in the Regola district of Rome), there lived four other people under the duress of the master, his daughter Beatrice, her brother Giacomo, Francesco’s second wife Lucrezia, and Lucrezia’s son Bernardo. It was, to use a modern term, a dynamically dysfunctional household. Though multiple opinions differ, Francesco was either on the verge of committing incestuous rape upon his daughter Beatrice or already had (there are theories that he had, that she reported him, and he had beaten her dreadfully for it, before abusing her once more), when those of the household united and prescribed the justice upon Francesco that the pope failed to do.

There are two descriptions of the vigilante-style castigation that the four other Cenci inflicted upon Francesco; both are equally as vicious, both—perhaps—equally warranted:

One theory holds that they first attempted to drug him and when that failed they bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and tossed his body over a balcony in an attempt to make it appear like an accident.

The second (and a personal favorite) is that they drugged him, stabbed him with a lengthy nail through the eye and throat, and then hid the body.

Whatever their method, they were found out and all four were arrested. Unlike the pretense of justice inflicted upon Francesco while he was alive, a tribunal found all four guilty and sentenced them to death. But, as was the case in that era, the community knew all about Francesco’s disgusting behavior, and something akin to a small riot arose in response to the finding. Fearing other such upheaval’s—other familial imposed acts of justice—Pope Clement VIII commuted the sentence to September 11, 1599.

It was on the Sant’Angelo Bridge where the scaffold was built in those days; it was across this bridge that Beatrice was carted on the day of her death. Her step-mother, having fainted along the way, was beheaded in her unconscious state. Her brother Giacomo was beaten with a mallet, knocked unconscious, and so too went to his death unknowingly. The young boy, Bernardo, though tortured was released (losing any property that may have been his by right as the only surviving family member, and disappeared into the oblivion of unknown humanity).

It was only Beatrice—Beatrice that suffered the most at the hands of her father—that was fully aware when her head was put upon the block, when it was severed with the fierce slash of a sword.

It is Beatrice who, it is said, walks the bridge before the Castel Sant’Angelo on the night of September 10/11, a ghostly decapitated specter, carrying her head in the crook of her arm.

Beatrice Cenci has inspired works of art, plays, essays, films, and books from the moment of her death to as recently as 2011.

Injustice is a ghost in itself.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


It is one of the oldest cities in all of civilization; it is a mystical, magical land, the scene of some of the most craven acts of humanity as well as the birth place of some of its greatest creations. It was the home of emperors, popes, warriors, and saints as well as artists. Is it any wonder then, that it is also purported to be one of the most haunted places in the world?


It should come with little surprise to learn that the Coliseum, the site where humans killed humans for the entertainment of other humans, is the home to the majority of paranormal activity reported in Rome. Perhaps one of the most recent, most abrupt, and most witnessed occurrences happened when a woman, having taken an evening tour of the ancient stadium, was trying to leave, only to have her hair yanked on and her body pulled back into the Coliseum. It took two members of her party to ‘dislodge’ whatever held her and rescue her from its clutches.

Other visitors have reported feelings of being pushed and touched, visions of apparitions seated—as if watching the Gladiators below—and walking up and down the steps. By far the profusion of reports concern sounds within the ancient ruins, that of humans crying, weeping and moaning, the clashing of swords, the shrieks of animals, and even the sound of cheering crowds.

The heartbeat of the ancient city of Rome, the Forum—a rectangular plaza surrounded by the city’s most important buildings, now the world’s most visited ruins—was considered the greatest meeting place in all of civilization. Now it’s considered one of the most haunted. Tales of its unearthly inhabitants date back to the 4th century when then pope Sylvester I was forced to exorcise the devil in the shape of a dragon. Current tales speak of spectral images, hard to see, however, for they only come out night and can only be seen in the scanty dark recesses of the areas around the Forum. But there, among the arches and columns, shadowy figures hover just inches about the earth, speaking and gesturing to unseen tormentors. Most say the figures look like ancient soldiers, no doubt those who lost their lives in defense of the city, of one emperor or another.

At least forty catacombs dot the landscape of Rome and the surrounding area, and ghostly occurrences have been reported in at least half of them. And it’s no wonder. These subterranean burial chambers are believed to have been the Christians’ answer to honoring their persecuted dead with a decent burial. Because of the dynamic composition of Rome’s soil…softening when exposed to air and then hardening once recovered—there are catacombs with kilometers of tunnels and up to four layers/levels.

When the catacombs were originally used and created in the second century, the bodies were clothed, wrapped in linen and placed in sarcophagi. But in a two-fold effort—to save space and to further show reverence—secondary burials were not unheard of and found great popularity. In the ossuaries of the Roman catacombs, the dead were dug up and their skeletons used to create archways of bones and shrines of skulls. When the catacombs were rediscovered (most archeologists pinpoint this at some time in the 16th century), the practice was seen as disrespectful and the bones were once more moved and once more buried. Now many believe this last upheaval has called forth the angry spirits to whom the skeletons belonged.

Many visitors complain of claustrophobia and severe feelings of panic that might easily be explained by the small, tight confines of the catacombs themselves. Not so easily dismissed are the specters reported floating in the corridors or the chilling sound of disembodied voices sluicing through the tunnels, groaning from the depths of the niches.

As the vagaries of life leave their eternal imprint upon our souls, so do our souls imprint the world in which we inhabit. Haunted places are no more than the evidence that we have been and we have been here.