Hercules, Tintoretto and the legend of the witch

High relief of Hercules

On the façade of the house where Tintoretto spent the last 20 years of his life (he died in 1594) in Cannaregio, Venice, you will see the high-relief, probably of Roman origin, of Hercules holding a club. The reason why the artist chose to decorate his house with this mythological character – the symbol of virile strength – has puzzled many and one reason given for this choice may have come from his family’s name (Robusti). However, there is a legend that gives another far more fascinating explanation.

In those days, it was customary for children to receive communion for ten days after they had first taken the sacrament. One day when Marietta, Tintoretto’s oldest daughter was going to the church of Madonna dell”Orto, an old woman came up to her and convinced her to collect the consecrated hosts she received at communion, telling her that if she did so, she would become like the Virgin Mary. The girl obeyed, and every morning after receiving the host, she hid it in her blouse rather than actually swallowing it. When she got home, she stored the hosts in a small box that she kept at the bottom of the garden, near the animal’s water trough. Within a few days, however, the animals began to behave strangely. They kept kneeling down by the water trough and no one could make them stand up.

Marietta was frightened by what was happening, so she told her father everything. Aware of how old witches were said to use hosts in their magical rites, and often used their wiles to make the pure and innocent serve their purposes, the artist took protective measures. That afternoon he slipped into the church and replaced the hosts on the altar as if nothing had happened. Then, having procured a hefty stick, he went home. When the tenth day arrived, he told his daughter to call the old woman from the window, inviting her to come up.

As soon as the old woman crossed the threshold, blows rained down on her, and after a moment’s surprise, she quickly changed into a cat that darted here and there trying to climb the walls and escape. Finally, seeing that there was no way out, the animal gave a terrible wail and threw itself against a wall, bursting through it wrapped in a cloud of smoke. It was the hole made in the wall that Tintoretto is said to have had filled in with this sculpted relief of Hercules holding a club…a sort of warning set up to protect the house and its inhabitants. As for the witch, no more was heard of her.

Fascinating story indeed….. makes the house worth a visit don’t you think???

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