Please read this truly wonderful piece about the inspirational Venice and its charm which can be found in the pages of The Mask of Aribella. Review to follow Anna’s guest piece.
Photograph Credit to Tim Hall
By Anna Hoghton
There’s a quote by the American author Fran Lebowitz: “If you read a lot, nothing is as great as you’ve imagined. Venice is. Venice is better.” I wholeheartedly agree. Venice is one of the few man-made places that I’ve visited where wandering through its streets really has taken my breath away and made me feel like there’s magic waiting down every alleyway…
From 697 to 1797 AD, Venice was a Republic cut off from the rest of the world, ruled by the Doge and the infamous Council of Ten who were known to enforce strict laws and employ ruthless tactics in their prisons. One of the best things I did in Venice was the Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour, which I’d highly recommend. The tour takes you to parts of the palace that are off limits during regular visits, including secret passageways, prisons, the torture chamber, an interrogation room, and the infamous Bridge of Sighs.
The floating city’s unique and obscure past means that its whole history is surrounded by a host of interesting myths and tales. This has been fantastic inspiration for creating a fantasy adventure about the floating city.
Below, I’ve chosen a few of my favourites that all featured in ‘The Mask of Aribella’.
The Winged ‘Lion of Venice’.
The Lion of Venice is an ancient bronze winged lion sculpture in the Piazza San Marco, which came to symbolize the city, as well as one of its patron saints, St Mark. Winged lions can be seen everywhere around the city – it was on the Republic’s flag and coat-of-arms.
In ‘The Mask of Aribella’ I made the winged lion the symbol of the Cannovacci, which is the name for the secret organisation of people with magical powers who are hiding in Venice. I liked the idea that this was what the symbol once really stood for and that, over the years, this symbol has been converted into the symbol for the city.
The Bridge of Sighs.
The Bridge of Sighs is an enclosed bridge that connects the prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. It is said that the view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last that convicts saw before their imprisonment and the bridge’s nickname was given to it by Lord Byron to suggest that prisoners would sigh as they had their final sight of beautiful Venice through the window, before being taken down to their cells. In reality, the days of inquisitions and summary executions were over by the time the bridge was built… still it’s a fantastically evocative name and idea.
The colourful houses of Burano.
The fisherman’s island of Burano sits in the Venetian lagoon. Like most of Venice, is run through by a system of canals, however, unlike the rest of Venice its houses are cheerily painted in bright colours. Each house is a different colour from its neighbours and if anyone that wants to change their paint-work they actually need to get approval from the local community government first. Legend has it that fishermen painted their houses in these bright hues so they could see their way home when fog made it hard to see on the lagoon. I used this idea in the book and love it when children ask me if the houses are really multicoloured! They really are!
The Island of the Dead.
My fictional island of the dead was a combination of two real ‘islands of the dead’ in Venice. One is the Isola di San Michele, the cemetery island, where Venice’s dead are buried. It lies in the lagoon between the Fondamente Nuove and the glassmaking island of Murano.
The second ‘island of the dead’ is Povelgia, the name of which I used in the book. Povlegia has a scarier past than Isola di San Michele. The island was used as a quarantine station for plague victims from 1793 until 1814. After that, the buildings on the island were converted into an asylum for the mentally ill. It is said that lots of people died on that island and that their ghosts still haunt it. There are lots of strange stories and spooky legends about Poveglia Island, which has led to it being described as one of the ‘most haunted places on earth’.
The Plague/ The Black Death.
Like other places in Europe, Venice was badly hit by the bubonic plague or the ‘black death’ as it was called. In Venice, they still have a plague-doctor mask, with a bird-like beak, which was said to be worn by doctors to protect them from being infected by the disease, which they believed was airborne. However, though the beak mask has become an iconic symbol of the Black Death, there is no evidence it was actually worn during the epidemic.
I appropriated this iconic beaked mask and made it the Mask Maker’s mask. I used plague-like symptoms for the attacks from the Invisible Spectres on the lagoon, and suggest that really, they were the unseen cause of the illness that swept through the Republic – although of course we know that it was really a bacterial infection spread by rats.
The Lion’s Mouth
Reminders of the Council of Ten notoriously fearsome rule can still be found around the city in the form of bocche dei leoni, or ‘lion’s’ mouths’ – stone letterboxes, often carved into the shape of grotesque heads, where informers could post accusations against their fellow citizens. If these accusations proved correct, the citizen would be financially rewarded and the accused would end up in the palace prison or worse… I used the Lion’s Mouths in The Mask of Aribella, however in my novel they have been hijacked by a more magical authority.
It’s perhaps important to say that I am not a historian, but I love using details from the past to reimagine narratives and create new stories. There are many, many more fascinating facts and mysteries from Venice’s past. I’ve barely begun to dive beneath the surface and I have got lots of ideas in my back pocket for a sequel.
For now, I’ll leave it here. However, if you’ve got the time, I highly encourage you to delve deeper into Venice’s mysterious past. I guarantee it will not disappoint.
THE MASK OF ARIBELLA by Anna Hoghton is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)
On the eve of her 13th birthday, Aribella and friend Theo are being taunted by another boy, Gian. He is teasing and saying things that can’t possibly be true about Aribella’s mother. In her anger, flames shoot from her fingertips and she is labelled a Witch.
Aside from the shock and surprise at this strange twist of events, Aribella is afraid, knowing her name will be put into the Lion’s mouth, a place checked by Guards and the Doge of Venice. Later, arriving home, she explains all to her father and is sent to her room for safety. Theo helps her escape when the guards come searching for her later that night.
A man in a mask appears to save them and Aribella’s story truly begins. It turns out she is a Cannovacci, a protector of Venice. Her powers are revealed to her on the eve of her 13th birthday and now she must learn to use and control them. With worrying about her father in prison, learning to cope with new powers and ghostly spectres biting people, Aribella is feeling overwhelmed. There is a lot to learn, including who can be trusted in this new environment.
Meeting new friends and discovering and using their powers to protect Venice, this story is fast paced, full of fascinations and all against the beautiful back drop of Venice. The action within this book is perfect for the city of Venice and having been there, I could picture it all vividly.
The descriptions of Venice and the people living there were perfectly presented and the book, like Venice itself, is so atmospheric and full of mystery and intrigue. I particularly love the Cannovacci house and the secrets it holds.
I feel so honoured to have been sent a copy to read and review pre-publication and thoroughly enjoyed this story. The cover illustrations are intriguing and inviting for the reader, ensuring a sense of mystery and darkness add to the allure.