High up on the southern corner of the Basilica of San Marco, on the balustrade of the balcony, and next to a flag pole, is a life-sized head made of purple porphyry. It looks south, its gaze passing through the two columns at the end of the piazzetta.
This head goes unnoticed by ninety-nine per cent of visitors. Even people particularly familiar with the building often have no idea it’s there. But Venetians know it’s there. Some will tell you that this is the head of Carmagnola, a soldier wrongly executed for treason. And some will tell you that this is the head of el poaro fornareto.
The story of el poaro fornareto, which translates as ‘the poor baker’s boy’ starts early one morning in the winter of 1507. Just before dawn, Piero Fasiol, an apprentice baker from the Campo San Paternian, was on his way to see his sweetheart, Annella, a servant in the nearby house of the Barbo family, before she started work. He was heading down Calle de la Mandola, and just as he was crossing the Ponte dei Assassini, something shiny on the floor caught his eye. It was the sheath for a dagger, beautifully crafted from silver. He put it in his pocket and decided to use it to raise the money to marry Annella.
When he arrived at the Palazzo, he found Annella already awake and looking very tired. Piero asked her, suspiciously, what she’d been doing all night and with whom. She explained that she’d been kept up all night by her mistress, Siora Clemenza. Piero, apologized for his jealousy and offered Annella the sheath, but she refused to accept it, annoyed by Piero’s behaviour.
Returning back to the baker’s shop, again crossing the bridge, Piero noticed a dark shape on the ground. It was the body of a man, lying face down, with a dagger sticking out of his back. He removed the dagger from the body, but it was too late. The man was dead. He then took the sheath out of his pocket and realized it was a match for the dagger.
At that moment, someone came by and saw Piero on his knees next to the body, his hands covered with blood, the dagger in one and the ornate sheath in the other, and put two and two together. The passer by called for help and despite Piero’s attempts to explain the situation he was marched off to the Doge’s Palace to await trial for murder.
While he was in prison, he was visited by Missier Francesco Barbo, Annella’s master and a member of the Council of Ten, who gave him the opportunity to escape. However, Piero refused saying that if he ran away it would suggest his guilt. As an innocent man, he was prepared to put his faith in Venetian justice and be exonerated at trial.
It turned out that the dead man was one Alvise Guoro, a nobleman. Piero was brought before the Council of Ten, tortured and ended up confessing to the crime. He was sentenced to death by beheading, as was usual, the sentence to be carried out in public between the two columns in the Piazzetta di San Marco.
On the morning of the execution, at the very last moment, Missier Barbo, rushed to his colleagues of the Council of Ten and confessed to the crime himself. Guoro had been the lover of his wife, Sior Clemenza. Guoro had been with Clemenza all night before his murder, and Barbo had followed him out of the Palazzo and killed him in the street. The Council sent the order to stay the execution but it arrived too late. Poor Piero Fasiol had been punished, the execution supervised by Doge Leonardo Loredan himself, for a crime of which he was innocent.
It was popularly believed that from this day forward, a statue of Piero’s head was put on the corner of the Basilica, gazing at the point where he lost his life. Also, to this day, two red lights burn on the same side of the Basilica, supposedly in his memory. People say that before passing the death sentence, a member of the Council of Ten would pronounce the words, ricordeve del poaro fornareto, ‘remember the poor baker’s boy’, to encourage the councillors to only give the death sentence if they were very sure of the prisoner’s guilt.
This story was widely recounted and believed during the period of the Venetian Republic, particularly within the working classes. However, despite the abundance of detail, including names, places, and even the year in which it happened, it appears to have been completely made up. The extensive State Archive of Venice, which still exists, and contains records of the criminal trials of the period, is silent on the matter. The Guoro and Barbo families existed, although the main Palazzo Barbo was over the other side of the Grand Canal in the Sestiere di Santa Croce. The Guoro family died out in 1660 and the Barbo family in the 1700s.
The places mentioned in the story all exist but are a little different today to how they would have been in 1507. The Church of San Paternian, for example, was demolished in 1871 to make way for a statue by Luigi Borro of Daniele Manin, a nineteenth-century hero of Venetian independence, who lived in a building overlooking the square. The church had one of the oldest campaniles in Venice, reputedly built in the year 999. Campo San Paternian became Campo Manin, which is today the home to the most outrageously incongruous building in Venice, the Palazzo Nervi-Scattolin.
The Ponte dei Assassini no longer exists, since the Rio dei Assassini, the canal over which it passed, was filled in in the 18th century. The bridge took its name from the numerous murders which occurred on it, which makes it a little convenient that this story is also located there.
Recent studies have concluded that the porphyry head, which when you get up close is wearing a crown, is probably a portrait of the Roman emperor Justinian I and would have been brought to Venice from Constantinople as part of the loot from the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The tradition that it was the head of Carmagnola, probably lead to its being identified with el poaro fornareto as both were deemed to have been wrongly executed. As for the two red lights, well they are part of a votive dedication paid for in perpetuity by a sailor who survived a shipwreck many years ago.
Whether true or not, the story continued to haunt the public imagination. In 1855 it was turned into a play by Francesco Dall’Ongaro, which was filmed four times: in the early 20th century by Mario Caserini; in 1914 by Luigi Maggi; in 1939 by Duilio Coletti; in 1952 by Giacinto Solito; and in 1963 by Duccio Tessari. Perhaps it’s time for a remake.