Thick on thrills and chills

Finding Florence’s phantoms

Kelsey Guerin
October 27, 2011


There are no jack-o-lanterns in store windows, no cloth ghosts hanging from doorways, and no cauldrons filled with candy on tables in restaurants in the months leading up to Halloween. It's almost enough to make English-speaking expats and study-abroad students forget that with the end of October rapidly approaching, for 'tis the season for ghostly thrills and chills.




Isabella de' Medici was the winsome, beloved daughter of Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Charming, intelligent, and free-spirited, Isabella spent much of her time enjoying the finer things in life available only to a Renaissance princess: attending balls, spending vast amounts of money on clothing and jewelry, and fraternizing with the rich and famous. Unfortunately, Isabella's charm also proved to be her downfall.


At a very young age, Isabella married Paolo Giordano Orsini, the Duke of Bracciano who lived in Rome. After the death of her mother, Isabella was called back to Florence to stay with her father. This move granted Isabella a great deal of freedom: she frequently entertained guests-and lovers-at lavish balls or dinners.


The Duke of Bracciano, however, was not a pleasant man. Jealous and violent, he was quick to anger and acted with vengeance. When he heard rumors that Isabella was having an affair with his cousin, Troilo Orsini, he called Isabella to their home, Villa di Cerreto Guidi, just  outside of Florence, and strangled her with a red silk ribbon.


By this time, Cosimo I had already passed away and been succeeded by Isabella's brother Francesco. Francesco had always censured Isabella for her loose morals (even though his relationship with Bianca Cappello was considered the 'scandal of century' in Florence), and so he ignored her murder. Although Troilo Orsini fled to Paris, he was later murdered, too. As for Isabella, it is said that her ghost still roams the halls of Villa di Cerreto Guidi (see box), where she met her tragic end.





Perhaps the most enigmatic ghost story in Florence is that of Veronica Cybo, a noblewoman belonging to the the Malaspina family, one of the most powerful in the seventeenth century Tuscany.


Veronica was married to Jacopo Salviati, an attractive noble from a well-off family in Florence who had a soft spot for beautiful women. Jacopo began an affair with Caterina Brogi, a beautiful young woman married to a man of about 70 who was considered the dirtiest and ugliest man in Florence. Upon discovering the affair, Veronica was bent on retaliation.


On New Year's Eve 1634, Veronica hired the eldest son of the Canacci family, Bartolomeo, and a few of his associates to murder Caterina and her maid, a task that they performed to an excessive degree. The next morning, the streets were scattered with all of Caterina's body parts-all, that is, except one.


During this time, there was a New Year's Day tradition whereby doting spouses would exchange gifts as tokens of their affection. On this particular New Year's Day, Jacopo awoke to find Veronica's present waiting for him: Caterina's head in a box.


Horrified, Jacopo had the assassins executed and forced Veronica into exile at Villa Cerbone in Figline Valdarno. There, Veronica became extremely religious, so much so that for many years after her death her tomb in the main cathedral of Massa became a popular place of worship.


It is rumored that Veronica's spirit still haunts Villa San Cerbone, which is today the Serristori hospital. Patients and hospital staff alike have felt her presence, reporting apparitions, whispers and ghostly tuggings on their clothing. Although the accounts vary, they all agree that her ghost is benign, even comforting at times. Perhaps Veronica is spending her afterlife repenting for her past deeds.





An Italian knight in the thirteenth century, Maghinardo Pagano from the town of Susinana, Palazzuolo, was a strong, ruthless leader, who became one of the most powerful knights of the Apennine region during his life. His fame on the battlefield was so great that he appears in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, where he was called both a ‘lion' and a 'demon.'


Pagano was just as unscrupulous in death. In his final will, he laid out very specific instructions for his tomb, located in the Abbey of Vallombrosa in Susinana. Although the tomb's exact location in the monastery remains a mystery even today, it is rumored that he was buried with his famous golden sword and a treasure chest overflowing with jewels and coins.


According to the legend that is still told by farmers in the area, on the nights of a full moon, Maghinardo Pagano rides through the countryside on his white horse, wearing his gold armor and carrying his golden sword.



Villa di Cerreto Guidi is open for tours by reservation; call Firenze Musei at 055 294883. For more information, see


Ospedale Serristori is in Piazza XXV Aprile in Figline Valdarno.


Susinana Abbey in Palazzuolo can be visited year round; call 055/862251.



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