Venice is built amidst the water, on pilings. There is no subterranean Venice (except for a very few crypts). It famously floods. So what did residents do with their dead? Most people know that there is now the cemetery island of San Michele, just to the north of Venice before Murano. And some know that there is a Jewish cemetery on the Lido. But was there ever anything else?
The Campiello Novo o dei Morti was one such site. Just near Campo Santo Stefano, it’s curiously raised up eight steps. This has given rise to rumors and myths that it was a burial place for the dead during the Black Death that visited the city in 1630-31. Because so many died so quickly, the story goes, there was no time to bring the dead to locations further away and they were buried here in this campo instead. The soil level was raised to cover them.
But alas, this great story seems to be a myth. Older records show that this campo was indeed a burial place, but for the friars at the church of Santo Stefano. So if you’re crossing this campo, you’re traversing monk bones (or what dust remains from them). Giuseppe Tassini, in Curiosita Veneziane, points out that the plague happened in 1630-31, while the city records show that the land was excavated in 1683 (453). So … I guess you’re not actually walking over the dust of dead monks today either. In an effort to erase the past, the campo was renamed Campiello Novo or New Campo, but you can see that the sign now includes both names.
There is also a plaque on the wall, in Latin, that confirms the cemetery was here. It is dated 1838 (MDCCCXXXVIII in Roman numerals) and marks the time when the campo was opened as a public square (according to John Freely in Strolling Through Venice 105). Paolo Giordani, in his guidebook Venice, tells a crazy story about a pirate named Paolo da Campo who was captured in 1490 and served his penance in this square. Better than walking the plank, I guess.