In the Canareggio sestiere of Venice, between the Jewish Ghetto and the Madonna dell’ Orto church, on the Calle dei Mori (the Street of the Moors), resides the Palazzo Mastelli. It is an venerable edifice, marked with a plaque depicting a camel laden with burdens. (Consequently, the palazzo is familiarly known as the House of the Camel.) The camel is an enduring symbol of the position of Venice as an entrepôt for trade between East and West.
The original meaning of the camel plaque seems to have been lost to legend, most of it xenophobic. According to legend, three brothers came to Venice from “Morea” (the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece) in 1112. Or maybe, according to other accounts, they were from the Levant. Maybe they were Arabs. In any case, their names are always given as Rioba, Sandi, and Afani, and they were traders, wicked men who, one story has it, sought to sell cheap fabric to a Venetian lady at an exorbitant price. But the victim of the scam cursed the money, and the three men were turned into turbaned stone statues that stand near the palace in the Campo dei Mori.
Another variant of the story says that the unscrupulous merchant used his favorite phrase while peddling his cloth, “May my hand turn to stone if what I am saying is not true.” Unfortunately for him, his intended victim was an avatar of St. Mary Magdalene (or maybe she simply answered the woman’s prayer) and once again the brothers end up as stone figures.
On one of the statues, known as “Sior Rioba,” satirical poems and protests politicians and other powerful people were traditionally hung. In the nineteenth century Sior Rioba lost his nose, and in 2010 his head, although it was later found in the Calle della Racchetta and restored.
Legends endure, and Venetians and travel guides have enjoyed relating the story for centuries. (One version appears in Giuseppe Tassini’s Curiosità Veneziane, 1872.) But the bases of the statues are in fact parts from a Roman altar, and the statues were not constructed as a group but are a composite from various sources, put together in the fourteenth century.
The Palazzo Mastelli is a similar mélange, combining thirteenth-century Byzantine fragments with sixteenth-century construction, Roman fragments set in a column, and all of that topped with a Gothic balcony. All quite Venetian and, if you ask me, charming.