In the “Garden of Curious Flowers (1570),” a hodgepodge work of miscellanies that had the proud distinction of being banned by the Inquisition, the Spanish author Antonio de Torquemada recounted a bizarre story that many people in Italy and Spain could supposedly vouch for. The tale concerned a student named Juan Vázquez de Ayola, who with two of his friends went to Bologna to study law.
While searching for a place to stay, the Spaniards asked some local men in the street if they knew any places friendly to foreigners. One of the men, smiling, pointed to a boarded-up house. His friends told the Spaniards that this was meant to be a good old-fashioned Bolognese joke; the house had been unavailable the past twelve years because it was haunted. Ayola, playing the straight man, asked if he could have the keys.
The owner of the house did his best to turn the students away. He told them all about the horrible things people had seen there, but the Spaniards laughed them off. They were modern 16th century college boys, dammit, and they didn’t believe in anything as silly as ghosts. So the owner coughed up the keys and the Spaniards got themselves a haunted house.
After moving in, the Spaniards had a hard time finding servants for their new home. They were able to hire one woman as a cook, but she refused to do her job inside the house. A month passed, and much to the astonishment of the Bolognese, the Spaniards were still living in the house without having seen or heard anything strange.
This all changed one night, however, when Ayola was alone in his study and the other two Spaniards were asleep. Around midnight, Ayola’s reading was interrupted by the sound of something heavy trudging across the floor downstairs. His heart pounding, Ayola thought about waking his friends up, but he was too scared to move. As the noise rattled up the stairs, Ayola had no choice but to check it out. He grabbed a sword and candle and left the room.
It turned out the stories were true: Standing at the staircase was a tall skeleton covered in chains. Some moments passed, and Ayola noticed that the skeleton had stopped moving. It simply stood there, being quiet and very much undead. Mustering up all his machismo, Ayola asked his chained visitor if there were anything he could help it with. The skeleton simply shook its head and pointed a bony finger down the staircase.
It wanted Ayola to follow it.
At a snail’s pace, the chained skeleton led Ayola from the house into the courtyard. From there, they went into the garden. At the sight of a well, Ayola stopped in his tracks, afraid that the skeleton wanted to toss him into a watery grave. (Because who would suspect the skeleton, right? It’d be the perfect crime!)
The skeleton motioned for Ayola to be calm. It pointed to a spot farther on, and just as they reached it, the skeleton vanished before Ayola’s eyes. The confused Spaniard called for the apparition to come back, but some time passed and he remained alone. Before going back inside, Ayola marked the spot where the skeleton disappeared by digging up some grass.
After waking his friends up, Ayola told them everything that had happened. Unusually, in a city where everyone believed his house was haunted, Ayola worried that nobody would believe his story. He insisted on keeping it a secret, but it eventually leaked out to his neighbors and the chief magistrate.
The law student swore by oath that everything he saw was true. In the garden, he showed the authorities the spot where the skeleton had disappeared. Digging the spot up, the authorities discovered a grave which contained an unusually large, chained skeleton. Naturally, such an intriguing find called for an investigation, but nobody could say who the skeleton was. The only guess was that it might have belonged to somebody who used to live in the house.
Though it was never identified, the skeleton apparently found peace. There weren’t any more strange noises or shenanigans in the house in Bologna. As for Juan Vázquez de Ayola, he returned to Spain and went on to hold many important offices under the king.
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