“When I went to Venice, my dream became my life.” – Marcel Proust
“Venice opens her arms to all whom others shun. She lifts up all whom others abase. She welcomes those whom others persecute. She cheers the mourner in his grief and defends the disposed and the destitute with charity and love. And so I bow to Venice with good reason. She is a living reproach to [papal] Rome.” – Pietro Aretino in his address to Doge Andrea Gritti, 1527
If you have never been to Venice, you haven’t seen the most beautiful city in the World. When people ask me about my favorite place, I always tell the truth – Beirut – because this is where my heart is. However, I can’t deny the uniqueness and charms of Venice, it is a perfect place to fall in love with and it absolutely deserves all the fuss! A truly Byzantine city built by refugees on mud banks amid the marshy lagoons of the Adriatic in the 5th century, it rose to acquire a rightful title of the Empire and to rule the seas for over a thousand years! Successful leadership and trade brought immense wealth and with that wealth the Venetians built a magnificent city, a stunning composition of stone and waves that still evokes wonder today, and called her – La Serenissima!
Strangely, I have never had an urgent desire to visit Venice, maybe because so many people have already been there and I always preferred the “roads less traveled”. However, to mark my first anniversary of successfully completing a chemotherapy, my husband and I decided to attend a Carnevale di Venezia (Venetian Carnival), perhaps one of the World’s most famous affairs. So, in February 2016, we flew to Venice and spent 10 days there, half of which fell on a very hectic and colorful end of the Carnival and half, on a quiet and very local post-Carnival time.
It doesn’t take long to figure out what makes Venice so special and unique – it is a fact that since the 12th-14th centuries, when the success of the Venetian Empire was celebrated in art and architecture throughout the city, very little of the essential fabric of Venice has been altered. The city’s sounds are still those of footsteps and the cries of boatmen. The same streets, without any sight of modern traffic lights, are still trodden. It is, as if living in those times! So come and succumb to the magic of this improbable place whose streets are full of water and where the glories of the past are evident and alive at every turn.
- Frommer’s Italy 2008
- Lonely Planet Venice & Veneto
- Italy 2015 by DK Eyewitness Travel Guide
- Rick Steves Italy 2015
- Rick Steves’ Pocket Venice 2015
- St. Mark’s Basilica by Maria Da Villa Urbani
- “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt
- “A Venetian Affair: A true tale of forbidden love in the 18th century” by Andrea di Robilant
- “Francesco’s Venice: the dramatic history of the world’s most beautiful city” by Francesco da Mosto
- “Venice: A New History” by Thomas E. Madden
- “Venice: The Lion City. The Religion of Empire” by Garry Wills
- “The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage” by Jan Morris
- The Accademia Galleries in Venice. General Catalogue.
- “1000 Places to see before you die” by Patricia Schultz
- “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann
- “Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories: A Guide to places of Mystery in Venice” by Alberto Toso Fei
- “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino
In the 5th century A.D., at the head of the Adriatic Sea, the lush plains and hills of the Veneto were hard hit by successive waves of Germanic and Hun invasions, for they stood at the crossroads of the eastern and western halves of the broken Roman empire. In the old days of the Pax Romana this area had been one of great beauty and wealth. Patavium (modern Padua) had boasted of its affluent citizens who reaped rich profit from the wool and wine afforded by the verdant countryside. Noble Aquileia, the “eagle city”, was a place of opulence with heavy fortified walls surrounding magnificent forums, palaces, monuments, and harbors. Its markets and homes spilled over with every luxury and delicacy that a vast empire could afford. But in 452 Attila the Hun came to Aquileia…. A few survivors of this devastation searched for refuge but found none. Where could one flee when even Rome itself was in danger? With no secure retreat on the mainland, ragged bands of refugees made their way to the marshes of the nearby lagoon, a brackish hideaway between the land and the Adriatic sea. They loaded their families and what possessions they could scrounge onto boats and rowed out to the sandy islands of a new watery world. There they found safety from the barbarians. There, they hoped, they could survived the end of their world. Although they could never have known it, the desperate men, women, and children in those lonely boats were the founders of one of history’s most remarkable cities. From an archipelago of sand, trees, and marsh they would bring forth the extraordinary beauty that is Venice – a city unlike any other. It didn’t happen all at once or easily. For centuries the lagoon remained a collection of small island communities. Even after settlements began to cluster around Rialto, Venice was still a place of wood and mud. But that, too, would change. By the 13th century Venice was no longer simply a town built on the water, it had become western Europe’s second largest city with a maritime empire that stretched across the Mediterranean Sea. Venice and wealth would become hindered concepts. (Some late Roman sources reveal the existence of fishermen on the islands in the original marshy lagoons. They were referred to as incolae lacunae (“lagoon dwellers”). The traditional founding of Venice is identified with the dedication of the first church, that of San Giacomo on the islet of Rialto (“High Shore”) — said to have taken place at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421 – the Feast of the Annunciation.
According to John the Deacon, a Venetian chronicler writing some four centuries later, it was Patriarch Christopher of Grado who first suggested that the scattered lagoon dwellers elect a leader to help bring peace and unity to the region. In 697, we are told, the 12 tribunes elected a dux (or “doge” in Venetian dialect), who was a Byzantine official with a power base in Eraclea. Depending on the tradition one accepts, that first doge was either Paolo Lucio Anafesto or Orso Ipato. And so the Venetians had a leader – the first of 118 doges that would govern the city-state.
Orso’s successor, Deusdedit, moved his seat from Eraclea to Malamocco in the 740s. He was the son of Orso and represented the attempt of his father to establish a dynasty. Such attempts were more than commonplace among the doges of the first few centuries of Venetian history, but all were ultimately unsuccessful. During the reign of Deusdedit, Venice became the only remaining Byzantine possession in the north and the changing politics of the Frankish Empire began to change the factional division of Venice as well. One faction was decidedly pro-Byzantine, with a desire to remain well-connected to the Empire. Another faction, republican in nature, believed in continuing along a course towards practical independence. The other main faction was pro-Frankish; supported mostly by clergy (in line with papal sympathies of the time), they looked towards the new Carolingian king of the Franks, Pepin the Short, as the best provider of defence against the Lombards. A minor, pro-Lombard, faction was opposed to close ties with any of these further-off powers and interested in maintaining peace with the neighboring Lombard kingdom, which surrounded Venice except on the seaward side. Due to the Lombard conquest of other Byzantine territories, settlement on the islands in the lagoon increased, as more refugees sought asylum there.
During the reign of pro-Lombard Domenico Monegario (756-764), Venice changed from a fisherman’s town to a port of trade and center of merchants. Shipbuilding was also greatly advanced and the pathway to Venetian dominance of the Adriatic was laid. Also during his tenure, the first dual tribunal was instituted – each year, two new tribunes were elected to oversee the doge and prevent abuse of power. Succeeded by pro-Byzantine Maurizio Galbaio, the new doge’s long reign (764-787) vaulted Venice forward to a place of prominence not just regionally (he oversaw the expansion of Venice to the Rialto islands) but internationally, and saw the most concerted effort yet to establish a dynasty, as he was succeeded by his equally long-reigning son, Giovanni.
Dynastic ambitions were shattered when the pro-Frankish faction was able to seize power under Obelerio degli Antoneri in 804. Obelerio brought Venice into the orbit of the Carolingian Empire. However, by calling in Charlemagne’s son Pepin to his defence, he raised the ire of the populace against himself and was forced to flee during Pepin’s siege of Venice. The siege proved a costly Carolingian failure – it lasted six months, with Pepin’s army ravaged by the diseases of the local swamps that eventually forced them to withdraw in 810. A few months later Pepin himself died, apparently as a result of a disease contracted there. In the aftermath, an agreement between Charlemagne and the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus in 814 recognized Venice as Byzantine territory and granted the city trading rights along the Adriatic coast.
As the community continued to develop and as Byzantine power waned, Venice autonomy grew, leading to eventual independence. And so it was that in the midst of this troubled medieval lagoon a republic, founded on the authority of the “people of Venice”, was born. It was the only one left in the world – and it would last for a thousand years. It grew and thrived uniquely there because Venice itself was unique. Land was scarce in that watery world, status and wealth, therefore, were based not on a landed aristocracy, but on entrepreneurial skill. The Venetians were exporting no ideology to the world, they weren’t hoping to found lesser states in their own image, they had no missionary zeal. They were not great builders, like Romans, they were not fanatics, like the Spaniards. They were above all money-people – every Venetian, wrote Pope Pius II in the 15th century, was a slave to “the sordid occupation of trade”.
The successors of Obelerio inherited a united Venice. During the reigns of Agnello Participazio (811-827) and his two sons, Venice grew into its modern form. Though Eraclean by birth, Agnello was an early immigrant to Rialto and his rule was marked by the expansion of Venice towards the sea via the construction of bridges, canals, bulwarks, fortifications, and stone buildings. During his reign, the ducal seat moved from Malamocco to the highly protected Rialto, the current location of Venice. The monastery of St. Zaccaria, the first ducal palace and basilica di San Marco, as well as a walled defense between Olivolo and Rialto, were subsequently built here. Agnello was succeeded by his son Giustiniano, who brought the body (or parts of the body) of Saint Mark the Evangelist to Venice from Alexandria and made him the patron saint of Venice.
At that time, Venice had all the makings of an independent trading center – ports, defensible positions, leadership – but no glorious shrine to mark the city’s place on the world map. So Venice did what any ambitious, God-fearing medieval city would do: it procured a patron saint. The story goes that in 828, two Venetian merchants with the help of two Greek monks, stole the relics, believed to be the body of Saint Mark, from Alexandria (at the time controlled by the Abbasid Caliphate) and brought them to Venice. In order to avoid Muslim custom officials, who were notified of the alleged robbery and suspected the Venetian in committing this crime, the relics were wrapped in cabbage leaves and placed in barrels between the layers of pork, thus preventing the inspectors from thoroughly examining the ship’s cargo. Once the relics reached Venice, instead of being used to adorn the church of Grado, which claimed to possess the throne of Saint Mark, it was kept secretly by Doge in his modest palace. Possession of Saint Mark’s remains was “the symbol not of the Patriarchate of Grado, nor of the bishopric of Olivolo, but of the city of Venice.” In his will, Doge Giustiniano asked his widow to build a basilica dedicated to Saint Mark, which was erected between the palace and the chapel of Saint Theodore Stratelates, who, under Byzantine rule had been the original patron of Venice. There are multiple versions of why St. Mark, in particular, was made the main religious symbol of the city (a local legend says that St. Mark had visited the lagoon islands and been told by an angel that his body would rest there) but none of the stories I’ve researched could pass a litmus test. After reading multiple historical accounts, I came to a conclusion that St. Mark was chosen simply because his relicts got into the hands of the Venetians before any other relics. The story of St. Mark’s bones wouldn’t end there. Matters came to a head in 976, when a war between the factions broke out in the streets and canals of Venice. The Morosinis and their supporters won the day, pursuing their enemies all the way to the Ducal Palace. There they set fire to houses built around the fortified structure. The fire grew into a mighty blaze that cut across the San Marco area, consuming not only the Palace, but also the wooden chapel of San Marco, the old church of St. Theodore, and some 300 other buildings. The body of St. Mark, so carefully purloined from Alexandria and installed in the newborn Venice, was forever lost in the flames. However, even today, every time you see a symbol of winged Lion of St. Mark holding an open book with words “Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus” written on it – know, you are either in Venice or in one of the lands, that historically belonged to Venetian Empire. And lions you will see… plenty!
By the late 11th century Venice has become a city that scarcely resembled the muddy archipelago of islands to which Doge Angello Partecipazio had led his people in 811. It now teemed with a population of some 50,000 souls, making it the second largest city in western Europe. Within a century it would double again in size. To sustain that kind of growth in a lagoon, additional land was necessary. As rivers were filled in, marshes drained, and bridges built, parish boundaries in Venice came to separate neighborhoods (sestieri) rather than independent island communities. Although Venetians retained their parish identities, their various patron saints, once a sign of prestige and independence, were now displaced by devotion to St. Mark, the patron of the doge and the state. It is not surprising, then, that the Venetians decided to build a new church of San Marco, one that would better reflect the wealth and prestige of their vibrant community.
To construct a new Basilica di San Marco – the third and final version of the doge’s great chapel – a battery of builders, craftsmen, and artists were hired in Constantinople during the reign of Doge Domenico Contarini (1043-1070). The Greek architects modeled the new stone structure on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople – a now-lost building that had served as the burial site for emperors since the time of Constantine the Great. San Marco was probably the first stone church to be built in Venice, and it was certainly the grandest to be found anywhere in the region, perhaps in the entire West. While stunning, the new San Marco conspicuously lacked the body of St. Mark, lost in the fire that destroyed the first church in 976. An insurmountable problem to the modern mind, perhaps, but it was nothing of the sort in the Middle Ages. If God wished to preserved the body of St. Mark, he would very well do so. After all, had he not sent his angel to foretell that the Evangelist would one day rest in Venice? A variety of stories soon developed to explain the “rediscovery” of St. Mark’s body after the dedication of his new church. In most of them, the doge, patriarch, and citizens prayed fervently to have the relics restored, now that a suitable temple had been built to house them. The body was then miraculously revealed by the falling away of plaster or stone from a wall or (in most versions) a column in the new church. Behind the broken material could be seen either the arm or the whole body of the patron saint. Even today, citizens of Venice would ardently argue that the bones of St. Mark are the original ones, which I found amusing.
From the 9th to the 12th century, Venice developed into a city state (the other three were Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi). Its strategic position at the head of the Adriatic made Venetian naval and commercial power almost invulnerable. The Republic of Venice seized a number of places on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic before 1200, mostly for commercial reasons, because pirates based there were a menace to trade. The city became a flourishing trade center between Western Europe and the rest of the world (especially the Byzantine Empire and Asia) with a naval power protecting sea routes from Islamic piracy. The Doge began to carry the titles of Duke of Dalmatia and Duke of Istria. Later mainland possessions, which extended across Lake Garda as far west as the Adda River, were known as the “Terraferma”, and were acquired partly as a buffer against belligerent neighbors, partly to guarantee Alpine trade routes, and partly to ensure the supply of mainland wheat, on which the city depended. In building its maritime commercial empire, the Republic dominated the trade in salt, acquired control of most of the islands in the Aegean, including Cyprus and Crete, and became a major power-broker in the Near East. It was an empire of coasts and islands, distributed along the republic’s trading routes to the orient and it was changing all the time. It was never, so to speak, definitive as it had no moment of completion, and Venice’s possessions varied enormously in style, size and longevity. Its entire population was probably never more than 400,000, but it extended in scattered bits and pieces from the Adriatic in the west to Cyprus in the east. Venice remained closely associated with Constantinople, being twice granted trading privileges and exemption from taxes in the Eastern Roman Empire, through the so-called Golden Bulls or “chrysobulls” in return for aiding the Eastern Empire to resist Norman and Turkish incursions. Those Golden Bulls were a considerable factor in the city-state’s later accumulation of wealth and power serving as middlemen for the lucrative spice and silk trade that funneled through the Levant and Egypt along the ancient Kingdom of Axum and Roman-Indian routes via the Red Sea.
By then, the institute of the Doge, his role, election process and duties were very much established. Despite a labyrinth of regulations surrounding the doge, some of the most effective checks were informal – including a tacit consensus on the age requirement. No legal minimum for holding the office had to be enacted, since it was unthinkable that he should be young. The average age of doges at their election was 72. This reflected a general attitude toward age that made political careers in Venice culminate late in life. Thus, nobles strove to let only tested and trusted men enter the higher office. There were long years of seasoning and observation, of service at lower posts, of diplomatic or military assignments, preceding elevation to the government’s central positions. Men rarely reached the Senate until they were in their 50s or 60s. The highest offices were kept beyond a man’s expectable reach, in Venice, until he was old and had little time to build any power base separate from those who had elected him.
In Venice, the age criterion was strengthened by supplementary considerations. It was better for a doge not to have sons holding office or showing ambitions. In fact it was best to have no sons at all, who might use their father’s power to increase their own. It didn’t hurt, either, for a doge-elect to have outlived his wife (if any) – which meant there was often no dogaressa whose relatives could gain advantage from her connection. Other things being equal, the ideal candidate for doge would seem to have been an 80 y.o. man who had no surviving relatives, who had never married (to acquire relatives on his wife’s side), and had no children who could marry into other families. Celibacy could not actually be required but the conditions was sometimes approximated.
There were four main stages in the checking of a doge’s power – first at his election, followed closely by his renunciatory oath, then during his tenure of office, and finally in the punitive scrutiny after his death. After 1172 the election of the doge was entrusted to a committee of forty, however after a deadlocked tie at the election of 1229, the number of electors was increased from forty to forty-one. And so, the election went the following way:
- From the Larger Council, 30 men were chosen by lot;
- then 9 were chosen by log from 30;
- then the 9 voted for 40;
- then 12 were chosen by lot from the 40;
- then the 12 voted for 25;
- then 9 were chosen by lot from the 25;
- then the 9 voted for 45;
- then 11 were chosen by lot from the 45;
- then the 11 voted for 41;
- then the 41 elected a new doge. I hope I didn’t lose you here.
In a ceremonial formula for consulting the Venetians, when a new doge was chosen, before he took the oath of investiture he was presented to the people of Venice with the words: “This is your doge, if it please you.” This practice came to an end in 1423, after the election of Francesco Foscari, who was presented with the unconditional statement: “Your doge”. The Doge of Venice’s Oath of office (as of 1192) was: “We will consider, attend to, and work for the honor and profit of the people of Venice in good faith and without fraud”.
Elected for life (unless forcibly removed from office), doges had great temporal power at first, however after 1268, the doge was constantly under strict surveillance: he had to wait for other officials to be present before opening dispatches from foreign powers; he was not allowed to possess any property in a foreign land, etc. After a doge’s death, a commission of inquisitori passed judgment upon his acts, and his estate was liable to be fined for any discovered malfeasance. The official income of the doge was never large, and from early times holders of the office remained engaged in trading ventures, which kept them in touch with the requirements of the grandi.
One of the ceremonial duties of the doge was to celebrate the symbolic marriage of Venice with the sea. The ceremony, established in about 1000 A.D. to commemorate the Doge Pietro II Orseolo‘s conquest of Dalmatia, was originally one of supplication and placation, when Ascension Day was chosen for the doge to set out on his expedition. It took a form of a solemn procession of boats, headed by the doge’s ship (from 1311 the Bucentaur), out to sea by the Lido port. A prayer was offered that “for us and all who sail thereon the sea may be calm and quiet”, whereupon the doge and the others were solemnly aspersed with holy water, the rest of which was thrown into the sea while the priests chanted “Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor” (“Sprinkle me with hyssop, and I will be clean” – Psalm 51:7). The ceremony took its later and more magnificent form after the visit of Pope Alexander III and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I to Venice in 1177. The pope drew a ring from his finger and, giving it to the doge, bade him cast such a one into the sea each year on Ascension Day, and so wed the sea. Henceforth the ceremony, instead of placatory and expiatory, became nuptial. Every year the doge dropped a consecrated ring into the sea, and with the Latin words “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini” (“We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination”) declared Venice and the sea to be indissolubly one. Despite the end of the office of the doge and the destruction of the Bucentaur, the ceremony of the marriage of the sea continues to this day – it is performed by the mayor of Venice aboard a smaller ceremonial barge called the Bissona Serenissima.
The doge took part in ducal processions, which started in the Piazza San Marco, when he would appear in the center of the procession, preceded by civil servants ranked in ascending order of prestige and followed by noble magistrates ranked in descending order of status. Until the 15th century, the funeral service for a deceased doge would normally be held at St Mark’s Basilica, where some early holders of this office are also buried. After the 15th century however, the funerals of all later doges were held at the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, and twenty-five doges are buried there.
Outsiders could only wonder at this mystery: the most stable government had the most kaleidoscopic system of governing. What held the whole thing together? Not any agency of government, but the single source – a compact patrician class that had a secure monopoly on all the shifting positions.
I brought the topic of Doge into attention in order to discuss an event that, in early 13th century, made Venice a truly imperial power – the Fourth Crusade and the role old and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo played in the destruction of the Byzantine Empire. Venice was involved in the Crusades almost from the very beginning; 200 Venetian ships assisted in capturing the coastal cities of Syria after the First Crusade, and in 1123 they were granted virtual autonomy in the Kingdom of Jerusalem through the Pactum Warmundi. In 1110, Ordelafo Faliero personally commanded a Venetian fleet of 100 ships to assist Baldwin I of Jerusalem in capturing the city of Sidon. In the 12th century, the republic built a large national shipyard that is now known as the Arsenal – this installation, toward the east of the city, was in its time the largest industrial complex in the world. At the beginning, it was still a modest eight-acre naval depot. But as the Venetian empire spread, and a high-efficiency fleet became an urgent necessity, all of the city’s ship-related production activities were concentrated here behind protective walls. By the 16th century the Arsenal had grown to its present extent – 60 acres (a circumference of 5 km), and it could, in a crisis, produce 50 galleys in a month, besides servicing, periodically inspecting, and repairing the ships that were Venice’s muscle and bone as a world power.
The Fourth Crusade led by Franks originally intended to conquer Muslim-controlled Jerusalem through invasion of Egypt. Venice would provide a fleet of more than 500 galleys to carry 30,000 Crusaders, but not for less than 84,000 silver marks – approximately double the yearly income of the king of England at the time. When only one-thirds of the proposed Frankish forces turned up in Venice, it became obvious that the Crusaders would never be able to pay their debt to Venice, so their leaders made a deal to follow the orders of the cunning and manipulative Doge Dandolo instead. The fleet bypassed Egypt and went straight to its main target – the greatest city of Christendom and the richest metropolis in the world – Constantinople, and…. sacked it in 1204. After the fall of Constantinople, the former Roman Empire was partitioned among the Latin Crusaders and the Venetians. Venice subsequently carved out a sphere of influence in the Mediterranean known as the Duchy of the Archipelago. When you read historical accounts, the Fourth Crusade doesn’t seem logical at all – Venice was a Byzantine city, its merchants had extensive trading routes and posts in Constantinople and the Republic was often granted a tax-free status by the Empire, however, Dandolo’s greed went beyond that. He wanted all the treasures and glory to himself, at the expense of one of the supreme cities of the Christian faith. This was Dandolo’s moment of fulfillment. He assumed yet another title, that of Despot, and hobbled around the city, we are told, wearing the scarlet buskins of an emperor himself. He was the true hero of the hour, the strategist of the expedition, the inspiration of the assault, the disposer of the spoils – Blind old Dandolo! as Byron was to apostrophize him. Th’octogenarian chief, Byzantium’s conquering foe! Constantinople’s capture and destruction was described as one of the most profitable and disgraceful sacks of a city in history.
Venetians knew exactly what they wanted from Constantinople. They took the head of St. Stephen, to go with the martyr’s feel already enshrined in the monastery of San Giorgio at home, and a multitude of lesser sacred relics, with the prodigious gold, silver and enameled reliquaries which the Byzantine craftsmen had made for them: shared out among the Venetian churches, these would vastly increase the profitable allure of the city as a pilgrim port. They took a series of exquisite enameled cameos from the Pantocrator Monastery, to make the Pala d’Oro even more magnificent, and a pair of great carved doors to make the entrance to the Basilica still more impressive. They took a few of marble columns, floridly decorated, to enrich the Piazzetta. They took a quartet of little porphyry knights, probably Roman tetrarchs of an Augustus and a Caesar, to embellish a corner of St. Mark’s. They took stones and panels from all over Constantinople, classical fragments, plinths of lost statues, streaked slabs of alabaster, to be shipped home as ballast and built into the texture of Venice. A visitor today to Basilica di San Marco will witness much of what Dandolo sent home. Indeed, it is impossible not to see it as the church had sparse ornamentation in 1200. Today, it is encrusted with marble slabs, arches, columns, and sculptures placed in an almost haphazard fashion wherever they might fit.
Most deliberately of all, the Venetians snatched two supreme treasures of the city which would forever afterwards be associated with their own power and providence. The first was the miraculous icon of the Nikopoeia, the Victory-worker: this they spirited away from the Church of the Virgin, where it made its weekly revelation, to be enshrined in a new chapel within the Basilica, and brought it forth in glory or in supplication whenever a victory had been won, or a disaster was to be averted. The second was the grand quadriga of bronze horses from the emperor’s box at the Hippodrome: from these they removed the harnesses and detached the horses’ necks and heads as they couldn’t transport them in one piece. The horses are a Roman copy of a Greek masterwork, and were probably cast around the time of Christ or a century or two after. In the 4th or 5th century they were moved to Constantinople, where they pulled their triumphant charioteer for centuries. We can imagine the surprise with which the Venetians unpacked this strange gift as for a few years they argued over where to place them, but finally decided on the facade of San Marco. There is no connection between neither St. Mark and horses, nor between the horses and the Piazza, however they were to be associated always with the independence of Venice from Constantinople as from all other suzerains, never to be bridled again, but to stand side by side until the end of the Republic.
From that day, Venice became the thief and the chief repository of Byzantine art and craftsmanship. Constantinople was left stripped of its glories. “Oh city, city, eye of all cities”, mourned Nicetas. “Thou hast drunk to the dregs the cup of the anger of the Lord”. Needless to say that when Venetian ships opted to head home loaded with booty and forgetting all about the Crusades, the Franks were left alone to struggle onwards to the Christian duty.
A year after the Crusade, in 1205, in his 90s by now and in the plentitude of his triumph, Dandolo died. He had never gone home to Venice again, but of all the Doges of Venice, he remains the best-known to this day as a supreme champion to the Venetian, and an absolute rough to all philhellenes. He was interred, of course, in St. Sophia, in a pillared sarcophagus on the south balcony. Nobody quite knows what happened to his bones when, two centuries later, Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks, and the cathedral was turned into a mosque. Some say they were thrown to the dogs, others suggest that when in 1479 the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini was fulfilling a commission from the Sultan of Turkey in Constantinople, he was allowed to take the old warrior’s remains home to Venice, together with his sword and helmet. Anyway, his tombstone remains in Hagia Sophia to this day – a plain oblong slab carved crudely with his name, so next time you are in Istanbul, make sure to stop by and kick it, hard! He was a terrible old man but he loved his city and the city still loves him: there is a monument to him in Latin, on his modest house near the Rialto bridge, No 4172 San Marco!
It is true that Dandolo and his Venetians, more absolutely than anyone else, had destroyed the Byzantine civilization. The Latin Empire didn’t last long, as Greek emperors were restored to the throne within half a century, and presided over a late revival of the Byzantine genius. But the city and its empire were never the same again. The spirit had gone, the heritage was dispersed, and in the 15th century, when the Turks took it in their turn, they found it half-ruined still. Greeks everywhere never forgave the Venetians, whom they regarded as the instigators of this tragedy. The Venetians themselves actually considered moving their capital to Constantinople – “truly our city”, is how an official document described it – but lost their share of sovereignty there, and their patriarchate too, when the Greek emperors came back in 1261. They were not finished with the city, however. They maintained a trading colony there for two centuries more, and were to fight battles in its waters, against one enemy or another, on and off until the 17th century. But they left no monuments on the peninsula above the Golden Horn. The Venetian quarter that Dandolo acquired left no trace, the covered bazaar now called the Spice Bazaar, is on the site of the Venetian market, but not a sprocket is left, not a machicolation, to show that they were even there.
Having taken Constantinople for all it was worth, Venice set it sights on distant shores. Through the overland trip of native son Marco Polo in 1271-1291, Venetian trade routes extended all the way to China. Rival Genoa’s routes to the New World were proving slower to yield returns, and the impatient empire cast an envious eye on Venice’s spice and silk-trade routes. In 1372 Genoa and Venice finally came to blows over an incident in Cyprus, initiating 8 years of maritime warfare that took a toll on Venice. Genoa’s allies Padua and Hungary took the opportunity to seize Venetian territories on the mainland, and in 1379 a Genoese fleet appeared off the Lido. Venetian commander Carlo Zeno‘s war fleet had been sent out to patrol the Mediterranean, leaving the city outflanked and outnumbered. But the Genoese made a strategic mistake: instead of invading, they attempted to starve out the city. With stores of grain saved for just such an occasion, Venice worked day and night to built new ships and defences around the islands. Venetian commander Vittore Pisani mounted a counter-attack on the Genoese fleet – but his forces were inadequate. All hope seemed lost for Venice, until ships flying the lion of St. Mark banner appeared on the horizon: Carlo Zeno had returned. Venice ousted the Genoese, exerting control over the Adriatic and a backyard that stretched from Dalmatia to Bergamo.
As ships came and went through Venice’s ports daily, carrying salt, silks, spices and an unintentional import: rats infested with fleas carrying bubonic plague. In 1348 the city was still recovering from an earthquake that had destroyed houses and drained the Grand Canal, when the plague struck. Soon as many as 600 people were dying every day, and undertakers’ barges raised the rueful cry: “Corpi morti! Corpi morti!” (Bring out your dead!) Within a year, more than 50,000 Venetians died. No one was sure how the disease had spread, but Venice took an unprecedented step of appointing 3 public health officials to manage the crisis. Observing that outbreaks seemed to coincide with incoming shipments, Venice decided in 1403 to intercept all arriving on Isola di Lazzaretto Buovo. Before any ship was allowed to enter the city, it was required to undergo inspections, and its passengers had to wait for a quarantena (40-day period) while Venetian doctors monitored them for signs of plague. This was the world’s first organized quarantine station, setting a precedent that saved untold lives. While the plague struck Italy’s mainland as many as 50 more times before 1500, the outbreaks often seemed to miraculously bypass Venice. The city’ faithful chalked up their salvation to divine intervention, and built the spectacular churches of Il Retendore and Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute as monumental thanks.
Despite all, the Venetian empire was dazzlingly cosmopolitan as Venice turned arrivals from every nation and creed into her trading partners – as long as everyone was making money, cultural boundaries need not apply. Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Germans and Persians became neighbors along the Grand Canal and Jewish and Muslim refugees and other groups, widely persecuted in Europe at that time had a chance to peacefully settled into established communities in Venice. By the late 13th century, at the peak of its power and wealth, 300 shipbuilding companies in the Arsenale had 16,000 employees and Venice had 36,000 sailors operating 3,300 ships, dominating Mediterranean commerce. It was the time when Venice’s leading families vied with each other to build the grandest palaces and support the work of the greatest and most talented artists.
By the mid-15th century, Venice’s maritime ventures had left the city swathed in golden mosaics, rusting silks and incense to cover mucky summer smells that were the downsides of a lagoon empire. In case of trade disputes or feuds among neighbors, the Republic retained its calm through a complex political system of checks, balances and elections. The city was governed by the Great Council, which was made up of members of the noble families of Venice. The Great Council appointed all public officials and elected a Senate of 200 to 300 individuals. Since this group was too large to be efficient, a Council of Ten presided by Doge (also called the Consiglio dei Dieci or the Signoria), controlled much of the administration of the city. This, what many regard, shadowy secret service, thwarted conspiracies by deploying Venetian spies throughout Venice and major European capitals. Apparently, Venice had no qualms about spying on its own citizens to ensure a balance of power, and trials, torture and executions were carried out in secret. Still, compared with its neighbors at the time, Venice remained a haven of tolerance – the state was notable for its freedom from religious fanaticism and executed nobody for religious heresy during the Counter-Reformation. This apparent lack of zeal contributed to Venice’s frequent conflicts with the Papacy, which threatened Venice with the interdict on a number of occasions, and twice excommunicated the city (the second, most noted, occasion was in 1606, by order of Pope Paul V.)
Despite Venice’s role in the decline of Byzantine Empire, or the fact that Constantinople sided with Genoa against Venice – warfare wasn’t enough to deter two powers from doing business with one another for centuries. Even when Constantinople fell to Ottoman rule in 1453, trade carried on as usual and the Venetian dialect was still widely spoken across the eastern Mediterranean. After Suleiman the Magnificent took over Cyprus in 1571, Venice sensed its maritime power slipping, and allied with the papal states – Spain and an arch-rival Genoa – to keep the Ottoman sultan at bay. The same year a huge allied fleet (much of it provided by Venice) routed the Turks at the battle of Lepanto in Greece. However, it was too late to stop Ottomans from expanding their territory.
Legend has it that when Turkish troops took over the island of Paros, one of the prisoners was Cecilia Venier-Baffo, who was apparently the illegitimate daughter of Venice’s noble Venier family, a niece of the doge, and possibly the cousin on Sebastiano Venier (hero of the battle in Lepanto). Cecilia became the favorite wife of Sultan Salim II of Constantinople, and when he died in 1574 she took control as Sultana Nurbanu (Princess of Light). The regent of Sultan Murad III, she was a faithful pen pal of Queen Elizabeth I of Britain and Catherine de Medici of France. According to historian Alberto Toso Fei, the Sultana’s policies were so favorable to Venetian interests that the Venetian senate set aside special funds to fulfill her wishes for Venetian specialties – from lapdogs to golden cushions. Genoa wasn’t so thrilled by her favoritism, and in 1582 Sultana was poisoned by Genoese assassins.
In the end, if the Venetians needed Islam, Islam didn’t greatly need Venice, and in four fierce wars and innumerable skirmishes the Turks gradually whittled away the republic’s eastern possessions. One by one the colonies fell, until at the moment of Venice’s own extinction as a state, in 1797, she had nothing much left but the Ionian Islands, off the coast of Greece, and a few footholds on the eastern shore of the Adriatic – properties useless to her anyway by then, except as reminders of the glorious past. World was changing as well. Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492. Then Vasco da Gama of Portugal found a sea route to India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope during his first voyage of 1497–99, destroying Venice’s land route monopoly. France, England and the Dutch Republic followed. Venice’s oared galleys were at a disadvantage when it came to traversing the great oceans, and therefore Venice was left behind in the race for colonies.
While many European city-states continued to plot against one another, they were increasingly eclipsed by marriages cementing alliances among France, England and the Habsburg Empire. As it lost ground to these nations and the seas to pirates and Ottomans, Venice took a different tack, and began conquering Europe by charm. Venice’s star attraction were its parties, music, women and art. Nunneries in Venice (where nuns admitted male “clients”) held soirees to rival those in its ridotti (casinos), and Carnevale lasted up to 3 months. Claudio Monteverdi was hired as choir director of San Marco in 1613, introducing multi-part harmonies and historical operas with crowd-pleasing tragicomic scenes. Monteverdi’s modern opera caught on: by the end of the 17th century, Venice’s season included as many as 30 operas, 10 of which were usually brand new composed for Venetian venues.
New orchestras required musicians, but Venice came up with a ready workforce: orphan girls. Circumstances had conspired to produce an unprecedented number of Venetian orphans: on the one hand were plague and snake-oil cures, and on the other were scandalous masquerade parties and flourishing prostitution. Funds poured in from anonymous donors to support ospedaletti (orphanages), and the great baroque composers Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Cimarosa were hired to lead orphan orchestras. Socialites began gifting snuffboxes and portraits painted by Venetian artists as fashionable tokens of their esteem, and salon habitues across Europe became accustomed to mythological and biblical themes painted in luminous Venetian colors, with the unmistakable city on the water as a backdrop. On baroque church ceilings across Venice, frescoed angels play heavenly music on lutes and trumpets – instruments officially banned from churches by Rome. Venetian art became incredibly daring, with Titian and Veronese bringing voluptuous red colors and sly social commentary to familiar religious subjects.
With maritime trade revenues dipping and the value of the Venetian ducat slipping in the 16th century, Venice’s fleshpots brought in far too much valuable foreign currency to be outlawed. Instead, Venice opted for regulation and taxation. Rather than baring all in the rough-and-ready streets around the Rialto, prostitutes could only display their wares from the waist up in windows, or sit bare-legged on windowsills. Venice decreed that to distinguish themselves from noblewomen who increasingly dressed like them, ladies of the night should ride in gondolas with red lights. By the end of the 16th century, the town was flush with some 12,000 registered prostitutes, creating a literal red-light district. Today, red beacons don’t mean much but you can still enjoy a decadent dinner at Antiche Carampane (Old Streetwalkers) near Ponte della Tette (Bridge of the Tits).
Beyond red lights ringing the Rialto, 16th to 18th century visitors encountered broad grey areas in Venetian social mores. Far from being shunned by polite society, Venice’s “honest courtesans” became widely admired as poets, musicians and taste makers. As free-spirited, financially independent Venetian women took lovers and accepted lavish gift from admirers, there became a certain fluidity surrounding the definition of a cortigiana (courtesan). During winter masquerades and Carnevale, Venice’s nobility regularly escaped the tedium of salons and official duties under masks and cloaks, generating enough gossip to last until the summer social season in Riviera Brenta villas provided fresh scandals. By the 18th century, less than 40% of Venetian nobles bothered with the formality of marriage, and regularity of Venetian marriage annulments scandalized even visiting French courtiers.
In January 1789 Lodovico Manin, from a recently ennobled mainland family, was elected doge, as it would turn out – the last one! The expenses of the election had grown throughout the 18th century, and now reached their highest ever. The patrician Pietro Gradenigo remarked: “I have made a Friulian doge; the Republic is dead.” C. P. Snow suggests that in the last half century of the republic, the Venetians knew that the current of history had begun to flow against them, and that to keep going would require breaking the pattern into which they had crystallized. Yet they never found the will to break it. By the year 1792, the once great Venetian merchant fleet had declined to a mere 309 merchantmen.
When Napoleon arrived in 1797, Venice had been reduced by plague and circumstances from 175,000 to fewer than 100,000 people. Even though, Venice declared its neutrality in the war between France and Austria, it didn’t stop Napoleon, who with a claim, “I want no more Inquisition, no more Senate; I shall be an Attila to the state of Venice”, entered the city. Venetian warships managed to deter one French ships by the Lido, but when Napoleon made it clear he intended to destroy the city if it resisted, the Maggior Cosiglio (Grand Council) decreed the end of the Republic. The doge reportedly doffed the signature cap of his office with a sign, saying, “I won’t be needing this anymore”. Though Napoleon only controlled Venice sporadically for a total of 11 years, the impact of his reign is still visible. He grabbed any Venetian art masterpiece that wasn’t nailed down, and displaced religious orders to make room for museums and trophy galleries in the Gallerie dell’Accademia and Museo Correr. Napoleon’s city planners lifted remaining restrictions on the Jewish Ghetto, filled the canals and widen city streets to facilitate movement of troops and loot.
When Napoleon lost control of Venice in 1814, Austria had grand plans for it – locals were obliged to house Austrian solders, who spent off-duty hours carousing with bullfights, beer and their new happy-hour invention – the spritz (a Prosecco and bitters cocktail). Finding their way back home afterwards was a challenge in Venetian calli (alleyways), so the Austrians implemented a street-numbering system. To bring in reinforcements and supplies, they dredged and deepened entranced to the lagoon and began a train bridge in 1841. Under the Austrians, the population of Venice fell from 138,000 to 99,000. When a young lawyer Daniele Manin suggested reforms to Venice’s puppet government in 1848, he was tossed into prison – sparkling a popular uprising against the Austrians that would last 17 months. Austria responded by bombarding and blockading the city and in July, it began a 24-day artillery bombardment, raining some 23,000 shells down on the city and its increasingly famished and cholera-stricken populace, until Manin finally managed to negotiate a surrender to Austria with a guarantee of no reprisal. Yet the indignity of Austria’s suppression continued to fester, and when presented with the option in 1866, the people of Venice and the Veneto voted to join the new independent kingdom of Italy under King Vittorio Emanuele II.
Glamorous Venice gradually took on a workday aspect in the 19th century, with factories springing up on Giudecca and around Mestre and Padua, and textiles industries setting up shops around Vicenza and Treviso. When Mussolini rose to power after WWI, he was determined to turn the Veneto into a modern industrial powerhouse and a model Fascist society. Venice emerged relatively unscathed from WWII, however the mass deportation of the city’s historic Jewish population in 1943 shook Venice to its very moorings. When the Veneto began to rebound after the war, many Venetians left for the mainland, Milan and other economic centers. Recent demographical studies indicate that only 55,000 people live in the historic city of Venice which spread out across a group of 118 small islands. Today’s Venice traditions are upheld by art institutions such as La Fenice, Goldoni Theater, The Biennale and a dozen world-class museums. Venice’s admirers have been the heroes of its story many times, not only funding vital restorations after the devastating flood of 1966 (Save Venice Inc), but also filling its concert halls and galleries, keeping its signature arts and crafts traditions alive and providing a steady stream of outside inspiration.
I would like to end the history of Venice with the sonnet of Wordsworth “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”:
Don’t expect to have the city to yourself. Even in February, Venice has its admirers. More accessible than ever and surprisingly affordable given its singularity, Venice remains a self-selecting city: it takes a certain bravery to forgo the convenience of cars and highways for slow boats and crooked calli. However, lack of traffic was something my husband found very relaxing and refreshing. There is a chance that the fellow travelers share the same passions for art, music, history, architecture, food and drink, since Venice really isn’t big on business conventions, nightclubs or extreme sports (unless you include glass-shopping).
If you are coming in winter, like us, make sure to bring comfortable and water-resistant shoes (I went for a pair of Aqua Italia boots). If your visit falls on the Carnevale, don’t forget to book tickets for a traditional Venetian Masquerade Ball or at least acquire a costume and proudly parade it on Piazza San Marco. A good paper map or an app, combined with an excellent sense of direction are must, but even then I ran into the city’s resistance to allow me to locate, and sometimes, reach my destination. While packing, make sure to bring only the most important and necessary items as you most likely will end up hauling your luggage through narrow alleyways and multiple bridges from vaporetto (water-bus) stop to your hotel and back. Otherwise, keep your camera ready, your eyes wide open… and always remember to turn around!
Before leaving for Venice, I pre-booked online the tickets to AliLaguna – a public water bus servicing airport with the rest of Venice (€25 round trip, €16 – one way). So after landing at the Marco Polo airport, we received our tickets at the AliLaguna booth and boarded a blue line to Piazza San Marco stop – about 90 minutes away. During our stay, we used Vaporetto just a few times, #1 and #2 to travel along the city’s main thoroughfare, the Grand Canal, which perhaps is the best way to get acquainted with Venice, its palaces and remarkable life-on-the-water. On one occasion I took vaporetto #4.2 to travel to Cimitero San Michele (St. Michel cemetery) and on the way back, it took me around all of Venice, giving me yet another understanding of the fact, that the city was indeed built on multiple islands.
We split out 10 day stay into two hotels. The first one, Hotel Violino d’Oro, is a boutique hotel situated in a restored 18th century Palazzo Barozzi on a small campiello (square with a marble fountain). Conveniently located (just one bridge to cross), this very comfortable and moderately-priced hotel is just 5 minutes walk from Piazza San Marco. The room was small, like everywhere in Venice, but handsomely furnished. Service was friendly and very accommodating (concierge flawlessly arranged a delivery of our rented costumes from the shop to our room). During the last Saturday of the Carnevale all guests received an invitation to join the masked soiree. It took place in the hotel’s restaurant where for several hours the guests were served cheese, petit-fours, unlimited Prosecco and were entertained by musicians. P.S. Masks were provided gratis and we got to keep them too. I would definitely recommend this hotel.
The second half of our stay we spent at the Castello Suite (room 410-411) of the Gritti Palace, in my opinion, the most elegant hotel I have ever stayed. This recently renovated palazzo of 15th century doge Andrea Gritti was Hemingway’s “home in Venice”. He described it “as the best hotel in the city of great hotels”. Judging by hundreds of wall photos, its museum aura has drawn some of the world’s greatest theatrical, literary, political and royal figures. The Palace definitely evokes a well-tailored, well-upholstered private home of Venetian nobleman – discreet, tranquil and utterly upscale. Located along Grand Canal, it has a very easy and short access to AliLaguna and vaporetto stop, but also has a private dock in case you want to arrive in style on one of the gondolas or water-taxis. The suite was impeccably designed to resemble the time period when palace was built, every room and common space were tastefully decorated and adorned with gilt mirrors, the antiques, the hand painted 18th century-style furnishings and even Archimede Seguso’s glass. My three favorite places were the black-marbled bathroom of our suite, the library and the deck with fantastic views of the canal. Staying at the Gritti Palace highlighted all the experiences of Venice, as every day, I woke up in a palace and felt both – like a Venetian and a Noble woman. Nothing can replace this feeling or add to it!
Since we had ten days in Venice (I still found it not long enough), our stay, in terms of sights, was pretty hectic and dispersed. So, unlike my usual chronological reviews, I split my review into two parts and organized this blog entry according to “sights not to miss” and neighborhoods, which I would describe in details. I will use the original Italian names for all the sights, providing their English equivalents in parenthesis. Below is a map of Venice with all its areas clearly marked and I will start with one, you can’t and should not miss – Piazza San Marco.
Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) – the heart of Venice then and now – it is one of the world’s most beautiful public squares, full of historical sights, cafes and tourists. It is a place where Venice rewards its guests with treasures even if they never duck inside a museum or church. If you have only one day in Venice – spend it at Piazza San Marco as it is home to city’s major attractions – Basilica di San Marco, Campanile, Palazzo Ducale, Torre dell’Orologio, Museo Correr, and more. Together with the Piazzetta, they form the social, religious and political centre of Venice and are commonly considered together. When Napoleon arrived in 1797 he called the square “the finest drawing room in Europe”, and it may very well remain today, with its elegant buildings, symmetrical colonnades and elegant shops.
The Piazza is dominated at its eastern end by the west facade of Basilica di San Marco with its great arches and marble decoration, the Romanesque carvings round the central doorway and, above all, the four horses which preside over the whole piazza and are such potent symbols of the pride and power of Venice that Napoleon, after he had conquered Venice, had them taken down and shipped to Paris.
The Piazzetta dei Leoncini is an open space on the north side of the Basilica and is characterized by an elevated level with a further elevated well in the center that is flanked by two crouching lion statues. These two lions (called Leoncini) were fashioned by Giovanni Bonazza in 1722 from red marble originating in Cottanello, a municipality in the province of Rieti. The unique aspect of this area is that the well within is the lone public well throughout all of Piazza San Marco. It has since been capped but still stands as a beautiful testament to its design as part of the square. The neo-classic building on the east side adjoining the Basilica is the Palazzo Patriarcale, the seat of the Patriarch of Venice.
Beyond that is Torre dell’Orologio, completed in 1499, above a high archway where the street known as the Merceria (a main thoroughfare of the city) leads through shopping streets to the Rialto, the commercial and financial centre. To the right of the clock-tower is the closed church of San Basso, designed by Baldassarre Longhena (1675), sometimes open for exhibitions.
To the left is the long arcade along the north side of the Piazza, the buildings on this side are known as the Procuratie Vecchie, the old procuracies, formerly the homes and offices of the Procurators of St. Mark, high officers of state in the days of the republic of Venice. They were built in the early 16th century. The arcade is lined with shops and restaurants at ground level, with offices above. The restaurants include the famous Caffè Quadri, which was patronized by the Austrians when Venice was ruled by Austria in the 19th century, while the Venetians preferred Florian’s on the other side of the Piazza.
Turning left at the end, the arcade continues along the west end of the Piazza, which was rebuilt by Napoleon in about 1810 and is known as the Ala Napoleonica (Napoleonic Wing). It holds, behind the shops, a ceremonial staircase which was to have led to a royal palace but now forms the entrance to the Museo Correr (Correr Museum).
Turning left again, the arcade continues down the south side of the Piazza. The buildings on this side are known as the Procuratie Nuove (new procuracies), which were designed by Jacopo Sansovino in the mid-16th century but partly built (1582–86) after his death by Vincenzo Scamozzi and finally completed by Baldassarre Longhena in about 1640. Again, the ground floor has shops and also the Caffè Florian. This famous cafe opened in 1720 by Floriano Francesconi and was patronized by the Venetians when the hated Austrians were at Quadri’s. The upper floors were intended by Napoleon to be a palace for his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais, his viceroy in Venice, and now houses the Museo Correr. At the far end the Procuratie meet the north end of Sansovino’s Libreria (mid-16th century), whose main front faces the Piazzetta.
Opposite to this, standing free in the Piazza, is the Campanile of St Mark’s church (1156-73, last restored in 1514), rebuilt in 1912 ‘com’era, dov’era ‘ (as it was, where it was) after it suddenly collapsed on 14 July 1902. Adjacent to the Campanile, facing towards the church, is the elegant small building known as the Loggetta del Sansovino, built by Sansovino in 1537-46, and used as a lobby by patricians waiting to go into a meeting of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace and by guards when the Great Council was sitting.
Across the Piazza in front of the church are three large mast-like flagpoles with bronze bases decorated in high relief by Alessandro Leopardi in 1505. The Venetian flag of St Mark used to fly from them in the time of the republic of Venice and now shares them with the Italian flag.
At the corner near the campanile, west side is occupied entirely by the Biblioteca Marciana designed by Jacopo Sansovino to hold the library of St. Mark. Building started in 1537 and it was extended, after the death of Sansovino, by Vincenzo Scamozzi in 1588-91. The building was said by Palladio to be “the most magnificent and ornate structure built since ancient times”. The arcade continues to the end of the building with cafés and shops and also the entrances to the Archaeological Museum, the Biblioteca Marciana and the National Library, which occupy the floors above.
If Piazza San Marco is Europe’s drawing room, then the Piazetta (also known as the Molo) is Europe’s antechamber. Hedged in by the Palazzo Ducale, Sansovino’s library and a side of Basilica, this tiny square faces the Grand Canal. Two giant granite columns, brought back from Greece by the ill-fated Doge Michele, grace the square. The former doge had actually returned with 3 columns in all, yet when the Venetians tried to raise one of them, it slipped out of their control and fell into the water, sinking deep into the mud of the Bacino, where it presumably still lies. Determined to put up the other two, Doge Ziani spread the word that he would handsomely pay anyone who could manage the feat. After some month, an engineer presented himself who claimed that he could do the job. All that he asked in returned was the right to set up a gambling table between the columns for the rest of his life. The favor was granted, the columns were raised (by some method unrecorded in the chronicles), and the gambling commenced. Unfortunately, the engineer lived rather longer than many expected. It is said that to discourage his clients the state later decreed that all hangings should occur between the two columns, leaving the dead bodies swinging gently over the determined gamblers. On the western column Ziani placed a statue of a winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark, probably the same bronze statue that rests there today. It is an ancient, over 2300 years old work, perhaps from China or Persia, the original likely depicting a basilisk to which the Venetians simply added wings. The other column may have received a statue of St. Theodore taming a dragon, the original patron of the city, although the current statue was produced in the 14th century and the dragon looks very much like a crocodile. The Columns that hold the statues of St. Mark and St. Theodore stand on stone bases with almost totally effaced carvings on them – but when they were still decipherable, there were identified as reliefs showing craftsmen at their work. There 12th century figures represented, on the Theodore column, smiths, fishermen, basket makers and wine sellers. On the Mark’s column – there were fruit sellers, butchers, and cattle dealers.
On the far side of the Piazzetta is the side wall of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) with Gothic arcades at ground level and a loggia on the floor above. Up to the seventh pillar from the front, this is the building as rebuilt in 1340, while the extension towards the Basilica was added in 1424. The capitals of the columns of the extended part are mostly copies of those in the front of the Palace. The seventh pillar is marked by a tondo (circular sculpture) of Venice as Justice above the first floor loggia. To the left of this, there are two red pillars in front of the first floor loggia, contrasting with the other pillars which are of white Istrian stone. The red pillars are made of red Verona marble. They may have framed the Doge’s chair on ceremonial occasions, but it seems that important malefactors found guilty of crimes against the state would sometimes be executed there.
On the rear corner of the Doge’s Palace is a sculpture of the Judgment of Solomon with the archangel Gabriel above (the sculptors are not known). Set back from this corner is the Porta della Carta, the ceremonial entrance to the palace, built in fine Gothic style in 1438-43, probably by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon. At the top is a figure of Venice as Justice, the theme of fair judgment and justice being much emphasized on this side of the palace. Below this, the head of Doge Francisco Foscari and the lion before which he is kneeling, were replaced in 1885, the originals having been destroyed on French orders in 1797. The statues on either side of the gateway represent the cardinal virtues of Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Charity.
Next to this, on an outside corner of the basilica of St Mark, are four antique figures carved in porphyry, a very hard red granite. They are usually known as the Tetrarchs and said to represent the four joint rulers of the Roman Empire appointed by Diocletian and were formerly thought to be Egyptian. It is now known that they represent the sons of the Emperor Constantine, praised for their loving co-operation on his death in 337. The work originally stood in the Philadelphion in Constantinople, where the missing foot of one of the figures has been recently found.
Beyond this, in front of the South wall of the Basilica are two rectangular pillars always known as the Pillars of Acre. Wrongly thought to be booty taken by the Venetians from Acre in 1258 (hence the name), the pillars actually came from the church of St Polyeuktos in Constantinople (524-527), and were probably taken by the Venetians soon after the fourth crusade in 1204. The ruins of this church, discovered in 1960, revealed the capitals matching the pillars in Venice. Beyond these pillars, opposite the corner of the Basilica, is a great circular stone of red porphyry known as the Pietra del Bando (Proclamation Stone) from which official proclamations used to be read. It has been suggested that this may have formed part of a column on which the so-called Tetrarchs stood.
During the Carnevale, the Piazza serves as a center-stage of the events and is always filled with people (in costumes and without) – drinking, dancing, staring, sightseeing, performing or simply, promenading.
Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica). (Free entry, no video or photos. Large bags have to be checked-in. Modest attire required, no shorts or short skirts. I used Rick Steves’ free audio guide to navigate through the Basilica and its treasures – highly recommend it. Allow 1-1.5 hours) Basilica di San Marco is a treasure chest of booty that was looted during Venice’s glory days, which is ironically most appropriate for a church built to enshrine the stolen bones of a saint. Older than most of Europe’s churches, it feels like a remnant of a lost world.
Present Basilica was constructed in 1063 in its third “re-incarnation”; the first one, built in 832 to host newly “acquired” bones of St. Mark burnt in a rebellion in 976 (together with the relics), but was rebuilt in 978. Originally connected to the Palazzo Ducale, it served as the Doge’s private chapel, however during the 13th century the emphasis of the church’s family function changed to that of a “state church”, with increased power for the procurators. The Bishop’s throne was installed opposite the Doge’s. It was the location for the public ceremonies of the state, such as the installation and burials of Doges, though as space ran out and the demand for grander tombs increased, from the 15th century Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Church of St. John and St. Paul) became the usual burial place. The function of the basilica remained the same until the end of the Venetian Republic, when by Napoleon’s order the church finally became subject to the Patriarch of Venice and became the main Basilica of Venice.
A close look at the facade of the Basilica might very much surprise you – it is a wild mix of East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, Roman-style arches over the doorways, golden Byzantine mosaics, a roofline ringed with pointed Gothic pinnacles and Constantinople – inspired onion domes (wood covered with lead) on the roof. The brick-structure building is blanketed in marble that came from everywhere – columns from Alexandria, capitals from Sicily, and carvings from Constantinople. The columns flanking the doorways show the facade’s variety – purple, green, gray, while, yellow, some speckled, some striped horizontally, some vertically, some fluted – all topped with a variety of different capitals. What is amazing isn’t so much the variety as the fact that the whole thing comes together in a bizarre sort of harmony. Doubtless, it is the most interesting building in Europe, a church that (to paraphrase Goethe) “can only be compared to itself.”
The mosaic over the far left door shows the theft that put Venice on the pilgrimage map. Two men (in the center, with crooked staffs) enter the church bearing a coffin with the body of St. Mark, who looks pretty grumpy from the long voyage.
Magnificent quadriga of horses as well as the multiple religious portals still decorate the facade. And even though the horses are no longer the original ones (they finally succumbed to pollution and had to be moved inside) and many pieces of mosaic had to be replaced, the stories depicted on portals didn’t change and neither the facade – giving Venice an aura of tradition. Please pay attention to the main entrance – it is a 6th century bronze-paneled Byzantine door, which likely once swung in Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia.
Since there is no-camera policy, the moment we walked-in, I became all eyes and ears. Gold!!! Gold!!! So much gold!!! Golden tiles cover 8000m2 of the ceilings and the floors of the church. After about 10 minutes of stillness (luckily, we came after the Carnevale and there were very few people), I realized that I was transported back in time to the long lost Byzantine empire. The Fourth Crusade and looting of Constantinople paid off and resulted in this not only remarkably preserved but also living and breathing small Byzantium universe. I have to admit that Istanbul’s main historical Christian sites always make me feel sad and nostalgic, but not the Venetian Basilica – it still is a thriving glory of the Orthodox Byzantium. I won’t go into lots of details (please listen to the audio guide), but will mention a few I found the most interesting.
The Atrium, built a century after the rest of the church, was decorated during the 13th century with mosaics covering the small cupolas, vaults and lunettes. These are some of the oldest and finest mosaics in the church. A detailed Old Testament story, chosen from the books of Genesis and Exodus, starting with the Creation, decorates part of the Atrium. The other part is dedicated to the scenes from the story of the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark. Venetians – great shipbuilders themselves – could definitely appreciate the fable of Noah, and if you look closely at the scene where Noah is putting all species of animals into the Ark, two by two, the lions head the line!
The entire upper part of the Nave is decorated in mosaic – nearly 4,200m2. These golden mosaics are in the Byzantine style, though many were designed by artists from the Italian Renaissance and later. The often-overlooked lower walls are covered with green, yellow, purple and rose-colored marble slabs, cut to expose the grain, and laid out in geometric patterns. Even the floor is mosaic, with mostly geometrical designs. It rolls like the sea, as Venice is sinking and shifting, creating these cresting waves of stone.
The church is laid out with 4 equal arms, topped with domes, radiating out from the center to form a Greek cross (+) which symbolized perfection, rather than a Latin cross which emphasizes man’s sinfulness. As an Orthodox, I found the church to be very familiar in design and decoration: central floor plan, domes, mosaics, and iconic images of Mary and Christ as Pantocrator – ruler of all things. In this part of Basilica, the mosaics start to give off a “mystical, golden luminosity”, the atmosphere of the Byzantine heaven. The air itself seems almost visible, like a cloud of incense – it is a subtle effect, one that grows on you as the filtered light changes. Perhaps, there are holier churches, but none is as stately.
Pentecost mosaic (4) is one of the oldest in the church (c. 1125), and it has distinct “Byzantine” features: a gold background and apostles with halos, solemn faces, almond eyes, delicate blessing hands, and rumpled robes, all facing forward. This is art from society still touchy about the Bible’s commandment against making “graven images” of holy things. The Byzantine style emphasizes otherworldliness rather than literal human detail.
Right in the heart of the church (5), Christ – having lived his miraculous life and having been crucified for man’s sins – ascends into the starry sky on a rainbow. He raises his right hand and blesses the universe. This isn’t the dead, crucified, mortal Jesus featured in most churches, but a powerful, resurrected son of god, the ruler of all. Christ’s blessing radiates, rippling down to the ring of white-robed apostles below. They stand amid the trees of the Mount of Olives, waving good-bye as Christ ascends. Mary is with them, wearing blue with golden Greek crosses on each shoulder. From there saints, goodness descend, creating the Virtues that ring the base of the dome between the windows. In Byzantine churches, the window-lit dome represented heaven, while the dark church below represented earth – a microcosm of the hierarchical universe.
Beneath the dome at the four corners, the four Gospel writers (Matev, Marc, Lica and Ioh) thoughtfully scribble down the heavenly events. This wisdom flows down like water from the symbolic Four Rivers below them, spreading through the church’s four equal arms (the four corners of the world), and baptizing the congregation with God’s love. The church building is a series of perfect circles within perfect squares – the cosmic order – with Christ in the center blessing us.
The rod screen (6), topped with 14 saints, separates the congregation from the high altar, heightening the mystery of the Mass. The pulpit on the right (7) was reserved for the doge, who led prayers and made important announcements. The Venetian church service is a theatrical multimedia spectacle combining music, words, images, costumes, props, set design and even stage directions. Coincidentally or not, the first modern opera – also a multimedia theatrical experience – was written by St. Mark’s maestro di cappella, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).
In the north transept (the arm of the church to the left of the altar), today’s Venetians pray to a painted wooden icon of Mary and baby Jesus known as Nikopeia or “Our Lady of Victory”. Located on the east wall, it is a small painting crusted over with a big stone canopy and was brought to Venice as the trophy of the Fourth Crusade. Supposedly painted by the evangelist Luke, it was once enameled with bright paint and precious stones and Mary was adorned with a crown and neckless of gold and jewels (now on display in the Treasury). Now the protector of Venetians, this Madonna has helped the city persevere through plagues, wars, and crucial football games.
Tresoro (Treasury, entry €3) holds an amazing collection of precious items, most of them stolen from Constantinople. Byzantine chalices, silver reliquaries, monstrous monstrances, and icons done in gold, silver, enamels, gems, and semiprecious stones. As Venice thought of itself as the granddaughter of Rome and the daughter of Byzantium, Venetians consider these treasures not stolen, but inherited. This is marvelous handwork, but all the more marvelous for having been done when Western Europe was still mired in mud.
In the display case of the main room, the hanging lamp with the protruding fish (sea creatures) features 4th century Roman rock crystal framed in 11th century Byzantine metalwork. In fact, several Treasury items represent the fruits of labor by different civilizations over a thousand-year period. Just behind the lamp, a black bucket, carved with scenes of satyrs chasing nymphs, epitomizes the pagan world that was fading as Christianity triumphed. Also in the case are blue-and-gold lapis lazuli icons of the Crucifixion and of the Archangel Michael – standing like an action hero, ready to conquer evil in the name of Christ. See various chalices made of onyx, agate, and rock crystal, and an incense burner shaped like a domed church.
The glass cases contain the bowls and urns from the 3 medieval cultures that cross-pollinated in the Eastern Mediterranean: Venetian, Byzantine and Islamic. Next, on a wooden pedestal, comes the Urn of Artaxerxes I, an Egyptian-made object that once held the ashes of the great Persian king who ruled 2,500 years ago (465-425 B.C.) The next case holds religious paraphernalia used for High Mass, including the 600-year-old crosier (shepherd staff) still used today on holy days.
Next is the small marble Ciborio di Anastasia. It may be a gift from “Anastasia”, the name carved on it in Greek. She was a lady-in-waiting in the court of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (483-565). Legend has it she was so beautiful that Justinian (a married man) pursued her amorously, so she had to dress like a monk and flee to a desert monastery. On the next wall, there are two large golden altarpiece panels, flanked by two golden candlesticks with amazing details – from the smiling angels on top all the way down to the roots. The relics room contains the glowing alabaster altar with a reliquary showing Christ being whipped (from 1125). It also holds a stone (supposedly) from the column he was tied to.
Under the green marble canopy, supported by four intricately carved alabaster columns, sits the high altar. Inside the altar is an urn (not visible) with, what Venetians believe to be the mortal remains of Mark, the Gospel writer. There, he rests in peace, as an angel had promised him.
The Pala d’Oro (11) (Golden Altarpiece, €2 to enter) is a stunning golden wall made of 250 blue-backed enamels with religious scenes, all set in a gold frame and studded with 15 hefty rubies, 300 emeralds, 1,500 pearls and assorted sapphires, amethysts and topaz. The Byzantine-made enamels were part of the Venetian’s plunder of 1204, subsequently pieced together by Byzantine craftsmen specifically for St. Mark’s high altar. It is a bit much to take in all at once, but get up close and find several details you might recognize. In the center of all, Jesus sits on a golden throne, with a halo of pearls and jewels. Like a good Byzantine Pantocrator, he dutifully faces forward and gives his blessing while stealing a glance offstage at Mark and the other saints. Along the bottom row, Old Testament prophets show off the books of the Bible they’ve written. With halos, solemn faces, and elaborately creased robes, they epitomize the Byzantine icon style. Mark’s story is depicted in the panels along the sides. In the bottom left panel, Mark meets Peter (seated) at the gates of Rome, to receive his call. In the bottom right panel, the two Venetian merchants return by ship, carrying Mark’s coffin here to be laid in rest. This magnificent Pala d’Oro sits on a swivel and is swung around on festival Sundays so the entire congregation can enjoy it.
Byzantium excelled in the art of cloisonné enameling: a piece of gold leaf is stamped with a design, then filled in with pools of enamel paint, which are baked on. Some saints even have pearl crowns or jewel collars pinned on. This kind of craftsmanship – and the social infrastructure that could afford it – made Byzantium seem like an enchanted world during Europe’s dim Middle Ages.
To get to the Museum (€5), you have to ascend the staircase near the main entrance. In the first room, there are several models of the church at various stages of its history. Notice how the original domes, once squat, were made taller in the 13th century, leaving today’s church with a dome-within-a-dome structure. The museum has three highlights – view of the interior from the loggia, view of the Piazza San Marco from the outdoor balcony, and the famous bronze horses.
From the indoor loggia, take another look at the Basilica’s interior and its thousands of meters of mosaic. The Pentecost mosaic, described earlier, is right above you. Its unique design at the very top signifies the Trinity: throne (God), Gospels (Christ), and dove (Holy Spirit). The couples below the ring of apostles are the people of the world (try to find Asia, Judaea and Cappadocia), who, despite their different languages, still understood the Spirit’s message. The loggia was reserved for women only, while men stayed in the Nave, and not only provided the close-up view of the ceilings, but also gave a better appreciation for the patterns of the mosaic floor – one of the finest in Italy – that covers the ground like a Persian carpet.
Museum also contains the mosaic fragments that once hung in the church – from the earlier days c.1070 to more recent c.1700. The mosaics, made from small cubes of stone or colored glass pressed into wet clay, were assembled on the ground, then cemented onto the walls. Artists draw the pattern on paper, lay it on the wet clay, and slowly cut the paper away as they replace it with cubes.
Further on is Sala dei Banchetti. This large, ornate room – once the doge’s banquet hall – is filled with religious objects, tapestries and carpets that once adorned the church, Burano-made lace vestments, illuminated music manuscripts, a doge’s throne, and much more. In the center of the hall stands the most prestigious artwork here, the Pala Feriale, by Paolo Veneziano (1345), with scenes from Mark’s life.
La Quadriga is undoubtedly one of the most famous treasures of the Basilica. These bronze statues were not hammered and bent into shape by metalsmiths, but were cast from clay molds by using the lost-wax technique. The bronze is high quality, with 97% copper. Originally gilded, they still have some streaks of gold, but the ruby pupils that gave the horses the original case of “red eye” are long gone. While four-horse statues were once relatively common, this is the only intact group to survive from ancient times. This, in its own right, is a miracle, as bronze work like this almost always ends up being smelted down by conquerors. Originally, la quadriga was placed on top of the atrium, in a specially built pedestal and the doge, speaking to the people, always stood between the horses. However, in 1975, after the threat of oxidation from pollution became eminent, they were sent for cover inside the church.
Once you reach the balcony (pictures are allowed), take your time to enjoy one of Venice’s best views. However, don’t forget to look at the facade, if it isn’t covered with scaffolding, to see how cleverly all the looted architectural elements blend together. Ramble among the statues of water-bearing slaves that serve as drain spouts. Be a doge, and stand between the modern copies of bronze horses overlooking Piazza San Marco – under the gilded lion of St. Mark and in front of the four great Evangelists. Admire the mesmerizing, commanding view of the city, which so long ago was Europe’s only superpower, and today is just a small town with a big history.
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). (Pictures allowed, combined ticket is €20, allow 2-2.5 hours). Venice is a city of beautiful facades – palaces, churches, carnival masks – that can cover darker interiors of intrigue and decay. Palazzo Ducale, with its frilly pink exterior, hides the fact that La Serenissima was far from serene in its heyday. The Doge’s Palace housed the fascinating government of this rich and powerful empire. It also served as the home of Doge and for four centuries (1150-1550) this was the most powerful half-acre in Europe. Destroyed by fire on multiple occasions, the early day Palazzo was nothing very grand. It was rather like the palace of an Arab sheikh or African king – a jumble of buildings around a yard, some private, some public, with fortified towers forming part of the defences along the Riva degli Schiavoni. Its southern outlook, over the Basin, was magnificent even then; its eastward prospect, over the often muddy Piazzetta, gave the Doge a view of the public bakeries across the way, and the mishmash of money-changers stalls that clustered around the base of the Campanile.
Exterior. “The Wedding Cake” or “The Pink House” are just a few of the Palazzo Ducale other names. A style is called Venetian Gothic – a fusion of Italian Gothic with a delicate Islamic flair. Originally built in 800, but most of what we see came after 1300, as it was rebuilt and expanded to meet the needs of the empire. If we compare this lacy, delicate and top-heavy structure with the massive fortress-palaces of Florence, we realize the wisdom of building a city in the middle of the sea – they have no natural enemies except for gravity. This unfortified palace in the city with no city walls was the Doge’s way of saying, “I am an elected and loved ruler. I do not fear my own people.”
Before arriving to Venice, I purchased The Secret Itineraries through Palazzo Ducale guided tour (€14 per person, with a right to stay after the tour and explore the Palazzo on my own, 75 minutes). According to their brochure, “The Secret Itinerary covers the rooms and chambers where the delicate work of some of the most important bodies in the Venetian administration was carried out. It offers an interesting insight into the civil and political history of the city, its public organizations and administration of justice.” Our itinerary was the following:
My husband and I were pretty excited to see the underbelly of the Palazzo before exploring its more visited rooms, so we arrived about 30 minutes prior to the start of our private tour at 10.45. We entered Palazzo Ducale via the waterfront entrance and appeared in a splendid Renaissance courtyard, one of the most recent additions to a palace that has benefited from works of many architects with widely varying tastes. The Palazzo is attached to the church, symbolically welding church and state.
Far side of the courtyard contains Scala dei Giganti (Stairway of Giants). Imagine yourself as a foreign dignitary on business to meet the Doge. In the courtyard, you look up a grand staircase topped with two nearly nude statues of Neptune and Mars (representing Venice’s prowess at sea and at war). The Doge and his aides would be waiting for you at the top, between the two statues and beneath the winged lion. No matter who you were – king, pope or emperor – you’d have to hoof it up, as the powerful Doge would descend the stairs for no one. It also was a place of Doge’s coronation, right between the two statues.
Midway along the tourist entrance and the first-floor loggia, there is a face in the wall, called the Mouth of Truth. This fierce-looking androgyne opens his/her mouth, ready to swallow a piece of paper, hungry for gossip. Letterboxes like this (some with lions’ heads) were scattered throughout the palace. Originally, anyone who had a complaint or suspicion about anyone else could accuse him anonymously (denontie secrete) by simply dropping a slip of paper in the mouth. This quiet act set the blades of justice turning inside the palace…
At 10.45 Raffaella, our knowledgeable yet very arrogant guide, arrived and led us (a group of 8) through a narrow door on the ground floor, into the Pozzi (Wells). (My advice – take as many pictures on the go as you can because the guide won’t wait for you). Those were terrible places of detention, consisting of small wet cells, barely lit by oil lamps, ventilated only through round holes in thick stone walls and closed in by locked doors with solid bolts. In each cell there was a wood litter, a shelf for a few things the detainee could keep and a wooden bucket with a lid to contain human excrement. From some writings and drawings on the walls, those cold in winter and hot in summer wells were a pretty desperate places to be.
A narrow staircase took us up to the two small rooms that housed important officers of the institutional machinery: the Ducal Notary and the Deputato alla Segreta. Interconnected, these led into the Square Atrium. The Notary functioned as a sort of secretary to the various magistrature within the Republic, whilst the Deputato alla Segreta kept a special archive for the Council of Ten, containing reserved material. From here we proceeded up to the Office of the Great Chancellor, head of what today would be known as the General Archives. Due to the delicate nature of his work, this was the only public figure to be elected directly by the Great Council.
This staircase led to the large and beautiful Chamber of the Secret Chancellery, whose walls are lined with cabinets containing public and secret documents relating to the work of most of the Venetian magistrature.
Passing through the small room of the Deputy to the Chancellery one comes to the Torture Chamber, also known as the Chamber of Torment; this disturbing place is linked directly with the Prisons. Though torture was practiced in Venice, it was not particularly savage or gruesome, and from the 17th century onwards it was gradually abandoned; by the 18th century it had practically been abolished altogether.
From the Torture Chamber you pass to the so–called Piombi. The name comes from the lead (piombo) covering on the roof. These cells were used exclusively for the prisoners of the Council of Ten, either those accused of political crimes, those awaiting sentence or those serving short prison terms. Located directly under the roof, the 6 or 7 cells were formed of wooden partitions to which were nailed sheets of iron. Though so vividly described by Giacomo Casanova (who spent some time there himself – read here), the Piombi did in fact offer prisoners much better conditions than those in the pozzi (the wells).
From the Piombi we passed directly under the roof to the attic with cabinets located at the corner of the building between the waterfront and canal–side facades. This was the site of one of the corner towers of the much earlier castle occupied by the Doge. The cabinets contain a number of weapons, most of them 16th century.
From this attic, two long flights of stairs brought us to the Chamber of the Inquisitors, a much–feared magistratura that was set up in 1539 to protect state secrets (its full title was Inquisitori alla propagazione dei segreti dello Stato). Two of the three inquisitors were chosen from the Council of Ten, the third from among the district councillors who attended upon the Doge. The ceiling is decorated with works by Tintoretto, painted in 1566–1567.
From there we passed through to the Chamber of the Three Head Magistrates, chosen every month from amongst the members of the Council of Ten. They were responsible for preparing court cases and seeing that the Council rulings were carried out as quickly as possible. The decoration of the ceiling dates from 1553–1554. The octagonal central panel with “The Victory of Virtue over Vice” is the work of Giambattista Zelotti, whilst the side compartments are by Giambattista Ponchino and Paolo Veronese.
After we were done with the Secret Itinerary tour, my husband decided to return to the hotel for a short break, while I, following Rick Steves “Doge’s Palace Tour”, went on exploring the rest of the palace. I returned to the courtyard and this time around, followed the regular tourists to the Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase). If the palace was architectural propaganda, designed to impress visitors, this 24-karat gilded-ceiling staircase was something for them to write home about. Once you move on, don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the 3-D pattern.
Midway up, at the first landing, turn right and exit into Appartamento del Doge (the Doge’s Apartment). The dozen or so rooms on the first floor are where the doge actually lived. The blue and gold-hued Sala dei Scarlatti (room 5) is typical of the palace’s interior decoration: gold-coffered ceiling, big stone fireplace, silky walls with paintings, and speckled floor. There’s very little original furniture, as doges were expected to bring their own. Despite his high office, the doge had to obey several rules that bound him to the city. He couldn’t leave the palace unescorted, he couldn’t open official mail in private, and he and his family had to leave their own home and live in the Palazzo Ducale.
The large room 6, the Sala dello Scudo (Shield Hall), is full of maps and globes. The main map illustrates the reach of Venice’s maritime realm, which stretched across most of the eastern Mediterranean. With the maps in this room you can trace the eye-opening trip across Asia – from Italy to Greece to Palestine, Arabia, and “Irac” – of local boy Marco Polo (c.1254-1325). Finally he arrived at the other side of the world. This last map (at the far end of the room) is shown “upside-down”, with south on top, giving a glimpse of the Venetian worldview circa 1550. It depicts China, Taiwan (Formosa), and Japan (Giapan), while America is a nearby island with California and lots of Terre Incognite.
In room 7, the Sala Grimani, are several paintings of the lion of St. Mark, including the famous one by Vittore Carpaccio of a smiling lion with the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile in the background (on the long wall). After exploring a dozen or so private rooms of the Doge’s Apartments, via Scala d’Oro, I ascended to the 3rd floor.
Here begins the long series of Institutional Chambers within the Palace, those rooms which housed the highest levels of a political and administrative system that was the object of widespread admiration for centuries. The very immutability of the system was amazing: without any written constitution as such, it was efficient enough to last over time and guarantee social peace. After the mid 1300s, the city was entirely free from riot or rebellion, and no one questioned the rights and abilities which enabled the city’s aristocracy to monopolize management of the State; in fact, the regime symbolized by the Lion of St. Mark enjoyed extraordinary popular support and skillfully nurtured the myth of itself. These chambers housed not only the main organs of government within the Republic – from the Great Council to the Senate and the more restricted Full Council – but also the most important bodies for the administration of justice, from the Council of Ten to the three Councils of Forty.
Atrio Quadrato (Square room) is the first room on the 3rd floor. The ceiling painting, “Justice Presenting the Sword and Scales to Doge Girllamo Priuli” is by Tintoretto. The palace is wallpapered with Titians, Tintorettos, and Veroneses. Many have the same theme as here – a doge, in his ermine cape, gold-brocaded robe, and funny one-horned had with earflaps, kneeling in the presence of saints, gods, or mythological figures.
Sala della Quattro Porte (Room of the Four Doors) was the central clearing house for all the goings-on in the palace. Visitors presented themselves here and were directed to their destination – the courts, councils, or the doge himself. The room was designed by Andrea Palladio (after the fire of 1574 severely damaged this room and those located immediately nearby), the architect who did the impressive Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, across the Grand Canal. On the intricate stucco ceiling, notice the feet of the women dangling down below the edge (above the windows), extending the illusion.
On the wall to the left of the door is a painting by Titian, showing a doge Antonio Grimani kneeling with great piety before a woman embodying Faith holding the Cross of Jesus. Old Venice is in the misty distance under the cross. This is one of many paintings of doges in uncharacteristically humble poses – paid for, of course, by the doges themselves.
Giambattista Tiepolo’s well-known “Venice Receiving Neptune” is displayed on an easel, but it was originally hung on the wall above the windows. The painting shows Venice as a woman (Venice is always a woman to artists) reclining in luxury, dressed in the ermine cape and pearl necklace of a dogaressa. Crude Neptune, enthralled by the First Lady’s beauty, arrives bearing a seashell bulging with gold ducats. A bored Venice points and says, “Put it over there with the other stuff.”
Sala dell’Anticollegio (Ante-Collegio Hall). It took a big title or a bribe to get in to see the doge. Once accepted for a visit, the person would wait here before entering, warming his hands at the elaborate fire-place and looking at some of the paintings – among the finest in the palace, worthy of any museum in the world. “The Rape of Europa” by Paolo Veronese most likely shocked many small-town visitors with its risque subject matter. Here Zeus appears in the form of a bull with a foot fetish, seducing a beautiful earthling while cupids spin playfully overhead.
Tinotretto’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1578) is another colorful display of Venice’s sensual tastes. The God of Wine seeks a threesome, offering a ring to mortal Ariadne, who is being crowned with stars by Venus, who turns slowly in zero gravity. The ring is the center of a spinning wheel of flesh, with the three arms like spokes.
Salla del Collegio (Collegio Hall). Flanked by his cabinet (executive branch) and six advisers – one for each Venetian neighborhood – the doge would sit on the wood-paneled platform at the far end to receive ambassadors, who laid their gifts at his feet and pleaded their countries’ cases. All official ceremonies, such as the ratification of treaties, were held here. At other times, it was the “Oval Office” where the doge and his cabinet met privately to discuss proposals to give to the legislature, pull files from the cabinets (along the right wall), or rehearse a meeting with the pope. The wooden benches around the sides (where they sat) are original. The clock on the wall is a backward-running 24-hour clock with Roman numerals and a sword for hands. The ceiling is 24-karat gold, framing paintings by Veronese. These are not frescoes like those in the Sistine Chapel, but actual canvases painted by Veronese’s studio and then placed on the ceiling. Within years, Venice’s humidity would have melted frescoes like mascara.
The T-shaped painting of the woman with the spider web (on the ceiling, opposite the big window), represents the Venetian symbol of “Discussion”. You can imagine the webs of truth and lies woven in this room by the doge’s scheming advisers. In “Mars and Neptune with Campanile and Lion” (the ceiling painting near the entrance), Veronese presents four symbols of the Republic’s strength – military, sea trade, city, and government (plus a cherub about to be circumcised by the Campanile).
Sala del Senato (Senate Hall). While the doge presided from the stage, senators mounted the podium (middle of the wall with windows) to address their 120 colleagues. The legislators, chaired by the doge, debated and passed laws in this room. Venice prided herself on her self-rule (independent of popes, kings, and tyrants), with most power placed in the hands of these annually elected men. In Venice, every branch of government really ruled – it was an elaborate system of checks and balances to make sure no one rocked the gondola, no one got too powerful, and the ship of state sailed smoothly ahead.
Tintoretto’s large “Triumph of Venice” on the ceiling (central painting) shows the city in all its glory. Lady Venice is up in heaven with Greek gods, while barbaric lesser nations swirl up to give her gifts and tribute.
On the wall are two large clocks, one of which has the signs of the zodiac and phases of the moon. And there is one final oddity in this room – in one of the wall paintings (above the entry door), there is actually a doge… not kneeling.
Sala del Consiglio dei Deici (Hall of the Council of Ten). By the 1400s, Venice had a worldwide reputation for swift, harsh, and secret justice. The dreaded Council of Ten – 10 judges, plus the doge and his six advisers – met here to dole out punishments to traitors, murderers, and “morals” violators. Note the 17 wood panels where they presided. The secret council eventually had their own security force of guards, spies, informers, and assassins. It seemed no one was safe from the spying eye of the “Terrible Ten”. You could be accused anonymously (by a letter dropped into a Mouth of Truth), swept off the streets, tried, judged, and thrown into the dark dungeons in the palace for the rest of your life without so much as a Miranda rights reading. Occasionally, the Council made example of lawbreakers. Denunciations of wrongdoers were nailed to the door of the Palazzo Ducale and when that failed to convey the message, the Council of Ten ordered the bludgeoning or decapitation of those found guilty of crimes against the doge. Severed heads were placed atop columns outside the Palazzo and sundry parts distributed for display in the sestieri (neighborhoods) for exactly 3 nights and 4 days, until they started to smell. It was in this room that the Council decided who lived or died, and who was decapitated, tortured, or merely thrown in jail.
The small, hard-to-find door leading off the platform (the fifth panel to the right of center) leads through secret passages to the prisons and torture chambers. The large, central, oval ceiling painting by Veronese (an original is in Louvre) shows “Jupiter Descending from Heaven to Strike Down the Vices”, redundantly informing the accused that justice in Venice was expeditious and severe. Though the feared Council of Ten was eventually disbanded, today their descendants enforce the dress code at Basilica di San Marco.
Sala della Bussola (The Compass Room). This is the first room on this floor dedicated to the administration of justice; its name comes from the large wooden compass (bussola) surmounted by a stature of Justice which stands in one corner and hides the entrance to the rooms of the three Heads of the Council of Ten and the State Inquisitors that we visited in the Secret Itineraries tour. This room therefore was antechamber where those who had been summoned by these powerful magistrates waited to be called; and the magnificent decor was intended to underline the solemnity of the Republic’s legal machinery, some of the most famous and efficient components of which are housed in these rooms. The decor dates from the 16th century, and once again it was Veronese who was commissioned to decorate the ceiling. Completed in 1554, the works he produced are all intended to exalt the “good government” of the Venetian Republic – the central panel with “St. Mark Descending to Crown the Three Theological Virtues” is a copy (original is in Louvre).
Within the Palace, all the rooms which served in the exercise of justice were linked vertically. From the ground-floor Wells, to the Advocate’s Offices on the loggia floor, the Councils of Forty and the Hall of the Magistrates of Law on the first floor and the various courtrooms on the second floor, the progression culminated in the prisons directly under the roof – the infamous Piombi. All of these spaces were interconnected by stairways, corridors and vestibules.
L’Armeria (Armory Museum). The aesthetic of killing is very interesting and this museum contains a very good collection of halberds, falchions, ranseurs, targes, morions, and brigandines. The weapons in these three rooms make you realize the important role the military played in keeping the East-West trade lines open.
- Room 1: In the glass case on the right, there is the suit of armor worn by the great Venetian mercenary general, Gattamelata (far right, on horseback), as well as “baby’s first armor”. A full suit of armor could weigh 30 kgs. Before gunpowder, crossbows were made still more lethal by turning a crank on the end to draw the bow with extra force.
- Room 2: In the thick of battle, even horses needed helmets. The hefty broadswords were brandished two-handed by the strongest and bravest solders who waded into enemy lines. Suspended from the ceiling is a large triangular banner captured from the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
- Room 3: At the far left end of the room is a very, very early (17th century) attempt at a 20-barrel machine gun. On the walls and weapons, the “C-X” insignia means that this was the private stash of the “Council of Ten”.
- Room 4: In this room, rifles and pistols enter the picture. Don’t miss the glass case in the corner, with a tiny crossbow, some torture devices (including an effective-looking thumbscrew), the wooden “devil’s box” (a clever item that could fire in four directions at once), and a nasty, two-holed chastity belt. These disheartening “iron breeches” were worn by the devoted wife of the Lord of Padua.
Quarantia Civil Vecchia (The Chamber of the Quarantia Civil Vecchia). The Quarantia (Council of Forty) seems to have been set up by the Great Council at the end of the 12th century and was the highest appeal court in the Republic. Originally a single forty-men council which wielded substantial political and legislative power, the Quarantia was during the course of the 15th century divided into three separate Councils: the Quarantia Criminal (for sentences in what we would call criminal law); the Quarantia Civil Vecchia (for civil actions within Venice) and the Quarantia Civil Nuovo (for civil actions within the Republic’s mainland territories). This room was restored in the 17th century, the fresco fragment to the right of the entrance is the only remnant of the original decor.
The Guariento Room‘s name is due to the fact it houses a fresco painted by the Paduan artist Guariento around 1365. Almost completely destroyed in the 1577 fire, the remains of that fresco were, in 1903, rediscovered under the large canvas Il Paradiso which Tintoretto was commissioned to paint.
Sala del Maggiore Consiglio (Hall of the Grand Council).
It took a room this size to contain the grandeur of the Most Serene Republic. This huge room (53 m by 24 m) could accommodate up to 2,600 people at once. The engineering is remarkable, the ceiling is like a deck of a ship – its hull is the rooftop, creating a huge attic above that. The doge presided from the raised dais, while the nobles – the backbone of the empire – filled the center and lined the long walls. Nobles were generally wealthy men over 25, but the titles had less to do with money that with long bloodlines. In theory, the doge, the Senate, and the Council of Ten were all subordinate to the Grand Council of nobles who elected them.
On the wall over the doge’s throne is Tintoretto’s monsterpiece “Paradise”, the largest oil painting in the world (53m2). Christ and Mary are at the top of Heaven, surrounded by 500 people. It’s rush hour in heaven, and all the good Venetians made it. Tintoretto worked on this in the last years of his long life. On the day it was finished, his own daughter died, so he got his brush out again and painted her as saint number 501. She’s dead center with the blue skirt, hands clasped, getting sucked up to heaven.
Veronese’s “The Apotheosis of Venice” (on the ceiling at the Tintoretto end) is a typical unsubtle work showing Lady Venice being crown a goddess by an angel.
Ringing the hall are portraits, in chronological order, of the first 76 doges. The one at the far end that’s blacked out is the notorious Doge Marino Faliero, who opposed the will of the Grand Council in 1355. He was tried for treason, beheaded, and airbrushed from history. Along the entire wall to the right of “Paradise”, the “Siege of Constantinople” (by Tintoretto’s son, Domenico) shows Venice’s greatest military victory, the conquest of the fellow-Christian city during the Fourth Crusade. The sneaky Venetians (in the 5th painting) attacked the mighty city from the water. They cozied their galley right up to the dock and scooted across the masts to the city walls. The gates open, the Byzantine emperor parades out to surrender, and tiny Doge Dandolo says, “Let’s go in and steal some bronze horses.”
Sala dello Scrutinio (The Chamber of the Scrutinio). The Scrutinio Room is in the wing built during the dogate of Francesco Foscari (1423–57), facing the Piazzeta. It was initially intended to house the precious manuscripts left to the Republic by Petrarch and Bessarione (1468) and was originally known as the Library. In 1532, it was decided that the Chamber should also hold the electoral counting and/or deliberations that assiduously marked the rhythm of Venetian politics, based on an assembly system whose epicenter was the nearby Great Council Chamber. After the construction of Biblioteca Marciana though, this room was used solely for elections. The present decorations date from between 1578 and 1615, after the 1577 fire. Episodes of military history in the various compartments glorify the exploits of the Venetians, with particular emphasis on the conquest of the maritime empire; the only exception being the last oval, recording the taking of Padua in 1405.
Sala della Quarantia Criminale and Sala dei Cuoi (The Chamber of the Quarantia Criminale and the Cuoi Room). Housing one of the three Councils of Forty, the highest appeal courts in the Republic, this is another room used in the administration of justice. The Quarantia Criminale was set up in the 15th century and, as the name suggests, dealt with cases of criminal law. It was a very important body as its members, who were part of the Senate as well, also had legislative powers. The room beyond this served as an archive, and was presumably lined with shelves and cabinets, similar to that one can now see on the far wall. This was not part of the original furnishing, nor were the corridor, the gold-embossed leather paneling one can see on the other walls.
Prisons. As we already know, the palace had its own dungeons. In the privacy of his own home, a doge could oversee the sentencing, torture, and jailing of political opponents. By the 1500s, the dungeons were full of political prisoners, so new prisons were built across the canal connected with a covered bridge. I circled the cells – indeed, medieval justice was harsh. The cells consisted of cold stone with heavy barred windows, a wooden plank for a bed, a shelf and a bucket. Carvings, made by prisoners are everywhere – they date from older days up until 1930 – on some of the stone windowsills of the cells, especially in the far corner of the building.
Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs). A corridor over the Bridge of Sighs, was built in 1614 to link the Doge’s Palace to the structure intended to house the New Prisons. Enclosed and covered on all sides, the bridge contains two separate corridors that run next to each other. The one visitors use today linked the Prisons to the chambers of the Magistrato alle Leggi and the Quarantia Criminal; the other linked the prisons to the State Advocacy rooms and the Parlatorio. Both corridors are connected to the service staircase that lead from the ground floor cells of the Pozzi to the roof cells of the Piombi. According to romantic legend, criminals were tried and sentenced in the palace, then marched across the canal here to the dark prisons. On this bridge, they got one last look at Venice – they gazed out at the sky, the water and the beautiful buildings. And they sighed! Stop here and sigh too!
From the outside, the Bridge of Sighs doesn’t seem so menacing, au contraire, in the last four centuries, anyone who’s ever come to Venice (from Casanova, to Byron to Hemingway), has stood on this very spot to enjoy the views:
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying glory smiles
O’er the far times when many a subject land
Looked to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
Torre dell’Orologio (St. Mark’s Clocktower). Any self-respected Renaissance city wanted to have a fine formal entry and a clock tower. In Venice’s case, its entry was visible from the sea and led from the big religious and governmental center to the rest of the city. The clock, designed by Zuan Paolo Rainieri and his son Zuan Carlo in 1493-1499, had one hitch: the clockworks required constant upkeep by a live-in clockwatcher and his family from the end of 15h century till 1998. After a nine-year renovation, grâce à Swiss engineering, the clock’s works are in independent working order: 132-stroke chimes keep time in tune, moving barrels, indicate minutes and hour on the world’s first digital clock face (c.1753), and wooden statues of the three Kings (Magi), accompanied by an angel with trumpet, emerge from side panels annually on Epiphany and the Feast of the Ascension.
The two hardest-working men in Venice stand duty on a rooftop around the clock, and wear no pants – the bronze “Moors” were originally built to be Caucasian Giants (or shepherds), and they only switched their ethnicity when their metal darkened over the centuries (though it doesn’t explain their lack of attire). At the top of each hour they swing their giant clappers. The clock dial shows the 24 hours, the signs of the zodiac, and in the blue center, the phases of the moon – important fixture, as a maritime city with a shallow lagoon needs to know the tides and the captains of coming ships – the right time to enter or leave the city.
I have arranged a Tour of Torre dell’Orologio (€7 per person via http://torreorologio.visitmuve.it) and at 14.00, my husband, I and another two clock-enthusiast met at the entrance to the Correr Museum, walked towards the eastern end of the Piazza and climbed the Torre via a small and easy-to-miss door. Our guide, Elena was exceptionally good – very knowledgeable, enthusiastic, “articulate and animating” (as I recorded in my notes). A true Venetian she was both – a proud citizen of her city and its biggest critic. Our tour, which lasted about an hour went in the following phases: the clock machinery room, the barrels, the Magis (three Kings), the Moors and the bell.
The clock machinery. The heart of the clock is a complicated system of gear wheels located within a large cruciform metal framework at the center of the Tower. The true “engine” of the entire timepiece, this can be broadly divided into 4 distinct sections; along with these there is the machinery for the astronomical clock face and the workings of the clock barrels. Also known as “clock trains”, these 4 sections are similar in appearance and basically comprise: a barrel around which is wound a chain (formerly a rope) to which is attached the motor weight (100 kgs); an intermediate wheel; a rotating fan that serves as an aerodynamic brake to regulate the weight’s speed of descent and thus the interval between clock strokes. The fans are equipped with a ratchet that makes a very recognizable sound; this is activated at the end of each series of strokes and serves to disperse the accumulated kinetic energy when the rotating mechanism comes to an abrupt halt.
The clock train transmits the impulses which enable the pendulum to continue its isochronic oscillations. It also comes into play at fixed intervals to trigger the other trains of wheels and pins. By means of thin vertical rods, it activates the barrel machinery every 5 minutes; as a result the minute barrel rotates through 30° (1/12 of a turn). Every 60 minutes, the hour barrel does the same. Upon each hour, the train mechanism for the Two Moors is activated. Two minutes before the hour, the Moor on the right strikes the bell; two minute after the hour, it is the turn of the Moor on the left.
This is why the mechanism is described as a “re-striking” one. With the hammers they hold, each Moor strikes the bell on the top of the tower a total of from one to twelve blows, depending upon the hour. Finally, every 12 hours, the 132-stroke train is set in motion. These 132 “meridian” strokes occur at midday and midnight before the Moors strike the bell. They are rung by 2 supplementary hammers placed around the circumference of the bell; the number of strokes corresponds to that of the strokes hit by the two Moors in the previous 11 hours. The barrel mechanism also operates the astronomical machinery via the Moors wheel, which goes through a complete rotation every two hours, and a 22-tooth pinion. This latter goes through 12 rotations a day, turning all 264 teeth (22×12) on the large wheel, which turns the sun clock-hand through one entire circuit per day. Finally, via a return mechanism and a long axle under the clock machinery, the Barrel Mechanism also operates the hour hand on the clock face giving onto the Mercerie Street.
The whole thing is driven by means of 5 train mechanisms, periodically recharged by the raising of the weights. The pendulum and the anchor escapement regulate the perfect release of energy, so that the mechanism works in a constant, even manner. Still perfectly functional, the entire structure dates back to 1753-57, when Bartolomeo Ferracina significantly modified the original machinery built at the end of the 15th century by Ranieri.
The barrels. The two rotating frames with the panels showing the hours and minutes were created and installed in 1858 by Luigi De Lucia; designed to make it easier for those down in St. Mark’s Square to get a more precise idea of the time, they are among the first examples of this kind of mechanism in a public clock. The two barrels each bear twelve panels of 80 cm by 50 cm; one with the hours in Roman numerals, the other with intervals of five minutes in Arabic numerals. Once lighted from inside the barrels, the panels are made of sheets of blue-tinted zinc. The installation of this mechanism blocked the movement of the Three Kings, so twice a year a special mechanism to raise and lift it backwards comes into play, freeing access to the doors and the notched circle along which the Three Kings and the Angel move in procession before the statue of the Madonna.
The three Kings and the Angel. When the Clock Tower was built in 1499, the Three Kings and the Angel with the Trumpet were designed to come out every hour from the loggia on the second storey of the structure and pass in procession before the statue of the Madonna and Child. However, the delicacy of the complex mechanism meant it was subject to great wear and tear over time, so eventually the procession had to be reduced in frequency or stopped altogether. After Ferracina had re-designed the clock mechanism, he also worked on that governing the procession (1758-1759); still in use today, it comes into operation only twice a year. The actual wooden statues of the Three Kings and the Angel were re-done by Giovanni Battista Alviero in 1755; as stratigraphical tests – and various inscriptions in the machine housing – show, these rather crude works have been restored and completely repainted on several occasions.
Originally, the doors from which the Three Kings and the Angel emerged in procession were wooden structures covered with painted and gilded metal and decorated with two gilded angels in embossed metal. In 1858, these doors having been absent for most of the year, were replaced by two metal openings decorated with gilded geometric motifs.
The Moors and the bell. The two giant statues in bronze were cast in 1497 by Ambrogio della Ancore; the body is hinged at the waist to permit the movement made in striking the bell. In spite of their function, the modeling of the statues deliberately exaggerates their mass, so that their form is unmistakable, even from a great distance. The bell, surmounted by a gilded sphere and a cross, was also cast in 1497. It was the work of a certain Simeone, who has signed his name with a fine inscription in the bronze. During the mid 19th century replacement of the roofing on the Tower, the bell and the two Moors were raised about a meter above their original level. We arrived to the roof exactly a few minutes before 15.00 to hear/see the Moors hammer the bell. It is also a very unique and intimate place to see the rest of the Piazza and the Merceria Street from above.
Campanile (St. Mark’s Campanile). (€8, pictures allowed). The top of Campanile (98.6 m), high above the Piazza, indisputably offers the best views of Venice, lagoon and even the peaks of the Alps. If until today I walked around the city and wondered why it, seemingly small on the map was so huge and confusing in reality, I found the answers on top of Campanile. It was from this viewpoint that Galileo demonstrated his telescope to Doge Leonardo Dona in 1609. To do so, he had to climb the internal ramp, but these days, visitors could access it via lift.
The first tower, completed in 1173, was built as a light-house to assist navigators in the lagoon. It took on a less benevolent role in the Middle Ages, when offenders were imprisoned (and in some cases left to die) in cage hung near its summit. With the exception of several 16th century renovations, the tower survived unharmed until July 14, 1902. It started to groan ominously the night before, sending people scurrying from the cafes. The next morning, its foundations gave way and it crashed in the middle of the Piazza. The only casualties were the Loggetta at the foot of the tower and, to my biggest regret, the custodian’s cat. The golden angel on top landed right at the basilica’s front door, standing up.
Donations for reconstruction came flooding and already ten years later (25 April 1912), it was completely rebuilt with golden archangel Gabriel again braving the breeze. You may see construction work around the Campanile’s base. Hoping to prevent a repeat of the 1902, they’ve wrapped the underground foundations with a titanium girdle to shore up a crack that appeared in 1939.
Because Piazza San Marco is the first place in town to start flooding, there are tide gauges at the outside base of the Campanile that show the current sea level. There is also a stone plaque (near the exit) that commemorates the high-water 195.6 cm level from the disastrous floods of 1966. In December 2008, Venice suffered another terrible acqua-alta, cresting at 155 cm. If the tide is mild (around 50 cm), the water merely seeps up through the drains. But when there’s a strong tide (over 100 cm), it looks like someone’s turned on a faucet down below. The water bubbles upward and flows like a river to the lowest points in the Piazza, which can be covered with 10 cm of water in an hour or so. When the water level rises one meter above mean sea level, a warning siren sounds, and it repeats if a serious flood is imminent. Many doorways have a meter high wooden or metal barriers to block acqua alta, but the seawater still seeps in through floors and drains, rendering the barriers nearly useless.
On one occasion during our stay, we were warned by the hotel staff about acqua alta, and right away, the entire city center was covered with wooden benches, which serve as elevated sidewalks during high water. In 2006, the pavement around Piazza San Marco was taken up, and the entire height of the square was raised by adding a layer of sand, and then replacing the stones. If the columns along the ground floor of the Palazzo Ducale look stubby, it’s because this process has been carried out many times over the centuries, buying a little more time as the sea slowly swallows the city.
The acqua alta siren hit the city during the Carnevale week and it was on that evening (around midnight), when Piazza San Marco was solemnly quiet and empty. I used the “excuse” to come back to the Square with my camera and enjoy this unique, yet menacing sight of rising water. That night the Piazza sunk in 35 cm of water (the tide was 115 cm), while shops, houses and hotels had their high guards up. I have to admit, it was one of the most majestic moments of my trip.
Museums on Piazza San Marco (combo ticket with Palazzo Ducale, if you don’t have a particular interest in Venetian history, you might skip these museums. Please allow 2-3 hours, pictures allowed). Before coming to Venice I have purchased a MUVE Museum Pass €24 which gave me access to 11 different museums, including 3 on Piazza San Marco: Museo Correr, Archeological Museum and Monumental Rooms of The Biblioteca Marciana.
Museo Correr is situated in the Napoleonic Wing of Piazza San Marco and, in part, in the Procuratie Nuove. It was born from the private collection that Teodoro Correr left to the city in 1830, and offers various areas of interest: the neoclassical rooms, with major sculptures by Antonio Canova; the historical collections throwing light on the city’s institutions, its urban affairs and its everyday life; the picture-gallery, one of the most fascinating collections of Venetian painting from its origins to the early 16th century, with works by Lorenzo Veneziano, the Bellini family, Carpaccio, Cosmè Tura, Antonello da Messina and Lorenzo Lotto, in a striking arrangement by Carlo Scarpa. Museum also serves as the Library of Venetian Art and History and contains collections of codices and archives, the famous cabinet of prints, drawings and photographs.
I started my tour with Il Palazzo Reale (The Royal Palace, or the Sissi’s (Empress Elisabeth of Austria) Rooms from I to IX). Room 2 is a sumptuous and opulent ballroom in Empire-style decor (1822-1838). At either end, the room is bound by loggias intended to house the orchestras; above the gilded Corinthian capitals of the fluted columns shape the upper area into an oval. The center of the ceiling is frescoed with “Peace, surrounded by the Virtues and the Geni of Olympus” by Odorico Politi.
Room I – Dining room for weekday lunches. This room had two functions, as dining room for non-official occasions such as daily work meetings of the government cabinet, and as an antechamber to the Throne Room. It was rebuilt as a Reception Hall in 1836 and decorated in the neoclassical style. On the walls exquisite multicolored candelabra-shaped frescoes are framed by mamorino (a particular kind of Venetian plaster) inlays in delicate grey-viola and green-gold hues, with winged relief figures in gilded stucco in between. Of interest is not only the original neoclassical furniture, but also the lavish French table in gilded bronze.
Room II – Lombardy-Venetia Throne Room. The decoration of this room was carried out in 1838 prior to the arrival of Emperor Ferdinand I, as the King of Lombardy-Venetia. Designed as the Throne Room, over the years it actually had different functions. In particular, it was used as a waiting room when the next, larger room was used for private audiences first by the emperor or viceroy, and then by Empress Elisabeth. At the base of the ceiling, you can see panels with classical arms and two coats of arms of the Lombard-Venetia kingdom, with the Biscione (glass snake) of the Milanese Visconti family and the Venetian Lion of St. Mark’s. The red and gold wall hanging is a faithful reproduction of the one that was placed here in 1854 (probably French). The elegant imperial furniture is all original, the large glass chandeliers with multicolored flowers was made on Murano in the 18th century.
Room III – Audience Room. The corner room is one of the last “public” rooms and is adjacent to Sissi’s private apartment. It was here that the empress would receive visitors during her stay in Venice in mid 19th century. The ceiling decorations are highly elegant but simple, with background paintings in delicately colored stucco and a broad fascia with plant motifs and classical griffons in gilded stucco against a green background. Dating to the end of the 18th century, those rooms initially belonged to the Procurators of St. Mark’s. The wooden floor and the red and cream colored hangings in the rooms were renovated in mid 19th century, before Sissi and Franz Joseph’s visit. The ten large 18th century engraved, gilded Venetian armchairs in the room still have their original velvet brocades. The engraved gilded mirror over the fireplace (19th century) is a valuable revival of the baroque Venetian style. The painting “The swearing-in Ceremony of the First Doge Paolo Anafesto” is by Paolo Menegatti (1845).
Room IV – The Empress’ bathroom. Once a bathroom, it used to contain a marble tub discretely hidden behind silk curtains. Oddly positioned next to the Audience room (are we missing something here?) at that time, it could only be accessed through the empress’ private apartment. The decoration is simple, with cream-colored marmorino inlays and dainty classical-Renaissance motifs. The chandelier dating from the end of the 18th century with cut crystal pendants is probably from central Europe.
Room V – The Empress’ Study. Formerly used by the Vice-Queen of Lombardy-Venetia, this room was also used by Sissi as a private study for reading and writing. The decoration dates from different periods. The light fake marble wainscoting on the walls with panels above probably goes back to the Napoleonic period. On the shorter walls, in the corners and to the sides of the doors, there are colored paintings of figures and motifs of classical Renaissance; they can also be seen on the frieze running along the ceiling. When renovation was carried out in 1854-1856 the decorations were also retouched, partially replaces and modified by the decorator Giovanni Rossi, who added groups of allegorical figures on the walls, albeit not with great success.
Room VI – The Empress’ Boudoir. This small dressing room was decorated especially for young Elisabeth. The walls and ceiling are all in an extraordinary grey-blue marmorino with shining micro-crystals. There are light garlands and “capricious” motifs around it, created by the interweaving of slender white stuccoes, colored or gold decorations in slight relief and, above all, various small multicolored flowers. Amongst them are lilies of the valley and corn flowers – a clear homage to Sissi’s favorite flowers. There are also gilded metal lilies of the valley interwoven with the stuccoes in the corners of the ceiling and between the inlays of the buonagrazia canopy. At the height of the door on the cornice stucco eagles are supporting the coats of arms of the kingdoms of Austria and Bavaria. Unfortunately, the figurative parts in oil are now in poor condition: in the medallion in the center of the ceiling is “The Protective Goddess of the Arts” (looking awfully like the Empress) whilst on the wall is “The Toilet of Venus”. The “bell-shaped” chandelier with Bohemian cut crystal is from the early 19th century.
Room VII – The Empress’ Bed Chamber. From 1856 this spacious room was used as Empress Elisabeth’s bedroom. As there was no fireplace, there used to be a large “column-shaped” majolica stove to heat the room. The neoclassical decoration on the ceiling vault is from the Napoleonic period and was completed around 1810. The geometrical panels, possibly by Giuseppe Borsato, are interspersed with frescoed figures by Giovanni Belvacqua in pleasant soft colors (“Venus and Peristera with Cupid”, “Venus before Jupiter”, “The Toilet of Venus”, “Judgment of Paris”.) The lavish Neo-Baroque hangings in blue and light gold were added in 1854 during the renovation. Although no longer present, we know that the empress’ bed was in rococo style, surrounded by curtains hanging from a metal baldachin; today an outstanding piece of historical furniture commemorated the function of this room: the pure imperial style bed of Napoleon’s step-son, Eugene Beauharnais.
Room VIII – Antechamber of the apartments. This room was the private passageway that went from the rooms of Empress Elisabeth, and those of Emperor Franz Joseph. The balcony offers a breath-taking view of the Royal Gardens, looking towards the Basin of St. Mark’s and the nearby island of San Giorgio. The vault dates to Napoleonic period (1810-1811); with a regular geometrical pattern in large fake coffers with tondos and octagons, the remarkably neoclassical decoration is a work of Giuseppe Borsato. In the octagons, against a delicate green background are small figurative mythological groups inspired by the Roman paintings of Erocolano. The neoclassical chandelier is in gilded bronze.
Room IX – Oval Room (Dining Room). This harmonious oval-shaped neoclassical room was the junction between the “public” rooms of the palace overlooking the Piazza San Marco and the royal apartments. Furthermore, various secret passageways intersected here, created to avoid going through the living quarters and rooms of staff. When Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were staying here, the imperial family would also have their breakfast, lunch and dinner here. The room was designed and decorated for the Napoleonic court by Borsato in 1810-1811. The “umbrella” vault is airy; the decorations are inspired by Pompei, with slender stylized racemes, plaques and medallions with birds and divinities (Neptune, Apollo, Juno and Apis”). The remarkable marble busts are the portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte.
After I completed the Sissi’s apartment, I retraced my steps back to the room 3 of the Museum. It contains Canova’s pyramid-shaped model of the “Monumento a Tiziano” (Monument to Titian, 1795). Canova intended this designed (based on the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius in Rome) for a tomb for the painter Titian. But it was used instead for the tomb of an Austrian princess in Vienna, as well as for Canova’s own memorial in the Frari Church.
Room 4. Canova’s “Daedalus and Icarus” (1778-1779) is the highlight of this room. Serious Daedalus straps wax-and-feather wings, which he’s just crafted, onto his son’s shoulders. The boy is thrilled with the new toy, not knowing what we know – that the wax in the wings will soon melt in the sun and plunge him to his death. Daedalus’ middle-aged, slightly saggy skin contrasts with Icarus’ supple form. Canova, a stonemason’s son, display the tools of the family trade on the base. Cavona was only 20 when Venice’s procurator commission this work; the final result was so realistic that it caused a stir – skeptics accused Canova of not really sculpting it, but making it from plaster casts of live humans.
Room 5. Canova “Cupid and Psyche” (1878). Through not a great painting, this is Canova’s 2-D version of a famous scene he set in stone (now in the Louvre). The two lovers spiral around each other in the nerve-ending circle of desire. The two bodies and Cupid’s two wings form an X. But the center of the composition is the empty space that separates their hungry lips. Canova “Paris” (1807). The guy with black measles is not a marble statue of Paris; it is a plaster of Paris, a life-size model that Canova used in carving the real one in stone. The dots are sculptor’s “points”, which tell the sculptor how far into the block he should chisel to establish the figure’s rough outline. The other large statues in the Canova’s rooms are either lesser works or more plaster studies for works later executed in marble.
Room 6. Lazzaro Bastiniani “Portrait of Francesco Foscari” (c.1460). Foscari, dressed in the traditional brocaded robe and cap with cloth earflaps, introduces us to the powerful, regal world of the doges, the “elected princes” who served as ceremonial symbols of the glorious Republic of Venice. Foscari (1373-1457), buried in the Frari Church, became doge when Venice was at its historical peak as a prosperous sea-trading empire, with peaceful ties to eastern Ottomans and mainland Europeans. He has a serene look of total confidence…. a look that would slowly melt away as he led Venice on a 31-year war of expansion that devastated northern Italy, embroiled Venice in messy European politics, and eventually drained the city’s coffers. Meanwhile, the Ottomans captured Constantinople. By the time the Venetian Senate “impeached” Foscari, forcing his resignation, Venice was sapped, soon to be surpassed by the new maritime powers of Spain and Portugal.
In the glass case, find doge memorabilia, including the funny doge cap with a single horn at the back, often worn over a cloth cap with earflaps. High on the wall opposite the room’s entrance, there is a large painting by Andrea Michieli “Arrival at San Marco of Dogaressa Morosina Grimani” (c. 1597). Although doges were men, several wives were crowned with ceremonial titles. This painting shows coronation ceremonies along the water by the Piazzetta. The lagoon is jammed with boats. The dogaressa (left of center, in yellow, wearing her doge cap tilted back) arrives to receive the front-door key to the Palazzo Ducale. The doge’s private boat, the Bucintoro (docked at lower left with red roof), had brought the First Lady and her entourage of red-robed officials, court dwarves, musicians, dancers, and ladies in formal wear. She walks toward the World Theater (on the right, in the water), a floating pavilion used for public ceremonies.
Rooms 7-10. I have been told that the displays of those rooms changed often, so enjoy its current content. Some of the rich furnishings in these rooms – pictures of doge processions, rare books in walnut bookcases and a Murano chandelier under a wood-beamed ceiling; and portraits of political bigwigs – are reminders that this wing once housed the administrative office of a wealthy, sophisticated republic.
“Ducal Processions in St. Mark’s Square” – a woodcut by Matteo Pagan and a painting by Cesare Vecellio. The woodcut shows the doge and his court parading around the St. Mark’s Square in the kind of traditional festivities that Venetians enjoy even today. At the head of the parade (to the right) come the flag bearers and the trumpet players sounding the fanfare. Next are the nabobs, the archbishop, the bearer of the doge cap, the doge’s chair and finally Il Serenissimo himself, under an umbrella. The ladies look on from the windows above. The painting has exactly the same building windows of the room you are standing in, while the Piazza looks very much like it does today.
Room 11. Coins and the Treasury. The Venetian ducat weighed only a bit more than a US penny, but was mostly gold (by decree, 99% pure gold, weighing 3.5 grams). First minted around 1280 (Dandolo’s zecchino, or “sequin”), it became the strongest currency in all Europe for nearly 700 years, eventually replacing the Florentine florin. In Renaissance times, 100 ducat would be an excellent salary for a year, with a single ducat worth about $1,000. The most common design shows Christ on the “heads” side, standing on an oval of stars. “Tails” features the current doge kneeling before St. Mark and the inscription “sacred money of Venice” (SM Veneti).
Hanging above the newest coins, there is Tintoretto’s painting of three red-robed treasury officials who handled ducats in these offices (“St. Justina and the Treasurers”, 1580). The richness of their fur-lined robes suggests the almost religious devotion that officials were expected to have as caretakers of the “sacred money” of Venice.
Room 12. Venice and the Sea. Venice’s wealth came from its sea trade. Raw materials from Europe were exchanged for luxury goods from eastern lands controlled by Muslims and Byzantine Christians. This room contains the models of galleys. These fast oar-and wind-powered warships rode shotgun for Venice’s commercial fleets plying the Mediterranean. With up to 150 men (4 per oar, some prisoners, most proud professionals) and three horizontal sails, they could cruise from Venice to Constantinople in about a month. In battle, they specialized in turning on a dime to aim cannons, or in quickly building up speed to ram other ships with their formidable prows. Also displayed are large lanterns from a galley’s stern.
“The Battle of Lepanto” (1571). The two paintings capture the confusion of a famous battle fought off the coast of Greece in 1571 between Muslim Ottomans and a coalition of Christians. This battle ended Ottoman dominance at sea. Sort it out by their flags (the turbaned Ottomans fought under the crescent moon). On the Christian side, Venetians had the winged lion, the pope’s troops flew the cross, and the Spain was marked with the Habsburg eagle. The fighting was fierce and hand-to-hand as the combatants boarded each other’s ships and cannons blasted away point-blank. Miguel de Cervantes fought in this battle, he lost his hand and had to pen Don Quixote one-handed. The Christians won, sinking 113 enemy ships and killing up to 30,000 people. It was a major psychological victory too, as it was a turning point in the Ottoman threat to Europe, but for Venice, it marked the end of an era. The city lost 4,000 men and many ships, and never fully recovered its trading empire in Ottoman lands. Moreover, Spain’s cannon-laden sailing ships proved to be masters of the waves, making Spain the next true naval power. Venice’s shallow-hulled galleys, so swift in the placid Mediterranean, were no match on the high seas.
Room 13. The Arsenale shipbuilding center, located near the tail of Venice, was a rectangular, artificial harbor surrounded by workshops were ships could be mass-produces as though on a modern assembly line (but it was the workers who moved). If needed they could crank out a galley a day. Look for various sketches and paintings of the Arsenale, including a 17th century pen-and-ink plan by Antonio di Natale showing a bird-eye view. The Arsenale’s entrance is still guarded today by the two lions (which Venetians “brought” from their trip to Greece).
Room 14. Old maps show a city relatively unchanged over the centuries, hemmed in by water. Find your hotel on Jacopo de’ Barbari’s big black-and-white, woodcut map from 1500. There is the Arsenale in the fish’s tail. There’s Piazza San Marco with a church standing where the Correr Museum entrance is today. The Accademia Bridge hadn’t been built yet (nor had the modern train station). You’ll see more about Barbari’s impressive map upstairs. Room 15-18. Armory – there are weapons, from medieval times to the advent of gun-powder – maces, armor, swords, Ottoman pikes, rifles, cannons, shields, and a teeny-tiny pistol hidden in a book.
National Archeological Museum – is home to an important collection of Greek and Roman sculptures, bronze objects, ceramics, jewelry, coins, and a collection of Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian antiquities. Its origins date back to the legacy of Domenico Grimani and a donation by Giovanni Grimani who, respectively in 1523 and in 1587, bequeathed most of their collections of antiquities to the Serenissima Republic of Venice. The statues, most of them with 16th century additions and restorations, are exhibited in 12 rooms, divided according to period, artistic school and subject-matter, offering a selection of Greek and Roman works from the 5th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.
Marciana National Library designed by Jacopo Sansovino, it was built and decorated between 1537 and 1560 on commission by the Procuratori di San Marco, to offer a worthy home to the Greek and Latin codexes donated to the Republic of Venice by Cardinal Bessarione in 1468. Today, along with the Zecca, the former Mint that now houses the reading rooms, it is the monumental seat and part of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, which preserves precious manuscripts such as the sixteenth-century Breviario Grimani and Fra Mauro’s Map of the world, as well as antique books, including those of Aldo Manuzio. On the first floor is the Vestibule, with the ceiling decorated by Titian’s painting of “La Sapienza”, and the Library, with a vaulted ceiling that constitutes a veritable “manifesto” of Venetian Mannerist painting, consisting of 21 tondi painted by seven artists selected for the occasion including Titian and Sansovino himself (the most famous are the three tondi by Paolo Veronese). The walls are decorated by canvases portraying the Philosophers who twist and turn in their niches in classical Baroque style.
The smaller room beyond the large hall features Roman copies of Greek statuary and a trompe l’oeil ceiling that tries to make the wood-beam ceiling appear even higher. The painting in the center of the ceiling by Titian shows Lady Wisdom seated in the clouds reading a book and a scroll. A huge, pre-Columbia map of the world is that of Fra Mouro. It is one of the most famous and important extant cartographic documents completed in Venice in the Monastery of San Michele around 1450. It is a broad summary of geographical knowledge of that period, in which ancient traditions (classical and post-classical authors), recent news, cartography of different origins, and description by travelers (Marco Polo and Nicolo de Conti) converge and intertwine. It is annotated with about 3,000 inscriptions. Drawn and painted on parchment sheets glued on wooden panels, the work was conserved on the island of San Michele until 1811, when it was given to the Marciana Library with great difficulty, following the Napoleonic suppression of monasteries. It remained there for just a several months, however, before being moved to the Sala dello Scudo in the Palazzo Ducale. In 1924, following the restoration of the ancient Sansovino Library, it was finally returned to the Marciana.
Second Floor. Rooms 25-26. Venetian Paintings.
The painting highlights (the Bellinis) are located at the far end of this wing, and as you walk there, trace the development of Venetian painting from golden Byzantine icons to Florentine-inspired 3-D to the natural beauty of Bellini and Carpaccio. Paolo Veneziano “Six Saints” (1340s) – gold-backed saints combine traits from Venice’s two stylistic sources: Byzantine (serene, elongated, sombre, and iconic, with gold background, like the mosaics in Basilica) and the Gothic of mainland Europe (curvy, expressive bodies posed at a three-quarter angle, colorful robes, and and individualized faces). Lorenzo Veneziano “Figures and Episodes of Saints” (second half of 14th century). Influence from the mainland puts icons in motion, adding drama to the telling of the lives of the saints. St. Nicholas grabs the executioner’s sword and lifts him right off the ground before he even knows what’s happening.
Room 27. Flamboyant Gothic – architectural fragments of Gothic buildings remind us that Venice’s distinctive architecture is Italian Gothic, filtered through Eastern exoticism. In this room, there are examples, in both paint and stone, of pointed arches decorated with the flame-like curlicues that gave the Flamboyant Gothic style its name.
Room 29. International Gothic. Master of the Jarves Cassoni “Story of Alatiel” (first half of 15th century). As humanism spread, so did art that was not exclusively religious. These scenes, painted on the panels of a chest, depict a story from Boccaccio’s bawdy “Decameron”. Done in the elegant, detailed naturalism of the International Gothic style, the painting emphasizes decorative curves – curvy filigree patterns in clothes, curvy boats, curvy sails, curvy waves, curvy horses’ rumps – all enjoyed as a pleasing pattern.
Room 31. Ferrarese Painters. Baldassare Estense “Portrait of a Young Man” (1475). The young man in red is not a saint, king or pope, but an ordinary citizen painted, literally, wart and all. On the window ledge is a strongly foreshorten book. And behind the young man, the curtain opens to reveal a new world – a spacious 3-D vista courtesy of the Tuscan Renaissance.
Room 32. Jacopo de’ Barbari “Perspective View of Venice” (1500). How little Venice has changed in 500 years! Barbari’s large, intricately detailed woodcut of the city put his contemporaries in a unique position – a mile up in the air, looking down on the rooftops. He chronicles nearly every church, alleyway, and gondola. But the final product and the carved wood block from which it was printed are on display, a tribute to Barbari’s painstaking labor.
Room 33. Flemish Artists. Pieter Brueghel II “Adoration of the Magi” (1617-1633). The detailed, everyday landscapes of Northern masters strongly influences Venetian artists. Lost in this snowy scene of the secular working world is Baby Jesus in a stable (lower left), worshipped by the Magi. Venetians learned that landscape creates its own mood, and humans don’t have to be the center of every painting. Room 34. Antonello da Messina “Pieta” (1475). The Sicilian painter Messina wowed Venice with this work when he visited in 1475, bringing a Renaissance style and new painting techniques. After a thousand years of standing rigidly on medieval crucifixes, the body of Christ finally softens into a natural human posture. The scene is set in a realistic, distant landscape.
Room 36. The Bellini Family. One family single-handedly brought Venetian painting into the Renaissance – the Bellinis. Jacobo Bellini “Crucifixion” (1450)- father Jacobo had studied in Florence when Donatello and Brunelleschi were pioneering naturalism. Daughter Cecilia married the painter Mantegna, whose precise lines and statuesque figures influenced his brothers-in-law. Gentile Bellini “Portrait of Doge Mocenigo” (1478-1485) – elder son Gentile took over the family business and established a reputation for documenting Venice’s rulers and official ceremonies. His straightforward style and attention to detail capture the ordinary essence of this doge.
Giovanni Bellini “Crucifixion” (1453-1455) – younger son Giovanni became the most famous Bellini, the man who pioneered new techniques and subject matter, trained Titian and Giorgione, and alone invented the Venetian High Renaissance. If we compare the “Crucifixion” of the father Bellini with the painting of his son, we right away see the difference. Young Giovanni weeds out all the crowded, medieval mourners, leaving only Mary and John. Behind, he paints a spacious (Mantegnesque) landscape, with a lake and mountains in the distance. Our eyes follow the winding road from Christ to the airy horizon, ascending like a soul to heaven.
Giovanni Bellini “The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels” (1453-1455). In another early work, Giovanni explores human anatomy, with exaggerated veins, a heaving diaphragm, and even a hint of pubic hair. Mentally compare this stiff, static work with Antonello da Messina’s far more natural “Pieta”, done 20 years later. To see how far Giovanni still had to go. In fact, Giovanni was greatly influenced by Antonello, appreciating the full potential of the new invention of oil-based paint. Armed with this more transparent paint, he could add subtler shades of color and rely less on the sharply outlines forms we see here.
Giovanni Bellini “Madonna and Child” (1470-1475). Though the canvas is a bit wrinkled, its subject is one Giovanni would paint again and again – lovely, forever-young Mary holding rosy-cheeked baby Jesus. He portrayed the holiness of mother and child with a natural-looking pastel-colored, soft-focus beauty.
Room 38. Vittore Carpaccio “Two Venetian gentlewomen” (1490). Two well-dressed Venetians look totally bored, despite being surrounded by a wealth of exotic pets and amusements. One lady absentmindedly plays with a dog, while the other stares into space. Romantics imagined them to be kept ladies awaiting lovers, but the recent discovery of the once-missing companion painting tells us they’re waiting for their menfolk to return from hunting.
Walking along the halls of these three interconnected museums, I kept looking out of the windows to the nice views of Piazza, where lots of Carnival-related performances took place on the city’s main stage.
If you are in Venice for some Murano glass shopping, look no further than Piazza San Marco as it is a location of one of Venice’s most famous glass-makers – Archimede Seguso. Located near Torre dell’Orologio, the content of Seguso shop is museum-worthy and obviously I couldn’t leave the city without purchasing a thing or two from his collection. The convenience of the shop saved me a trip to Murano island.
The multiple restaurants on Piazza are nothing more than tourist traps with hardly mediocre food, but one night, having been lazy to look for a proper place to eat, we stopped for a quick bite in one of them. We were harassed for more food, drinks and desserts all throughout the night. However, if you look for a true Venetian experience near Piazza, try one of the old-time cafes. We’ve heard about Caffè Florian even before we came to Venice, so one night, after dinner, we went and indulged ourselves in Cioccolata in Tazza, Coppa panna Amarena and a couple of desserts – Casanova and Tiramisu for €53.50, hardly a cheap visit. Caffe opened in 1720 and since then, its white-coated garçons waited on everybody from Carlo Goldoni, Goethe and Casanova to Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens. It would have been a more enjoyable experience, have we not ended up in the same room with a large group of very loud Chinese people. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place that is definitely worth a visit (and a drink).
In summer, I’ve heard, each of the caffes had their own orchestra to entertain patrons (and the part of the music fee would be included in the bill), but in winter we had to enjoy a different, yet, equally beautiful type of performance by a young Russian violinist – Ivan Kazanskiy (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Grand Canal
The second best thing to do in Venice, after visiting Piazza San Marco, is to take a vaporetto #1 and for a price of a bus-ride, explore and admire the city’s main street – The Grand Canal (allow 45 minutes one way, make sure to position yourself at the bow of the boat for the best views and don’t forget to listen to Rick Steves’ free audio tour-guide, as the vaporetto slowly moves from Ferrovia railway station to the last stop beyond Piazza). This 3.8 km long and barely 5 m deep canal is truly grand as it is lined with over 170 Byzantine and Gothic palazzi demonstrating the welfare and art “accumulated” throughout a thousand year history of the Republic of Venice, when the noble Venetian families faced huge expenses to show off their richness in suitable homes.
1. Ferrovia. The Santa Lucia train station, one of the few modern buildings in town, was built in 1954, however, it has been gateway into Venice since 1860, when the first station was built. More than 20,000 people a day commute in from the mainland, making this the busiest part of Venice during rash hour. The Calatrava bridge, just upstream was built in 2008 to alleviate some of the congestion. This bridge draws snorts from Venetians – its construction was expensive (€11 million), and the modern design runs counter to Venice’s trademark medieval and Renaissance architecture. Opposite the train station, atop the green done of San Simeone Piccolo, St. Simeone waves “ciao” to whoever enters or leaves the “old city”. The pink church with the white Carrara-marble facade, just beyond the train station, is the Chiesa degli Scalzi (Church of the Barefoot, named after the shoeless Carmelite monks), where the last doge rests. It looks relatively new because it was partially rebuilt after being bombed in 1915 by Austrians.
2. Riva de Biasio. Venice main thoroughfare is busy with all kinds of boats: taxis, police boats, garbage boats, ambulances, construction cranes, boats delivering mattresses, food and mail. And somehow, they all manage to share the canal in relative peace (during our stay we’ve never seen an accident on the water). About 20 m past the Riva de Biasio stop to the left, a broad Cannaregio Canal leads to the Jewish Ghetto. The twin, pale-pink, eight-story “skyscrapers”- the tallest buildings on the canal – are reminders of how densely populated this neighborhood once was. Founded in 1516 near a copper foundry, this segregated community gave the world the word “ghetto”.
3. San Marcuola. At this stop, facing a tiny square just ahead, stands the unfinished church of San Marcuola, one of only five churches fronting the Grand Canal. Centuries ago, this canal was a commercial drag of expensive real estate in high demand by wealthy merchants. About 20 m ahead on the right stands the stately gray Fondaco dei Turchi (Turkish “Fondaco” Exchange), one of the oldest houses in Venice. Its horseshoe arches and roofline of triangles and dingleballs are reminders of its Byzantine heritage. Turkish traders in turbans docked here, unloaded their goods into the warehouse on the bottom story, then went upstairs for a home-style meal and a place to sleep. Venice in the 1500s was very cosmopolitan, welcoming every religion and ethnicity, so long as they carried cash. Today, the building contains the city’s Museum of Natural History and Venice’s only dinosaur skeleton.
Just 100 m ahead on the left, Venice’s Casino is housed in the palace where German composer Richard Wagner died in 1883. See his distinct, strong-jawed profile in the white plaque on the brick wall. As I mentioned in the “History” part of his blog, in the 1700s, Venice was Europe’s Las Vegas, with casinos and prostitutes everywhere. Casinos (“little houses” in Venetian dialect) have long provided Italians with a handy escape from daily life. Today they’re run by the state to keep Mafia influence at bay. Notice the fancy front porch, rolling out the red carpet for high rollers arriving by taxi of hotel boats.
4. San Stae. The San Stae Church sports a delightful Baroque facade. Opposite the San Stae stop is a little canal opening – on the second building to the right of the opening, look for the peeling plaster that once made up frescoes (barely distinguishable remains of little angels on the lower floors). Imagine the facades of the Grand Canal at their finest. Most of them would have been covered in frescoes by the best artists of the day. As colorful as the city is today, it is still only a faded, sepia-toned remnant of a long-gone era, a time of lavishly decorated, brilliantly colored palaces.
Just ahead, jutting out a bit on the right, is the ornate white facade of Ca’ Pesaro (which houses the International Gallery of Modern Art). “Ca” is short for casa (“house”), but because only the house of doge could be called a palazzo, all other Venetian palaces are technically “Ca”. In this city of masks, notice how the rich marble facades along the Grand Canal mask what are generally just simple, no-nonsense brick buildings. Most merchants enjoyed showing off, however, being smart businessmen, they only decorated the side of the buildings that would be seen and appreciated. But look back as you pass Ca’ Pesaro, it is the only building you’ll see with a fine side facades too.
5. Ca’ d’Oro. The lacy Ca d’Oro (House of Gold) is the best example of Venetian Gothic architecture on the canal. Its three stories offer different variations on balcony designs, topped with a spiny white roofline. Venetian Gothic mixes traditional Gothic with Byzantine styles, filled with Islamic frills. Like all the palaces, this was originally painted and gilded to make it even more glorious that it is now. Today the Ca d”Oro is an art gallery.
Look at the Venetian chorus line of palaces in front of the boat. On the right is the arcade of the covered fish market, with an open-air produce market just beyond. It bustles in the morning but it is quiet the rest of the day. This is a great scene to wander through – even though European Union hygiene standards have made it cleaner but less colorful than it once was.
6. Mercato Rialto. The long and officious-looking building at this stop is Venice’s courthouse. Straight ahead in the distance, rising above the huge post office, is the tip of the Campanile, crowned by its golden angel, where the tour ends. The German Exchange (100 m ahead on the right side) was the trading center for German metal merchants in the early 1500s (once a post office, it will soon be a shopping center). Boat cruises by some trendy and beautifully situated wine bars on the right, but as we round the corner, we see the impressive Rialto Bridge come into view. A major landmark of Venice, the bridge is lined with shops and tourists. Constructed in 1588, it’s the 3rd bridge built on this spot. Until the 1850s, this was the only bridge crossing the Grand Canal. With a span of 50 m and foundations stretching 200 m on either side, the Rialto was an impressive engineering feat in its day. Earlier Rialto Bridges could open to let big ships in, but not this one. When this new bridge was completed, much of the Grand Canal was closed to shipping and became a canal of palaces. When gondoliers pass under the fat arch of the Rialto Bridge, they take full advantage of its acoustics.
7. Rialto. Rialto, a separate town in the early days of Venice, has always been the commercial district, while San Marco was the religious and governmental center. Today, a winding street call the Mercerie connects the two, providing travelers with human traffic jams. This is the only stretch of the historic Grand Canal with landings upon which you can walk. They uploaded the city’s basic necessities here: oil, wine, charcoal, iron. Today, the quay is lined with tourist-trap restaurants. Venice’s sleek, black, graceful gondolas are symbol of the city. With about 500 gondoliers (only 3 of whom are women) joyriding amid the churning vaporetti, there is a lot of congestions on the Grand Canal. While the Rialto is the highlight of many gondola rides, gondoliers understandably prefer the quieter small canals.
100 m ahead on the left, two gray-colored palaces stand side by side (the City Hall and the mayor’s office). Their horseshoe-shaped, arched windows are similar and their stories are the same height, lining up to create the effect of one long balcony.
8. San Silvestro. Now, the boat enters a long stretch of important merchant palaces, each with proud and different facades. Because ships couldn’t navigate beyond the Rialto Bridge, the biggest palaces – with the major shipping needs – line the last stretch of the navigable Grand Canal. Palaces like these were multifunctional: ground floor for the warehouse, offices and showrooms upstairs, and the living quarters above the offices on the “noble floors” (with big windows designed to allow in maximum light). Servants lived and worked on the top floors (with the smallest windows). For fire-safety reasons, the kitchens were also located on the top floors. I liked peeking into the noble floors to catch a glimpse of their still-glorious chandeliers of Murano glass.
I mentioned earlier, that Venice’s palazzi are most striking for their open doors and windows, designed to facilitate communication, commerce, and the circulation of air. Elsewhere in Italy, aristocrats built fortified compounds with iron bars on the doors and windows, thick walls, and mighty towers to defend the family during the factionally warfare that so often raged across their cities. Such precautions were unnecessary in Venice. Nothing speaks more eloquently of the genius of the Venetians republican system that the rows of rich and utterly defenseless palazzi that still crowd the sides of the Grand Canal, and every other canal in Venice.The owners of these ornate palaces were powerful men with all of the enemies that power brings. Yet they never conceived of the idea that those enemies, who were fellow Venetians after all, would wage war against them in their homes. Venetian politics was rough and often treacherous, but it rarely turned to violence. Allegiance to the republic, rather than to any one man or dynasty, served Venice very well.
9. Sant’Angelo. Notice how many buildings have a foundation of waterproof white stone (pietra d’istria) upon which the bricks sit hight and dry. Many canal-lever floors are abandoned as the rising water level takes toll. The posts – historically painted gaily with the equivalent of family coats of arms – don’t rod underwater. But the wood at the waterline, where it is exposed to oxygen, does. On the smallest canals, little blue gondolas signs indicate that these docks are for gondolas only.
10. San Toma. 50 m ahead, on the right side (with twin obelisks on the rooftop) stands Palazzo Balbi, the palace of the early 17th century captain general of the sea. These Venetian equivalents of five-star admirals were honored with twin obelisks decorating their palaces. This palace, like so many in the city, flies 3 flags – Italy, the European Union and Venice. Today it houses the administrative headquarters of the regional government.
Just past the admiral’s palace, to the right, down a side canal, there is a traffic light and the fire station (the 1930s Mussolini-era building with four-arches hiding fireboats parked and ready to go). The impressive Ca’ Foscari, with a classic Venetian facade (on the corner, across from the fire station), dominates the bend in the canal. This is the main building of the University of Venice, which has about 20,000 students. Notice the elegant lamp on the corner – needed in the old days to light this intersection.
The grand, heavy, white Ca’ Rezzonico, just before the stop of the same name, houses the Museum of 18th century Venice. Across the canal is the cleaner and leaner Palazzo Grassi, the last major palace built on the canal, erected in the late 1700s. It was purchased by a French tycoon and now displays a contemporary art collection.
11. Ca’ Rezzonico. Up ahead, Ponte dell’Accademia (Accademia Bridge) leads over the Grand Canal to the Galleria dell’Accademia (right side), filled with the best Venetian paintings. The bridge was put up in 1934 as a temporary structure. Locals liked it, so it stayed. It was rebuilt in 1984 in the original style.
11. Accademia. From here, look through the graceful bridge and way ahead to enjoy a classic view of La Salute Church, topped by a crown-shaped dome supported by scrolls. This Church of Saint Mary of Good Health was built to thank God for delivering Venetians from the devastating plague of 1630 (which had killed about a third of the city’s population).
The low white building among the greenery (100 m ahead, on the right) is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The American heiress “retired” here, sprucing up a palace that had been abandoned mid-construction. Peggy willed the city her fine collection of modern art.
Approaching the next stope, we notice on the right how the fine line of higgledy-piggledy palaces evoked old-time Venice. Two doors past the Guggenheim, Palazzo Dario has a great set of characteristic funnel-shaped chimneys. These forced embers through a loop-the-loop channel until they were dead – required in the days when stone palaces were surrounded by humble, wood buildings, and a live spark could make a merchant’s workforce homeless. Notice this early Renaissance building’s flat-feeling facade with “pasted-on” Renaissance motifs. Three doors later is the Salviati building, which once served as a glassworks. Its fine mosaic, done by Art Nouveau in the early 20th century, features Venice as queen being appreciated by the big shots of society.
13. Santa Maria del Giglio. Back on the left stands Gritti Palace hotel, our elegant “home away from home” in Venice.
14. Salute. The huge La Salute Church towers overhead as if squirted from a can of Catholic Reddi-wip. Like Venice itself, the church rests upon pilings. To build the foundation for the city, more than a million trees were piled together, reaching beneath the mud to the solid clay. Much of the surrounding countryside was deforested by Venice. Trees were imported and consumed locally – to fuel furnaces of Venice’s booming glass industry, to built Europe’s biggest merchant marine, to form light and flexible beams for nearly all of the buildings in town, and to prop up this city in the mud. As the Grand Canal opens up into the lagoon, the last building on the right with the golden ball is the 17th century Custom House, which now houses the Punta della Dogana Museum of Contemporary Art. Its two bronze Atlases hold a statue of Fortune riding the ball. Arriving ships stopped here to pay their tolls.
15. San Marco. Up ahead on the left, the free pointed tip of the Campanile marks Piazza San Marco, the center of Venice… but it is not our final destination. Take your time and survey the lagoon. Opposite Piazza, across the water, the ghostly white church with the pointy bell tower is San Giorgio Maggiore, with great views of Venice. Next to it is the residential island Giudecca.
As we leave the San Marco stop, prepare for a drive-by view of Piazza San Marco. First comes the bold white facade of the old mint (marked by a tiny cupola, where Venice’s golden ducat was made) and the library facade. Then come the twin columns, topped by St. Theodore and St. Mark, who’ve welcomed visitors since the 15th century. Between the columns, catch a glimpse of two giant Moors atop the Torre dell’Orologio – they’ve been whacking their clappers every hours since 1499. The domes of Basilica di San Marco are soon eclipsed by the lacy facade of the Palazzo Ducale. Next you’ll see the Bridge of Sighs, many gondolas with their green breakwater buoys, and then the grand harbor-side promenade – the Riva. Follow the Riva with your eye, past elegant hotels to the green area in the distance. This is the largest of Venice’s few parks, which hosts the annual Biennale festival. Much farther in the distance is the Lido, the island with Venice’s beaches. Its sand and casinos are tempting but its car traffic disrupts the medieval charm of Venice.
16. San Zaccaria. This is the last stop….. Get off and enjoy the walk via the Riva back to Piazza.
As I intended, I mentioned the most important things to see and visit in Venice, which is Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, and now, I would like to discuss in details the sights located in different Sestieri (neighborhoods) of Venice. I begin with San Marco area (with a help of the map I used in Venice).
Sestiere di San Marco (west of Piazza San Marco)
Not marked on my map, but easily located (look for S. Marco Vallaresso point at the beginning of the Grand Canal), on Calle Vallaresso is Harry’s Bar. Home of the Bellini and Carpaccio, two things any New Yorker can’t leave without, this bar is a true landmark. Opened in 1931 by a bartender named Giuseppe Cipriani (another famous name in New York), since then it has been frequented by famous people, and it was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, we never felt dressed up enough to visit the bar but it is on our list for the next visit.
Heading inland down Calle Vallaresso, very narrow yet one of Venice’s most exclusive streets, past fancy boutiques such as Pucci, Gucci and Roberto Cavalli. At the T intersection turn left and before reaching the first bridge, you will see Chiesa di San Moise (San Moise Church, p.45 on the map, free entry, no photos allowed), on your left (across the canal from Hotel Violino d’Oro). This is the parish church for St. Mark’s, because of tourist crowds at the Basilica, this is where the community actually worships. While it is one of Venice’s oldest churches, dating to the 9th century (note the old tower on the right), its busy facade is 17th century Baroque. It is dedicated to two Moses – the one from the Old Testament and Moisè Venier, the aristocrat who funded the reconstruction during the 9th century. The latter’s bust is in the center of the facade, while former one caps it. However, in the 19th century, several statues had to be removed from the church’s “positively lickable” facade to prevent it from collapsing under the combined weight. Inside, the altarpiece depicts Mount Sinai, with Moses (kneeling) receiving the two tablets with the Ten Commandments. The alcove to the left of the altar has Tintoretto’s 16th century “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet”, while the chapel on the right has Palmo il Giovane’s “The Supper”.
The modern building on the right is the 5-star Bauer Hotel, an 18th century palace which was re-built during the Mussolini era in an unusual Fascist-deco style. You can actually wander through the hotel for a James Bond-meets-Italian-dictator architectural experience.
Continue past the bridge (don’t forget to check out a fantastic Murano glass jewelry shop of Marina and Susanna Sent – #2090, the first shop on the right, at the end of the bridge). Calle Larga XXII Marzo is perhaps one of the widest streets in Venice. It was created during the 19th century by filling in a canal. Halfway down the street, turn right on tiny Calle del Sartor da Veste and continue ahead, across the bridge. At the next square, there is Gran Teatro alla Fenice (La Fenice Opera House, p.128 on the map). One of the most famous and renowned landmarks in the history of Italian theatre, and in the history of opera as a whole, La Fenice till today rightfully lives up to its name – The Phoenix. In 1774, the Teatro San Benedetto, which had been Venice’s leading opera house for more than forty years, burned to the ground. Re-built in 1792 as a business venture by a group of nobles, it “roses from the ashes” to host the operas by Giovanni Paisiello, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. The second fire came in 1836, however, by then Venice without opera was unthinkable so La Fenice once again rose from its ashes to open its doors on the evening of 26 December 1837, just a year later. The interior displayed a late-Empire luxury of gilt decorations, plushy extravagance and stucco. Giuseppe Verdi premiered “Rogiletto” and “La Traviata” at La Fenice, and international greats Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten composed for the house. However, the third fire was the result of arson. It destroyed the house in 1996 leaving only the exterior walls. When the news broke, the donation poured in not only from the wealthy theater patrons or art organizations and foundations, but from regular citizens living half the way around the world. And in 2003, a €90-million replica of the 19th-century opera house reopened to the delight of the music lovers.
La Fenice offers private tours but I decided to surprise my husband and get us the tickets (€165 per ticket) to see the famous “La Traviata” which premiered at La Fenice on 6 March, 1853. Seated in one of the central loggias, surrounded by the opulence, glamor but most importantly, the original acoustic system of the 19th century, it was one of the highlights of our trip.
Continue north along the same street (though it changes its name to Calle de la Verona), to a small bridge over a quiet canal. Pause at Ponte de la Verona and look around, see bridges of stone propping up leaning buildings, and there’s a view of the “Leaning Tower” of San Stefano. Notice, that despite million of tourists people actually live in Venice – rooftop gardens, drying laundry, electrical lines snaking into the apartments and the rusted iron bars and bolts that hold their crumbling homes together. On one building, there is centuries old relief carvings – a bearded face and a panel of an eagle with its prey. People once swam freely in the canals but now, there is a sign here “Divieto di Nuoto” (“swimming isn’t allowed”). The swimming is discouraged not only because of the relative cleanliness of water but also because most of the canals aren’t deeper than 1-1.5 m, hence, you don’t really need to swim, you can simply walk on the bottom. All throughout the city you will see some private boats. Italian law stipulates that a luxury tax is levied on all boats – except in Venice, where they’re considered a necessity.
Continue north and at the T intersection, turn right on Calle de la Mandola. Cross the bridge into a spacious square dominated by a statue and an out-of-place modern buildings. This is Campo Manin (p.87 on the map). The centerpiece of the square is a statue of Daniele Manin (1804-1857) with a whinged lion, Venice’s fiery leader in the battle for freedom from Austria and eventually a united Italy. The statue faces the red house Manin lived in.
Scala Contarini del Bovolo (p.87 on the map) is a block south of here, but be careful not to miss the right turn. Facing Manin Statue, turn right and exit the square down an alley, follow yellow signs to the left, then immediately to the right, into a courtyard with one of Venice’s hidden treasures…. In 1499 when the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo was built, in order to save space, the external staircase, in a shape of a “snail shell” was added. “Bovolo” means “snail shell”, and in this case, the staircase impressed Venetians so much, that they gave the name to this branch of the family “del Bovolo”. Scala is a cylindrical brick tower with five floors of spiral staircases faced with white marble banisters. For a small fee, its 113 steps to the top, are available for a climb.
You can return to Campo Manin and proceed either to Teatro Goldoni and Rialto Bridge or walk south to see 2 remarkable churches and 1 former one. Before coming to Venice, I purchase a Chorus Pass (€12) allowing access to 16 different churches throughout the city. The first one is Chiesa di Santo Stefano (Church of St. Stephen, p.2 on the map, Chorus Pass, no photos allowed). After the Frari and the Church of Saints Giovanni e Paolo, Santo Stefano is the third largest monastery church in Venice. Built by the Augustinian Hermits in the 13th century, it was re-structured a century later, and subsequent embellishments made it into one of the finest examples of Venetian Flamboyant Gothic. The free-standing bell-tower behind it leans disconcertingly, but this brick church has stood tall since 1325. Credit for ship-shaped splendor goes to Bartolomeo Bon for the marble entry portal and to Venetian shipbuilders, who constructed the vast wooden carena di nave (ship’s keel) ceiling that resembles an upturned Noah’s Ark. The whole arrangement, within the mystic significance of the church, recalls an inverted galleon where the columns are the masts of the ship and the beams the decks. The bell tower is one of the most beautiful and tallest in Venice (60 m). Its lower part dates to the early 15th century, while the upper part collapsed in July 1585 when struck by lightning but was shortly rebuilt.
Enter the cloisters museum to see Canova’s 1808 stelar featuring gorgeous women dabbing their eyes with their cloaks, Tullio Lombardo’s wide-eyed 1505 saint, and three brooding 1575-1580 Tintorettos: “Last Supper”, with a ghostly dog begging for bread; the gathering gloom of “Agony in the Garden”; and the abstract, mostly black “Washing of the Feet”. Observe a moment of silence near the apse, and you may even hear the subterranean canal burbling under the choir stalls.
Chiesa di San Vidal (Church of San Vitale, p.17 on the map, Chorus Pass, pictures allowed) is a former church, and now an event and concert hall located at southern end of the Campo Santo Stefano. The first church at the site was erected in 1084 by Doge Vitale Falier, however it was destroyed by fire in 1105. The reconstruction work drugged on for almost 4 centuries. Poor foundation of the original church required more work and using designs of Antonio Gaspari, it acquired its Palladian facelift in 1696 to commemorate Doge Francesco Morosini‘s victory over Turkish foes. On the facade (1734–37), designed by Andrea Tirali, are sculpted portraits of the Doge Carlo Contarini and his wife Paolina. San Vidal has a 29 m church bell tower, which along with the rest of the church was reconstructed and restored multiple times.
The main altarpiece is a “San Vidal on Horseback with eight saints” (1514) by Vittore Carpaccio; in the painting, four of the saints flank the saint on a white horse, while four are in the balconies above. The altar is flanked by two marble statues of the allegories of Faith (veiled) and Fortitude by Antonio Gai. The interior also houses an “Immaculate Conception” by Sebastiano Ricci, a “Crucifixion and Apostles” by the female painter Giulia Lama, a “Trinity with Saints Peter and Francesco di Paola” by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, and a “Guardian Angel with St Anthony of Padua” and “St. Cajetan of Thiene” by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta. Although there is no gravestone, the famous composer Baldassarre Galuppi is buried here. His funeral was held in the nearby church of Santo Stefano.
Walking back from Campo San Stefano, towards Piazza San Marco, on your left is an impressive Baroque-styled Chiesa Santa Maria del Giglio (Church of St. Mary of the Lily, p.1 on the map. Chorus pass, no photos allowed). Experience awe through the ages in this compact church with a 10th century Byzantine layout, charmingly flawed maps of Venice’s territories c.1678 on the facade. Admiral Antonio Barbaro commissioned this reconstruction of the original 9th century church by Giuseppe Sardi for the glory of the Virgin, Venice and of course himself. The exterior lacks any Christian image statues or reliefs. It shows only the marble maps of various places in which Antonio Barbaro served, including Candia, Zadar, Padua, Rome, Corfu and Split. His own statue, as the chief benefactor, in the center, sculpted by Josse de Corte, is flanked by representations of Honor, Virtue, Fame and Wisdom. The other statues are his brothers. At the top of the facade is the Barbaro family arms carved in relief. This self-glorifying architectural audacity enraged 19th century architectural critic John Ruskin, who called it a “manifestation of insolent atheism”. Three intriguing masterpieces to pay attention at the church are Veronese’s “Madonna with Child” – behind the altar, Tintoretto’s four evangelists – flank the organ, and Peter Paul Rubens’ “Mary with St. John” – in the Molin Chapel -features a characteristically chubby baby Jesus.
Sestiere di Castello (east of Piazza San Marco)
Sestiere di Castello is the largest of the six districts of Venice and is home to the final resting place of most Doges – Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the Arsenale, the Biennale gardens and many more.
We start our exploration with the Chiesa di Santa Maria Formosa (p.3 on the map, Chorus Pass, photos are allowed). The foundation of this church goes all the way back to the 7th century, when, according to tradition, the Virgin in the form of a beautiful matron (hence the term “formosa” – meaning both beautiful and buxom) is said to have appeared in a dream to San Magno, Bishop of Oderzo, ordering him to erect a temple dedicated to her, on the spot where he saw a white cloud take shape. It could be no accident that Veronica Franco (1546-1591), one of Venice’s most famous courtesans and an accomplished poet, frequented literary salons at Ca’ Vernier opposite the church, and the stage-set campo was lively hub, often used for open-air theater. The building, of course, underwent numerous reconstructions in the successive epochs, particularly in the 9th and 12th centuries, finally coming to assume a Byzantine plan with a Greek cross and central cupola, still legible today. The current structure, in fact, dates back to the late 15th century and is the masterpiece of the mature work of Mauro Codussi, an architect from Bergamo who organized the interior space according to calculated geometrical relations that lend the building balanced harmony. Upon Codussi’s death the external facades were not yet complete, and both were built in the 16th and 17th centuries with the money given by the Cappello family. Maybe that the reason why this church has two main facades – one overlooking the campo, the other – the canal. The bell tower, added in 1688 is noted for the grotesque face at its base.
The interior hosts masterpieces by Bartolomeo Vivarini and Palma il Vecchio. On the right of the main door we find the Virgin of Lepanto, a Byzantine icon of great antiquity that accompanied the Commander Sebastiano Venier in the battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571. In the first chapel of the nave on the right, the marble altar includes the Triptych of Mercy by Bartolomeo Vivarini, a masterpiece depicting “The Madonna of Mercy” in the center, “The Meeting of St. Joachim and St. Anna” on the left, and “The Birth of the Virgin” on the right. In the next chapel we see a canvas by Jacopo Palma il Giovane depicting “The Pieta and St. Francis of Assisi”. On the right-hand wall of the transept, over the mullioned windows, we find Leandro Bassano’s “The Last Supper”. Across from it, on the altar of the School of the Bombardieri, we see the marvelous polyptych by Palma il Vecchio representing St. Barbara surrounded by Saints Anthony Abbot and Sebastian. In the chancel, behind the high altar, we see “The Virgin and Saints Mark and Magnus” by Guilia Lama, an allegory of the foundation of the church and “The Presentation to the Doges of the Brides Abducted by the Narentine Pirates” by Giovanni Segala.
Just behind Santa Maria Formosa is Palazzo Grimani (p.97 on the map, combined ticket with Galleria dell’Accademia – valid for 3 months, pictures allowed, please allow 60 mins). At the beginning of the 16th century, the doge Antonio Grimani gave his sons the family house at Santa Maria Formosa: later, Antonio’s grandsons – Vettore, a Procurator of St. Mark’s and Giovanni, the Patriarch of Aquileia – substantially altered the building and gave it a classical stamp. The latter allegedly collaborated with Michele Sanmicheli, who had been usually credited as the designer of the whole construction. The palace was completed in 1575 by Giovanni Rusconi. The palazzo housed Giovanni Grimani’s archaeological collection (now are the Museo Correr), one of the finest of the time, which was strikingly displayed on shelves, mantelpieces and plinths. The decoration of the rooms is of extraordinarily high quality, with outstanding stucco-work and frescoes reflecting the confidently unconventional taste of the Grimanis and executed by Mannerist artists such as Giovanni da Udine, Francesco Salviati, Camillo Mantovano, Francesco Menzocchi and Federico Zuccari. I found it very relaxing and inspiring to wander around this well-preserved yet unpretentious palazzo. If Galleria dell’Accademia overwhelms you with its content, Palazzo Grimani allows your eye to enjoy the original decorations and sparse exhibits.
1. Courtyard. The original palace, an ancient casa da stazio, was an L-shaped building located at the intersection of the rios of San Severo and Santa Maria Formosa. In the 16th century overall alterations were carried out for 30 years at the expense of Giovanni Grimani; two new wings were added to the building, doubling its size and gaining an inner courtyard, Roman-style, with loggias of marble colonnades, unusual in 16th century Venice. At the time, the vast space of the courtyard, with its asymmetrical porticoes laden with artfully arranged sculptures, reliefs and inscriptions, must have appeared a stunning invitation to visit the rest of the collection and the pictorial wonders held in the upper floors of the palace.
2. Staircase. Between 1563 and 1565 the vault of the monumental Staircase, which leads to the portego (the traditional main room of the Venetian house), was richly ornamented with stuccoes and painted figures by Federico Zuccari. The subjects seemed to represent religious allegories; the painted decoration was completed with “grottesche” and floral arabesques while the stuccoes represented various sea creatures, based on ancient gems in the family collection. The magnificence of the Grimani glyptic collection originated two sets of prints of the gems, publishes in the 1550s and 1560s; the match between the engravings and the staircase stuccoes leads us to assume that Giovanni Grimani had the engravings reproduced in these stuccoes, expecting observant visitors to discover their connection with his gems.
3. Camaron d’Oro. In the 16h century the 3 rooms preceding the Tribuna provided a gradual approach to its vista. The walls of the large room at the north-west corner of the palace, already known in the 16th century as the Camaron d’Oro – Large Gold Room – were entirely covered with tapestries featuring Bible scenes. They formed a backdrop for the painted terra-cotta vases over the doors and the marble sculptures, including some statues of Pallas, Mercury and a colossal Apollo.
4. Foliage room. The second room from the Tribuna, decorated with a lavish woods motif, for which it was called Sala a foliami – Foliage Room – displayed lunettes with symbolic figures and Latin mottoes referring to Giovanni’s struggles with the church authorities. Ceiling and walls are awash with remarkably convincing plant and bird life. They even include New World species that had only recently been discovered by Europeans, including two that would come to be staples of Venetian life: tobacco and corn. It was Camillo Montovano’s major work in the Grimani palace. This room contained a monumental chimneypiece and many antique busts; its over-doors were adorned with fragments of Roman sarcophagi.
5-6. Anteroom to the Tribuna and Tribuna. The ceiling of the Anteroom to the Tribuna in the 19th century still presented a painting, by Guiseppe Porta – the “Contest of the Attica between Athena and Poseidon”. The room contained various antiques, outstanding among which was a long relief with a sacrificial scene (Suovetaurilia), now in Paris. The Palazzo Grimani Tribuna was probably designed by Giovanni himself as a central-plan museum. It was a stylistic unicum, as Venice has seen nothing like it. Severe, solemn, lit by the light falling from the central lantern, the room had a vaulted ceiling decorated with lacunars and the walls displayed niches and shelves for housing statues and busts. When it was dismantled in 1594, for the removal of the marbles to the Public Statuary, the room contained over 130 sculptures including Greek and Roman works. A key sculpture has been brought back from the Archeological Museum: “The Abduction of Ganymede” returned to its original position in the air space of the Tribuna vault.
7. Neoclassical Room. This room was refurbished at the end of the 18th century on the occasion of the wedding between the Roman princess Virginia Chigi and Giovanni Carlo Grimani, celebrated in 1791. The pictorial decoration of the ceiling was executed by an artist from Verona, Giovanni Faccioli. The subject of the wedding was illustrated by the mural painting above the entrance door which is a copy of the famous scene known as the “Aldobrandini Wedding”, a Roman fresco discovered during excavations in 1601 and purchased by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini.
8. Dining Room. Camillo Mantovano painted the ceiling of the Dining Room, decorated with the fish and birds motifs. The 17th century painting in the center of the ceiling, portraying “St. John Baptizing the People”, is derived from a painting by Nicolas Poussin, conserved at the Louvre, and replaced the painting with the “Four Elements” attributed to Giorgione. The oval shape is taken up again in the decoration of the pavement in pastellone, a characteristic type of crusted marble floor widely used in Venetian buildings.
9. Room of the Doge Antonio, Vestibule and Chapel. In a decorative style quite alien to Venetian culture a sumptuous display or rare marbles set in stucco frames adorns these rooms which belonged to the final phase of the construction of the palace concluded in 1568. The Chapel was used by Patriarch Giovanni Grimani for private celebrations of the Mass. The splendid marble altar, missing now, is still recorded in the 19th century inventories of the palace. On the ceiling of the Vestibule are small frescoes framed with stuccoes. On one side a small window overlooks the spiral staircase of probable Palladian inspiration and on the other side a monumental marble portal leads to the room devoted to Doge Antonio. In this room, located between the east and the south wings of the palace, the space was dominated by two walls, facing each other, treated with the same decorative motif. The fireplace wall was adorned with marble vases and portrait busts, including two modern reproductions of Vitellius and Caracalla. It was devoted to the figure of Doge Grimani (as an inscription, still visible, placed at the top of the wall, indicates) and was apparently the privileged place for honoring him. The wall across from it displayed various antiques: two sleeping Eros, a group of Greek statuettes of female figures and also two landscape reliefs with a sheep and lioness suckling their offsprings, purchased on the Roman antique market. These works surrounded and surmounted a group with “Dionysus and Satyr”.
10. Chamber of Apollo. Situated in the area of the medieval building, the chambers of Apollo, Callisto and Psyche were decorated between 1537 and 1540 by mannerist artists. As we enter, the vault reproduces a scheme from the ceiling of a Roman tomb showing the dispute between Apollo and Marsyas, as narrated in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. The four frescoes are by Francesco Salviati from Florence. The stucco works are by Giovanni da Udine, and so are the small figures of deities, the grotesques and the extraordinary birds. In the lunette on the back wall an allegorical representation of Roman setting refers to the origins and the glories of the Grimani Family. The only sculpture placed in this chamber is the head of the muse Thalia.
11. Chamber of Callisto. The chamber dedicated to the nymph Callisto and her metamorphosis is also related to the famous text by Ovid depicted in the Chamber of Apollo. The story unfolds through 5 panels with gold background, starting from the first – on the wall opposite the windows – where the nymph seduced by Jove whilst in her sleep, to the epilogue – at the center of the ceiling – where Callisto and her son Arcas are both transformed into constellations. Here Giovanni da Udine, who studied the classical ruins in Rome and rediscovered the technique of antique stucco, demonstrates his great still by reproducing animals, still life scenes as well as twelve putti. The latter symbolize the months of the year and are accompanied by four signs of the zodiac which refer to the four seasons. Round mirror embedded in the stucco frames embellish the composition and, in accordance with the story narrated, recall the stars of the firmament.
12. Chamber of Psyche. This room and the next once formed the Chamber of Psyche. It was divided into two separate rooms in the 19th century. In the original layout, which dates back to the 1530s, the ceiling was decorated with 5 paintings dedicated to the story of Cupid and Psyche by Apuleius. The octagonal oil painting on the wall is probably a copy of a painting by Francesco Salviati dated 1539. It was once the center of the pictorial composition and represented Psyche worshipped as a goddess for her beauty.
13. Bosch Room. The Grimani were important patrons of contemporary art too. Their collection not only embraced Venetian painters – such as Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Jacopo Bassano and Tintoretto – but also northern artists, like Memling, Patinir, Bosch and Durer. They probably owned some Bosch’s most celebrated images – “Vision of the Afterlife” – which is still on display at the Palazzo.
14. Room of the Fireplace. This large room was frescoed in the 1560s with the decorations composed of monochrome columns, only few fragments of which survived. Dominating the space is the monumental fireplace in colored marble and white stucco. The elegance and the quality of some details, such as the garlands and the wide-open mouth-monster visible in the center, recall the mannerist geniality and inventive extravagance of the solutions Federico Zuccari adopted in his private residence on the Pincio Hill in Rome.
Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Church of Saints John and Paul, p.31 on the map, €3.50 entry, no photos allowed). When the Dominicans began building Zanipolo (as Basilica is commonly known) in 1333 to rival Franciscans’ Basilica dei Frari, the church stirred a lot of passions. Both structures feature red-brick facades with high-contrast detailing in white stone. But since Zanipolo’s facade remains unfinished, the Frari won a decisive early decision with its soaring grace and Titian’s “Assunta” altarpiece. However, over the centuries, Zanipolo had at least tied the score with its pantheon of ducal funerary monuments and the variety of its masterpieces. Named after the two Roman officials beheaded in 363 by Julius the Apostate, who later acquired the status of “blessed martyrs” (and not after Jesus’ disciples, as one can assume) – the structure was designed to make worshippers small and reverential. Little can prepare you for its cavernous interior (90 m by 38 m), suffused by a soft pink glow.
Completed in 1430s in classic Italia Gothic style, the basilica could accommodated virtually the entire population of 14th century Castello (and still is the largest church in Venice). Its 33m-high nave is reinforced by a clever series of cross-beams – necessary because of Venice’s waterlogged soil. Typical of Italian Gothic, its exteriors and interiors have a barn-like simplicity. Rarest of all is the surviving 15th century stained glass in the south transept, created on Murano, it richly illuminates designs by Bartolomeo Vivarini and Girolamo Mocetto. For centuries, Zanipolo was the site of doge’s funerals, and the walls are punctuated by 25 of their lavish tombs. From Pietro Lombardo’s three-tier monument celebrating the “Ages of Man” for Pietro Mocenigo (1409-1476) to the Gothic tomb of Michele Morosini (1308-1382) and Andrea Tirali’s bombastic “Tomba dei Valier” (1708), they provide an overview of the stylistic development of Venetian art.
In 1867, a fire destroyed paintings by Tintoretto, Palma di Giovanni, Titian and Bellini. Anti-Catholic arson was suspected, but nothing was proved. A second Bellini polyptych, on the second altar in the right aisle, survived. Depicting “Vincent Ferrer, Christopher and Sebastian”, the work has a vivid sensuousness that was to become a hallmark of Venetian painting. Guido Reni’s “San Giuseppe” is a rare expression of holy bonding, with Joseph exchanging adoring looks with baby Jesus. The dome on the southwest end of the nave boasts Giambattista Lorenzetti’s “Jesus the Navigator” – Jesus scans the skies like an anxious Venetian sea captain. In the Cappella del Rosario, Paolo Veronese’s “Assunta” ceiling depicts the rosy Virgin ascending a staggering staircase to by crown by cherubs.
To the right of the church is one of the world’s best-known equestrian statues, that of Bartolomeo Colleoni, sculpted in the 15th century by Andrea del Verrochio. This bronze has long been acclaimed as his masterpiece, even though it was completed by another artist. The horse is far more beautiful that the armored military hero, who looks as it he had just stumbled on a three-headed crocodile.
Adjacent to church’s north corner is the Scuola di San Marco (p. 123 on the map) with its stunning Renaissance facade that you can’t move your eyes from. In was built in 1260 by the Confraternity of San Marco to serve as the home to one of the six major sodalities or Scuole Grandi of Venice. Three of the greatest Italian explorers of the fifteenth century: Giosafat Barbaro, Ambrogio Contarini, and Alvise da Mosto were members of the Scuola. In 1485, however, it was destroyed by a large fire, and rebuilt in the following twenty years under a new design by Pietro Lombardo, with a fund established by the members. The façade, a masterwork with delicately decorated niches and pilasters, and with white or polychrome marble statues, was later completed by Mauro Codussi. While decorated with the polished marble elements of Renaissance classicism, the proliferation of arches and niches adds a retrogressive Byzantine flavor, an architectural feature of many conservative Venetian styles.
Jacopo Tintoretto furnished the Scuola with three paintings “Miracle of the Slave” (also known as “The Miracle of St. Mark”, 1548), “St Mark’s Body Brought to Venice“, painted between 1562 an 1566, both paintings are currently housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, and “Finding of the body of St Mark” also painted between 1562 an 1566, and now held in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. In 1819 it became an Austrian military hospital and it is still a functioning and perhaps the most beautiful civil hospital in the world.
I really enjoyed exploring the narrow alleyways of Castello, the area seemed both, very residential and very quiet. Eventually, I reached the Venetian Arsenale (Arsenal, p.67 on the map, unaccessible to visitors). Since 1104 Venice had possessed, in her famous Arsenale, the greatest shipyards, and probably the chief industrial undertaking in Europe. When Dante, descending into his “Inferno”, wanted images to express the awful turmoil and congestion of purgatory, he drew upon his memories of the Arsenale, for hardly less than the wonders of Venetian architecture and display, the shipyard captured the imagination of everyone: every old map, print and drawing shows it – fairly hazy as a rule, for security was tight, and draughtsmen with easels were hardly encouraged, I imagine, at its heavily battlemented gates. Sustained by an enormous 10% of the city’s income and employing up to 16,000 skilled arsenolotti, it was the very heart of Venice’s mercantile and military power. A unique pre-industrial example of mass production, its centralized organization, standardized processes and stringent quality control all anticipated the modern factory. Not only was the Arsenale capable of turning out a new galley in a single day, its 45-hectare physical footprint occupied 15% of the city. Even today, it is completely surrounded by 3.2km of crenellated walls.
At its peak, the Arsenale must have made an enormous impression, with its boiling black pitch, metalworking and timber cutting. Many streets in Castello are still named after its activities: Calle della Pece (pitch), del Piombo (lead), delle Ancore (anchors) and delle Vele (sails). Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Arsenale was that it used canals as moving assembly lines. The growing ship would move through the canals from one stage of construction to the next – a system that was not reproduces at such a scale until Henry Ford’s “revolutionary” car factory in the 20th century. As a result of this innovation, as many as 100 galleys could be in production at a single time. In addition, special consultants, such as Galileo, helped the Venetians rationalize production and build ships that could be equipped with increasingly powerful munitions. The treatise he later wrote, drawing on his experience, is considered a seminal text of material science.
The physical appearance of the yards was also a matter of prestige and cutting-edge design. At the core of the complex is the Arsenale Vecchio, which included storage for the bucintoro, the doge’s ceremonial galley. In 1303-1304 came the first expansion, known as La Tana. Occupying almost the whole length of the southern side of the Arsenale and performing essential rope-making work, it was refashioned in 1579 by Antonio da Ponte. The Arsenale Nuovo was added in 1325, followed in 1473 by the Arsenale Nuovissimo. In the 16th century, production of galaezze (large vessels with deep draught) required the creation of a deeper Canale delle Galeazze along with further workshops and sheds, such as the Gaggiandre (dry dock), which were fashioned from designs attributed to Jacopo Sansovino. Now, large parts of the Arsenale have been retooled for use as exhibition space during the Art and Architecture Biennales and other special events. Outside of these exhibits the area remains off-limits to visitors.
Capped by the lion of St. Mark that somehow eluded destruction by Napoleon’s troops, the Arsenale’s land gateway is considered by many to be the earliest example of Renaissance architecture in Venice; it was probably executed in 1460. A plaque was installed commemorating the 1571 victory at Lepanto, and the fenced-in terrace was added in 1692. Below the statues is a row of carved lions; the biggest one, regally seated, was taken as a booty by Francesco Morosini from the Greek port of Piraeus, which must have taken some doing. One the right flank of the lion, you will notice some Viking runes, said to be a king of 11th-century war-trophy inscription left behind by Norwegian mercenaries. They boast of their role in helping Byzantium quell a Greek rebellion – the mercenary equivalent of leaving behind a resume.
Since the Museum Storico Navale (Naval Museum, p 83 on the map) was closed but the weather was warm and sunny, I proceeded to the far east part of Castello. Walking along, by Venetian measurements, very wide via Garibaldi, I stumbled into my first park in Venice – Giardini Pubblici. Venice’s public gardens were laid out between 1808 and 1812 on the orders of Napoleon, who decided the city needed a little breathing space. Never mind that an entire residential district had to be demolished or acres of swampland reclaimed. A winning combination of formal gardens and winding pathways, the park now stretches from via Garibaldi, past the Garibaldi monument with a punk-haired lion, through the Napoleonic gardens and past the Biennale pavilions to Sant’Elena, making this the largest park in Venice. It is a perfect and unusual place to sit down and contemplate about the history and present of Venice, to observe the slow-paced locals, who, after the Carnivale ended and tourists dispersed, finally came out to the streets. One of the interesting discoveries I made was that most Venetians had pets – you could always see a cat on the window of this or that palazzo, but once the city’s tourist traffic slowed down, the Venetians other pets, for some reason very large dogs, came out, on the leashes or without. I also noticed that despite its compact size, the city wasn’t forgiving to elderly people – multiple bridges you need to cross even during the shortest walks, the complicated building maintenance, constant flooding, boat navigation – it would take a toll on anybody, yet on an older person. I have to tip my hat to those who haven’t abandoned La Serenissima for a more convenient town.
From Giardini Pubblici, I leisurely strolled back towards Piazza San Marco, and near “S. Zaccaria” vaporetto stop turned right to get to Campo San Zaccharia where my next pit stop was located – Chiesa di San Zaccaria (Church of San Zaccaria, p 54 on the map, Chorus Pass, photos allowed). I instantly liked the place as it had a very nice ambience and to my surprised, hosted second to the Piazza’s Carnevale’s costume party. Back in the 9th century, when Venice was just a collection of wooden houses and before there was Basilica di San Marco, a stone church and convent stood here. This is where the doges worshipped, public spectacles occurred, and sacred relics kept. Today’s structure dates mostly from the 15th century. The tall facade, by Mauro Codussi, who also did Santa Maria Formosa, Torre dell’Orologio and Scuola di San Marco, is a mix of Flamboyant Gothic with early Renaissance. The “vertical” effect produced by the four support pillars that rise up to an arched crown is tempered by the horizontal, many-layered stories and curved shoulders. In the northwest corner of Campo San Zaccaria is a plaque from 1620 listing all the things that were prohibited “in this square”, including games, obscenities, dishonesty, and robbery, all “under grave penalty” (sotto gravis pene).
The church was originally attached to a Benedictine monastery of nuns founded by Doge Giustiniano Participazio and various other doges of the family. When 15th-century Venetian girls showed more interest in sailors than saints, they were sent to the convent adjoining San Zaccaria. Hence, the nuns of this monastery mostly came from prominent noble families of the city and had a reputation for laxness in their observance of the monastic enclosure. However, the wealth showered on the church by their grateful parents is evident. The abbess was usually related to the doge. In 855, Pope Benedict III took refuge in the monastery while fleeing the violence of the Antipope Anastasius, whose election his supporters had challenged. Out of gratitude, Pope Benedict gave the nuns a large number of relics which was the foundation of a large collection for which the monastery was famed, among which were those of Athanasius of Alexandria and a piece of the True Cross.
In 1105, a devastating fire destroyed the entire monastic complex and, according to chronicles of the time, some one hundred nuns, who had taken refuge in the cellars of the monastery, died from smoke inhalation.
The monastery had the tradition of being visited by the doge and his entire court annually at Easter in a ceremony which included presentation of the corno ducale(ducal cap), insignia of his office. This tradition is said to have begun in the 12th century after the nuns had donated land for the building of a ducal chapel, now Basilica di San Marco, and ended only in 1797, at the end of the Republic, when the monastery was suppressed by the invading forces of Napoleon’s army.
When you enter the church, the second chapel on the right holds the body of Zechariah (San Zaccaria). Of the two bodies in the chapel, the lower one in the glass case is the reputed body of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Back when mortals remains were venerated and thought to bring miracles to the faithful, Venice was proud to own the bones of St. Zechariah.
However, the church is blessed with fine art too. On the opposite side of the nave (second chapel on the left), there is Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child with Saints” (1505). Mary and the babe, under the pavilion, are surrounded by various saints interacting in a so-called Sacra Conversazione (holy conversation), which in this painting is more like a quiet meditation. The saints’ mood is melancholy, with lidded eyes and downturned faces. A violinist angel plays a sad solo at Mary’s feet. This is one of the last of Bellini’s paintings in the sacra conversazione formula, the newer type of altarpiece that liberated the Virgin, Child and saints from the separate cells of the older triptych style. The life-size saints stand in an imaginary extension of the church – the pavilion’s painted columns match those of the real church. We see a glimpse of trees and a cloudy sky beyond. Bellini established a 3-D effect using floor tiles. The four saints pose symmetrically, and there’s a harmony in the big blocks of richly colored robes – blue, green, white and yellow. A cool white light envelops the whole scene, creating a holy ambience. The ever-innovative Bellini was productive until the end of his long life – he painted this masterpiece at age 75. The German artist Albrecht Durer said of him:”He is very old, and still he is the best painter of them all”.
Many worthwhile works lie in the main body of the church, but for a view of even more of them, apply to the sacristan for entrance to the church’s museum, housed in an area once reserved exclusively for nuns. Here, you will find works by Tintoretto, Titian, Il Vecchio, Anthony van Dyke and Bassano. On the right-hand side of the nave is the entrance (€1,5 fee) to the Crypt. Before descending into the crypt, look at the Tintoretto’s “Birth of John the Baptist” located in the first room (Chapel of Sant’Atanasio). Painted in 1560s, the masterpiece tells the backstory of Zechariah. In the background, old Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, props herself up in bed while nurses hold and coo over her newborn son, little John the Baptist. The birth was a miracle, as she was past childbearing age. On the far right, Zechariah – the star of this church – witnesses the heavens opening up, bringing this miracle to earth.
The five golden thrones, displayed in this room, were once seats for doges. Every Easter, the current doge would walk from Piazza San Marco to this religious center and thank the nuns of San Zaccaria for giving the land for the square.
The small room next door contains religious objects as well as an engraving of the doge parading into Campo San Zaccaria. Next comes the Chapel of San Tarasio, dominated by an impressive 15th century prickly gold altarpiece by Antonio Vivarini. The predella (seven small scenes beneath the altarpiece) may be by Paolo Veneziano, the 14th century grandfather of Venetian painting. This Chapel also contains the faded frescoes of Andrea del Castagno.
Look down through the glass in the floor to see the 12th-century mosaic floor from the original church. In fact, these rooms were parts of the earlier churches.
Finally, go downstairs to the crypt – the foundation of the church built in the 10th century, and since it is one of the oldest churches in Venice, the remains of various doges were buried here. The crypt is low and the water table high, so I was told that the room would be flooded (and it was), submerging the bases of the columns.
I exited the Campo at the far end, and headed south – until I reached the waterfront. The corniche is called Riva Degli Schiavoni (or simply, Riva) and it was built not for tourists but as part of the port of San Marco in the 9th century. Its name “schiavoni” actually mean “Slavs”, referring to Slavic men who brought cargo to Venice from across the Adriatic Sea. For centuries, vessels would dock and disembark here, the waterfront of Babel of languages, as traders, dignitaries and sailors arrived from ports around the Mediterranean and beyond. Paolo Veronese’s “Feast in the House of Levi” (in the Galleria dell’Accademia), gives you some idea of how the crows might have looked and dressed, with Turkish, German, North African and Greek merchants wheeling and dealing along the banks. The great poet Petrarch was among those who found lodgings and inspiration at #4175 east of Rio della Pieta. Now many of the grand old mansions serve as the town’s finest hotels, so you too can bunk here like the merchants of yesteryear.
The big equestrian monument depicts Victor Emmanuel II, who helped lead Italy to unification and became the country’s first king in 1861. Beyond that (over the bridge) is the four columned La Pieta Church, where Antonio Vivaldi once directed the music and where you can easily purchase tickets for today’s performance for Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. Despite crowds and many stalls selling cheap stuff, the Riva is lined with many of Venice’s most famous hotels, one of which is Daniele Hotel (former Palazzo Dandolo). Since we stayed at another SPG Luxury Collection hotel in town, The Gritti Palace, a tough-looking security allowed me to enter the hotel and browse around. It was indeed, very impressive.
Approaching Piazza San Marco, if you are lucky and aren’t swept off your feet by millions of tourists, don’t forget to stop and look at Bridge of Sighs, only from the outside, this time. It still remains breathtakingly romantic.
To be continued……for Part II click here.