Sunday, 27 December 2009

(23 - 26 Dec 2009) Venice

I have always been fascinated by Venice. By always I mean since 1992. That's when Lena, one of our best family friends, bought me a pirated 3.5" disk (at the time that was normal) of the DOS game "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". I hadn't watched the movie and Harrison Ford's "Ah Venice!", but his computer sprite was enough to convince me that this was a place that I needed to visit if I ever grew up.
Ah Venice
History of Venice (J. Norwich)
I doubt I grew up, but seventeen years later it was time to visit Venice. First, I read Julius Norwich's "History of Venice". This provided all the historical background one may need before arriving there. This sentence may sound unusual, but yes, you really do need to read a bit of history to fully appreciate the beauty of every little corner of this place. I'll start with a direct quote from Norwich's book: "The first builders of Venice were frightened men."

Until A.D. 400 they were living prosperous lives in splendid cities of the Roman Empire, looking to what we now call Venetian lagoon only for their salt and fish. In the early 5th century, the Goths started sweeping down Italy forcing the local populations to seek refuge to the lagoon. At the beginning, these populations were moving to their new settlements only temporarily, until after 300 years of continuous harassment in the mainland, they decided to stay in the lagoon for good.
Thanks to their cohesion, resourcefulness and impressive sense of duty, this tiny island built an empire that lasted 1,100 years (697–1797), almost as long as the Byzantine empire (330–1453), her arch enemy and best friend. Venetian government system
The Venetian empire was built on trade and naval power, supported by the most stable, modern and efficient political system (in my opinion, in history).
When Constantinople fell to the Turks, Venice became the most splendid city on earth. Byzantine and European renaissance scholars would either stay in Venice or visit Venice (The list includes Bessarion, who is an ancestor in my academic genealogy tree :P; the premier Byzantine scholar of the time, whose collection of manuscripts became the basis of the Biblioteca Marciana in 1468). Yet, Venice was a city of superb merchants, craftsmen and artists and these people rarely become great philosophers. Venetian Flag
Venice herself never produced a Boccaccio or a Dante. As Norwich puts it, Venice was great at producing books, but not as much at writing them.

After 1500, when the Portuguese proved that you don't need the Mediterranean (and consequently Venice) to trade with the East, the Venetians had to shift their focus, from exceptional merchants to exceptional diplomats and spies. The Venetian republic lasted another 300 years, until Napoleon occupied Venice in 1797.

Today, Venice is no less magical than 1000 years ago... as long as you visit her when there are no tourists (that's 23-25 Dec and a few other times of the year).

After you've arrived at the Marco Polo airport, you take the boat-bus to reach the island of Venice.

Bus Bus
ambulance dhl
What you realise quickly is that everyone uses boats for everything as there are no cars. See for example these photos of an ambulance boat and a DHL courier boat. Even the firemen move around the town in boats, such as the ones here that are trying to open a locked door near the Arsenale.

Speaking of the Arsenale, it used to be the most advanced and largest shipyard in the world. Its existence was a state secret, unknown to the Turks and other enemies for centuries.

Arsenale Map

As far as I know, you can't visit it. You can only take photos outside one of the entrances.

Arsenale entrance

Da Vinci's Vitruvian man was on display for a few days, while we were in Venice. Da Vinci's Vitruvian man There was also a Da Vinci exhibition with wooden miniature models of his designs.

While Venetians are very friendly and hospitable, you can't blame them when they just have enough with the tourists. This taxi driver is tired of being photographed by tourists and takes his revenge by showing me his tongue.

St. George (Greek Orthodox Church)

When Byzantium fell, several Greeks fled to Venice. They were first given a Catholic church and 50 years later built their own church, proof of the religious tolerance of the Venetians. That's the splendid San Giorgio dei Greci, still the religious centre for Orthodox Christians in Italy.

Speaking of religious tolerance, in Venice you will also find the first Jewish Gheto. No negative meaning for the word Gheto at the time. Gheto just meant Foundry, and ... there was a foundry there.

Gheto Vechio Gheto Vechio square

Venice is tiny. Surprisingly this is a good thing if you base your empire on merchants. The more familiar the merchants are with each other (personal friends, relatives, etc.), the easier it is to form quick, ad hoc partnerships. Merchants in the rest of Europe would not trust each other as much as merchants in Venice. A large-scale partnership that would involve hundreds of caravans and ships could be decided in a matter of hours at the markets around the bridge of Rialto.

Rialto Bridge

While the centre of commerce and entertainment is near Rialto Bridge, the centre of political and spiritual life in Venice is St. Mark's square with the Basilica

St. Mark St. Mark

The Doge's palace.
Doge's Palace

This is one of the most incredibly important rooms in Europe. The Sala del Maggior Consiglio, where the Doge, his advisers and the 1,000 + nobles of Venice were taking their policy decisions. I won't say much about the political system of Venice, because it needs a separate article, but here's a couple of photos of the room:

Sala Den Maggior Consiglio Sala Den Maggior Consiglio

The Clock
The Clock

I chose St. Mark's Basilica for Christmas mass, although I am not a Catholic.

Inside St. Mark's - Christmas mass
When we were in St. Mark's, we heard a ww2 bomb raid siren and the Patriarch explained that we should be careful on the way to our homes, because flooding was in progress and most of the city was under 5-20cm of water already.

Venice flooded

Women invariably love the gondolas. Men invariably hate them, because they are ridiculously expensive and not really special ($140 for two, for 25 minutes). Still, everyone does it, because it's the first thing their friends ask them about when they return home.


Marco Polo's houseAt least with the gondola you get to see some places, such as Marco Polo's house, that you may have missed otherwise. Venice has its fair share of palace and nobles' houses. Actually many more than a fair share. Sir Norwich described Venice as a thinking man's disneyland. Every few steps you find a palace or a church or the house of someone that you know from your history books.

Ca Rezzonico

In terms of prices, if you book early enough (2-3 months), you can get a beautiful 17th century hotel in the centre of St. Mark's sestiere for a very good price. Ours was Ca Dei Conti.
Ca dei Conti Ca dei Conti Ca dei Conti

However, as soon as you arrive in Venice, the prices (food, souvenirs, etc.) are extortionate, even for a Euro-tourist destination. Still, you won't stay for so long that you'd bother about the prices. A Venice-n00b's optimal stay is about 3 days.

Some more photos of the intriguingly diverse architecture of Venice (Chiesa, Ca Contarini and Natural History Museum):
Chiesa Ca Contarini Natural History Museum

San Marco and San Teodoro columns
Next to the Doge's Palace are the two columns of San Marco and San Teodoro, brought from Constantinople and erected in the 12th century. The first architect of the Rialto Bridge, Barattieri, for his efforts, was granted the right to set up gambling tables between the columns :o. Later, the site was used for public executions, until the 18th century. For this reason, even today, superstitious Venetians never walk between the columns.

A few more photos:

Mind the Gap in Venetian Style and the Bridge of Sighs.
Mind the gap in Venetian style

Bridge of SighsThe bridge passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connects the old prisons to the interrogation rooms inside the Doge's Palace (btw, the prisons, the palace and the Basilica are all connected!). [From wikipedia: The bridge name, given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice out the window before being taken down to their cells. In reality, the days of inquisitions and summary executions were over by the time the bridge was built, and the cells under the palace roof were occupied mostly by small-time criminals.]

Last image is my favourite Bellini's masterpiece. Doge Leonardo Caredan. It's on display in the National Gallery in London.

Bellini's 'Doge Loredan'

I'll close with Sir John Julius Norwich, the no1 authority on Venice: