A Spell Called Venice

A thick fog lay over Venice. We were bemused. Was our time in the city of the ancient Veneti people going to be all about climactic doom n’ gloom? But may I confess this that I was a bit thrilled. I am enchanted by fog. I find my imagination stoked by the very suggestion of mysteriousness and romance that it exudes. As the London lover and English biographer Peter Ackryod captures the phenomenon, “Once more it is a primeval landscape, the landscape of origin, one which arouses a native inspiration.”

Also, if you love the Gothic, dark romance of Anne Radcliffe novels, you would get my fascination with fog. Venice, to my romance-ridden faculties, was a magician bent on pulling off all kinds of tricks under the veil of the white haze. Churches made of marble and limestone arose out of it, alleys petered off into the blank wall of fog, ornate bridges showed up round the bends of alleys and unfazed gondoliers plowed into the gathering gloom. Masks flamboyantly broke through the whiteness and added an instant touch of glamour and a heritage that goes back over a thousand years in time.

We walked all around the city, through its network of alleys, getting to know it by losing our way. There is no better way into the heart of Venice. Though you cannot presume to know a city inside out within a few days, at least you can make an attempt to peel its layers.

Foggy Starts Ain’t Filled With Gloom

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Scene from a Venetian train journey. The husband fixes the fog with a gimlet eye.
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The marshy, reclaimed land that is Venice. Where land is incidental to water. Fog hangs heavy upon the scene.
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Santa Maria della Salute, dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is considered to be the protector of the Republic of Venice. The dreaminess of the day took off from the moment we got out of the Santa Lucia train station and saw the turquoise dome of Santa Maria della Salute rear its head up through the blanket of white haze. The English name for the church is Saint Mary of Health, a reminder of the devastating 1630 outbreak of plague in the city. For deliverance, the Republic of Venice had this baroque church erected in the 17th century.
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Palladian classicism of Santa Maria della Salute. Beyond which you can see mostly nothing except for a street lamp and a few wooden poles sticking out of the canal.
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The church is home to canvases by the Italian masters, Tintoretto and Titian.
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Fog may come and fog may go but the gondola goes on forever.
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Life goes on, on the canals of Venice. E’en though you could cut through the fog with a knife and the cold itself could and did cut through your bones.
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Red boats and fog are good chums. They balance each other out, eh?
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Giardini Papadopoli in the Santa Croce sestiere – where the fog and a gravel path swirled around cypress and cedar trees,  elms and oleander, mulberries and laurel. The garden got its name from the Corfu-born owners of the land upon which it was built.
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The kind of scene that reminds me of the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe.

The Serene Republic

We were in Venice at a time when tourists hardly besiege the city as they are wont to do in summer. Winter was a reprieve from the hordes for us as well as I believe it would be for the locals. That intimate look at the city, without having to negotiate crowds in its narrow alleys and upon its small bridges, possibly made us fall in love with Venice thoroughly.Venice got into our skin.

The former capital of an important maritime and financial powerhouse called the Republic of Venice or La Serenissima (The Serene Republic) holds on to traces of its trading heritage and immense wealth. Spices are sold everywhere, grand palazzos catch the eye, tall, brooding campaniles tower over the city and old mansions straddle the canals in all their fading beauty like aged dames who might have wrinkles on their faces, for who can escape the ravages of time, but still manage to give you a sense of their timeless grace.

Now, Venice is ripe for flooding during winters. I was a bit alarmed (yes, I am a complete water wuss) but I have to say I did not have to wade around in knee-deep water or worry that I have to revive my forgotten skill of swimming in freezing climes. You see, Venice is a collection of over a hundred islands in the Venetian lagoon.

The story goes that in the 5th century, a Celtic group of people who were known as the Veneti, fled from the mainland to Venice when they were attacked by the Huns. In time, Venice was protected and controlled by the Byzantine Empire which was essentially the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. When the empire had its day in Venice, in came a long line of doges. The doge was the head of state and ruled the Republic from the 8th century to the 18th. The best and obvious of their legacies is Palazzo Ducale or the Doge’s Palace with its massive rectangle of Gothic architecture, 14th century sculptures adorning its corners and stone-lace like loggia adding to its resplendence.

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Palazzo Ducale
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The erstwhile Palazzo Dandolo, home to the noble Dandolo family, is now a luxury hotel called Danieli in the Castello sestiere.
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Grand buildings stand proud, shoulder-to-shoulder along the canal.
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I loved looking at the balustrades on the balconies, the shutters painted in various shades and the lace-like wrought iron windows.
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Looks like it might have belonged to an important family of Venice.
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“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” Italo Calvino
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“I cannot write about Venice; I can only write about me, and the sleeping parts of myself that Venice has shocked into wakefulness.” Jessica Zafra
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“There is no better backdrop for rapture to fade into; whether right or wrong, no egoist can star for long in this porcelain setting by crystal water, for it steals the show.” Joseph Brodsky

Stolen Saints and Lions with Wings

A famous theft took place in the year 828 in Alexandria. Venetian merchants nicked a whole corpse there.

Did you roll your eyes in disbelief? Give them some leeway. They were a product of their times when stealing bones of saints was the thing to do.

These merchants are said to have dug up the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist and put them into a barrel containing pickled pig which ensured that the Muslim inspectors would not touch it. Those clever ‘uns then built an elaborate church to put up St. Mark or what remained of him. That is the story behind the symbol of the city which is the winged lion and that of Basilica San Marco where the remains of the saint are supposed to be.

These Venetian merchants were trendsetters. After that there was no barring other Italian states from nicking saints. Bari and Amalfi followed suit.

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The book-wielding winged creature might be my favourite kinda lion. He is actually holding the gospel of St Mark.
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If you look carefully, bathed golden in the rays of the setting sun, are two lions flanking the Christmas tree. Piazza San Marco.
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There he stands tall and proud above Piazza of San Marco.
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A live official state lion once was kept in a cage on Piazza San Marco, till he died in that cage.
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The winged lion atop one of the columns on Piazza San Marco. On his right, the column is topped by the Greek warrior saint, St. Theodore, who was patron saint of the city before he was supplanted in its books by St. Mark.

Sestieri Decoded

One of the words which will pop up frequently when you start to fumble your way around Venice is ‘sestiere’. It is the Italian equivalent for what we know as a district. Towns which are divided into six districts have ‘sestieri’, plural for ‘sestiere’. The sestieri of Venice are Castello, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce. Let me show you a slice of each below.

Up and Down, Up and Down We Go O’er the Bridges of Venice

Four hundred-odd bridges span the length and breadth of Venice. They are unusual, not only because they come in all shapes and sizes but because they have such innovative names. Most are unnamed because well there are just so many of them. But there are stories behind them that set off the imagination. The Ponte delle Tette is a small bridge in Venice which translated means Bridge of the Tits. In the 15th and 16th centuries, prostitutes are said to have stood topless upon the bridge, all as part of a clever ploy of the Republic to stem homosexuality. Then you have a bridge dedicated to fisticuffs. Ponte dei Pugni which celebrates a popular Venetian tradition of fist fights atop small bridges.

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That footbridge is the Bridge of Sighs. It links up the Doge’s Palace with the Prigioni or the prisons. The Italians call the bridge Ponte de Sospiri. The Romantics associated it with the prisoners of the Venetian Republic who sighed as they had a final view of the city before they were incarcerated or executed. It was Byron who had observed: “I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and prison on each hand.” Beneath the bridge, gondoliers often position their gondolas strategically so that their passengers may kiss and fulfil the legend that they shall have eternal love.
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Ponte degli Scalzi. The Bridge of the Barefoot Monks is one of the four bridges in Venice that runs athwart the Grand Canal. It links up the sestieri of Santa Croce and Cannaregio.
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In this bridge-some scene, you shall spot Ponte della Costituzione on the right hand side of the photograph. It is also called Ponte di Calatrava after its architect. I found it modern and jarring and quite slippery. Parts of its walkway is made of glass which tends to be slippery during wet weather.
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I wondered if fights took place on this bridge here. Those fights might have been known as fist fights but they were fought with whatever weapon was handy.
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They fought with either a long slender blade called stiletto or pistolese which happened to be a hefty dagger.
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The fights even took place using sharp sticks/canes referred to as canne d’India or spiked boat poles (now isn’t that handy for a city of gondolas) called spontoni.
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Dorsoduro bridges
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Seen in Dorsoduro sestiere

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When I seek another word for ‘music’, I never find any other word than ‘Venice’ – Nietzsche
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“It is the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” Erica Jong
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The husband on one of the small bridges of Venice. How he would have dealt with a fist fight I wonder 😉
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The bridge linking Hotel Danieli with an adjoining palace. People who put up at the luxury hotel get their personal boats to take them on the canals all the days of their stay.
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A quick click in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal.
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The 16th cenutry Ponte de Rialto or Rialto Bridge is the oldest bridge across the Grand Canal. It is the dividing point of the sestieri of San Marco and San Polo. Robert Browning mentioned the bridge in his poem, A Toccata of Galuppi’s: “Ay, because the sea’s the street there; and ’tis arched by . . . what you call/ . . . Shylock’s bridge with houses on it”. He refers to Rialto Bridge as Shylock’s bridge. Before you start wondering what the strange title means, a toccata is a musical composition and Baldassare Galuppi was an 18th-century  Venetian composer. Browning was trained in music and through this poem makes his English narrator wonder about 18th century Venice from the bosom of his own land.

Tall, Tall, Tall Campaniles and Churches

They have a church pass in Venice for a reason. Every corner we turned there was a campanile or a spire at the end of the alley. There are more than a hundred churches on Venice and I never got tired of the effect that the grandiose design of each had on us. The grandest of them all was the Basilica San Marco. We attended the 6.45 pm Sunday evening mass at the basilica because that is when it is lit up inside and the mosaic designs come to life with alacrity. The bummer is that they do not allow photographs inside – a blooming shame because the finger itches when you see the sparkling mosaics, some of which are wrought in 24-karat gold. It was a long service in the course of which I noticed two people snoozing. One was next to me – my husband. The other person was a big, old Italian man in a green felt hat and a green greatcoat who nodded off frequently in everyone’s plain sight.

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“I have created a church in the form of a rotunda, a work of new invention, not built in Venice, a work very worthy and desired by many. This church, having the mystery of its dedication, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the … shape of a crown,” observed the architect, Baldassare Longhena.
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The protector of La Serenissima.
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Campaniles of Venice
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The Church of Santa Maria Assunta, or I Gesuiti, in the sestiere of Cannaregio near Fondamenta Nuove.
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Basilica San Marco. It makes your jaws drop. And makes you ignore the annoying flower sellers who try and tuck a rose into your arms.
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St. Mark arrives in Venice.
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Bronze winged lions and angels at the campanile and the basilica in the backdrop.
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A 15-century former monastic church, Chiesa di San Zaccaria on Campo San Zaccaria off the waterfront. To the convent adjoining the church, girls used to be carted off in the 15th century if they showed a penchant for sailors. So this was a wealthy church marked by canvases by the Italian masters of art such as Titian, Bellini and Tintoretto.

 

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The beautifully carved entrance to Campanile di San Marco.
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Bell tower of the Chiesa di San Vidal which was built as a church in 1084 but today is a concert hall in the sestiere of San Marco.
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Torre dell’Orologio. An early Renaissance clock tower on Piazza San Marco.
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Chiesa dei Carmini in Dorsoduro sestiere
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Santa Maria della Salute from the sestiere of San Marco

I shall take my leave here because I do really suspect you might have dozed off.

There’s a follow-up post about more things Venetian. You know, of gondolas, gelatos and cicchetti. Because the city that enchants at every turn and corner cannot be left alone just yet, can it?

 

 

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