Mare Nostrum I: Venice-La Serenissima

Oh Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls
Are level with the waters, there shall be
A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,
A loud lament along the sweeping sea!
If I, a northern wanderer, weep for thee,

What should thy sons do?–anything but weep
And yet they only murmur in their sleep.

Ode to Venice, Lord Byron

It’s easy to be in awe of Venice; it’s harder to like it.

I am not referring either to Venice, California, in the state where I live, or Venice, Florida where my dad used to live and where I spent the summer of ’78 driving up and down the Tamiami Trail. I’m talking about THE Venice, which is the first stop on our three week sojourn around the Mediterranean. The first thing you observe is the sound of water lapping, nonstop, against the docks, the sound of engines revving up and cutting down as the barges and taxis slip around through the canals. History sings as you ride the boats between the Palazzo Thises and the Ca d’Thats, but, even in sunlight, the buildings which shine in the distance seem faded and dingy close up.

Venice St. Mark's Square
St. Mark’s Square, Venice, photo by kajmeister

Beautiful Decay

One well-traveled friend warned me that she found Venice dirty and odorous, like New Orleans without signs in English. Another said she loved to walk around and just “gawk.” For me, the city inspired thoughts of both. Arriving to the train station via water taxi, the food seems airport-priced, the toilets require coins, and people are jammed into the few available seats and benches. (Don’t sit on the bridges!) Lines for the vaporetto (water bus) tickets are long, signs are confusing, and photo stops at the Rialto bridge and elsewhere are wall-to-wall shoulders and strollers. A vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal listening to a pre-downloaded Rick Steves’ tour seemed like a great “get acclimated” idea, except that the popular #1 line was also crammed full of bodies–where do these tourists all come from? Same place as myself, I suppose.

Everything is Grand and grandly faded. The gondoliers wear bluetooth earpieces and play prerecorded singing while they fiddle with electronic devices. The guidebooks say that Venice is emptying, down by a third in the last decade due to the high cost of living for locals, and that soon it will be only for tourists–if it’s not already. Orlando and Las Vegas come to mind for comparison. Like Orlando, Venice swelters and seems overly stocked with crying bambinos, yet like Las Vegas, the children may be simply confused at what they are supposed to admire. Perhaps, in time, Venice will add video arcades, and Ca D’Oro will stand next to a terminus where you can play Shoot the Saracen or Arm the Crusaders. The Piazza in front of St. Mark’s Basilica is already ringed by Dolce & Gabbana shops; kiosks on the Rialto bridge sell sunglasses and headphones. It could be worse, and probably will be soon enough.

Something about the crammed little alleyways seems so sad; even the smallest tub of greenery in a courtyard seems to strain against the odds. Yet, just once, as we navigated through a labyrinth of streets to find one of the dozen museums, we heard a lively version of Vivaldi’s Winter playing close, a trio set up in a small campo. We were able to sit for a few minutes on a doorstep, feel a breeze off the water, and sip some warm diet Coke while listening to the violinist show off a little. I thought, maybe I’ve almost got it.

Campo San Palo, Venice, courtyard
Venice courtyard in Campo San Palo, photo by kajmeister

Byron wrote about Venice’s fading glory fully three centuries ago, and it was only three centuries before that when Venice was in its heyday, which lasted about three centuries. So maybe this is a place meant to rise and fall quickly, meant for most of us to think only about what it once was.

In contrast with their fathers–as the slime,
The dull green ooze of the receding deep,
Is with the dashing of the spring-tide foam
That drives the sailor shipless to his home,
Are they to those that were; and thus they creep,
Crouching and crab-like, through their sapping streets.
Oh! Agony-that centuries should reap
No mellower harvest!

–Byron, Ode to Venice

The Voyager’s Worship

When Rome fell to barbarians in the 5th century, some of the citizens took to the waters, navigating around the peninsula and landing among the tiny islands at the north tip of the Adriatic. Through architectural ingenuity that evolved over centuries, they drove pilings into the mud and transferred stones on barges, gradually building up most of what is now Venice. There was no need for city walls since the city already had a rather large moat. The location was also situated close enough to the Alps–not near a pass–to provide additional protection. (I was a mite surprised to fly right over those mountain crags in our final descent into the land-based airport).

After the Venetians fended off Frederick Barbarossa’s imperial troops at the Battle of Legnano in 1176, the traders and captains began to amass a maritime–based fortune. They timed their launch of martime expertise well, just as the Crusades were in full swing. Building good ships and weapons, they were able to outfit the aristocrats from northern Europe who started arriving in droves to sail over to the Levant (Israel/Syria) where the popes had aimed all good Catholic nobles. Venetians filled the huge galleys going east with ballast consisting of armor and horses; they returned laden with precious metals, spices and silks from even further east, and the odd relic or too. The Pisans, in comparison, filled their returning holds with dirt from Jerusalem that they built into the walls of their churches, which made their citizens much holier but not nearly as rich.

As many of the early Italian city-states grew wealthy, their nobility organized and military leaders vied for power. Those cities–Milan, Florence, Naples, and Genoa–became punching bags for the pope, Holy Roman Emperor, French, and Spanish. Venice, all the way on the other side of the peninsula, and linking itself to Constantinople, grew strong with a combined Christian/Eastern influence. Hence the byzantine look to its churches and palaces. They fended off the Saracens, beat off their competitors from Genoa and Pisa, and–for a time–dominated the Mediterranean. It might seem strange to imagine merchants wealthy enough to transform a landscape in such a way, but if you imagine Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos combining to create their own city, you can well envision how such resources could build what they needed.

Doge's Palace clocks, Venice
Doge’s Palace meeting chamber, Venice, photo by kajmeister

The Venetians knew how to navigate, how to make money, and how to keep time. Their banks grew fat, and clocks were everywhere–two even in one of the massive council chambers inside the Palazzo Doge.

Git Along Little Doges

The nobles built out a very large administrative council, with something like 2000 nobles in one voting bloc. They also created a Council of Ten and a position of Doge (Duke) which was an elected, not hereditary position. The Doge’s role was prominently ceremonial. He presided at church in the awe-inspiring, golden-tiled St. Mark’s, sat atop an immense throne, and received ambassadors in opulent his pink-striped palace. Which he and his family could never leave. If he ever tried to wield more power, to turn dictator or monarch, he was disabused of the notion. Marino Faliero tried to elevate family members in that way in 1355, and the Venetians disabused him of his head–in public. In the grand chamber, one of the largest rooms in Europe, they have paintings of Doges all around the walls, except where Faliero’s face would go–there’s only a black cloth.

The republic was stable and lasted for centuries, while the Genoans and Neapolitans were constantly fighting themselves and other declared monarchs. Professor Kenneth Bartlett (Great Courses) postulates the Venetians were a successful merchant republic because they kept the aristocracy and the tradesmen public separate and safe. The great unwashed couldn’t become noble; you had to have your name written into the Golden or Silver Book in order to be among the higher councils. But the trades guilds were highly respected, not only merchants and armorers but lace-makers and glassmakers who developed some of the finest crafts in the world. Venetian glass, Murano glass in particular, claimed to be the best in the world, due to trade secrets. If you took those secrets to other places, the Venetian Council of Ten (consigliore) would send assassins after you to resolve such violations of mercantile practices.

Another Council of Ten practice was the placement of special mailboxes called Per Donontie Segrete. Slots were built into the various walls where you could place slips of paper informing on other people for any reason. Within the palazzo that served as pleasant confinement for the Doge and administrative offices for the bureaucrats, there were less pleasant places of confinement. The Bridge of Sighs is the walkway from palace to the prison, which afforded a last glimpse to the outside for the condemned.

Per Donontie Segrete, Venice
Per Donontie Segrete in the Doge’s Palace, photo by kajmeister

After the 16th century, when the Renaissance lost a bit of its fizz in culture, invention, and mercenary-driven mini-wars, Venice became a playground of decadence. The annual Carnivale grew to become one of the largests in the world aside from Rio de Janeiro, and, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the weary wealthy enjoyed their bored licentiousness in anonymity. Carnival masks are now sold in every shop like Yankee hats in New York and sourdough bread in San Francisco. We tried to find a good souvenir mask, but they were all either made in China or far more expensive than the one we bought in Epcot 20 years ago.

Portals of Time among the Brocades

Aside from the astoundingly beautiful Frari church, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s digs, we tramped through museum rooms aplenty which held everything from Byzantine-style mosaics and masterworks by Titian and Canova to modern works by Klimt, Klee, and Calder. One particularly incongruous palazzo/museum called Mocenigo had a modern neon sculpture in the downstairs entryway, a guitarist singing a popular Italian song while the docents hummed along, and crumbly steps upstairs to stuffy rooms that held perfume samples, ugly red brocade chairs, portraits of the Mocenigo family–whoever they were–and rooms full of kimonoed mannequins. One walk-in closet displayed 50 different 18th century white men’s vests, which I guess were all the rage under the black cloak, mask, and tricorn hat.

The Accademia was probably the best of the museum galleries. My favorite work was by Vittore Carpaccio, a lively battle between Turks and crusading knights including crucifixions, and heavenly ascensions for the martyrs (Crocifissione e apoteosi dei diecimila martiri del monte Ararat; The Crucifixion and Apotheosis of the 20,000 (?) Martyrs on Mount Ararat). My other favorite was this Bosch (Visioni dell’Aldila. L’ascesa dei beati; Visions of the Hereafter. Ascent into Heaven).

Apparently to Bosch, whose angels and devils both carry sharp serrated-edged wings, heaven is a wormhole.

Bosch, Visions of Heaven
Bosch, Visions of Heaven, Accademia, Venice, photo by kajmeister

Our hotel was actually on the island of Murano, a 30-minute vaporetto ride away, famous for the glass factories which still operate. It had its own museum which, though small, held one glass marvel after another: etched glass, glass made to like marble, shaped like dragons or other fantastic beasts, carved into people, or worn as a cape.

Murano glass museum
Murano glass museum, Venice, photo by kajmeister

Most of the Venice we saw seemed to roll up its carpet relatively early, but Murano island was still picturesque at night, as the fog finally darkened enough to see the restaurant night lights appear.

Murano Island, Venice
Murano Island at twilight, Venice, photo by kajmeister

Ain’t No Juliet in Verona

We have found on previous trips that after a day or two of slogging through museums and through city sites, we are desperate for something different, usually a train ride into the countryside to see where the locals live. Besides, I just love a good train ride. America really needs the high-speed rail that is now so embedded in the European infrastructure. Europe, in its turn, needs more ice machines and better recyling and composting that’s been a California staple for a dozen years.

We chose a quick one hour jaunt over to Verona. May 1st was a national government holiday, and our fears proved well-founded. Venice at large was flooded with even more tourists than usual, which made a hop on a train a welcome respite. Verona is about an hour into the cheery farmland and has a good dozen gawkable churches and Roman ruins to tramp around. Of course, arriving at the train station, we wandered over to the bus terminals to save our feet a bit of walk into town and hit another May 1st snag . After cleverly navigating the Italian-only machines to buy two bus tickets, we finally found the right place to stand, then spent 15 minutes trying to interpret the tiny letters on the timetables which said “0105: Servizio Sospeso.” We got the attention of a local, who shrugged and gestured impatiently, “Yes, stand here,” until we pointed out the date and the words, and he said, “F*ck” in Italian, which is pronounced exactly the way you say it in American, which meant No Buses Today.

It wasn’t raining or very humid, so the walk wasn’t that long. In Verona, there was a lovely street market selling a dozen varieties of cheese, olive, and bread, and a pleasant and not too expensive cafe that made a very nice latte macchiato. We enjoyed perusing the town which, like so many parts of Italy, was a mash-up of old and new. There was a huge wall of people standing outside the World Famous Juliet’s Balcony near another town square, which offered us amusement to no end. Not to be snooty about it, but Shakespeare likely never traveled outside England, not to Elsinore, Athens, Tyre, or Verona. He had a great imagination. There were no Capulets or Montagues; there was no “real” Juliet or balcony, despite the Verona Tour Guide’s assertion that “no one can prove there wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, the real original Roman toll-taking gate still stands, as does the arena that used to show gladiatoral contests but now shows opera and most recently–according to the graffiti–One Direction concerts. Because you were not allowed to be buried in town, tombs line the outskirts of the road, even here as part of the Caffe Rialto, where everyone pokes at their phone, oblivious to the stone a foot away.

Verona Caffe Rialto plus tomb
Verona tombs line the road at Caffe Rialto, photo by kajmeister

Venice Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

If Venice does dissolve into a playground for tourists–or maybe it’s been so for nearly half a millennia now–then it will be memorable as a series of such unlikely contrasts. Back on Murano, under one of the bell towers, we found a blue glass sculpture (artist Simon Cenedes) that glinted in the evening twilight. After we snapped our photo and strolled on, we passed two women gesturing and bringing each other up to date on family business, the one leaning out a real balcony and punctuating her news with jabs of her cigarette in the air. Timeless.

Murano glass sculpture by Simon Cenedes
Murano island, Cenedes glass sculpture, photo by kajmeister

Venice is flooding frequently, despite the engineering that lasted for so long. A large flood in 1966 pushed the city to act quickly before it is too late, so, with typical Venetian urgency, they started a public works project 37 years later, in 2003. There is signage to show you where the high ground is, and wooden benches in the piazza at San Marco which are set out to act as walkways many times of the year. With climate change, it will soon be several more times per year. Most of the ground floors of the buildings are already abandoned.

Thirteen hundred years
Of wealth and glory turn’d to dust and tears;
And every monument the stranger meets,
Church, palace, pillar, as a mourner greets;
And even the Lion all subdued appears

–Byron, Ode to Venice

Venice is flooding; Venice is emptying of people, even as it fills with tourists. And it does fill, with tourists old and young still joyful among the monuments. So even if the winged lions chip and fade, the little boys will continue to fish around in the fountains for coins, and the little girls will twirl in the doorways, such as they always have. It’s only the grownups who are so obsessed with recapturing what once was, exactly as it was. The rest can always imagine.

Verona, Italy
Verona Campo, photo by kajmeister

4 Replies to “Mare Nostrum I: Venice-La Serenissima”

  1. “Venice, Florida where my dad used to live and where I spent the summer of ’78 driving up and down the Tamiami Trail.” I know it well from 1992 to 2012. visited Venice once in 1993….

  2. Glorious, glorious travel essay.
    (I somehow stopped receiving the blogs and have now remedied that.)

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