“Venice! Is there a city more admired, more celebrated, more sung by poets, more desired by lovers, more visited and more illustrious?"
Guy de Maupassant, Venise, Gil Blas, May 5 1885.
I’ve been hearing about Venice and how gorgeous a city she is since I was a kid-I say she because I always think of this city as if she is a lady. Despite all the pictures I had seen and stories I had heard, I somehow couldn’t convince myself to put Venice on my travel list. Was I afraid that her infinite crowds would spoil my visit experience? Had the friendly remarks, picked up here and there, about “how ridiculously expensive” she is, or “how unpleasant is the smell of her canals” subconsciously turned off my usual appetite for discovery? I have no clue.
Then, one day, I talked to a colleague of mine, named Nelly, who was going on a weekend trip in the City of the Doges. I asked her if it was the first time she visited to receive a staggering reply: “No, actually it is the 10th time”. And then, this non-talkative girl, seemingly blasé of everything, delivered a passionate love declaration full of memories, with eyes that sparkled. That’s what I needed! I packed my bags to find out what kind of magic dust flies over Venice, making people stubbornly return to the same place again and again.
Well, I can tell you, there must be some magic involved, indeed. Frequent travelers tend to lose their enthusiasm as they gradually become immune to the beauties of the landscape. I remember myself feeling the tipsiness of excitement going straight to my head in only two places: Paris and Capri. Venice made them three.
The cult of a city
“Venice stupefies me. The most radiant of dreams does not equal in magnificence this dream made of marble emerging from the waves to blossom in an illusionary sky” – Gabriele D’Annunzio, Le Triomphe de la mort, Calmann Levy, 1896.
In fact, it would be unfair for other cities to be compared to Venice, no matter how gorgeous, or rich in history they are. Her surreal beauty combined with the magnificent legacy she carries as one of the greatest Empires of all times, elevates her to the realm of a legend: a fantasy world of legitimate eccentricity, a reverie that makes one feel larger than life from merely reflecting her grandeur. Those who are receptive to her spell, become addicted. They are devotees of the cult of Venice.
“Charm”, says Albert Camus, is a way of getting the answer ‘Yes’, without asking a clear question.” Well, that’s what happened to me. I said yes to the idea of Venice, embraced her faith, and happily joined her flock of fans. And from then on, I carry the city inside of me, wherever I go. And when I flip though the countless travel notes about Venice, I realize how many we, her fanatics, are. There are, indeed, some good reasons why, throughout history, regardless of her ups and downs, the Maritime Republic of Venice has been a bestseller city.
To dare the unthinkable
The first thing a visitor comes to realize and then, inevitably respect, is the miracle Venetians achieved from turning a small, marshy piece of land to a global Empire. Centuries before Venice became a synonym of glory, glamour and power, the City of the Doges was a mere bunch of islands, half-stuck in a shallow, muddy lagoon in the middle of nowhere. To say that a marsh was an inhospitable environment for living is an understatement: let us not forget that it was the 6th century A.D. and people didn’t know how to treat waterborne infections such as malaria; nor did they know how to protect themselves from the lagoon’s high tides: daily and seasonal ones.
One had to be nuts to even think of building a city on such unstable soil. The Venetians apparently were. They stuck closely spaced piles of tree trunks into the sand, deep enough to reach a harder layer of clay. Then they placed limestone on top of the piles and started to build from there. Did they know at the time that wood can live forever, as long as it stays fully drowned in the air-less water? The first houses began to rise from the muddy ground of the Torcello island and so did Venice’s first church -still standing on her feet. The calendar read 639 A.D. “Miracolo!” It worked! What started as a daring experiment got the shape of what Italians would later call “La Serenissima”: an oriental Odalisque laying nonchalantly on a soft bed of mud, salt and wood.
Ah, those inventive Venetians! The wood they so cleverly treated to build a city, served them again, this time in building their legacy. They tapped into the vast tree reserves of Veneto’s mainland to make ships designed to trade the most precious material the lagoon had in stock: salt. By becoming the world’s biggest merchant of salt and spices -the two most wanted food preservatives of the medieval world- the tiny city of Venice was launched into an orbit to rule the world trade for over six centuries.
Their talent in engineering, already manifested in the construction sites, was now being deployed on the premises of their shipyard, the great Arsenale. Venetians introduced a new ship type, the Great Galley, whose building process was much quicker and material-effective; they were also the first to use standardized, interchangeable parts, as well as a moving assembly-line, unique for its time. Instead of the workers going to the galley, a canal was designed to move along the galleys, construction parts and materials and bring them to the workers. When other cities needed months to build a ship, the streamline process and massive numbers of workers -up to 16.000 in the 16th century- allowed Venice, at the pick of her activity, to build vessels in a single day.
The rest is history: for centuries, their enormous fleet paced up and down the trading routes from Portugal to China, carrying grain, cotton and wine from the West, spices and silk from the East. They set trading posts across the Adriatic and Aegean Seas and negotiated lucrative tax and trading privileges for their merchants. The enormous revenues flowing to Venice set the foundations for the emergence of a wealthy class, “i procuratori”: The Procurators were given titles of nobility, registered their names in a “golden” book -the “Libro d’Oro”– so that they stand out from the common people once and for all, and ruled Venice for over 10 centuries. They built palaces along the Grand Canal to host households and warehouses of extraordinary opulence and refinement: this was their way to say to the thousands of passing sailors, traders, visitors and residents “look how I made it”. Without their vanity, wealth and excellent taste, Venice would not be Venice, one of the most stunning cities in the world.
Venice features an architecture unique in the world in its capacity to combine Italian Gothic with the orientalism of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek-Orthodox continuation of the Roman Empire in the East. This charming shuffle of styles, indicative of Constantinople’s influence on Venice at the time of its first major urban development, marked its pinnacle in the Basilica of Saint Mark. This masterpiece of oriental Gothic is an homage to the Byzantine esthetics. How many times have I lingered in front of its facade, trying to grasp the complexity of its opulent composition: the deeply recessed portals framed by precious marble columns; the superb golden mosaics adorning the tympana above the entries; the oriental-styled carving of figures; and the ferocious pose of its four magnificent horses “abducted” during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. And then, once inside, how blessed are one’s eyes at the sight of a chancel bathed in golden and silver rays when the sun is reflected on its mosaics, like a golden book on the life of Christ “Pantocrator” (all mighty). Look at the soft geometries on the polychrome marble floor conceived by brilliant craftsmen from the East; Try to count the three thousand precious stones on the “Pala d’Oro” the Basilica’s high altar retable, one of the world’s most refined works of Byzantine enamel.
When friends ask for advice, I suggest they start their visit from the Basilica and then continue with the Doge’s Palace: it was in the womb of this Byzantine church that the young city of Venice was born. And it was only after she adopted her new patron saint, Mark the Evangelist, at the place of Theodor, her previous Greek-Orthodox saint, that she was able to step out of the church, walk towards the lagoon, and state her emancipation from the East by building the most magnificent of palaces. Few cities have managed to transcribe social values and political principles into local architecture. The serene symmetry of Palazzo Ducale -as in most Venetian palaces- is in absolute harmony with the city’s nickname “La Serenissima”.
The fine balance between an ethereally light portico carrying the heavy mass of the first floor seems like a symbolic illustration of the calculated control reigning among the palace’s residents. The Doge and the ruling class of the Procurators formed governing bodies designed to control and counter-balance the power of each other. No decorative trefoil, no pinnacle, no statue were bigger than the rest, just like there was no head in the Palace higher than the other ones -not even the Doge’s whose role was mainly ritual, but indispensable in the operation of the entire machine. Once inside, it is the luxurious lifestyle and immense power marking the decoration of its opulent apartments. The enormous wall paintings, all made by renowned decorators, are masterful pieces of propaganda exalting the Republic’s history, its military conquests, the influence over its colonies. Tintoretto’s “Il Paradiso”, one of the world’s largest oil paintings, is perhaps the artwork that best illustrates the way Procurators perceived their almighty role in the world.
Abundance and plurality
The magnificent Palazzo Ducale and Saint Mark’s basilica set the tone for the development of a grandiose architecture. The palaces of the patricians were designed to compete with each other in opulence and sophistication: gilt facades in Ca D’oro, chiaroscuro effects in a boldly rusticated Ca’ Pesaro, a theatrical spiral staircase in Palazzo Contarini. Churches, such as Santa Maria della Salute, and confraternity buildings, such as Scuola San Marco, with their facades adorned by a parade of statues, are only two examples of a religious architecture as conspicuous as the palatial one.
The shiny wrapping of palaces found its echo in the lavish lifestyles inside the marble walls. Let us not forget that, for centuries, Venice was the centre of a vast trading network spreading from Portugal to China. Merchants from Europe, Africa and Asia lived in warehouses of remarkable grandeur -the “Fondachi”– built on the Grand Canal to host their cosmopolitan merchandise. The city had, in consequence, access to foods and spirits from exotic places, precious condiments, and luxury products. Lace, glass, pearls and silk -materials on which locals developed world-famous craftsmanship- adorned gowns, accessories, household linen and tapestries. One can imagine the gargantuan banquets held under Murano chandeliers, hanging from gilt-coffered ceilings. In one of our citinotes, Carlo Gozzi, a Venetian playwright, remembers a time when he found his palace with windows wide open, invaded by party people drinking, laughing and throwing golden coins to the canal.
Gozzi’s experience is the perfect illustration of a lifestyle reigning in Venice for at least four centuries: the city was in a constant party frenzy and would let no one ruin her mood. As early as in the 13th century with “The Twelve Marys” -a medieval celebration which evolved into the Carnival-, the Venetians noticed the multiple benefits of hosting public celebrations. In diplomacy, these “open parties” created opportunities to exhibit economic power towards the foreign rulers who were invited to join. When things went wrong, they were able to divert attention from everyday problems. Last but not least, public fiestas are ideal for social bonding. And so they threw themselves into the game: on any given day, there would be some kind of show going on. A passerby on Piazza San Marco was likely to bump into a show of puppets, magicians, or exotic animals; a military parade; acrobats trying to form the highest human pyramid in a game called “The Powers of Hercules”. It was a Venetian family of merchants -the Trons- who had the idea of making a profit by staging opera, a private show up until then, in the world’s first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano.
Shows were also staged on water. Every year on Ascension Day, the Doge boarded the “Bucentaur”, his state barge, and threw a golden ring to the lagoon in a spectacular ceremony conceived to symbolize the wedding of Venice to the sea. Whenever an ambassador was visiting, a convoy of 2000 ships was sent to mark his entry in the Grand Canal, and, for three days, public celebrations offered free food, music and wine to visitors and citizens alike.
Over the years, each and every event -an official’s visit, a military victory, the end of a pandemic – was a good enough reason to celebrate. In the 18th century, the city’s economic and political decay led to a dangerous liberation of morals. Decades before the fall of the Republic, the Carnival lasted no less than six months, and citizens were allowed to wear a mask almost all the time, whether to have dinner or play card games. Cafés and Ridotti -private casinos- were open all night long, 24/7, offering refuge to idlers who, under the anonymity of the mask, were ready to perform any criminal act for a living: cheating, spying, or aggressing other “masks”.
Dreamy and mysterious
The infamous Doge’s prisons, the infernal “piompi” were filled with presumed criminals sent by fearsome officers of the Inquisition. Documents of crimes punished with the death penalty piled up in the city’s State Archives. This dark side of the Venetian history inspired generations of authors in writing stories of espionage, persecution and murders hidden from the bright Venetian moon -some of them are gathered in a dedicated article of this guide.
But it’s not only history or literature. The city itself -its landscape, cityviews and fogs- breathes the air of a charming mystery, especially after dark, when all the fuss of the morning crowds has faded away. Every time I wander on the streets of Venice at night, every time I gaze on the water reflections from a vaporetto under a moonlit sky, everytime I take a picture of its semi-obscure labyrinths, of its midnight passengers walking like ghosts on their way home, I would swear that I feel the power of this city, drawing me into a reverie, like a magnet. An underground force, like the liquid song of a siren, mesmerizes my senses in a way I can no longer think of anything else. And just for these few short moments, I feel utterly absorbed by the city, like a transparent leaf carried away by the Sirocco ready to reflect the colors of the night, or take the curvy shape of its canals.
Passionate travel notes
When I started exploring Venice’s bibliography, I was impressed not only by the quantity of works dedicated to the City of the Doges, but also by the intensity of passionate descriptions. I realized that I am not the only visitor prone to sleepwalking in Venetian reverie: Marcel Proust, Mark Twain, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway and many other masters of literature, were moved by similar feelings and celebrated La Serenissima in words most poetic. We are happy to have gathered for our readers their most impressive notes and share our favorite itineraries and addresses.
Like Nelly, ten years ago, I too will soon visit Venice for the 10th time. Ten years of admiring spectacular palaces, of navigating midnight vaporetto rides, of pacing up and down countless bridges, of getting lost time and again in the maze of its alleys, of unwrapping its fascinating history layer after layer, of discovering modern art through the eyes of the Biennale, and of never ceasing to be amazed in front of its jaw-dropping sights. And when Venice unveils its marvels before my eyes, I remember Guy de Maupassant’s wise words:
“Venice! That single word seems to send an exaltation exploding in the soul, it excites everything poetic within us, it provokes all our faculties of admiration. […] For it is almost impossible for a visitor of Venice not to mingle his imagination with the vision of his realities. We often accuse travelers of lying on their impressions. No, they are not lying; for it is with their minds that they look at Venice more than with their eyes.”
When the Austrian troops invaded Venice they discovered a city joyfully drowning in alcohol, lust and feasts. Under the anonymity of the mask, everything was permitted.
The Doge’s ring
Venice’s architecture is an extravagant mix of Oriental Gothic. Explore an endless mosaic of fabulous palaces and museums: every piece of them unravels the city’s glorious past.
The merchant of Venice
Is it possible to turn salt into gold? Rugs into silk? Pebbles into pearls? Thanks to their mercantile spirit, Venetians tapped into wood and salt to rule the world trade for over six centuries.
In the beginning there was only mud and water. On such unstable grounds, Venice managed to set the foundations of a commercial Empire the world had never seen before. What was this miracle made of?