The best food markets in Venice - Citimarks

The merchant of Venice

A model of the Great Galley -a ground-breaking type of boat that became a symbol of Venetian inventiveness: thanks to this boat Venetians were the first in history to use standardised, interchangeable parts, as well as a moving assembly-line. Thanks to this streamlined process, the Arsenale could build vessels in one single day, when other cities needed months for the same production.


“Neither Byzantium nor the Phoenicians had experienced such a thalassocracy. Venice witnessed a parade of people - Slavs, Saracens, Egyptians, Asians and Africans- all vanquished, coming to their feet, bending under the city’s power”
Paul Morand, Sur la route des Indes, Plon, 1936
chapter 1

Saint Mark for sale

They decided to carry away the relic of the Evangelist, whether the Copts accepted it or not. Besides they were armed, despite the prohibition promulgated by the Muslim authorities about merchants.

[…] Thodoald was found seated on the case hiding St. Mark’s corpse […] 

He turned to Rustico saying: “Go get St. Mark and con those religious losers.”

His interest suddenly sharpened: “Are you going to take the mummy into this cart?

–  We’ll put it in the basket. 

– The Arab customs officers will surely control it at the entrance to the quays. 

– Do you have a solution? 

Thodoald got up painfully […] and asked the two tribunes to follow him behind the chapel. He explained:

“We carry piglets for sale all the time, my friend Rustico. […] Upon inspection, the Muslims will quickly close a basket containing a meat that their custom decrees unclean. This is the case of dogs or pork. Covering the Saint’s mummy with chops, blood sausages and pig heads will scare away even the most meticulous customs officer. 

Thodoald and Marino were placed in charge of butchering three young pigs […] while Rustico pushed the church door. […] Further away, father Theodore, near the altar, languished in front of the corpse of the Evangelist surrounded by unforeseen devotees warbling psalms. 

“No witnesses, no rumor, no noise” rumbled Rustico wiping his knife with a piece of his tunic. […] 

[The next day, at the port of Alexandria]

In the middle of the harbor’s bazaar, crowds were flocking the quays around the ships, making it hard for the cart to make way. Bon and Rustico were cautious to prevent the least incident: overturning a basket of fruit or knocking a peddler over could prove fatal. They should blend into the crowd and raise no suspicion. On their way to the port, they had only crossed one patrol, which did not ask what they were carrying. […] 

“Let’s test if Thodoald’s ruse is efficient”, said Marino Bon. […]

Indeed, parcels which were larger than the mules that carried them, porters of carrying poles, and other vehicles were inspected in turn by a group of Arab customs officers at the entrance of the quays.  […]  Rustico, Bon and their sailors exchanged glances trying to hide their fear of a thorough search by the emirs’ officials who may not, in the end, be deterred by the view of the pork bellies. These maniacs like to unfold pieces of fabric, dip their hands into the baskets, check the shape of the bags, take out handfuls of pepper which quickly disappear under their black coats without causing the slightest protest. They are all-powerful.  

[…] Rustico caught a few snippets of the soldiers’ conversation. “They are looking for a criminal from Alexandria,” he said to Marino Bon, jumping on the ground.

Yemenis and ordinary customs officers took a suspicious look at Rustico presenting before them: he was a stranger, too, but didn’t seem to match the description of the criminal. 

The Arabs surrounded the cart:  

– What are you carrying?

– Supplies for the crossing.

– On which boat?

– ‘Saint Theodore’s’.

– Are you Venetians? 

The Yemeni officer was absorbed in studying the wicker basket and uttered some ambiguous words:  “In here, you could hide a man. “Indeed,” replied Rustico.

Marino Bon wondered, “if the soldiers discover the bones, how are they going to react? By contempt? By fury? Is a bunch of piglet heads capable of keeping them at distance?” He nodded to his men to act cool, to let them believe this was all part of a routine. […] The fate of Rialto was at stake, and it depended on three pink piglets.

If they spot the relics, but still don’t manage to grasp what it really is, Marino would try to bribe them. […]

The Yemeni officer, standing hands on his waist, stared at the basket closed by palm fiber cords. He barked a phrase to one of his soldiers who sliced the closure with his curved dagger. Marino held one of his sailors back from intervening and ruining everything. The Venetians couldn’t bear to look at each other any longer. The soldier took three steps back and gave to his officer the pleasure of tipping up the lid and rummaging in the luggage. What if Thodoald overestimated their revulsion for pork?

Thodoald did not exaggerate. Rustico could hardly suppress a smile at the terrified face of the officer when he stuck his nose in the snout of a headless piglet: “Kanzir! Kanzir! Impure!” bawled the Yemeni hiding his eyes with a piece of his cape. “Kanzir!” repeated the soldiers and customs officers widening a circle around the cart carrying around this impious flesh.

“Can we pass?” asked Marino Bon. 

The officer, keeping his back turned around, showed, with a gesture, the way to the quays.

Patrick Rambaud
Quand Dieu apprenait le dessin, Grasset, 2018

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi (meaning “warehouse of the Germans”) is a historic building in Venice, overlooking the Grand Canal next to the Rialto Bridge. It served as the restricted living quarters of German merchants, one of the city’s most powerful colonies of traders. For over 6 centuries, the fondaco was an important trading centre for goods passing from the East towards the Alps. Today it is rehabilitated into a luxury department store.

chapter 2

The route to India

“Europe is the head of the universe” says an old Venetian saying, “Italy is the face of Europe and Venice the eye of Italy.” From this eye, at the end of the 15th century, the Doge, with his horned-like bonnet, was watching over his empire. Neither Byzantium nor the Phoenicians had experienced such a thalassocracy. Venice witnessed a parade of people – Slavs, Saracens, Egyptians, Asians and Africans- all vanquished, coming to their feet, bending under the city’s power […] 

Everywhere you would go, the Venetian golden ducat would prevail; even today, one can find glass beams from Murano in the oldest tombs of Sarawak; Venetian mirrors triggered the envy of all the harems and it was in their silvering that the East, accustomed to metallic mirrors until then, could finally see the real reflection of its own face for the first time.

Such wonders were accomplished by the first Venetians, since the time they fled the Barbarians and hidden in the marshes of Torcello, in 452. They took over the Adriatic from Ravenna; got the Huns arrested; contained the Normans of Sicily. Later on, the First Crusade provided the occasion to snatch the Phoenician heritage of Tyre; while, the Fourth Crusade, aiming more against the Byzantine navy than the faithless ones (i.e. the Muslims) allowed the cleansing of the Eastern Mediterranean, with Rhodes and Dalmatia becoming the support of their fleet. The Genoese were removed from the East by the end of the 13th century; Cyprus was ceded by the Turks; Finally the Nautical Statuses of 1172 came into force in a civilized world who knew no other maritime code than the Byzantine one.

In the context of the largest slave trade in history, Venice was selling Tartars, Bulgarians, Russians, Egyptians and Ethiopians to Europe, without distinction.

Marco Polo was the first to create links with China. From the 5th to the 15th centuries, the Serenissima went from 200 to 200.000 inhabitants. A thousand millionaire patricians, owners of the world’s biggest fortunes, lived in the gothic palaces of the Grand Canal, adorned with serpentine discs and Asian porphyry.

Across all the Ladders of the East, the world was crashing against Venetian monopoles, as tall as an aftercastle.

All this was based on a fleet, which was unique in the whole world. In 1122, with one blow, Venice sent 300 ships against Egypt. She owned 3.000 ships equipped with 38.000 sailors. […] The Adriatic was filled with feluccas, galleons, brigantines, galiotes and triremes: this was the direct inheritance from Rome, via Byzantium. Venice started to realize its role in the world: the city was about to become the port of Central Europe, shipping spices and silk to the Holy Empire and Flanders. Under Charlemagne, the noble class was dressed only in Dalmatic and Byzantine coats provided by Venice. The galleys of England, of the Berbers, of Beirut, Alexandria and Aiguemortes anchored on the same muddy bottoms where the white ships of Lloyd Triestino are anchored today.

Suddenly, in 1498, the Doge summoned the Council of Six to read to them a dispatch from the Venetian Ambassador in Lisbon: the Portuguese were about to send 13 caravels to India by a brand new route, west of Africa. Lorenzo Bernardo, the ambassador of the Serenissima Republic to the Sultan confirmed the news.

The day Vasco de Gama discovered -by the Cape of Good Hope- a better and safer way to go to Calicut or Hormuz, he single handedly allowed Western Europe to snatch the control of the route to India from Eastern Europe; by doing so, he also snatched the wealthy life from Eastern Europe and deprived the latter from a trade kingdom she had been paying in gold and blood for six whole centuries.

Exhausted by the struggles against the Genoese, retreating in front of the Turk, Venice would go into a long decline until 1797, when Bonaparte would find nothing more than a rotten mummy. 

Venice tried to raise the Egyptian Sudan against the mutually damaging new circuit in vain; without success, she strove to move the Pope, excite the Turks, shake the Marseillais, stir up all the countries of the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean; fruitlessly did she offer galleons to Spain to crash England -the latter, she guessed, would be the successors of the Portuguese. The prosperous days of the Republic were now counted and the Atlantic was set to triumph over the Mediterranean in the race to India, for almost four centuries.

Paul Morand
Sur la route des Indes, Plon, 1936

A glassblowing artist of the “Schiavon Art Team” in Murano, Venice. Massimiliano Schiavon, the company’s owner, comes from six generations of artists dedicated to the craft of glass. The three photos above are taken from the factory’s mindblowing showroom and workshop.

chapter 3

The Guardians Lions

After my discovery of the prisons […] I went to the Arsenal. No monarchy, however powerful it be or have been, has presented a similar nautical compendium.

An immense space, enclosed by crenellated walls, contains four docks for large ships, yards for building those ships, establishments for all that concerns the military and merchant navy: from the rope-yard to the gun-foundry […], from the rooms devoted to the old armour captured in Constantinople, in Cyprus, in the Morea, at Lepanto to the rooms in which modern armour is exhibited. […]

The two colossal lions from the Piræus keep the gate of the dock from which a frigate is about to issue for a world which Athens did not know and which was discovered by the genius of modern Italy.

[…] All this animation is over: the emptiness of seven-eighths of the arsenal, the extinct furnaces, the boilers gnawed with rust, the rope-walks without wheels, the dock-yards without shipwrights bear witness to the same death that has smitten the palaces. Instead of the throng of carpenters, sail-makers, seamen, caulkers, ship’s lads, one sees a few galley-slaves dragging their fetters: two of them were eating off the breech of a gun; at that iron table they could at least dream of liberty.

François-René de Chateaubriand
Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 1833
Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos in François-René de Chateaubriand, The Memoirs of François René Vicomte de Chateaubriand sometime Ambassador, Fremantle & Co, 1902


It is early, and before going to Fusine, we will have the time to visit the Arsenal, not inside, since the entrance is now forbidden; what interests us more than seeing gun beams and ships under construction, is to admire the lions of Piraeus, trophies conquered by Morosini in the Peloponnesian War.

The two colossi of Pentelic marble are devoid of this zoological truth that Barye (note: a French sculptor) would have surely given them; but they have something so proud, so grand, so divine -if that word can apply to animals- that they produce a profound impression. The golden whiteness of these lions stands out admirably on Arsenal’s red facade. Helas, their vicinity with the portico’s noteworthy statues makes the latter look like dolls […].

Trophies from a defeat, but still keeping their haughty and superb look, they bring to mind […] the ancient Minerva.

This Arsenal with its immense tanks and covered construction sites -in which a galley was said to be built, rigged, equipped and launched to sea in one single day- reminded us -for its dismal abandonment- the Arsenal of Cartagena in Spain -so active in the time of the invincible Armada. It was from there that the fleets left to conquer Corfu, Zante, Cyprus, Athens, all these rich and beautiful islands of the Archipelago; at that time, Venice was still Venice, and the lion of Saint Mark, now mournful and defamed, had fingernails and teeth like the fiercest heraldic monsters. 

Théophile Gautier
Italia, Hachette, 1855

The Venetian Arsenal is a complex of former shipyards and armories clustered together in the city of Venice. Owned by the state, the Arsenal was responsible for the bulk of the Venetian republic’s naval power from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period. It was “one of the earliest large-scale industrial enterprises in history”. Its main gate features two lion statues which were removed from the Greek harbor of Piraeus by the Venetian naval commander Francesco Morosini in 1687 as plunder taken in the Great Turkish War against the Ottoman Empire.

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chapter 4

The fish market

A market is the closest thing to a good museum like the Prado or as the Accademia is now, the Colonel thought.

He took a shortcut and was at the fish market.

In the market, spread on the slippery stone floor, or in their baskets, or their rope-handled boxes, were the heavy, grey-green lobsters with their magenta overtones that presaged their death in boiling water. They have all been captured by treachery, the Colonel thought, and their claws are pegged.

There were also small soles and there were a few albacore and bonito. These last, the Colonel thought, looked like boat-tailed bullets, dignified in death and with the huge eye of the pelagic fish.

They were not made to be caught except for their voraciousness. The poor sole exists, in shallow water, to feed man. But these other roving bullets, in their great bands, live in blue water and travel through all oceans and all seas.

“A nickel for your thoughts now”, he thought. Let’s see what else they have.

There were many eels, alive and no longer confident in their eeldom. There were fine prawns that could make a scampi brochetto spitted and broiled on a rapier-like instrument that could be used as a Brooklyn ice-pick. There were medium-sized shrimps, grey and opalescent, awaiting their turn, too, for the boiling water and their immortality, to have their shucked carcasses float out easily on an ebb tide on the Grand Canal.

The speedy shrimp, the Colonel thought, with tentacles longer than the moustaches of that old Japanese admiral, comes here now to die for our benefit. “Oh Christian shrimp”, he thought, “master of retreat, and with your wonderful intelligence service in those two light whips, why did they not teach you about nets and that lights are dangerous?”

“Must have been some slip-up”, he thought.

Now he looked at the many small crustaceans, the razor-edge clams you only should eat raw if you had your typhoid shots up to date, and all the small delectables.

He went past these, stopping to ask one seller where his clams came from. They came from a good place, without sewerage, and the Colonel asked to have six opened. He drank the juice and cut the clam out, cutting close against the shell with the curved knife the man handed him. The man had handed him the knife because he knew from experience the Colonel cut closer to the shell than he had been taught to cut.

The Colonel paid him the pittance that they cost, which must have been much greater than the pittance those received who caught them, and he thought, now I must see the stream and canal fishes and get back to the hotel.

Ernest Hemingway
Across the river and into the trees, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950

Venice for food and shopping lovers

Explore historical markets, shops and other landmarks reminiscent of Venice’s past as a trade superpower.