First Day: St. Mark’s Square
There’s an awful lot to see in Venice but it’s possible have a spectacular day doing just two things: floating on the Grand Canal and visiting St. Mark’s Square. In fact, this is what we did.
Arriving at San Lucia station in the morning, we bought two day passes, giving us unlimited access to public transport (ie vaporetti or ferries) for 24 hours. From the station it was just a few steps to a ferry dock and the next one came along in 10 minutes.
The public ferries may not come with a singing gondolier, but you have a choice of indoor and outdoor seating and you can still gawp at all the architectural magnificence. The previous week the city had been inundated by exceptionally high-water levels so there were signs of some clean-up, but over all it looked like business as usual. Tourists were visiting the museums, palaces and galleries and life was going on with impressive smoothness.
The buildings were in a variety of styles, predominantly neo-classical or with Arab arches and decorated with whimsical ornamentation, like twisted chimneys or beautiful mosaics or friezes. In the past, many of the buildings were covered in frescos that have since been erased by storms and the sea air.
I was especially pleased to spot the some-time residence of George Gordon, Lord Byron(1788-1824), who came to Venice in the winter of 1816. He lived in Mocenigo Palace with 14 servants, two monkeys, a fox, two mastiffs and (I believe) at least one parrot. Swam from the Lido to St. Mark’s Square, conducted multiple love affairs and studied Armenian on the monastery island San Lazzaro degli Armeni. He also wrote Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (1821), a blank-verse tragedy in five acts set in 1355 and relating the story of the doge who was beheaded for conspiring to arrange a coup d’etat. You can read it here. Not only that, but Venice was where he started work on Don Juan.
Arriving in St. Mark’s Square, I had expected to notice the basilica first. Instead, I saw the enormous white block of the Doge’s Palace, the seat of Venetian power for centuries. Next, I noticed the two tall pillars: one topped by St. Theodore, the city’s original patron saint, the other by the lion of St. Mark, the city’s adopted patron saint. Only then did I see the domes and colors of St. Mark’s, tucked almost behind the palace.
There is a story precious to the Venetians that Saint Mark once travelled to the ancient Roman city of Acquilea, and that during that time he made a little journey to the islands that would later become Venice. There (it is said) an angel appeared to him and said, “Pax tibi, Marce Evangalista Meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” – “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here will your body rest.” Sure enough, most of the saint now rests in Venice (Coptic Christians maintain that his head is still in Alexandria). For this reason, the symbol of Venice became the winged lion of St. Mark, which is usually depicted saying, ‘Pax tibi’. Even today, if you travel down the Adriatic coast, in towns like Durres and Corfu, you will see stone lions, remnants of the extensive power of Venice’s old maritime empire.
The basilica of St. Mark’s was built by Byzantine engineers around 1094, as a copy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. While the original no longer exists, St. Mark’s stands substantially as it did when it was first built, though a lot of ornamentation has since been added. The exterior is encrusted with beautiful pieces of polished stone, with shining mosaics and carving. The enormous interior is covered with ornamentation—golden mosaics, colorful mosaic floors, carvings and gem-encrusted furniture such as the glittering pala d’oro. Ruskin points out that it differs from northern cathedrals in many respects but particularly in its appreciation of color. He also points out that for an illiterate population it served the purpose of a kind of illustrated Bible.
Some of the city’s most famous musicians were in charge of composing music for this sacred space, including Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1585) and his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612) – you can still listen to the choral harmonies of ‘Maria Magdalene’ and the antiphonal brass majesty of ‘Sacra Symphonia Sonata Pian’e Forte’ . But if you want to get a really good idea of the basilica’s visual and acoustic splendours, you should watch this video of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin , which was filmed inside the church and performed using period instruments and with consideration for the echoes of the great hall. Monteverdi (1567-1643) was director of music at St. Mark’s for three decades starting from 1613 and gained fame throughout Europe not only for his sacred music but also for madrigals and operas—his Orfeo is still regularly performed today.
I can’t help wondering if the Dutch diplomat and musician Constantijn Huygens was referring to Vespro della Beata Vergine when he wrote “[I] heard the most perfect music I had ever heard in my life. It was directed by the most famous Claudio Monteverdi … who was also the composer and was accompanied by four theorbos, two cornettos, two bassoons, one basso de viola of huge size, organs and other instruments …”.
I was so excited about seeing the church that it seemed like a catastrophe when I couldn’t go in because of my backpack. John had already been swallowed up by the big door so I couldn’t call to him. Eventually I figured out that there was an arrow pointing me around the church. I followed it and came to another entrance, where an annoyed guard stopped me. I asked where I should put the bag and she said, ‘On the street, two doors along.’ I looked at the ‘street’ but it didn’t make any sense. I saw a high-end glass shop but it was closed. Dejected, I sat down and looked up at the carvings on the church’s exterior, waiting for John to emerge. In turn, he sat down with the backpack to wait for me, looking at some big seagulls and a couple of very lumpy purple lions.
After San Marco, we decided to head into the Doge’s Palace. This was a vast palatial complex that included a lot of rooms where important things were decided by a bunch of important people. The head of these was the Doge, distinguished by a uniform of a horn-shaped hat called the corno ducale, a golden robe, special slippers and a ceremonial scepter. In the Correr Museum we saw a portrait of the Doge Morosini as well as his ornate corno. On the ground floor of the palace courtyard there was a gargoyle whose mouth doubled as a sort of snitch-box where the public could slip ‘secret denunciations’ of anyone working against the interests of the Republic. The palace featured a museum crammed with impressive paintings, a collection of old weapons in the armory, the giant Hall of the Great council covered with dramatic paintings including the largest oil painting in the world, Tintoretto’s Paradise, which is 22 x 7 metres.
The palace tour ends, appropriately enough, in the dungeons. You travel across the Bridge of Sighs, in the footsteps of a millennium of convicts, and end up in a warren of dark cells several stories high. At the bottom is a closed courtyard containing a pozzo – a stone cistern designed to collect and filter rain so that citizens would have drinking water.
After a couple of very hot chocolates (not the milky-cocoa kind but the melted-chocolate kind), we headed over to Museo Correr. This was a repository of maps, models, Doge portraits, foreign weapons, little bronze statuettes and a bunch of other stuff. In particular they were having a special exhibition devoted to Francesco Morosini (1619-1694), the Doge famous for his exploits in the Morean War. Exhausted, with a two-hour journey ahead, we decided to head back to the hotel.
Second Day: Cannaregio, Murano, Castello
The next day, John’s knee was hurting badly so he decided to rest it while I went back to see more sights. This time I wanted to wander along the canals and little alleys, to go to the island of Murano and to see the Arsenale, where the great Venetian galleys were built.
Setting out from the station, I was immediately interested in beautiful displays of cakes, including zaletti (cornmeal biscuits with raisins), baicoli (literally ‘sea bass’ because of their shape) and the so-called pan del doge ‘Doge’s’ Bread’.
After crossing my first bridge I saw a little market, including a fish stall. One of the distinctive smells of Venice is that of fish cooking, so it made sense that they would buy this local staple as fresh as possible.
Working my way through the little streets, finding lots of churches and bridges, I quite often found myself at a dead end, which was particularly disconcerting when there was nothing beyond me but sea water.
Although I didn’t end up finding the ghetto (to my knowledge), it was an intriguing walk with plenty of interesting things to see, including this group of spry oarsmen making their way out to the lagoon.
At last, I came to the Campo dei Gesuiti, home of the huge baroque church Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Nearby was the ferry station Fondamente Nove so I decided to head to Murano Island from there. Looking out from the shore I saw the Cimitero di San Michele, a cemetery island that contains the remains of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghelev and Ezra Pound. Ordinarily, this would be my kind of tourist attraction but the day was a little cold and dark for me already and I had a limited amount of time.
So the next stop was Murano. Starting from 1291, glassmaking was confined by law to the island of Murano, partly to prevent the spread of fires on the main islands. The workshops on this island were responsible for several important innovations, including the invention of cristallo – glass that was transparent; milk glass that resembled porcelain; glass beads; chandeliers; high-quality mirrors and murrine technique using strings or canes of colored glass.
The Museo de Vetro (Glass Museum) on Murano island was an intriguing place that guides the visitor through how glass is made in the first place, then takes you on a chronological journey through the various innovations made through the centuries.
Other highlights of this island excursion were seeing the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, a Michelin-starred restaurant, a man playing “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” with glasses and a spoon, finding a tiny local library and learning that it happened to be the feast day of the islands patron saint, Maria della Salute. Oh, also eating an enormous pizza with raddicchio on it.
It was already time to go back to Venice and see the Arsenale. I figured that from the time I stepped off the ferry back at Fondamente Nove I’d be able to get to the Arsenale in 10 minutes. This did not eventuate. Instead, I wandered hither and yon, over canal, into alleys, across campi increasingly perplexed. At one point I saw the back wall of the Arsenale, but that’s as close as I ever got. Finally, I ended up in front of a church that turned out to be the one where Antonio Vivaldi had his baptismal rites done. I decided this would be sufficient sight-seeing for one day, so I managed to track down the closest ferry stop.
But this was not to be the end of my ramblings after all, as I took the number 2 ferry, which took me right around the long way between Giudecca and Venice. On the bright side, this meant I caught a tantalizing glimpse of the island where Byron stayed with the Armenian monks, Isola di San Lazarro. There is even a legend that he still haunts the island.
In the end I was frustrated by everything I hadn’t managed to do, but also feeling very fortunate to have been able to visit such an unlikely place, which may not be here very much longer.