Like an old family home, Venice is too expensive to maintain, yet too special to let go. Its beauty enchants you while its slow disintegration breaks your heart. Tourism may be its only salvation.
And so they are selling selfie sticks by the handfuls on Saint Mark’s Square.
Crowded and noisy most of the day, Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is perhaps the least representative corner of Venice. It’s the beachhead for the must-sees–the Doge’s Palace, the Basilica of Saint Mark and the Campanile (bell tower). Long lines all day. Small cruise ships unload thousands of daytrippers hourly. Tour groups with earbuds follow their flag-waving leaders through the crowds. Tourists with bread crumbs pose with swarming pigeons. Dueling orchestras play at the outdoor cafés. The waiters look like young Al Pacinos, mannered and impeccable in their white-dinner jackets.
The Rialto Bridge, which funnels tourists from island to island, and the train station are similarly mobbed. At each, vendors thrust single roses, knock-off handbags and selfie sticks at every passerby.
Like New York’s Times Square, Saint Mark’s is both overwhelming and mesmerizing. Sometimes I sat and drank cups of caffè Americano at one of the cafés and just marveled at the wonder of humanity.
Just a block or two from the yellow routes marked on the tourist maps is another world. Leave the chaos, turn a corner and you may find a small plaza with a church, kids playing soccer, a vendor selling fruit, older men drinking espresso, older women strolling arm-in-arm, a running water fountain, dogs sleeping in the sun, laundry hanging from windows. At the end of the day, after the throngs go back to the mainland, Venice feels like a small town. The best way to enjoy it is to wander aimlessly and get lost in the back alleys on purpose.
Drinking water was precious when I stayed on the arid island of Cyprus. In Venice, spigots on fountains in public places flow non-stop. People often pause to drink, fill a water bottle or wash their hands. The water is not from the lagoon but flows via aqueduct from the nearby Alps. Of course, Venice is built over water. The city is composed of one-hundred-and-eighteen small islands, connected by one-hundred-seventy canals, four-hundred footbridges and countless boats. (Cars are not allowed.) Water-transportation options include vaporetti and traghetti (two types of ferries), water taxis and gondolas.
The gondoliers in their striped sweaters are a cocky bunch, sporting straw hats and ribbons, shouting wisecracks at each other. Very few actually sing. To become a gondolier requires extensive training and licensing by a guild. I was told a busy gondolier can approach two-hundred-thousand dollars a year, much more than the ferry captains who transport more people.
Gabriele, the manager of the hotel where I stayed, explained the meaning of the shape of the fèrro, the metal prow on the front of gondolas. It’s S-shaped like the Grand Canal with six teeth representing Venice’s six districts (sestieri). He proudly showed me an antique fèrro and fórcola (oarlock) on display in the hotel’s staircase.
Alessandro, a local tour guide, said, “No Venetian uses a gondola to go anywhere. They exist only because you tourists demand them.”
City of Palaces
The gaudy Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), designed to display Venice’s wealth and power, was the seat of government for seven centuries. Huge high-ceilinged rooms are wallpapered top to bottom with artistic masterpieces by Tintoretto and Titian. The paintings blend Christian and Roman mythological themes. Around the high ceiling in the Hall of the Grand Council are portraits of the doges (chief magistrates). One is blacked out. He was beheaded for treason and erased from history. Between the court rooms and the multi-story prison, I walked through the Bridge of Sighs, where convicted criminals sighed for the last time.
Starting at the train station, I boarded a vaporetto and took the traditional cruise down the Grand Canal. The boat was packed. I stood in the middle surrounded by tourists, locals, kids, dogs, suitcases and strollers. It’s the best way to see the elegant facades of the palaces facing the canal.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the city-state ruled the sea and much of the world. For hundreds of years, it was a wealthy center of commerce, trading in silk, grain and spices. Rich merchants built the palaces to show off. I toured a couple and realized their grandeur is difficult to fully appreciate from the outside. The facades facing the canals are their narrowest sides. The unseen sides are much longer. The ceilings on each floor are at least twenty-five-feet high.
As the first floors are prone to flooding, they were generally used for servants’ quarters and storage. The second floor was used for entertaining and business. The family’s private rooms were on the top floors. The palaces are a blend of the various architectural styles the merchants saw during their travels, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Byzantine and Baroque. Two Grand-Canal palaces I toured:
- Ca’ d’Oro, the “House of Gold” Gothic-style palace, with a collection of Renaissance art, a mosaic courtyard and an upstairs balcony view of the canal
- Ca’ Rezzonico with four stories of 18th-century furnishings and art. The first two levels provide the sense of arriving by gondola from the canal, climbing the grand staircase and attending a ball on the second floor.
City of Art
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Venetian artists Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto and others developed a colorful style that greatly influenced painting during the Renaissance. Seeing their works in person is like taking an art-history course. The Gallerie dell’Accademia has a huge collection of their masterpieces. Bellini’s portraits absolutely glow with life-force.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is considered Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel. (He’s buried next door at the Frari Church.) The numerous gigantic paintings on the walls and ceilings portray key scenes from the Old and New Testaments. As many are high overhead, mirrors are provided to make it easier to see them.
The art from this time mixes religious, historical, mythical and allegorical figures and settings in fantastic combinations. Madonna and bambino, saints, art patrons, knights, gods, dragons, centaurs and flying cherubs against landscapes of monumental architecture. John the Baptist with a winged lion in front of a Roman basilica, for example. The bodies are mostly naked and ripped. With all respect to the subject matter, it appears like Rennaissance comic-book art: Superman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern, their muscles bulging, battling bad guys in the sky over the fantastic architecture of Gotham, all dramatically lit. The artists were parading their skills, experimenting with perspective and light, and constantly one-upping each other.
More modern art is on display at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal. The collection is housed in an unfinished ranch-style 18th-century palace, which was the home of the American heiress for three decades. The collection includes works by Braque, Duchamp, Léger, Dalí, Miró, Picasso, Warhol, Ernst, Giacometti, Gorky, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Calder and Pollock.
Alessandro, the tour guide, was a fountain of information, sharing stories on every topic from George Clooney’s wedding to the proposed under-lagoon subway system. “I am not Italian,” he said. “I am Venetian,” reminding me that Italy became a country in 1866 AD. “Our country is younger than your country.”
He led a small group to the nearby islands of Burano and Murano, requiring rides on the vaporetti. On the way, he spoke on numerous subjects, such as the soon-to-be-completed electronic flood gates (he’s against it) and the tradition of giving every woman in Venice a rose each year on Saint Mark’s Day, April 25 (he’s for it).
Burano is tiny. Population: three-thousand. I strolled along the quiet canals taking photos of the brightly colored houses, many with laundry hanging out to dry. There is a system to the colors of the houses. One must get approval before painting. The lean of the bell tower of San Martino Church seems impossible. Surely it will fall. Alessandro said it leans more than Pisa’s.
We visited the Martina Vidal lacemaking shop and watched a woman work with needle and thread. One of my fellow tourists bought a lace wedding veil for her daughter (for one-thousand dollars). As I was taking photos, an older woman scolded me in Italian. I assume she didn’t want the details of the designs revealed.
Glass from the island of Murano is trademarked. At Elligi Glass we watched a glass master quickly make a vase and a horse figurine for demonstration purposes and then destroy them both.
One night I stood in the pouring rain outside of San Vidal Church, waiting to get in for a concert. Being early paid off. I sat in the second row and heard Interpreti Veneziani play favorite-son Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and other selections. On the way back to the hotel, some of the plazas had risers in place to walk above flooded areas.
City of Relics
Throughout history, the victors in war have taken the spoils. Venice has both lost and gained. Napoleon looted the city thoroughly in the late 1700s. “We will now have all that is beautiful in Italy except for a few objects in Turin and Naples,” he bragged. Though some art has been returned, much of it is in the Lourve and other museums around the world.
The Horses of Saint Mark are larger-than-life bronze statues of four horses, produced sometime before or during the 8th century. They were stolen by the Venetians from the Hippodrome in Constantinople in 1204 AD and placed on the balcony of the Basilica of Saint Mark (Basilica di San Marco) They remained there until looted by Napoleon in 1797 and positioned in the Place du Carrousel in Paris. In 1815, after Waterloo, they were returned. Now, replicas are on the balcony and the originals are inside to see.
The basilica, named for Mark (of Matthew-Mark-Luke-and-John fame) is known for its opulence and golden mosaics. And its relics. It was built in 832 AD, just after Venetian merchants stole Saint Mark’s bones from Alexandria. A mosaic shows sailors covering the relics with a layer of pork and cabbage leaves to dissuade Muslim guards from inspecting the cargo too closely. Whatever is left of him is in the church’s Treasury.
Near my hotel at the Church of Saint Zaccaria are relics of the father of John the Baptist. And the topper: the Gallerie dell’Accademia displays a swatch of Christ’s robe and a fragment of the cross.
City of Masks
The Carnivale of Venice is an annual festival, starting on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) and ending with the Christian celebration of Lent, forty days before Easter. Approximately three-million visitors come to Venice every year for the Carnivale. The festival is famed for its elaborate masks, originally made of leather, porcelain or glass, hand-painted and decorated with feathers and gems. Mask-makers (mascherari) have their own guild.
At a studio, I watched a craftsman make a traditional paper-mâché mask. He pressed the glue-soaked paper tightly into a mold. Now, low-quality plastic masks manufactured in Asia are sold in nearly every shop in Venice, a reality Alessandro bemoans. “They used to be for Carnivale only, but you tourists want to buy them all year long.” He said Hollywood celebrities enjoy visiting Venice during the Carnivale because they can walk the streets incognito.
City of Commuters
Venice’s population is two-hundred-and-eighty-thousand, but only about sixty-thousand live within the historic area. The rest live on the mainland. Those who support tourism commute by train or boat. The mainland offers the modern amenities not available on the islands. Cars, for example. And heating and cooling.
Despite logistical obstacles, things seem to work. Every morning goods are transported to the islands, unloaded, broken into smaller shipments and reloaded into small boats. These small boats move the loads through the canals, where they are met at docks by porters with handcarts. The porters push and pull the carts over bridges and up steps throughout the city, delivering to shops, restaurants and homes.
This distribution process is repeated daily and completed by 10 a.m. when the tourists descend. Trash is removed the same way, in reverse. Gabriele at the hotel said that moving a large object, say a refrigerator, requires considerable coordination among boat captains and porters.
Tour-guide Alessandro complained good-naturedly about the occasional flooding, the disappearing fish and produce markets, the proliferation of plastic gondola-mooring posts, the high cost of renovation and the pointlessness of tri-colored pasta.
City of Cicchetti
Every region of Italy seems to have specialties. In Venice, it is risotto and seafood. I could smell the rosemary in baking focaccia bread as I walked the streets. I especially enjoyed cicchetti, essentially Italian tapas. Typical cicchetti served with toothpicks includes mozzarella, gorgonzola, calamari, artichoke hearts, marinated seafood, olives and prosciutto. At my favorite spot, Osteria al Mascaron, they serve a plate loaded with cicchetti, all seafood appetizers. Ciccheti is served early, as an appetizer before dinner.
My second time at Osteria al Mascaron I was the only one there at 6 p.m. (Italians eat much later.) A young woman and baby stopped in. I thought, given the manager’s age, he was the grandfather; oops, he’s the father. Quickly I congratulated him on his good fortune.
Another night I met up with Alessandro, the tour guide, and two couples, one from England and one from Alabama. Alessandro led us from one cicchetti café to the next. The Englishman was the former owner of the b&b A Maré in Salema, Portugal, where I stayed last year. He and Alessandro exchanged Rick Steves’ stories. The woman with the heavy Alabamian accent asked me where in England I was from. I said Ohio. She said, “Oh, your accent doesn’t sound American.”
No one seems to notice pigeons walking around under the tables inside of restaurants, cleaning up the crumbs.
City of Selfies
For every resident on the islands, there’s a tourist. Sixty thousand visit Venice daily. It is perhaps the most beautiful city in the world yet many visitors pay more attention to their own beauty. They navigate the narrow alleys, selfie sticks telescoped out, videotaping themselves. Venice recedes behind them on the screen like a highway in the rearview mirror.
“We need more of you tourists,” Alessandro said, “so we can restore our buildings.”