Author Topic: The Lion, the Lagoon, and the Lovers: A Trip To Venice  (Read 1419 times)


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The Lion, the Lagoon, and the Lovers: A Trip To Venice
« on: May 22, 2022, 10:26:23 PM »
The Lion, the Lagoon, and the Lovers: A Trip To Venice

Venice is unique: a city that squats low in the marshes of the northern Adriatic, but whose shadows through space and time are long indeed. Married to the sea – in literal ceremonies over the years – its Republic through a mix of commerce, hard-nosed bargaining and naval power broke and reshaped the Mediterranean world, though as with so many littoral powers it ultimately found itself broken on the land. Reborn as the fashionable city of art and romance that has embedded itself in the world’s imaginations today, it is irreplaceable; in its uttermost depths it, like the lagoon that is slowly but certainly embracing it with the passing of the years, is probably unknowable. But if you must know, consider love. In all matters of the Serenissima, look to love.

I arrived in the city deep into the evening, from the long and winding alpine train route that runs seven and a half hour direct services from Vienna. I had spent the first half of the journey talking to a seventy-eight year old man named Herman Perlot, whose reminiscences included noting where the “Ruskies with their kalashnikovs” had stood when his family had moved from Lower Austria (the Russian Zone) to Carinthia (the British) where his older sister still lived – his civil engineering career having taken him abroad and ultimately to settle in Australia some time before. People will go a long way around, for those they love. We discussed castles and the movement of peoples and the making of Europe, what it meant to live in the past and where the tides of politics and war were taking the continent today. It was his first return to Austria, and my second trip abroad, since the Covid-19 pandemic had begun in March 2020: a strange two years that still, in masks and vaccination checks and the strange awkwardness of reinventing conversational rituals, still cast its net through every part of life.

Leaving Austrian and Austria likewise behind at Villach, the train pulled south, through tunnels, beside shallow rivers, and at last toward the Italian lowlands and the lagoon of Venice. Nowadays, a bridge takes the trains all the way to Venice itself: but the route is an old one. It is hard today to imagine the first of those who would become Venetians, pushed to seek refuge in the marshes by the insecurity of the late Roman world, arriving in little boats to the islands. The first doge we know of was elected in the seventh century, though the city had existed for some time before that point: it spent some time under Byzantine dominion before emerging as the Serenissima, the Republic of Venice, whose commercial colonies drew it into the eastern Mediterranean and ultimately, in 1204, to mastermind the decapitation of its former Imperial masters. The Republic lasted until the late eighteenth century: by then, led by British aristocrats on the Grand Tour, the world was already falling head-over-heels for Venice as a tourist destination, and the tourist trade is now the city’s major raison d’etre, hosting tens of thousands of tourists every day.

When I got to Venezia St. Lucia, the city’s central station, I stepped out and was confronted for the first time by the canals and sixteenth to eighteenth century architecture that dominate much of the city: whilst Venice’s greatest age of power was medieval, the city and its landmarks today are mostly from the early modern period. The sky was darkening and I shelled out sixty euros for a week’s ticket for the vaporetto, the boat-buses that loop around the islands and canals of the Venetian lagoon. The vaporettos can provide some nice views, although they are often far too packed to be assured of good positions looking out over the water. My stop, and my stay, was based on Giudecca, just south of the main island of Venice: it is one of Venice’s more residential islands, and offers easy vaporetto access to San Marco, the heart of the old city, and to the Accademia area, making it a very well located choice. The apartment I stayed in looked out over an old canal, with a side view over to the tower of San Marco in the distance from its balcony.

View from the Accademia bridge.
One sleep later, the morning streets were warm as I crossed the Accademia bridge and the Grand Canal for the first time. The cloud of the previous day had rolled back to show the almost over-perfect postcard views which the city knows are expected of it. Venice is a city of open plazas – strangely open, usually devoid of benches, and mostly with far less tree and plant cover than would be ideal – surrounded by cafes where clusters of tourists huddle under what shade is provided and strain to hear one another through the crossfire of chatter. These bare spaces are set amid a labyrinth of slender alleyways and bridges, all only navigable on foot (much of it would be a difficult place for those who rely on level access). The lack of navigability may be a feature as much as a bug when viewed from certain angles, for it helps disperse the unwary tourists and, more importantly, increases the potential value of tours, which are often to be seen, some bright umbrella or little coloured flag bobbing up and down to signal the guide’s location amid the crowd. In the tourist-focused areas tourists are the overwhelming majority of people, with ageing gondoliers and younger sellers of glasswork and gelatos casually observing from the wayside. Venice does not beg for your money: it knows you will spend it anyway.

The largest of the open plazas, which I eventually reached and had lunch next to after a while weaving through the streets, is San Marco itself, an immense open plaza that sweeps towards the finery of the medieval basilica. Venice has no high-rise modern buildings, so the free-standing tower of San Marco still dominates its skyline, its steps trod by hundreds of tourists a day eager to get a good view over the city. The basilica itself was under renovation, but even past the scaffolding the exterior is a work of art in and of itself, an intricate dance of mosaics, domes, and Byzantine spolia. It is not heavily built for the central cathedral of such a powerful state and the seat of a patriarch (Venice’s archbishop has been acknowledged as a minor patriarch since 1451) – indeed, it is far less imposing than the seventeenth century dome of Santa Maria della Salute that sits along the shoreline past the grand canal, built after a plague outbreak in the seventeenth century. That, however, is why it reflects its city so well. San Marco, like Venice itself, has no great need to impose: it reclines, knowing its beauty will attract adoration even if it finds the attention tiresome. Limitations on tourists mean that entry requires a tour, a long queue, or more likely both: I avoided either, and headed beneath a clock-tower back into the streets.

And then, a few maze-steps further, there was the world’s most famous bridge. Being from England, one of my first associations with Venice would have been Shakespeare’s play, and the words “what news on the Rialto” echoed in my head. The question is crucial in the play, less for its words and the emotional trials of Shylock, and more for whom it is addressed to: for only by giving the titular Merchant of Venice this line does the playwright allow him to talk to another Jewish man, Tubal. In a play about lovers, this exception proves the rule of how little we are able to truly see things from the other angle: for when Shakespeare’s Shylock speaks it is to, and for, Christians, and even before he opens his mouth his community and context are taken from him. The old mercantile bridge on which that shipping news was passed around still stands proud over the Grand Canal, but today’s Rialto would never hold such a meeting. It heaves with people, tourist shops squat in its archways, and whilst the haze of noise might not be so different to times long past, these travellers come, they photograph, they move on. There is no news on the Rialto, now.

Statues at the Palazzo Grimani.
I wove my way back into the winding streets, and turned on a whim at a sign to the sixteenth century Palazzo Grimani, once the residence of one of Venice’s elite houses and now one of its myriad art galleries. The building itself is much of the art, and the immense frescoes with classical motifs are worth visiting for, entire ceilings covered with huge central depictions of ancient myth or wildly complex scenes of nature. The Grimanis’ classical sculpture collection has currently been largely reassembled and returned to its original sixteenth century setting in the house, and is also very worth seeing in its own right: one packed chamber includes walls covered in busts and classical sculptures, with among other things Ganymede being stolen by an eagle suspended from the skylit ceiling and the most eye-openingly graphic rendition of Zeus seducing Leda in the form of a swan that I’ve ever seen.

The top floor of the Palazzo Grimani contained a number of artistic reactions to a classical painting, done as paint-spattered canvases with neon tubes slashing across them at sharp angles. This was the first part of the Biennale that I found, though far from the last – the Biennale, a vast international art festival happening once every two years, wraps itself around Vienna in an embrace as inescapable as it is flamboyant. One or two sites, like the Biennale gardens and the Arsenale, have a vast array of art, but other displays and national ‘pavilions’ are strewn across the city. I headed down past the Arsenale and to the waterfront again, eating lunch in the shade of a huge blue resin panda and then wandering past a sculpture of some curious, jumbly-like figures piled into a sinking ship. Living in Vienna, I am far from unused to being in a city where art is almost casually integrated into life – but in Venice during the Biennale, one wonders if one’s life is ultimately becoming an integrated backdrop to the art.

I spent a while sitting at the edge of the Biennale gardens to see a little more of the city’s green space. Whilst the Venetian lagoon as a whole is internationally important for its wetlands, the city itself is a surprisingly dead environment in most places, with the exception of pigeons, occasional Italian sparrows, and the ever-present yellow-legged gulls that hang heavy as bomber aircraft over the heads of tourists, diving in to tear food away from unwary café guests and even killing and eating the pigeons on occasion. The Biennale gardens, whilst not, did at least expand the range of what was present: starlings and jackdaws picked their way through the grass, greenfinches squabbled in the trees, and a jay lurked from tree-branch to tree-branch. A classical-style sculpture was home to a common wall lizard, one of many in the city, its dragonish eye peering warily at me as it basked on the thigh of some ancient god, guarding it as only little dragons can.

A sharp-eyed wall lizard at the Biennale gardens.
Back at the nearby Arsenale, the Naval museum was my last stop for the first day. Spanning five floors, the impressive collection includes model boats innumerable, showing lagoon craft and old model warships as well as more recent spoils and wreckage from twentieth century conflicts in the northern Adriatic. The top floor is labelled as “Swedish navy room and collection of shells” – I headed up there, expecting a rather standard line-up of naval torpedoes and artillery pieces, but found that in fact the collection of shells is a room full of cases of everything from giant cowries to starfish to some impressively curiously shaped bivalves. These I can fully recommend – they are a magnificently attractive collection. One curiosity, however, was that like with so many things around Venice, the focus felt heavily on the sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries, with very little focus on the medieval period. Whilst much of the present visible city dates from that period, it still feels odd that the Venice of Titian or Sebastiano Veniero is given so much prominence over that of Enrico Dandolo or Marco Polo in the stories that the city tells of itself.

The museum also included parts of the last Bucintoro, the state barge that the Doges rode out to the Adriatic from around 1000AD until the fall of the Republic, every Ascension Day, for the purpose of marriage: casting a ring into the waves, they married the city to the sea. Pope Alexander III endorsed the marriage formally in 1176, and the ceremony has been revived by the Mayors of Venice since the 1960s. “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii”, are the words of the ceremony – “we espouse thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion”. It is undoubtedly true, but it is a monument of time-honoured hubris that the Venetians ever assumed the dominion was theirs. The love between Venice and the sea has made and broken people and Empires, brought new horizons and despoiled them just as quickly, and eventually rising sea levels will reclaim the city – perhaps it is no accident that it was the English who most fell in love with Venice to start its modern tourist industry, for we can see in Venice a mirror of our own sea-lust, our maritime era that left moral scars still snaking across England’s skin today. We use the word love to refer to many things, and far from all of them are kind.

A further loop took me round one more small park, with a couple of swallows whipping past over a canal, a small child bawling in entirely justified fear at the unwanted attention of a gull, and a fountain containing one enormous fish and a delightful colony of some sort of (probably non-native American) pond tortoises. I finished these various windings through the streets by finding the Cà d’Oro alla Vedova restaurant, which whilst steep in price had excellent seafood and famously specialises in local style meatballs. Food in Venice is a tricky question: it is far from a cheap place to eat, at least in restaurants, but for the most part the food is well worth the high prices, especially the seafood which with one exception (which we will turn to later) was worthwhile. Whilst in general Venice has a bad reputation for pizza and after one experience of doing so I wouldn’t necessarily order it in restaurants there, I think there is more to be said for it more widely as an option than it is sometimes given credit for – pizzerias will often sell, inexpensively, three euro slices of pizza big enough to be a meal that one can take and sit by the lagoon to eat, which in terms of feeding oneself affordably is no bad plan.

A Lion of St. Mark looks down from the Basilica of San Marco.
Another thing to be cautious of when it comes to food in Venice is how to get food in the mornings: if the Republic of France had no need for scientists, the Serenissima has much the same approach to the concept of breakfast. Most days I ended up not eating until an early lunch, often some sort of pizza wrap or sandwich for which there are a good number of shops around town. Lunch and dinner conversely have no shortage of options, not only including full meals but also cicchetti, tapas-like small sandwiches and other dishes traditionally eaten standing at a bar with a drink. This was something I did not really manage to explore, but would be high on my list were I to do another visit. Venice does not come across as a place overly proud of its wine, though what is there is perfectly good – an assessment I cannot extend to one of the commonest café drinks around the city, the aperol spritzer, a disconcerting bright-orange drink that I saw little appeal in before drinking one and less afterwards (though perhaps you, dear reader, will think differently: certainly, the city seems to sell enough of the things that perhaps there is an appeal I have missed).

I headed for San Marco in the morning, the blazing figure of the Lion of Saint Mark watching me as I travelled. I stopped at San Zaccaria first, a late fifteenth and sixteenth century church behind San Marco, though it originated in the ninth century after the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Armenian sent the eponymous saint’s body to the city. The ninth century was an acquisitive time for Venice, for that period was also when it acquired the relics of St. Mark from Alexandria – in his honour, Venice increasingly adopted his aforementioned winged lion as its symbol. It is near-omnipresent across the city, staring down with an alarming array of expressions from official buildings, artworks, and sculptures. The city may have seen itself as leonine, but it is the wings more than the mane that characterise it best: wave-skimming Venezia could never have been part of a pride, and the Serenissima’s attempts at land warfare are little mentioned in the annals of history for good reason. Curled in the lagoon, the sun-basking lions of Saint Mark have little need of their claws and teeth. Perhaps that, in any case, is why they have the time to read.

For the day’s main event, then, I braved the queues of San Marco again: I did not have the stomach for a lonely and interminable wait in the hot sun to see the Basilica, but I did head into the Palazzo Ducale. The route around the palace is long, with few to no places where one can sit along the way and a lot of steps, so this is worth being mindful of: it is, however, utterly worth it if one can do so. The state rooms of the doge’s palace are exceptional not only in their beauty but in the type of social order they represent: the pinnacle of a system designed to maintain its oligarchic nature at all costs. Books recorded newborn entries into the narrow ranks of Venice’s elite, who in turn staffed a bewildering array of courts, councils, and assemblies that interlocked and jealously guarded their privileges and spheres of power.

One of many gilded council rooms in the Palazzo Ducale.
The palace is as lavishly decorated as any I have seen at the heart of an Empire – but what sets its decoration most apart is the intense, continuous use of art, with any available surface bedecked in sixteenth and seventeeth century art, the modern decorations being the result of fires in the sixteenth century. The art frequently reflects nominal virtues in keeping with the functions that a particular room’s committee or court was meant to possess. Room by room, the continuous lagoon-swamp of detail continues, the art drawing one in until lost amidst the sea of sails and faces and classical analogies that wrap artistic ermine robes around the place: far from the starkness of form favoured by autocrats, the Palazzo Ducale is power as painted tapestry. Of course, then, no one person is meant to be able to take it all in at once – any more than any one person was meant to be able to manage the system that it represented.

More than show maintained the heart of the Serenissima, though: Venice’s power was never without a sharp edge, and racks of crossbows and swords still bedeck the walls of some of the Palazzo’s rooms, accompanied by Turkish ship’s lanterns that were the prize-proof of battles fought in the distant past. Beyond them and across the dark and cramped Bridge of Sighs, famous as the route of those condemned by the Republic’s courts, lie the cramped rooms of the old prison. This was one of the first custom-built buildings for that purpose, rather than having dungeons attached below a castle or palace. Ironically, the prison was key to the only time the Ducal Palace was ever robbed, when a man named Vincenzo Pipino (alias Encio), Venice’s “gentleman thief” notorious for both his exceptional string of art heists and his curious code of honour, shut himself in a cell whilst trailing a tour group in 1991. He stayed there until the building closed, timed the guards after hours, then strolled back across the Bridge of Sighs during a gap in the patrols, wrapped up a priceless artwork, and walked out of a side door. It was later returned as part of a deal, a feature of most of Pipino’s heists – indeed he once apparently called the police upon realising he had been hired for a particular job by the Balkan crime lord Željko Ražnatović, as he feared based on Ražnatović’s reputation that the priceless Bellini paintings he had been hired to steal would simply be sold off rather than ransomed.

Upon leaving the palace, I did a double-take. Here was something I recognised perfectly, embedded on the corner of the wall between the palace and the basilica, though I had not seen it in person or known it was here: the Four Tetrarchs. These porphyry statues, a set of four, show the co-emperors from the late Roman tetrarchy (Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius), dating from around 300AD. The men are barely distinguishable, shown in similar style to emphasise their shared bonds and collective rule. Constantius’ son Constantine, despite having torn up the remnants of the Tetrarchic system, had the statue brought to his new Rome – Constantinople – a few decades later. The Venetians looted the statue in 1204, recasting themselves as the Imperial centre and adding it to the corner of their basilica. At least, they looted most of it, for remarkably the missing heel of one Emperor’s foot was recovered in an archaeological excavation in the 1960s in Istanbul and remains in a museum there. As much as old Dandolo reportedly could never forgive the Byzantines for the anti-Venetian riots that erupted numerous times in the twelfth century, and as much as Venice's reputation and public face has been one of calculating mercantilism, his countrymen in the end still adorned their city with the treasures of their former lieges. Venice’s grasp was always turned eastward, rather than looking west, and it is hard not to feel that in its own selfish way this city loved Byzantium even as it undermined the remains of the Eastern Empire.

I passed by the Palazzo Contarini, whose fifteenth century construction and spiral staircase I opted to admire from outside rather than paying the fee to climb: from there, I headed to the Da Vinci Museum at San Barnaba. This is, one should note, not the same place as the Da Vinci Museum of Venice: the city in fact has two museums located to the genius – and whilst neither has much by way of original works, seeing and thinking about Da Vinci in the setting of a city he spent a good deal of time working in and around is a worthwhile insight into the context and constraints for so much of his work. Indeed perhaps the biggest surprise was that the little museum had no exhibit on Da Vinci’s cork aqualung, which was explicitly designed to allow a man to walk on the floor of the Venetian lagoon.

Libreria Acqua Alta and its unusual choice of shelving.
What it did have was a very nice array of examples and constructs of bits of Da Vinci’s engineering work, from cam-shafts to catapults and aerial screws to anti-ladder wall defences. Drawings of swords in the shape of animal jaws and a replica of a hexagonal hall of mirrors built by the great man are likewise on display, and explanations note the extent to which Da Vinci’s work was focused towards the demands of his employers – especially in war. The exhibition’s backdrop and home is the now deconsecrated church of San Barnaba, dating to the eighteenth century, though as its nearby freestanding eleventh century tower attests the site is far older. I personally quite like the repurposing of churches for spaces like museums, libraries and bookshops: being able to maintain them as useful public spaces in an era when religious attendance alone is not enough for them feels like the best use of the roomy and well-built architecture.

My last stop in the day’s wanderings was the bookshop of Libreria Acqua Alta, which sadly lacked one of its online-guide promises in that its famous group of pet cats were nowhere to be seen, but was nonetheless delightful. I have always loved a good second-hand bookshop, and in this case the shop’s quirk is its use of old boat and gondola parts as shelving and storage, which gives it a very particular Venetian character. It can be a little awkward to get around, for there are plenty of customers and the space between shelves is tight, but it is worth going to see. There are few English books, and I found none I wanted, but there were some there – a copy of an illustrated volume on English Country Houses was a curious thing to pass so far from home.

I wound my way back through the streets to the vaporetto and Giudecca, evening swifts screeching overhead. Venice is resolutely a city of small shops, though many are doubtless owned by chains with tourist interests elsewhere, and there are movements to support locally owned options among tourists to the city. Surprisingly for a city so under its particular set of pressures, one even sees some boarded-up rooms at the higher levels of buildings in the middle of the city: buildings where locals are priced out and which may not be easily convertible for tourist residency might perhaps be falling into traps of disuse in places.

The bright-painted houses of Burano.
My third full day, I decided, was time to head out to the outlying islands around Burano – the furthest I would go from the city itself, out into the less densely populated parts of the lagoon. Burano was Venice’s lace-making island, its name sitting alongside the glass-making centre of Murano. Murano and the strictly-no-cameras cemetery island of San Michele were both more or less en route to Burano, but I did not end up visiting either: instead, I stayed aboard the (far more packed than was comfortable) vaporetto as it ploughed its furrow through the open lagoon, and ultimately stepped off it on the isle of Mazzorbo.

Mazzorbo is connected to neighbouring Burano by a bridge: there is little to be done there, but it is one of the most pleasant places that I saw around the lagoon, with blue-sheened swallows whipping along its little waterways and a beautiful medieval church looking out over the lagoon. Seeing high medieval church architecture was somehow a relief after the heavy sixteenth and seventeenth century finery that dominates Venice proper: the slightly simpler styles and warmer colours of the building  Some heavily-built, satisfied looking cats greeted me as I walked through the long lagoon-shore grass, and I realised how few. Jan Morris’ book on Venice had noted the cats as a core part of the city’s culture, but I saw almost none during my trip – a far cry from smaller Greek or Croatian ports I had visited in the past that tend to be still full of rakish, scarred, mewling thieves of one’s heart and meal alike. Even those in Mazzorbo had more the look of a house-cat than a true port squabble, but I was glad to meet them all the same: to know that a few of the Veneto’s lesser lions still wander the lagoon-shores was something of a comfort.

Burano was traditionally an isle of fishermen and lace-makers, and its key and striking visual feature are its single-colour brightly painted houses, which had Instagram-fame hopefuls clinging to them like flies to a white sheet on a summer evening. Like Venice proper, the island is a place of open squares, the centre of which feels a bit dulled by the solely-tourist focus of its activities. There are plenty of restaurants and tourist shops, and the island is undoubtedly strikingly pretty, but the endless footfall of tourists is a strange experience. Off the tourist routes on Mazzorbo and Burano, some houses are boarded up, which does make one wonder about the health of the islands as a whole. I did not, unfortunately, get to the lace-making museum, which is probably Burano’s most interesting feature: instead, I took yet another vaporetto, a short route that relays between two stops – that of Burano, and that of the small nearby island of Torcello, where I headed next.

I have two pieces of advice concerning the island of Torcello: the first of these is that under no circumstances should one fail to go to Torcello, and the second is that under no circumstances should one contemplate eating the food on Torcello.

The churches of Torcello should, unlike the island's restaurants, not be missed.
The island is not short of places at which one can eat: there are about five restaurants beside the brick-paved path through the middle of the island, which also boasts one of the only railing-free “devil’s bridges” left around the lagoon. This, indeed, comprises most of the buildings on Torcello as a whole. However, most of them are heftily priced restaurants even by Venice’s far from cheap standards: the one more affordable one, which is closest to the vaporetto stop, is a chaotic affair and whilst the squabbling mass of sparrows around it are delightful it did involve a long wait in the hot sun for food that was rather mediocre by Venice’s usually high standards. More problematically, the fish risotto I had there was, I can be reasonably certain based on timing, the input that my stomach’s algorithms output as a case of food poisoning that left me feeling far less than fully effective for the last two days of my stay in the city.

What Torcello does have to offer, however, are two of the oldest churches in the lagoon. They, and the museum, strictly ban photography: but suffice to say that the Veneto-Byzantine mosaics they contain are some of the most stunning pieces of medieval art I have seen in my life to date. They are wall-spanning, golden, and have lost none of their spectacle with the years. Where the churches of Venice proper are heavy with baroque decoration, the stylisation and boldness of medieval mosaics have a singular power that is dissipated in the art-shrouded halls and Corinthian column-tops the city itself is filled with. The basilica, founded in 639, took its modern form through renovations in 864 and 1008 respectively: its mosaics date from the eleventh century: they would already have been well over a century old when the blind old Doge Dandolo took the cross on the Fourth Crusade, the church itself as old to him as the Borgias or the Wars of the Roses are to us today.

Beside its stunning churches, Torcello offers some nice paths to walk by reed and lagoon-side ways, with pheasants lurking in the bushes, shelduck and egrets out on the mudflats, and Italian Wall Lizards with bright green backs skittering out of one’s way. A female whinchat stopped by in the bushes briefly before flying onwards, and magpies whisked along overhead. I was a little regretful to have to leave well before the latest part of the afternoon when the mudflats and wetlands no doubt come most to life. I had to do so, however, and after another loop around Burano I found myself compacted once again into the vaporetto, south-bound for Venice proper.

Cuttlefish pasta "in black": a Venetian specialty.
By the time I had returned to Giudecca, I was feeling decidedly unwell, and the next day I confined myself to the island and spent some time resting. I did get out to see a part of the Biennale locally – the Kyrgyz pavilion, which had an exhibit of heavy wool hangings in a traditional style, albeit with modern patterns, and a stylised. It was one of my favourite Biennale exhibits, giving a sense of place and space rather than the flatly abstract concepts that sometimes characterise modern art. Continuing my walk, occasional cats and the chirp of canaries were a reminder that Giudecca otherwise is quite residential when one gets off the waterfront, though it could badly do with more green space like much of the rest of Venice and at one point I headed for some visible trees only to find they were behind a two metre wall topped with barbed wire and glass shards, which was a somewhat alarming dedication to sealing off one of the island’s few green oases.

Giudecca’s waterfront is worthwhile spending time around in and of itself. The Redentore church, which is sadly not free to get into, is a spectacular example of the heavy domes and classical styles of the early modern city. Like Santa Maria della Salute across the lagoon, it was built after an outbreak of plague – in this case, that of the 1570s, which more than decimated Venice’s population. Attached to a small capuchin monastery – and I saw one or two brown-robed friars pass by during my time on Giudecca – Il Redentore has since its foundation been visited annually by the city’s great and good who cross a pontoon bridge from Zattere to go to mass there. The first Doge to do so, Sebastiano Venier, had been the Venetian admiral when the Turks were defeated at Lepanto, and his successors continued the tradition. Today the Festa del Redentore, celebrated on the third Sunday in July, is also known for its firework displays.

Besides this, the restaurants are an attractive feature of Giudecca as a place to stay, especially around the Zitelle vaporetto stop. A string of restaurants along this part of the offer both exceptionally good seafood and brilliant views directly across the lagoon to San Marco. The owners and waiters – an ethnic kaleidoscope by background – were very amiable, more mercantile than the somewhat glass-eyed salespeople I met on the main island, as efficient as anyone ever is in Italy, and had no clue whatsoever how to recommend a wine. I even startled one of them, for whom Venice was apparently lower than his ideal levels of warmth, by choosing to dine poncho-clad and outside on a clouded and breezy evening. I came back more than once, anyway: the grilled squid I had on my last night in the city will be lodged in the memory of my tastebuds for a long while to come, and with very good reason. Another must-try cuttlefish or squid dish which can be had here is to have it served with pasta or polenta “in the black” – that is to say, using the ink as part of the sauce. The deep black sauce is extremely good and is definitely a very worthwhile local specialty to try.

The unmistakeable shape of an ibis overhead.
On my last full day of the trip, I added another island to my list – Certosa, which is easily accessible after the Gardens and Arsenale stops on the 4 vaporetto route. The island, a former monastic centre, has the ruins of the old monastery blocked and a mess of half-done redevelopment sprawled across it, with a marina bolted onto the side, but despite this apparent chaos I was very glad of the place, lacking as it did the photographic perfection that is over-pervasive in the city proper. As I disembarked I saw a pair of water-birds whose shape gave me pause – I only later worked out from my photographs of their silhouettes that these must have been pygmy cormorants, birds of the Adriatic, Aegean and Black seas, their beaks much shorter than their familiar common cousins.

Wheeling down onto the mud flats just beyond the marina, I also saw four Sacred Ibises, an invasive species common across Africa south of the Sahara but now spreading significantly in parts of Europe. Their unmistakeable strange gait and long-curved beaks were a strange sight: the mud flats vary with the tides as to how open they are, but they provide ideal homes for these strangers. The lagoon’s bird numbers as a whole have boomed since the 1990s, due both to better environmental protections and to climate change making some previously seasonal birds permanent residents. I missed some of its most striking species – not least flamingos which can sometimes be found in large flocks – but spending some time looking at the natural history of the area was rewarding. The dance between man, nature, and the sea in Venice has never stopped or regularised its steps, and with newcomers like the ibises and changes in flood defences and climate in the coming years, the mud-flats and reed-beds of the future might look quite different to those of the past.

I caught a glimpse of a heavy-set bird of prey, likely a buzzard, as I wandered into the woods in the north of Certosa. These played host, meanwhile, to the Namibian exhibit for the Biennale. This consisted of a number of rock-and-metal made men positioned hidden around the woods and water, hidden or climbing or simply seeming to commune with the world around them: the exhibit was highly controversial in Namibia itself, however, having been made by a white artist more connected to the country’s tourism scene than its native and artistic communities. The interpretation given along with the artwork, which represents certain indigenous Namibian peoples as uniquely in touch with nature, is doubtless an idea with an ugly history of othering and racism behind it. Devoid of their interpretation, I did find the rock men delightful to discover, with the sounds of orioles above and reptiles skittering off the low sea walls and path around the trees – and if there was a silver lining to their presence, they did at least interest me enough to find out the controversy around their creation. I hope, however, that in future the native and traditional artists of Namibia are able to get the support and recognition they deserve on this stage.

The Piraeus Lion: some faded runes can be seen at the top of the leg.
I met a friend, working on archival research in the city, for lunch: we had hoped to do so more during my stay, but her recovery from Covid had left her needing recovery time for much of the trip. Afterwards, the final island that I visited (and where she was staying) was San Giorgio Maggiore, home to an eponymous monastery and a key landmark of the lagoon. The Biennale was again interwoven with the place, and we trod our way around an exhibit of art made with fire, burned chairs and flame-scarred canvases adorning the walls. We passed through the island’s great church, too, another sixteenth century edifice that boasts two huge Tintoretto paintings and, whilst we were there, yet more bits of Biennale artwork. God and art, in Venice, remain so intertwined that it is a case of chicken and egg to tell which is providing the space for which.

On my own once more, all that remained was a last loop through the streets in the afternoon. I saw the Armenian pavilion of the Biennale, a haze of sound and a cloth-like cascade of gold tucked around an old Venetian courtyard. Around the corner from it, I visited the Arsenale gate and the Piraeus lion – this remarkable sculpture, purloined by the Venetians from the harbour that gives it its name sometime in the high Middle Ages, has upon it some long but faded inscriptions, carved in runic letters by Norse warriors fighting in the medieval Mediterranean. Various attempts have been made to translate the inscription, but all agree that it is some form of dedication to a departed comrade, carved by fellows who were likewise far from home and made well before the Venetians looted the statue for themselves. Venice's jackdaw-like clawing at the Mediterranean drew to itself a thousand such stories, no doubt: and for all that the city exists now only to the drumbeat of tourist shoes, one still hears the echoes of emotions long, long departed thrown back off old and weathered stone.

I reflected as I headed back through the streets that the truth, often acknowledged but not much acted upon, is that the world’s love for Venice, as surely as the changing tides, has suppressed something of the city. Much of the centre has a certain numbness to it: where Jan Morris once found cats and canaries, where in another world there might be a sense of bustle and human warmth, there is little left beyond the endless tread of slightly stressed tourists and the beating down of the searching sun. It does not, in places, feel like a city that is run for humans to live in, and places like San Marco and the Rialto are as a result cloaked in an almost eerie inhumanity, where old stories are read off scripts and closed in glass boxes for a public whose cloying attentions have closed off much of the artisanal flair and relaxed charm that a Mediterranean city of culture should be humming with. Not all love is kind: and the world's for Venice may be just so.

The centre of the old ghetto today.
Before I caught the train the next day, one last stop beckoned: the old Ghetto district. Shakespeare lurked, uneasily, at the back of my mind. I only walked the streets – the Jewish Museum was closed for renovation – but it was nonetheless a strangely different place to much of the rest of the city. Immigration of Jews from elsewhere has rebuilt the Jewish community of Venice, reduced to a fraction of its former size after the horrors of the mid twentieth century: and where San Marco feels numb, the old Ghetto feels alive. The arches in front of the old Banco Rosso look out onto a plaza with trees and benches, the open stall has market stalls selling fruit, and kosher bakeries and little shops line busy streets. Whether or not it was a twist of historical irony that the area so famously segregated to dehumanise its residents was the most human part of the city I had seen, it helped to see it.

Lumbered with a bag, I rested for a while at the Savorgnan Park close to the station, and saw two additional birds – a spotted flycatcher and, bizarrely, a great-tit, which despite being one of the commonest birds in Europe had hitherto been absent (the treelessness of most of the city cannot have helped). I poked my head into the dark, weighty atmosphere of the late seventeenth century church of Santa Maria di Nazareth as I headed round one last corner, and then found myself at last witnessing the same sight as when I had first entered the city. Did I understand it better than I had done beforehand? I knew more, and had seen more: but Venice felt if anything less susceptible to reason than when I had disembarked.

An egret stalked a ditch by the railway as the train snaked inland from Santa Lucia again. One imagines oneself in Austria well before the border, for South Tyrol looks more like its Austrian counterpart than like the Italian lowland one has just left. The peaks and tunnels of the Alps beckoned, and after them, Vienna, where only the wide river gives whispers of the sea. I opened my laptop, and began to write.

Venice is indeed a curious place: its beauty irreplaceable and unique, its soul assailed by love for better and, very often, for worse. The sea to which the city is married claws at its foundations, the throngs of admirers whose cameras flash at its art leave it numbly staring out, trapped in the old self they want to see at the expense of what it might otherwise become. Much of what it has lost is, too, still to be found for a quarter of the price around the Aegean and Adriatic. For seafood, I would go to Porto Kufo, for the old charm of Adriatic trade, to Dubrovnik, or for cats and wheeling gulls, to Korčula. But for the long years, for the lions, and for love? These, in a heartbeat and on a swallow’s wings, only Venice understands in all their tried and twisted forms – and for these, yes – for these, without a doubt, I would return.
« Last Edit: May 23, 2022, 03:59:49 PM by Jubal »
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


  • Megadux
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Re: The Lion, the Lagoon, and the Lovers: A Trip To Venice
« Reply #1 on: May 22, 2022, 10:32:11 PM »
(Placeholder post in case I get time to add a more detailed photo collection).
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


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Re: The Lion, the Lagoon, and the Lovers: A Trip To Venice
« Reply #2 on: May 23, 2022, 04:27:12 PM »
This was such a joy to read, and it really felt as though some astral projection of my self was taking a stroll along Venice as I read. I particularly enjoyed the little snippets of birdwatching, with the unexpected inclusion of... uhm... seagull violence. I am all the more intrigued by Venice now than I had previously, having only been familiar with the glassmakers and the Carnevale, and some smatterings of history here and there and so, this was a very well written and eye-opening read for me, which I am sure to consult again should I drop by Venice some day in the future.

Thank you for this!  :pangolin: