Surprise, I’m back! This took a long time because we were out of town for 2 weeks. But as compensation (or maybe just an additional annoyance) this will be an unusually long post. Venice is such a uniquely beautiful place that it is hard to take a bad picture without some effort. So I am going to be even more self-indulgent than usual & include a lot of pictures, just because there are so many I like.
We sailed into Venice early in the morning on April 23 for a stay of almost 2 full days. Venice was founded in the 5th Century by people fleeing the chaos resulting from the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the incursions of the Goths. They escaped into a large inaccessible lagoon and built villages on a number of islands there. As time passed, the islands were connected with bridges and the city grew together. Because of its inaccessibility by land, the Venetian Republic (not like our republics, since only aristocrats & the wealthy were represented) relied largely on sea power to develop into a great empire that dominated the eastern Mediterranean for many centuries. We have seen its influence in such places as the Dalmatian coast cities & Cyprus. It came to an end when conquered by Napoleon at the end of the 18th Century and after his fall it was ruled by Austria until in 1866 when it was incorporated into the newly unified nation of Italy.
It was misty & overcast as we entered the lagoon in the early morning light & turned left to sail past the island of Lido, a long & skinny island that protects the Venetian lagoon from the sea. Lido is famous for its beach, which has given its name to countless beaches around the world & the main pool deck on most cruise ships (including Prinsendam).
Because this is such a swampy area, the buildings of Venice are supported by literally millions of wood pilings driven through the muck to the more solid clay level some 25 feet down. The pilings, many of which are well over 1,000 years old, do not rot because there is no oxygen down there to support destructive insects or bacteria. So think about all those invisible wood pilings (and the work it took to drive them in) as you look at the buildings that they support. We turned toward the right from Lido & sailed toward the central square of Venice, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Plaza).
Passing Piazza San Marco we sailed by the entrance to the Grand Canal & the church of Santa Maria della Salute, built in thanks for the end of the plague of 1630. This building alone is supported by more than a million wooden piles.
We continued through the channel between the island of Giudecca & the main part of the city. We passed the 16th Century church of Il Redentore on Giudecca, considered one of the masterpieces of Antonio de Palladio (from whose name comes the architectural term “palladian”), built in thanks for the end of the plague that killed a third of the population in 1576. We sailed on toward the port, on the west side of the main city islands, passing a variety of scenic waterfront views.
As we approached the cruise ship port the sun began to come out from behind the clouds, giving a dramatic effect similar to sunrise.
After a shower & breakfast we started into town. We had been afraid, from the overcast sail-in, that the weather would be a problem but in fact it was sunny & beautiful throughout our stay. While one can get to St. Mark’s plaza by vaporetto (the floating public transportation system) we decided to walk since there was plenty of time and wandering through the streets is the best way to get a real feel for the city. During the almost two days we spent in Venice we walked between 16 and 17 miles according to Mary’s pedometer (which seems to underestimate a bit) and we enjoyed every minute of it.
The first third of the way (I am guessing about a mile & a half from the ship to St. Mark’s) from the cruise port wasn’t all that interesting. From the top of the ship you could see a good bit of the city, and the walk to Piazzale Roma, the limit for car & motorcycle traffic, gave us a view of the single long bridge to the mainland, first built in the mid 19th Century.
We walked into town with our friend Israel, a very engaging fellow who was the Rabbi on the ship. Prinsendam has a priest, a Protestant minister & a Rabbi (that sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it isn’t). I hope you made it this far in the blog Israel! Wherever there is water in Venice (which is just about everywhere) there is a beautiful view. The weather had turned very clear & sunny, which enhanced the reflections in the water.
The Campo San Rocco was bounded on one side by the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and on an adjacent side by the Church of San Rocco. St. Roch (Rocco in Italian) is the patron saint of contagious diseases & his body is under this 18th Century church. Scuola means school, but the Scuole of Venice were actually more like fraternal organizations than schools. We toured the Scuola on our second day in Venice; unfortunately no pictures are allowed because it was filled with beautiful Tintoretto paintings. I did manage one picture through the front door, but it really doesn’t give an idea of the grandeur in the upper gallery.
We continued wandering through the streets, generally in the direction of the Rialto Bridge, passing more interesting buildings & canals.
The Rialto Bridge is one of the iconic landmarks of Venice. This is reputedly the site of the first settlement in Venice which was called “Rivoaltus,” meaning "high bank," later shortened to Rialto. This has been the commercial center of Venice for a thousand years & the produce markets are still held in this area. The first wooden bridge was built on this spot in the 12th Century, but after two collapses (at least one under the weight or a crowd) a stone bridge was erected in the 16th Century. It was the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot until the mid-19th Century.
The inside of the bridge is lined with busy shops and kiosks.
The Rialto Bridge and its environs also have gorgeous views of the Grand Canal. The Canal cuts through Venice in an S shape & this bridge is right by one of the turns in the Canal. The Canal in this area is lined with palazzos, cafes & docks with tall wooden boat mooring columns, and the water is filled with gondolas and other boats.
After crossing the Rialto bridge we continued on generally toward Piazza San Marco, passing yet more interesting spots on the way.
So finally we came to Piazza San Marco, one of the world’s premier public spaces. On the east side the Doge’s palace & St. Mark’s Cathedral sit side by side. Across the square is the Campanile (bell tower) and beyond that is a vast open space surrounded by buildings with colonnaded loggias housing shops, museums & cafes. There is so much to see in this area!
Having looked at the overall scene, now we will take a closer look at the buildings & landmarks in the Piazza. We found the Biblioteca Marciana (national library of St. Mark) in the building on the right in the picture above. This building, erected in the 16th Century, is called the Libreria Sansoviniana (named after its architect) and Palladio called it the finest building since antiquity.
The first building we visited was the Doge’s Palace. The line to get in was almost non-existent, one of the big advantages to visiting Venice at the beginning of the season. We entered into the grand courtyard, with two story loggias on three sides & a wall of the cathedral on the fourth side. The cathedral originated as the private chapel of the Doge, so this gave him a private entrance; it has since been greatly expanded of course. The columns of the loggias were topped with intricately carved capitals each of which was different.
In the courtyard are a number of interesting sculptures. In the middle are two intricate cast bronze well heads. The Giants Staircase is a marble affair with huge statues of Mars & Neptune on either side at the top. There is an old gondola in one of the loggias (I’m not sure why) & a peaked roof over part of the cathedral wall with a number of marble statues. There is a clock tower at the top of the cathedral wall on the north side of the courtyard
The rooms inside the palace were fabulous, full of old carved woodwork & massive oil paintings by Renaissance masters. Notable among them is Tintoretto’s “Il Paradiso,” one of the largest oil paintings in the world at 82 feet in length, which depicts 500 figures in portrait-like detail. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed of the rooms of the palace so I can’t show it to you here (you might try googling it). However, I did get some pictures of the elaborate ceiling of the Golden Staircase leading into the palace from the second floor loggia, and of the statues of Hercules & Atlas that guard the entrance to it. Also on the wall of the second floor loggia is a “Lion’s Mouth” mail slot, through which you could submit anonymous accusations against people you didn’t like. Venice had something of a police state mentality, always searching for potential traitors. One of the rooms of the palace has portraits of all the doges lining the wall under the ceiling all the way around the room . . . except for one who was beheaded for treason, whose portrait space is all black. The Italian inscription on the Lion’s Mouth means: "Secret denunciations against those who hide favors and offices or collude to hide the true income of them.” I was also able to get a few nice pictures out of upper floor windows in the palace.
We crossed the Bridge of Sighs to visit the prison on the other side of this small canal, the Rio de la Palazzo. Prisoners were originally kept in cells in the Doge’s Palace, from which Casanova escaped. But they proved too cramped for the growing prison population so in the 17th Century a new prison (which still looked pretty grim to us) was built on the other side of the canal, with this bridge to connect the interrogation & court chambers in the palace with the prison. The bridge’s name comes from Lord Byron, who concluded that prisoners would sigh as they saw their last glimpse of the outside world as they passed through this bridge to the prison, often never to be seen again outside its walls. Again, no pictures allowed inside the prison, but there are a couple in a prison courtyard & through the windows of the bridge, which are obstructed by decorative stone grating. You may have seen this bridge & canal before, since James Bond & his Russian girlfriend go up this canal at the very end of From Russia With Love.
Next we visited St. Mark’s Cathedral (or Basilica) right next door to the Doge’s Palace, where it was originally built to house the remains of St. Mark who is thought to be the author of one of the Gospels. It is a magnificent building full of sculpture, domes & golden mosaics. So what’s the story about St. Mark? It seems that the original patron saint of Venice was St. Theodore. But the Venetians weren’t satisfied with this and in 828, either to fulfill a vision or aggrandize their city depending on who you believe, a delegation of Venetians went to Alexandria, Egypt and purloined his body. St. Mark was interred in Alexandria because he had been the first bishop there & was martyred there. The body was smuggled out of Egypt, secreted under a layer of pork to discourage the Muslim Egyptians from inspecting it, and brought to Venice where a church was built to house it. The church was rebuilt & expanded a number of times to reach its present magnificence. During construction of the Basilica in the 11th Century the body was lost (how does that happen?) but 30 years later it was miraculously “found” & reinterred under the Cathedral that bears his name (whether this body was really St. Mark or not seems to me to be uncertain). So St. Mark, whose symbol is a winged lion often holding a book, is now the primary patron saint of Venice & St. Theodore occupies a back seat (although his remains are in another church in the city). The Venetians are very proud of their body snatching caper; the Cathedral has a prominent mosaic portraying the stealing and transportation of the body to Venice.
Signs said photography was forbidden inside the Cathedral, but once inside we saw many flashes from cameras & no one seemed to be enforcing the rule. So I took a few photos as well. It wasn’t very light (and I didn’t use flash) so some of them didn’t come out very well. But you can see that the whole ceiling – domes & supports – was covered with golden mosaics, some of which are identified in the picture captions. The floors were also very beautiful with varied marble mosaics and there were polished stone columns of varying colors & marble panels on some walls reminiscent of Santa Sophia in Istanbul (where they might have come from, since the Venetians & Crusaders stole a lot from that church when they sacked Constantinople in 1204). Across the front of the area of the main altar is a row of statues of saints; the only one I know the identity of is St. Mark, fourth from the left in the picture below.
On the upper floor was a small museum, mostly housing items that had been replaced during renovations. Particularly interesting (to me) were some mosaics that gave a chance to see more closely how the tiles are put together to construct a lifelike face. Also there are the original bronze horses that stood above the entrance to the Cathedral for many centuries, recently replaced with exact replicas. These horses were probably originally made in Greece around 300 BC, then taken to Constantinople where they adorned the Hippodrome, then in turn purloined from Constantinople when the city was sacked in 1204 by the Venetians & Crusaders. Quite a history, and they are still quite beautiful after all that time outside in the elements.
The last place we visited in the Cathedral was the balcony atop the front entrance (which I pointed out in the caption to the first picture in the Cathedral section of this episode). On this balcony are the replica horses standing just where the originals used to be. The balcony provided excellent views all around the Piazza. To the right is the 15th Century clock tower, with a Lion of St. Mark above the clock & a bell on top rung by two figures called “the Moors” because of the dark patina of the metal. Directly across is the Campanile (bell tower), more than 300 feet tall with a beautiful entry porch at the bottom. The original 16th Century Campanile collapsed in 1902, but was rebuilt. To the left is the original grand entrance to the Doge’s Palace called the Porta della Carta (today you enter by a different door on the lagoon side of the building). It has a (19th Century reproduction of a previously destroyed) sculpture of the lion of St. Mark with a kneeling Doge Francesco Foscari, who built this entrance, then above the window is a bust of St. Mark and the whole thing is topped by a statue of Justice with sword & scales. From the balcony we also had a level view of the figures atop the columns near the water of the lion of St. Mark (which had a previous life as a different lion somewhere in Anatolia) & St. Theodore standing on a crocodile (which represents the dragon he is supposed to have killed). This is also a copy; the original is somewhere inside the Doge’s Palace (we didn’t see it). I have included here a few pictures of these items not taken from the balcony, just to give some context.
And to finish off our visit to Piazza San Marco, here are a few more random items that didn’t fit anywhere else. Venice is situated just above water level & is sinking a little every year, so in the winter time there is always flooding & Piazza San Marco is inundated with water. The Venetians have adapted to this by installing temporary wooden walkway to enable people to walk through flooded areas without getting wet. A few were still there in side streets when we visited. In the open Piazza square are several cafes with outdoor seating that also have small musical groups playing mostly light classics. In particular are two cafes that date to the 18th Century: the Caffe Quadri (shown in a picture at the beginning of the San Marco portion of this posting) on the north side & the Caffé Florian on the south side. During Austrian rule in the 19th Century, Austrians patronized the Caffe Quadri while Venetians hung out at Caffe Florian across the square. Both were frequented by many famous writers & composers. Attached to the southwest corner of the Cathedral is the porphyry statue of the “Four Tetrarchs,” another item plundered from Constantinople in 1204. Note the foot that has been replaced with a stone carving in the lower right; the original foot was discovered in Istanbul in 1960 & is in now in the Istanbul Archeology Museum. The sculpture was probably created in the 3rd Century when the Roman Empire was briefly governed by a group of 4 coequal emperors. Other pictures are identified in the captions.
We left Piazza San Marco & set out to find the La Fenice theater & opera house, as always passing engaging sights along the way.
Gran Teatro La Fenice, the opera house & theater, was first built in the 18th Century. It was destroyed by fire in 1836 and again in 1996 (by arson according to court verdict). The current building reconstructed after the latter fire opened in 2005. The burning & reconstruction of La Fenice (which means, aptly, “The Phoenix”) is the central story of John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, an enjoyable book that gives a good portrait of Venice.
After that we wandered around the streets for a while, which means more canal views (I hope you like these as much as we did, since I have included an awful lot of them in the blog post).
On our way back to the ship we stopped at a café by the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge for a snack & to rest our aching feet. The food was great & so were the views (of course). Sitting there I was struck by the abstract patterns made by the reflections in the water. You see that in most of the canal pictures, but it is a different effect when they are isolated in a picture without context.
That night on the ship we had a show by local talent. Alas, it was not a folkdance or folksong group, as we have enjoyed in many other ports, but a pretty lame group of older guys dressed as gondoliers who sang overused Italian standards (Volare anybody?). What were they thinking when they booked this group?
Our second day in Venice was spent largely in museums. We went to the Academia, a renowned museum full of Renaissance & pre-Renaissance Venetian masterpieces. It pretty much lived up to its reputation, although a lot of the pre-Renaissance art didn’t do much for me. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed. We then visited the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, some pictures of which are included earlier in the episode. The upstairs was a huge room jam-packed with Tintorettos and a few Titians on walls, ceilings & easels. Pretty impressive but again no photography. We had wanted to spend some time visiting the Ghetto area in the north part of Venice. Established in the early 16th Century, this was the first ghetto ever established for confinement of Jews. Its name came from the large foundry in the vicinity: “gheto” was Venetian for “slag.” The word ghetto acquired its modern meaning as other cities applied it to their confined Jewish quarters. Unfortunately we ran out of time in the museums (we had to be back at the ship in mid-afternoon to avoid being left behind), so this will have to await our next visit.
One place we did see the second day was the large Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It has the second largest campanile in Venice and Titian’s painting of the Assumption over the altar area. Titian is buried in the Frari. We didn’t have time to tour the interior, & there was no photography inside anyway, but I managed a few pictures from the front entrance.
Some miscellaneous things we saw walking around town. Many of the plaza’s contained old covered wellheads that used to be the source of water for people living in the neighborhood. Venice is also known for the characteristic balconies with unusual arrays of windows in the many palazzos, each one of which is different. We also saw an interesting poster of a new version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The good news: he’s not hunchbacked any more; the bad news: now he’s a borg!
One of the things we really enjoyed in Venice was looking at all the colorful shop windows. Venice is famous for glass, which is mostly made on the island of Murano. The glass here is very beautiful (& expensive).
Venice is also famous for its elaborate fancy-dress carnival parties and for the elaborate masks it produces for them.
Last, but far from least, were the shops selling baked goods & gelato, all deliciously displayed to make you want to eat it all. We did not try the baked goods, but we did have gelato on our way back to the ship. We had been looking for a gelato shop displaying the notice Rick Steves says indicates home made gelato, but although we passed a number of gelato shops (mostly just holes in the wall) we didn’t see any of these. So we stopped at a gelato stand on wheels in the middle of a plaza, since it was getting late. Wow! It was fabulous! Mary had a cone piled high with lemon & pistachio while I had pistachio & chocolate. It was easily the best ice cream we had ever had. All I can say is that real Italian gelato is to regular ice cream as steak is to hamburger (to be fair, although the gelato we had elsewhere was consistently better than ordinary ice cream it didn’t seem to live up to what we had in Venice, perhaps because in Venice it was completely new to us). If you visit Italy be sure to try it.
So we returned to the Prinsendam, which sailed out in late afternoon the same spectacular way we had come in. You have seen this route before, of course, but this time it was sunny, so I will show you some of the sailaway here. First from the port toward Piazza San Marco.
As we passed Piazza San Marco the late afternoon sun created areas of bright light and shadow.
We sailed on down past the waterfronts to the west of San Marco, took one final look back as the sun fell lower in the sky, and headed south toward Sicily.