Venezia

Venice:  The City of Water and Light 

By Shannon Berg

 

Venice, like few other cities, is infused with a sense of mystery and romance.  The city is made up of hundreds of small islands in a lagoon on the edge of the Adriatic.  Once the greatest power and richest republic in Europe, Venice is still the capitol of its province and the capital of the Veneto region.  Venice’s historic center is now reduced to only a population of about 62,000 people, but there are about 272,000 within the greater city limits, and Venice is part of the greater Padua-Venice Metropolitan area with a population of nearly 1,600,000.  In fact, it is only about a thirty minute train ride to Padua. Venice is also an easy trip by train to Ferrara, Verona, and Udine, and there are ships that arrive regularly from Corfu, Dubrovnik and other places.  In addition, Venice is equipped with the Marco Polo Airport with flights to cities throughout Europe.  Once in Venice, the historic center is easily explored on foot, although to get to the surrounding islands the vaporetti and motoscafi, boats that act as buses around the lagoon, are your best bet.  Many tourists like to spurge and take a gondola, but locals only use them for weddings.

 

By Italian standards, Venice was settled relatively late with the fall of Rome in the 5th century.  The lagoons and islands offered a great refuge and hiding place from the invading Huns and Arians of the north.  The decision to join the Byzantine Empire rather than the Pope in Rome left Venice virtually independent of foreign rule from the beginning.  Venice built up the most powerful navy of the time, allowing it to dominate the spice trade with the east, and cash in on the benefits of being the departure point of the crusades.  All this led to Venice’s economic success and eventual declaration as an independent city state, the “Repubblica Marinara,” in the 9th century.  By the 12th century, the Venetian Republic controlled Dalmatia and Istria, the Aegean islands of Crete and Cyprus, and the Alpine trade route going north.  By the 15th century, the Republic also took hold of much of the mainland, including Padua, Verona, Bergamo, and Ravenna.  While Venice was finally taken itself by Napoleon in 1797, and before that with the discovery of the New World had already suffered a great decline in power, the city state did survive 1070 years of independence, most of which as one of the richest and most powerful city states in Europe.

 

While walking through the streets and alleyways, and over numerous bridges and canals, one observes the continual reminders of Venice’s glorious past and its unique relationship with the east.  The architecture is a distinct combination of Eastern and Western traditions, and throughout the city one notices souvenirs that the Venetians had brought back from their travels to the East, including the body of Saint Mark the evangelist that is housed in the cathedral.  Venice is especially enchanting, although crowded, during the season of Carnevale, when tourists and residents alike flood the streets in period costumes and beautiful masks enjoying the city wide party.  Venice has been famous for this celebration that takes place the last weeks before Lent, sometime in February, for centuries.  Throughout the year one can enjoy different ancient festivals and rituals that the Venetians continue to keep alive, although often for the benefit of their visitors.  While the city of water and light may now be dominated by tourists and mask shops rather than foreign ships and knights on quests, the sights remain exciting and unique and Venice is always a pleasure.

 

Main Attractions

 

Piazza S. Marco

This beautiful Piazza is the largest in Venice and is surrounded by some of the city’s most important buildings.  Set on the Grand Canal, this Piazza is the center of historic Venice and is still a popular meeting place for Venetians and tourists alike.   Near the water one can see two granite Egyptian columns which were stolen in the 1170s.  On top are the symbols of the Serenissima, the Venetian Republic, the winged lion which symbolizes Saint Mark and the young man killing the dragon, symbolizing Saint Teodoro.  They are there to protect the city from the sea.

 

La Basilica di San Marco

Saint Mark’s Basilica, consecrated in 1094, was built originally to be a private chapel to the Doge, or Duke, of Venice, and was only made Venice’s cathedral later in 1807.  Within is preserved the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist which the Venetians stole from Alexandria and brought to Venice in 828, as the young state felt the need for a holy protector as its wealth and power grew.  The famous horses of St. Marks that graced the façade until 1979, when they were replaced with copies, were stolen from Constantinople in 1204 and could date back as far as the 3rd century BC.  The originals are now housed in the basilica’s Museo Marciano.    Within, the church is overflowing with gold and mosaics and various treasures thanks to an ancient Venetian law requiring merchants to bring back prizes for the basilica from their trips to the East.  Lines to get in can often be long, but the sight is unique and well worth the wait.

 

Il Campanile di San Marco

On the piazza is Saint Mark’s bell tower which dates back to 912, although what you see today is a replica since the original collapsed in 1902.  It was originally built to function as a light house for the numerous ships that came and went from the port every day.  On the top is the statue of the archangel Gabriel who points the way. The view from the tower is worth the 100 meter (332 ft) climb.

 

Saint Mark’s Museums

Within the Procuratie Nuove on Piazza S. Marco is the Museo Correr which houses a collection of Venetian artifacts from Venice’s glorious past including clothing, musical instruments, armor, and games.   On the upper floor is a collection of paintings with works by Venetian artists such as Bellini, Canova, and Carpaccio.  Just outside you will see Venice’s famous clock tower, the Torre dell’Orologio, built in 1499, with the clock which is considered one of the most beautiful of its type.  Also on the piazza is the Biblioteca Marciana which dates back to 1536 and is one of the most beautiful buildings in Venice.  The collection is rare and includes Flemish illuminated manuscripts, maps from the 15th centuries and Marco Polo’s will.  Access is limited, however, to scholars who have received permission in advance from the director.  The Museo Archeologico, just next door to the library, has a great collection of Greek sculptures.

 

Palazzo Ducale

This was both the home to the ruling Doge, or Duke, and also the center of Venetian government.  Here foreign ambassadors were heard, the senate met, and all political decisions were made.  The outside of the building, begun in 1309 and redone done in the 1570s after fires, is mainly gothic in style and entirely Venetian in nature.  On the lower colonnade are numerous statues which crown the columns and are considered some of the finest examples of Italian medieval sculpture.  Within one can tour the various rooms used as the private and state apartments, many covered by outstanding frescoes such as Veronese’s Rape of Europa in the Anticollegio, where visiting ambassadors were kept to wait.  In the Sala d’Armi is a collection of Medieval and Renaissance armor and weaponry.  Also impressive is the Sala del Maggior Consiglio which displays the worlds largest oil painting (23ft by 72ft) Paradiso by Tintoretto.  On special tours one can also see the Torture Chamber, a secret room where Venice’s most powerful would secretly question and torture suspects of treason.

 

 

 

Galleria dell’ Accademia

Leaving S. Marco, and going across the Grand Canal, one finds Venice’s finest art gallery.  Within are works dating from the 14th century through the 18th century, all arranged chronologically.  Among the highlights are works by Bellini,  Carpaccio, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Veronese and Tintoretto.  Part of the Accademia is made up of the former church of Santa Maria della Carità and includes the Presentation of the Virgin by Titian (1538) that was actually designed for the space.

 

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

After the Accademia, this is the next best art gallery in Venice, and it is not far away.  Once a private collection, the public can now view both the museums own collection and various traveling displays within.  Unlike many museums in Italy, this gallery is made up of 20th century works by an international array of artists, including Picasso, Chagall and Pollock.

 

Murano

Venice has been famous for its crystal glass work since the art was rediscovered there in the Middle Ages, giving the city a monopoly and another source of wealth.   Glass workers were a highly respected class and given special privileges to prevent them from selling the secrets of their work abroad.  In 1291 Venice moved all the glass works to the island of Murano since the risks of fire were very high.  Today you can take a boat there and watch as the glass is hand blown in the different workshops, which can be very interesting.  The industry, however, is aimed now at the tourists, and most of the time representatives will be waiting at the dock to herd visitors to their employer’s workshop.  Observing is usually free with the hope that you will be inspired to shell out money for the product afterwards. 

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