ICONS OF VENICE
As is so often the case in history, beautiful things are born of desperate times. Venice is one of those undeniably beautiful things. Centuries ago, when Italy was regularly invaded from the north, northern Italian refugees went in search of a safer home. They found that home on a group of tiny islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Though there is some evidence that these islands may have been occupied first by fishermen, the founding of Venice is identified with the dedication of the first church, San Giacomo, on the islet of Rialto in 421 AD.
As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I recently had the great pleasure of returning to this amazing city where Riviera began her maiden voyage. On this trip, I used my time to get more familiar with the story of Venice through its icons: bridges, churches, gondolas, markets and even the masks.
One of my favorite parts of visiting Venice is the sail in. The view from the ship is extraordinary, and I tell anyone who will listen that they must add this experience to their bucket list. The icons of Venice beckoned the minute we hit the Grand Canal, starting with the gray dome of the Basilica of St. Mary of Health, or Salute. Referred to as a “plague church,” the basilica was constructed beginning in 1631, a year after an unusually devastating outbreak of the plague, as an offering to the Virgin Mary who was thought to be a protector of Venice.
Sailing by St. Mark’s Square, or the Piazza, as the locals call it, we were greeted by the city’s most famous icons, if there is such a category. Like all of Venice, the Piazza is one of the few great urban spaces in Europe where human voices prevail over motorized vehicles.
St. Mark’s Campanile is the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica and stands as a sentry over the entire city. Originally constructed in the 9th century as a watchtower and lighthouse, it stood adamantly over the city for centuries despite damage caused by numerous fires. But on July 14, 1902, at 9:45 am, the campanile collapsed. That same night, funds for reconstruction were allotted, and on April 25, 1912, exactly 1000 years after the foundations of the original building had allegedly been laid, the new campanile was inaugurated.
After disembarking the ship at the far end of the Grand Canal, I began a lovely walk through the canals and walkways. As I wandered through the narrow streets, I regularly came upon open piazzas, each with its own church or museum and charming cafés.
San Simeon Piccolo, consecrated in 1738, is one of the last churches to have been built in Venice. Just to give you an idea of how high the standards of beauty are in this city, it has been much maligned over the years. Even Napoleon weighed in, saying, “I have seen churches without domes before, but I’ve never, until now, seen a dome without a church.” One of the four columns was replaced following enemy bombing of Venice during World War I.
As I made my way through the city, I came across markets where one could buy fresh pasta, fish, spices, fruits and vegetables or any other number of delightful knick-knacks. The markets were a great way to get a feel for the character of this city and its people.
Of course, no market would be complete without a generous selection of Venetian masks. No one knows exactly when or why people started wearing masks in Venice, but there are laws dating back to the 13th century that limit their use. Some have suggested that covering one’s face in public was the Venetian response to an incredibly rigid class structure. Now an important part of the Carnivale that draws 3 million visitors every year, they are a colorful addition to the Venetian experience.
Food is an important part of Italian culture, and quaint restaurants and cafés can be found just about everywhere. At this delightful little restaurant, I was serenaded on the patio while I ate and drank and enjoyed the beautiful day.
Not surprisingly, the City of Canals is also known as the City of Bridges. While many of Venice's more than 400 bridges are simple, practical constructions, each nonetheless adds character to the city. The views from every bridge I crossed were captivating, and yes I was that tourist who clogged up traffic as I tried to take photos.
There are several iconic bridges, but none more so than the Rialto Bridge, where people lined the walkways to get a peek from the top. Completed in 1591, it is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal.
Of course, nothing is more emblematic of Venice than gondolas and gondoliers. For centuries they were the primary means of transportation in the city but now serve primarily to carry tourists through the canals. Down from an estimated 10,000 gondolas in the 18th century, today there are just over 400 in active service.
The gondoliers are easy to spot in their traditional red and blue striped shirts. The profession of gondolier is controlled by a guild that issues a limited number of licenses. Gondoliers are put through rigorous training, apprenticeships and a major exam that covers Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills and practical skills in handling a gondola.
It is remarkable that what started as a desperate escape from conquering invaders could have resulted in such grandeur. But certainly not overnight. St Mark’s Basilica was first built in 828 and was destroyed several times, including being burned to the ground in a rebellion in 976. The basic structure of the current iteration was consecrated in 1094. Great wealth and worldly influences contributed to its adornment over the years.
The Doge’s Palace was the center of all civic activity in Venice, which accounts for its size. Ironically, like many famous icons of this city surrounded by water, the palace has been destroyed by fires several times over the centuries. Despite numerous repairs and rebuilds, it has remained largely faithful to the Gothic style first used in the reconstruction in the 1300s.
Despite great hardships, invasions, wars, rebellions, plagues and many fires, these iconic buildings now stand as spectacular symbols of Venetian wealth and the city’s position as a major maritime power and an important center of commerce and art during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
In good times and in bad, Venice is testimony to the triumph of the human spirit, and as I wandered the streets, I definitely got a sense of what Venice must have been like in its heyday. Everything about the city feels like a historical monument to extraordinary people in extraordinary times. I hope all of our readers have the opportunity to experience this remarkable city on an Oceania Cruises voyage.