The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

How To get Lost in Venice

Malta Independent Monday, 22 October 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

by Melanie Drury

Wednesday 10 October

Any traveller who may boast expertise in all aspects of travel still has no hope in Venice. He is bound to get lost. Actually I quickly realise that the nicest thing about Venice is the variety of ways in which I can lose myself.

Although Venice is connected to mainland Italy by a causeway, making it accessible by rail or road, within 100 metres beyond these land entrances at the northern edge of the city, it is hard to relate its identity. Had I never seen or heard of Venice and just dropped into the midst of it out of the sky, how could I make any connection to suss out where I was?

The buildings with a definite eastern influence are separated by water like an eternally flooded city. Not a single motorcar in sight and not a horn to be heard. Footpaths and bridges are the only access through the city since centuries, or boats guided by Venetians who loudly communicate to each other in a dialect so pronounced that my knowledge of Italian is as useful as if I’d known Japanese. Venice is really unique.

The origin of Venice is largely unknown but there are indications that its original population probably consisted of refugees from Roman cities who were fleeing barbarian invasion. These eventually settled across water on the islands in the Adriatic Sea in the saltwater lagoon which stretches along the shoreline between the mouths of the Po and the Piave Rivers.

From the ninth to the twelfth century Venice developed into a city-state, which spread its power east and west and into the Aegean, thus securing its safety and its maritime commercial empire. By the thirteenth century it became the most prosperous city in Europe thanks to its role as a flourishing commerce centre – particularly in the spice-trade – between Western Europe and the rest of the world, particularly the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, until Portugal took over.

The relationship with so many foreign influences affected the architecture and even dress in those times. Although many changes have come over Venice since then, it still retains that enchanting fusion of east and west in every pointed window and decorated balcony reminiscent of Rajasthani palaces and Tales of 1001 nights.

Friday, 12 October

How many bewildered tourists have I met today, struggling with their maps of differing sizes and detail? Too many! The ones who wander aimlessly through the walkways and over the bridges on the other hand, seem to be experiencing the Venice beyond the famous landmarks and sights.

Venice is built on an archipelago of 118 islands separated by about 150 canals and connected by about 400 bridges, constructed on closely spaced woodpiles which penetrate alternating layers of clay and sand. Interestingly, wood does not decay under water. Venice’s intricate layout, enchanting canals and exquisite buildings make it too easy to get lost in.

A stream of tourists seems to be following a determined path, so logically if I follow them I am bound to arrive to the famous Piazza San Marco. It is the only urban space in Venice called a piazza – all the others are known as campi. It is a remarkable location, dominated by the impressive Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile.

Thousands of tourists and pigeons occupy the large space of the piazza yet still it is enchanting... a whole day is easily spent observing the detail in the magnificent buildings and monuments, which include the Winged Lion of St. Mark – symbol of Venice – standing atop a pillar beside the entrance to the Grand Canal. A lesser-known monument, perhaps, is the Florian – an authentic Serenissima dei Settecento food and drink establishment complete with the original furniture and design from the 1700s!

Piazza San Marco is the lowest point in Venice thus it is the first to flood during the Acqua Alta (high water) caused by surges in the Adriatic, which regularly cover quays by several centimetres.

Amazing is the discovery that the “sinking of Venice” was caused by the artesian wells built in the 20th Century which drew water from the aquifer. Since these wells were banned in the 1960s the sinking has slowed remarkably.

It is certainly worth the wait in line to the top of the Campanile (bell-tower) to see the view of all of Venice below – breath-taking and beautiful, Venice is a real miracle of human creation!

Sunday, 14 October

I find it hard to distinguish between the famous structures and the common ones except for the tourists having their picture taken, because everything is so beautiful. Indeed my own camera has never been so busy! The list of things-to-see is really endless: the Rialto bridge, the La Salute church, Teatro La Fenice, this, that... but Venice is indeed quite small and I stumble across them all, one by one.

Furthermore, each location tells a story. For example, Campo di San Polo is the largest campo in Venice after Piazza San Marco. It was originally a place for grazing and agriculture but it was entirely paved over in 1493 after which it was used as a venue for bullfights, sermons and masked balls. After the 17th century, the poor’s market was moved to here from Piazza San Marco.

I know I am really lost when I see only Venetians about and I find myself wallowing in an entirely different mood as I venture along a calle, as the narrow alley-ways are known, or a fondamenta, as the walkways along the canals are called.

I notice the washing hanging between the buildings and the motor-boats parked outside people’s houses. No more gondolas now, just the youth with a loud stereo system in his small, turquoise motor-boat, which makes me smile – some things do not have to change from car to boat!

Then I am surprised to wander into the Jewish area, a large campo full of traditionally clad Jews – a strange sight somehow. A wall bears plaques telling their story in Venice. The diversity of cultures and history in this city is astounding, considering the entirely different setting from, for example, metropolitan London!

Tuesday, 16 October

I am lost in another era while the history of the Carnival of Venice falls upon my ears, revealing something about the free-spirited nature of the people of this city. Indeed, from the ice-cream vendor to the man-in-the-street, all Venetians appear particularly self-confident, open-hearted and friendly.

I am sitting in the Caffe Rosso – a cafe painted in bright red with a sign simply stating Caffe – when a young Veneziano invites himself to sit with me while informing me that this cafe is where all the philosophers and artists would have their meetings.

I have seen several shops and stalls selling masks and I am keen to hear what the fuss about the carnival is all about. Emiliano smiles, pleased to have my attention, and begins to tell some history relating to the time when Venice was run by the Republica Serenissima (Serene Republic).

The city was run by an elected executive power, the Doge (duke), a Council of Ten, a Senate and a Great Council made up of members of noble families. The naughty nobility of Venice, often including the Doge himself, led a rather outrageous lifestyle. They would wear expensive cloth, acquired from eastern merchants, and masks which allowed them to “misbehave” without being recognised.

Though the people of Venice were Roman Catholics, there were frequent conflicts with the Papacy due to its freedom from religious fanaticism. In fact, the entire city suffered the imposition of the interdict a couple of times! The second, most famous, occasion was in April 1509 by order of Pope Julius II.

The Carnival of Venice was first recorded in mid-13th Century. Traditionally the carnival season ran from Santo Stefano (26 December) to midnight of Shrove Tuesday, however masks were also allowed during Ascension and from 5 October to Christmas, which meant people could spend a large proportion of the year in disguise! The many laws created over centuries attempting to restrict celebrations and banning the wearing of masks indicate the extreme behaviour of the wearers.

When the Republica Serenissima lost its independence in 1797, Venice was experiencing the most fascinating century of its history – during the Settecento (1700s) Venice became perhaps the most elegant and refined city in Europe, greatly influencing art, architecture and literature. As Venice alternatively fell into the hands of Napoleon, Austria and Italy, the carnival celebrations halted for almost two centuries, officially banned by the fascist government of Italy in the 1930s.

It was only after a modern mask shop was founded in the 1980s that Carnival enjoyed a revival and it now runs from two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday until Shrove Tuesday. Interestingly, many of the masks now on sale as souvenirs of Venice are nothing like the original masks worn by the nobility during the Serenissima period. The traditional mask is the Bauta, a type of mask which conceals the whole face, or most of it, allowing the wearer freedom to perform any illicit acts – from criminal to romantic!

Thursday, 18 October

Every second shop in Venice sells glass items and jewellery. I know that Murano, also an archipelago of islands linked by bridges, has been a major glass producer in the world for centuries but I am shocked to see lace displays hanging on the walls complete with combini. All my life I had held on to the icon of the Gozitan old lady making lace in what we like to call “a dying Maltese tradition.” Somebody had failed to inform me that it was not our unique tradition!

Venice itself is packed with arts culture, including paintings from famous artists housed in anything from museums to churches. Too easy, yet again, to lose myself in Venice’s world of creativity.

Saturday, 20 October

“O mia bella mora, no non mi lasciare...” (Oh my brunette, please don’t leave me...) one gondoliere sings up to me as I watch him row a gondala beneath my bridge. I have to smile. How can I resist his cheeky smile and piercing eyes? Meanwhile, it cannot be denied that he, like many gondolieri in Venice, is a fine specimen of male. The tight striped shirt bursting over powerful arms and the tanned skin is only one factor. Charm is the main winner.

Once I watched a documentary about Venice. The theme was the canals, the sinking of Venice and the gondolieri, reputed to be the greatest womanisers in the world. I have to agree. Even a not-so-handsome boat-man oozes so much self-confidence that a woman could not help being attracted by the flattery despite it being obvious casual flirting. Best to keep at a safe distance though, especially after the womanising history of the Veneziani I learnt from Emiliano!

I switch my admiration to the gondola, the classical Venetian boat, now used mostly for tourists or for special occasions. It is expensive to own a gondola and to learn the special skill required to navigate it using a single oar, hence it tends to remain within the family. The only boats in common use by Venetians are the traghetti – foot-passenger ferries crossing the Grand Canal.

A large piece of metal at the front of the gondolas is intended as a likeness of the Doge’s hat. The six notches pointing forwards and one pointing backwards represent the “Sestieri”, the primary traditional divisions of Venice.

I spend hours on a bridge watching happy couples and Japanese tourists floating below my bridge. Occasionally the sounds of “O sole mio...” and other famous musical emblems of Italy float up to the accompaniment of a harmonium, but even better is the exchange of cheeky humour between the gondolieri, which cannot be understood without a translator (who I am lucky to find)!

Oh dear, I think I lost my heart in “Venezia”, the floating city!

Episode 20 of Melanie Drury’s diary is due on 05 November.

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