The city of Venice

Venice Travel Blog

 › entry 5 of 19 › view all entries
Venice is a city of water-ways. This simple fact of transportation dictates every aspect of Venice. The 117 islands and 400 bridges, the roads that end in a canal, the doors that open out onto water. Venice by foot is a confusing and hodge-podge city, because Venice was never designed for pedistrians. Perhaps this is common to all of the great confusions in cities - cities become unfanthamonable when the dominant mode of transportation grows to be different from the one the city was designed around. London by car is horrible, because London was built as a pedestrian city. In Los Angeles we encountered mystifying concrete barriers and dead-ends when trying to walk, because the city was built for cars.
Who said Venice has sold out?

Building a city within a lagoon requires some innovation in building. In Venice this took the form of countless wooden pilons, rammed down into the mud until they reached solid earth. All the heavy marbles palaces, no matter how immobile they look, are balanced upon these same wooden frames - 100,000 for the Rialto Bridge alone. The risk this poses to structures is obviously throught Venice - leaning buildings, uneven plazas, columns sunk deep into the floor. But surprisingly enough the main risk isn’t too much water, it is too little water. It is when the water drops and the damp wood gets exposed to the air that the rot can set in, and a solid building be undermined from below.

San Marco Piazza

The most famous buildings in Venice are those wihin San Marco Piazza, the Basillica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale.
Together they reflect best the Byzantine influence over the city of Venice, with Arabic arches, curves and domes, an emphasis on geometric patterns and bringing out the natural colour of the raw materials. They strongly reminded me of the Topaki Palace and Aye Sofia in Istanbul.

Inside the Basillica the expertise of the Venetians over the art of the mosiac was on show, with the walls and domes covered in beautiful golden mosiacs, with each gold left tile made at a different angle to ensure the reflection of light from any viewpoint. Various treasures are hidden around the Basillica, including important artefacts stolen during the pillage of Constantinople (the Pala d’Oro alterpiece, inlaid with 2000 precious stones and enamelled gold leaf, and the bronze horses on the Loggia dei Cavalli, more than 2000 years old, being the two most important) and a whole host of ‘relics’ (such as the bones of ‘Saint George’ and ‘Saint Mark’, the latter bones being the purpose of the Basillica, having been stolen from Alexandria by two merchants in 828 CE, then lost, then conviently ‘refound’ by prayer when the Church was ready).
World's first digital clock

The Doge’s Palace, for centuries the centre of power in Europe, was unique in being built largely for ascetics rather than defence - the lack of a formidable defence signified that the Doge was not a feudal lord like others in Europe, ruling by consent of the city rather than divine right. Nethertheless, the Doge was not purely kept in his position by the gratitude of the masses, and had in place a despotic system of secret accusations and trials. The most visual sign of this is the Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs, leading from the Doge’s Palace to the Priggione Nove (New Prison). The most famous resident of this prison was Cassanova, the self-proclaimed Greatest Lover (tails of his exploits in love come largely from his autobiography). According to Cassanova, after he was imprisoned here in 1756 he managed to dig his way out of his cell, make it to the Palace, convince a guard to open the palace doors, then had a coffee on San Marco Piazza before fleeing the city on a stolen gondola.

The other feature I found interesting in San Marco Piazza was the clock overhanging the arcades. This large clock is notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the world’s first digital clock, with a digital read-out of time oddly mixing up Roman numerals for hours and modern numerals for minutes (giving us the time of X 25) and only clicking over every five minutes. The clock also has an analog face, but with 24 points rather than 12, and 24 being at out “3 o’clock” position. It stood out as incredibly strange, but the clock was built at the threshold between church time (the rhythm of the city set by the bells) and economic time (time as a measurable and immutable quantity) and the modern conventions were yet to be set. At least this clock went around clockwise, other early clocks in the Doge’s Palace move around anti-clockwise.

The rich and the poor

The wealth of Venice was not driven from San Marco Piazza, but rather from the Rialto markets. It was here that the traders sold their jewels, silks and spices (mostly pepper), and it was here that modern finance started, with the 13th century financiers worked under the church porch, inventing the concept of bank cheques to replace coinage and starting the modern banking system. It was this financial clout that allowed Venice to swagger Europe as the greatest of powers for more than 500 years, dominating cities that cooperated with it, destroying those who didn’t. The wealth and power of Venice attracted much envy among the other European powers, and lead to the creation of the League of Cambrai, where Pope Julius II united the Papal States, France, Spain and Germany against the Venetian Empire.
Venice faced a dramatic setback at the Battle of Agnadello on the 14th May 1509, but after every side took turns at backstabbing the other, at the end of the bloody wars the borders were much as they were at the beginning and the decay in the Venetian Empire delayed another 100 years. Despite this, the Doge blamed the defeat of Venice in the war on the powerless undesirables, pushing the Jews into the getto region (leading to the use of the word ‘ghetto’ for Jewish quarter) and the prostitutes into the region around Ponte de le Tette.

The Campo dei Frari in San Polo is a Franciscian Cathedral built to preach to these poor outcasts from the Holy Centre. It is an enormous brick Gothic church, towering over the surrounding buildings. Inside it houses two pieces of art that are considered masterpieces of Venice, the Madonna with Child triptych by Bellini and the Madonna of the Ascension by Titian.
These are not masterpieces to be considered in isolation - the entire Church has been redesigned around the Madonna of the Ascension. Arches are built and positioned so that on entry to the Church the Madonna is framed by art and architecture, drawing the eye to the centre. Walking up towards the Madonna you are surrounded by the Gothic choir, the voices guided by the designed accoustics to sound ethereal. The Church leaders were truly masters of the integrated multimedia approach, deliberately using every trick in the book to create exactly the right combination of awe and fear in those under their dominion.

We finished our day by catching the ferry over to Isola di Murano, the glass blowing centre of Venice since 13th century. We walked around the Museum of Glass, watched a surly glassblower turn a lump of formless glass into a rearing stallion in about thirty seconds, and caught a ferry the entire way around Venice, in the milky blue-green waters of the lagoon.

Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Who said Venice has sold out?
Who said Venice has sold out?
Worlds first digital clock
World's first digital clock
photo by: asturjimmy