By May S. Ruiz
Venice: It’s called ‘City of Bridges,’ ‘City of Canals,’ ‘City of Masks,’ ‘City of Water,’ ‘City of Gondolas,’ and ‘Queen of the Adriatic.’ But however many different ways we want to think of it, there is one thing we can universally agree on – Venice is quite unlike any other city in the world.
Built on more than a hundred islands in a lagoon on the Adriatic Sea, Venice floats on the water. It has no roads to speak of, only canals and bridges, and the mode of transportation is either the water bus or water taxi. Its main thoroughfare, the Grand Canal, is lined with magnificent Renaissance and Gothic palaces. The lagoon and a part of the city are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
According to historians, Venice was ‘born’ on the 25th of March 421, the feast of the Annunciation, when people fleeing from the barbarian invasions built the first settlements. It was merely an unhealthy swamp at the time, whose inhabitants scraped a living by fishing and salt production.
In 697 the Byzantines realized Venice’s potential and built the duchy of Venice. By the year 1000 it established itself as a major maritime power alongside Amalfi, Genoa, and Pisa. These principalities maintained political autonomy, their money was accepted throughout the Mediterranean basin, and they participated in the Crusades with their own fleet.
All this led to Venice’s ascension as an empire which, at the height of its glory, extended from Bergamo in the north to the entire Dalmatian Coast and to the Greek Coast. From the 13th century up to the end of the 17th century it was also an important center of commerce and art. The wealth that Venetians accumulated during their years of prosperity is displayed by the enormous and stunning palaces that they built.
It was in the 18th century that the decline of Venice began. When Napoleon and his army invaded the city on the 12th of May 1797, no one resisted. In fact, many thought he was bringing new ideas of democracy. Venice then alternated being a French and Austrian territory.
Today, Venice is a small city with about 60,000 inhabitants that attracts millions of tourists to make it fill past capacity. That it is singularly different makes it one of the most popular destinations in the world, which has been both a blessing and a curse. Its infrastructure endures much wear and tear from the trampling of feet; its tidal levels are lowering and the city is sinking; many houses are uninhabited during most part of the year, so they don’t get constant maintenance.
The thought that this city may one day be underwater is one reason most of us want to go there. But whatever motive urges us, we will never be disappointed. Venice offers the most breathtaking vista of historic structures and a rich culture uniquely its own.
A tour of Venice starts from the Marco Polo airport, if arriving by air, which is how my two young companions and I traveled. From there we took a water taxi to Hotel Colombina, which is located one bridge over from the Bridge of Sighs and is a five-minute walk to Piazza San Marco.
We were only staying in Venice for four days so we decided to spend most of that time taking in the sights at Piazza San Marco. This travel guide focuses on the structures one can find within this area, which Napoleon legendarily referred to as “the drawing room of Europe.”
St. Mark’s Square, the piazza’s English name, is the symbol of Venice and is considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world. It is also the only real ‘square’ in the city – all the others are called ‘campi.’
Venice’s political and religious center, St. Mark’s Square is trapezoid in shape and is framed by St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doges Palace, the Clocktower, the Bell Tower (Campanile), the Procuratie, the Library, and the Correr Museum (Museo Correr). Numerous kiosks selling anything from souvenir items, to postcards, to hats and parasols, dot the Square. Along its perimeters are countless trattorias, gelaterias, and name-brand retail stores. It is also where the internationally renowned annual Carnival (Carnevale) takes place.
When I first visited Venice 20 years ago, St. Mark’s Square was also inhabited by a teeming mass of pigeons attracted to the area because tourists fed them. Ten years ago, city officials banned the feeding of these birds so there are now far fewer pigeons mingling with people. The Basilica’s exterior has also since been repainted and looks much more impressive, as befits its lofty image.
St. Mark’s Basilica, located at the eastern end of the Square, has seen several reconstructions over the centuries. In 832, a first basilica was built to house the remains of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. It was burned down in 976 and rebuilt in 978 by Doge Pietro Orseolo I.
Further reconstruction in 1063 by Domenico Contarini, with influences from Byzantine, Gothic, and Romanesque designs, led to today’s St. Mark Basilica. Connected to the Doge’s Palace, it was originally the chapel of the Doge. In 1807 it became the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. Its opulence, marked by gold ground mosaics, made it a status symbol of Venetian wealth and power in the 11th century. A low tower houses St. Mark’s Treasure and has a high altar of gold.
A rigid dress code prohibits people in shorts or outfits exposing legs above the knees, those baring their arms, and women showing cleavage, from coming in. Paper ponchos and skirts are available at the entrance for people to wear before entering the Basilica. Taking photos, whether using a camera or a cell phone, is not allowed at all.
Above the portal of the basilica are perched the four gilded bronze horses of St. Mark, installed on the balcony in 1254. Also known as the ‘Triumphal Quadriga,’ they were part of the loot sacked by the Venetians from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. They were replaced in 1977 by replicas, with the originals kept inside the basilica, to save them from further damage caused by air pollution.
To the right of St. Mark’s Basilica is the Procuratie Vecchie, with a double loggia in the Venetian-Byzantine style. It was built in the 12th century under Doge Sebastiano Ziani during the Republic to house the apartments of the Procurators of San Marco. It has an expanse of almost 500 feet and a portico of 50 arches.
The original Procuratie was partly damaged by fire at the beginning of the 16th century. It was demolished and rebuilt and was completed in 1538. Connected to the Procuratie are the Museo Correr, the Museo del Risorgimento, and Museo Archeologico, the administrative department of the Musei Civici and part of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (Marciana National Library). These buildings were originally utilized by Napoleon for receptions and later were reserved for the use of the kings of Italy.
Museo Correr houses the Imperial Rooms, decorated in the style popularized during the Hapsburg period and some elements from the Napoleonic age. Next to the Imperial Rooms is the dining room for non-official occasions such as ‘work’ meetings of the Government cabinet, and as an antechamber to the Lombardy-Venetia Throne Room. The Throne Room functioned alternately as a waiting room for those seeking an audience with the Emperor or Empress.
The next rooms, none less ornate or embellished, are for the Empress’s private use – the Bathroom, the Study, The Boudoir, and The Bed Chamber. There is an antechamber of the apartments, which was a passageway from the rooms of Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph. It has a balcony which gives a breathtaking view of the Royal Gardens, looking towards the Basin of St. Mark’s, and the island of San Giorgio.
An oval-shaped Neoclassical room is the junction between the palace’s public rooms and the royal apartments. When Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were staying there, it served as the Royals’ casual dining room where they ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Neoclassical Rooms were part of the 2015 Restoration Project to recondition the Antonio Canova Collection at Museo Correr. Italian sculptor Canova, who was famous for his marble sculptures, is regarded as the greatest of Neoclassical artists. Born in Venice on the 13th of October 1822, his works were inspired by the Baroque and the Classical Revival. The Ballroom at Museo Correr houses the most striking of Canova’s sculptures – Orpheus and Eurydice, Daedalus and Icarus, and Paride (or Paris. In Greek mythology, his elopement with Helen, Queen of Sparta, precipitated the Trojan War).
The Doge’s Palace, the residence of the doges, stands where the Grand Canal flows into the lagoon. It was the heart of Venice, the symbol of its might and supremacy. Like the other structures on the Square, it is the product of complex reconstructions – which commenced in the 14th century, coinciding with the reorganization of the entire area. It opened as a museum in 1923, one of the eleven cultural and artistic buildings managed by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.
Imposing in its aspect, the façade of the Doges Palace is a grand example of floral Gothic decorated with white and rose-colored geometric shapes. It has a double row of arcades in the lower levels, typical of the Venetian fondaco palaces. Large lancet windows sit above, capped by a lace-like parapet of Oriental cresting.
A big interior courtyard and a spectacular Giant’s Staircase were our first clues of the lavishness within. Once inside we went up the Golden Staircase, the breathtaking golden stucco-decorated vault which was formerly used only by magistrates and important people. No ceiling or wall in the Doge’s Palace has been spared from artistic depictions of notable historic or biblical event. The extravagance and opulence are overwhelming!
The Armory Rooms have a collection of historical weapons and armaments used by the Palace’s guards. Some of them are 15th and 16th century suits of armor, swords, halberds, quivers, and crossbows. Room IV contains examples of 16th and 17th century firearms and instruments of torture.
Our visit to the Doge’s Palace ended at the prisons. We crossed the infamous Bridge of Sighs, the covered walkway that connects the palace to the walled-in chambers used to lock up criminals. The bridge was named for the sighs the prisoners breathed as they took their last look at freedom through the small windows.
On the north side of St. Mark’s Square is the Clocktower, built at the end of the 15th century as the doorway to the Mercerie, one of the city’s main streets. It also served as a landmark visible from the lagoon to demonstrate the wealth and glory of Venice. Above the arch is a large enameled clockface showing the hours, the moon phases, a sundial, and signs of the zodiac. On top of it is a small balcony with the three Magi; and above are the Moors, the two bronze figures which, to this day, strike the hours by hammering on the bell.
The Campanile, or Bell Tower, is the most recognizable representation of Venice. Standing at 323 feet tall, it is the tallest structure and was used as a lighthouse or a look-out tower. Its five bells marked the important moments in the republic’s history, including the start and the end of the workday, the meetings of the Great Council, and the assemblies of the senate.
Our short tour of Venice gave us a glimpse of the city’s long history and glorious past. It was a lovely reminder that the city isn’t stagnant but is at once timeless and ageless. And although it no longer has the power and sovereignty it once boasted of, its grace and beauty will forever hold us captive.
This resplendent city on the water – with its fascinating bridges and canals, magnificent palaces and structures – continues to charm, to enchant, and to entice people the world over into its warm embrace.