Venice: A Special Introduction

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Venice: A Special Introduction

Introduction  The city sits on 117 islands, linked by 400 bridges and separated by 150 canals. These islands are clustered some 3 miles off the mainland, with a population of 300,000, which declines steadily. The city is gradually sinking into the sea at a rate of 1/10 inch a year. This has intensified the problem of flooding: the worst recent flood (1966) left bathtub rings around the base of the major buildings, including St. Mark's Basilica. The whole of the Piazza San Marco was under water! The Italian government has set up innumerable "committees" to study the problem, and calls for contributions internationally; but little gets done. Venice is a city of the sea: it is Italy's third largest port: most of the shipping activity is in the mainland suburbs of Mestre and Marghera (where many of Venice's tourists stay, because of declining hotel space). Industrial works sprout on the mainland (see the smokestacks), and their sulfuric fumes, drifting over Venice, are destroying the stone of ancient buildings, eating away the faces of statues, and contributing to the decline of the city.

Historical Sketch  Though the city has always called itself the "Most Serene Republic," its history is one of uninterrupted violence. The very birth of the city was due to barbarian invasions by the Franks on the mainland in the 9th century. The native Italians moved to a series of islands off the coast, following (according to legend) a flock of pigeons carrying little crosses in their beaks. They expected to stay on the islands only temporarily. But they found their new settlement desirable because of the protection of the water, and brought the bones of St. Mark to Venice from Alexandria in Egypt (823). St. Mark became the patron saint of the city, and his emblem (lion) became the city's symbol. Hence the name "San Marco" on the most important places. From the very first, the city was governed as an independent republic; the official head of state was the Doge (from Latin dux, leader). Trade increased the city's prosperity and power; during the Middle Ages, Venice was a leading force in European politics. Palaces, squares, and glittering churches began to be built, including the Basilica of San Marco (begun in 1063). Venice led the infamous Fourth Crusade and re-routed it from the Holy Land to Constantinople, which the Venetians plundered in 1204, bringing the booty back to Venice. The four bronze horses in front of St. Mark's were among the treasures. Marco Polo, a citizen of Venice, traveled to the Far East and was made the governor of a Chinese province by Kubla Khan.

Venice's major rival for trade and power was Genoa; the two cities struggled continually for centuries, each having its share of victories and defeats. Venice reached its height in the 14th century, when the Turks were defeated, and the city's territory included Cyprus, Crete, and the Italian cities of Verona (Romeo & Juliet), Padua, and others. The Adriatic became known as the "Venetian Sea", and the city's war galleys sailed all over the Mediterranean, defying every other fleet. The republic had acquired a vast empire of its own.

Intrigues: With so much wealth concentrated in one place, rivalries and plots mushroomed in the city. So jealous were the people, that no one family was allowed to become too powerful. The Doge was only a figurehead; only once did a Doge attempt to overthrow the Grand Council and assume absolute power, but he failed, was executed, and is remembered with execration. But plotting among lesser nobles continued. Much of it occurred in a large outdoor corridor just off of St. Mark's Square, known as Il Broglio (Intrigue), where they met every day to hatch plots and exchange gossip. (This corridor runs from St. Mark's Square to the Lion Column.) Occasionally these plots were overheard by the secret police employed by the Grand Council. Plotters were arrested, tried, and confined to the dungeon, without appeal. (Bridge of Sighs, etc., used only for prisoners of high rank.) In the Doge's Palace is a famous statue of a lion's head, set in the wall, with its mouth open. This was a "letter box" in which secret messages, accusing so-and-so of plotting, were put. Such anonymous accusations occurred every day, prompting investigation and trials. So afraid were the citizens of being "seen" at the wrong times and places, that they took to wearing a black velvet mask to hide their identity! Members of the Council of Ten, which virtually ruled the city in the name of the Grand Council, wore dark clothing and became known as the Black Councillors. They were the ones who employed the spies and secret police, and were feared by all citizens, guilty and innocent.

Ring ceremony: The Venetians recognized the importance of the sea in a special ceremony, inaugurated by Doge Orseolo in 1173. Venice had helped the Pope against the German Emperor, and the Pope, in gratitude, gave the Doge a ring as a symbol of its "rule of the sea." Every year on Ascension Day, the Doge boarded his gilded galley and sailed out to the lagoon and threw a ring into the water, saying, "We wed thee, sea, in token of our perpetual rule." Voltaire, the scoffing Frenchman, used to say that the marriage was invalid because it lacked the consent of the bride! The ceremony continued until 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city.

Decline: This began in the 15th century, when the Turks captured Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and began to vie with Venice for supremacy on the seas. Also, the discovery of America at this time led to a shift of trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. So less trade came into the city at the very time that the city needed more income to fight its wars with the Turks. The Turks captured Cyprus (1500) and Crete (1669, after a 25-year siege, in which the heroism of the Venetians impressed even the Turks). Venice made a partial comeback in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto, in which the Christian forces defeated the Turks. Finally, Napoleon arrived in 1797, declaring that he would be "an Attiila for Venice." The council was dissolved, along with the constitution, and the "Most Serene Republic" at last fell into foreign hands. After Napoleon's fall, Venice was attached to northern Italy in a Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice. It was permanently incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1871. During WW 1, Venice was not far from the fighting in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy, and there were some German air raids. During WW II, Venice was spared, since it was of little industrial importance: the Germans used the city mainly as a recreation area for officers. The only bombing took place on the mainland nearby: Mestre, etc.

Venetian Painting  The city's period of military decline was also its period of artistic flourishing. The Venetian School of Painting stressed richness of color and theatrical effects. The greatest names are Giovanni and Gentile Bellini (15th century), Titian (15th century), Veronese (16th century), and above all, Tintoretto (16th century), whose style greatly influenced El Greco in Spain. Many of their works are exhibited in the Academy Museum in Venice (vaporetto stop: Accademia). The pride and vanity of the Venetian nobles is evident in the fact that Veronese, among others, painted allegedly religious scenes, but used as his models the nobles of his day, shown in the midst of luxury and ease. The religious setting was but a pretext. The same thing can be seen in St. Mark's Basilica — a church — where every conceivable luxury is found, including many valuables plundered from other cities in the Mediterranean.

Venice Today  In spite of physical decline, much craft artistry flourishes in the city: glasswork, gold work, pottery, metalwork, and Venetian lace. The Venetians have always loved festivals, and these continue — some of them fireworks, others regattas on the Grand Canal. No traffic can enter the city, of course, and this makes the narrow streets perfect for strolling. It's easy to get lost in the city, because there's no way to get an overview of any prominent landmark. The streets are all flat, flanked by high walls, so it's like walking in a maze. (In short, keep a map handy, or else don't wander much beyond St. Mark's Square.) As you walk along the streets of Venice, you'll spot alley cats by the dozens — often fighting over a piece of meat that's fallen from a vendor's cart, or else slinking around the corners of palazzi. The popularity of Venice came largely from the Romantic writers who glamorized the city's aura of mystery and intrigue. Lord Byron, e.g., is the one who gave the "Bridge of Sighs" its name; he wanted to write a poem describing the sensation of being condemned to prison, and so he spent one night in one of the cells. Shelley and Keats were drawn to the city and wrote about it; Goethe and Chateaubriand as well. Cassanova, poet and lover, also popularized the city. In the 19th century, the Lido (an island across the lagoon from Venice) became popular among the European aristocracy for its beaches and swank hotels. The atmosphere of 19th-century Venice and the Lido is best captured in the immortal story by Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.

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