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By Bill Slatkin

one way to appreciate Venice is to
know a bit about its history.

And it’s not necessary to go back to the Veneti people who occupied a few of the 117 islands clustered in a northern corner of the Adriatic Sea, fishing in its waters, during the time of the European Iron Age. Its location along a vital East-West trade route enabled Venice to profit from its busy seaport and strategic land location, and gain influence in the area, first as part of the Roman Empire then under the control of Byzantine leadership.

The most prosperous city in Europe for much of the middle Ages, Venice also was known as an important center of art, not only the paintings, sculpture, fabrics and other treasures brought from distant places and cultures, but also a home-grown artistic tradition with important painters and architects and a glassmaking industry.

For much of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries Venetian glass was more plentiful and more delicately beautiful than glass made anywhere else in the world. We visited the island of Morano, a half-hour water taxi ride from the Venetian island, where, in the Thirteenth Century, the Venetian government sent the city’s glass working artisans to practice their craft. The idea was to move the risk of a destructive fire off the Venetian island.

Hoping we would buy some of their product – which we did—operators at one of Morano’s many glass making factories ushered us into a smoky hot building to watch these incredible artists bring bright yellow balls of molten glass from the furnaces, then use their iron tools to coax wonderful shapes out of the hot masses.

Another Island, Burano, is known for the work of women there who, centuries ago, began creating delicate needlework, primarily lace of many colors and styles, used in clothing, kitchen and bedroom linen, and elegant wall hangings.

In between the visits to the shops in brightly colored little buildings along the main road of Burano, I enjoyed the best risotto I’ve ever tasted. The Trattoria da Romano is known for its risotto and for a number of other items on the menu which are nearly as renowned as its walls of photos showing artwork and pictures of visiting celebrities from the worlds of art, literature, entertainment and politics.

That’s the only food establishment to be mentioned, incidentally. I fail badly as a restaurant reviewer, as I don’t have the background or palate to comment intelligently on where I’ve been or what I’ve eaten.

Redentore

The Venetians took responsibility for their own defense, fighting off invaders, withstanding the attack of Charlemagne, and building Europe’s most powerful navy, thanks to the practice of arming merchant ships and pressing them into military service when needed. Venice was an independent city-state by the Thirteenth Century and used its wealth to expand its power. Venetians helped to fund the Fourth Crusade in 1204, which hastened the decline of the Byzantine Empire with the sacking of Constantinople. Much of the plunder taken from that once great city is on display in today’s Venice.

The bad news was that Venice’s military power was challenged during a long war with the Ottoman forces in the Fifteenth Century and then Venetians were struck by the plague, which took 50,000 lives—nearly a third of the population--in the Sixteenth Century.

We were fortunate to be in Venice in Mid-July during the annual celebration of Redentore, commemorating the end of the “Black Death.” A highlight of this festival is a visit to Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore (Il Redentore) completed in 1592 on Giudecca Island to give thanks to the Redeemer for saving most of the Venetians from the disease. To visit this small and stately church we crossed the quarter-mile–wide canal to Giudecca on a pontoon bridge, erected for use a single day each year as part of the celebration.

Walking on that bridge, as it swayed and bobbed in the wind, was our little party of four--my wife and me and two friends--along with thousands of Venetians and tourists visiting from various places across the world who had planned to participate in, or merely stumbled into—as we did—this Venetian celebration. From a small (and permanent) bridge a few meters from the steps of Il Redentore we watched the gondola races that are part of the Redentore activities. Perhaps Italians familiar with the competition among two-man crews in brightly colored uniforms that match the yellow, red, green, lilac or other hue of their boats, can figure out who won. For us, observing the gondolas crisscrossing in front of us, and going in every direction of the compass, it seemed more a spectacle than an orderly sporting event. It’s possible some of the fans weren’t sure for whom they cheered. Partying the night before included dining, dancing and drinking on dozens of boats along the northern shore of the canal, followed by one of the longest, most spectacular fireworks displays I’ve ever witnessed. From there, many of the celebrants motored or rowed over to the Lido, an island appreciated for its beaches, so they could enjoy a night cap or two, and watch the sun rise over the Venetian Lagoon.

Piazza San Marco

It also was toward the end of the Sixteenth Century that the Doge’s Palace, an enormous cluster of buildings on the edge of Piazza San Marco (San Marco Square), was expanded and repaired after one of many fires that damaged what had grown into a combination government center, living quarters, court house, armory, art museum and prison. It was first built in the 1100s to serve as the apartment and offices for a succession of doges, who were elected to serve as chief magistrates for the city. In all, more than 100 doges served in the period from 697 when Paolo Lucio Anafesto was placed into the office, until the end of the Eighteenth Century, when Napoleon’s forces claimed the city for France and dispensed with the doges system of government.

Tourists gather on the Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs, to stare at the passageway that connected the palace to the prison, and to imagine how it must have felt for those convicted of crimes to walk through that passage into lifelong confinement. Glancing through the opening sculpted into the wall of the passageway, the prisoners got their very last glimpse of the outside world and maybe spotted a loved one throwing goodbye kisses from the Sospiri Bridge.

The palace adjoins St. Marks’s basilica a large, five-domed Byzantine style cathedral that was created with its early construction in 1063 and then expanded and decorated with gold and art treasures found locally or brought from distant places. Together the cathedral and the palace occupy much of the eastern edge of the Piazza, a public space probably large enough to accommodate the football fields of half the teams in the NFL. On each of our several visits to the Piazza, whether during daylight or at night, we saw hoards of tourists, travel groups of students, various clubs and organizations, and the hundreds--perhaps thousands--who’d just disembarked from one of the cruise ships that motor up to the deep water dock, turn the passengers loose into the Venetian streets for a few hours of exploration with cameras and credit cards, then raise anchor before moving along to a brief, photo worthy, visit at some other romantic European city.

We visited the square often because it is a hub with several walkways radiating into other districts of the City. Besides, San Marco Square was just one vaporetto (water taxi) stop away from the dock close to where we made our home for the two-week stay in Italy. The one bedroom apartment, by the way, was arranged for us through an Internet home-exchange site that had us trading residences with a Venetian family. It’s fortunate that ours wasn’t a simultaneous exchange--that our hosts were in Venice at the same time we were, not only because we had a chance to sit in one of the lively squares over coffee with them, but also because the dad of that lovely family saved my skin. More about that later.

Austrian Influence

Once in command, by the way, Napoleon turned Venice over to the Austrian Empire to rule, took it back in 1805, then lost it ten years later when the Napoleonic Wars ended with the general’s defeat at Waterloo.

With some exceptions, the solid edifices standing proudly along the Venetian Grand Canal, and in some of the walkways that twist through the City--from one beautiful, busy piazza to the next, exude a subtle grandeur in their graceful lines and shaped stones. It wasn’t until we took a day trip by train to Trieste, further east on the northern coast of the Adriatic toward Croatia, that the Austrian connection with this part of Italy was apparent. The boldly rectangular buildings circling the city’s government square, and the Teatro Verdi, Trieste’s opera house named for the great Italian composer and designed by German architect Matteo Pettsch, were structures defined by the straight unforgiving lines and forceful presence strongly suggesting buildings that a visitor will see along the grand boulevards in Vienna and in Germany’s metropolitan areas. It was that style of architecture, and the presence of the beer halls that reveal some of Trieste’s roots before it was reclaimed by Italy after WWI.

Another day trip--a long day at that--involved a Verdi opera at the Arena di Verona, a two-hour drive west of Venice, to enjoy Verdi’s monumental work, Aida. The calm night was filled with the stirring musical theme framing the show-stopping victory parade of gold-braid festooned officers mounted on white stallions, announced by a company of buglers, and followed by an army of soldiers, then the commoner hoards cheering the Egyptian forces that had successfully repelled the attacking Ethiopian army. The story ends in tragedy, of course--the death of main characters. It all was played out in this setting, surrounded by the steeply descending stone stair-seats, where two millennia in the past, tens of thousands of spectators witnessed real blood shed in the battles of Roman Gladiators, and maybe the one-sided contests between hungry lions and unfortunate Christian slaves.

My reluctance to talk about the restaurants shouldn’t suggest that I didn’t eat well. I don’t remember a bad meal, whether fish, poultry, beef, or the many versions of pasta, not to mention all of the pizzas that I enjoyed in various establishments, formal and casual--medium priced to expensive--in Campo S. Toma, Campo San Giacomo, Campo S. Barnaba, Piazza San Marco and along the calles that make up the maze of street systems on the island. The most memorable meal was in a tiny kosher restaurant on a Friday night in the Jewish Ghetto. We hadn’t planned it, in fact, we’d already had dinner, and were walking through the neighborhood when a bearded man in black stopped me on the street to ask: “Are you Jewish?” (“Funny, you don’t look very Jewish,” says the shicksa I married). With her urging, we accepted his invitation into the crowded place, people sitting at long tables, elbow to elbow, passing the chicken soup, platters of chicken, beef, potatoes and vegetables. And basket after basket of challah bread. We tasted each dish and exchanged greetings with people from Germany, France other parts of Italy--even with other Americans. Meanwhile, the fellow who invited us stood with other dark garbed men, at the end of one of the tables, leading us--with their arms locked in brotherhood--in singing songs with which Jews have ushered in the Sabbath for a hundred generations. I certainly hadn’t traveled all the way to Italy to partake in this food--it’s been familiar to me since the days when I ate at Grandma’s table. But being in this crowded, noisy place with my wife, because a local community had opened the flaps of its tent and welcomed strangers to enjoy its hospitality, and celebrate the week’s day of rest, made it the meal to remember.

As little as I know about food, I can speak even less knowledgeably about art, except to mention that it was thrilling to walk through the rooms at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, marvel at the work on the walls--some of the cubist, abstractionist, expressionist and surrealistic art I could appreciate, other pieces left me scratching my head--and learn about Peggy’s history as patron/lover to some of the most revered artists of the early 20th Century.

Equally fascinating and somewhat mystifying to me are the works on display at the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, representing work of artists from the Byzantine and Gothic Fourteenth Century to the Bellinis’ Carpaccios, Veroneses and other painters and sculptors of the Renaissance up until more recent history--the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.


We brought home printed materials from the museums and historical places we’d visited, a few of the beautiful pieces we discovered that ‘we could not live without’ during visits to Morano and Burano, a CD of Interpreti Veneziani, the string ensemble whose performance we enjoyed in a chapel on a balmy Venetian night, and numerous other relics and souvenirs that were gifts for friends and relatives or items for us to cherish and place proudly in our home.

What’s most important, I think, is the memories of walking along the waterways, crossing them on the picturesque bridges, getting lost in the impossible crisscross of broad and tiny paths that link the many parts of the island and contribute to its unique character. It’s hard to imagine a place with no cars, no traffic, no noisy and smog filled roadways. The sounds you hear are the church bells ringing throughout the city to alert residents and visitors that services are about to begin. Even having been there it’s hard for me to believe Venice exists. But it’s there, in my memory, on the map, in the history of Europe that goes farther back than Year One, AD.

Seeing posters showing an elegantly dressed couple enjoying their after dinner drink in San Marco Square, their legs submerged in lagoon water, causes me concern about the future of this city. Its buildings sit on footings connected to pilings that have supported Venice for hundreds of years. But from what I’ve been able to learn, and contrary to some opinions, it’s not that the city’s under-footing is failing, causing the lagoon to rise, and Venice to sink. There is evidence the sinking began with the practice of drilling artesian wells around the island, which is dropping as removal of water causes the aquifer to contract. Since a law was instituted some years ago, prohibiting further extraction of water in this manner, the sinking has slowed. And there’s hope that Venice will not suffer the fate of Atlantis and disappear altogether. A number of engineers are working with a system of inflatable pontoons which they believe will protect the city from flooding during high tides.

Meanwhile, the engineers, the Venetians, and visitors who love the beautiful, mysterious city understand that changing world climate threatens to overwhelm even the most innovative efforts to hold back the sea. Recent flooding in the city is a reminder that this island and its lyrical way of life may one day be reclaimed by the Adriatic.


Saved by the hero

Among my memories of Venice is my idea of an Italian hero--the man whose family owns the place where we stayed.

After several wifely reminders to keep track of my passport, and after I closed the door of our temporary residence at 5:15 am for the last time, tossing the key through the mail slot and beginning our run to the water taxi for the early morning trip to the airport, I patted my pockets, taking kind of an unconscious inventory, and became suddenly very conscious of what I was missing.

Passport in house. Door locked. No key and in a hurry to get to the first of the two boats that would make sure we were on time for our flight home.

I envisioned the grilling I’d get in the back room of the flight security department at Marco Polo Airport. And the hours, maybe days of waiting until I could get the necessary documents, then a flight back to the States and rejoin my wife who would have been home for a few days by then. I didn’t think about what it would cost. I didn’t want to think about that. Nor did I want to think about the fact that I was down to about six Euros and that the Italian banks weren’t honoring my debit card.

One possible chance to solve this awful drama—a slim chance. If our host could somehow interrupt his sleep and his morning schedule, take the vaporetto to the house, find the passport, vaporetto back to where his car was parked, drive to the airport….

Though traumatic, the end of our trip was completed without incident, and we traveled home together as planned. My wife graciously said nothing about my forgetfulness and I kept touching my pocket to make sure the newly recovered passport was still with me.

The sun was high in the Italian sky when I peered out of the Lufthansa craft’s window to the cluster of islands seeming to float atop the blue-green Asiatic and looking as magical from the air as it did when we were there.

 

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