Let’s build a city here, they said. One of opulence and majestic size with unwieldy streets and meandering waterways interrupting our carefully planned squares. Let’s build mansions and churches of monumental size, all on a brackish, marshy lagoon.
Okay, that’s not exactly how the world’s most improbable city came to be. Venice was born out of desperation. Huns, and Visigoths fighting the Romans pushed the people out of their homes on the mainland, out of Padua, Aquileia, Treviso. These refugees hid in the marshy isles of what became the Venetian Lagoon and began to build a subsistence life as fishermen. Between the invasions, they would return to their home in the mainland, only to be pushed out again. The final assault on this part of the Roman Empire was by the Lombards, who permanently settled the area. The region today is still called Lombardy.
More and more people fled to the isles. Over time they moved from one of the smaller isles to where Venice is today, settling around Rialto and San Marco. Fishing was not going to sustain a growing population, and cut off from the dying Western Roman Empire, they used their strategic placement near the Adriatic to bond with the Byzantine Empire and to help prevent piracy. This led them to becoming merchants, and then bankers. As the money filtered in, so did the desire to spend it. The original soggy wooden buildings became beautiful stone houses, which evolved into the massive and beautifully designed mansions we still see crumbling today. To accomplish this they dredged the lagoon, shored up the banks, created canals, expanded the existing canals, and voilà! Venice. For hundreds of years the Republic of Venice ruled trade and the Mediterranean. Their form of government was so famous that the American “Founding Fathers” were inspired by their economics, even as the Republic was failing by this point. Dostoevsky says that St. Petersburg is the most “intentional city,” I would argue that Venice rivals that claim.
I think it is one of the most astonishing and intriguing cities I have ever been to. The mansions have a perfect mix of Mediterranean structure with neo-Moorish flare. The churches are magnificent, especially the pompous St. Mark’s Basilica. This cathedral, gleams like a bright jewel. The exterior is built in the fashion of the Byzantine’s ornate, princely style. With beautiful lead domes, a marble façade, an immeasurable amount of gold for the mosaics covering the interior, and reliquaries in the treasury, it must be one of the wealthiest churches in Christendom. All this bombast was stolen from what was then Constantinople and used to adorn their church that housed the body of the beloved St. Mark. The panels in the façade tell in glittering mosaic the amazing story of how two Venetian merchants illegally trading in Jerusalem rescued (a.k.a. stole) the body of St. Mark and gave him to the Doge of Venice. The overzealousness of the church left me cold. The beauty is undeniable and exciting, but if I were a parishioner I would feel like the church is the beloved of God, rather than me.
Quintessential Venice: San Marco Square, the basilica, the shimmering pink Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs (an adorable but tragic passageway giving condemned men their last look at the sea), and the quaint Rialto bridge spanning the Grand Canal with its swarming passenger boats and gondolas. These are musts for a first visit to Venice. As is paying the pretty penny and taking a gondola ride. It is a fun and campy experience to watch the bored gondolier chatting with the boat next to you, while others belt out bits of opera. But the reason I recommend it is that you go down canals where there are no sidewalks, and it gets you out of the Grand Canal area so you can see a quieter side of Venice. Passing by buildings with water lines reveals just how much danger Venice is in, especially due to rising seas. Venice has always flooded and receded, but each time the city sinks a little more.
My favorite aspect of Venice is away from the over-crowded center. When you leave the main tourist areas the city is quiet; you can hear your own thoughts, and not get pushed around by eager shoppers or hawkers. It was my third visit to Venice, when I stayed four nights, that I discovered the “real” Venice; authentic neighborhoods with nary a visitor to be seen. I saw tiny markets selling fresh veggies, butchers, smoke curling from chimneys (it was December), laundry fluttering outside windows over the canals, and no signs pointing to Rialto or San Marco. I ate gnocchi and drank decent wine at a tiny local café. I walked for hours admiring each new twist and turn, often having to backtrack.
I was happy to see that Venice has places of respite from the tourists and crowds, a place where Venetians can live a normal daily life (if using a boat to get around constitutes “normal”). I am saddened that most visitors don’t get this view. They are either there for a day or an overnight stay, and are herded into expensive restaurants by the Grand Canal, and hurried along the path from Rialto to San Marco. Those are wonderful experiences in themselves; after all, a place is popular for a reason. But I have walked down alleys so tiny even I had to duck, others I had to back out of so the person coming my way can pass. I would burst out of these tunnels into squares that each had an exquisite well, no two I saw were the same. I once almost walked into a canal because it was a dead-end. It is a city of dead-ends, ending in gates, blank walls or canals. Each neighborhood has their own church because before Venice was in its current state it was a collection of isles. More than 400 bridges connect the city to itself. There are walled-in gardens and parks which add a little green to an otherwise nature deficit city.
My favorite views of the city are the canals with the gondoliers, especially the ones further from the Grand Canal. These canals are the city’s bones. I read once that the solution to save Venice may be to fill in the canals and have pumps to keep the water out. Aside from the impracticality of such a plan, the spirit of Venice would be buried along with the waterways. The artist Lorenzo Quinn gave a modern voice to the ancient city with his provocative sculpture of giant hands appearing to prop up a 14th century mansion on the Grand Canal. Hopefully innovators will be able to answer this cry before it’s too late.
There really is no place like Venice, it is a city unto itself. Venice’s ephemerality haunts Venetians’ footsteps, yet they, and the city are resilient. It is absurd that it exists at all. I am moved by this city and so grateful to have been able to touch on it, and leave a little of my spirit with it.