31 May, 2006

8. Cornos and courtesans

These bizarre cross-dressing mannequins lampoon a number of iconic items of Venetian apparel.

The fancy jackets, which appeared to be the objects for sale in this retail establishment, are ostentatiously decorative in a very attention-getting way. The sort of 'look-at-me' way that caused a number of Sumptuary Laws to be passed during the history of the Venetian Republic , limiting at various times the amount of all kinds of showiness allowed by the city-state.

The top and bottom ends of these mannequins parody the highest and the lowest ranks of Venetian society. The extravagantly high-heeled platform shoes echo the built-up shoes known as 'chopines' that were worn for a while by fashionable society women, but became associated with Venetian prostitutes who wore them so they could be elevated above ordinary women and thus stand more chance of being noticed by potential customers. They also may have kept the streetwalkers' feet dry and away from the dirt during and after especially high tides. Made of wood, the thick soles of the competitive prostitutes' chopines eventually grew to ridiculous and immobilizing heights – up to thirty inches or 75cm, according to some reports.

The heads of the mannequins are those of Doges of the Venetian Republic. Which ones, I have no idea, but for over a thousand years, the head man in Venice was an elected official – a Duke elected not by popular vote, but by an oligarchy, a large council of nobles from the great families who were the government of the Republic. The checks and balances built into the rules of election prevented hereditary succession and controlled potential abuses of the office, and it was a system that worked better than that of almost any other nation-state in Europe.

The symbol of the Doge since the 14th century was the distinctively-shaped headgear worn by these models: a white linen cap called a 'cuffietto' underneath a single-horned brocade cloth helmet called a 'corno'.

The Venetian Republic came to an end in 1797, after it had been conquered for the first time in its history. As Napoleon's French troops took power, a final meeting of the Great Council accepted their terms and dissolved the Republic, after which Ludovico Manin, the last Doge, removed his corno and then his cuffietto, handing it to his assistant with the words "Take this, I won't be needing it again."

7. Palazzo Dandolo

This sumptuous interior is the reception and visitors' lounge of the Hotel Danieli, one of Venice's most luxurious – and expensive – places to stay. Very close to San Marco and the Doge's Palace and facing the lagoon on the Riva Schiavoni, until the middle of the 19th century this building was known as the Palazzo Dandolo.

The Dandolo family, whose home this was for several centuries, is one of the oldest and most noble families in the history of Venice. Four of the Doges of Venice have borne the name Dandolo, and only a handful of Venetian dynasties, such as the Contarini and Mocenigo families, can boast more.

No Doge was more memorable, and few more enterprising, than the first Dandolo to become Doge of Venice in 1192. Enrico Dandolo was already old, reputedly in his early eighties, and blind, when he was first elected to the top job in the Republic, but he was a man of enormous energy and as cunning as a canal rat.

(About now, the connection with the picture at the top of this story starts to get a bit flimsy, because it was not Enrico himself but some of his later descendants who built and lived in the family palazzo, but bear with me, it's a good story)

Not many men have arrested an entire army and held it to ransom until it agreed to do what he wanted, and then used it to topple the most powerful empire in the world – in fact none other that I'm aware of – but Enrico Dandolo did just that.

In 1204, when the Crusaders couldn't pay in full for the ships Venice had built for them to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt, Doge Dandolo hijacked the entire army of the Fourth Crusade which was charged with the mission to recapture Jerusalem from the Ayyubid Muslims, and used it to attack and sack Constantinople, the wealthy centre of the Byzantine Empire, instead. The Christian Crusaders never made it to Jerusalem, although after raping and savagely pillaging the largest and richest Christian stronghold in the region, many of them went home a lot wealthier than when they started out.

Pope Innocent III, the man who had launched the expedition, was furious with his Holy Crusaders when he found out what they had done: "You vowed to liberate the Holy Land but you rashly turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens but Christians…"

Enrico Dandolo ensured that his beloved Venice would never again be subservient to Byzantium as it had been for centuries, and he emerged from this violent yet almost farcical adventure with his city enriched beyond measure by some of the most priceless booty in Christendom, much of which is still in Venice and still on display to the world's tourists.

More about the stolen treasures another day.

30 May, 2006

6. Washing day

There are six districts on the main island of Venice, known, not surprisingly, as the 'sestieri', or 'sixths'. They are: Canareggio, San Polo, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro, San Marco, and Castello. Each sestiere has its own character, and it seems that each has its own 'washing day'.

This street in Castello (yes, it's a canal, but all the main streets of Venice are canals, and only the canals carry the name Rio, which means 'street'), like most of the streets in that 'sixth' on that day, was festooned with washing like festive bunting from almost every dwelling. On the same day in another sestiere, there was no washing to be seen anywhere. Is it a city rule? Or is it just a convention by community agreement? And what if it's raining on washing day, is there a stand-by washing day that everybody in that locale uses instead?

It's easy to forget sometimes that Venice is not a tourist museum, it is a real city, where people live and work. Admittedly, not so many Venetians live in Venice proper anymore, the pressure of tourists and rising property values have forced most of them to move out to the other lagoon islands, or to the mainland, or to somewhere else entirely, and in the main tourist-centred district of San Marco there are almost no Venetian residents left at all squeezed in amongst the hotels, eateries, and souvenir shops. But there are still pockets of real Venetians in some of the back streets furthest away from San Marco. The ratio is about 14 million visitors every year, to about 60,000 local residents. The first number is rising, the second still dropping.

Hang in there, Venetians. It would be a shame if ALL the dirty laundry created in Venice was taken back in travel bags to some other part of the world to be washed. We'd miss the street decorations.

5. The last open bridge in Venice

There are about 400 bridges in Venice. Or exactly 433. Or more than 450, depending on the source you are reading.

All of them have some kind of safety railing, or sidewalling. Except for this one, in Canareggio, the northernmost sestiere of the city. Most of the bridges used to look like this, an arched series of steps, but although this is not the oldest bridge in Venice, it is the sole survivor of a less safety-conscious age.

The canals in Venice were not excavated out of solid ground, they are bits of the surrounding lagoon filling the gaps between all the little islands that make up the city. The bridges are the glue that ties the whole place together. Every one is different. Every one is interesting.

I can't find a book about the bridges of Venice. Oh, lots of books talk about SOME of the bridges, the Rialto and the Accademia in particular, but there is no book about them all. That's one of my planned projects, one of my dreams. To live in Venice for 12 months, researching, writing, and documenting ALL of them, and then to publish the results.

First I'll have to count them.

29 May, 2006

4. The Cheese Shop

The "House of Parmesan" is a cheese shop, near the San Polo fresh produce markets. Even with only one or two people in front of you waiting to buy cheese, it still takes an age to be served, but there are two reasons for this.

One of those reasons is that it takes two people to serve each customer. All of the shop assistants that actually handle the cheese – describing each piece's virtues and shortcomings, shaving off slivers for the purchaser to taste, then cutting, weighing and wrapping the portion of chosen formaggio (cheese) – are men. Hovering next to, well, behind really, each of these highly skilled 'customer relationship managers' is a woman, similar attired in a professional-looking hygienic white coat. No matter how busy the shop is, or how many people waiting, the female shop assistants never serve customers. They wait until the purchase has been decided upon, and then, on the instructions of the male cheese server, they handle the money, each completing the financial part of the purchase for their partner, and their partner alone. Is one of these tasks a ‘skilled’ job and the other only ‘administrative’? Is it a union labour demarcation, a hygiene regulation, or just a sexist cultural thing peculiar to Venice? I decided that either the men can’t count, or it makes them feel important not to have to actually have to handle money and give change. Given that Venice is (sort of) part of Italy, I think the latter is more likely.

The other reason for how long it takes to be served is that every piece of merchandise chosen is carefully wrapped in 'Casa del Parmigiano' paper, like it was a gift. Would you feel better towards your cheese when you get it home, savour it more when you eat it, and care less about the cost of it, if it was beautifully hand-wrapped rather than precut and vacuum-sealed from a supermarket? I think you would. And so did I.

Next to the cheese shop is 'Al Marca'. It is not immediately obvious what sort of business this is, but whatever it is, it is a very small business. In fact, it is a very small bar, where all the customers stand up for the simple reason that there is nowhere to sit down. The people in front, under the awning, are not waiting to be served, they are drinking a small glass of wine, or grappa, or cinzano, and probably also eating one of the tasty bite-size nibbles from the display cabinet. What food do they serve at Al Marca's? Whatever happens to be on the plates on show. Half an hour from now it will be all different. You take pot luck, but this was a very busy business. On market day, hundreds of people would stop for a few minutes for a quick drink and a snack, and because there is nowhere to sit, move on.

3. The Basilica of San Marco

The Basilica of San Marco . Here is the bling-encrusted west-facing facade catching the last rosy rays of the twilight sun on a cold January afternoon.

You will often see the word 'Moorish' used to describe this wonderful cathedral, but there is no Islamic influence at work here, like there is in some of the grand buildings of Cordoba or Granada in southern Spain. The five-domed Greek Cross design with its rounded arches are the result of Venice being a vassal state of the Byzantine empire when this church was first built. Incredibly, this building was the third church dedicated to St Mark on this spot, and yet it was begun in 1063. To put that date in perspective, it was before the First Crusade, before the English King Harold lost the Battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror's Norman invaders, and 500 years before Michelangelo designed St Peter's in Rome.

This church is therefore twice as old as St Peter's, and was built before the breakaway Latin Catholics attained their dominant power in western Europe. Like the Christian church in Rome itself until 1054, this church owed allegiance to the then vibrant centre of Christianity, the Constantinople-based Greco-Roman Church, better known now as the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is no wonder that visually it echoes the multi-domed St Basil's in Moscow, or Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, far more than it does the familiar perpendicular gothic designs of Chartres or Salisbury, or the single-domed Renaissance cathedrals of St Peter in Rome or St Paul in London.

Surprisingly, it wasn't until 1807 that this Basilica officially became the cathedral of the city of Venice. Until then, this church had always been the private chapel of the Doge of the Venetian Republic, who lived in the adjoining ducal palace. Which gives you some idea of the wealth and power held by the Dukes of Venice.

28 May, 2006

2. The rightist tendencies of gondolas

Ever wondered why gondolas don't go round and round in circles?

In a rowboat, if you pull on the left oar (or push in Venice), the boat turns to the right. Pull on the right oar and it goes to the left. Without a rudder, that's how you steer a rowing boat.

The propulsion force for a gondola is a single oar always on the right side of the boat, yet it goes straight forward. Why?

The answer is simple, and when you know it, obvious. All gondolas are built with a curved keel, so that they always steer to the right. Put a motor on the back of a gondola and it will just go round in clockwise circles. The single oar pushing the boat to the left counteracts the natural tendency of the boat to steer to the right, so it goes straight. Clever.

1. Venice will survive everything

There is a character in John Berendt's book, City of Falling Angels, who bemoans the fact that so many well-meaning visitors - particularly Americans - come to Venice and want to 'save it', because it is sinking, it is doomed, it will be washed into the Adriatic if they don't act now and fix its problems. "Why don't they go and save Paris, instead?" he says.

Venice has always been sinking. It started sinking faster during the 20th century when artesian wells around the lagoon pumped water out for local industries, but that has stopped and the rate of sinking has slowed again.

Several layers of city down into the mud of the lagoon, during the excavation of the foundations of the new Malibran Theatre, diggers recently unearthed the 13th Century remains of the house that once belonged to Marco Polo.

Venice has been where it is, looking a lot like it does today, for many times longer than the United States has even been in existence. It will still be where it is today, long after most of the countries in the world today have ceased to exist.

Does it have physical, climatic, structural, financial, social, organizational problems? Of course.

Can they be fixed? Some of them. Maybe. Eventually.

What can you do in the meantime? You can love her for what she is - one of the oldest, the most interesting, and definitely the most stunningly beautiful city on earth.

Love Venice.