Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Venice: The Lion City

Venice is one of those places that looms across an almost universal imagination--like Neverland or Shangri La or the New Jerusalem. It is one of those cities that carries a mystique about it as if enchanted. On the other hand, it is a place so photographed, filmed, painted, and reproduced that it also has a ubuquitous familiarity about it such that one expects no surprises. Its canals and gondolas and piazzas have been the backdrop for so many movies that one almost expects it to be ho-hum.

But it's not.

Going to Venice was the most anticipated part of our Italian adventure for me. As an admirer of John Ruskin, whose Stones of Venice was one of the most important books in 19th-century Britain, I couldn't wait to explore the architecture and ambience of this floating city, precariously perched on the lagoon. (For those who might be interested in a little more 'academic' take on this, you might check out What I'm Reading.) At the same time, I was a bit wary: Venice had become so encrusted with mystery and magic in my mind that I was worried about a disappointing let-down upon seeing the real thing--that Venice in the flesh wouldn't measure up to Venice in my imagination.

This, I've now concluded is an impossibility: no amount of reproduction, replication, or representation of the city could ever hope to capture its magic, its enchantment, its charm.

The day began a little rocky, I must admit. Working from Rick Steves' rather sketchy instructions on how to drive there, we pretty much ended up in Slovenia. (This was a lot more dramatic than I'm making it sound, but I'll leave it to Deanna to perhaps share the gory details. Let's just say I've since learned that, because of the trauma, the kids now begin each trip by praying we won't get lost.) After turning around (several times) before entering Eastern Europe, we finally made it across the causeway to the Tronchetto, a massive car park just on the edge of the island. From there we caught a vaporetto--Venice's version of a bus, except that it is a massive boat that ferries the crowds of people up-and-down the Grand Canal and around the lagoon. We scored great seats on the very front, giving us a delightful view of the city as the vaporetto wound its way through the canal. Our destination was San Marco Plaza. Here are some shots [with commentary] along the way:
[This was our view perched on the prow of the vaporetto.][What distinguishes Venice, and what drew Ruskin to it time and again, was its distinct architecture. This facade--similar ones are found all down the Grand Canal--is a classic example of Venetian Gothic. It was a treat to see the buildings that filled Ruskin's sketchbooks.][One of the many gondolas shuttling through the narrow canals. Unfortunately, they're horribly expensive so we didn't get to enjoy a ride in one of these.][As we approached San Marco Plaza, at the end of the Grand Canal, San Giorgio looms across the lagoon. This is a class "Palladian" facade (notice how it sort of encapsulates two facades in one?). Palladio--who inspired Thomas Jefferson's Monticello--was from Vicenza and we saw a number of his works when we visited that city earlier in the week.]

We disembarked from the vaporetto at San Marco and first stopped for a picnic in a park nearby (the only park in Venice where people are allowed to picnic--thank you, Rick Steves, for the tip). Then we made our way to the plaza, which is the vast open space to which both tourists and pigeons flock in incredible numbers. Towering over it are three landmarks: the pillars on which are perched St. Mark and his Lion, San Marco Basilica, and the Doges' Palace. All three of these are connected: Venice is known as the "Lion City" because, after 828, it was home to the body of St. Mark, the Gospel writer whose symbol has long been a lion. His body--a "relic" (very important to medieval Catholic culture)--was actually stolen from Alexandria by some eager Venetian sailors. However, when they brought the body back to Venice, they did not bring it to the bishop; instead, it was brought to the doge, the Venetian equivalent to the emperor. (Keep in mind that Venice was not just a city: it was the seat of a powerful sea-faring empire, which gradually reached across northern Italy, all the way to Bergamo, outside Milan.) Bringing the relic to the doge was a bit of a slap in the face to the bishop, and by implication, to the Pope in Rome--thus Venice has always been seen as a hotbed of religious independence of a sort, though it was fervently Catholic, just not necessarily "Roman." The doge was charged with protecting the body of St. Mark, and it was understood that St. Mark would protect the city. Thus the doge built what is basically a private chapel for the body of St. Mark--which would eventually become the ornate space of St. Mark's basilica.
[The gang on the piazza, at the foot of the pillars with the Doge's Palace behind.]
[Looking from the lagoon, along the palace, toward San Marco. You might note that the architectural grammar is very different from the northern Gothic one sees in English cathedrals. It carries hints of more eastern influences (Byzantine, which might feel almost Islamic to us westerners); this is because Venice was perched between East and West as it were, as a trading empire with important connections to Constantinople.]
[From near San Marco, looking back out toward the lagoon. On the left pillar you can see the winged lion, and on the right St. Mark. The lion figure appears everywhere, not only in Venice, but across the cities we visited in northern Italy which were under the sway of the Venetian empire. Thus one can see a replication of the piazza, with its pillars and clock tower, in Vicenza, too.]
[The famous Bridge of Sighs, connected to the Doge's Palace.]

After exploring San Marco and the piazza, and looking to get away from the crowds which seemed to all of a sudden overwhelm the square, we began walking north through the (very pricey!) shopping areas of Venice toward the open market in Rialto. This was a fun, leisurely stroll, with charming little canals spilling off to the sides. We then enjoyed a walk along the Grand Canal itself. The sun broke through the clouds and we just sat and relaxed on the side of the canal, watching the gondolas lazily pass by. Absolutely delightful; crazy, but I think the most fun I had in Venice was just sitting here in the sun, absorbing the sights and sounds of the city. (The kids were a little less enthused about such a sedentary approach.)
[A postcard-like shot Deanna took from the Rialto bridge.]
[One of those charming little side canals dotted with laundry hanging from the balconies. Would it be possible to ever take this for granted?]
[Lazing beside the canal for a little while, til the kids' impatience won out. We made up for it with--you guessed it!--more gelatto.]

Later we started to get off the beaten touristy track a bit more, roaming through narrow walkways with a couple of loose targets in mind: a church that housed a Titian that I wanted to see, and the San Rafael church, which featured in a novel that Deanna just finished--Miss Garnet's Angel, by Sally Vickers. This was also great fun, exploring little out-of-the-way corners of the city at a leisurely pace. It should be noted that in fact the city is quite dilapidated. The water seems to eat into stucco and brick, and there is a general feel of crumbling and decay, coupled with graffiti everywhere. And yet, the enchantment of the city seems to win out: the decay gives way to romance.

[This is on the outside of San Rafael, the church featured in Miss Garnet's Angel. It is the angel Raphael, I think, with a boy and his dog.]
[Deanna took this cool shot of one of the many little grottos and shrines that dot Venice's narrow alleys. I think it captures Venice: a crumbling relic, built on faith, still enchanted by mystery and devotion.]

By the end of the day, with not enough money to actually dine in the city, we made the long walk back to the car park and headed home (the feast of San Guiseppe was awaiting us). Dee and the kids begged for a detour to Slovenia for coffee--so they could add another country to their Facebook "Been There" record. I'm afraid I vetoed the idea (being the one with his foot on the gas pedal). Instead, we made our way across the causeway, already planning when we'll return to Venice.

1 comment:

Kari said...

So now you see what I mean about Venice being the most romantic place I've ever been. The memory of the view from the Rialto at dusk still gives me chills. So glad you enjoyed it so much! I can't wait to go back.