"La Dominante", "Serenissima", "Queen of the Adriatic", "City of Water", "City of Masks", "City of Bridges", "The Floating City", the "City of Canals"….or just simply Venice!
15.06.2012 - 22.06.2012
Venice is one of my all time favourite cities, so I just had to throw in a little post about her and share some of my favourite photos taken whilst I was there last year
Venice used to be the richest city in all of Europe. Her wealth came mainly from the city's connection to the oceans, hence the nickname 'Queen of the Adriatic'. Often a city associated with opulence and wealth, this has now shifted to one of decadence and decay.
During the early-modern period Venice existed as a city outside of reality and outside of time. The people were happy, and the ruling class unchallenged. With this image Venice formed her own creation myth. Most European cities have a Roman origin myth, however Venice was portrayed at the time as the first christian city founded by refugees fleeing the huns. It was seen as a new Roman city founded after the fall of the Roman Empire, an independent city. It was meant to be a reflection of Rome; a centre of wealth, glory and a successor to empirical traditions. This Roman influence can be seen in the structure of the Arsenal gate with the use of the roman columns. A 14th century chronicle dated the city's birth as March 25th 1421, a date shared with the feast of the annunciation. This religious tone, along with the portrayal of Venice as a city that had never been invaded, helped shape the Republic of Venice under the image as a virgin city.
Venice now exists as a walking museum. The buildings have hardly changed in hundreds of years. Families tend to be tight-knit in Venice, with many spending their whole lives living there. They see the city as part of their identity and part of their family's history, and some never move out of the home they grew up in. The buildings in Venice are typically in venetian gothic with an emphasis on colouring and surface decoration. A popular feature is the arch, the design reflecting byzantine and arabic influence. The family palaces differ strongly to those of Florence. Whilst in Florence families sought to display their wealth and status through the grandeur and size of their palace design, venetian palaces were designed to blend in. Due to the strong government of Venice, no family wanted their palace to stand out as it may be perceived as an attempt to rise up. Even with this 'code' the grandest and most prized palaces were located on the grand canal, where they could be most easily viewed and admired.
However, take a gondola ride down the back streets of Venice and the sights change. The buildings are beautiful but their age shows. The water has taken its toll on the buildings and time has worn part of the structures. Still, the canals create a relaxing mood, almost of magical time travel as the canals have not changed much in hundreds of years, and Venetians take great pride in their buildings as they strive to preserve the city's beauty and glory. Any gondolier will be more than happy to tell you the stories and point out the sights along the canals. They are very proud of their city and their heritage, with the gondolier skills often passing from father to son.
The religious, political, and humanist centre of the city was St Marks Square. It is impossible to give a full intinerary of Venice properly in one blog post, so here are a few of my favourite sights Venice offers. The first of which is the Doge's Palace. The city was run by the Doge (Duke), who was a senior-most elected official and elected for life. The Doge's Palace and the old library sit directly opposite each other, creating an interesting contrast. The Doge's Palace, a representation of justice, power, and the law, was styled in traditional gothic architecture depicting continuity through time (or old Venetian values). The library, a symbol of the new humanist learning, reflected the new classical image. This combination shaped the image of Venice as a balanced city, peaceful, and serene. The last doge was elected at the close of the 18th Century and ruled until 1797 when Napoleon forced him to abdicate. The Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, is now the site of a great museum, displaying works of art by Veronese, Tintoretto, Sansovino, and Bassano, many of which depict a history of Venetian origins and glory. Unfortunately during my visits I haven't had the chance to see this museum, however the part I would most love to view is the Council of Ten room. The Council of Ten had emergency powers over Venice and dealt with the city's security and aimed to ensure the government was not overthrown or became corrupt. Their main meeting room contains a gold leafed ceiling, with panelled artwork by Veronese. It is meant to be an amazing room to behold. One for the checklist I think for next time!
In truth the government had a corrupt ruling system, there was a strict hierarchy, prostitutes were not a rare sight, and only the rich received a good education. However what is interesting is the image that the city celebrated and portrayed to outsiders. All the corruption and reality was hidden behind a colourful projection of justice, religion, and equality. This was a façade, a fake face, that the city portrayed. Possibly the myth they created about themselves served not only to influence the perceptions of outsiders, but also of the Venetians themselves. It was a story they told about themselves to help shape their own history and identity. This religious and virgin city was highly viewed, especially by the english who looked for stable influences after the decease of the monarch. One frequent sight in Venice is a mini-shrine featuring the Virgin Mary. These are often found on street corners, or in piazzas, as they often helped form mini religious centres which were the site for communal worship and prayer. The existence and viewing of such shrines was meant to influence the behaviour of the people to be more virtuous and provide the city with a more religious tone. Still today many of these shrines survive and are preserved, and it is something to look out for when wandering round the city.
Other sights in venice that are not to be missed are of course St Marks Basilica, the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto Bridge, the hundreds of stalls and shops selling Venetian glass (Murano glass) and colourful masks, and finally St Mark's Campanile. Venice is truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world today. Personally it is one I could visit over and over. It is so rich and vibrant and colourful. One city that has stolen my heart.
Muir, E., 'The Sources of Civil Society in Italy', in Rotberg, R. I., (ed.) Patterns of Social Capital: Stability and Change in Historical Perspective, Robert I Rotberg, (Cambridge University Press, 2001) pp 41-69.