I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't want to go to Venice. Really. Part of my History of Art degree involved spending three months in Venice and I fought tooth and nail to avoid this horrible fate. Quite why I was so against the idea is now lost to me, but if I had the chance to go back I'd smack the 20 year old me pretty hard and tell her not to be such a daft baggage. Luckily, I had no choice. Got off the train at Santa Lucia station, looked across the canal and fell in love. Reluctantly and irrevocably. My telegram home to let my mother know I'd arrived safely was short and to the point. "Damn."
So, what's to love so much?
Well, it's so practical for one thing. For all the glamour of the palaces lining the Grand Canal, at bottom they are just flashy docks. You can trace the history of Renaissance and Baroque architecture in those buildings. All of them were built by great Venetian families with two purposes in mind. Showing off outrageously and allowing easy access to storehouse space.
It hasn't really changed. I think of Venice as a kind of hermit crab. It is built on the sound principle of accretion. Bits get stuck on here and there, but since the city can't expand, the basic structure and layout are the same as they were 900 years ago.
The Rialto Bridge is a comparative newcomer on the scene. Prior to the stone one opened in 1591, there had been a wooden structure. This eventually collapsed under the weight of a major procession, but can be seen in the picture below.
|By Carpaccio (painted around 1490)|
The replacement was the familiar thing still around today.
|By Canaletto (c.1750)|
|Present day, courtesy of the Italian Tourist board|
All of Venice is like this. The street map would be just as familiar to Tintoretto as it is to any baffled tourist.
The hermit crab analogy holds up in another way too. The Venetians were notorious as pickers up of unconsidered trifles to send home to La Serenissima. A bronze horse here, a gold pillar there. There is no particular rhyme or reason to it. If it looked pretty, or was valuable or could show the world that Venetians had been there and done that, home it went.
Unlike, say, the beautifully organised Renaissance perfection of Vicenza down the road, Venice lacks any kind of unifying theme. The result should be a mess, but like the hermit crab, it has a style all its own. San Marco is the perfect representation of this and prompted Mark Twain to say that the basilica looked like a "vast bug taking a meditative walk."
It wasn't just pretty objects either. Venice was well known as a melting pot of ideas and technology as well. Many of them were picked up from the dangerous east and the Serenissima was regarded with permanent suspicion by rest of Europe. Venice has been a haven for many outcasts as long as they were useful outcasts. Practicality has always taken precedence over any need for orthodoxy. Indeed, the Venetians gave their real devotion to the Serenissima - that mythic aglomoration of ideas and place that combined government and city in one.
For the first time visitor, Venice is a hideously confusing city. Although it is very small indeed (you can walk it end to end in an hour), it is also, without question, the easiest place in the world to get lost in. Helpful signs on the walls mean nothing at all. Wide (by Venetian standards) calle* peter out entirely or end in canals. Narrow calle with no apparant exit open abruptly onto small unlabelled campi*.
At this point you can either consult your map and get even more confused or take the Red Queen's advice and walk in the opposite direction to the one you think you should be going in. Doing so results in you finding your destination almost immediately. If you're lucky, you may end up at Paolin, purveyers of the best ice cream I have ever tasted.
I've long wanted to build a campaign around Venice. It is the perfect amalgam of the an urban setting with dangerous areas, Byzantine rules and mysterious people. Writing this has reminded me of it and once Mikelmerck is slightly more concrete, this is where I will turn my attention.
Beautiful Venice. You bizarre product of extreme pragmatism and magpie instinct. I'd go back in a heartbeat.
* - calle. The Venetian term for a street
* - campi. Plural of campo (small square)