La Serenissima

The title ‘Most Serene’ was first bestowed on the Doge before extending to the entire Republic of Venice.

Venice (Venezia in Italian) is the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region. The city’s current population is approximately 250,000 but only 55,000 residing in the historical UNESCO city. Venice is a group of 118 small islands connected by more than 400 charming pedestrian bridges and separated by picture-perfect canals. It is very easy to get your daily steps in and traversing all those bridge stairs is a bonus workout. Regardless, it is one of the prettiest cities in the world.

The city acquired its name from the ancient Veneti people who inhabited the area around the 10th century BCE. For well over 1000 years, (697-1797) Venice was the capital of the Republic of Venice. The city became a major importer/exporter, an international financial center, and a nearly invulnerable maritime and military powerhouse. During the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance period, Venice was also referred to as “La Dominante” because of her tremendous wealth and prominence and size. The Adriatic countries of Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Greece, Albania and Cyprus were possessions once incorporated beneath the Venetian umbrella. By the late 13th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in all of Europe.

Map of Venice, circa 1620-30

The first of what would eventually total 120 Doges of Venice, was elected in 697 CE. Doge is the title of the senior elected official, who was elected for life by the city-state’s aristocracy. Once elected they would be addressed as “Most Serene Prince” or “His Serenity”.

Palazzo Ducale

In 810 CE the Doge moved the seat of the government from an outer island in the lagoon, inside the defensive walls in the protected Rialto area and it was there the Doge’s Palace was built. Nothing remains of that 9th-century palace as it was destroyed by fire in the 10th century. Reconstruction of a new palace was in 1172–1178. Very little remains of it either, except a few visible ground floor stones and bricks. The Doge’s Palace we see today was built in 1340 in the Venetian gothic style and it has been enlarged, repaired and modified many times over the following centuries.

The residence of the Doge was turned into a museum in 1923.

Palazzo Ducale – canal view

Today, the public entrance to the Doge’s Palace is via the Porta del Frumento, on the waterfront side of the building. However in 1485, a staircase was built in the courtyard accessing the palace. In 1567 it was dubbed the Giants’ Staircase because it is flanked by two colossal statues of Mars and Neptune – who represented Venice’s power by land and by sea. The entrance access is currently roped off.

Touring through the inside of the palace, each room was more glorious than the one before it. The rooms are filled with oversized painted masterpieces of Italian artists. The various palatial chamber halls where the administration of the government took place were the most spectacular.

Chamber of the Great Council filled with Tintoretto’s work.

Prisoners were once kept in prison cells within the palace. In 1614 the Bridge of Sighs was built connecting the Doge’s Palace to new prisons built outside of the palace.

Legend has it that the infamous Bridge of Sighs name refers to the sigh’s of the prisoners. After being tried and pronounced guilty in the magistrate’s palace courtroom, the accused would be escorted through a narrow corridor crossing over the Bridge of Sighs into the prisons beyond where they would serve out their sentence. Prisoners would take a final glimpse out the tiny windows on the bridge, taking in the lagoon and the picturesque island of San Giorgio Maggiore beyond and heavily sigh.

Bridge of Sighs

Piazza San Marco

One of the most recognizable symbols of the city is Campanile di San Marco, the 323 foot (98.6 m) tall bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica. It is the tallest structure in Venice and is affectionately called “the master of the house”. Weakened by lightning strikes, fires and earthquakes over the centuries, on 14 July 1902 the Campanile di San Marco collapsed. That same evening the city council of Venice met in an emergency session and following heated discussions the mayor of Venice finally announced: “As it was and where it was – and so be it”. Votes were taken and reconstruction was approved. Builders were to use the most modern construction methods but the exterior must be identical to the bell tower that collapsed. It was inaugurated on April 25, 1912, notably one thousand years after that of the original tower.

Campanile di San Marco – The Bell Tower

The 15th century Clock Tower or Torre dell’Orologio is a shorter tower on the north side of the Piazza San Marco, placed there so as to be visible from the waters of the lagoon. The magnificent large blue enamel and gold clock face is surrounded by a circle of marble, with engraved roman numerals representing the 24 hours of each day. A single golden hand or pointer, is a rotating sun which points to the current hour. Inside the marble circle are the gold signs of the zodiac and these revolve slightly more slowly than the hand to show the position of the sun in the zodiac. In the middle of the clock face is the earth (once believed to be the center that all planets, moon and stars rotate around). The moon slowly revolves as well to show its phases, against a backdrop of fixed stars.

Torre dell’Orologio

As you exit the Doge’s Palace, on the water front you will see 2 very tall marble and granite columns overlooking the lagoon. Saint Theodore of Byzantine, (San Teodoro in Italian and San Todaro in Venetian) the first Patron Saint of Venice was a 3rd century Roman soldier who was martyred because of his Christian beliefs. According to legend, “Saint Theodore armed himself with the sign of the cross and slew a dragon, symbolizing his power to vanquish evil.” The statue of San Todaro, with an alligator/dragon underfoot, tops one of the columns.

Lion of St Mark (l) and Saint Theodore (r)

Today the Patron Saint of Venice is St. Mark. (replacing St. Theodore) Saint Mark’s / San Marco’s emblem, seen throughout Venice, is the Winged Lion, who tops the second granite column in the large piazza as well as this blog.

The story is that Venice had little to no ancient Roman past and began searching for relics to add prestige and historical legitimacy to the city. In 829 CE, two Venetian merchants, with the aid of a Greek priest and a monk from the church of San Marco in Alexandria, Egypt, ‘acquired’ St. Mark’s relics and brought them back to Venice. Christians apparently refer to the Furta Sacra (holy theft) as a rescue.”

Basilica di San Marco

In addition to the relics of Saint Mark, the Basilica also claims to have relics of Peter, John, Matthew and Luke in addition to a number of others. To honor the significant relics of San Marco, right next door to the Palazzo Ducale, building began on a Basilica in 829 CE. Again that first Basilica was destroyed by fire and the present sublime Byzantine-style Basilica di San Marco with its 5 domes, was completed in 1071.

Basilica di San Marco

After the fall of Constantinople in 1204 during the 4th crusade, countless precious Byzantine objects and building materials were transported to the lagoon. Four striking bronze horses from the Hippodrome of Constantinople, clearly visible above the entrance of Saint Mark’s Basilica, were included in that haul.

The radiant golden mosaics seen over the arched front doors on the exterior are more prolific in the interior of the Basilica. Inside the floors are finished with inlaid marble and glass. The interior of the Basillica is decorated with mostly 12th century mosaics that cover a combined area of 86,000 square feet (8,000 square meters). The colorful mosaic figures decorating the walls and ceiling are set against lustrous gold mosaic backgrounds that softly glow in the dim light. It is rare in our travels that we have found 12th-14th century art in such wonderful condition.

Basilica di San Marco

A separate fee is charged to view the amazing altar screen called Pala d’Oro. This magnificent piece, made of gold cloisonné enamel, is also from the 10th–12th century and we have included photos in our links at the bottom.

Venezia’s Flood Challenges

“Acqua alta” (high water) events in Venice generally happen in November and December and usually affect only the lowest parts of the town, such as St. Mark’s Square. Acqua alta follows the alternating tide cycles and there are generally about 6 hours between high and low tides, which means acqua alta covering the streets usually last only 3-4 hours at the peak of a high tide.

However, like all of nature’s weather phenomena, there are plenty of 5-year, 10-year and 100-year exceptions. Rising sea levels are definitely increasing the frequency of high tides that inundate the lagoon and studies indicate that the city continues to sink albeit at a slow rate of 1-2 mm (1/25th-2/25th of an inch) per year.

Only exceptional (typically every 5th year) high waters affect the whole town. For example, in November 2019, 80% of Venice flooded when waters peaked at 6 feet (1.87 m), the highest since 1966’s 6.4 foot (1.94 m) tide. Up until 2007 high waters of greater than 110 cm occurred approximately 4 times a year, covering 11% of the town. With rising sea levels Venice is experiencing more acqua alta events and they are happening in every season.

When an acqua alta has been forecast, the population is alerted by acoustic signals and with text messages (we registered at the City Tide Centre). At the same time, the elevated platforms called “passerelle” are set along the main streets. Passerelle are wooden walkways about 3.2 feet (1 meter) wide, enough to allow people coming from opposite directions to pass one another and they stand about 18″ (45 cm) off the ground. We discovered that every pontile (ferry jetty) in Venice has a map showing the passerelle routes.

Only when exceptional high waters occur (higher than 120 cm) are the famous “acqua alta boots” really needed.

Wearing acqua alta boots on the passerelle.

Paratias or bulkheads are used to keep high water out of entrances to ground level homes. Solid metal or wooden barriers approximately 2 feet high (half a meter) are slid into frames outside many front doors. Our apartment was one step up from the street so we had no water enter during the flood we experienced. There was a frame on our door but we could not find the paratia to insert into it and fortunately we did not need it. When we opened our door the morning of the flood however, we found our neighbor nonchalantly sweeping water out of his foyer. They are used to it.

The MOSE system is a series of retractable gates set in the 3 entrances of the Venetian lagoon that, when raised, are designed to separate the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. When tides are predicted to rise above 110 cm, the gates will be raised and block the incoming water. It is believed the MOSE flood barrier would have prevented the November 2019 disaster if it had been finished. A year later, in October 2020, MOSE was successfully activated for the first time.

Unfortunately inaccurate weather predictions have resulted in not engaging MOSE and flooding often continues. MOSE is currently set to rise only when a tide of 130cm or more is predicted and low lying areas such as St Mark’s Square will remain at risk. Venice is flooding more frequently – in 2019, the city experienced 25 high tides over 110cm. To fully protect Venice, MOSE barriers should have been raised each of those 25 times.

However, there are other economic factors that must be considered. When the lagoon is sealed off, cargo ships cannot enter or exit, resulting in extremely costly delays. Cruise ships also apply pressure to keep the gates open. Each time the barriers are raised it costs an estimated $350,000 in expenses. And scientists are suggesting that raising the gates too often or for extended periods of time will damage the lagoon’s ecosystem. With no tidal exchange between the Adriatic and the lagoon, the lagoon cannot support itself.

Museo Nazionale di San Marco

Overshadowed by its neighbors, Doge’s Palace and San Marco Basilica, and on the opposite end of Piazza San Marco, this museum was a gem to find.

The building, built between 1437 and 1443, itself a masterpiece, is the former Dominican convent of San Marco.

There are many works of historical and artistic value exhibited, including a large collection of paintings by Fra Angelico, the “painter monk”. We enjoyed seeing the 17th and 18th century painted citiscapes of Venice. San Marco’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of the 1600’s look remarkably unchanged today, more that 400 years later. It is surreal to compare the old paintings to the photos we took in 2021. Although the next photo is in black and white, can you imagine entering the lagoon in the 1600’s and seeing this incredible view?

Museo Nazionale di San Marco – Venice

We were completely taken by surprise to see this bible, from the 1700’s, in one display. You certainly wouldn’t want to mess with whomever had this bible at hand.

A gun hidden inside a Bible

Venetia 1600

The temporary exhibition titled ‘Venetia 1600, Births and Rebirths’, celebrates 1600 years (421-2021) since Serenissima’s foundation in 421 and provided us with an amazing amount of information. We enjoy exploring most museums but we aim to find museums that specifically cover the history of each city we stay in and this exhibition ticked all the boxes.

The Doge’s former personal apartments are being utilized for this temporary exhibition. All types of Italian artists and architects are represented. We viewed paintings by Bellini, Canaletto, Carpaccio, Guardi, Tintoretto, Tiziano, Veneto, Tiepolo to name but a few, as well as a selection of miniatures, prints, drawings, fabrics, sculptures, ceramics, architectural models, mosaics and, of course, Murano glass pieces. Masterpieces depicting Venetian history had been lent by Italian museums and private collections resulting in a truly inspirational exhibition.

Mosiac created in 1516

For centuries Venice was one of the largest and richest European cities and it’s one-of-a-kind republican government structure guaranteed political stability, cementing the title of Serenissima.

At the beginning of the 13th century, Venice had transitioned into a maritime empire. They created nautical maps and one of the oldest, (from 1318), was on display.

Venice was already trading with Alexandria in Egypt in 828 and over time, the trade routes of the Serenissima extended throughout the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic.

The Venetians developed sophisticated monetary, banking and insurance systems, laying the foundations of the modern economy. First minted in 1284, the Venetian duchy was used in large-scale trade and large-scale payments. The Venetian duchy was so successful, it became a sort of “Middle Ages dollar”. Businessmen around the world relied on the stability of its weight and the quantity of its fine gold.

Aldo Manuzio (1449-1515) founded his ‘movable type printing house’ in 1495 and is said to be the first true modern publisher. He introduced italics, invented the De Aetna font (still in use) and the paperback book.

Shortly after the introduction of movable type printing Venetian merchants used their established distribution networks to circulate printed books and by the mid-16th century, Venice had become the undisputed European capital of publishing.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published in 1502, by Aldo Manuzio

As a port city, Venice was particularly exposed to the dangers of the plague. Those showing symptoms of the infection were isolated and cared for on a small island in the lagoon. A second island was later used to receive both the goods arriving in Venice and any potentially infected. They were forced into isolation for about forty days, hence the term quarantine.

In 1576 when the plague broke out in the city, quarantine on people and goods was imposed but the government objected and the quarantine was suspended. That turned out to be disastrous because soon the deaths exceeded a hundred a day and the epidemic claimed more than 46,000 victims or a quarter of the city’s population. The exact same scenario repeated itself in 1630 when the plague epidemic arrived, claiming another 47,000 victims.

The New York Times wrote that Venice is “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man” and we laughed in agreement at the Russian-American poet, Joseph Brodsky, who loved Venice and wrote “After a while the body starts to regard itself as merely the eye’s carrier, as a kind of submarine to its now dilating, now squinting, periscope.”

Salute from these Veneziano,

Edoardo + Guilia (Ted + Julia)

View our Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) photo album here

View our Museum of San Marcos photo album here

View our Saint Mark’s Basilica photo album here

View our Venetia 1600 photo album here

View our San Marcos Square photo album here

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