Venice has acquired many labels, but “City of Canals” could be the definitive moniker.
Entering Venice’s Grand Canal for the first time is a breathtaking never forgotten experience. This vital waterway may not be overly long – 2.4 miles/3.8 km – but the banks are lined with close to 200 eye-catching palazzos, churches and “fondaco” houses, (buildings combining the warehouse and the merchant’s residence) built between the 13-18th centuries once glorifying the city’s wealth and power. Many of the palaces are built right on the water with no frontage walkway; the only way to see them is from the Grand Canal by boat.
Venice has literally hundreds of smaller canals that connect the various islands that make up the city. In most cities there are trucks for every type of job required. In Venice instead, it was interesting to see garbage boats, police boats, ambulance boats, hearse boats, every manner of delivery boat carrying all types of merchandise, not to mention the various people moving boat options.
We cannot talk about visiting Venice without at least mentioning her iconic gondolas. The gondola was first mentioned in writing in Venice in 1094. During the 1500’s it is said there were 10,000 gondoliers plying their trade. Today there are approximately 400 gondolas and licensed gondoliers.
Gondoliers were once painted in all sorts of colors but in 1609 a law was passed that stated gondolas had to be painted black. In the 20th century another law prohibited any further modifications to the gondola; so their size, shape and color is permanent.
Gondolas are approximately 36 feet (11 m) long, 5 feet (1.6 m) wide and weigh around 770 pounds (350 kg). It takes 2 months to hand make every new gondola using eight different types of wood: cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut.
We were also quite curious about the ornament on the front of the boat. It is not only an interesting decoration but it serves as a counterweight for the gondolier standing near the stern. The ornament is called a “ferro” and is a kind of blade or comb with 6 teeth pointing forward. The 6 teeth represent the six districts or “sestieri” of Venice and the curved top of the blade was made in the shape of the Doge’s cap. Scroll in to see the details in the photo below.
It was fun to discover that up until the early 20th century, gondolas had a small cabin, called a “felze” used to protect passengers from the weather and add privacy. The windows on the cabin could be opened or closed with louvered shutters. Hence the origin of the term “venetian blinds”.
Generally people and tourists travel along the canal, but there are 4 bridges that do cross over the Grand Canal. They are the Ponte di Rialto, Ponte degli Scalzi, Ponte dell’Accademia and the newest, Ponte della Costituzione, also known as Ponte di Calatrava.
Up until the 19th century only the Rialto Bridge crossed the canal. A long standing wooden bridge collapsed in 1524 and in 1588 the simple striking stone Rialto Bridge was built in its place.
Arsenale di Venezia
The Armory of Venice has a long and incredible history. It was once the largest shipbuilding and ammunition production complexes in Europe and the first example of the modern assembly line, allowing the Venetians to build and maintain the entire naval and merchant fleet in a single structure.
The first buildings were erected between 1150-1200. That is a Coast Guard boat moving beneath the bridge.
Living quarters were added with the dubious names of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in the mid to late 13th century. In the early 14th century a rope manufacturing factory was added. Shortly after additional land was acquired and workshops to manufacture oars, cables, rigging, timber, nails, anchors and chains were built as well as areas to store pitch. By 1400 there were 3,000 employees (called “Arsenalotti”) that were capable of building six galleys a month. Arms Rooms and the Artillery workshop were added in 1460. New foundries to upgrade iron smelting and the production of bronze artillery were added in 1524-26 and 10 years later another extension was added to process and store gunpowder.
Today the City of Venice owns two thirds of the 120 acres that make up the Armory. The Marina Militare – Italian Navy – occupies the remaining one third so visitors have limited access. We were able to circumnavigate the site and found this beautiful 50 foot (15 m) high by 65 feet (20 m) long installation. Titled ‘Building Bridges’ it was created by Italian-American artist Lorenzo Quinn. There are 12 enormous clasped stone hands meant to symbolize the six universal values of man: Wisdom, Hope, Love, Help, Faith and Friendship.
Venice has indeed produced incredible entrepreneurs, artists and worldwide influencers and these are a few of our favorites.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was ordained and worked as a Catholic priest for 15 years, but his true passion and legacy are his musical contributions. He was a virtuoso violinist and one of the most influential Baroque composers. For many years after his death his music was forgotten and thought lost, but in the early 20th century a number of his compositions were rediscovered and are now enjoyed throughout the world.
Vivaldi composed concertos for the violin and other musical instruments, choral works and more than 50 operas. It is his series of violin concertos known as the Four Seasons, that is the most popular and much loved by all, us included.
Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) tops our list of favorite Baroque composers. Albinoni claimed he wrote 81 operas but many were lost during a World War II bombing of Dresden where they had been stored. He also wrote concertos, sonatas, symphonies and solo cantatas. During his lifetime he was famous as an opera composer, but today he is known more for his wonderful concertos.
Marco Polo (1254-1324). We remember first hearing about the adventures of Marco Polo in elementary school but were surprised to discover, or had forgotten, he was born and raised in Venice.
He learned the mercantile trade from his father and his uncle and in 1271, Marco joined them on his first merchant trip to Asia exploring many places along the Silk Road. In Cathay (China) they met Kublai Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire and grandson of Genghis Khan. Marco Polo impressed the Emperor and he was soon asked to serve as Khan’s foreign emissary. For 24 years Marco Polo went on dozens of diplomatic missions inside China, throughout Southeast Asia, Burma, India, Indonesia, Japan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. He traveled to Persia and Constantinople before finally returning home to Venice in 1295.
He brought back to Venice the knowledge of paper money, of making energy by burning coal and it is believed, the introduction of pasta to Italy, from the ancient art of noodle making in China.
When Marco returned to Venice he found it at war and he promptly joined. However he was soon captured and tossed in jail. During his time in jail he dictated the accounts of his travels to a cellmate. The result is the book “The Travels of Marco Polo” (also known as Book of the Marvels of the World and Il Milione, circa 1300).
We are currently watching the Marco Polo series on Netflix.
Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was a writer, adventurer, soldier, spy and diplomat. However, renowned for his amorous adventures, his legacy is that of a playboy, a philanderer, the term created by his example, a “casanova”.
Casanova was born into a family of Venetian theater actors and attained a law degree at the University of Padova. His passion for gambling and women however led to many scandals, a prison sentence and twice being exiled from Venice. His autobiography, describes his famous escape from the Doge’s Palace prison and his many amorous adventures.
More than just a troublemaker, scholars believe that Casanova was a highly intelligent, intellectual man who questioned both the stringent rules of the church and the expectations of Venetian society. He was also gifted with an entrepreneurial spirit that eventually earned him financial freedom.
Jacopo Robusti (1518-1594) had 20 siblings and his father was a Venetian dyer or “tintore” in Italian. The boy quickly earned his nickname “Tintoretto” or “little dyer” and he used it all his life.
Tintoretto is known for his realistic paintings, painted centuries ago, that can still be seen hanging in Venice’s churches, famous buildings as well as the Doge’s Palace. This prolific artist created 235 paintings that are currently known. His large, often monumental, paintings showcase well defined, beautiful people and recognizable Venetian themes.
In addition to Tintoretto, there are dozens of other famous artists from Venice such as Titian, Bellini, Canaletto, Correggio and Veronese to name but a few.
Giovanni Caboto (1450-1500) was an experienced Venetian navigator and explorer who moved to England and became known as John Cabot.
After reading about Marco Polo’s exploits in China, Cabot hoped to find a direct route to Asia by sailing across the Atlantic. Failing to acquire backing from any royal courts in Europe, he moved to England searching for British financial support for his dream voyage.
In 1497 he sailed west from Bristol, financed by King Henry VII. A month later, he had discovered a ‘new found land’, today called Newfoundland in Canada.
It was the earliest European exploration of coastal North America since the Norse visits in the 11th century. Cabot may not have found the spices and silks he was searching for but he did provide England with a claim to North America and knowledge of an enormous new fishery.
This sign was donated by the Province of Newfoundland, Canada to mark the 500th year since Cabot arrived in Canada.
Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni (1707-1793) was a prominent playwright creating some of Italy’s most famous and best-loved plays. He infused comedy, humor and reality into his writings and was inspired by his admiration for his friends and neighbors and about the relationships that humans establish with one another, their cities and their homes. He disliked arrogance, intolerance and the abuse of power and has been called a theatrical genius who set the tone for modern theater.
We visited the House of Carlo Goldoni in Venice, once his home and today a museum, including a wonderful collection of puppets and a library of theater studies.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection (PGC)
Many years ago a book titled ‘Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim’ by Anton Gill launched our interest and passion for modern art.
Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) in 1938 pledged to purchase a piece of art every day and within 8 years she had amassed more art than a normal collector could in 80 years. The collection includes major works of Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and many other styles by Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to see this exclusive collection of modern art.
In 1948 she purchased an 18th Century Venetian Palazzo in Venice and opened her collection to the public. For the next 30 years she lived in her Venetian palazzo with her Lhasa Apso dogs and when a dog died, it would be buried in her private garden. It was her wish to be buried next to her beloved dogs and we did discover her gravestone in a corner of the garden next to 14 of her beloved canine companions.
Food and drink
A couple of our food and drink discoveries are worth mentioning. A few months ago in our final Torino blog we mentioned we tried and enjoyed two much-loved Italian aperitifs, Aperol Spritz and Campari Spritz. Throughout Northern Italy the popular and distinctive bright orange libations, overflowing with ice, can be seen on cafe tables every afternoon. Each is a mildly sweet and bitter refreshing beverage, especially after walking all day.
We were introduced to two additional aperitifs that are consumed in Venice. Select is an Italian aperitif, locally created in 1920, commonly served with prosecco and soda water and called the Original Venetian Spritz. Cynar, another Italian bitter liquor is made with 13 herbs and spices, including artichoke leaves giving it a greenish-orange tinge. We preferred this flavor over Select. On a bitterness scale it is midway between Campari and the sweeter and less bitter, Aperol.
Two new foods we tried were cicchetti and mostarda. Cicchetti are delicious finger foodS served in bars and cafes; very similar to Spanish tapas. One cicchetto was served with a beautiful soft white cheese and topped with something that looked like applesauce. It was mostarda. Traditionally a Christmas condiment, mostarda is candied fruit in a thick syrup to which mustard powder has been added. What an incredible combination – our taste buds were very happy.
Each canal and bridge and gondola in this amazing city is a vision to behold – no wonder it is thought of as a capital of art. Venice is an inspiring place to visit and offers a fascinating way of life.
Salute from these Veneziano,
Edoardo + Guilia (Ted + Julia)