An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice.
There I was. Three days in Venice with little money and terrible weather. But even with the sombre dead skies and cold puddling ground, La Serenissima was beautiful.
Stepping out of Venezia Santa Lucia railway station was a displacement into the fanciful. Can there possibly be a more dramatic entrance into a new city? The Grand Canal right before you. Movements on the water. The puttering vaporettos. San Simeone Piccolo’s striking green dome.
All these visual delights interlinking and separating, swimming in unison, flowing without fanfare.
City of Bridges. City of Canals. City of Too Many Visitors. City of Bucket Lists and Travel Brochures. City of Floating Clichés and Tourist Traps.
I completely understood what that meant and yet my time in Venice also revealed so much more.
Even now, seven years after the visit, I remember riding the water buses and being checked by the ticket inspectors. I can recall the chilly excitement and the hunger in my belly as I made my way to a pricey little hostel bed on the island of Guidecca. I still remember the itinerant romance of the city.
Venice wholeheartedly deserves its indomitable status in the mind’s eye. It was a commercial and cultural powerhouse throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was the little city-state that transformed itself over the centuries, from a marshy saltwater town to the crown jewel of the Adriatic Sea.
According to legend, Venice was founded by Roman refugees, who sought refuge in a swampy lagoon from Germanic and Hunnic invaders. Was Venice really founded as a sanctuary city amidst the crumbling of the Roman Empire? Regardless of the truths in legend, what began as scattered communities of peoples across 118 islands slowly coalesced into a fledgling republic under a Doge, a supreme authority elected for life by the city’s aristocratic families.
Venice’s success was driven by globalisation in a time before globalisation as we know it. Its advantageous location in the region allowed it to ply a lucrative trade with both the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world. Venice served as Europe’s gateway to Asia via the Silk Road and by the late 14th century was the most prosperous city in all of Europe.
Venice, of course, backed its magnificent wealth with military might, expanding its economic influence into an empire across the Italian mainland, the Balkan Peninsula, and beyond. Only by the 15th century, with the rise of powers like Portugal and the Ottoman Turks, did Venice’s status begin to fade.
But let us (briefly) pause on the history lesson. What does mighty Venice offer the visitor of today?
Well, for one thing, Venice’s network of canals is genuinely heaven for photographers. Its imagery — even if you have seen it so many times in pictures — is preeminently surreal in person. The thin floating houses. The balconies above the water. The Ponte dei Sospiri or Bridge of Sighs. The colourful pali da casada mooring poles.
And no visage of the canals is complete without its traditional, flat-bottomed gondolas. Once a common means of transportation in Venice, with thousands of these little crafts swarming the waterscape, these days they operate solely as an elegant (albeit, pricey) experience for tourists. There are currently around 400 licensed gondoliers in Venice and, alas, none of them charged a fixed rate that a broke backpacking student could afford.
The centrepiece of Venice is without a doubt the Piazza San Marco, a vast public space bedecked the exotic facade of St Mark’s Basilica, the immensity of St Mark’s Campanile, the intricacies of the famous Clock Tower, and the rich colonnade of the Doge’s Palace. And yes, even in the mist and the rain, with half the basilica hidden by scaffolding, this was a place worth attending to.
A view of the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco with its two famous granite columns, one mounted with the winged Lion of Venice and the other with San Teodoro (Saint Theodore) in the act of spearing a dragon.
The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark. Basilica di San Marco. The word that comes to mind when gazing at its structure is “fusion”. With its blending of Islamic, Byzantine, and Italian artistic elements, the church represents the melting pot that Venice became through its maritime command.
Nicknamed Chiesa d’Oro or Church of Gold, the basilica is also a temple of material splendour with its opulent, golden mosaics. The original church was built to house the relics of Saint Mark after it was reputedly stolen by two Venetian merchants and smuggled out of Alexandria by boat. As the story goes, the body was concealed by pork products to dissuade Alexandria’s Muslim custom officers from investigating the cargo too closely
The original Triumphal Quadriga, a set of four bronze horses that were once mounted on the roofed open gallery of St Mark’s Basilica, overlooking the piazza. For restoration purposes, replica statues currently stand in its original place. Of ancient Roman origin, the horses were famously stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, before being returned to Venice eighteen years later.
The Porta della Carta, the gothic ceremonial doorway into the Doge’s Palace. Above the main entrance, Doge Francesco Foscari, the 65th Doge of the Venetian Republic, is depicted kneeling before the winged lion of St. Mark.
Lavish and stately, the Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, was once the heart of Venetian government and the official residence of the Doge himself. Every little niche and turret tells a story of architecture, history, and culture.
Pictured above: The palace’s large central courtyard (left) and the Golden Staircase or Scala d’Oro (right).
The Giants’ Staircase, another well-known feature of the Doge’s Palace. It is named after the two statues of the Roman gods Mars and Neptune at the top of the staircase, representing Venice’s might on land as well as at sea.
The Chamber of the Great Council. Without a doubt, it is the grandest room in the entire palace and was also at the time of construction, the largest meeting hall in all of Europe.
Torre dell’Orologio. The Clock Tower of St Mark’s Square. A timekeeper that has been a part of the city for over 500 years, announcing the passing of hours and days for the entire Republic.
From top to bottom of the tower: The bronze bell strikers, the ubiquitous winged Venetian lion, a statue of Madonna and Child on the balcony, and the exquisite blue timepiece itself, with its golden clock hand, zodiac signs, and starry backdrop.
Pictured above: the Rialto Bridge lit-up at night. This beautiful marble bridge dates back to the Renaissance and is the oldest — and most iconic — of four bridges across Venice’s Grand Canal.
The entrance to the Venetian Arsenal. The history of this unassuming place is epic. Back in the 12th century, it was the largest industrial site in all of Europe, capable of mass producing (centuries before the start of industrial mass production) an entire warship in a single day — an astonishing feat for the time period.
The great Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, the oft-called “father of modern science”, was a frequent visitor to the Arsenal and even served as an engineering advisor there.
And now to leave Venice proper for some short vaporetto rides to nearby islands…
Isola di San Michele. An orange bricked necropolis. Almost the entire island is a walled-off cemetery and its grounds are very peaceful to visit (if you are so inclined). Just don’t do what I did and slip on the wet boards propped against the stone steps. Thankfully, there was no one there to judge me but the tombstones.
Murano: a popular island town near Venice that is world famous for its glass products. Although the traditional glassmaking profession is dwindling on the island, Murano’s beautiful, artisanal glass is definitely still worth seeing. Make sure not to accidentally break anything in the shops.
Likewise, Burano: a quaint, rainbow village that is also on its own little island in the lagoon. Admittedly rather damp and largely absent of visitors when I visited. The amusing, apocryphal story behind why the houses are so brightly painted is that it apparently helped fishermen returning from the sea to identify their own house in the fog.
These days, given the iconic status of the island, Burano’s residents need government permission to paint their house a different colour.
Move aside Pisa — the Leaning Bell Tower of Burano is here. I briefly thought I had a problem with my eyes when I first noticed this teetering, unstable-looking campanile! Attached to the Church of San Martino, its extreme tilt is due to land subsidence.
Speaking of unstable situations… It is hard to talk about Venice these days and not mention the challenges the city is facing from issues such as over-tourism, cruise ships sailing dangerously close, pollution, and much more. The city is also at risk of literally sinking into the lagoon as a result of rising sea levels and excessive groundwater extraction degrading the land.
Visitor quotas. Special taxes. Flood barriers. Bans on cruise ships. Sustainable tourism. So many solutions have been suggested or implemented to address Venice’s challenges. I can’t claim any form of expertise on what should be done. All I can do is sadly acknowledge that I might never know this city ever again — or rather, more to the point, this city of experiences that I and so many others have explored might dissolve away for good.
On my last night in Venice, I escaped sideways into the depths of this city. Weaving through the empty water warrens of Cannaregio and Castello, I became one with the darkling walkways and dead-end bridges. I became one with the creaking boats and lapping stone steps.
I found myself in an unremarkable little square. They had not yet taken down the Christmas decorations. The street lamps gave the square a mulled, orange haze and I remember a football being kicked around by children.
Had I finally found the real Venice? Or was this just another trick of the light?