“It occurs to him that arriving in Venice by land, at the train station, is like entering a palace through a back door. This unlikely city should not be approached otherwise than as he did: by boat, from open water.” – Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Venice has grown on us. Very quickly. I remember being overwhelmed by the heat and crowds when we first arrived by train, and being underwhelmed with Venice (yes, I just wrote that). But once we got settled in our apartment, which is tucked away on a tiny, shoulder-width alley… and we started to understand the complex maze of bridges and alley ways…Venice became charming and exciting. If you can stay away from the touristy areas, it is a gorgeous feast for the eyes and like no other place in the world.
One thing that has been interesting about Italy is that unlike in Paris, the shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. do NOT start speaking to us in English. In most cases, either they simply don’t speak English, or they don’t want to. Which is fine. It’s actually quite nice. Ironically, before we went to France last year, we tried learning key phrases and practicing French as much as we could. However, when we got to Paris and we never needed to speak French! Everyone just spoke to us in English.
Assuming Italy would be the same way, this year, we didn’t bother to learn any Italian, but there have been many times on this trip that we realized we should have learned a little! However, I will say that so far, Italians, even those that can’t speak English, are very patient and we eventually understand one another. And a week later, we have picked up enough Italian to order food and buy something in a shop.
On this last day in Venice, we knew that we had to make the most of it. There were still a few things that had to be checked off our list:
- Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica
- Gondola Ride
- Palazzo Mocenigo Museum
- And MORE churches…as many as possible
So we started the day in our neighborhood. Literally around the corner, down a narrow street, over a bridge and around the corner was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
This building, started in around 1520, was built by a wealthy fraternal organization dedicated to St. Roch, who was the protector Saint against the Plague. About 50,000 Venetians had died by the plague up until this point, so this was a serious matter. Years after the building was completed, in around 1560, the Fraternity looked to hire the best artist to decorate the ceilings of the two main Halls. They chose Tintoretto. On the first floor, right off the square, he painted the ceiling showing the story of Mary’s life. Upstairs, where the Council met, he painted the Old Testament (some of the side rooms showed New Testament depictions, as well).
As much of the art is on the ceiling, they provide mirrors that you can hold in your hands and walk around in order to actually see the Tintoretto works on the ceiling. The upper room had very intricately carved wood panels that were absolutely amazing.
Upstairs on the top floor was a sort of library/depository of relics in glass cabinetry with heavy wooden doors. Everything was in Italian, so I couldn’t read anything, but it seems like one vial held one of the thorns from Jesus’s crown (I am not Catholic, so I don’t understand the whole relic thing…but it’s interesting).
Across the Square is the Church of San Rocco which was built in about 1500, but the facade was substantially altered in the 1750’s. This church is considered one of the “Plague Churches of Venice”–a church dedicated to those lost to the plague…this one specifically dedicated to Saint Roch. Tintoretto painted several pieces for the church, as he had done next door at the Scoula.
After the intensity of all of the Tintoretto paintings…and they are intense, we did a little retail therapy (we bought some leather bags) and then it was off to the vaporetto (water bus) to see more stuff! We had purchased a Museum Pass when we arrived that gave you entry into several museums + the Doge’s Palace. So we really wanted to make use of the pass. We decided to go to the Palazzo Mocenigo, which houses a textile and costume museum. As we got off the water taxi, we were greeted with the beautiful San Stae church….and you know us….we had to go inside! This church was built in 1709 by Domenico Rossi.
The Palazzo Mocenigo, the textile/costume museum, is housed in a 17th century grand Palazzo owned by the Mocenigo Family, one of the wealthiest and most important families in Venice. The displays are all shown within period rooms…and when we were there they had an exhibit about how Venetians revolutionized perfumery during the 18th century. They had a room set up with old, venetian glass perfume bottles with various floral sources used for perfumes… the entire museum and smelled delicious.
After we finished at the museum we found a little restaurant across the street serving a lot of locals, which is always a good sign. They had several lunch specials for €12 that included an entree, sparkling water and a caffe…so we decided to give it a try. I had scaloppina & potatoes and a little wine and Josette and Lena shared a lasagna.
After a filling lunch, we walked around the San Paulo neighborhood…over a few of the 500 bridges that span the canals of Venice and in and out of the nooks and crannies.
We REALLY wanted to take a gondola ride, but in the less touristy neighborhoods, it is harder to find the gondoliers. They usually sit in a chair, under an umbrella, near a bridge and wait for a customer. Unfortunately, when we started looking, it was riposo…which is the break time from about 12:30 to 2:30 when business shuts down. Eventually, around 2:45 we happened upon a gondolier who was ready to take us out. On the surface, gondola rides seem very cheesy and touristy. Back in New York, we would never take a horse and buggy ride through Central Park, but once you stepped down in the gondola…and you find yourself right at the waters edge…in the quiet, back alley canals…it was dream-like. Very smooth, very relaxing….this is what a vacation is all about.
Our next stop for the day was the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica). It is unlike any church that we’ve even been too…and different from anything I’ve ever shown on my blog. This church is not a towering Gothic structure like Notre Dame nor is it Baroque like many of the churches we’ve seen thus far in Italy. St. Marks’s is in a Byzantine style with Islamic influences.
St. Mark is the patron Saint of Venice. His symbol is the Lion and you see the symbol all over Venice and is even on the flag of Venice. In about 828 A.D. St. Mark’s remains were located in Alexandria, Egypt, which was a Muslim territory. Two merchants from Venice “rescued” the body from the Muslims and brought his remains back to Venice in a pork barrel and presented it to the Doge and his wife. It was decided to inter the remains in Venice and build a grand church over the bones to celebrate St. Mark… and thus construction began…the original church in 976AD (which burned down) and the existing one in 1063. The church was based on the Greek Cross plan, as are the great churches in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey)…thus its Byzantine look.
Many of the churches that we have visited have “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs posted, but everyone takes pictures anyway. I’m not condoning this…and it is rather disrespectful, but I very discreetly took a few shots (and obviously did not use a flash). I would NEVER take photos if there were any kind of service taking place, and as a warning, I will say that the guards were much more strict at St. Mark’s and I saw them reprimanded several people.
The church interior is such a dichotomy of moods…on one hand it’s very dark and dismal and a bit eerie yet on the other hand it is gilded with beautiful glowing gold mosaics and which are shining and bright. It really does feel older and more ancient than many of the other cathedrals and churches that we have ever been to, but despite being one of the most important churches in Christendom…it oddly looks very unlike a Christian church (whatever that loaded statement means). I will let you decide.
Interestingly, much of the interior and exterior decoration is an amalgamation of things that were ransacked from other people and places by the Venetians. Tiles, columns, architraves…even the famous bronze horses were stolen by the Venetians in about 1255 and brought back to be mounted on the front of the Church. Years later, Napoleon would steal the horses and take them back to Paris to be mounted on a triumphal arch! So this Basicilica is like bric-a-brac design.
The famous bronze horses have been brought inside for preservation purposes and replicas now stand atop the Church. These horses are thought to be Roman from about 175 BC.
After visiting St. Mark’s, we went next door to the Doge’s Palace. In case you didn’t know (I didn’t ), the Doge was the Supreme ruler of the Republic of Venice, so obviously this palace had to be the showcase of Venice. According to the guidebook we picked up:
If you imagine landing in Venice from the sea, as did those who came inland by ship, the first thing you see rising out of the water is the unmistakable shape of the Doge’s Palace – the city’s most famous building.
The Palace is the most representative symbol of Venice’s culture, which, together with the Basilica of San Marco at the back and the Piazzetta in the forefront, forms of the most famous sceneries in the world.
For centuries the Doge’s Palace had three fundamental roles: as the Doge residence, the seat of government and as the palace of justice. This was where some of the most important decisions for Venice’s, and even Europe’s destiny were taken.
The Palace is very theatrical. Each successive room gets more and more ostentatious…and would have been very effective in showing all of the foreign visitors, ambassadors and dignitaries to Venice just how powerful and wealthy this Republic was.
Towards the end of the tour, you go through the prison portion of the Palace. You see the jail cells, interrogation rooms and you go over the Bridge of Sighs, which physically connects the Doge’s Palace to the Prison building. It was called the Bridge of Sighs because as prisoners would cross the bridge and look out of the window, they would get their last view of beautiful Venice before being locked up (or some other terrible fate).
This was a very full day, and we decided to head back to our apartment. We took the long way home…stopped for a little prosecco and snacks by a canal…picked up some pasta for dinner (at a take out joint!) and packed up for tomorrow’s goodbye. Sadly, we have to leave for Bologna in the morning. We will really miss the charm and beauty of Venice.