A version of this article appeared in Gafencu magazine
In 1963, aged 15, my dad was taken to Venice on a school holiday. It was the first time he had been abroad. For a boy who had grown up in Ayrshire, Scotland – then a place of cows, coal and Calvinism – it was a kind of spiritual awakening: into a world of art and architecture, sunlight and marble, operetta and open-hearted Southern European sorts.
The Venice of today is substantially the same as that of half a century ago – just as the city my dad experienced would have been entirely recognisable to, say, Giacomo Casanova, its most representative 18th Century citizen. Okay, sure, there are probably more American tour groups nowadays, muting the colour scheme with their pastels; and, of course, the African chaps selling you fake Gucci stuff are relatively new. And there aren’t prostitutes everywhere, like in old Gio’s time (I forgot to ask my dad about the ragazze in ’63). But generally speaking (and as you might expect of a World Heritage site), this most visited of cities has been preserved, the patina of its history deferred to and respected. The prospect that blindsides the pilgrim, arriving vaporetto-borne on the Grand Canal – of the Byzantine Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale, around which cluster several others of the most magnificent Medieval and Renaissance buildings on the planet – is the very same prospect that has been doing so for centuries.
For all that Venice may seem immutable to the outsider, though, immutability is not the story for the 21st Century. See, Venice is in need of saving – for some decades, people who know about these things have been warning that it is done for. The acqua alta (seasonal high tides that account for the huge puddles of seawater often to be found lolling about in St Mark’s Square like fallen Italian footballers hoping for a penalty) has been a feature of Venetian life since time immemorial, but a combination of rising sea levels and the fact that much of the city is slowly sinking into the mud on which it is built, has seen flooding become increasingly frequent and severe. Due to rising waters, the lower floors in some buildings are already uninhabitable; at the crypt of San Zaccaria, where some of the earliest doges (the city’s rulers when it was a republic) are buried, the tombs almost seem to float; belltowers lean; and everywhere the salt water that has got into brickwork is causing it to decay.
A controversial and costly project involving a series of mobile gates that will be able to temporarily isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea during high tides may partly save the day and is nearing completion (or at least they’ve reached that stage of things in Italy where the mayor has had to resign after being arrested on charges of taking bribes from the construction company). But the city’s problems don’t end there. Even if Venice survives, Venetians may not: it now has only 70,000 permanent residents, as families have sold up and moved to more affordable places on the “mainland” where they can still find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. Venice ceased being any kind of commercial or political centre about 200 years ago. Now it welcomes some 20 million tourists every year – it has rightly been called an “urban theme park”; history is at its end-point.
What a history, though. Settled by refugees from Roman cities fleeing Attila the Hun, the early Venetians were traders who fished and made salt and worked out that if they drove enormous wooden piles far enough into the mudflats they could then slap a layer of marble on top of the crossbeams and build dry habitations on a lagoon. And so they built – a city-state that would become a hub for the silk, grain, spice and pigment trades, and a staging post for the Crusades. By the end of the 13th Century it was the most prosperous city in all of Europe and it would remain the region’s dominant maritime power into the 16th Century. Its unique system of democracy instilled civic pride and traders plundered the Mediterranean to burnish the imperial city’s might: trophies from east and west speckle Venice indoors and out, perhaps most famously in and around the Basilica di San Marco (the four bronze horses situated above the church’s main doorway, for example, came from Constantinople, while another party relieved the cathedral in Alexandria of the supposed remains of St Mark himself). Building, printing and the arts – painting, sculpture, opera – flourished, and even after the Turks weakened Venice in the late 15th Century, setting it on a path of slow decline, it remained a major cultural capital. In the 18th Century it became a required stop-off on any young European aristocrat’s Grand Tour. And, indeed, his bordello.
FOR A REAL taste of all that historical stuff – and if you’ve bought the idea that Venice might soon disappear and just can’t bear the thought of missing out – you might as well check yourself in at a palazzo. The Hotel Danieli, centred around the 14th Century Palazzo Dandolo on the Grand Canal, should serve the purpose. Rooms start at €750 (HK$7,568 – pollo alimentazione!) a night, but if you feel that’s just not flexing your finances enough, you can stay in the Doge Dandalo Royal Suite, for €12,000 a night.
Built by the Dandalo family, who in fact produced several doges, the original palazzo – around which are annexed a 19th Century palace and a marble-fronted addition put up after World War II – is truly, ornately, stunningly, brazenly beautiful. Its pink facade, marble sills, white turrets and balconies are as a gift box for what’s inside: stuccoes and frescoes from the 16th and 17th Centuries, antique portraits, furniture and Murano mirrors, wooden mosaic floors and Sansovino ceiling beams. The highlight, though, is the four-storeyed courtyard, with its scala d’oro (golden stairs) and its natural light beaming in through Venetian Gothic-style pointed arches.
In imperial times, emperors, kings, princes and ambassadors all lodged at the Dandalo; after it became a hotel, in the mid-19th Century, its guests included Goethe, Wagner, Dickens, Proust and Balzac. Make no mistake: few places in Venice afford a more authentic glimpse of the city of Vivaldi and Byron, Greta Garbo (she has a suite) and, um, James Bond (watch Casino Royal or Moonraker again). Or of the city of John Ruskin, the English art critic and thinker who panegyrized the Gothic in architecture and who stayed here with his wife Effie (and, it’s claimed, encouraged her to have an affair with an Austrian army officer as an excuse to leave her).
The management’s approach seems to involve a combination of conservation (a number of the suites were recently restored by Pierre Yves Rochon and the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice), and light-touch modernisation. The rooftop Restaurant Terrazza Danieli, which offers unparalleled views of the Adriatic, has a contemporary feel and offers a menu inspired by the city’s “historic role as a crossroad between East and West”, which I think means they use a bit of saffron.
A short stroll from the Danieli is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, which with its intricately carved marble facade, lancet arches and Byzantine and Moorish influences represents the very apogee of Venetian architectural self-confidence. You could spend days on end here taking in its decorative brilliance and the paintings and frescoes that fill its rooms – but you probably won’t, because you’ll fall victim to sensory over-stimulation and end up jumping off the Rialto bridge and embarrassing yourself, or you’ll strain your neck admiring the gilt ceilings, or get thrown out for trying to pat one of the dogs in a Tiepolo canvas.
Worth taking is a tour of the Palazzo’s hidden passages, prison cells and torture chambers. You’ll see the cell Casanova (dandy, philosopher, cabalist, lawyer, clergyman, sexual adventurist, diplomat, inveterate gambler) broke out of on his way to fleeing charges of blasphemy, and get a glimpse of a grimmer Venice quite different to the idealised City of Light that seduces Henry James characters and Americans seized by an Oedipal yearning for a mythical civilised Europe.
Not that it’s all that hard to discover, this “other” Venice – a city of dark secrets, and spies, and the ghosts of medieval plagues. It’s the Venice you get in the Gothic horror of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 movie Don’t Look Now (itself based on a Daphne du Maurier novella) and Thomas Mann’s funereal Death in Venice, which is all about disappointed idealism, excess and decay. And it’s there in the bocche di leone, the postboxes adorned with scowling lions – into whose mouths citizens were encouraged to dispatch anonymous denunciations of their neighbours – that can still be found dotted around (although Napoleon had most of them smashed to show that French law held sway); and in the crumbling, overgrown necropolis Boney had established on San Michele to keep the odours of death away from more populous islands; and the slightly fetid smell of the canals; and the eerie fog that seems to settle over them at nightfall.
There’s also the Jewish Ghetto, in the Cannaregio district, from which all other ghettoes derive: there was once a foundry here and the word comes from “gettare”, meaning “to cast in metal”. In the 16th Century, all Jews were ordered to live within the area’s boundaries – hardly the model of religious freedom, then, but in reality few states in Europe at the time tolerated Judaism at all.
Needless to say, elsewhere in the city the saints take centre, left and right stage. If you are so inclined, you might hump around Ruskin’s three-volume The Stones of Venice, with its detailed descriptions of over 80 churches, as a guide; alternatively, you could just walk in any direction, or jump on the vaporetto, and discover things for yourself.
Over on the island of Giudecca, Andrea Palladio’s splendid Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore boasts pictures by Tintoretto and Veronese – not a bad strike rate, although in Venice it must be rare to be more than spitting range from something by one of the “big three” (those two plus Titian), or at the very least a Bellini or a Canaletto. Meanwhile, down in Castello, you’ll come across San Lorenzo, the church where Marco Polo (fun fact: he has a type of sheep named after him in Afghanistan) was buried in 1324, only for his bones to get “lost” when they tore it down and rebuilt it in the 16th Century.
Maybe the dead explorer knew what he was about: “lost” is not a bad way to be in Venice. It’s not like you can wander into a bad neighbourhood, and you’ll always find your way eventually. Just don’t bet on finding the same restaurant twice. I did, incidentally, mean to tell you about What I Ate On My Holidays, but I’ve drifted off-course. All you really need to know is that it’s Italy so everything is brilliant; that you’ll get ripped off at some point, so be thankful when you’re not; and that even though Casanova claimed eating fish inflamed his eyes, the seafood is safe. May the Saints be with you.