Not quite satiated by our brief visit to Vienna my wife and I were wondering whether there would be a repeat visit sometime in the future. That, however, seemed to be highly improbable. Living and working in India it was very difficult to manage a trip abroad, that too, to a European country. We left Vienna a little disgruntled and looked forward to the visit to Venice, where too we were to spend only a day for want of time and, of course, adequate funds.
Venice is generally known to be a very romantic city. At the very mention of it the mind conjures up a vision of a couple deeply in love sitting in a gondola immersed in themselves being serenaded by a gondolier in a regulation blue horizontally striped white frilly shirt on a dark pair of trousers topped by a broad-brimmish white hand-woven sun hat and rowed down the Grand Canal. Gondolas are what probably are inherent to Venice and provide a reason to those in love to be there. On the day we were there they were there by the dozen lending substance to its romantic aura.
Known as Venezia in Italian, it has been given many attributional names. It has variously been described as “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Bridges”, a “Floating City” and so on. One enthusiast went on to describe it as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man”. Whether it is all that or not, it is certainly different and has that stamp of age and beauty besides possessing that unmistakable architectural beauty and elegant artwork. The entire city, no wonder, has been declared a World Heritage Site.
Be that as it may, one, nevertheless, finds a lot of water around. Somebody, therefore, went to name it “city of water”. This, however, is explained by the fact that the city is situated on as many as 110-odd islands separated by canals and these have bridges built over them for connectivity. That suggests it is located in an archipelago in a shallow lagoon with islands having small populations, the most of the population, however, being located in the mainland regions known as Terraferma. Using canals as roads people move around on these – having no other means of transportation. Precisely because of that Venice is the largest car-free city in Europe.
Despite its scattered nature, the City State of Venice was once a force to reckon with in trade and commerce as also because of its maritime prowess. Time took its toll on all these and today it is better known as a touristy place with more than 50000 arriving every day.
San Marco or the St. Mark’s Square is the dominating feature of Venetian tourism. So that is where we proceeded as soon as we could. No gondola ride with a serenading gondolier for us; they are far too expensive and are used by the rich and romancing couples. We took a ferry, or more appropriately a water-bus, instead, and it took the same route, that is, the Grand Canal (Canal Grande in Italian) which is the major water traffic corridor of the city. One end of the canal is at the St. Mark, the other leads to the St. Lucia Station, or more appropriately, Venezia Santa Lucia, which is where we got on to the water-bus. Santa Lucia station is more than a hundred years old for construction of which the Santa Lucia church was demolished. The station, however, appropriated the name of the church
The Grand Canal is about 4 Kms. long and 90 metres wide with a depth of about 15 ft. The buildings lining the banks are virtually palaces and date from 13th Century onwards. The residents spent a great deal of money to display their wealth by way of fashioning architectural styles and executing artwork on their walls – that is what after all was exposed to the general public. Some magnificent architecture of several styles – Venetian-Byzantine, Venetian-Gothic, Renaissance, Venetian-Baroque, etc. – can be seen along the Grand Canal.
We hit San Marco in about half an hour’s time. As we climbed out of the water-bus and went up a few steps, the Piazza San Marco hove into view. It is a massive piazza, also known in English as St. Mark’s Square, and is the principal public square of Venice. There was a crowd of tourists as also of pigeons, but the Square seemed to be big enough to accommodate all.
The St. Mark’s Square is probably the heart of Venice. It is the principal square of the town where all the social and cultural assemblies take place. Here is where all the action is and all the history written in its architectural riches. What dominates the Square is what is known as Campanile, a 100-odd metres tall tower, which is the bell-tower of St. Mark’s Basilica. Located close to it, the tower stands alone made basically of bricks. It has a loggia surrounding the belfry with five bells. The tower is capped by a pyramidal spire on top of which is a weather vane. Reportedly completed in 1514, the tower had to be rebuilt in the 20th Century as it collapsed in 1902.
The Basilica is close by, which is the church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice – the most famous of the churches of the city. The church is dedicated to St. Mark, an evangelist, whose remains were brought from Alexandria in Egypt in the 9th Century. The construction of the basilica commenced in the 11th Century and consecration took place a few years later in early 12th Century. Originally it was the church of the Doge or the city’s magistrate who used to be elected for life by the aristocracy. It has been the city’s cathedral since 1807.
It is an opulent church and was built in Italo-Byzantine style and displayed in its early years the wealth and power of the Republic of Venice. The interior is richly decorated in gold mosaic, and the exterior has Romanesque tall semi-circular arches. While the dazzling interior has largely retained its opulence, the exterior has undergone changes over time. Decorative fixtures were attached to the building – the original walls were covered with marble cladding and carvings and statuettes were added. Richly worked in marble the frontage has a jumble of columns and elsewhere decorative foliage with humans. On top of the main portal are four horses with indeterminate classical provenance that are not, in fact, the originals. The originals, the loot the Republic of Venice from the Crusades, were grabbed by Napoleon during his Venetian occupation and taken to Paris but were returned soon after his defeat and are now in the Museum.
On two sides of the Piazza are what are known as Procurators. The one on the right (as you come on to the Piazza from the Grand Canal) is the one known as Procuratie Vecchie – the old Procuratie which at one time housed offices and lodgings of the officials of St. Mark, who were also high officials of the Republic of Venice. Built in the 16th Century, the ground floor is an arcade that is lined with shops and eateries with offices above. On the opposite side is the Procuratie Nuovo that was built in more or less the same style to accommodate offices and officials late in the 16th Century as their numbers increased and Procuratie Vecchi became cramped. Between 1805 and 1814 Napoleon used to stay here whenever he would visit Venice; he had, after all, declared himself King of Italy.
Half a day is really not enough for the San Marco complex. Nonetheless, we had to tear ourselves away in the afternoon as we had to catch a train for Florence. We were back at St. Lucia well in time and had time enough to explore the area. There was great shopping at small shops from where my wife went bought a lovely Murano glass curio.