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Venice. The immortal charm of the “Queen of the Sea”. Photo by Anita Sanseverino
They arrive in hordes and pile onto the vaporetti or cross the bridge of Calatrava, the fourth construction over the Canalgrande, to head off into the alleyways. It’s a multilingual ants’ nest that halts at every step to take in the balconies, roof-terraces, canals and boats. A multi-colored army that is overwhelmed by the vortex of emotions sparked off by the magic of Venice.
Almost twenty million people a year visit the “Queen of the Sea”, the heart of the “Serenissima Repubblica” that with its fleet dominated the Mediterranean for a thousand years, and thanks to its merchants, conquered the Orient. And these days, it is from the same countries of China and Japan that many of the tourists who flock down the alleys and fill the campielli or go across to the islands of the lagoon to see the glassworks of Murano, admire the lace-making of Burano, or stop off at Torcello where what is said to be the throne of Attila, who in the Middle Ages forced the inhabitants of Altino, Aquileia, Padova and Adria to take refuge on the islands, can be found, as well as the Byzantine cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Maybe it was not the “Scourge of God” who gave life to this extraordinary city, that Cieco Groto, a poet whose life straddled the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, described as the “...nuova Venere nata ignuda nel mezzo del mare...” (“new Venus born naked in the middle of the sea”) and perhaps its foundation said to have taken place on 25th March 421 A.D. after the arrival in Italy of the Goths of Alarico does not stand up to the test of naming your sources either.
But the tourists don’t mind too much. For them and their cameras the legend is worth more than history texts. Aboard the vaporetti they savour the primordial delight of travelling on water; the gondolas hold an irresistible appeal. They are not cheap to hire, but the pure pleasure of sliding along the waves on board this skewed vessel pushed by a single pole is a must, even if the gondolier, in an attempt to entertain his passengers, often bursts into a rendering of ’O sole mio instead of limiting himself to singing Marietta. Deformities imposed by the global market.
Ponte di Rialto, Saint Mark’s, Palazzo Ducale. Crowds all over, queues everywhere. As from 2009, the City Hall distributes promo-packs for anyone who books a complete sightseeing trip so as to orient the flow of visitors, and offers a special “card” for residents to use the public transport so they don’t abandon the city which today could resemble a Disneyland but tomorrow might come to seem more like an archaeological site. In order to avoid this fate, there have to be events which enhance its beauty and history, like the cultural exhibition of prime importance which is the Biennale d’Arte, a regular occurrence since 1895, and the annual Film Festival which has been attracting famous stars to the city since 1932. Palazzo Grassi offers annual exhibitions of planetary fame, while the “Giorgio Cini”, Foundation, based on the island of San Giorgio, is the epitome of the concept of cultural center. But that’s not all. It’s essential also to motivate the artisans and the shopkeepers, by re-activating the “schools” of arts, crafts and trades, because without the presence of these age-old organisations Venice would be destined to disappear. A number of craft workshops are springing up again nowadays, and this can be seen when you thread your way along the alleyways and campielli which wind over the 18 Venetian islands connected by 350 bridges. If you leave behind the circuit of shops offering bargain-priced blown glass, lace fans, masks which represent the age-old Carnival that only about 15 years ago took on a new life, you can, in fact, find the “squeri” where they repair boats, ateliers that produce damask cloth and the precious printed cottons by Mariano Fortuny. There you have it: a Venice to discover and enjoy. The Venice that takes you back to the merchants of past times who set off on long voyages to the Orient, entrusting their women to the gallants so they would not feel too lonely. The Venice of the “Generali da Mar”, who covered themselves in glory and gold in the almost always victorious battles they fought against the “infidels”. The Venice of the sailors who, on their return from a mission to the Holy Lands decorated the door jambs of their houses with votive ceramics like in Oriental countries, the Venice of Byzantine paintings and Moorish architecture. Venice, the lady of war and peace (legend has it that the winged lion that represents St. Mark’s is portrayed with its feline tail raised and sword unsheathed in war time and with its tail lowered and a paw on the New Testament in times of peace), the Venice of splendour and decadence. The Venice of water and what, having been cut out of trade since the discovery of America, has transformed itself by means of some smart strategic moves into an empire on terra firma.
The palazzi that look onto Canalgrande tell of the fortunes and misfortunes of this polyhedric city. Palazzo Sagredo, built at the end of the fourteenth century, Ca’ Foscari from the fifteenth, (now a university building), with Ca’ d’Oro, Palazzo Contarini-Fasan, Nani-Mocenigo, Pisani-Gritti built around the same time, the sixteenth century Vendramin Calergi, where Richard Wagner died, now home to the City casino; Ca’ Corner, the headquarters of the Prefettura and Palazzo Manin now home to Banca d’Italia del Sansovino; the Baroque Ca’ Pesaro and Palazzo Rezzonico del Longhena.
Countless churches: from St. Mark’s , the monumental symbol of the city rich in precious mosaics, like the 18th century Santa Maria della Visitazione or della Pietà, in which Antonio Vivaldi taught his “putte” the art of music. A monument in bronze, work of artist Gianni Aricò, dedicated to the great Venetian violinist welcomes the enormous liners at the entrance to the port.
The last tourist musts are the Torre dell’Orologio in Piazza San Marco, on which two Moors have tolled the hours with hammer beats since 1497, and Palazzo Ducale, the traditional seat of the Venetian Council since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Agnello Partecipazio was elected the first Doge at the fall of the Republic into the hands of Napoleon, on 17th May 1797. The grand salon in which the fate of the city was decided, in peace and in war, and the secrets of this Palazzo, in which the notorious libertine, Giacomo Casanova, was imprisoned for espionage, deserves a chapter to itself on a sightseeing tour of Venice, perhaps interrupted only by a stopover in one of the many “bàcari” in the city: those little bars which have gone out of fashion, in which, instead of the usual pizza, you can try the “spunciòni” made of fried fish, sardines in “saòr” and, most important, quaff a “little shadow” of wine.
History and stories. Venice is a never-ending story which astonishes and fascinates whoever goes near. Because it is, as the Baroque poet Girolamo Brusoni wrote, “Augustissima reggia del mare nella quale si veggono epilogate tutte le meraviglie dell’universo”. (“August sea palace in which all the marvels of the universe can be seen”).
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