Our Vantage Points

So This is Venice!
   A westward view of Rio Del Gaffaro, one of the typical canal streets of Venice.
Other cities have canals.   Amsterdam has 50 miles of canals symmetrically laid out and flushed by the Amstel River; New Orleans has more than 80 miles of open canals, and Birmingham, England boasts more than 100 miles of canals.  But Venice, "City of Canals," has only 30 miles of canals.   So what's the big deal about the canals of Venice?

The truth is that Venice is literally built in water.   It's only about 3, maybe 4, miles across and surrounded by water.  Venice is a labyrinth of 200 canals, forming 100 islands linked by 400 bridges.  This system of canals was built to provide convenient waterway access to virtually every address in Venice, and in so doing, Venice has a more intricate canal system than any other canal city in the world.  The canals of Venice are not the sum and substance of the fame of Venice but they are an integral piece of the old old story of Venice.

When we drove our rented Opel across the 2-mile causeway into this water city, we had to abandon our wheels in a 5-story garage.  We parked on the "roof."  To go anywhere inside Venice you either swim, boat, or walk.  Most people simply walk.   The public transport boats are water buses called vaporetto.   Unlike any other "city of canals" automobiles get nowhere in Venice.   It's the only city that does not provide for automobile transportation from place to place within the city.  All other major cities, even "canal cities," provide for automobiles, buses, trains or streetcars except on a few streets designated only for pedestrians, such as in "old town" sections.

I had prepared a street map to effectively get us to St. Mark's Square and back, but it fell short.   We found a vendor at Campo S. Barnaba and purchased a better map.   You Bible students will know that we were encouraged. (Barnabas means "son of encouragement.")   Some professional Venetian tourists claim that half the fun of Venice is getting lost.  That's just specious.   However, it really is difficult to stay lost if you track the sun's shadows and keep going the direction you need to go, more or less.   We did ask directions of one local who obviously was preoccupied with her own problems.   She mumbled something that sounded like, "Just keep going."

The red line on the following map is a fairly close representation of the path we actually walked.
In Venice even the delivery "trucks" must drive on streets paved with water.  Since most trucks can't do this trick, boats get the business.
Whether you need fresh produce from Po River Valley farmers or overnight packages from Rome, it all comes floating on water.
All my life I have heard about Venice.  I have seen dreamy paintings of cantaloupe slices gliding under arched bridges, and a crescent moon hanging in the sky.  Yet deep in my thoughts I've worried secretly about the deterioration of building foundations, flooded basements and rats swimming to their nests.   Venice for me was a fantasy mixed with vermin.

As it turns out, Venice doesn't have a flooded basement problem, but it surely has a rat problem.   The problem today is nothing like it was during the "black Plague" epidemics of the 17th century.  Those merchant ships, docked at Venice, brought plague infested rats and their fleas along with their riches.   Eighty thousand Venetians died of bubonic plague over a 17-month period beginning in 1630. This was only the worst period in the era of The Plague.   Today Venice has a large population of cats which probably helps level the rat population.

Venice began when Attila the Hun and his Teutonic hordes swept down over Northern Italy.  Some of the Veneti people of Padua and other "terra firma" communities fled to the islands of the ancient lagoon that still surrounds Venice.  They began to make these islands their permanent home.  Legend has it that Venice was formally organized in 452 A.D.

The Venice Lagoon by Satellite
Those large block letters are really difficult to see from the ground.

The Veneti were obviously very resourceful and intelligent people.   They realized that the building practices on terra firma could not apply on their mushy marshy islands.

Venice is built upon countless wooden pilings driven side by side into the mud of this lagoon.   Amsterdam is done the same way.   These pilings do not rot at any significant rate when they remain submerged in water.  Substrates of stone were placed upon the top of the pilings providing a firm building platform.

Although these foundations are durable, a major problem remains:   Everything slowly sinks, apparently a few centimeters per year.  Now my great intuition says,

"Of course!  The tons and tons of pressure downward are driving the pilings deeper into the floor of the lagoon."

But if I just half-way understand what I've been reading...  'taint necessarily so.  Oh yess!   Venice is sinking alright, but some say it's more a matter of "plate tectonics, subsidence of alluvial sediment layers, and of course, global warming." The sea is rising; the lagoon floor is dropping, but the pilings are not necessarily sinking due to the weight on them.   Hmmm....   If you want to really make your head swim on this, go to the link at the end of this article called: Venice -- Sinking Slowly in the North

It remains a practical matter: With respect to sea level, Venice has been, and still is, sinking.  Experts from around the world have been consulted and some very interesting proposals are on the table.   Before long, huge tidal gates between the barrier islands (Lido, etc.) may provide adequate control of the water level at Venice.   But as with the Netherlands and with New Orleans, we have seen that when man fights the sea, it is a constant struggle, not without setbacks and disasters.   Venice has its high water times.   So when you go to Venice, consider taking your waders.   We're not really kidding!  St. Mark's Plaza gets covered with a few inches of water every now and then.
The Grand Canal From the Accademia Bridge
Campo d. Salute in the background
To Street map

On our walk through parts of Venice, we found a vibrant city of mostly tourists.  Everywhere we found shops and street merchants with trinkets to sell.   We saw one Venice, the Venice of tourism.   They say another Venice, for those who call Venice "home," is equally vibrant.   It's there just around the corner from the tourists.

The buildings at the small campo (open space) shown above are obviously getting a face-lift for the tourist trade.  Everywhere we went in Venice we found signs of optimism.   Scaffolds were up for refurbishing work, sky cranes testified of serious major construction.

Is Venice going to be released to the waves of the Adriatic?   Not for a long long time!

Venice, as an autonomous power, endured for well over a millennium.   It remains as a unique place, a wonder, built long ago, in a lagoon far away.   But by coming here, the miles and the centuries shrink a bit, allowing us to feel something of the reality of what happened here to influence the civilization and culture we know.

Venice, when founded, came in as part of the Eastern Roman Empire but was pretty much left on its own.  Then in 697 Venice was organized as a republic with an elected Doge .

Gradually, over the centuries, by establishing prudent treaties and commercial contracts and by taking advantage of developing situations such as the Crusades (1095) and the partitioning of the Byzantine Empire (1204), Venice became the strongest European power in the Mediterranean region.  Being tucked away at the end of the Adriatic Sea was no small benefit.   By the mid 15th century, Venice at its zenith, controlled not only areas in northeastern Italy, e.g. Padova and Verona, but the Dalmatian Coast (eastern shore of the Adriatic), Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, Crete and many positions throughout the Aegean Sea.   To protect these holdings and to ply the seas for commerce, Venice built a mighty navy with more than 3000 ships based in the Arsenal, the ship works, of Venice.

Throughout this power building process, the merchants of Venice prospered and became an influential aristocracy in Venice.   Thus this nominal republic, fashioned after Rome, began to look and operate as a rigid oligarchy. But it generally worked well as there were effective checks and balances that provided for the general welfare of Venice.  The prisoners sent over the "Bridge of Sighs" to the dungeons and torture chambers apparently were, for the most part, real scoundrels.

Marco Polo was born here in 1254.   In 1271, at the age of 17, he set out for China with his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo, brothers in the diamond business.  The elders were making their 2nd trip to China.

Young Marco made such an impression on Kublai Khan that he was invited to travel the length and breadth of China and into northern Burma doing errands for this Mongol Emperor.   This he did for 17 years.

On their return to Venice the Polos traveled the seas via Sumatra and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) escorting a Mongol princess to Persia (Iran) so that she could marry a Mongol ruler in Persia.

An interesting account of the Polos' travels was documented and embellished for all of us through a "historically fortunate" Venetian defeat at sea by Genoese mariners in 1298.   Marco Polo was the honorary commander of one of the captured ships. He and 7000 Venetians were imprisoned at Genoa (Italy).

During the year Marco was held, Rustichello, a romance writer from Pisa, eagerly listened to Marco's tales of far eastern adventure and lavishly wrote them all down in his stylish flair.   This informative work set cartographers, navigators and plain old "greedy rich guys" into a flurry of excitement.   Motivation to progress never fails to be called "greed" by those who don't even try to catch the boat but would rather complain and sulk in envy.

Almost 200 years later, another Genoese, who wasn't rich enough but knew someone who was, acquired a Latin translation of Rustichello's work and set out to persuade Queen Isabella (and maybe King Ferdinand) of Spain to support an investigation of its implications that by going west, one could get to India.  Christopher what's-his-name was granted his desire to head west for the edge of the earth.   The Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria were on their way, largely because of Marco Polo, a great adventurer from Venice.

As we walked through Venice on this beautiful October day in 2005, I had thought we were on track to cross the Grand Canal at Rialto.   Apparently not.   Asking for help one more time, the gentleman pointed us toward "the bridge."   "Rialto?"  I asked.   "No no!   Accademia!"   I had not noticed the Accademia Bridge on a map, but it was a welcome surprise and a more direct route to St. Mark's.

After crossing the bridge, Campo S. Stefano is a short distance north.   At Stefano we found the very strange work of a welding artist.   A huge human head was on its side covered with terrible cracks.  It had some sort of strap around his nose and ears, perhaps a blindfold. The artist probably spent months creating this expression of something very important to him.   I have one desperate guess.   Because this campo and its church is named in honor of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr,   I believe this head depicts Stephen, shattered by stoning.

To Street map

Finally, as we trudged through the western portico of St. Mark's Square we are rewarded by the magnificent sight of Piazza S. Marco!   We have reached our goal, the highlight of Venice!

First we pause to drink it all in: St Mark's Basilica is on the far side of the square, flanked by the clock tower on the left, albeit enshrouded for refurbishing; and the Doge's Palace on the right (in the background).   Standing in front of the Church and palace is the Campanile (the bell tower), the highest point in Venice at 325 feet.

The Campanile we see now was completed in 1912 and is an exact replica of the one built in the 10th century which served also as a military watchtower and a landmark for mariners.   The original tower collapsed suddenly on the morning of July 14, 1902.   The nearby basilica was not damaged and no one was hurt although tourists were in the Piazza.
The Basilica of St. Mark is, without a doubt, the most impressive edifice in Venice.   In many respects it is an exceptional world wonder.   Construction of the building we see here began in 1063 on the spot where church buildings had previously existed.   This and earlier churches were chapels of the Doges and connected physically with inner corridors directly to the Doges' Palace.

It is speculated that this church is patterned after the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.  Its architecture is basically Byzantine, including five great domes laid out in the traditional "Greek Cross" plan.  The five major doorways are embellished with marble column clusters, colorful frescoes and sculpturing.   The roof area is practically cluttered with cupolas, and statuary, much of which was brought here from Christian churches around the Aegean Sea and Constantinople, areas of Islamic conquest.

This ornate church is said to contain the remains of Saint Mark that were smuggled here from Alexandria (Egypt) in 828 and interred in the simple first church on this site.  Thus Saint Mark became the patron saint of Venice.

Venice has many churches.  Indeed the nominal Christian religion was not separable from the ruling institutions throughout Venetian history.

Some of the gondolas in Venice are very luxurious in appearance.   These are flat-bottomed boats designed for Venice canals.   I noticed that most have this cramped love seat with a heart-shaped back and often very plushy cushions.   Almost all gondoliers are dressed in a striped polo shirt, probably in reverence to Marco Polo.   They usually stand up on the stern of the boat, much higher than this fellow who seems to be waiting for some inspiration.  The guy in the ball cap seems to be a little tense.   He would like to get out, but his companion is eager to glide.   It's so romantic!   There's not much privacy when you are down in the water in front of God and all of Venice ... and this guy from Oregon with the camera.  I was kinda waiting to hear the gondolier belt out some love song in Italian to echo across the Grand Canal to draw more gazes, a song like: "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's Amore!"

A 50-minute ride costs about $80.   To add music is another $100 or so.  For getting around, use the vaporetto; better pricing, and you go much farther.   I don't think I saw any gondola really going somewhere.

Returning to our rented car at the parking garage we discovered the battery was dead.  I had left the headlights on.  A friendly passer-by helped us push the car around the parking loop but it still wouldn't start.  I went downstairs and discovered an Avis office.  When I explained that my Avis car had a dead battery, the man carefully explained that Avis Germany and Avis Italy were completely different companies and he couldn't help me.  He suggested I try the shop on the other side of the parking garage.  When I got there, they also said they couldn't help.  So I returned to our dead car on the roof where Mary was waiting.  We pushed it to the down ramp to coast down the 5 stories.  It still would not start.  At the exit from the building I left the car stalled just off to the side of the lane, but in full view of the Avis office.  I pleaded again with the Avis manager.  Now he had some motivation, as the stalled car was sitting there impeding traffic.  The Avis man "miraculously" found a fellow with jumper cables and started our Opel.  Only one more problem: When we tried to exit the parking area I could not get the gate to open with our card, so I had to push the emergency help button.  A parking employee came out, obviously very unhappy with us and opened the gate.  We had been in the parking facility too long after we had checked in to retrieve our vehicle.

This Venice is no longer the autonomous Republic of Venice that monopolized the markets of the east for a millennium.  That Venice disappeared with the conquest of Napoleon in 1797 who declared the end of the Venice Republic.  Venice is now a part of Italy yet rightly boasting a glorious and unique history.  It no longer retreats from the Huns but depends on the hordes that "invade" everyday to pay tribute to the glorious past and the unique setting of Venice.  It's the Venice that must learn to serve the tourist with the dead car battery.

The tourist is now the "doge" of Venice.

Some of the references used to verify historic material

            Marco Polo - Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia
            Venice slowly sinking in the North      http://www.mmdtkw.org/VVenice.html
            The sinking city of Venice    http://itotd.com/articles/495/the-sinking-city-of-venice/
            Campanile di San Marco     
            Venice (From Wikipedia)      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venice#Expansion
            St. Mark's Basilica (& other facts and trivia)      http://www.venetia.it/m_basil_eng.htm
            Venice on Line                        http://www.venetia.it/m_basil_eng.htm
            Venice before San Marco      http://groups.colgate.edu/venice/abstracts.html
            Marco Polo and His Travels   http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml

Note: Critical scholarship can improve the reliability of historical information.  So take heed to comments that infer unverified facts.  However, it is the fool who refuses to seek or consider new information on the grounds that it may include error.  Occasionally, even unverified information is truer than what is obtained by touted scholarship.

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