Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Travel: Venice ~ Salute to La Serenissima

Tourist barges and boats stream down the Grand Canal every day

Serenity imbues Venice at dusk. A haze of flame bathes the lagoon, dappling the rippled waters with golden specks. Shadows prance. Glow streaks dance. Sunspots dance off the incandescent waters. Silhouettes wax and wane over the permeating shimmer.

Clouds streak patterns onto the pristine sky. Strokes of light paint the sunset canvas. Airborne waves, lightning-bright, waft through a momentary rainbow. Sun-flaked shades irradiate the tranquil plane, cooled by breezes wafting off the waters. An orange-glazed tranquillity drifts over Venetians and their settlement. At that magic moment, serenity is all.

Even the palaces and buildings, some of 12th century vintage, that line the burnt red waters seem to live a double life at this hour of metamorphosis. Gurgling waters gather earthsounds into their ripples. The cries of seagulls ride the crested waves. Transformed by the flickering lights, the crenellation-studded roofs, the lace-fine stone traceries, the dialogue of voids and solids appear as mirages on the canal, awash in rays that reflect and refract tenderly between sea and sky.

Closer to earth, life skims the sweeping double curve of the Grand Canal and the 180 smaller water passages through the 118 original Venetian islands ~ blue ambulance boats weave past red fireboats and police speedboats, their priority assured; grey garbage scows flow with the tide, burdened by their load; bright soft drink and ice-cream barges vend their wares; black-tasselled funeral gondolas anchored by the hospital bays await a final call; tall-masted fishing boats sail out in search of a haul, as customs cutters and tugs toot their notes of existence.

Aboard a diesel-powered water bus (or passenger boat), we feel our senses stilled. We catch our breath as the lights go on in the palaces, churches and public buildings along the canalside. The cupola of Santa Maria de Salute (built to mark the end of the plague in 1630) stands edged against the moody sky; the pastel-hued marble mosaic of ikat-like motifs outside the Doge’s or ducal palace exudes an oriental flavour; the basilica of San Marco dazzles with its jewel-rich finish. Even the bustle of the teeming Piazza San Marco, the heart of the city, is hushed at dusk.

La Serenissima, the most serene city. That’s how Venice (Venezia to Italians) was fondly referred to over the ages. And it rejoices daily in its serenity.

For at the very hub of the lagoon city, we are astonished to find that there are no cars, no trains, no buses, no horse-drawn carriages, no auto-rickshaws, not even bicycles. As pedestrians, we are the lords of all we survey.

Sunset over the buoys in the lagoon
We are told this was even truer until Venice lost its island character in 1846, when a railway causeway first connected it to the Italian mainland. And the first cars to intrude over a parallel track drove in only in 1932. Even today, all wheeled vehicles are garaged at the landward end of the island.

What sets Venice apart from canal-linked Amsterdam or Bangkok? In this Italian pedestrian’s paradise, we don’t need to dodge speeding vehicles at every step. Nor do we choke on exhaust fumes from wheels whizzing by. And the little ones are free to hop, skip and jump their way to daily delights. Even among the crush of tourists from every clime in the three summer months, we sense a carefree swing to every stride past hawkers who cry their goods between the ridged bridges ~ carnival masks, baubles of glass, fans of ethereal lace. Because individualism is the buzzword in this northern Italian port, from where Marco Polo once set out to explore the world.

It is evident in the swish of style through the cobbled streets and aboard the boats on this watercourse. We watch a pencil-trim teen in a lime-green mini skirt draped sarong style, topped by a halter, sashaying over the Rialto bridge made legendary by Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ (1596), offering a glimpse of pearl-blue toenails, while an American diamond flashes from her navel.

Languid Venice is obviously a lover’s haven, proclaimed from every nook and corner. Couples nuzzle at the water’s edge as their feet trail the lapping waves. As ebony giant waltzes over a bridge at midnight, partnering a fragile living ivory doll. Stargazing, starry-eyed youngsters fervently entwined jet over the waters in a speedcraft. Hidden by gargoyles in a cranny, courtship rites wax warm even at dawn in winter.

At night, Venice wakes to a secret life. That’s when the bridges are crammed with animated folks, a motley assortment from around Planet Earth, often arm-in-arm, trilling raucous songs in unison. Children and adults alike play tag with abandon on the teeming star-canopied squares as the sophisticated sip their aperitifs at cafes. Avid anglers fish for a catch by lunar light, blessed by the jocular advice of every stranger strolling past.

For by the Venetian yardstick, statements of freedom must be unconventional. Almost dramatic. We watch the gondoliers clad in traditional striped jumpers, work over black trousers, who often sport a jaunty beret, as if cocking a snook at life drifting past. Their gondolas, gliding across the dancing waters, have been painted black since 1562 to legally curb public ostentation, following traditional displays of wealth through watercraft. Still built lopsided at traditional boatyards, these typically Venetian craft today have dwindled from 10,000 to under 400. Why does one side of the gondola curve further outwards than the other, we wonder. To balance the weight of the oarsman at the stern, they say.  

Looking out at the canal from the Doge's palace
For the dollar-rich American or Japanese tourist, cushioned on velvet seats by flickering lanterns, the gondoliers serenade their big bucks on the accordion or the guitar, as their oars dip in rhythm with the minutes floating by. For the genuine Venetian or the everyday passer-by, the gondoliers who loll at the transfer points along the sinuous Grand Canal  -- once described as ‘the finest street in the world’ by the 15th century chronicler Philippe de Commynes – row us across from bank to back for about INR 50, a service known as traghetto.

To outsiders like us, daily life in Venice appears strange. Even comic. No wonder American humourist Robert Benchley once cabled home to New York: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’ As we walk through one of the 3,000-odd solid streets or passageways with intricate paving that dot the ten principal islands aside from the mother city, whose historic centre is built upon an archipelago of islets and mudbanks 3.2 km by 1.6 km, we realize an unusual fact. That the house numbers in Venice ~ which is divided into six sestieri or wards ~ run by the district, going up streets, through alleys and over the canals. Thus, hunting for a friend’s house in Venice causes us much merriment because house numbers can run into six digits!

Sauntering through Venice, we sense a threat to its very existence, though laws bar the alteration of Venetian properties to preserve its historic character. ‘Venice today is sinking three times as fast as before, at 300 mm per century,’ explains a conservationist. How come? Because of the sheer weight of the city on the alluvial silt overlying the solid strata under the lagoon floor.

Is it linked to the aqua alta or high water that Venetians are ever alert about, we ask. That’s when the squares ~ each built around a church ~ turn into lakes and the roads are gushing rivers. Undaunted, Venetians don their raincoats and galoshes, unfurl an umbrella, and step high onto the platforms that are assembled as temporary stepways through the water, shopping and eating out as naturally as fish in a stream, abetted by the official alarms that warn of high water at least 12 hours ahead. Having missed a personal encounter with the aqua alta, we find a photograph of the phenomenon at the Plaza San Marco in an Indian daily in Bangalore.

Of the aqua alta, some say these could be spring tides atop the lagoon. Or is it an underground movement of Italian peninsula, tilting the southwest upwards and the northeastern coast downwards, as a popular theory claims? Or even the dredging of the canals to allow mammoth ocean liners passage? Theories apart, our friends point to the facts ~ between 1957 and 1967, at least 30 floods about a metre above normal occurred. We find these waters have rendered the ground floors of most buildings, over 450 palaces and old houses of artistic merit among them, unfit for occupancy or even for storing merchandise. Venice is now the poorer for these disasters. Between 1958- 1968, over 40,000 Venetians fled to the Italian mainland or other safer spaces. 

The exquisite inner courtyard of the Doge's palace

How was old Venice constructed? ‘Originally built on pilings or stone fill over which planking was laid, the bricks of these canal-facing dwellings were often saturated with damp,’ explains an architect. According to local norms, the higher the floor, the lower the social strata of the inhabitant once was. Quaintly, most roofs had an altana, a platform on which ladies sun-bleached their hair!

Current fashions apart, the contemporary world seems to pass Venice by. This former maritime republic, whose economic and political power was felt for over a thousand years, is rich with lodes of cultural history. Here are some facts we cull. “It was at the 16th century Palazzo Vendramin- Calergi here that German composer Wagner died, while English poet Robert Browning breathed his last at the Ca’ Rezzonico (Ca’ is short  for casa or house, a guide tells us). Lord Byron was often a guest at the Palazzo Benzon, where Countess Marina Querin-Benzon held her famous literary salons. American author Henry James was magnetically drawn to the Palazzo Barbaro, which inspired scenes in The Wings of the Dove. German writer Thomas Mann set his novel Death in Venice (1912) here. American Peggy Guggenheim’s extensive collection of contemporary art is housed in the 18th century Ca’ Venier dei Leon. As for Antonio Vivaldi, he was the music master at the hospital of Maria della Pieta. Walking past, we gather that it was at the exquisite Teatre La Fenice, now being restored, that Verdi’s Rigoletto was premiered in 1851. Venice, no longer anchored merely in the past, now hosts an international film festival at the Lido island every August, while the Gardens of the Biennale warm to art trends every second year.

At the Venice Biennale, 1997
We are dazzled by hundreds of canvases that have recorded the diverse faces of Venice down the centuries. Its painters have marched in a glorious line of talent through European art ~ Bellini, Paolo Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Canaletto, among them. We admire their work at venues citywide ~ on the walls and ceilings of the Doge’s palace, at the Museo Correr rich with the historical and artistic collections of the City of Venice, at the Ca’ Rezzonico, in the cycle of over 50 paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto at the Scuola Grance di Sam Rocco, among them.

To be recognized by Venice at the height of its glory was often considered the mark of a man. A Venice-watcher narrates: “When the strategic wooden Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, the only one over the waters upto the 19th century, was to be replaced, an open competition was announced. Among the great 16th century architects who participated were Palladio, Sansovino, and Michelangelo, before Antonio da Ponte was chosen the winner. In a contest of Renaissance giants, a new talent came to light.” This was while Venice dominated east-west trade in Europe for three centuries, with the Rialto at its core. Today, though, the Rialto market deals mainly in fish, fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs.

In transit at the Cemeterio island, we are entranced by the perfectly-maintained family burial vaults vases of fresh flowers cradled in every cranny, as if a scene from Romeo and Juliet had come alive. As we move from one burial ground to another, we chance upon the graves of musical giant Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Though we trail families who arrive to place memorial wreaths at the tombs of dear ones, a site we seek eludes us ~ the grave of American litteratteur Ezra Pound.

Even in the present, Venice celebrates the past. Though we miss these celebrations, native sons tell us of the popular ten-day, pre-Lent Carnival when the whole city turns into a stage on which social differences disappear behind masks and balls, games and festivities. And during the historic regatta on the first Sunday of September, a tribute to all the regattas dating back to the 13th century, a grandly-attired procession in gondolas goes down the Grand Canal past palace windows aflutter with banners. But the city’s favourite festival is probably the Vogalonga on the first Sunday of May, in which any Venetian who is oar-savvy can set out in any boat of his/her choice. We can only imagine what a joyous gathering the regatta is.

As is the nodal square of the Piazza San Marco, which has the most renowned Venetian buildings. We are charmed by the Basilica of San Marco dating back to 1063, which contains the body of St. Mark, the city’s patron saint, brought to Venice from Alexandra in Egypt. And the magnificent Doge’s Palace, the Gothic symbol of Venetian might for centuries; the red-brick vertical Campanile or defence tower, which collapsed in 1902, and was replicated exactly; and the Biblioteca Marciana, with its 900,000 volumes and precious manuscripts.

“The theatre of history came uniquely alive between these corridors until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 ~ when the navy returned victorious, when an envoy or monarch arrived from distant shores, or when a religious ceremony was celebrated,” a historian explains. Aptly, the winged Lion of St. Mark, the emblem of Venice, is most dramatically displayed against a starry blue field on the clock tower here.

The buzzing Piazza San Marco monitors the city’s ebb and flow. Around the grey trachyte slabs that line the square, cafĂ© tables push out like summer breakwaters into the tide of tourists. All around us, pushy guides declaim while bands play waltzes and jazz with gusto. Those longing for a taste of the high life throng the Caffe Florian in the arcade, where men of letters and travellers gathered in the last century amidst walls displaying current art. The picture would seem incomplete without the hundreds of tourists who feed the petted pigeons that flock the square.

A life on water for centuries 
Wandering through Venice at the mouth of the Adriatic, we come across more lore. “It was over the Bridge of Sighs that undertrial prisoners crossed to the Doge’s court from the dark, dank prions Byron once sang of, where the 18th century Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova was once imprisoned and then escaped,” a schoolgirl points out. Casanova’s recorded adventures in 1788 later became a bestseller. Even as visitors, we wished we had been Venetians under the Doge, for every citizen was then assured of the right to protest. The city is dotted with bocca de leone, the lion-faced stone letterboxes into whose mouth people could drop even unsigned denunciations to the once ruling Council of Ten, which always led to judicial action. It was between the ninth and tenth columns outside the Doge’s palace that death sentences were pronounced until Venice abolished capital punishment.

Growing out of yesterday, in tune with today, Venice thrives on culture and history. Each plinth and plank speaks of family fortunes that have dipped and soared. Each new exhibition venue tracks back to an old palatial home, each Italian or European organizational headquarter echoes time past. Tourists today, like invaders of yore into this blend of the orient and the occident, are faced with a schism of time that the city constantly contends with.

For it all began for Venice around 568 AD. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, when the Lombards invaded Altino and Aquileia in the northern Adriatic, their inhabitants fled to the lagoons, where fisherman and salt workers lives in shanties. Aeons later, after a flood disaster in 1966. UNESCO appealed for international help to save historic Venice.

La Serenissima has risen and fallen with the tides of time since then. And is now ready to go with the flow. With its stirring clarion call down the ages: For “St. Mark and the Lion!”

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