Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Queen of the Adriatic

After the mild annoyance of Ryanair and their send you effing crazy elevator tunes while your face explodes into the dental abyss (the less said about that the better), we arrived in what many have descibed as the most beautiful city in the world - Venice.
In recollection, my mind starts with the wide panorama, exocets to the core and slowly zooms out.

The geographic setting of the city is unique, a stunning natutal stage. The Mediteranean fenced out by a string of thin curving islands that hold the lagoon and the old city at its heart. This satellite image is really worth a view:,12.365112&spn=0.671304,1.219482&z=10.

Like scrolling in on the emap, my mind moves to the Grand Canal. A snake of channel cutting back and forth through the centre of the city. Its emerald green waters lapping at the side of grand mansions, some rotting, but each individual. A vast array of boats chop up the water. From traditional gondola, via slick water taxis, to police and fire boats - even the mail is delivered by water.
Out from this main tributory branch numerous lesser canals, which in turn leaf into other waterways seperating the web of miniture islands. Here and there bridges of every design connect up the habitation. Some are simple wooden affairs, others rise in architectural glory. The Rialto Bridge, crossing the Grand Canal at a sharp inner coil, is famous for good reason. What a feeling to climb the middle stair lined with tack shops that hide the surrounding city and burst out onto the view from the open summit. We could not stop going back. Whether in the rain, shimmering sun or under a full moon reflecting in the water, the escalated view of the Grand Canal takes your breath away.
Looking back at my diary, one word dominates the pages, "charm". Days spent wandering were filled with discovering quiet back streets where barely a bird rustled and the over-packed centre full of bustle and brim. Unlike other cities that have a district, or two, of beauty, here it is endless. Yes, one can not deny the theme park element to a city purely given up for tourism, but the shere extent of its treasures allows you to brush this aside.

Venice's rise to prominence and huge power was aided by its shielded location. Like a miniature version of GB, its surrounding lagoon acted as a defensive moat against those tempted to attack. In modern times, this same thalassal setting continues to be a source of success. The challenge of bulding a cohesive city across hundreds of small islands and water has resulted in a uniqueness that draws millions to spend their dollar. This relationship though has increasing dangers.

05.30....niiiieeeeeeooorrrrrrr........niiiiieeeeeooorrrrrrrrrrr......a siren screams accross the city wrenching us from our sleep. What in the heck is going on? Try to focus. Out the window, the city is dark and an eery silence is rythmically violated to what I can only liken to an air raid siren. For a moment I have serious concern, but in the end I suppose the explanation was obvious. Flood.

This is by no means a new phenomena. There has been periodical severe flooding for centuries, but what has changed is the frequency. It is not rocket science to see that Venice is particularly vulnerable to global warming and the consequent rise in sea levels. If levels rise sufficiently, barring an extreme human effort to preserve the city, it will eventually be lost to the fate of Atlantis. In the short term, an ingenious system of floating barriers between the outerlying islands is proposed to hold off the highest tides, but locals seems sceptical about its effectiveness.
As we walked out of our hotel, the street was a good few inches under water. Where there were not barriers the water had flowed into houses - I dread to think what the foundations are like. As is often the case, when presented with a problem people eventually just get on with things, until the most serious of problems become everyday. Small bricks had been placed by the proprietor from the door of our hotel to the middle of the street where you could hop onto the raised walkways that criss-cross the city on such occurences. This could only get us so far. Eventually the walkways would run out and we would be faced with the choice of wading or turning back.
It came together to create a curious and quite comical atmosphere. On the one hand the locals were simply getting on with there every day things - still sitting at a cafe, or calmly pumping the water out of their shop floors. On the other hand, you had the tourists - some looking uncomfortable and upset, but by far the majority light heartedly enjoying the situation. Once kitted out with a pair of wellies (or poor plastic bag equivalents) they would transverse the city at will.

Along with the frivolity, one could not help bouts of concern. It is true that my first viewing of St Mark’s square as a lake with seagulls afloat is one I treasure, but think of all the damage to such a rare and beautiful place.

As you wander around the back streets or juttingly glide in a gondola along the canals, many of the buildings are in glorious condition, but many more are not. When you take a moment to look it is clear that much of the city is just rotting. A constant fight against the forces of nature in which there can only be one winner. Let’s just hope we hold up our end for a while yet.


When you wonder around the Palazzo Ducale, St Mark’s Basilica, the naval yard, or any one of a number of other magnificent sights this city has to offer, it is I would hope impossible not to be struck by the grandeur of Venice’s history. From the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Great Council Hall) adorned with the largest canvas painting in the world to the Triumphal Quadriga (Horses of St Mark) which has represented a baton of Roman civilisation.
While I was impressed, I viewed these relics in the light of a current passion of mine, Byzantium - the East Roman Empire that stood until Constantinople finally fell to the Ottaman Turks in 1453. My Western European education did not pay fair heed to the achievements and significance of this mighty power. Throughout history, it was in the interests of the Bishop of Rome to mask the achievements and status of Byzantium and the Greek Church such that it could sell itself as the “true” church and the successor of Rome.

The history of the Triumphal Quadriga reflects this in a microcosm. Remarkable pieces of art and engineering, they originate from Greco-Roman antiquity and represent the heights of that civilisation. For hundreds of years they stood at the Hippodrome of Constantinople representing the continuation of Roman civilisation. Only in 1204 during the disgraceful sack of the city by the crusaders were the horses spririted away to Venice. There they were shown for all to see. Venice (and the West) had taken on the baton. Napoleon himself illustrated the symbolic importance of these sculptures when, on marching into Venice and, as it happens, ending over 1,000 years of independence, he took the horses and placed them atop the Arc de Triumph. It was short-lived that France could hold on to this baton, but that is another story and the horses were returned to St Mark’s.
Byzantium acted as a buffer against the East. For centuries it protected Christendom and as its star waned Venice bit by bit stepped into the vacuum. Often as an ally, generally as a parasite, Venice became rich and expanded. My point is, to understand Venice, you have to understand its historical context. The magnificence you see around you is largely attributed to the abilities of the men who created it, but also to the opportunity that was there for the taking and that is where the Byzantine Empire played a part.

Ultimately, Venice’s finest moment came in 1571, when it played the central role in defeating the Ottaman Turks at the battle of Lepanto. With no Eastern Empire to act as protector, it was Venice that stepped into the breach, stopped the advance of the Turks and changed the face of history. Not until this current day were East to dominate West. But everything changes.


Alongside triggering thought, Venice captured me. I simply fell in love with the place. Long will I look forward to again wander the endless back streets or float along its’ waterways. I fear that never again will I gorge on fine Italian food with the Rialto in front and the Grand Canal reflecting the full moon to my side. A truly romantic city. Where else in the world has man combined with nature to create beauty on this scale? I for one have seen no comparator.
I leave you with the view from the Campanile di San Marco and you can judge for yourselves.
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