Dec 29, 2016
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The enchanting story of Venice, Italy

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As soon as we arrived at Venice, thoughts in our head were whizzing around, How did this place even get here? Why are there no cars?, Where did the water come from?, Why are there masquerade masks everywhere? We decided to research the city’s history for answers which we found were just as enchanting as our experience there.

The history
Available evidence has led historians to agree that Venice was initially populated by people from the neighboring mainland seeking refuge from the Barbarians who conquered Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The traditional founding is identified by the oldest church in the city, the San Giacomo di Rialto, which supposedly dates back to 421 A.D.The church is located on the islet of Rialto (Rivoalto, “High Shore”) The dedication of the church is said to have taken place at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421 (the Feast of the Annunciation).

San Giacomo di Rialto, Venice, Italy

San Giacomo di Rialto

From the 9th to the 12th century, Venice developed into a city-state and the ancient Veneti people were said to have inhabited the region by the 10th century BC.
By the late 13th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in Europe. At the peak of its power and wealth, Venice capitalized on its strategic position at the Adriatic Sea and the city dominated Mediterranean commerce dealing exclusively with the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Venice relished on a lucrative income and subsequently became the capital of the Republic of Venice. Trading in silk, grain and spice, the city thrived for a long period. Venice’s leading families went head to head in a competition of wealth building the grandest palaces and supporting local talented artists. Artwork was eventually sold in trade between the 13th century up to the end of the 17th century giving Venice its artistic persuasion.

The economic decline of Venice started in the 15th century. A war with the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s, combined with several outbreaks of the Black Death and Portugal’s Vasco da Gama‘s new sea route to India saw Venice’s fortunes fall. During the Renaissance lasting from the 14th to the 17th century, Portugal emerged as a new center for trade, which virtually destroyed Venice’s business.

Despite the decline, Venice never lost its creative and artistic reputation. During the 18th century the city greatly impacted and influenced art, architecture and literature across the world.

The water
Standing as the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region, Venice, or Venezia, is built on 117 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. An astronaut on-board the International space station (Expedition 39) took this photo on May 9th 2014. Notice the distinctive red roofs and white docks within the lagoon.

Red roofs from space, NASA, Venice, Italy

Image credit: LiveScience

Venice is particularly famous for being partially submerged and the gradual lowering of the surface has led to the seasonal Acqua alta where much of the city’s surface is occasionally covered at high tide. A study in 2012 study found that Venice continues to sink due to a number of factors, one being the pumping of ground of water. Venice is not currently listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Danger List since implementing flood avoidance strategies that could potentially cause further damaging the islands. One of measure was to ban cruise ships from sailing through the center of Venice via the Grand Canal.

Water Grand Canal view of Venice, Italy

117 small islets

The city sits on the Adriatic plate, one of four in located in the Mediterranean. The Adriatic is a ‘microplate when compared to the African, Eurasian and Anatolian plates that continually move and collide. The Adriatic plate is subducting, or slipping under, the Eurasian plate, which contributes to the dropping ground level of Venice. Keeping water out of the city has long been a challenge.

Big bridge, Venice, Italy

Situated on a slipping Adriatic plate

The only mode of transport throughout the city beyond the train station is by boat via a complex network of canals including the famous Grand Canal thoroughfare which is lined with exquisite Renaissance and Gothic palaces. There are no roads and the islands are connected by a network of bridges including the Rialto Bridge.

Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy

The Rialto Bridge

The buildings
The city is famed by its central square, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), which is home to the beautiful St. Mark’s Basilica that dominates the Eastern end adjacent to Doge’s Palace.
The gold ground mosaics that make up part of the overall structure have symbolized the wealth of Venice since the 11th century giving the church is nickname of Chiesa d’Oro (Church of gold).

Exterior of the St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice, Italy

Beautiful St. Mark’s Basilica

The first ever records of the church being built date back to 828 AD and the church is famed for its Italo-Byzantine architecture. Mosaics were sent to the church at the height of the Republic of Venice’s trade in the 11th century and some original mosaic tiling can still be seen inside the domes today.

Inside St Mark's Cathedral, Venice, Italy

Magnificent artistic interior

Venice was once was governed by the Great Council, made up of members of the noble families of Venice. The Great Council appointed all public officials for the city and one member of the great council was elected ‘Doge’, or duke, who usually held the title until his death. In 810 AD, Doge (Duke) Angelo Partecipazio moved the seat of government from the island of Malamocco to the area of the present-day Rialto, one of the 177 islets in Venice. A ducal palace was built for him following a drastic change to the entire layout of the St. Mark’s Square. Different artistic eras and devastating events changed the structure and style of the palace and it currently stands as a Venetial-Gothic museum open to the public. It is one of the most iconic and historical landmarks of Venice, the uniquely designed architecture can be enjoyed from the comfort of St. Mark’s Square and the neighboring Piazzetta (mini square).
Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy

Doge’s Palace

The Biblioteca Marciana (library of St Mark) building stretches from the west side of the Square into an area known as the Piazzetta di San Marco which is an adjoining open space connecting the south side to the waterway of the lagoon. The Biblioteca was designed by famous Italian architect Jacopo Sansovino and it is currently used to host expensive cafes and tourist attractions.

Cafe in St Mark's Square, Venice, Italy

The Library of St. Mark’s was once many important buildings combined

The two columns in the Piazzetta can seen from the lagoon. The Saint Theodore column, who was the patron of the city before St Mark, can be seen holding a spear and a crocodile to represent the dragon which he was said to have slain. The other (eastern) column has a creature representing a winged lion (the Lion of Venice) which is the symbol of St Mark.

Buildings St Mark's Square, Venice, Italy

The St Theodore column can be seen from the lagoon

St Mark’s Campanile is probably the most recognizable landmark in Venice offering views of the city’s famous red roofs at 98.6 meters (323 ft) high. The tower was initially constructed in the 9th century and was built with a purpose of being a watch tower.

Campanile Bell Tower, Venice, Italy

St Mark’s Campanile

In July 1902, the north wall of the tower cracked which continued to grow in the following days. On Monday, July 14, around 9:45 am, the campanile collapsed completely remarkably harming nobody. That same evening, the communal council approved over 500,000 Lire to rebuild and replicate the campanile. Additional internal reinforcement was implemented and an elevator was installed. Work lasted until March 6, 1912 and the new campanile was inaugurated on April 25, 1912, on the occasion of Saint Mark’s feast day, exactly 1000 years after the foundations of the original building were laid.

Base of the clock tower in St Mark's square, Venice, Italy

Replicas of the original tower

Everything you see on the building is a replica and if you look closely you may also see the tower slightly tilting due to the soft foundation that supports many of Venice’s structures. The base of the tower is currently being reinforced to avoid yet another potentially fatal collapse.

The renaissance style Clock Tower building is located on the north side of the Piazza San Marco. The building is made up of a tower, containing an astronomical clock, and lower buildings on each side which dates back to the 15th century. The building was strategically placed so the clock would be visible from the waters of the lagoon and also to give notice of the wealth and glory of Venice experienced at the time of its construction.

St Mark's Clock, Venice, Italy

The Clock Tower in Piazza San Marco

The lower two floors of the tower make a monumental archway into the main street of the city, the Merceria, which linked the political and religious center (the Piazza) with the commercial and financial center (the Rialto).

Built in 1250, the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is considered as one of the greatest churches in the city. The structure is tucked away in Campo dei Frari at the heart of the San Polo district. The campanile is the second tallest in the city after that of San Marco and the only medieval rood screen (an ornate partition between the chancel and nave) in Venice is still intact inside the church.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Il Redentore is another magnificent Roman Gothic structure to see from the water. We spotted this from the Vaparetto on the island of Giudecca. The church was built in the 16th century as a votive to thank God for the deliverance of the city from a major outbreak of the plague. It dominates the skyline of the island from the waterfront.

Il Redentore, Venice, Italy

Roman Gothic Il Redentore

A trip down the Giudecca canal will also guarantee a sight of the magnificent I Gesuati which is an 18th century Dominican church lathered in Rocco decorated historical sculptures that took over 30 years to complete.

I Gesuati waterfront church, Venice, Italy

18th century I Gesuati

The Santa Maria della Salute, or the Salute is another iconic landmark of Venice and is one of the few so-called ‘plague-churches’ still in existence. It is visible from St. Mark’s Square across the Grand Canal and following Venice’s devastating outbreak of the Plague in the 16th century, the Republic of Venice built the church in 1631 and dedicated it to Our Lady of Health (or of Deliverance, Italian: Salute). Many of the objects of art housed in the church bear references to the Black Death.

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy

The Salute church on the Grand Canal

In 1630, Venice experienced an unusually devastating outbreak of the plague. The church was designed in the then fashionable baroque style by Baldassare Longhena, who studied under the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi. Construction began in 1631 and most of the objects of art housed in the church bear references to the Black Death.

Santa Maria della Salute (Venice)

A beautiful tribute

An enchanting hidden courtyard at the Sotoportego Del Milion holds a famous set of houses where it is believed that Venetian explorer Marco Polo and his family lived following his return from China after a 24 year absence. The house can be found a short distance from the Rialto Bridge.

Marco Polo's house, Venice, Italy

Marco Polo’s house

The Teatro Italia, known locally as the Cinema Italia, is one of the great original theaters of old Venezia. The building is built in Byzantine architectural style and a winged lion remains a feature on the roof of the building. A cast iron bell sits above the front entrance which was once used to alert theater-goers that a performance was about to start.

Teatro Italia, Venice, Italy

The Teatro Italia

The theater has hosted a series of great musical and opera productions over the past 500 years, from the legendary performers of old Venezia, to the productions that have graced its stage throughout the centuries. Most of the Teatro Italia building is original and not restored. The theater also has a historical legacy far surpassing many others in the theatrical world.

The masks
Venetian masks are a centuries-old tradition and are typically worn during the Carnival of Venice which is held on Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras). Historically, the masks were used to hide a person’s identity or social status allowing them to act freely among others outside the boundaries of their every day life. Traditionally, people were only allowed to wear the masks between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th) and the start of the carnival season at midnight on Shrove Tuesday.

Masks in Venice, Italy

Traditional Venetian masks

Venetian masks are distinctive by their ornate features usually containing gold or silver colors with baroque style decoration. They can be full-face masks (Bauta) or eye masks (Columbina). Mask wearing was forbidden outside of set periods that include Ascension and from October 5th to Christmas, the people of Venice could spend a large portion of the year in disguise. Mask makers (mascherari) once enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild. The quality of Venetian masks has since declined after mass production in other countries who offer similar products for a cheaper price.
Masks in souvenir shop, Venice, Italy

Masks for sale in souvenir shops across the city

The Carnival of Venice is said to date back to the victory of the Serenissima Repubblica in 1162. It is thought that people started to dance at San Marco Square in celebration. The Carnival was made an officially recognized event in the Renaissance period around the 17th century, just as Venice lost its economical powerhouse status. The baroque carnival was a way to save the prestigious image of Venice and it was promoted through word of mouth to attract tourism to the city.
St Mark's Square, Venice, Italy

The Carnival is held in St. Mark’s Square

Under the rule of the King of Austria, the festival was outlawed in 1797 and the use of the masks became strictly forbidden. The masks eventually reappeared during elite private feasts, where they were showcased as artistic collectibles.
After an absence dating almost two centuries, the Carnival returned to Venice in 1979. The Italian government sought a redevelopment of the famed masks encouraging Venetian college students to create new and attractive designs aimed at the tourist trade. Since 1979, approximately 3 million visitors arrive at Venice every year for the Carnival which is a massive contributor to the current economy.

The Carnival lasts around seven days and a list of tourist-centric events can be found on the official website.

The gondolas
Gondolas are considered one of the most elite modes of transport across Europe and the price to ride one reflects their lucrative reputation. Prior to the 14th century, aristocracy preferred to ride by horse but when horses were outlawed from the streets of Venice, the elite turned to gondolas as a secondary mode of transportation. This gave the narrow canal boats their sought after reputation which still stands today. There are around 400 gondolas in service in current day Venice and they are only used by tourists.
Gondola Service port, Venice, Italy Gondolieri were typically teams of four men sharing ownership of a gondola offering a mean of public transport in Venice. Three oarsmen (the gondoliers) and a fourth person, primarily shore based, was and responsible for the booking and administration of the gondola (Il Rosso Riserva).

As gondolas became more of a tourist attraction, the official fleet of gondolas became protected by the Institution for the Protection and Conservation of Gondolas and Gondoliers, who are based in the historical center of Venice.

The Gondolier’s Guild ensures all gondoliers endure the appropriate training (400 hours in total) that includes an apprenticeship and a major comprehensive exam covering Venetian landmarks, the city’s history, practical skills and foreign languages. The guild issue only 425 licences after the training of the gondoliers. The guild also ensures gondoliers wear strictly regulated clothing. In the summer, they wear a white sailor’s shirt or a red/navy striped tee shirt and a straw boater hat with matching ribbon. In the winter, a navy woolen reefer jacket can be worn over their outfit. Some gondoliers wear balaclavas underneath their hats making the experience a little more unique.

Heart gondola, Venice, Italy

All gondolas must be painted black

The gondoliers use a single oar to propel and steer the boats which are slightly curved allowing their efforts to thrusting the gondola in straight line making them easy to operate in the narrow canals and heavy water traffic throughout Venice.
Gondaliers, Venice, Italy In August 2010, Venice ended a 900 year tradition and gave Giorgia Boscolo her licence to become Venice’s first ever female gondoliera following in her father’s footsteps. It is Venetian tradition to pass gondolier licences to offspring and this was the first case of father to daughter.


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The way of life
Venetians have long adapted to living above water and without motorized vehicles. Wandering the street will give you a great insight on how the locals have adapted to their unique environment over hundreds of years.

Resident boats parked, Venice, Italy

Residential boat parking

The only wheeled vehicle we saw in the city was being transported on a boat across the Grand Canal.

Truck on a boat in Venice, Italy

The only vehicle we saw

Many homes and ground level entrances are prepared with flood protectors should the waters suddenly rise above ground level, which is very possible in a city that is officially sinking.

Flood protector in Venice, Italy

Ground level protection from flooding

Locals also capitalize on the narrow alleyways between buildings and the hot summers that Venice enjoys.
Via Giuseppe Garibaldi street in Venice, Italy

Workers have adapted to transportation over water, we witnessed construction workers setting up heavy industrial equipment working from a boat and they must have noticed us looking on in awe snapping pictures of them!

Construction workers, Builders in Venice, Italy

Builders working on a construction site

After wondering how the emergency services operate in Venice, we spotted an ambulance hurrying to a scene just by the Grand Canal.
Ambulance in Venice, Italy

Emergency services adapt to the water

Locals can be seen throughout the city embracing the rich history of Venetian arts and crafts. Pop by the Academia Bridge to see many artists painting their surroundings and for one of the best views of the water.

Artist on Academia Bridge, Venice, Italy

Painters on the Academia Bridge

This location is probably one of the most painted subjects in the world. Artists are well-informed of a unique sparkle on the water here at around 9.30am to 10.00am which is reflected in their paintings.
View from the Academia Bridge, Venice, Italy

The bridge is also right beside the Gallerie dell’Accademia that contains Venetian masterpiece paintings up to the 18th century. Works of art by many renowned artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Giovanni Bellini and Bernardo Bellotto can be seen here.

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