Travel Stories »

Venice, the Fragile and the Extraordinary

Venice – how many cliches have been dumped on one of the most beautiful cities of the world? Road Junky is always up for adding some more on this delightful parody of a city.

Venice at twilight. The sea mist which enveloped the city the entire day seems to be disappearing, and the sky begins to reveal herself. Thick ribbons of peach and rose hang below the clouds, making every palazzo and church dome blush. From the edge of San Marco’s Basin the stationed gondolas ebb awkwardly with the tide, their elegant curvatures looking out onto San Giorgio Maggiore across the canal, white and misty.

Behind us, San Marco’s golden lunettes begin to glitter faintly, its lambency from past centuries half vanished, half darkened. Pigeons dart past our heads like bullets in the square whose pavement has been permanently soiled by their multitudinous presence. And in the silence of the dimming daylight, there’s something about Piazza San Marco that leaves you breathless.

If it was cold during the day, it is freezing now but at least the drizzle and dew that were making us miserable are gone. We leave the Square and listen to our footsteps echo in the tiny stone alleys and walkways of Venice. A few polished gondolas decorated in brocade and gold brass still glide lazily through the narrow canals and under the bridges, looking for some brave couple too in love to care about the cold. We are definitely not one of those couples. There’s romance, and then there’s stupidity, and there are better things to do in Venice for €80.

Since the moment of our arrival we had been mesmerized by a city as unique and magnificent as every art history book had mentioned. We took the vaporetto down the Grand Canal and saw the palazzi emerge, decaying; the once bright exterior peeled and faded, their striking doorways crooked and broken. Some waterfront palaces had been turned into exclusive hotels, remodelled and kept true to the Venetian style.

On the Rialto Market, right below the Rialto Bridge – which we mistook for the Bridge of Sighs and kissed, convinced we were keeping to tradition – there were hundreds if not thousands of Venetian masks, all of which you were not allowed to touch, photograph, get close to or even ask for the price. And when we asked for directions to the Piazza San Marco, we were pretty much dismissed with an irritated point of an arm.

There were churches in every corner, street and campo, each one with the classical elements that characterize Venice, some with bright ceiling frescoes and others with wonderfully sculpted altarpieces of angels and saints. Not that we were surprised, as Venice in the 15th and 16th centuries had been the most important centre of art in the world. Venetian painters were celebrated for their distinctive and masterful use of colour. It is said that the painters of the School of Venice were influenced by light that reflected on the water and the white marble of the churches and palaces. Colour was paramount, and a painter who knew this was Tiziano, whose frequent use of brownish-orange earned him his very own colour: titian.

Architects were in the spotlight too, faced with the challenge of building stunning edifices atop the low islands of the Venetian Lagoon. The maritime wealth and power of Venice was reflected in the exquisite Renaissance palaces commissioned by the patrician families of the 15th and 16th centuries. Equilibrium and symmetry were regnant in the palazzi of Venice where rich ornamentation, tall facades, and important balustrades all formed part of exhibiting family fortunes.

Since there are no roads in Venice, the palaces’ most lavish ornamentation was focused on the waterfront façade, where guests would arrive by boats and be escorted up the stone steps to the inner courtyard. Important cities like Rome, Florence and Milan have about 6 to 8 palaces each, whereas Venice has over one hundred, bearing witness of the incredible wealth, and ostentatious drive that the Venetians possessed.

Unfortunately, according to ancient law, only one palace was permitted to be called Palazzo and that is the Palazzo Ducale which was the home of the Doge, the head of the Venetian Republic. All other palaces were simply called ‘Ca, short of casa, or house.

It was from the balconies and windows of these Venetian palaces that the beautiful courtesans of Venice called on to the men they wished to entertain. Courtesans in 16th Century Venice were the most educated women of the Republic and probably the world: having the privilege of being able to intimately talk to the most illustrious and successful men of the city, they were able to read and write, and discuss art, literature and politics. A woman who succeeded in winning patrons which desired her company more than they desired her body, received the title of cortigiana onesta, or honest courtesan, a title very hard to obtain.

Veronica Franco was the most celebrated honest courtesan in history, having written two volumes of poetry and rumoured to have had a brief liaison with King Henri III of France. They say she was a woman of incredible beauty and that men were bewitched by her, which is probably why she was charged with witchcraft during the Inquisition, a common punishment for courtesans of the time. Nonetheless she was a model and spokesperson for women everywhere, letting the world know what women could be stronger, smarter and more powerful than men; all they needed to do was believe it.

Veronica was no stranger to hedonism, and neither was the Serenissima Republic of Venice. The world famous Carnavale was linked to ancient fertility rituals taking a stronghold of the city in the Middle Ages. In the 17th century Venice reached its peak of hedonistic decadence where men and women of all classes, wealth and status would hide behind their intricate masks and, in the comfort of anonymity, engage in the most reckless and often illegal erotic practices… in public. Priests with prostitutes, nuns with aristocrats, officers with officers poured out onto the streets to play out their fantasies incognito, where the boundaries of age, gender and beauty had no limits.

It wasn’t only about sexual celebrations though: most people simply put on their masks to depart form the life of protocol they were leading, to reveal their real persona. These licentious festivities would sometimes continue for months until Napoleon invaded Venice and spoiled all the fun by banning the Carnavale for good. It wasn’t until the 20th century that masquerades became popular once again, and are today celebrated as a fun catharsis before the austerity of Lent.

Venice at nighttime. We continue to walk reaching the Jewish Ghetto, by now the dark has finally made the city still and only a few locals hurry on, probably seeking shelter from the cold or in search of a warm dinner. The lights of nearby restaurants and cafes reflect on the murky blue waters of a small canal, and I pry away from my partner’s hand and look down onto my reflection. I am mirrored in the water like all the palazzos and church domes, gondolas and bridges, street lamps and balconies that make up this brittle city.

Venice is a tired city, bastardized by tourism with inflated prices, poor quality food, and hosts who don’t make an effort to make you feel welcomed. But it’s Venice: it drags people in. Its decaying grandeur whispers the tales of wealthier and more extravagant times, times that come alive by just walking the streets or gliding down the Grand Canal.

My reflection is blurred by a passing boat, so we continue to walk hand in hand succumbed to an extraordinary yet fragile Venice.

Lucia Byttebier