Venice: the Italian Miracle


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Venice – one of the wonders of the world

Venice is located on 118 islands in the Venetian Lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, divided by 160 canals and channels, with about 400 bridges, on an area of only 7 square kilometers. It is, I think, one of the cities of the world which has not been rebuilt for automobiles, thus preserving its history. Until 805 Venice was part of the Byzantine Empire, which influenced its artistic traditions. The architectural appearance of the city was formed during the heyday of the Venetian Republic in the XIV-XVI centuries. In 1420 Venice was the richest city in the world. The connection with Byzantium favored foreign trade.

In antiquity, the Venetian area was inhabited by the Venetians (hence the name of the city). It was headed by a Doge elected for life and the office was never hereditary. In the history of the city 120 Doges were elected. The last one, Lodovico Manin, abdicated in 1797. Napoleon occupies Venetian territory and gives it to Hapsburg. Venice is then part of Italy, then Austria, and from 1946 the Italian Republic is proclaimed. We enter the city on the Grand Canal. Grand Canal runs through the city and has a length of about 4 km and a width of up to 70 meters. The canal has the shape of the letter S and divides the city into two halves. It leads to the central square of Venice. Along the canal are richly decorated churches, palaces, and houses. A walk along the canal can be compared to a stroll along a luxurious street. Rialto San Marco Bridge is the main square of Venice. In the square there are St. Mark’s Cathedral (IX-XV centuries), the Doge’s Palace (XIV-XVI centuries), the Old Library of San Marco (XVI century), the Correr Museum, the clock tower as well as cafes and restaurants. The Doge’s Palace The Doge’s Palace was the center of political power. The first phase of the building dates back to 1340. The decorative elements such as the lancet arches became a model for other buildings in the city. The lower floors were occupied by service rooms, the middle by meeting rooms and living quarters, and on the upper by representation rooms and rooms for meetings. But there were also many secret rooms and a prison. A sculptural group above the entrance depicts the winged lion St. Mark and the kneeling Doge Foscari. In the courtyard are two richly decorated bronze wells (1554-1559). The Staircase of the Giants is the Doge’s royal staircase. It takes its name from the huge statues of Mars and Neptune, which symbolize Venice’s dominance of the sea and land. San Marco Cathedral In 828 Venetian merchants managed to steal the relics of St. Mark from the monastery of Alexandria. They covered them with pork hams, thus diverting Muslim border controls. And Venice had its own celestial patron saint. In honor of the saint, the Venetians built a large temple. The building was laid in 1063 and consecrated in 1094. At the center of the main facade on the upper terrace are four gilded bronze horses, brought from Byzantium (copies, the original is in the museum) Clock Tower At the top are figures of the two Moors, who at every hour strikes a bell. The clock shows the phases of the moon and the sun’s position in the signs of the zodiac. On the flanks of the square are the Procuratie buildings with arches. The Campanile (bell tower) The main square is always crowded and photos of tourists feeding pigeons on it have gone around the world. We leave the main square and walk through narrow streets and small canals. Door handles Gondola – a romantic way to see Venice, but a bit expensive (about 100 euros). Out into the open sea. 127 squares, of course, is not possible to walk around in a day, you have to walk around, looking at every detail, admiring the elegance of its architecture. But the main problem of Venice, that it is slowly sinking under the water – 23 cm over the past 100 years. And according to the forecast of scientists by 2100 will go completely under water.

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43. Venice

According to legend, Venice was founded in 491 by refugees from the northern Adriatic and Padua, who had sought refuge on the islands of the lagoon from the hordes of the Huns during the great migration of peoples. The name of the city comes from the ancient tribe of the Venetians, who lived on the northern coast of the Adriatic. But sedentary settlements on the shores of the lagoon appeared much earlier, in the first centuries of the Roman Empire: fish was abundant here, salt had been steaming for ages. That is why many coastal dwellers fled to the lagoon islands to escape their enemies.

They fled and returned more than once – it was hard to live on barren islands at first and they did not want to leave their settled homes even if they were turned into ashes. And only new invasions forced them to seek refuge there again.

Life for the lagoon dwellers was quite harsh back then. It was necessary to provide a solid ground underfoot, land on which one could erect durable houses, on which one could walk at least somehow.

So, lakes had to be drained, swamps had to be ticked off, pieces of land had to be patiently and quietly wrested from the sea, canals had to be arranged and embankments arranged. There were plenty of forests here at that time and the settlers felt no need for timber. Fish was also plentiful, fishing and bird hunting were the basis here at the beginning. And, of course, salting. Everyone needed salt, and it soon became a trade item.

In 697 all the islands were united under the rule of a popularly elected ruler for life – the Doge. The city’s geographical position was very advantageous, and by the ninth century Venice had already become a trade mediator between East and West. This contributed to its economic enrichment and political growth.

Venice benefited immensely from the Crusades as well: it conquered a lot of land, won a number of privileges and widely spread its trading influence.

In the beginning Venice was dependent on Padua, then was part of the Byzantine Empire, and since the end of X century was recognized as an independent state. Thus a small group of lagoon islands grew into a vast and powerful power.

Initially the celestial patron saint of the city was St. Theodore, but in the IX century this Byzantine saint was replaced by the Latin Saint Mark. At the same time, a legend about this change also arose. Returning from Aquileia, where he preached the holy faith, Saint Mark was caught in a storm and stopped at one of the islands of the lagoon. An angel appeared to him in a dream and told him that he would find rest here. These words of the messenger of God were later inscribed on the standard of the Republic of Venice: “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist!” Saint Mark was martyred in Alexandria, where he was then buried. Two Venetian merchants smuggled his body out of here: they told the Saracen customs officials that they were bringing corned beef.

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In 828 the sacred relic was taken to Venice. Within a few years, the Venetians among the monastic gardens built a cathedral to their new saint – next to the Doge’s Palace and close to the temple of St. Theodore. In 976 the original building of the cathedral burned down in a fire that spilled here from the Doge’s residence. It was said that the remains of the Evangelist were also lost in the process.

The temple was soon rebuilt with some additions, but a century later it was replaced by an entirely new building.

The history of the modern St. Mark’s Cathedral goes back to the eleventh century Although it was not completed at this time, the temple was finished in its main parts. The new cathedral had to be consecrated, and shortly before this solemn day the authorities of the republic proclaimed a general fast. They organized a general prayer service to help God find the missing relics of the saint.

That’s when a miracle happened. “When the procession led by the Doge moved slowly through the cathedral, a bright light shone at one of the columns, the stonework crumbled somewhere, and a hand with a gold ring on its middle finger appeared from the hole. At the same moment a wonderful fragrance spread throughout the cathedral. There was no doubt that Mark’s body had indeed been found, and all praised the Lord for the marvelous return of the vanished saint.

In general, the construction of the temple lasted for several centuries, each new generation of Venetians contributed something new to the appearance of the old cathedral, decorated it. Truly fabulous treasures were brought here from all countries subject to Venice.

With its plan in the form of a Greek cross, its wonderful round domes and magnificent arches, its portico in front of the entrance – all its appearance the new cathedral resembled the Byzantine churches. Indeed, the model for it was the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.

Upper Italy was poor in valuable rocks of stone, which were absolutely necessary for the erection of monumental structures, built on Roman and Byzantine models. Rome and Byzantium had the richest rocks of African marble and porphyry granite, and St. Mark’s Cathedral (like all the buildings in the city) was built of brick and stone. It should, of course, have been made more beautiful and sumptuous, so the captains of all Venetian ships were ordered to bring from distant lands everything “that could adorn the cathedral and contribute to its glory and majesty.”

Venetian sailors, who sailed far and wide, for centuries brought here marble slabs and columns of rare colors, beautiful bas-reliefs, statues of stone and porphyry. All this in some colorful disorder, but mounted with great taste went to work.

Builders were not embarrassed by diversity, they did not care much about symmetry, but perhaps that was the miracle of true art and a true creative flight: none of the columns resembled another, and out of this seeming disharmony arises its own life-giving harmony. It is not so much the architectural purity of lines as the festive riot of colors, magnificence and richness of decoration that the cathedral is famous for.

Compared with French cathedrals of XII-XIII centuries it seems small, but outside it shines with magnificence of multicolor marble. Inside its massive vaults and domes are decorated with rich mosaics on a golden background. The variegated floor of stones, the sumptuous facing of the walls, the high ceilings painted with frescoes, the carvings, the necklace of windows, the huge domes resting on arches and beautiful pylons. The majestic golden altar, sparkling with gold, precious stones and magnificent carved ornaments, all made and still makes the strongest impression. It seems as if all eras and styles have contributed their share to this endless stream of artistic monuments.

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In the decoration of the building no unity of style could be created, because everything was used for it: whole pieces of ancient Greek and Roman temples and Byzantine churches captured as trophies of war, which were adjusted to the size and shape of the cathedral. This is how the cathedral was gradually transformed into a veritable museum of architecture and art.

First of all, it richly displays capitals of different styles and eras.

For example, there are all Byzantine variants of Corinthian capitals, often with birds instead of acanthus leaves or lion heads instead of angular volutes. In the cathedral there are very many authentic antique columns. The two quadrangular columns in the southern part of the narthex are taken from the Egyptian church at Ptolemais.

The figures of the four bronze horses on the roof of the narthex are also of antique origin. This famous quadriga is thought to have been sculpted by the Greek sculptor Lysippus.

They once adorned Nero’s triumphal arch in Rome, then the Emperor Constantine moved them to his new capital where they were also a decoration of the triumphal arch.

In 1204, Doge Dandolo removed the statue as a spoils of war, and this sculpture was installed on St. Mark’s Cathedral. In 1797, the bronze horses were sent to Paris by order of Napoleon, where the famous four crowned first the entrance to the Tuileries Palace and then the Arc de Triomphe on the Place du Carrousel.

In 1815, the Habsburgs returned these horses to Venice and they retook their place.

But the cathedral was not only the keeper of sacred relics and a religious building.

It was here that the doge was consecrated, here that naval commanders and condottieri received the insignia of their authority, here that the people gathered in times of war threats.

The domes and arches of St. Mark’s Cathedral are covered with numerous mosaics, the area is 4000 square meters. For centuries unknown artists have carefully composed huge compositions of countless pieces of marble and glass. Byzantium introduced the Venetians to the mosaic technique, and they appreciated its beauty and durability. The Venetians brought mosaics from Byzantium, invited the Byzantine masters to their city and learned from them.

All the mosaic compositions in the cathedral are located in the strict order and are subordinated to a certain program: the image of Christ, stories from the New Testament, from the life of the apostles, as well as images of saints – the patrons of the city and the subject areas of Venice.

The historic center of the city is St. Mark’s Square. It is the center of social life, the heart of Venice, the place of solemn ceremonies, church and folk festivals.

It’s hard to believe that centuries ago the gardens of the nuns of the nearby Benedictine monastery were green here.

The waters of the canal that crossed the area of the future square splashed here.

On the square is also the most grandiose building of all Venice – the Doge’s Palace. Like St. Mark’s cathedral, it was built and decorated for many centuries, but it was built exclusively by Venetian masters.

During the popular rebellion against the Doge Pietro Candiani, the Doge’s Palace burned down, but was subsequently rebuilt. It burned again in 1106 and was rebuilt again, but the palace was fundamentally rebuilt in the twelfth century under Doge Sebastiano Ziani.

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The work of many talented minds and hands has created this incomparable architectural monument. As if in mockery of all the laws of architecture, its massive upper part rests on light tracery arches – a kind of architectural paradox. At the first sight of the Doge’s Palace it seems that this building is tipped with the foundation upwards and the roof downwards: two floors of columns at the bottom and a solid wall at the top.

The upper part of the Palace is a huge array cut through by large window openings, which were once decorated inside with lancet arches and slender columns. After a fire in 1577, only the two outermost windows have survived in their original form.

The central part of the facades is decorated with two richly decorated balconies. They were built specially so that the Doge could appear before the people. The entrance to the palace is not far from St. Mark’s Basilica and bears the name Porta della Carta. Scholars have interpreted the origin of this name in two ways (carta means paper). Perhaps it originated from the fact that there was a document archive nearby. Or maybe it was the place where scribes used to sit and help the citizens to draw up papers, complaints and petitions.

The abundance of ornaments on the entrance is pushed to the limit, and the subtlety of their execution is brought to jewelry work. This fantastic lace once shone with gilt and azure. The sculptural group above the entrance depicts the winged lion Saint Mark and the Doge Francesco Foscari kneeling before him.

The interior rooms of the Palace are numerous, and almost every one of them is artistically and historically interesting. Everything here is unique. And the staircase of the Giants, which leads to the inner halls, is wide, with marble railings, with decorated steps. The huge hall of the Great Council is covered with plafond paintings and contains portraits of the first 76 Doge. Here is also a gigantic painting of Paradise by G. Tintoretto, the largest painting in the world (its dimensions are 7×22 meters).

And here is the hall of the Council of Ten, the supreme court of the Republic. It is now the visitors come to it as spectators, enjoying the masterpieces of art. In ancient times, however, Venetians shuddered to think of this dreadful chancellery. It secretly monitored the actions and intentions of citizens and fought against political crimes. Meetings of the Council of Ten were held daily under the presidency of the Doge himself. The members of the Council heard the reports of the chiefs of the quarters and considered the information of the spies. The denunciations were lowered into the famous “mouth of the lion,” which was in the next room.

The Doge’s Palace made a special impression. Perhaps it was caused by the fact that the palace was not a fortress, and its architecture from the very beginning was ornate and light. Venice did not have the usual strong castles and fortress walls of medieval Europe – here the sea served as protection, and instead of forts the Republic had a great fleet.

In the immediate vicinity of the Doge’s Palace stands the building of the famous Carceri prison, shrouded in terrible legends and tales, in which fiction and reality are intertwined. D Byron voluntarily spent the night in one of its cells to relive the sensations of the prisoner.

The Carceri prison is connected to the Doge’s Palace by the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge gets its name from the fact that through its lattice windows the condemned, bidding farewell to their freedom, cast a last look at the sea, the sun and the sky. Sometimes it was used to escort the condemned to execution.

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Outside, the Bridge of Sighs is even welcoming. It hangs over the narrow canal, its ends resting against the walls of the Palace and the prison. The smooth line of its roof is topped with curls of volutes and follows the curve of the supporting arch. Its windows have patterned bars.

Now from here many tourists can admire the view of the lagoons, and in the evenings from the gondolas passing under the bridge, one can hear the sounds of guitars and singing.

At the end of the XV century was built a curious attraction of the square – the Tower of Clocks. It is interesting in its own right – a tall “rectangular building divided into four tiers and resting on a single-span arch”. But the most intricate thing is the clock. A huge dial rests above the arch, and the hours and minutes, the phases of the moon, the position of the sun among the signs of the Zodiac, and the dates are marked on it. And above the dial is a sculpture of the Madonna. “In front of her every hour on the feast of the Ascension are the figures of the three Magi and a trumpeting angel. At the top of the tower, a gilded lion of St. Mark glistens against a starry background. And the upper terrace of this whole original construction is crowned with a huge bell, into which every hour two bronze guards beat with bronze hammers”.

Venice. Here the stones smell of the sea, here every building is a living history, there are so many frescos and paintings, sculptures and mosaics that it seems as if the city is one huge museum. Venice is beautiful by day, it’s full of charm by night.

Through the centuries it has preserved its noble appearance and singular beauty.

This text is an introductory fragment.

Continued on LitRes

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