Venice is Sinking

I’ve never had much of a stomach for history books, but all through our five days in Venice I had the urge to track down a chronology of the city and dive in. Dukes and doges, glassmaking, naval supremacy, a wholly unique architectural style, and, of course, finding out who on earth decided to build an enormous city in a lagoon–all are topics I would be fluent in right now if the city weren’t so darn fun to wander around in.Image

Not that wandering around Venice is an easy task, however: while historic Rome seems to politely refuse to conform to a grid system much like your grandmother declines to try the computer, Venice blatantly laughs in the face of such an idea, then runs off in three different directions–two of which lead to dead ends. The third, however, wiggles and zigzags around a bit before bridging a narrow canal and plopping down in front of a gorgeous basilica with a magnificent belltower rising, at a slight angle, beside it.

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Such is pedestrian life in Venice. Without the almost obnoxiously abundant signs pointing visitors to major attractions, as well as the joy of spontaneously stumbling upon said attractions, the city would be a nightmare to navigate.

Oh, and the boats! The boats were great. Understandably, motorized boat buses long ago replaced gondolas as Venice’s primary form of public transit. I could ramble, but instead–here:

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Substitute this for every time you would normally take a bus or car, add the fresh sea wind, start reciting Coleridge, and you’ve got one happy commuter.

As I mentioned, though, those moments of sudden architecture turned Venice into a virtual scavenger hunt for these happy arch. students. The church of San Marco, for instance, is surprisingly well concealed by its surroundings, despite its size and infamy–it’s a fair bit shorter than many of the island-city’s other basilicas, and only rises above the neighboring Ducal Palace and Museums by a margin too narrow to make it stand out from any location other than the piazza it faces. Nevertheless, the building is arguably the most lavish, elaborately textured, and all-around visually interesting structure in Venice, if not in all of northern Italy. The exterior is covered in vibrant mosaics and marble columns at the ground level, while above (and behind, presumably, the frustratingly opaque screen of scaffolding undoubtedly erected to prepare for high tour season), multiple Byzantine onion domes sit on the ornately carved clerestory walls. [This would be an excellent place for a picture, but in an effort to improve my sketching ability I strictly restrained my trigger-happy camera finger; the idea being that if I really want to remember something, I have to draw it] Inside the basilica, the high expectations set by the facade are not disappointed. The main space inhabits a Greek cross plan beneath five lofty domes on pendentives. The space is magnificent, and one can see narrow catwalks bridging between columns up in the clerestory level, several dozen feet overhead. I couldn’t see any particular destination for these pathways, so I happily assumed that they exist for the novelty of being able to inhabit a space that is almost always left empty.

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Note: This is not the Basilica of San Marco. It does, however, illustrate the idea of how exciting it can be to inhabit spaces that are typically only ever seen at a distance.

Also, virtually every surface in San Marco not being walked or sat on is covered in mosaics set against a gold background, bringing to mind the Byzantine love of texture and space that informed the design of much of Venice. All in all, the church paints an excellent picture of Venice’s unique style born of the Western Renaissance and the Turkish (?) empire. I apologize if I’m using incorrect or overly broad historical or cultural references–I never did get around to buying that history book.

One comment

  1. Pingback: February 17 – Venice is Sinking | My Roman Holiday was Easter

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