Saturday 25 May 2019

Venice by Miranda Miller

      I first fell in love with Venice when I was ten and since then I’ve been back many times. Heightened awareness of climate change made my recent visit even more moving. In November last year high winds combined with a seasonal high tide put much of Venice under water and created havoc as schools and hospitals were closed and people were advised against leaving their homes. Climate change related art has dominated the Venice Biennale this year. One of the more surreal sights in this dreamlike city is a white skyscraper floating past the end of a medieval street - actually a monstrous cruise ship, which damages the fragile lagoon ecosystem and pollutes the waters. Il mare la chiama - the sea is calling its bride, Venetians say when wind stirs up the water of the lagoon. There’s a very real danger that the sea will destroy its bride.

   Thomas Mann compared entering Venice by one of the road or railway bridges to entering a palace through the back door. I’ve always used that door but now the approach is even more dazzling because of the Alilaguna, a frequent boat service from Marco Polo airport that takes you to every part of the city. On this visit I had time to explore some corners of the city I hadn’t seen before.

    The church of S. Pietro di Castello has stood on this site since at least the 7th century. In the very early days there was a annual festival here when betrothed couples came to the church, the girls carrying their dowries in a little chest. In 944 Istrian pirates stormed the island and abducted the girls, with their dowries. The Doge led his fleet, pursued them, and triumphantly returned with both the girls and their money. This bizarre scene was reenacted in the Festa delle Marie for five hundred years. Now S. Pietro is a Palladian church with a sleepy grassy campo in front of it. It was Venice’s cathedral for two hundred and fifty years, until Napoleon deposed the last Doge and made San Marco, formerly the state church of the doges, the cathedral.

    This is Gam Gam, my favourite kosher restaurant, just by the main entrance to the Ghetto. The origins of this word, which has spread all over the world, can be traced to the word gheto, which in Venetian means a foundry. This are was once an island where Venetian Jews were confined after sunset by decree. As Jews from all over Europe settled here each synagogue belonged to a different nationality—German, Italian, Spanish, and Sephardic. Last month it was heartbreaking to see armed soldiers guarding the ghetto against the violence of neo fascist anti-semitic groups like Casa Pound.

   Torcello is one of the more remote islands in the lagoon. Venetians call it Torre e Cielo, towers and sky. Once twenty thousand people lived here and there were convents, a bishop and a thriving wool industry; then people left as malaria struck and canals silted up. Torcello is now more commercial than it used to be with some shops, cafes and restaurants, but has very few permanent inhabitants. On our last visit we met one of them - an old man playing chess with himself outside a house with a ‘for sale’ sign. He asked Gordon to stay and play chess with him but we were worried we’d miss the last boat back to Venice so we hurried on (and have felt guilty ever since). This year we noticed his house was boarded up, with an ATM machine where his front door used to be.

   In 1678 Vivaldi was born in a campo, or piazza, round the corner from where we were staying, He taught the violin to the girls in a nearby foundling hospital, the Ospedale della Pietà, and was later promoted to music director. He was nicknamed il Prete Rosso, the Red Priest, because of his red hair (not his politics). It was frustrating to find that, of the vast quantity of covcerti and operas he wrote, only The Four Seasons seems to be regularly performed now in Venice. Many of his concerti were composed to celebrate splendid ceremonies like this one.

    Before  Napoleon conquered the Republic there were four great Ospedali in Venice that combined medical care with charity work. Their musical ensembles of orphaned girls, or cori , were remarkable in a society that disapproved of professional female musicians, apart from a few adored operatic divas. In 1743 Jean-Jacques Rousseau heard one of these choirs at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti and described their singing as “far superior to that of the opera, and which has not its like,either in Italy or the rest of the world.” These talented girls had to perform in raised galleries which had grating that hid the female singers and musicians from the eyes of the audience.

    On another walk we wandered into Ospedale. surely the most beautiful working hospital in the world. On the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo there appear to be two great  Renaissance churches next to one another; one of them, with a magnificent façade, is actually the main entrance to Venice’s hospital,  an extraordinary complex of ancient and modern buildings that includes the Historical Medical Library, the Museum of Anatomic Pathology and a fascinating Pharmacy Museum.

   This is the entrance to Arsenale, the shipyard of Venice during the great days of its empire. Founded in the twelfth century, it’s a huge walled area that still covers over a hundred acres and once employed two thousand workers. By the sixteenth century a galley could be built here and launched in a day. It’s guarded by the lions of St Mark and at the bottom of the door you can see sculptures of the Greek gods and allegorical figures. The statue of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, was added after the Venetian fleet helped to win the great sea battle of Lepanto in 1571. There’s also a bust of Dante and a quotation from Canto XXI of his Inferno, where he compares hell to the pitch made in the fiery depths of the Arsenal.

   April 25th is both the Feast of St Mark, the patron saint of the city, and also the anniversary of the day in 1945 when American troops liberated Venice from Nazi and Fascist domination. A series of plaques all over the city, near bridges, remind you of the names of individuals who died fighting fascism (similar plaques in the pavement all over Berlin are memorials to Jewish families who once lived there). !n Giardini, the gardens where much of the Biennale takes place, young Venetians sang traditional songs and complained about their housing problems. We watched as an elderly crowd assembled to reminisce about the war and then marched off carrying a banner celebrating the courage of the Partigiani, or Resistance.

     This photo shows the remembrance festival for Resistance fighters held last year in St Mark’s Square.

   The permanent residential population of Venice is now only 53,000 people, most of them older, and each year about a thousand residents move away from the city. Venice is visited  every year by twenty million tourists - who sometimes wonder why Venetians are less friendly than most other Italians. One hopeful development is the rise of the ASC, the Social Assembly for the House, a grassroots movement that helps families under threat of being thrown out of their homes by landlords who can, of course, make far more money out of renting their apartments to tourists than to young Venetians. Combined with the threat of climate change, there is a real risk that depopulation will turn Venice into a wondrous museum.


Anonymous said...

Well, one cannot ascertain if this is the correct place to comment since the above comment is not about Venice.

Anyway, I read a blog about Venice called, "I am not making this up." Yes, that is the correct name of the blog. It's full of the history of Venice and also features the author's keen observations, often amusing.

Anonymous said...

It looks as if I am not allowed to comment. The comment above mine has nothing to do with the subject. Why was it allowed?