Story About Venice
A city located across 118 islands is interesting enough. Add in a rich history of secrecy, power struggles, wealth, conspiracy, art and science, and you get story about Venice.
“La Dominante,” “Serenissima,” “Queen of the Adriatic,” “City of Masks,” “City of Bridges,” “City of Canals,” “The Floating City,” are just some of the nicknames for Venice.
Venice is also in a special way mystical and mysterious, a city of shadows and moonlight. The city of writers, poets, painters, composers, dreamers …
The two most famous Venetian writers and adventurers are certainly Marco Polo and Giacomo Casanova, but Venice is the site of numerous other immortal literary works, such as Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello and the comedy The Venetian Merchant, Voltaire’s Candide, Man’s Death in Venice etc …
Venice is a city where many movie heroes fought against bad guys like James Bond (not once, but three times in movies – From Rusia with Love, Moonraker and Casino Royale), Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, etc.. In Venice takes place a part of one of my favourite movies Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. Enumerating all the works where Venice appears is really impossible.
Also, it is a city of artists. Giorgone, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, are most talented masters of so called Venetian school that influenced on the later painters, and most famous are Velasquez in Spain and Rubens in the Netherlands.
Middle ages super power
Probably it is difficult to imagine today, historically Venice has been something that we could call super-power today. It was a powerful republic, with the huge navy that protected the greatest source of its power and wealth – trade.
The Venetian republic in the 15th and 16th century was at the height of power, when the navy of 3300 ships, controlled most of the trade in the Mediterranean.
At the end of the 15th century, 180,000 people lived in Venice, and it was the second largest city in the world known then, immediately after Paris. In the area under its administration there were 2.1 million inhabitants, which doesn’t sound so impressive nowadays, but only for the comparison in the whole of England there were only 3 million inhabitants in the same time.
Even today around Venice, and alongside the Croatian and Greek coast, there are remains of Venetian fortresses. Fortresses of Bergamo, Peschiera del Garda and Palmanova are highlight of the Venetian fortification art and today they are on the list of UNESCO – World Heritage Sites. How good those fortresses were, the best example is Heraklion Fortress in Crete, which has lived 21 years under Turkish siege. That was the second longest siege in the history.
In its time, Venice was so powerful that it fought as many as 7 wars with the Ottoman Empire. The discovery of the New world, which Venice indirectly provoked, moved trade routes from Mediterranean to the Atlantic and the power and importance of Venice slowly started to, until the 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte completely abolished Venice as a state.
In the historical core of Venice, there are about 60,000 inhabitants today mostly older, and this number is constantly decreasing. 50 years ago, 120,000 people lived there. According to some estimates by 2030. there will be no inhabitants in Venice, but it will be some kind of tourist park. The most important reason for this is continually sinking of Venice, namely every year the city sinks 1.5-2 mm. Another reason is the aqua alta, or the tide that floods the city streets. The third reason is the expensive maintenance of buildings, especially the facade.
Limited with space, but long-lived and rich, in touch with the east, Venice has developed its specific Venetian Gothic architecture. The most important examples are Doge’s Palace, Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti and the Ca ‘d’Oro in the city. Even though the most important, Gothic architecture is not the only one there, Renaissance, Baroque and numerous other artistic styles can be found there as well.
Due to the lack of space, builders had to rely on ingenuity, and therefore the world’s narrowest street is in Venice – Calletta Varisco, which is in its narrow section, only 53 cm wide.
World’s First Casino
Not only science and art came from the wealth, but vices as well. From the Venice the world has given something that is commonplace in every city today – the casino. In 1638 Ridotto was opened – something that we could call the first casino in the world. Although it was not called a casino, in every meaning of word was predecessor of modern casinos. The city government founded it to control gambling during the carnival, and was closed after the century and a half, because it significantly impoverished the local gentleman.
City of Masks and Secrets
We have already mentioned that Venice is a city of secrets, in fact its success lies in the skilful concealment and preservation of secrets. It is no surprise then, why the wearing of masks and carnivals was so popular in Venice.
The carnival tradition began in the 12th century after the victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia. Because of the great tendency of Venetians to hide under masks city authorities had to intervene, and in 1268 they prohibited wearing masks.
Laws about wearing masks have changed over the centuries, and in the 18th century it was allowed to wear masks only 6 months a year. The citizens knew how to take advantage of and they were wearing the masks on not so profound places, as shown by Pietro Longhi’s “The Ridotto”, where one can see how masks were used in the first casino in the world. The masks were popular even among prostitutes, but within ladies of high society, because they was able to make their idle everyday more interesting, without being exposed to the risk of recognising.
Otherwise, the word carnival comes from two Latin words carne and vale, which literally means goodbye to meat. That is why Carnival was held during Lent. With the repulsion of the republic and coming under the rule of the Habsburg monarchy, the carnival was abolished, and neither Mussollini had too much understanding of that custom, so during his reign of Italy the carnival was forbidden as well. It was in 1979 when the carnival tradition has been restored and since then it has been held every year. It is visited by about 3 million people annually. Otherwise, around 18 million tourists visit Venice annually, which an average of 50,000 tourists a day, but this number is significantly higher during the spring and summer months.
Secret of Glass
Another great secret is related to the glass. If you’ve ever heard about Murano glass, and if you did not already know it, it owes its name to Murano Island – small archipelago in the Venetian lagoon, just a mile north of the Venice.
From 13th until the end of the 18th century, Murano was the European decorative glass production centre, and was particularly famous for the chandeliers. Venice was keen to keep a monopoly on knowledge, so for a few centuries only in Murano artisans knew and produced crystal glass or, in other words mirrors, as well as many other glassware products: enamelled glass (smalto), glass with gold threads (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milky glass (lattimo), which was replacement for Chinese porcelain, as well as imitation of precious stone made of glass. Glass was a very sought-after, and therefore a expensive product, which significantly contributed to the Venetian economy, and was then known as Venetian glass.
In order to protect their secret, in the 13th century all the producers were moved to the island of Murano and they were granted a whole range of privileges, unusual for that time, like immunity from persecution like patricians, their daughters could marry in the most prominent patrician families, and they could wear a sword like a patrician. The price for that was – they must never leave the island, under threat of death. There was a strict ban on the employment of foreign workers in the glass industry, as well. This system worked successfully for several centuries, but with time, some craftsmen managed to escape and sell their secrets to other cities in Italy, and later in England, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, which will become the centre of Europe’s glassworks in the 18th century.
Secret of Arsenal
The Venetian republic has been in many ways ahead of time, and Arsenal is perhaps the best example of it. Arsenal was the heart of naval, merchant and military power of Venice, because within Arsenal there were all the shipyard, warehouses and armouries.
At the height of its importance it spread over 45 hectares, which was about 10% of the city itself and was surrounded with 3200 m long walls. It is interesting to mention that these walls have absolutely no fortification or defensive importance, from the sea was impossible to approach Arsenal, because of the shallow lagoon water. The walls served as protection from prying eyes of visitors from outside. As with many other things, Republic was jealously guarded its secrets, but this one was huge and her actuall power rested on it – this was the first industrial production in the world, unrecorded to the Ford’s assembly line in the 20th century.
Within the Arsenal production was specialized and standardized so that the vessel can be produced in a single day. Channels inside the Arsenal served as an assembly line which enabled a boat can be moved from one stage of production to the other, until it was finished. At one point in the Arsenal, there were 16,000 employees, and the Republic guaranteed them salaries, even when they were sick and old, which illustrates the importance of shipbuilding. Apart from this, another detail shows how shipbuilding was important. Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest scientists and engineers at the time a was hired as a technical advisor to the Arsenal. Based on experiences gathered there he wrote a book on strength and resistance of materials, the first of that kind in the world. About the Arsenal Dante wrote in the Divine Comedy, in the 21st chapter of Hell, he says:
Quale nell’arzana de’ Viniziani
bolle l’inverno la tenace pece
And as in the Venetian arsenal
In the middle of the 15th century, at the height of its power, the Republic had over 3.000 merchant or warships, and in the Arsenal there were more than a hundred ships under construction or repair at any time.
Today Arsenal is owned by the Republic of Italy and is the venue for the Venice Biennale, the largest exhibition of contemporary art in the world.
Greeting Ciao originates from Venice
Venetians should be credited for the emergence of greeting ciao, who took up residence in the vast majority of the world’s languages. Ciao has dual meaning, like “hello” and “goodbye” at the same time, which makes it similar to shalom in Hebrew, salaam in Arabic or aloha in Hawaiian. It comes from the Venetian phrase s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su, which literally means “I am your slave”. Of course, the term had no literal meaning, but expressed good will among the associates (similar to “at your service” in English). Over the time, this term shortened to s-ciavo, and later to ciao, which spread throughout the north in the 19th century, and after unification of Italy to the whole of country. In the 20th century, Italian emigrants brought this greeting with them, especially in the US and South America where emigration was most prominent. Later, the movie industry and popular culture did the rest.
Venice is also a city of gondolas, unusual small boats that elegantly navigate the canals. Legend says while sailing a gondola under the bridge, you should kiss the person you love because that means eternal love. Today there are about 400 gondolas, while at the peak of their popularity, at the turn of the 15th to the 16th century, there were about 10.000, and before the fall of the Republic there were about 4.000. It is interesting to compare today’s gondolas with those on the paintings of Venetian painters. There one can see large and small gondolas, colourful and ornate. In other words, the gondola represented a showcase for all the luxuries, riches and power that the Venetians possess. That was why the dodge had to intervene. In the second half of the 17th century, the Decree for the Suppression of Displacement was adopted, defining today’s shape of the gondola: black, length 11 m, width 1,75 m and weight 700 kg.
There is so much to say and write about Venice, but perhaps the best description of Venice was given by Marcel Proust. “When I went to Venice, I discovered that my dream had become- incredibly, but quite simply – my address.”