Saturday, 1 August 2015

San Marco

Venice on Regatta day [© P.A.G. 1998]
Venice on Regatta Day... We threaded our way with the throng of tourists through the shady, narrow streets.

This is what Ruskin (the famous art critic who wrote The Stones of Venice, and infamous for the non-consumation of his marriage) said in 1851 when passing through the Calle Rampani (the calli are the narrow paths that thread through the city):

A paved road, seven feet wide, full of people and echoing with the cries of the vendors...

...above a confused tangle of shutters, balconies, and chimneys... and there the leaves of a fig tree rise up over a low wall that encloses an inner courtyard and take your eye upwards to the narrow strip of blue sky above it all.'

[Sources: Fratelli Alinari Archives, Florence - the text identifies the street in Ruskin's description, though the wording differs slightly from that in The Stones of Venice vol. II, probably as a result of translation via Italian. See also Homage to Venice by Italo Zannier pp 46-47 which gives this source and also a sharp, monochrome photo of Calle Rampani.]

I'm indebted, as I have been in recent posts of this blog, to Luigi Boatto for another fine image - in this case a picture of the Calle Rampani dating from 1927.
Calle Rampani  [courtesy Luigi Boatto]

The street may be named after a rich nobleman who died in 1319, leaving his estate to Serenissima, the old Venetian Republic, which ceased to exist in 1797, when the last Doge, Lodovico Manin, surrendered to Napoleon's all-conquering army.

Venice's narrow streets led us that morning towards the Piazza San Marco.  

The body of the evangelist St Mark was acquired in 828 by two merchantmen who robbed the saint's tomb in Alexandria, a city at that time under Muslim rule.  They carried the saint's corpse in a basket to the harbour, where their ship was waiting. 

To deter port inspectors from investigating the foul smell emanating from the vessel they set the basket deep in the hold of the ship and covered it with cabbage leaves and salted pork - the latter guaranteed to cause any devout Muslim to beat a hasty retreat.

But do the bones residing in the Basilica di San Marco really belong to the saint?    I would, personally, believe the story.  The merchants claimed they bribed the Greek guards in order to gain access to the tomb, cut open the shroud, and replace the corpse of St Mark with that of an obscure, lesser saint - St Claudian.  It has the ring of truth, don't you agree?

Johnathan Thompson and Nicholas Pyke apparently did not, and in their article of 2004 in The Independent they stated that:

'It could be one of the worst cases of mistaken identity ever known. A British historian is claiming that the
venerated tomb of St Mark in Venice contains not the great evangelist but the body of the most famous warlord in history.'

The British historian mentioned is Professor Andrew Michael Chugg...   and he reckoned that someone had beaten the tomb robbers to it. An eminent authority on Alexander the Great, he believed that St Mark's body was replaced by that of Alexander's.  Thompson and Pyke explain the claim as follows:

'Andrew Chugg, the author of several books on Alexander, believes the confusion occurred when the warrior's body was disguised as St Mark to protect it from destruction during a Christian uprising.'

They quote Professor Chugg:

"It's a strong possibility that somebody in the Church hierarchy, perhaps even the Patriarch himself, decided it might be a good plan to pretend the remains of Alexander were those of St Mark."

Not convinced? - Well, neither am I!  The arrival of the corpse of St Mark in Venice was naturally a matter for great celebration and was to add much to the city's fame over the centuries.  This, naturally, caused some envy in other Italian cities - for example, Bari.  On the 9th of May 1087 a ship was dispatched from Bari to Myra to acquire the body of St Nicholas, the vessel duly returning with about half, with many small fragments left behind.  These were eventually acquired by the Venetians during the First Crusade, and are now in the church of San Nicolò al Lido in Venice.  The saint was proclaimed protector of the Venetian fleet and also the protector of the zattieri who plied the commercial rafting trade on the waters of the Piave River.  DNA tests have confirmed that the various bits of St Nicholas residing in Venice and Bari are from the same corpse.  

More famously St Nicholas, via Holland and America (where he forsook his forest green for the colours of the Coca Cola Company), became our modern 'Santa Claus'.  But Santa Claus is in demand in his homeland, and in Turkey they want their saint back - Myra (in modern times Demre) is part of Turkey.

Crowds outside the Basilica di San Marco in September 1998  [© P.A.G. 1998]

St Mark's square is the most famous piazza in Venice.  If you look above the entrance to the Basilica di San Marco you might believe you are looking at the four famous 'bronze horses', but in truth they are replicas - the originals being moved (to avoid the threat of corrosion by air pollution) for the last time to the Museo Marciano.   

The history of these much-travelled horses is a complicated one.    We know for sure that they were taken by the Venetians from the roof of the Hippodrome in Constantinople during the looting and sacking of Constantinople in 1204, at the time of the Fourth Crusade.  In 1797 the French, in their turn, looted Venice and carried away  the bronze horses to Paris, where they were placed atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel as indicated in the blog post entitled 'A Tale of Two Cities'.  They were returned to St Mark's Square in 1815, before being taken finally, in 1979, for safe preservation in the Museo Marciano.

Statues on the roof of  the Basilica di San Marco  [© P.A.G. 1998]

Atop the Basilica are lines of statues, and in the centre, between the towers and guarded by six angels, stands St Mark.  

The Campanile di San Marco [© P.A.G. 1998]

There are many things to see in the Piazza di San Marco - the campanile is one of many.  

But I was having a 'day off' from my researches for my book, 
The Door of Perarolo,
seeing Venice in the company of friends, and I was therefore content just to amble around taking in the atmosphere on a special, sunny day in the magical city.

In future years I was to return again and again to explore the city in more depth.

Had I been not with friends enjoying a rest from my researches, the place I would have made straight for would have been the Arsenal.  

John Stockdale's 1800 map (see the last post for the map in full) shows the layout of the docks (the far right) of the Arsenal as it was at that time.  Marked 1, 2 and 3 are the Canal di Novissima Grande (newest dockyard), the Canal di Arsenale nuovo (from which the latter was extended) and Canal di Arsenal Vecchio - where all the galleys were made.

The map below shows the design of the Arsenal in 1798 (from the cover of Mario Marzari's splendid book about Andrea Salvini's projects for Napoleon's Ministry of Marine).  Via the Italy Guides' website you can stand on the bridge outside the entrance to the Arsenal Vecchio and take a 360 degree tour of the area at the bottom left of this image; you can see the famous lions (looted in 1687 by the Venetians from Piraeus) that guard the gates, discussed by Fortin and Maillot in The Door of Perarolo.  You can turn 180 degrees and see the length of the canal used to send the completed galleys to the lagoon.  Venice had, for centuries, the most powerful navy operating in the Mediterranean.   Monarchs visiting Venice were taken to the Arsenal to be shown galleys being completed on a production line at a rate that would have been the envy of Henry Ford.
Part of Gianmaria Maffioletti's 1798 plans for the Arsenal.

Instead of visiting the Arsenal, we made our way from the piazza to the waterfront of the lagoon. Despite the appearance of tranquillity in the scene captured in the picture below, all is not well in Venice.  The city, built on its wooden piles (see the last post of this blog) is sinking slowly into the waters of the lagoon.

Waterfront near the Piazza di San Marco [© P.A.G. 1998]

The water lapping over the paving in the photo above is as nothing compared with what was seen at time of extreme high tides at that time.  I visited Venice on another occasion to find the Piazza di San Marco flooded, and a line of steel-legged Formica-topped tables set out to form a walkway for pedestrians to use; these to allowed them to catch the vaporetti - the water-taxis that bus people cheaply and efficiently around the city.   But a new anti-flood system is now in place, so there is hope...

Not far from this spot is performed, each year, the Processione del Redentore (my thanks go to Luigi Boatto for sending me the image below).  The dome in the far distance in the photo above is that of Lbasilica del Santissimo Redentore (Most Holy Redeemer in English).  The basilica was built to honour a pledge made by Doge Sebastiano Venier during the plague that decimated the city's population in the years 1575-77.  Petitioned by the plague-afflicted, he pledged the construction of the church on the island of Giudecca if God would see fit to call a halt to their dreadful suffering.  The Doge declared Venice to be free from plague on Sunday the 21st July 1578.  

The Processione del Redentore in 1910 [courtesy Luigi Boatto]

The basilica, designed by Palladio (who died in 1580), was completed in 1592.  There were around 300 churches in Venice then, though many were lost during the French occupation.  

Every year, each July, the island is connected to Venice by a pontoon bridge built on barges which carries the religious procession over the Canal della Giudecca to the basilica for the thanksgiving service.  The vaporetto stop Redentore is marked on the map below.

The Canale della Giudecca [Dorling Kindersley: VENICE pocket map and guide]

The vaporetti that ply the waters of the lagoon exist in many different forms, depending on their use.  The one that can be seen in the of the waterfront photo above - to the left of the image - is a double-deck motonave, used to ferry people out to the Lido - precisely where we head for in the next blog post. 

Note: This blog supports readers of The Door of Perarolo, a historical novel set in Cadore, Italy in the early nineteenth century.  You can examine feedback from readers in the UK here and in the US here.  The Door of Perarolo is a Kindle ebook comprising 140 chapters.  It can be downloaded from Amazon sites worldwide. The launch post of this blog gives further details.  The second post provides links to maps, etc.

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