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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Venice: Daily Life

In Venice Observed, Mary McCarthy says that there's nothing left to discover in this intensively studied city. If you're a layman looking at the city's cultural monuments, she may be right, but if you step outside the world of high culture she's wrong.  If the subject is daily life, in fact, you're almost another Stanley on the Congo.  Since the first Baedekers, after all, tourist guides have obsessed with high culture and ignored the rest.

The closest you can come to a guide in mundane matters is Margaret Plant's Venice: Fragile City, 1797-1997 (2002), which pays careful attention to the city's planning and development controversies. 

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No better place to start than at the same fish market visible from the Ca' D'oro.

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It's been here since the 14th century, but the present building, the Loggia Della Pescaria, is new, from 1907.

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Don't read Italian? No problem.

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Inside.

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Are there supermarkets in Venice?  Try finding the answer to that in your trusty Michelin!

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The adjoining Erbaria.

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Must be a meatmarket nearby.

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But if the city has supermarkets, how are deliveries made? Get up early and you can see for yourself.

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A tidy load of drinking water.  Water comes by pipe, too, and has since 1884.

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Ballet on the canals.

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Traffic jam.

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Pallets delivered by boat for the adjoining supermarket.

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Need it in a hurry?  Not to worry: DHL at your service--in this case, for glassware at the neighboring island of Murano. 

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There's a whole fleet of these.  If you were on the bridge, you could smell what it is.

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Yes, indeed: garbage pickup.

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Just in case: a fire boat.

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Shops that aren't on water--or contractors working on sites without waterfront--must move things the hard way.  (In the background, undergoing repairs, is the famous statue of Colleoni, a soldier of fortune whose will stipulated that Venice could have his fortune if it would erect a statue of him in St. Mark's.  A little fudge later, Venice took the fortune and put the statue here instead, next to the Giovanni and Paolo.)

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A few years later, the statue was unveiled.

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Colleoni wasn't going to win any pretty-boy contests, but that would have suited him just fine.

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The postman has it easy in his stroll through the narrow calli, or alleys.

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The bridges themselves need maintenance.

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There's the gondola option, but only at tourist prices.

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Ferries still cross the Grand Canal.  Most passengers stand, and habitual strap-hangers have to watch their balance. 

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Looking south from the Ca' D'oro toward the fish market and, on this side, to a floating dock that serves as a waiting room for a momentarily stopped vaporetto.  These boats arrived to Venice in the 1880s, much to the detriment of gondoliers and disgust of romantics. Here's how a contemporary described the transition: "For the last eight years an enemy has harassed the gondole, and brought down the gondolier's earnings from six or eight lire a day to two or three. This is the tribe of 'maledetti vaporetti': the steamboats which rush from station to station up and down the Grand Canal, shrieking warnings from brazen lungs to the timorous wooden craft, disturbing the water till it dashes in waves that shake their walls against the steps of the palazzi, dispelling that illusion which veils Venice in the magic mantle of her past; putting one, no matter how skilled the gondolier, in constant danger of his life; and carrying innumerable passengers whose fare is ten centesimi each. The lives of the gondole are shortened four years by the shock of angry waters as the steamboats pass, and one often hears the rower breathing grim and mighty curses at this dragon there is no saint left to kill." Sounds a lot like diatribes against that other infernal device, the railroad. (Laura Daintrey, "A Fallen Queen," in Murray's Magazine October, 1891, pp. 605-6.)

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Cars are left in garages at either end of the bridge across the lagoon.  It was first bridged in 1846, but that was for a railway; road traffic arrived about 1920.  Still, both cars and the railroad go no farther than the western edge of the city.

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Freighters start at the city's western edge, too.  Some load up here, at a deep-water dock near the parking garages. The first of these modern docks, the Stazione Marittima, opened in 1869; things are quiet these days because business has mostly shifted to docks at Marghera, on the mainland. 

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Meanwhile, there's work to be done keeping land and water separate.  Here, a barge pulls up one of the temporary and interlocking steel piles that can do the job.  You can see from the tilt of the barge that it's pulling hard.

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The pile is lifted free, and the barge almost reverts to a normal angle.

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Drive enough piles, and you can make the place look like terra firma.

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The best example is the Strada Nuovo, opened in 1871 as the Via Vittorio Emanuele.  It leads from the railway station toward the Rialto and approximately parallels the Grand Canal.

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Housing here reaches to a considerable height.

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Buttresses hint, however, at unsteady foundations.

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A self-climbing tower crane works to shore up the Church of San Lorenzo.

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The water's always nearby, here through a sottoportico, an underpass providing access under private property.  That's the Renaissance wing of the Doge's Palace on the other side.

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Another blind alley. Watch your head!

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A gondola emerges from the shadows and dapples.

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Is there any new housing? Sure. We start here on Guidecca.

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We're walking south, across the narrow island.

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We pass some low-rise buildings.

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And arrive at new apartment blocks on the south side of Giudecca.

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Shopping? The local co-op.

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Meanwhile, the tourists arrive, in this case by ship.

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Each one can deliver thousands of visitors to the tender mercies of shop and restaurant owners.

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Cruising past St. Marks.

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At anchor.

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So many eyes are irresistable to advertisers.

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Frustrating: visitors arrive at the city they've dreamed of and are immediately enticed to visit another.

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Pants on the square.

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Every wrapped building becomes a billboard.


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