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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Venice: History on the Fly

The rise and fall of the Venetian Republic, told in about twenty pictures.

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Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 1

Here's Ruskin on Torcello, the island on which a church was established in the earliest days of Venice.

"Seven miles to the north of Venice, the banks of sand, which near the city rise little above low-water mark, attain by degrees a higher level, and knit themselves at last into fields of salt morass, raised here and there into shapeless mounds, and intercepted by narrow creeks of sea.  One of the feeblest of these inlets, after winding for some time among buried fragments of masonry, and knots of sunburnt weeds whitened with webs of fucus, stays itself in an utterly stagnant pool beside a plot of greener grass covered with ground ivy and violets.  On this mound is built a rude brick campanile, of the commonest Lombardic type, which if we ascend toward evening (and there are none to hinder us, the door of its ruinous staircase swinging idly on its hinges), we may command from it one of the most notable scenes in this wide world of ours.  Far as the eye can reach, a waste of wild sea moor, of a lurid ashen grey; not like our northern moors with their jet-black pools and purple heath, but lifeless, the colour of sackcloth, with the corrupted sea-water soaking through the roots of its acrid weeds, and gleaming hither and thither through its snaky channels."

Atop the Torcello tower, Ruskin looked to the south and saw "a multitude of towers, dark, and scattered among square-set shapes of clustered palaces, a long and irregular line fretting the southern sky.  Mother and daughter, you behold them both in their widowhood,--TORCELLO, and VENICE."

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 2

At the height of its power, when Venice was Europe's entrepot for spices, silk, and jewels from the East, the city's economy rested on technological as well as political foundations.  If the Doge's palace is the obvious symbol of Venice as a political entity, the Arsenal is the symbol of the technology that sustained the republic.  The arsenal wall, shown here, encloses 80 acres--mostly a pond surrounded by docks and sheds. The name Arsenale, by the way, comes from the Arabic Darsina'a, "workshop."

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 3

The Rio Del' Arsenale leads to one of two entrances.

. A plaque to the right of the gate carries a quote from Dante's Divine Comedy speaking of the workshops in his day:

"As in the Arsenal of the Venetians
Boils in the winter the tenacious pitch
To smear their unsound vessels o'er again,

For sail they cannot; and instead thereof
One makes his vessel new, and one recaulks
The ribs of that which many a voyage has made;

One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,
This one makes oars, and that one cordage twists,
Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen."

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 4

Sixteen thousand people worked in the Arsenal in 1400.  Sixty years later this gateway, attributed to Antonio Gambello, was completed: it's one of Venice's first Renaissance buildings, and it was finished even as Venice was imperceptibly sinking into decline.  Constantinople had fallen to the Turks seven years earlier, and Venice would be at war with them until 1718. Meanwhile, the Portuguese were on the verge of finding an all-water route to the East.  By 1650, shipbuilding here would almost stop.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 5

Same place, bluer day.

The Bible in the lion's claws usually says "Peace be unto thee, Mark my Evangelist," but in this case, the book is appropriately closed. The inscription celebrates the momentary victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 6

Like so many of Venice's treasures, these lions came as loot, in this case from the Greek port of Piraeus in 1692, where the lion may have been a fountain.


Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 7

Another Greek lion, this one from 4th century B.C. Delos, though the head is later.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 8

Two centuries after Napoleon put an end to the senescent republic, the arsenal is still a closed area: an officer in whites crosses the bridge.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 9

Inside the naval museum, there's a triple lantern that once indicated the presence of an admiral on board a flagship galley.  In the 16th century, while it still controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean, Venice maintained a fleet of 45 naval galleys.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 10

A stern ornament from the flagship galley of Admiral Morosini, late in the day: 1684.

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A model of the last Bucintoro, the ceremonial galley used in the annual wedding of Venice and the sea.  Four men pulled on each of the 42 oars and brought the ship out into the Adriatic, where the doge cast a ring into the sea with the words, "We marry you, sea, in token of our true and perpetual dominion." The ceremony can be traced to a papal ring given in 1177, but the first Bucintoro was built in 1277.  This one, the last, was built in 1728.  The French burned it down to its hull in 1797.  It lingered for a while as a prison.  This model was built in 1828, when the French were gone but while Venice belonged to Austria.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 12

The Republic of Venice lingered until 1805, when Napoleon briefly included the city in his Kingdom of Italy, but its long decline wasn't pretty. In 1563, for example, it is said that a tenth of the 170,000 people living in Venice were prostitutes. This church had just been finished a few years earlier, about 1550: it's the  Church of Santa Maria Formosa, Mary the Well-Formed.  Ruskin attacked it as an exercise in cultural degeneration, a church "built to the glory of man, instead of the glory of God."  The tower was added in 1611 and includes an image of a mask that seemed to Ruskin to reveal Venice's complete depravity.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 13

Here it is, and here is what Ruskin says of it: "A head,--huge, inhuman, and monstrous,--learing in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or be beheld for more than an instant: yet let it be endured for that instant; for in that head is embodied the type of the evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline; and it is well that we should see and feel the full horror of it on this spot, and know what pestilence it was that came and breathed upon her beauty, until it melted away like the white cloud from the ancient fields of Santa Maria Formosa."

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Another such mask, this one on the church of St. Maria dei Derelitti, completed in 1674.  Ruskin called these faces "evidences of a delight in the contemplation of bestial vice, and the expression of low sarcasm, which is, I believe, the most hopeless state into which the human mind can fall."  He goes on: "In the ingenuity of indulgence, in the variety of vanity, Venice surpassed the cities of Christendom, as of old she had surpassed them in fortitude and devotion."  "Year after year," he writes," "the nation drank with deeper thirst from the fountains of forbidden pleasure, and dug for springs, hitherto unknown, in the dark places of the earth." The result was a people "incapable of happy jesting, capable only of that which is bitter, base, and foolish."

Henry James, in Italian Hours, will have none of this: Ruskin's book "might be supposed to emanate from an angry governess." Mary McCarthy takes a more tempered view: Venice, she writes in Venice Observed, had become a place of leisure and of leisure's lethal companion, boredom.

Italy: Venice: History on the Fly picture 15

The city remained hugely attractive, and by the early 19th century as many people visited annually as lived there.  It's about that way today, when 100,000 people visit the city on an average day. (The population of greater Venice, including the coastal towns annexed in 1926, is about a quarter-million.) Even death in Venice seems to have a special appeal.  Wagner died here. So did Stravinsky, whose grave, on Isola di S. Michele, is near another, older one marked with ballet slippers: it's Diaghilev.

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