I took yet another wrong turn and looked around. It was 10am, but down here in the maze-like bowels of Venice it could’ve been 10pm. I’d been up since 4am and the caffeine from the cup of coffee on the plane was wearing thin. Breakfast would’ve been lovely and there was certainly the tantalising smell of food in the air, but following my usually-acute sense of smell had already led me into three dead ends.
A couple of geriatric Italians grinned at me toothlessly from a doorway. Even if I attempted to ask them for directions in Italian they would feign illiteracy.
I stared at them and grinned back, making the shape of a gun with my index finger and thumb. My over-sized canines had done most of the work, but I had to admit: the finger-gun was a nice touch. Pointing it at the pensioners I asked: ‘Dov’è Al Doge Beato?‘ They showed me, with a nervous succession of frail arm movements, where I might find my humble abode for the next two days: The Blessed Duke, the Happy Duke — something like that. It sounded cheesy, but it was charming– everything in Venice is lovely.
Perhaps ‘lovely’ isn’t quite the right word; ‘quaint’ better describes the almost-complete dilapidation of the city. As I walked on, almost everything is in an awful state of repair. There’s something about floating in the middle of a warm and windy salt-water lagoon that really eats away at the paint and brickwork. A few bridges and labyrinthine turns later, I stood outside my hotel: a canal-side, turn-of-the-millennium building — and I’m not talking about a few years ago! My room looked out over a canal on one side, and had a floor-to-ceiling double-door leading out onto an ancient stone balcony on the other. It wasn’t cheap, but considering nothing in Venice is, I thought I’d splash out.
‘You can’t miss Piazza San Marco, just head towards…’ I zoned out as he begun gesturing wildly with his hands. It was obviously an Italian thing, pointing and gesticulating; some kind of sign language that I wasn’t privy to. He noticed the blank look on my face. ‘I’ll get you a map.’ Armed with my map and camera and finger-gun I looked around and then at the map, trying to catch my bearings. Picking one of the three paths that headed south at random I felt like one of my other namesakes, Sebastian Cabot. He’d been a major player in Venice back in the day and he’d probably had less difficulty navigating Venice than me — he ended up exploring Brazil for the King of Spain! — but I gave it my best shot. I’d already decided ahead of time that ‘getting lost in Venice’ would be one of the primary objectives of my trip. Losing myself as I cut between two buildings that were no more than half a meter apart; disappearing amongst the endless serpentine alleys, lost to the world. Venice isn’t big, but you only need walk 50 meters off the beaten path, turn a few corners, and you’ll find yourself alone, standing beneath the imposing facade of a Gothic church or Renaissance house.
First up was a trip to to the Piazza — the only real open space in central Venice and the home of most major landmarks in Venice. There’s also a huge clock tower in the middle which, as you’d expect, grants a spectacular view of the ancient core of Venice.
There are museums and churches aplenty in Venice, much like every major city in Italy, but they pale in comparison to the ones in Florence and Rome. I could easily spend hours writing about the 50 churches that I visited during my trip, but that’d be boring! (Unless you like churches a lot… like me!) Perhaps you can now understand where my recent interest in dissecting religion has come from — you can only spend so long basking in the shadow of such an ancient, powerful institution — Roman Catholicism — before something goes ‘pop’.
Venice was home to the very first Jewish Ghetto, a Venetian word that probably derives from ‘iron foundry’, or a corruption of ‘Judaca’, the name given to the streets in which the Jews were confined to in Venice. This is where Jewish segregation all began, though this ghetto didn’t enforce labour like later incarnations around the world — it was merely separation from the aggressive and violent Christians. Set up by the incumbent Duke to protect rather than enslave, the Jews probably sought refuge there — they definitely weren’t free to leave however! It was also around this time that Jews became, um, Jewish: Catholic law prevented money-lending, but Jewish law did not. Jews also became the best doctors because most medical texts at the time were in Arabic, a language that Italians and Venetians struggled to understand.
The Venetian Ghetto existed until Napoleon came along in 1797 and removed all of the gates that had penned them in for 250 years, though some early documents could put it over 700 years! All that remain are the hinges that held those gates, but the Jewish love of money lives on! (Remember, it’s not our fault though — blame the Pope!)
It was a little sad, walking around the dirty, tired streets of Venice, a city that had once been the most affluent city state the world has ever seen. The Queen of the Adriatic was one of its many names, a name that makes you wonder just how opulent and vibrant the city had been 600 years ago. For centuries, Venice was ruled by merchants – a republic, led by aristocratic merchants, their sole purpose being to make more money (something they did very well. What most people don’t know is that Venice actually held an empire — a small one, mainly consisting of the Aegean islands Crete and Cyprus, but an empire nonetheless. They had a sizable military force, and their navy of 3,000 ships were almost invulnerable in their stronghold of a lagoon. Most were merchant ships but often converted into warships when piracy flared up in the East, or when they played a large part in the Forth Crusade — the crusade often viewed as the final schism between Catholic and East Orthodox religions — a role in a war that would ultimately spell the end of the Byzantine empire. Not bad for an unnavigable flyspeck of an island!
And the scary bit? It was all made possible with money; a leader with almost unlimited resources and support from a loyal, trusting republic: that’s capitalism.