Breakfast in the Hotel Bauer is generally taken on the patio facing the water. Our rate included a mouth watering display of fruits, pastries and a hot selection of eggs, sausages, bacon and tomatoes.
Sadly, I came down with an almighty cold during the night so, rugged up and red-nosed, I had to sit inside. We enjoyed the view through the window though and Susanne ventured outside to take photos when I went back to our room to prepare for the main event – a guided tour of St Mark’s Square and the historic buildings surrounding it.
Our professor was waiting in the lobby, as arranged, at ten o’clock. I was a little surprised to see an elderly gentleman, as most of our guides have been quite young, and usually female. I’m sorry that I didn’t record his name as he was such a fountain of knowledge and his love of Venice was palpable.
From my hastily scribbled notes, here are a few gems.
From 697 AD Venice was part of the Byzantine Empire. When San Marco was built, between 1063 and 1093 this Byzantine influence was still in effect and the Arabic skills and tastes are obvious in many features of the building. I was keen to learn about the ancient floors, covered with exquisite and intricate patterns of marble. Our professor explained that the section I particularly admired came from Persia in the 14th century and was laid by experts who had worked on palaces and mosques there. Today, this section of floor is markedly uneven due to the amount of movement it has endured, but the art of perspective and the use of colours and geometric patterns, although faded, are still much admired.
Persian influences can also be seen in the use of eagles (birds of power) and in some of the figures used as decoration on the walls. Persian figures are plumper than the very thin Byzantine ones.
These marble floors were a major part of my reason for seeking an educated guide. On a previous visit, with just fifteen minutes allowed inside the church, and with a regular tourist group guide who had no idea how to answer my questions on the history of the marble flooring, I had come out feeling totally frustrated.
Sadly, photographs were forbidden so I planned to buy a book about the floors and their history at the end of our tour. If only we’d thought for Susanne to ‘accidentally’ click on her camera as she held it pointing to her feet. The books were all so heavy we couldn’t possibly lug them around in our cases for the next few weeks, and the photographs inside the books were of paintings on the walls. I managed to buy one postcard that captured frescoes on walls and ceilings, with masses of gold leaf (previously covering every internal surface except the floors) and a small section of flooring. As with our other Italian ’No Photos’ venues, Google supplies an amazing number and variety of illegally captured images which I only discovered after returning to Australia.
Another interesting snippet of trivia from the professor; Venice was a stopping point for those travelling to the Crusades. Having knits in one’s hair and the resultant blood running down one’s face, supposedly made the crusaders more like the suffering Jesus, and therefore more worthy to join the war against the Infidels.
In the Middle Ages Venice was the heart of business and trade for much of Europe. Italy was not then a single country and Venetians regarded themselves as separate from and superior to, the rest of the Italian states. Its situation and its fleets, made trade with the rest of Europe and with the Middle East, fairly easy; Venice became the hub with ships from all over the known world, passing through. People of all colours and nationalities were accepted and appreciated for the money and for the learning that they brought to Venice.
Another thing to understand about Venice, is that, being an international port and welcoming trade from around the world, meant that Bubonic plague was introduced through ships and the rats they carried, into Venice and often from there to the rest of Europe. The outbreak in 1630 almost decimated the city.
The Vatican disapproved of Venice and the freedom that its citizens were allowed, particularly in areas of learning. Being part of Byzantium during its early years gave this city state a peculiarity which is evident even today. In 1501 the first pocket sized bible was printed in Venice, making it possible for those outside the monasteries and churches, to do their own reading and interpreting of what had been the monopoly of the Catholic institutions.
The first Talmud was printed in Venice in 1527 and the first copy of the Koran for general reading appeared in 1528.
This freedom lasted for only six months, as the heads of churches objected to the public and lay teachers being able to read it. In 1536 the Library was built. Venice was determined to allow knowledge to flow to its citizens.
Stories of deceit and intrigue that could be carried on undetected by partners, both marital and in business, lend a certain thrill or fear, to our impressions of Venice.
Take those masks and the parties where one is supposed to be able to flirt and more, undetected. Venetians seem, even today, to regards those who bring in their livelihood, (mainly the tourists and the big ships) with disdain. Even more than Paris, I felt barely tolerated by most of the locals.
We know that Venice is built on reclaimed land that is slowly sinking and that the beautiful old buildings have to be continually propped up as the original foundations crumble. St Mark’s Square appeared to be stable and above the water level, but in winter time, clear of tourists, even this area can be subject to flooding. This, of course means that the surrounding buildings, including the famous church, have often had their ground floors under water.
We saw evidence of this in the Doge’s Palace, which we had to hurry through as the professor had another engagement after us. Building on the palace began in 1340 and ended in 1505. The Doge had to be rich, old and take no salary for the work he did in governing the city. He also had to donate works of art to the church and the public. His position was for life (I guess hence the ‘old’ requirement) and each Doge was chosen by a council representing the wealthy local families. Rules ensured that the position did not become hereditary.
Rather like the Vatican, this building leads from one grand room to another, decorated with paintings by Tintoretto, Titian, Heronymus Bosch and others of that school who created such vast scenes that I got lost and overwhelmed, trying to look at them. Like everything in this palace, the intention is to blast the visitor with a sense of the power of the owner. After two or three vast, tourist crammed rooms, I’m afraid I switched off.
A little light entertainment was essential after our full-on history and culture lesson so we left the professor to hurry off to his next engagement and headed for the obligatory ice-cream. Most people rave about Italian coffee, but for Susanne and me, it was the tempting array of ice-cream flavours that had us
charging across the wide, crowded square. I usually chose pistachio and some other nut. This was Susanne’s treat for me every day, generally after lunch in a cafe, chosen for its delicious aromas and what looked like food cooked on site. We avoided the sort of touristy places displaying pictures of plated food with English translations. They seemed to us like the Italian equivalent of Kentucky Fried.
Then, eating our ice-creams, we walked along the arcade of shops that line one side of the famous
square. Of course, everything here is double the price of shops a street or two away from the church, but nowhere else had such enticing masks, or shoes, glassware and jewellery. Even the tacky souvenir shops had class in this part of Venice.