Travel Log: 2014, Venice 2
We arrived in Venice on a sunny morning, but early afternoon dark clouds gathered overhead threatening to spoil our day. By late afternoon, rain sprinkled for an hour or so, but that didn’t stop us from wandering around and checking out the sights.
Venice is an intriguing city with unique and fascinating characteristics: its location and geophysical formation; its incomparable system of canals, calle (car-less streets), and quaint campi (squares); its history of economic, political, religious, and cultural influences; and its architecture, art, and literature. All of these bring forth a sense of wonder in visitors. And according to Donna Leon, an American writer who has lived in Venice for over thirty years, the Venetians themselves (as well as the characters in her books) feel awed by the magnificence of this city.
Through almost two thousand years, numerous well-known historical figures have stamped their names in the pages of Venetian chronicles. Roaming around Venice is akin to looking into these annals of history.
Piazza San Marco (San Marco Square)
First stop: Piazza San Marco and the famous Basilica San Marco.The church is the focal point in the square, and people and pigeons meander around despite the rain. And no worries about the square flooding this trip; acqua alta (tidal flooding that sometimes covers the square), usually occurs in late fall to early spring.
The original church, started in 828 and completed in 832, was built on the site of an earlier, smaller chapel dedicated to the first patron saint of Venice, St. Theodore. After that, destruction through fire (civil rebellion in 976), conquests (Napoleon, 1797), general aging and disrepair, and damage caused by the omnipresent pigeons required further rebuilding, remodeling, renovation, and restoration.
Pigeons? Yes, pigeons cause damage to the mosaics and façade of the basilica, and despite various attempts to remove the pigeons, none have succeeded.
St. Mark Arrives In Venice
San Marco Square is named after St. Mark, follower of Jesus and the writer of the Gospel of Mark. The story goes that in 828, two rather devious Venetian merchants spirited away the bones of St. Mark from Islamic Alexandria, Egypt. They then transported these sacred relics to Venice in a barrel of pork thereby avoiding detection by non-pork-eating Muslim government inspectors. Having these religious relics in Venice cemented ties to the Christian church in Rome (as opposed to the Byzantine branch in Constantinople) and guaranteed that many visitors would come to Venice to offer homage and prayers.
The Four Horses of San Marco Basilica
Scaffolding hides part of the basilica façade on my visit, but just beneath the scaffolding and just above the center arch and door, replicas of the four famous gilded bronze horses confiscated from the Hippodrome in Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul) after the conquest and looting by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade (1204).
Religious crusaders, seeking to remove Muslims from the Holy Land in the Fourth Crusade, detoured to Constantinople because of a deal they made with the Venetians: attack Constantinople in trade for warships built in Venice. The Venetian motives were not exactly pure. They reaped economic fortune by supplying the warships to the crusaders, then as Constantinople fell, the Venetians, conveniently standing by, stepped in to take control.
The motto, “to the victor belongs the spoils,” guided their behavior, and great Byzantine treasures, including these bronze horses, ended up in Venice. Valuable trading rights came to the Venetians as well. Venice became known as the “Queen of the Adriatic” and continued to prosper despite a round of the Black Death (1348-1349) that halved the population of the city.
Challenge to Venetian Domination
Jealousy and greed reign supreme, and Venice’s uncontested glory around the Mediterranean drew the ire of other world leaders. In 1508, Pope Julius II of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and Maximillian, the Roman Emperor, set aside their own differences to take on this growing menace in Venice. King Louis XII of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon, also mightily disturbed by the boldness of the Venetians and their trade monopoly in the Mediterranean, joined forces against Venice in the League of Cambria. Together these leaders and their armies destroyed Venice’s economic grip on the region.
The Ottoman Turks, an even greater threat, moved into the vacuum (1522) left by the League of Cambria and finished what remained of the Venetians and their centuries of glory. Another round of the Black Death plague further weakened Venice (1575), and it never regained its controlling power in the Adriatic and Mediterranean.
The French, led by Napoleon, still interested in Italian territory, came back in 1797 and lay siege to the Venice. After taking control of the city, Napoleon promptly sent those four bronze horses to Paris as his victory spoils.
In 1798, Napoleon traded off his interest in Venice to the Austrians (1798) in the Treaty of Campoformio, although he returned again in 1804. The Austrians again occupied Venice in 1814 under the Treaty of Fontainebleau. After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the Austrians again occupied Venice under the Treaty of Fontainebleau. The Austrians arranged for the return of the four horses from France, and they now reside inside the basilica.
Freed from Austrian rule in 1866, Venice became part of the new united Italy under Vittorio Emanuele.
Pomp and Circumstance in the Square
Now in 2014, I try to imagine the pomp and circumstance what might have taken place in Piazza San Marco in earlier times. Fortunately, Medieval and Renaissance artists give us some idea of the glorious events that took place here. In this next public domain piece of art, Gentile Bellini (1429-1507) portrays the religious “Processione della Vera Croce a Piazza San Marco a Venezie (1496). Imagine the excitement, the noise, the splendor, the magnificence of so many clerics and officials gathered in the square. Bellini’s masterpiece is on display at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
Reach out and touch 2000 years of history in Venice. This vibrant city will meet every expectation you have for beauty and excitement.
You can read more about Venice here: Venice, Italy: Riding the Water Bus to San Marco Square