In about 1063, a group of Venetian statesmen and religious leaders decided to build a cathedral on the existing grounds of an even older church, the plan being to house and honour the remains of the saint, Mark the Evangelist; the original building became the crypt of the new, magnificent basilica. Erected over a number of years (the gold mosaic floor alone took centuries), by a range of local craftsmen, the cathedral is attached to the adjacent Doge’s Palace and was originally its chapel.
Saint Mark (San Marco in Italian) is the patron saint of Venice, and the cathedral is now home to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. Designed and built in the Italian-Byzantine style, St. Mark’s is nicknamed Chiesa d’Oro, Church of Gold, thanks to its extensive use of gold within its incredible details.
Thanks to rising waters in the mid-1500s, the crypt was closed off and raised to prevent future flooding, during which time the wooden box containing the remains of Saint Mark was moved from its underground sarcophagus and re-situated under the altar.
Visitors do not have to pay admission to Saint Mark’s in general, but specific parts of the building can only be entered by paying a fee; these funds go toward the endless restoration and upkeep of the basilica, one of the most famous churches in the world. If you go there, please remember that it remains a functioning place of worship and be respectfully quiet.
The Grand Canal in Venice is indeed grand; it is wide and deep enough to take ocean-going vessels, but these have become a local issue as the Grand Canal is busy with smaller traffic in its role as the main water thoroughfare in the city. Curved in a reverse “S” configuration, the Grand Canal is just under 4km (2.4mi) long, and varies in width from 30 to 90 metres (98-295 feet).
Its depth, at an average of 5 metres (16 feet), is sufficient to support hulls of varying sizes, but as aforementioned, cruise ships are a testy matter with residents (55,000 people live in the core of Venice), causing too much wake and noise, and dumping tens of thousands of tourists at once, more than the contained area can manage.
This is the main and central water traffic corridor in Venice, with floating water-buses, gondolas and small personal craft, motorized and not. It runs from the basin at San Marco, through the centre of town to the Venetian Lagoon near Santa Lucia Railway Station. It’s a conduit, flanked with residences, restaurants and shops, and dotted with bridges, the most famous being Rialto, which itself is lined with boutiques and kiosks.
Visitors who opt for a ride along the canal will view the classic Italian-Byzantine architecture of Venice and get a real sense of the layout of the city’s core. It is especially lovely at sunset with lights reflecting off the water. Watch for the annual regatta held on the Grand Canal; it’s a popular event!
The plaza, or open courtyard, that envelopes the entrance to Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice is wide and long, and serves as much more than a means of getting to the basilica. Unfortunately, when flooding occurs, usually twice a year in Venice, Piazza San Marco is often the first (and sometimes worst) hit. It rarely deters the locals, so roll up your pant legs and carry on.
The Piazza San Marco is an open space, ringed with trendy little cafés and ristoranti situated on the lower floors of the surrounding buildings. Buskers and musical performances frequent the square, entertaining walkers and diners equally. It’s delightful to sip a Campari and soda or Limoncello while being serenaded by a string trio (many of these play the Baroque music that was the cornerstone of musical progress and prowess during the height of the Renaissance, focussed right here in Venice).
It is a place for people watching, entertainment, eating and drinking pleasures, all with a direct view, just across the piazza of the world-famous, stunningly beautiful Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark. Piazza San Marco is the ideal place to idle away a day, resting from all the walking visitors to Venice invariably do. Hang out, just like people have done for a thousand years, in the main square.
Throughout its many centuries as a city or city-state (before it became part of Italy proper in 1866), Venice has enjoyed and endured many forms of government. At one extended point in its history, it was ruled by the Doge (pronounced Dough-zsh), a “royal consanguinity” leader. This rule came to an end for good at the time of the Napoleonic occupation of Venice in 1797.
This ornate, Italian Gothic building is as detailed inside as out, and served to house the Doge(s) and his family in glorious apartments, as well as host various government offices. It is connected directly to Saint Mark’s Cathedral, for ease of family worship (and privacy), and leads out to the spacious Piazza San Marco. It straddles the Grand Canal.
Built in 1340, it took years to complete, and has been refurbished and reconstructed many times, due to structural failure and frequent fires over the last 700 years. Since 1934, it has operated as a museum, of one 11 in the city. Such a lavish and lovely building, the Doge’s Palace has been mimicked in building designs in the United Kingdom and the U.S.A.
The Rialto Bridge that spans the Grand Canal in Venice is famous for several things. First, you can shop there as it is lined with small shops (their rent and taxes contributing to the upkeep of the bridge). At its ends, you can stare down upon the waterway traffic below, water taxis, water-busses, gondolas and commercial traffic. And then there are the lovers; nobody can guess the number of marriage proposals that have occurred on the romantic Rialto Bridge.
The oldest and still functioning of the four main bridges that cross the Grand Canal, Rialto is designed for pedestrian traffic only. In Italian it is Ponte di Rialto, and it began as a pontoon bridge in the 12th century. But fires destroyed it, and it was rebuilt — using wood — and a 1310 fire all but wiped it out. Venetian officials decided then next incarnation should be of stone, and among others, Michelangelo was one of the architects.
During the Renaissance, the bridge was started in 1558 and completed in 1591, with one major central arch high enough for almost any boat traffic (of the time) to pass through. It is 48 metres (157 feet) long, 23 metres (75 feet) wide, and has a clearance under the main single arch of 7.5 metres (24 feet). But what matters to visitors is its staggering beauty, detail and romanticism.
Given the propensity of Venice to suffer flooding, the Dorsoduro, which translates as “high ridge”, is ioncomparatively high, solid ground and impervious to the whims of the oceanic tides. As such, it is home to vast collections of art, housed in numerous galleries, safe from the threat of flood waters. This includes the Venetian edition of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, here situated in a waterside facility.
By traversing the Accademia Bridge over the Grand Canal, visitors are transported into a more affordable, less insanely busy sector of Venice, but still resplendent with endless beauty. This is the area that is home to the city’s university, Campo Santa Magherita, and it is home to students; it is therefore complemented by smaller eating establishments, funky little shops and a wide selection of vintage apparel boutiques. Still Venice, but not on steroids!
Museums and galleries abound. Churches, too. An idyllic section of the city to explore at your own pace. The nuance is slower, the expenses are lower. It’s unpretentious and easy-going. This is where to stop and linger in galleries with classic works from great artists.
Murano Glassworks is world-renowned for its colourful glass objects, works of beautiful but practical art, hand-crafted on this island of Venice often referred to as the island of glass. Glassworks have been in operation on this island sector of Venice for many centuries, and it’s still blown in the traditional method. A short ferry ride from the centre of Venice, this can be an hour’s pastime, or a day-long adventure, depending on your personal passion.
As pretty as the rest of Venice, Murano island is built right to the edge of its canals, and is totally walkable (once you get there by water) because of its condensed area plan. Visitors revel in the variety available from the various glass factories, and can watch local glass-blowers in action, plus buy their wares in the many shops.
Here you will find stunning glass vessels, jewellery, ornaments, figurines and even full-sized chandeliers ready to be wired and lit. As you wander between the glassworks, stop for a custom-designed Italian gelato treat.
And don’t miss the legendary Romanesque Church of Santa Maria and San Donato with its brightly coloured mosaic floors. It is said that a slain dragon is buried beneath the church; that might explain how the glass was originally fired...
This island, just south of the main area of Venice, and on the Venetian Lagoon, is virtually all church and churchyard. It once housed a monastery, and is still a functioning place of worship with masses conducted in the Gregorian chant manner; its design, by Andrea Palladia (who died before it was completed in the 1500s) is in the Benedictine vernacular.
Visible from the core of the city of Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore has been captured on canvas by artists, including Monet. But its inside-housed works of art are staggering, and valuable beyond expression; masterpieces of Tintoretto and Carpaccio are among them.
Accessible by water-bus, this church-scape island is about both religion and art. It makes for a peaceful outing from the buzz of Venice proper, and affords spectacular views. Take time to explore and study the classic interior in the form of a Latin cross with a nave and two isles. A sanctuary in the Lagoon.
The Bridge of Sighs, in Venice, Italy, is assuredly one of the most famous bridges in the world, but people who initially hear its name and do not see it in writing, sometimes think it is called the Bridge of Size, incorrectly assuming it is large. In fact, the Bridge of Sighs is only about 11 metres (33 feet) long, and connects two buildings, stretching over the Rio di Palazzo (Palace River).
Believed by some locals to be haunted, this bridge once connected the spartan interrogation rooms at the Doge’s Palace to the next-door prison. The “sighs” are thought to be those of agonized prisoners, and some claim they still echo on the bridge’s interior. The prisoners who crossed that bridge after it was built over three years ending in 1603 had bleak futures...
Fully enclosed to prevent potential escape, the bridge is made of white limestone. It boasts windows, but even those have stone bars in the form of decorative latticework. It’s a true work of art, if viewed from the freedom of outside. These days, it has become a place of good luck, not sad sighs. Romantics believe that if a pair of lovers kiss under the bridge, in a gondola, at sunset, they will enjoy eternal happiness.
Gran Teatro la Fenice, called simply, La Fenice, is the main theatre in Venice that supports opera. Like its sister venue, La Scala, in Milan, La Fenice is a landmark in the fabric of theater in Italy and opera the world over.
Originally opened in 1792, La Fenice seats 1126 patrons in its comfy seats and gilded balconies, as opera lovers zone in to their favourites, including (of course) Puccini, and the four original “bel canto” composers, Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini (after whom the cocktail is likely named; there were also an few artists with the same name).
But drama is not solely contained to the stage a La Fenice, which is suitably named; the English phrase is “the phoenix”, and it has risen from the ashes twice. In 1836 a fire ruined parts of the building, and it was resurrected. Then in 1996, in an act of arson, the building was gutted by fire and had to be redone top to bottom; the shell more or less survived intact. To celebrate its re-opening in 2003, the opera house has since then offered a special New Year’s concert annually on January 1st. What better way to enjoy Italian opera than in Italy at La Fenice!
After the better-known St. Mark’s Cathedral, Santa Maria Glorioso dei Frari is a significant minor basilica in the Venetian ecclesiastical landscape, one of the most important of the Franciscan order in all of Italy. Simply referred to as Frari, the Franciscan Gothic-style church was built over more than a century from 1236 to 1338 by the Franciscan Conventual Friars.
Situated in the centre of the San Paolo area of Venice, the church is dedicated to the assumption of Mary, hence its name. Like many churches in Venice and the rest of Italy, Frari became a safe depository for fine art treasures over the centuries, a place less apt to be attacked or looted than a house or other type of gallery. As such, it is resplendent with priceless works of art.
Visitors can tour the basilica except during the hours reserved for Sunday mass. Works of art to be viewed are, among many, Titian’s seminal pieces, “The Assumption” (1518) and “Virgin Mary from Cà Pesaro (1526). It also boasts several recital and church organs. It’s more than just a holy place to visit.
Like many of the churches and minor basilicas in Venice (and Italy), Santa Maria della Salute, more commonly called, just “Salute”, is a treasure trove of artworks by the likes of Titian and his mid-1500s Renaissance contemporaries; in the case of Salute, these are held and displayed in the sacristy.
The building itself, white and glittering in the sun at the edge of the Dorsoduro area of Venice, with huge, high domes and an abundance of statuary, was designed by Baldassare Longhena, also known for his work on synagogues. He created the space to be filled with light from the high clerestory, lightly tinted windows in the main dome, so it has a definite ethereal ambience. In order to build the structure, more than 100,000 pylons had to be sunk into the mudbanks where it was to be erected.
The church was created as a bargain with the Madonna. In the 1630s, the plague wiped out some 80,000 citizens of Venice, and Roman Catholic elders thought their only means of curtailing the carnage was to strike a deal with her ladyship. Whether it worked or if the plague just wound its way out naturally, there are still people who firmly believe that the black marble dot in the inlaid marble floor beneath the main dome exudes healing energy. That’s Salute’s claim to fame 400-odd years later.
The first time we floated past San Trovaso Roman Catholic Church, we thought it was an old, rather rundown, two-storey warehouse in the Dorodura area, but then the bell tower suggested its religious bearings, and a sadness enveloped us. The grass was overgrown and the paint on the stucco parts was peeling.
Inside, a modest yet lonely commitment to Saints Gervasius and Protasius bears a slightly tired sensibility, And yet... The church, originally erected in 1028 and was rebuilt or refurbished no doubt many times since then (the current version was located on this site in 1584 and consecrated in 1637). It is home to world-class, invaluable artworks by the likes of Domenico Tintoretto; “Adoration of the Magi” and “Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple” are among these masterpieces. In fact, some of San Trovaso’s artworks have been loaned out to great national galleries around the world. So, don’t judge a church by its facade...