Venice sits just off the northeast coast of Italy at the top of the Adriatic Sea. It is the only city in the world that was built entirely on water. It consists of over a hundred islands connected by bridges and canals. During the 5th century, Attila the Hun, a generally annoying individual, and his Mongol hordes were moving down the east coast of Italy destroying everyone and everything they encountered.
Some of the people who were in Attila’s direct line of march decided that it might be a good idea to get out of town and so they migrated across the lagoon to a group of islands. Their bet was that Attila was having such a great time sacking and looting and burning and taking slaves that he’d never bother to follow them across the water. And you know what, they were right.
Their islands had virtually no land for farming, but they were perfectly situated to become a center for trading. The Venetians soon realized that the future success of their community rested in their ability to buy luxury goods in the east and sell them to rich people in the west. And apparently that is still going on.
Because there was no farmland, there was no feudal system of landowners and serfs. The nobles were merchants who commanded a fleet of ships to bring stuff to Venice. Everyone in the city was bound together like the crew of a ship. You could inherit money and property, but positions of political importance came by election. And there was constant competition among the important families.
The Christian world had been divided in half. The western part was centered in Rome, the Eastern part was centered in Constantinople, which was also known as Byzantium. Venice was part of the Eastern church in Constantinople, but physically it was right down the road from Rome, so it was in an ideal spot to control the trade between the two empires.
The primary trade was in spices – pepper, ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and sugar. Sugar was often considered a medicine, but the others had almost no nutritional significance.
However, they were a sign of social status and the first example of an ideal item for long distance international trade. They were lightweight and not very bulky, you could get a lot into a small space. They were extremely expensive and they had an almost indefinite shelf life.
For over 500 years, until the early 1500s, Venice was the commercial center of the world. And the Venice you see today is the result of those 500 years of outstanding power and wealth.
I had been to Venice a number of times as a tourist, but things are very different when you come with a film crew. You need to know a great deal about the history of the place, what would make an interesting story, and how you can get that story. You need special permits and official contacts. Venice is even more complicated for a film crew because whenever you want to get from one place to another, you need a boat.
To make sure I had the best visit possible, I teamed-up with Steve Perillo. Steve is the third generation of a family that specializes in bringing American tourists to Italy.
STEVE PERILLO: My grandfather started Perillo Tours in 1945 with a $300 Remington typewriter in the Bronx. It was right after the war so the main service was helping the immigrants and their relatives back in Italy sending packages back and forth, eventually selling steamship tickets, and pretty soon my father took over and it was 747s back and forth to Italy and now we’re in the travel business. Eventually they ended up with America’s largest travel company devoted to Italy.
BURT WOLF: This is the first of a series of programs in which Steve and I travel around Italy. And we try to plan the programs so you can take the same trip as we did.
In Venice our first stop was St. Mark’s Square. For centuries, St. Mark’s Square has been the social, religious and political center of the city. In 1496, Bellini painted the Procession in Piazza San Marco. Over the years it has become the most reproduced view of the city and as you can see, the view has remained pretty much the same.
The most important buildings in Venice surround the square. The Palace of the Duke of Venice, called the Doge. The Basilica of San Marco. The main administrative buildings. And the two most visited coffee houses in town.
Let’s start with the oldest coffee house. Most great cities have a historically famous coffee house. Rome has Caffe Greco. Paris has Deux Magots. Vienna has the Sacher. Seattle has Starbucks. And Venice has Florian’s.
The first coffee beans reached Venice in 1638 but it took almost 100 years before it became a popular drink. The problem was coffee’s bad reputation. Rumors from Istanbul claimed that coffee incited women to lascivious behavior.
BURT WOLF: It was pretty bad for women.
STEVE PERILLO: It was worse for men. They suffered a loss of virility, weakening of character, and they were even talking about overthrowing the government.
BURT WOLF: Well you know eventually most of those rumors were proved false with the possible exception of the ladies running around more because they were running around so much to begin with, no one could determine whether coffee had an affect, and you must keep in mind, this was Casanova's home town.
STEVE PERILLO: Let’s try this coffee.
BURT WOLF: I’m gonna need a double.
Florian’s opened in 1720. The interior you see now dates to the 1850s. For almost 300 years, the thing to do was sit out in front, be serenaded by the orchestra, and have a coffee, a hot chocolate or a glass of sparkling wine.
For centuries, the most powerful person in Venice was known as the Doge. And this was his palace. He was the chief magistrate, and senior elected official of Venice. And he was selected because the local aristocracy considered him to be the smartest guy in town. Imagine, a society that elected their highest official because he was the most intelligent person in the country. What an extraordinary idea.
But the powers of the Doge were strictly limited. There were a series of checks and balances that prevented any single individual from taking control. And if someone tried to take over, they could easily wake up dead.
During the 1300s, architects shifted their focus away from churches to more secular buildings. They wanted to build town halls and universities and private homes and bridges and pizza parlors.
One of the finest examples of this change is the Doge’s Palace. It was begun at a time when the power and wealth of the city were at their height. In spite of an enormous amount of ornament, it presents an image of authority and grandeur. And it was never involved in a subprime mortgage.
The most impressive building on the square is St. Mark’s Basilica, which was the Doge’s private chapel. In 1071, the Doge asked the powerful merchants to do him a small favor. He pointed out that since they were already sailing around the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, it would be nice if they could stop for a minute and pick up some rare marble and some semi-precious stones and a few sculptures and stuff like that so he could decorate his chapel. Just the basics.
And that is exactly what they did. Of course, the people in the eastern Mediterranean felt their treasures were being looted but you know, you just can’t please everybody all the time.
The Basilica was modeled on the Byzantine churches of Constantinople and designed as a status symbol of the city’s wealth and power.
St. Mark was the author of the Gospel of Mark and the creator of the Church of Alexandria in Egypt. He is considered to be the founder of Christianity in Africa. His feast day is April 25th, his symbol is the lion and he is the patron saint of Venice.
Tradition holds that it was to St. Mark’s home that the disciples came after the death of Jesus and where Jesus came after his resurrection. There’s also a theory that the last supper was held in St. Mark’s mother’s home. Now there is no proof of this in either the New Testament or church history but the belief is widely held.
In 68 AD the pagan residents of Alexandria were so infuriated by Mark’s efforts to turn them away from their traditional gods they tied a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he died.
In 828, two Venetian merchants who were doing business in Alexandria heard that the Muslim rulers of the city had decided to cleanse the town of all references to Christianity and they were going to destroy the body of St. Mark in the temple where it had been preserved. So, the two guys secretly stole the body and took it back to Venice. The Basilica was built to house the relics.
Outside, there is a mosaic that shows the two merchants covering the relics with a layer of pork. Since Muslims are not allowed to touch pork, this was an ideal way to prevent them from discovering the relics. When the relics got to Venice, they were hidden while the new basilica was being built.
When it came time to install the relics in the basilica no one could remember where they had been hidden. Everyone in Venice came to the basilica and prayed for the recovery of the relics.
Then in 1094, St. Mark extended a hand from a column and indicted where his remains were. They were removed and placed into a sarcophagus.
The Campanile is St. Mark’s freestanding bell tower. The original structure was built in 1514. The tower is over 300 feet high. You can reach the top using the stairs. Or if you agree that discretion is the better part of valour, you can join Steve and me in the elevator. From the top, there’s a great view of the city and the lagoon.
One of the things you might notice as you look down is that the domes of the Basilica appear much higher outside than they do inside. And that is actually the case. At one point the new buildings in Venice were getting higher than the domes of the church, which was not good for the Doge’s image. So he had a set of false tops put on which keep his domes higher than the other domes. Remember that until the 1800s, the Basilica was the Doge’s private church. These were a form of ego implants.
STEVE PERILLO: The bells in the tower signal the people. One signal might be for the senators to meet, another might be that the fleet was coming in.
BURT WOLF: Or the arrival of a soft ice cream truck.
There are three ways for a tourist to get around the waterways of Venice. Public transportation is provided by water buses called vaporetti. The stops are clearly marked and it is the easiest and least expensive way to get around. There are also private water taxies that will get you where you want to go fast or slow. It’s your call. They’ll also take you on a private tour of the city. 5
Finally, you can explore the canals in a gondola. The gondola got its present form during the 1600s. They are made from 8 different woods and coated with 10 layers of black paint. The top of the metal prow at the front is said to symbolize the hat of the Doge and the six forward prongs represent the six districts of Venice. Only a native Venetian can become a gondolier and the job is usually passed from father to son.
The price of a Gondola ride will vary with your requests. The least expensive is a simple tour along the Grand Canal. If you want a detailed historical description of the buildings, the price goes up. And there’s another increase for singing. Which may or may not be worth the price, depending on who’s singing.
The banks of the Grand Canal are lined with more than 170 buildings that date from the 13th to the 18th century and demonstrate the wealth, power and artistic talents of the Republic of Venice.
(BARBARA) This is the grand canal, and the grand canal is the more important waterway in Venice. and one of the more beautiful streets.
STEVE PERILLO: How deep is this? How deep is this water?
(BARBARA) Here is going to be 4 or 5 meters. On canal grande there are the more important palaces of the city. Private palaces or they could be a palace that holds the office of Italian government.
In front of us we can see the bridge of academia. It is one of the four bridges that exist on Canal Grande. You know that Canal Grande divides Venice into big parts. All the Italians love the Venetians because they say they first learn to drive a boat and then they learn to walk.
STEVE PERILLO: Oh is this...This is the Realto Bridge.
(BARBARA) Yes. Realto maybe derives from the word ‘rivus altus’ that means high boardwalk or another version is deep river. This one was the first place where people settled moving from the mainland in the 5th-7th century.
STEVE PERILLO: I see. When was that built, the Realto Bridge?
(BARBARA) The last bridge, the bridge in marble, was built in 1592. You have to imagine that in the past, the water space was much wider. Without a boat you couldn’t live in Venice. Then during the century they reinforce the shore, they build the boardwalk they build palaces, sometimes they fill canals. That’s why sometimes you can see the name of the street Rio Terra, it means river filled, Terra, Terra, Interrato.
STEVE PERILLO: So the story of Venice is the story of water.
(BARBARA) Absolutely, you cannot divide Venetians from water.
STEVE PERILLO: That’s great. Hey, thanks for the ride.
BURT WOLF: While we were in Venice we stayed at the Westin Europe & Regina hotel. Five buildings dating from the 17 and 1800s were joined together to create the property. The oldest of the buildings was a palace belonging to the family of Tiepolos. Two of the Doges where Tiepolos. But the most famous was Giambattista Tiepolo who was one of the greatest Venetian painters of the 1600’s. Many of the rooms look out across the canal at the church of La Salute.
By the middle of the 1800s, some of the building had been turned into a hotel. Claude Monet, the impressionist painter stayed here because of the great views. Another of the hotels buildings was a Theater which hosted the first performance of the first opera composed by Rossini.
It was also the place were in 1896, the people of Venice saw their first movie. It was a film produced by the Lumiere Brothers, who were the original guys into the business. The strength of their work lay in the fact that people moved. The boys were a little weak on storyline. It opens with a dramatic scene of people leaving a factory, then people leaving a ship, then people getting onto a train. Getting on as opposed to getting off was a dramatic plot change. At that point they discovered comedy, based on a squirting hose. There was a scene where people played cards and then the great finale when a house was demolished. I heard that a major Hollywood studio is planning to remake this film.
Much to their credit, the management of the hotel has maintained the feeling of the old palaces.
The hotel is fortunate in having an extremely talent chef who is serious about his work. He runs the kitchen, but he also does the shopping. One of the elements I use to judge a hotel is the quality of their breakfast buffet. Most nutritionists agree that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and apparently the director of food and beverage here agrees.
Of all of the markets in Venice the best known is the Rialto Market. It dates back to 1097 and has been a constant source of fresh produce and fish for centuries and it is open to the public. It’s an ideal place to see what the people of Venice eat, and to pick up some fruit to snack on.
At about noon, the market closes and many of the merchants stop in to one of the nearby bacari, which is a lot like a tapas bar in Spain.
BURT WOLF: There’s a big bar with all the food is on it. You pick out what you want you eat and you pay up.
STEVE PERILLO: And they always have wonderful wine by the glass.
BURT WOLF: Wine by the glass, we’ll have two. There’s a long bar with lots of small dishes. Spicy meatballs, artichoke hearts, tiny sandwiches, grilled vegetables, mashed codfish and garlic and small glasses of localwine. You eat and drink what you want and when you’re finished you tell the owner what you had, pay up, and you’re on your way. Good, fast, easy, and inexpensive. For us it was a perfect spot.
BURT WOLF: Such a cool place, wish we had the same thing in America.
During the Renaissance, the painters in Florence and the painters of Venice had very different approaches to their work. The painters in Florence were more interested in drawing than color. They used perspective and composition to produce a unified pattern. Color was something that came after. For the painters of Venice, color was the main focus of their work.
One of the most famous Venetian painters of the 15th century was Titian and you can see one of his greatest works, the Madonna with saints and members of the Pesaro family in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Now that’s about as close as I can get to the real pronunciation but tell them you’re looking for the Titian and they’ll bring you to the right place. He moved the Holy Virgin out of the center – outrageous. He broke up the balance between St. Francis and St. Peter. Very dangerous. There had been a tradition of putting in the guys who paid for the painting, but in this case Titian does it in an entirely new way. The painting was a statement of thanksgiving for a victory by one of the Pesaro’s over the Turks. Pesaro is kneeling in front of the Virgin. Behind him is a soldier in armor, holding a flag, and dragging a Turkish prisoner. On the other side of thepicture, St. Francis brings the other members of the family to the Madonna. The painting was successful because Titian used light and color to bring balance to a very unusual composition. Having a flag balance the figure of the Holy Virgin was unheard of. But the rich colors make it work.
Venice seems to have invented itself. It is the only major Italian city that did not exist at the time of the ancient Romans. They built their city where no city had ever existed, and they invented their history. Steve and I could probably produce 50 half-hour programs about Venice and still have more to talk about, but times up and we’re heading to Florence.
I hope you will join us next time for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf and I’m Steve Perillo.