In most cities the ospeàl is not a place you want to visit. But if you are in need of medical attention you should go ae porte del ospeàl where you will be treated as an emergency by the doctors.
According to tradition, the first Doge of Venice was a man called Paoluccio (or Paolo Lucio) Anafesto. Venice at that time was part of the Byzantine Empire, ruled by the Emperor Phillipikos Bardanes, and was administered by a tribune appointed annually. This was a dangerous time for the region. It was constantly under attack by the lombards, people from outside the Empire who had already settled in northern-Italy and sought to expand further. The system of annual tribunes produced weak leadership at a time when a strong leader was necessary.
The Patriarch of Grado, up the coast from Venice, in the direction of modern Slovenia, decided to call a conference in the nearby town of Eraclea, to elect a dux (leader) for life to provide the leadership the area was lacking. Paoluccio, a well-respected native of Eraclea, was elected. The title Doge derives from this original latin title of dux.
It’s unclear whether Dux Paoluccio was truly independent (as later Venetians insisted he was) or under the command of the Exarch of Ravenna, the most important Imperial official in northern-Italy.
Paoluccio was listed as the first doge throughout the time of the Venetian Republic, however, in recent years historians have argued about whether he really existed. There have been attempts to conflate him with other contemporary characters, such as Exarch Paul of Ravenna and the Duke of Treviso, who was actually one of the lombard invaders. There is also an argument as to his true dates.
Tradition however, maintains that he was Doge for twenty years from 697, although it cannot agree over how he died. Some cite old age, and some cite a rebellion that led to the installation of his successor, Marcello Tegalliano.
When, on the 27th August 1576, the ancient Venetian artist Tiziano Veccellio—known in English as Titian—breathed his last, his fellow countrymen would have mourned him more deeply. However, he was just one of an estimated 50,000 Venetians who died of a virulent plague between 1575 and 1577, about one third of the city’s population and more than the current number of people resident in Venice.
When visiting any city, my advice is always to look up as you walk around. Many of the most interesting details of buildings tend to be above your head, street level usually being reserved for modern shops and tarmac pavements. When visiting Venice’s Piazza San Marco, however, my advice would be the opposite since there are many interesting details that most people miss, right under your feet.
Piazza San Marco has, since 1723, been covered in a pavement of trachyte, a volcanic stone mined from the Euganean Hills near Padua, with a geometric design worked out in white marble. The project was designed and executed by Venetian architect Andrea Tirali (1657–1737). A Canaletto painting from 1723, which can be contrasted with later paintings, shows the piazza covered with beaten earth, ready for the laying of the paving stones, known to the Venetians as masegni.
The pavement itself can be viewed from the Campanile di San Marco and also from the windows of the Museo Correr at the far end of the piazza (see the photo at the top of this page). However, walking around the piazza, you can find several different items of interest at pavement level.
In the far left hand corner of the square, facing away from the basilica, you can find a some large concentric circles carved into the paving stones. These, we are told from the inscription in the centre, mark the position of a well which once stood in the square, but was filled in in the 16th century.
Moving into the centre of the square are two inscriptions commemorating the 1625 grant of the right for two of the Venetian guilds to erect market stalls in the piazza. On one side the pitch is reserved for the guild of Calegheri (shoemakers) and on the other side the guild of Zavatteri (clog makers). It seems that the piazza was the place to buy footwear in the 17th century.
Some people have theorised that the marble design itself denotes the position of market stalls. However, there is no evidence for this. Only two guilds are named in inscriptions whereas we know that other guilds, such as the Arte dei Strazzaruoli (second-hand clothes dealers) sold their wares in the piazza and of course wine was sold in the shadow of the campanile, which is how the Venetian word ombra meaning ‘shade’ came also to mean ‘a glass of wine’. Paintings by Canaletto clearly show that the market stalls in the square do not follow the markings. They form, therefore, just a design.
One final thing that you can see on the floor of the piazza, is located underneath the Sotoportego de San Geminian, at the far end of the square, under the Correr Museum. This commemorates the church of San Geminian (San Gimignano) which once stood at this end of the square facing the basilica. Designed by the great architect Sansovino, who contributed many other buildings to the piazza, it was demolished in 1807 to make way for the so-called Napoleonic Wing, today home to the Correr Museum.
In medieval Venice, 2 February, Candlemas or the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, was the date of the Festa delle Marie (Festival of the Marys), one of the most important official events of the carnival.
As we saw in the last post, on 31 January, twelve rich families from around the city exhibited a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, richly adorned in clothes and jewels, in their palazzi. On 2 February, these would be taken in a grand waterborne procession to the church of San Pietro in Castello, which until 1797 was the cathedral of Venice. Here they would enter the church for a mass with the Patriarch (the archbishop) of Venice before once again being carried by boat, this time with the Patriarch, to the Riva degli Schiavoni. From here they would be carried into the Basilica San Marco for a mass with the Doge. After mass, the Doge, Patriarch and Marys would get back on the boats and the procession would go up the Grand Canal to Rialto and then up side canals to Santa Maria Formosa where there would be a third and final mass.
The statues of Mary became known as Marioni, ‘big Marys’, and it’s said that small replicas were on sale as souvenirs during the festival. These were known as ‘little Marys’ or Marionette, which is where the modern word for a string puppet comes from.
Since it took place at carnival time, the festival could get quite rowdy. The night before, young men from the families often paraded their Mary through the streets showing off how it was more lavishly decorated than those of the other families, which often ended in fist fights. In 1339 a law was passed banning the throwing of fruit and vegetables at the statues, suggesting that the whole thing had degenerated into a game of skittles. In 1379, Venice went to war with Genoa and every available penny was needed for the war effort. The government took this as the opportunity to abolish the festival once and for all. All that remained in future years was an annual visit by the Doge to Santa Maria Formosa for a simple mass.
More than a hundred years later, a myth was created to explain why there had been such a festival. It involved a story in which every year, the state would sponsor the weddings of twelve poor girls at the cathedral of San Pietro in Castello. One year, the brides with their dowries were kidnapped by pirates from Trieste. The whole city mobilized and gave chase, but the brides (and their dowries) were eventually rescued by the casselleri (cabinet makers) of the parish of Santa Maria Formosa. As this story only appears in the Renaissance, it is clear that it was invented to explain the festival and that the Marys had always been made of wood and represented the Virgin Mary.
In recent years a modern Festa delle Marie, which follows the myth rather than the historical version, has become part of the official Venice carnival. It involves a beauty contest for twelve Venetian girls who are carried from San Pietro in Castello to the Piazza San Marco before one is crowned the Maria of the year. This year it will take place tomorrow, February 3.
The picture at the top of this page is of an antiques shop in the Dorsoduro district of Venice, near the Accademia. The statues are eighteenth-century clothes mannequins, but for me they are very evocative of the original Festa delle Marie. They appear as ghostly reflections, projected onto the walls of the city, memories of the festival that once was.
Like all carnivals, the Venetian Carnival started as a popular festival in which the people were allowed to let off steam by behaving in ways that they would not have been allowed to outside the period. However, from the earliest times, the Venetian government sought to control the festival and they did this by incorporating large-scale official events into the programme.
During the time of the Venetian Republic (up to 1797), the 31 January was a very important feast as it was the day in which the arrival of the body of Saint Mark in the city was celebrated. According to tradition, in 828 two Venetian merchants—Bono de Torcello and Rustico de Malamocco— who were illegally trading with the muslim city of Alexandria in Egypt, stole the body of the saint from that city to mollify the wrath of the Doge on their return to Venice. It is said that they covered the body with pork, forbidden meat to muslims, in order to deter the authorities from inspecting their cargo on leaving. Their plan worked and Doge Giustiano Participazio was so overjoyed by the arrival of the body that he ordered the building of Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Mark ousted San Todaro as the patron of the city.
In Medieval times, the feast fell right in the middle of the carnival period, which ran from 26 December until Ash Wednesday, and the celebrations were incorporated into the official carnival festivities. Every year, two parishes (or contrade) of Venice were chosen on a rotation basis to lead the festivities. On 30 January, these two contrade would organize processions around the Piazza San Marco to the church of Santa Maria Formosa, where dowry money would be distributed, at the expense of the rich residents of each contrada, to large groups young girls from poor families who wanted to get married.
The next day two more processions would be organized around the Piazza. One contrada would have a priest dressed as the Virgin Mary and another a priest dressed as the Archangel Gabriel. These two priests would come together on a stage and sing a song of praise to the Doge. All participants would again process to the Church of Santa Maria Formosa where there would be a mystery play of the Annunciation (when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she was carrying Jesus) followed by a mass.
In the evening, six rich noble families in each of the two contrada (twelve in total) would open up their palazzi to the public to display a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary lavishly dressed and decorated in jewels at the family’s expense. The statues then became the centre of a parties. They would also, on 2 February, be used in the Festa delle Marie, (the festival of the Marys). I’ll be writing about that on 2 February.
The picture at the top of this page, by Jacopo Tintoretto, depicts the body of Saint Mark being stolen from Alexandria by Bono and Rustico. The place in which this is happening, bears a certain resemblance to the Piazza San Marco, with the now demolished Church of San Gimignano at the far end.