Finding an address in Venice has long had the reputation for being difficult. Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, puts the following speech into the mouth of someone being asked directions to the character Shylock’s house :
Venetians are not just Venetians but are also defined as being from the sestiere—the six divisions of the historic centre—they were born or live in. The sestieri form the city centre and don’t include the islands and mainland areas of the city. A castelàn is a person who from the sestiere of Castèlo (Castello in its Italianized form). Today Castello is considered one of the most authentic parts of Venice and is still largely residential. However, as we shall see, there are many famous buildings and museums in the sestiere.
When one thinks of birds and Venice, the pigeons of the Piazza San Marco are probably the first to spring to mind. However, for Venetians, the birds that really affect daily life are the cocàli—aka seagulls.
Not surprisingly for a city placed right next to the sea, Venice has an awful lot of seagulls and when you live in Venice they affect many aspects of your day, but one more than others.
In Venice, the domestic refuse collection system works like this. Every morning, except Sundays, you need to put your rubbish (scoassa) in the street, outside your front door, between 08.00am and 08.30am. It will then be collected by the local authorities. There are different days for different recyclable materials, but general rubbish can be put out every day—except Sundays (see below). If you don’t close the your rubbish bags properly, you will find that they have been attacked by the cocàli and that the left-overs of last night’s dinner are all over the street, turning the calle into a massive scoassèra (rubbish dump).
This is so common that Carlo and Giorgio, a pair of popular Venetian comedians, even wrote a song (Scoasse) to warn residents of the dangers of not bagging your rubbish properly.
The refrain is: ‘A domenega mattina Signor Rossi, de Venessia, un sacheto in fondamenta buttò.'(On Sunday morning, Mr Rossi, from Venice, dumped a bag of rubbish on the quay.) The song goes on to tell how an old lady (una vecia) gets injured after a cat (gato), rat (pantegàna), and of course a cocàl attack the rubbish bag.
The cocàli can be enormous. I’ve often seen tourists, eating sandwiches in the street, get attacked by seagulls determined to have a share. Or maybe, since its illegal to eat street food in the precincts of the Piazza San Marco, they were employed by the local council to confiscate the sandwiches. Who knows?
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.
Tomorrow, 27 January 2018, is the official start of what is probably the most famous carnival in the world, the Carnevale di Venezia. Soon the calli and campi will be full of people, mostly tourists and mostly French, sporting costumes ranging from the outlandish to the opulent, and posing for photographs evocative of the final century of the Venetian Republic.
People are already warning of overcrowding, but I have to say that compared to July, the city usually isn’t that overcrowded, save for the days on which big events are planned. And I do enjoy seeing the costumes, many of them made by artisans here in Venice, outside the shop windows where they live for the rest of the year.
Carnival is a European tradition which dates back to ancient times. It’s thought to derive from the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia. Nowadays, the word has come to refer to any large costume festival—such as the Notting Hill Carnival in London—and in the USA the word is often used to mean a funfair. But in Europe it means the festival that takes place between Christmas and Lent, the latter being the period in which christians observe austerity for forty days and forty nights.
In Medieval times, Carnival in Europe became a period of misrule, in which people were allowed, unofficially, to get away with pretty much anything. The institutions of church and state were often mocked openly and people overindulged in public. The tradition of wearing masks developed so that people could go about their carnival behaviour incognito, without fear of retribution from the authorities come Lent. In a time when most of the continent was ruled by kings, who could not be removed at elections, this was part of the social contract: the people could let off steam and mock authority for a few weeks a year in return for obedience and public order for the rest of it.
The origins of the word itself are as obscure as the origins of the festival. The most likely explanation, however, is that it derives from the latin phrase carnem levare, ‘taking away meat’. This refers to the fact that during Lent christians fasted and were forbidden from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products in particular.
Carnival is of special importance to me. When I was at University my bachelor’s dissertation was entitled Carnival in Renaissance Venice through the diaries of Marin Sanudo. This is how I first became acquainted with this most fascinating record of Venetian renaissance life.
Over the next few weeks I will be bringing you pictures and reports from this year’s carnival as well as giving you some of the history of the Venetian Carnival, particularly during the medieval and renaissance periods.
In Venice, carnival has always filled up the period between the end of Christmas and the beginning of Lent. Towards the end of the Venetian Republic, not only did it fill up this period but spilled over, beginning in October, taking a break for Christmas, and then beginning again on December 26.
Today, the Christmas season ends on the January 6, and so, notwithstanding the official dates of the council-run festival—which this year starts on January 27—the carnival season starts on January 7.
The arrival of carnival in Venice is announced by the appearance of fritoe in the shops. This are sweet fritters, covered with sugar, a bit like a donut, which are traditionally eaten throughout the carnival season. Their origin in unclear, but we know that they were eaten in Renaissance Venice.
Fritoe, sometimes referred to as frittelle in standard Italian, come in various types: filled with crema pasticcera, zabaione, or sometimes jam or stewed apple. However, my favourite, which are known as fritoe venessiane are plain with sultanas and sometimes pine nuts added to the mixture.
I was recently asked for guidance on how to pronounce these Venetian words and if I could make recordings. I’m working on that but for now I’ll explain. The Italian version frittella is pronounced as its written, with the accent on the e (free-TEL-la). The Venetian version is pronounced with the accent on the i and with the last two vowels pronounced separately (FREE-toe-a). Fritoa is singular and fritoe (FREE-toe-ay) is plural.
If you are not coming to Venice in the next few weeks but would like to try fritoe for yourself, take a look at my recipe here on my sister site Chestnuts and Truffles.