I was born in Venice in the first summer of the 1970s. But four summers later, my family decided to join the ebb tide of our concittadini withdrawing from the city our forefathers had constructed, leaving her to the fate of the high waters, in the hands of those rich enough to afford her. Once settled in my mother’s native England, at first we’d return every summer, packing up the car as soon as school was out and driving south, over the Alps, to the city hidden in the lagoon. Soon however, my parents began to tire of the endless round of visits to family and friends these long journeys entailed and eventually they stopped.
It was at the end of one of these journeys, when I must have been about six years old, that I remember telling my parents I wanted to go back and live in Italy. They informed me that I could, but that I would have to wait until I was 18 years old, when of course I could do what I liked. This piece of advice stuck in my head and I began to hatch a plan. When the regular visits home stopped, I pleaded with them to send me on my own, which they did, and I spent the majority of summers through to my mid teens staying with my Zia Rita, my grandfather’s widowed second wife who taught me to cook some key Italian dishes.
During these trips, every day after breakfast, I’d leave Zia Rita’s apartment in the mainland suburb of Mestre, and take the short train ride to Venezia Santa Lucia. I was armed with a thick guide book from the early twentieth century which described every building, in every calle and campo, and taking each of the city’s six districts in turn, I must have visited them all, several times over.
By this point, linguistically I was a disaster. English had replaced venetian dialect as my native language, and on arrival in England my father spoke Italian with us as it was more useful. However, soon this stopped since my elder brother had refused to speak Italian at home. I insisted, even making my mother attempt to give me formal lessons at one point but I lacked resources and soon my Italian relations were calling me il piccolo milordo—which roughly translates as Little Lord Fountleroy—as a reference to my English accent. Whilst this was cute for them, for me it was an embarrassment and one I carry with me to this day.
My 18th birthday arrived, and with it an obligation to join the Italian army for eighteen months, or not take up residence in Italy until I was 26. Preferring the second option, I promptly went of to Manchester University, which I had chosen because of the possibility of spending one of the three years studying Venetian history under Professor Brian Pullan. This was a wonderful experience and I remember every word of his seminars and still dip in and out of the set books of the course. On graduation, I trained as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in preparation for my imminent return to Italy, but then just as I was able, in my twenty-sixth summer, my personal life took a turn which made me stay in England.
I visited Venice in the October of that year, but that would be the last visit for more than ten years. Even when in 2007 I finally did return to Italy, it was in Tuscany and not Venice that I settled. And then I did the unthinkable. I neglected Venice. Being preoccupied with settling into Tuscany and all that it entailed, to me she became a distant point on the map, too far to reach, even though in reality the lagoon is a three-hour train ride away. But last week, all this changed when I decided to get on that train, check into a hotel for a couple of nights and rediscover my heritage.
I found la Serenissima a very forgiving and welcoming mother.
I arrived after dark, and having checked into my hotel and settled in, I hit the streets, following my nose to the Accademia bridge with its night-time view of the dome of Santa Maria della Salute. Everything was the same: the smell, the noises of the church bells, and the chug-chug of the vaporetti on the Canal Grande. I felt instantly and almost indescribably at home. No sad nostalgia of times past as I had expected, my father having left this world in 1996. Instead a euphoria of being where I felt I belonged. Back in the city I know better than any other, even the town where I grew up.
The next day was the main event, starting in the Piazza di San Marco at sunrise, and then covering most of the city by foot, having an amazing lunch talking to the old lady at the next table, taking a sunset ride along the entire length of the Canal Grande before an evening visit to the Accademia gallery.
I took countless photos which I cannot share all of with you, so I’ve picked ten things, which for me are representative of the city, so you can see it through my eyes.
#1 The Piazza di San Marco
There are many, many squares in Venice, but only one of them is referred to with the Italian word piazza. All the others are called campo, the Venetian dialect word for square. In fact, Venetians often refer to San Marco simply as la piazza.
At one end of the piazza is the basilica di San Marco and the campanile or bell tower. The other three sides are enclosed by grand colonnades. The south east corner opens onto the piazzetta di San Marco dominated by the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s palace.
The piazza has always been the centre of Venetian civc life and was once the scene of countless rituals and processions during the period of the Venetian Republic. The French Emperor Napoleon, who put an end to the republic in 1797 is reputed to have called it ‘the world’s finest drawing room’.
#2 The Palazzo Ducale
The so-called Doge’s Palace was really the parliament building of the old Venetian Republic which existed from 697 to 1797 and was once one of the most powerful nations in Europe.
The head of state was the Doge, who was elected relatively democratically for the time, from amongst a large group of patrician families, who were the original Venetian families from before 1297. The Doge was a first amongst equals with little personal power but was the figurehead of the Venetian State.
Venetians tend to be very proud of this republican past, of which the palace is the greatest remaining symbol.
#3 The Canal Grande
Venice is famous for its canals and the biggest and most important is the Canal Grande. It cuts the city in two, sweeping through in a great s shape. There are only three bridges across the canal, near the train station, at Rialto, and at the Accademia museum, but its also possible at certain places to cross it using a traghetto (ferry) which is actually a gondola.
Rather like the Piazza di San Marco, the Canal Grande is the only one officially called canal, the other’s all being known by the dialect word rio.
The canal was once the main thoroughfare through the city and is lined with the grand houses of the patrician families.
#4 Il gonfalone di San Marco
The gonfalone di San Marco is the old flag of the Venetian Republic, today retained as a symbol of the city and the Veneto region. It carries an image of the lion of Saint Mark the evangelist with a book with the latin sentence pax tibi marce evangelista meus (peace to you oh Mark, my evangelist).
Saint Mark is the patron saint of the city and of the Venetian Republic and his body was stolen by the Venetians from Alexandria in Egypt and brought to Venice in the year 828. It was then buried under the altar of the basilica di San Marco. There are many depictions of this event in venetian art.
In the Renaissance, Venice became one of the most important artistic centres in Italy producing such artists as Giovanni Bellini, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, and most famoulsy Tiziano Vecelli, known as Titian.
A huge amount of this art is still in the city and almost every one of its churches has at least one painting by a famous artist. The most important art gallery in the city is the Accademia which houses some of the finest examples of work by the artists mentioned.
Venice is situated at the centre of a lagoon on the Adriatic coast of Italy, so as you would expect fish plays an important part in its cuisine. Famous dishes include baccalà (salt cod) and risotto al nero di seppia (cooked with black cuttlefish ink).
One of the most amazing places to see and buy fish in Venice is the rialto market.
The gondola is synonymous with Venice. These traditional flat-bottomed boats were once used as the main form of transport in the city and are now a major tourist attraction.
The most distinctive part of the gondola is the fero da próva, the silver ornament at the front which is said to represent variously the six sestieri of Venice, the hat worn by the doge, and even the Rialto bridge.
In medieval times a kind of theatre known as the commedia dell’arte was born in Venice. It was characterized by several stock characters recognizable through the clothes but also masks that they wore.
Later masks began to be worn at the Venetian carnival which today is one of the major tourist attractions to the city. You can still find traditional commedia dell’arte masks being made out of leather or wood by artisans in the city.
Venice as a city requires a lot of walking which makes you hungry. Luckily there are a wide variety of traditional snacks on offer.
Cichetti are venetian snacks, the equivalent of spanish tapas which are sold in bars all over the city. You usually eat them with an ómbra which is a drink. The origin of the ómbra which is similar to the word for shadow is said to be because vendors would stand in the shadow of the bell towers in the various squares in venice to protect the wine they were selling.
You find cichetti in traditional bars known as cichetterie or bacaro and are an amazing way to eat.
Also popular are tramezzini, small sandwiches made filled with a wide variety of fillings, which are open at one end so you can see what you are eating.
There are also a lot of traditional cakes and biscuits you can munch on as you walk around the city, such as the pan dei dogi (doges’ bread), which is almond based and covered in almonds or hazelnuts.
#10 SestieriThe sestieri are the six districts that the city of Venice is divided into, each with its own distinctive character and atmosphere. They are called: San Marco, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, Castello, and San Polo.
Walking round the city you see the names of the sestieri painted on the sides of buildings on traditional street signs. These are written in Venetian dialect, which was the old official language of the Venetian Republic.
There are so many things I could write about Venice, but this is enough for now. I hope I’ve been able to give you an insight into my city and the things that make it special for me.