A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

While ruins left by the inveterate builders of the Roman Empire abound throughout the Mediterranean basin, what makes the archeological site of Herculaneum unique is the swiftness of its total disappearance. Buried under 50 feet of lava for 1,700 years, Herculaneum, just 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, became a time capsule of the daily life of a typical Roman city of its time.

Darkness at Noon

Herculanum-Ercolano_Vesuvius..

Herculaneum with the contemporary town of Ercolano and Mount Vesuvius in the background.

For people living around the bay of Naples two millennia ago, Mount Vesuvius was just a fertile mountain of olive groves and vineyards. Although it had been an active volcano some eight centuries before, it had remained dormant ever since. In spite of violent earthquakes around 63 AD, which we now understand to have been caused by gases building within the cone and trying to force their way out, the local population still entertained a false sense of security.

Herculaneum-Excavation.

Herculaneum is an archeological excavation site in progress.

By late August 79 AD, the pressure had built to a point where the thick layer of hardened lava that was plugging the crater could no longer contain it. There were several days of earth tremors, which nobody recognized as a warning of imminent danger. Finally, one day around midday the volcano exploded, sending an “umbrella pine” cloud of overheated gases and rocks some 20 kilometers (65,000 feet) into the sky and plunging the area into darkness.

Pompeii-Temple of Jupiter.

The Temple of Jupiter in the central plaza of Pompeii.

The eruption was the first ever to be documented in detail by an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), who observed the entire chain of events from his mother’s villa high on Cape Misenum (now Cape Miseno), some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest across the bay of Naples. The prevailing winds at the time blew this first wave of poisonous gases and debris toward Pompeii, 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of the crater. Over the next eight hours, ashes and pumice stones rained down on the city. Roofs began to collapse under the weight. The process was gradual, allowing a relatively large number of its estimated population of 12,000 to 15,000 to escape. But eventually people were trapped as the city became buried under 4 to 6 meters (12 to 20 feet) of volcanic materials.

The Vanished City

Herculanum-frescoed room and patio.

The richly frescoed walls and vaulted ceiling this private home open onto an interior patio.

Since Herculaneum lay on the shoreline, 7 kilometers (4 miles) to the west of Mount Vesuvius, it was little affected by the first phase of the eruption. Only a few centimeters of ash fell on the city, causing only minor damage but nonetheless prompting a majority of its 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants to flee. During the following night, however, a succession of pyroclastic surges (mixtures of intensely hot gases and ashes) and lava flow overran the entire city. The extreme heat of the first surge instantly reduced any remaining people to skeletons and carbonized all organic matters. By morning the thriving coastal town had vanished, fossilized under 25 meters (80 feet) of volcanic material that gradually cooled into solid rock. And there it remained until the 18th century.

Herculaneum-Marcus Nonius

Central square with the marble statue of Marcus Nonius, a benefactor of the city.

By then, all memory of Herculaneum has been lost, the only indication of its existence and fate coming from antique records, without any information as to its exact location. Settlements had developed on top of the volcanic crust. It was not until 1709 that traces of the antique city were accidentally revealed. During the digging of a well, a wall was discovered that was later found to be part of the stage of the Herculaneum theater. Treasure hunters started tunneling the site and a number of artifacts disappeared before official excavation began in 1738 under the patronage of the King of Naples. The work continued intermitently until 1874, with the finds documented and carted off to museums, most notably the National Archeological Museum in Naples but also to Rome, London and Paris.

Herculaneum-Nymphaeum.

Alcove in the nymphaeum of the House of Neptune.

Serious archeological work began again in 1874 and continues to this day. But with much of the ancient site abutting or still buried under the modern town of Ercolano, excavation is a slow process. To date, only a quarter of the ancient city has been brought to light. However, the unique conditions of its instantaneous extinction make it a fascinating site for archeologists and visitors alike. By allowing the conservation of the wooden framework of houses, furniture, writing tablets, fruit, bread and even the content of sewers, it offers a detailed snapshot of everyday life far more intimate than has been achieved in other antique centers.

Herculaneum Highlights

Richly colored detail of fresco in an opulent private home.

Visitors enter via an elevated boardwalk that offers a bird’s eye view of the entire excavated area and gives a clear idea of how deep it was buried. Herculaneum, which was known in its time not only as a fishing town but also a seaside resort where wealthy Romans built their summer villas, is laid out in a standard grid and easy to explore. The streets are lined with a mix of businesses, apartments and fine private homes where it is possible to wander at will. Many of the grander homes have shops built into their façade, so that the exterior doesn’t always announce the refined atriums graced with central pools, exquisite walls frescoes and ornate mosaics within.

Because this is a working excavation site, some buildings may occasionally be closed to the public. The highlights of my visit include:

Herculaneum-Black screens.

House of the Wooden Screens.

The House of the Wooden Screen – This superb villa boasts a soaring atrium and a central marble pool that catches rainwater falling through an oculus in the ceiling. Its vast reception area could be screened off from the remainder of the residence by a set of sliding wooden panels that have survived to this day. The walls are decorated with frescoes of architectural fantasies enhanced with grapevines and birds. It gives an interesting insight into life of affluent society of the time.

Herculaneum-Black salon.

House of the Black Salon.

The House of the Black Salon – This luxurious house features a small courtyard garden, interesting mosaic flooring and unusual frescoes with a black background covering the walls and barrel ceiling of its main hall. Said to have been the home of a former slave who had achieved the status of Roman citizen, it is also singled out as out as an example of the social mobility that could occasionally be possible in Roman society.

Herculaneum-Augustales frescoes.

The frescoes in the Hall of the Augustales relate the final scenes of the Herculean myths.

The Hall of the Augustales – Dedicated to the cult of Augustus, the College of the Augustales was an organization offering training, services and support to its members, freed slaves who were making their way as full citizens. Although they were not allowed to hold traditional political offices or become Roman priests, the members were able through this association to contribute to and impact the society and culture of the city. The hall is located in the center of College building.

Herculaneum-Neptune_Amphitirite.

Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite.

The House of Neptune and Amphitrite – Located behind a wine shop with a wooden balcony and a rack for the storage of amphorae, the dining room of the residence is decorated with stunning mosaics including the famous image of Neptune and the nymph Amphitrite.

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – It’s a 20-minute train ride on the Circumvesuviano line from the Naples Garibaldi central station to Ercolano Scavi stop,then a 15-minute walk down to the bottom of Via IV Novembre to the archway entrance to the Herculaneum Archeological Site. Trains run every 30 minutes from 6:00 am to 9:30 pm.
  • Visiting – In theory, a map of the site and an information pamphlet should be available at the ticket desk. However, there were no pamphlets when I visited and maps were only handed out with the audio guide, which could be rented for €6.50 in addition to the €11 entrance fee, and came with the requirement to leave an ID at the desk as guarantee until return of the device. This extra cost and hassle may be avoided by downloading the map and the pamphlet free of charge from the official site prior to the visit.
  • UNESCO designation – The archeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the nearby villa of Torre Annunziata were collectively declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Herculaneum

From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

Tucked into a deep ravine of the forgotten province of Basilicata, way down in the instep of Italy’s boot, the ancient city of Matera in not an easy place to get to.

Matera-Barisano night.

Sasso Barisano at night.

I leave the northern metropolis of Milan on an early morning high-speed train that propels me southward through Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples before ending six hours and 800 kilometers (500 miles) later in Salerno, on shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea. From here, it’s a 200-kilometer (125-mile), three-hour bus ride back in time through the rugged rural landscape of the Basilicata province to one of the oldest living cities in the world, the Sassi (or stones) of Matera.

 

A Living Troglodyte City

Matera-Barisano Vertical City

By the Renaissance facades are added to the caves turning Sasso Barisano into a vertical city.

The bisque-colored honeycomb city is anchored to the face of two natural amphitheaters, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, within a towering ravine carved from the limestone plateau by the once powerful Gravina River. These Sassi have been inhabited since Palaeolitic times, but what makes Matera’s Città Sotterranea (Underground City) different from other cave settlements around the Mediterranean Basin is that the descendants of these early settlers never left. Rather, they dug in. By the Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), newly equipped with rudimentary metal tools, they began digging the myriad natural caves. And here they remained, a rural community gradually burrowing deeper. The Sassi developed in layers, through waves from Greek, Roman and Byzantine to Medieval and Renaissance invaders.

Roman High Grounds

Matera-Cathedral.

Buit in Apulian Romanesque style in the 13th century, the cathedral dominates the Matera skyline.

The Romans, as was their wont, constructed defensive walls around the original nucleus of la Civita (city) on the highest ground between the two Sassi. Theirs became the core of the institutional, religious and commercial district that expanded along the Piano (plateau) that had until then been used for agriculture and water collection. This modern city would be barely noticeable today, if not for its 13th century Romanesque cathedral towering over the skyline.

Matera-Sassi vista.

The Sassi and the Murgia plateau seen from the Piano.

By the 8th century, Matera began to overshoot its fortified boundaries and the occupation of the caverns intensified. Digging began in earnest. Over time the inhabitants began using the excavated material to build structures that jutted outward from the subterranean rooms with facades that looked much like that of traditional houses. Thus began the stacked cityscape we know today. Winding narrow lanes, alleys and stairways can be the roof of the houses below as well as the entryway of the one above. Seen from the outside, the homes seem small, until you step in. Then the space can vary from a simple room to a warren of vast spaces on multiple levels linked together by passageways.

Rupestrian Churches

Matera-Santa Maria de Idris.

Carved into a pinnacle overhanging the ravine, Santa Maria de Idris dominates Sasso Caveoso.

Since the entire face of the ravine is pitted with caves, neighborhoods  clustered around their own rock-hewn church. Some of these still dominate the Sassi. In Sasso Barisano, the bi-level complex of the Chiesa di Madonna Delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci is noted for its lovely 11th and 12th century frescoes. And Santa Maria de Idris, carved into a rock pinnacle overhanging the ravine, dominates Sasso Caveoso. Its few remaining frescoes are quite damaged, but a narrow passage to the left of the altar leads down to the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterone and its better-preserved artwork.

Matera-Murga plateau.

The ravine beneath the Murga plateau is pitted with caves.

By the 8th century, the barren western wall of the Murgia Plateau across the ravine, became a refuge for Basilian (Orthodox Christian) monks fleeing persecutions in Asia Minor. They excavated a number of rupestrian churches, and decorated them with frescoes. The most famous is the majestic cavern known as the Crypt of Original Sin, considered one of the finest examples of ruspestrian art in Italy for its 9th century cycle of Byzantine frescoes depicting the story of Creation and the veneration of the Virgin.

Into the Abyss

Matera-City on the Piano.

The city of Matera sits above the Sassi.

Little changes for centuries in the Sassi where people live in primordial simplicity, working the fields, raising livestock and seeing to domestic chores. Until one of the many reshufflings of history makes Matera a provincial capital (1663-1806). Increased prestige and activity cause a rise in population. The wealthier Materani move up, literally, to the newer town on the Piano, leaving subsistence farmers and artisans behind. By the early 20th century, the population of the caves is estimated at well over 15,000.

Matera-Ancient Sasso Ceveoso.

Large swaths of Sasso Ceveoso have yet to be rehabilitated.

Overcrowding in the Sassi and the ongoing development of the Piano cause the collapse of the ancient rain and spring water collection system that until now has brought water to the homes and small hanging gardens. With less farmland available, the lifestyle of the Sassi increasingly lags behind that of the rest of the world. Large families are living in squalid conditions alongside their livestock in crowded caves with no running water, sewage or electricity. Dysentery and malaria are rife. Infant mortality tops 50 percent.

Matera-Sasso Ceveoso cave.

Orignal cave dwelling in Sasso Ceveoso.

Yet the situation continues unheeded, until the 1945 release of Carlo Levi’s memoir “Christ stopped at Eboli” brings it to international attention. Levi is a physician, artist and writer from a wealthy northern family, exiled in Basilicata in 1935-1936 for his anti-fascist views. Eboli is a small town of Campania, near the Tyrrhenian coast. The title of the book comes from a local expression implying that the people of this remote corner of Basilica were bypassed by Christianity and by history itself. In the face of public outrage, the government begins to take notice. By 1950 the Sassi are pronounced a “national disgrace “ and a chain of drastic actions are set in motion that will have a swift and dramatic impact on the city and the peoples’ lives. From 1953 to 1968, all the residents of the Sassi are forcibly relocated into modern housing in new suburbs on top of the cliff.

From National Shame to International Fame

Matera-Sasso Barisano3.

The recently restored Sasso Barisano is now a prized residential neighborhood.

Barisano-Arches.

There are signs of intense rehabilitation activites throughout the Sassi.

The Sassi become state property, and within a couple of decades an archeological no-man’s-land. Some politicians view them as evidence of a shameful past to be erased, going as far as proposing their destruction to prevent them from being reoccupied. Meanwhile, the deteriorating landscape resulting from the collapse of abandoned homes and churches sparks a local grassroots movement to pressure the government to allow the rehabilitation of the caves, focusing on sanitation, urbanization and incentives to repopulate the site. Thanks to this decisive public action, and the recognition in 1993 of the Sassi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over 50 percent are now inhabited by over 3,000 residents. Matera is subsequently selected as European Capital of Culture for 2019, making it the host city for a number of cultural events that will raise its profile internationally, and kick further restoration into high gear.

Throughout the City of Stones, and especially in Sasso Barisano, Sassi boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, artisan shops and galleries now welcome visitors. Big swaths of Sasso Ceveoso, the oldest part of the city, are still untouched, but they afford a compelling insight into the past.

Matera-Sasso Barisano cart.

The Sassi are often used as a location for biblical-time movies.

It’s not only UNESCO that considers Matera “the most outstanding intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region.” The international movie industry has long found the Sassi an ideal stand-in for ancient Jerusalem in its biblical-time films. Christ has finally come to Matera, at least a half-dozen times by now, most famously in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and the recently released Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene” (2018).

Matera-Panorama

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Matera is not the easiest place to reach (but well worth a bit of extra effort). By Plane – the nearest major airport is Naples, 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northeast. Bari, with its small regional airport is 60 kilometers (25 miles) to the west. From there, bus is the best option. By train – Bari and Salerno are the two stations closest to Matera. There are two major rail service companies operating within Italy. Bari is served by Trenitalia, and Salerno by Italo. Note – from Salerno, Italo provides its dedicated Italobus service to connect the Salerno train station to Matera’s main bus station, on a schedule synchronized with train arrivals. By Bus – Several major bus lines link Matera to most major cities in Italy (and smaller ones in-between), with departures throughout the day. Check with the Matera Tourism office or your hotel reception for the one that best fits your schedule and destination.
  • Getting around – The only way to get around Matera is on foot. Non-resident cars are prohibited from the historic center, and aside from a couple of narrow roads at the periphery of the Sassi where cab can pick up or drop off, come prepared to walk up and down, wherever you are going.
  • Staying – Since most of the places of interest in Matera are within the relatively compact historic center, the best way to experience the city is to stay in a cave. Over the past decade, with Matera now an established tourist destination, a number of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts at all price-points have opened throughout the Sassi. I stayed at the Hotel Residence San Giorgio Via Fiorentini 259, 75100 Matera, in the easily accessible lower part of Sasso Barisano. My spacious vaulted “cave” with its private entrance and small terrace, consisted of a living and dining area with a well-appointed kitchenette and a modern bedroom loft over the bathroom. The suite was serviced daily and all the complimentary breakfast staples, including a fresh fruit basket, replenished. There was reliable WiFi service throughout the cave. The reception office was located two minutes away, opened from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. The staff could not have been more helpful and gracious. Definitely a keeper! Contact: tel. +39 0835 33 45 83, email staff@sangiorgio.matera.it
  • Visiting – Wear comfortable shoes, open your eyes and keep walking. A tourist guidebook should be sufficient to help you get your bearings and point you in the general direction of the main attractions. Then it’s perfectly safe and easy to explore the city independently. Should you prefer a guided tour, there are various organizations and individuals on the Piano offering tours in English. On the western side of the ravine, the Crypt of the Original Sin is located in Contrada Perrapenta, 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) south of Matera. Visit is by advanced reservation only; guides and shuttle services are available from agencies on the Piano.

Location, location, location!

Matera

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Venice offers such an embarrassment of riches that the thought of taking a daytrip away from the Serenissima had always struck me as absurd. And so, a mere 30-minute train ride westward in Padua (Padova in Italian), the Scrovegni Chapel remained high on my “someday” list. Until now.

The Chapel of Atonement

Padua-Scrovegni chapel.

The chapel was originally attached to the Scrovegni Palace.

The chapel, originally adjacent to a luxurious palace built by affluent Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni, was to serve as the family’s private oratory and funeral monument. And, so historians assure us, it was intended to atone for the sins of his father (Reginaldo Scrovegni), a moneylender with practices so vile they had landed him a part in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as one of the souls consigned to the Seventh Circle of Hell.

While the building itself, all that remains of the original estate, is an unremarkable rectangular gothic structure, the younger Scrovegni commissioned the great Tuscan master Giotto di Bondone to decorate the interior. It is there that Giotto at the height of his career, from 1303 to 1305, created a cycle of frescoes that became widely recognized as one of the most important milestones in the evolution of Western art.

The Birth of Western Art

Padua-Giotto cycle.

Giotto’s cycle is divided into three tiers of frescoes.

Under the vault of an intense blue sky sprinkled with golden stars and medallion portraits of the Evangelists, the story of the redemption of man unfolds through the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers along the lateral walls.  The story of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Virgin, is told on the upper right tier, Mary’s own early life is recorded on the upper left tier. The early life of Jesus and his miracles are depicted throughout the center tier, while the bottom one is dedicated to the Passions of Christ.

Padua-Giotto kiss

The kiss between St. Joachim and St. Anne is one the earliest represented in Western art

On the wall opposite the altar, the entire pictorial space is covered by the grandiose Universal Judgement. While these themes were pervasive in sacred art at the time, Giotto’s interpretation marks a radical departure from the stylized, elongated figures of the Byzantine tradition. Now the scene becomes three-dimensional, alive with the faces and gestures of living subjects. Gone are the formalized draperies; here the characters are clothed in garments that hang naturally and follow their movements. Some face inward, back turned to the viewer, creating a spatial illusion. For the first time, human emotions are shown in a realistic way, including one of the earliest representations of a kiss in Western art (The meeting of St Joachim and St. Anne at the Golden Gate).

Padua-Wedding Cana.

The Wedding at Cana is the first miracle attributed to Jesus.

This new style is so revolutionary that it is not fully understood until Masaccio’s paints the Brancacci Chapel in Florence a century later. And it is the Scrovegni Chapel that influences Michelangelo’s own Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel (circa 1536). It is not known whether the chapel was able to make up for the sins of the father, but there can be no doubt that these dazzling frescoes paved the way for the great masters of the Renaissance.

 

 

The Monastery Next Door

Padua-Apulian Crater.

This spectacular Apulian crater is attributed the the great 4th century BCE “Truro Painter”.

The Scrovegni Chapel is now enclosed within the City Museums (Musei Civici) complex housed on the grounds of what was once a monastery for Ereminati (hermit) monks located nearby. Both are accessed through the serene gardens of the cloister, and admission to the museum is included with the chapel entrance fee.

 

Bellini’s portrait of a young senator.

Since I hadn’t given any thought to this side visit prior to the trip, the ground floor Archeological Museum is an unexpected treat. Its wealth of artifacts from local excavations and private collections provide an interesting illustration of the archeological and historical development the area, from the Paeloveneti who inhabited the area between the 10th to 4th century BCE to Roman times. There are also a number of bronze and ceramic funerary items from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome. But it is the collection donated to the museum in 1994 by Professor Calogero Casuccio that takes my breath away. Of the 170 items of Greek and Italot (Greek colony in ancient Italy, i.e. Apulia) in the Casuccio Collection, many are remarkable pieces both in terracotta and painted pottery. The most important are a group of Apulian “figured” vases, including a stunning phiale (drinking vessel) and a spectacular crater (wine urn), both attributed to eminent 4th century BCE painters.

Upstairs, the rambling Museum of Medieval and Modern Arts collection does include a few interesting works by the greats of Italian painters from the 1300s to 1800s, Bellini, Gorgione, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese among them. The highlight of the collection is the Crucifix by Giotto that was originally located on the altar of the Scrovegni Chapel.

Padua- Tanagra figurines.

Terracotta figurines from the Greek city of Tanagra (4th century BCE).

Good to Know

  • Getting There – The train ride from Venice Santa Lucia to Padua takes 30 to 45 minutes via regional train or 25 minutes with FrecciaRossa (High Speed Train). The difference between the two on the 40 kilometer (25 mile) route is not so much one of time than cost. One-way fare on the regional train is approximately €6 versus €16 with FrecciaRossa. Once in Padua, it’s a 10-minute walk straight down the Corso del Popolo, which about half-way becomes the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, to the Piazza Eremitani and the Scrovegni Chapel.
  • Visiting – The Scrovegni Chapel, Piazza Eremitani 6, Padua, is open all year from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, except January 1, May 1 and December 25-26. The Musems of Archology and Medieval and Modern Art are also closed on Monday. Note – For reasons of preservation of the artwork, visit of the Scrovegni Chapel is strictly regulated and advanced booking is imperative. Booking is through the website. Visitors must collect their pre-booked tickets at the box office at least one hour before the visit. After checking their bags at the free cloakroom of the main museum building, they are expected to arrive for admission a few minutes before their allotted time. They then sit through a 15-minute audiovisual presentation in a climate-controlled air-locked chamber to allow their body humidity to be lowered and dust pollution filtered. This is to protect the frescoes from moisture and mold. Finally, the group (25 people maximum) is ushered into the chapel for 15 minutes to view the artwork.

Location, location, location!

Scrovegni Chapel

The Islands of the Venetian Lagoon

The Islands of the Venetian Lagoon

It’s easy to fall under the spell of Venice, the brilliant mosaic of Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque splendors sprinkled with hints of Islam, born from a series of islands stitched together by arching footbridges. But a short boat ride away into the northern lagoon lay a scattering of small islands where Venice began, long before it became the Serenissima.

Watery Highways

Venice -San Michele in Isola.

The church of San Michele in Isola was the first Renaissance church to be built in Venice.

The Venetian lagoon is very shallow and depending on the tide, can be half mud. Wooden poles lashed together (bricole) emerge from the water to mark the deeper canals. The boats must follow these watery highways between the mud banks to avoid the risk of running aground.

Shortly after departure from the Fondamente Nove vaporetto (water bus) stop , we pass the island of San Michele. Once a monastery, it became the city’s offshore cemetery in the early 19th century. Its proximity to Venice makes its long enclosure wall a familiar line across the north lagoon. The boat ride also offers a rare opportunity for a close up view at its white Istrian stone church, San Michele in Isola (1469), the first Renaissance church to be built in Venice.

The Island of Glass

Venice-Murano bell tower.

The bell tower dominates the center of Murano.

Because of its proximity to the city and the worldwide reputation of its hand-blown glass, Murano is the most visited of the islands. It is a microcosm of Venice, with a few elegant palazzos and the Romanesque church of Santa Maria e San Donato, known for its 12th century mosaic floor. Murano also has its own “grand canal”, which is lined with glass shops and showrooms.

Murano-Showroom canal.

Glass showrooms line Murano’s “grand canal”.

Venice had been famed for its glass since the early 13th century. By 1291, the glass furnaces were all moved here to protect the city from outbreaks of fire, and to safeguard the secret of glassmaking techniques. Glass is still Murano’s trade, although nowadays it’s as much a tourist attraction than a center of industry. Most of the souvenir items that fill its shops come from China. But there are still a number of working glass furnaces on the island, where you can observe artisans at work on authentic Murano glass pieces as you go by. There is also a Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro) for those interested in the history of glass making.

 

Mystery Islands

Lagoon- San Francescso.

The monastery island of San Francesco del Deserto is concealed behind a jagged line of cypresses.

As we continue on our way northward, I notice on our right an exceptionally long shadow across the water. It’s Sant’Erasmo, the garden that produces vegetables for the markets of Venice, especially renowned for the quality of its asparagus and artichokes. At 3.25 square kilometers (800 acres) this green island dotted with tiny farmsteads is the largest of lagoon.

Now in ruins, Madonna de’Monte is crumbling into the lagoon.

A bit further on, a small rectangular island appears, entirely boxed in by dark cypresses. It’s San Francesco del Deserto, a Franciscan monastery founded in 1230 and still active today. San Franscesco is accessible only via private craft and can be visited only by prior arrangement with the resident monks. The monastic buildings include the original Medieval cloister and a Renaissance one built in the 15th century.

Lagoon-Burano bell tower.

A precariously angled bell tower marks the approach of Burano.

Then, just as the precariously angled bell tower of Burano begins to materialize in the distance, we pass one of the smallest island of the lagoon. It’s Madonna de’Monte, characterized by a long, crumbling two-story brick structure emerging from a blanket of vines. Once home to an early 14th century Benedictine monastery, then a convent and finally in the mid-1800s an ammunition depot, it is now a ruin. The surrounding levee has disintegrated and the island is shrinking with every passing year. It may soon be the first one in the lagoon to disappear altogether.

Colorful Islands

Lagoon-Mazzorbo

Mazzorbo is a quiet neighborhood of brightly painted rowhouses.

Linked only by a long footbridge, the twin islands of Mazzorbo and Burano (population 7,000) are a fisherman village version of Venice. Mazzorbo is a quiet neighborhood of comfortably lived-in houses, festooned with drying laundry and flowers on windowsills, clustered around common patches of grass. On the Burano side of the bridge things become livelier. Several small canals act as thoroughfares. Alleys lead to a couple of sunny squares. Signs of the island’s busy fishing industry are still found in the boats filling the tiny harbors that dot the shoreline and the nets drying here and there.

Lagoon-Burano (2)

Boats line the small canals of Burano.

What both islands have in common is a tradition of brightly painted facades, said to have started so that fishermen coming back in the fog could identify their homes from afar. Today, practically all the houses are painted, and the festive atmosphere of these two colorful village draws boatfuls of tourists.

In earlier times, while the men were on the lagoon the women made lace, and Burano became famous for the high quality of its lace. These days, most of the products that fill the shop windows throughout the center of town come from Asia, but more than two hundred examples of precious Venetian lace from the 16th to the 20th century are on display at the Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto).

The Island Where Venice Began

Lagoon-Torcello town square.

The tiny town square of Torcello.

From Burano, a small vaporetto (Line T) makes the short journey across to Torcello, the first of the lagoon islands to become home to mainlanders fleeing the hordes of Attila the Hun, sometime in the 5th century. By the 11th century, it had become a thriving center of trade with a population estimated around 10,000. It is from here that settlers first started moving to the area around the Rialto Bridge. Then malaria, along with competition from the upstart community we now know as Venice, set in and depopulated Torcello. Its abandoned palaces were scavenged for materials to build La Serenissima.

Lagoon-Torcello mosaics.

The Christ Pantocrator is one of the fine ancient mosaics in Torcello’s Basilica dei Santa Maria Assunta.

Today, with only a handful of permanent residents and green fields surrounding its few remaining buildings, peaceful Torcello exudes a lovely lost-in-time atmosphere. From the dock, one long canal leads past a small vineyard to a gravel town square with by a cluster of buildings dominated by one of the finest early Venetian-Byzantine churches in Italy, the Basilica dei Santa Maria Assunta. Its 12th century mosaics, the oldest in the Veneto, of the Madonna and Child and the Last Judgment, are dazzling gold-flecked masterpieces that rival those of the San Marco. And they can be enjoyed in quasi seclusion, as few tourists ever make it this far.

Lagoon-San Michele.

The wall surrounding the island cemetery of San Michele is a familiar golden line across the north lagoon.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around Venice and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. including Murano and Burano (Line 12) from the Fondamente Nove and San Zaccaria stops. Single fare tickets are available but travel cards for unlimited travel during a set period (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) are a more cost effective option. During the day, the Line 12 runs approximately every 30 to 45 minutes. A separate shuttle runs between Burano to Torcello (Line T) several times per hour.
  • Visiting – The shops and furnaces of Murano operate on a limited schedule and are usually closed by 5:00 or 6:00 pm. The  Murano Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro), Fondamenta Marco Giustinian 8, 30141 Venice, is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm from November 1st to March 31st  and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm from April 1st to October 31st. The Burano Lace Museum  (Museo del Merletto) Piazza Baldassarre Galuppi, 187, 30142 Burano, Venice, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Monday.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Murano

Burano

Torcello

Living Venice – The Great Museums of the Dorsoduro

Living Venice – The Great Museums of the Dorsoduro

Venice has raised cultural overload to, well, an art form. In addition its renowned museums and the ethereal beauty of its architecture, every neighborhood church is likely to be graced with at least a couple of notable works by Renaissance masters.

The Treasures of the Dorsoduro

Venice-Dorsoduro I Gesuiti.

The Dorsoduro Church of Santa Maria del Rosario rises from the Giudecca Canal.

The Dorsoduro alone, my favorite place to stay in the Serenissima, is home to the Gallerie dell ’Accademia, 20-plus rooms overflowing with the works of the Venetian greats: Titan, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Carpaccio, Giorgione, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni), et al. And a barely 5-minute walk south, the white façade of Corinthian columns topped by a triangular pediment of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario (commonly known as I Gesuati) soars from the edge of the Giudecca Canal. The interior is a Tiepolo showpiece with majestic Rococo ceiling frescoes and a large, arched portrait of the Madonna with three Dominican female saints.

Venice-Dorsoduro Basin.

The Basin of St. Mark viewed from the Zattere Promenade.

Then, another 10-minute walk east along the Zattere Promenade, taking in the fabulous view of the Giudecca Canal and the St. Mark Basin, leads to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Inside, the Baroque landmark at the mouth of the Grand Canal is a Titian extravaganza, with for good measure on the high altar a 12th century Byzantine Madonna and Child brought from Greece in the 17th century after the fall of the city of Candia to the Ottomans.

After a few days of overindulging on majestic public buildings with bejeweled interiors brimming with Madonnas and martyrs, it’s time for a visit to Peggy.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The Pallazo Vernier dei Leoni, for three decades the Grand Canal home of American heiress and legendary Honorary Venetian Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), is as unique as the woman herself and the impressive modern art collection she accumulated there.

Venice-Guggenheim foyer.

The central foyer showcases Calder’s “Arc of Petals” mobile and Picasso’s canvas “On the Beach.”

What looks at first glance like a low-slung contemporary villa of white stone, stretched between the canal and a large leafy garden, turns out to be the first floor of an unfinished 18th century palazzo. Nobody knows what caused the Verniers, one of the oldest noble families in Venice, to abandon the construction. Nor is it known how the palace came to be associated with “leoni” (lions), although that is likely to be have come from the yawing lion’s heads of Istrian stone that decorate the façade at the water’s edge. What is clear, however, is that the palazzo is a uniquely intimate setting for the impressive collection that reflects Peggy Guggenheim’s passion for 20th century art.

Venice-sculpture garden.

Germaine Richier’s “Tauromachy” takes pride of place in the sculpture garden.

She surrounded herself with major works ranging from Cubism to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. The greatest artists are represented, from Picasso, Braque, Leger and Brancusi to Ernst, Kandinsky, Magritte, Miró and Rothko Jason Pollock gets a whole room, Calder’s Arc of Petals the focal point of the central foyer. The grounds are an inviting sculpture garden with works from Giacommeti’s “Woman Walking” to  Fritz Koenig’s “Chariot” and Germaine Richier’s “Tauromachy.”

Venice-Costantini glass.

Glass sculptures by Egidio Costantini after sketches by Picasso.

From 1951 on she opened her house and collection to the public during the summer months, all the while adding to her collection over the next three decades. And in 1976, she bequeathed her Palazzo and art to her uncle’s Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. And there it remains today, the most welcoming of the great House Museums in Venice, a relaxed retreat from the crowds shuffling around the San Marco district right across the Grand Canal.

 

Ca’ Rezzonico

Venice-Ca'Rezzonica.

The Baroque marble facade of the Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico.

Another Dorsoduro House Museum not to be missed is Ca’ Rezzonic, located a few minutes away westward at the point where the Grand Canal is joined by the Rio di San Barnaba. The sumptuous white marble Baroque pallazo, originally commissioned in 1648 by one of the great patrician dynasties of the city, was another masterpiece interrupted when the family’s finances collapsed. A century later, ownership passed to the wealthy merchant and banker Giambattista Rezzonico. The completion in the Palazzo marked the pinnacle of the new owner’s upward social journey. In addition to completing the palazzo, Rezzonico commissioned frescoes for the ceiling of all the public rooms by noted artists, including Giambattista Tiepolo. The frescoes remain in place to this day, and are considered among some of the best-preserved in Venice.

Venice-Canaletto.

“Rio dei Mendicanti” is one of only two Canaletto paintings remaining in Venice.

By 1819, the family had died out, leaving only their palazzo to memorialize the Rezzonico name. The building passed through various owners until it was finally sold the Venice Town Council in 1935. Today, as the Museum of 18th century Venice, it is one of the gems of the city, displaying furnishings and art created for great palaces, thus offering visitors a glimpse into the life of the upper class in Venice’s Golden Age. The ballroom and state rooms are reached by a regal marble staircase, its balustrades decorated with statues by Giusto Le Court, the leading venetian sculptor of the late 17th century. There are Murano chandeliers, local scenes by Canaletto and Tintotetto hanging on the walls.And from the soaring façade windows, eye-popping views of the Grand Canal and the heart of Venice.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Dorsoduro District is linked to the San Marco District by the Accademia Bridge across the Grand Canal. Another way to get across is the traghetto – If the ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents. One of the stops is close the the Accademia Bridge.
  • Visiting – Gallerie del Accademia, Campo Della Carità, 1050, 30123 Venice. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:15 am to 7:15 pm and Monday from 8:15 am to 2:00 pm. Santa Maria Del Rosario – Fondamenta Zattere Ai Gesuati, 30123, Venice. Open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, closed on Sunday. Santa Maria della Salute, Campo della Salute, Dorsoduro, 1, 30123 Venice, Open every day from 9:00 am until noon and 3:00 pm until 5:30 pm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 704 Dorsoduro, 30123, Venice. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday. Ca’ Rezzonico Dorsoduro 3136, 30123 Venice. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday.

Location, location, location!

Dorsoduro

Living Venice – The Castello District

Living Venice – The Castello District

It was my first visit to Venice. One instant, I was in central Milan, the next I was on a vaporetto (water bus) chugging along the Grand Canal, watching Gothic palaces float by. I remember nothing of the three-hour train journey in between, but this long ago boat ride from the Venice Santa Maria train station to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) is forever etched in my memory. I had arrived at the core of the political and economic power that ruled the mighty Republic of Venice for a thousand years; the grandiose showpiece built to inspire awe from its citizenry and visitors. It still worked.

First Impressions

Venice-St Mark horses.

The Triumphal Quadriga was originally part of a monument depicting a four-horse carriage used for chariot racing,

Over the next two days, I engaged in a marathon of the timeworn clichés of the St. Mark District, starting with the Basilica and its 8,000 square meters (2 acres!) of gold mosaics. The cavernous cathedral was so dark I could barely make them out. But the Basilica Museum one floor above the main level was worth the climb. In addition to getting a better view of said mosaics, I got a close look at the Triumphal Quardiga, the magnificent life-size bronze statues of four horses in motion. Dating back to the third century AD, they were first installed on the outer loggia of the cathedral in 1204, after being looted from the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Recently moved inside to protect them for the ongoing pollution, they were breathtaking. And the exact copies now prancing on the loggia did them justice.

Venice-St Mark clock tower.

The 15th century clock tower was placed to be visible from the lagoon and give notice of the wealth and glory of Venice

Venice-Rialto.

The Rialto is the oldest of four bridges spanning the Grand Canal.

Next door, the immense Doge’s Palace still overwhelmed with its gold and fresco-encrusted halls. But lacking fondness for oppressively grand interiors designed to intimidate, or detours into basements of dank prison cells and medieval torture chambers, I thought the best feature of the palace to be its lacey pale stone façade. I then rode the up the 99 meters (324 feet) to the top of the Campanile (St. Mark’s bell tower) for a panoramic view of the city. I lingered there, eyeing the top of the clock tower across the square until the two bronze figures struck the hour on the bell. I walked across the Rialto Bridge, and along the Riva degli Schiavoni Promenade to admire the great Palladian Church of San Giorgio Maggiore on its own island across the St. Mark Basin.

Then, with barely time for a passing glance at the labyrinth of alleyways and stepped bridges that lead to tiny piazalle and dead-end courtyards where the heart of the city had been beating of over a millennium, I was gone. I had seen the Serenissima, and missed the essence of Venice.

The Source of Power

I have returned several times since then, to explore the ancient side canals and back alleys where everyday Venetian lives happened, and still do. Each district has its own personality, but I find none more fascinating than the Castello.

Venice-Arsernal factories.

Owned by the state, the Arsenale was responsible for the Venetian Republic’s naval power.

Venice-Porta Magna.

Built into the fortifications, the Porta Magna was designed by Bellini.

Right behind the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, across the Canonica Canal (of Bridge of Sighs fame), the diverse Castello spreads through the entire eastern end of the city. This is where in 1104 Doge Ordelafo Faliero founded the Arsenale, the shipyards that quickly developed into the largest industrial complex in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Stretched over 46 hectares (114 acres), it built the fleet of merchant vessels and military ships that ensured the Republic’s naval dominance and its prosperity for centuries.

The vast complex of factories and docks is surrounded by 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) of ramparts dominated by two crenellated towers at the entrance of the arsenal’s basin. On the front campo (square), four lions (symbol of St Mark, Venice’s patron saint) guard the Porta Magna, the spectacular main gate designed by Bellini in 1460. The most imposing of these lions is Greek (circa 360 BC). Originally a landmark in Piraeus, the harbor of Athens, it was plundered by Venetian naval commander Franscesco Morosoni in 1687.

A minimal part of the Arsenale is still in operation, mainly for boat supplies. The Museum of Naval History is also housed here. It includes a sumptuous model of the Bucintoro, the Doge’s gilded ceremonial barge that was destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1798, and a ship pavilion with vessels of historical significance.

Colorful Castello

Venice- City hospital entrance.

The main entrance of the Scuala de San Marco, now the city’s public hospital.

Venice-Santi Giovanni e Paolo church.

The walls of the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo is lined with funerary monuments.

Yet the Arsenale occupies barely 20 percent of the Castello. Since not all wealthy merchants could aspire to a palazzo on the Grand Canal, many settled in the western part of the district, creating a residential neighborhood desirable for its proximity to the San Marco district. Great churches and religious institutions followed. On the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo (Saint John and Paul), the Scuala de San Marco, a major religious confraternity patronized by the Venetian high society from the 16th to the 18th century stands out as a lovely example of Venetian Renaissance architecture. Spectacular carvings of lions top the portal of what is now the main entrance of the city’s public hospital. The hospital itself is in principle not open to tourists (unless they are in need of medical assistance), but it is nonetheless possible to walk through the main public areas and admire the building and its inner garden.

All but unnoticed on the side of the campo is the massive gothic brick façade of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the principal Dominican church in Venice, built to hold large congregations. Its interior is notable for its large polyptych altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini, and for the funerary monuments of 27 doges and other prominent men of the Republic who are buried there.

Venice-Castello canals.

The side canals of Castello.

Venice-San Giorgio del Creci.

The Orthodox Church of San Giorgio del Creci, and its noticeably leaning bell tower.

Meanwhile, most of the men who worked in the sprawling arsenal lived in the modest houses at the eastern end of the district, as did fishermen, creating a lively working class neighborhood that still endures. Here, the streets and canals bustle with activities, and laundry flaps in the sea breeze on lines stretched between realistically ramshackle buildings on both sides of the narrow canals.

Not far from there, the secluded San Giorgio del Creci church is the hub of the large Venetian Greek community. Greek merchants had been a regular presence in Venice since Byzantine times, but their numbers increased exponentially after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Built in the 16th century according to in the Orthodox model, the church includes some spectacular mosaics. Next door, what was once the headquarters of the Scuola dei Greci is now a rich museum dedicated to Greek Icons. In addition to ancient icons brought by the 15th century refugees, it hold some that were later manufactured locally, thus providing a unique insight on the evolution of Greek art in Venice.

A Renaissance Comic Strip

Venice-Carpaccio Frescoes.

A cycle of frescoes by Vittore Carpaccio line main hall of the Scuola de San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni.

Venice-Carpaccio detail.

Detail of St. Jerome leading a wounded lion by Carpaccio.

However, of all the artistic riches of Castello, my personal favorite is the Scuola de San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni, a small confraternity and church founded in 1461 by Dalmatian merchants and sailors (i.e. Schiavoni or Slavs from the East Coast of the Adriatic in today’s Croatia) living in Venice. In 1502, they commissioned the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio to decorate the first-floor hall with a narrative cycle of frescoes recounting episodes from the lives of the Dalmatian patron saints: St. George, St. Tryphone and St. Jerome.

The ten frescoes line the walls like a wonderful Renaissance comic strip. Originally dismissed as primitive, Carpaccio is now considered one of the early masters of the Venetian Renaissance. But art history aside, I love the tongue in cheek story-telling quality of the images; the terrified monks tripping over their robes to flee as St. Jerome leads a wounded lion into the monastery; the before and after pictures of St. George first charging a fearsome dragon, then dragging the crestfallen beast into the village square. There is more art in the upstairs hall, including an interesting relief painting of St. George over the altar, but everything pales in comparison to the Carpaccios.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting around – The best way to get around Venice is usually on foot. But if you get tired of walking, the Venice public transports company, ACTV , runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around Venice as well as the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are € 7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop.
  • VisitingVenice Naval Historical Museum, Rio della Tana 2162 c, Castello, Venice (close to the Arsenale bridge). Open every day from 8:45 am to 5:00 pm. Santi Giovanni e Paolo church, Campo Giovanni e Paolo Santissimi, Castello 30122, Venice . Open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from noon to 6:00 pm. Greek Icons Museum , Castello 3412, 30122 Venice. Open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, 3259 a Calle dei Furlani, Castello 30122, Venice. Opening hours: 9:15 am to 1:00 pm and 2:45 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.

Location, location, location!

Castello District

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