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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- Visiting –Venice 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.