Archive for basilica of San Marco
I can tell you precisely when was the last time I sat and looked at art. It was Easter morning, and I wasn’t in a museum.
We were sitting in the front row of the basilica of San Marco and the occasion was the elaborate festal mass. The sermon was well underway. I had had every intention of listening carefully, because it was the new patriarch’s maiden voyage and I had been curious to check his rigging and navigation skills on one of the biggest days of the year.
If you’d like to know more, you’ll need to ask someone else. Because while he didn’t drift into uncharted political or theological waters (I’m finished with this metaphor now), as his predecessor used to do, he wanted to convey a message I couldn’t follow, and he was in no hurry to finish it. It was the religious equivalent of the stationary bicycle.
To be fair, he could just as well have been reading the Government Printing Office Style Manual, because the basilica of San Marco is an Olympics-level competitor if you’re trying to get somebody’s attention. So I made the most of being installed in my seat for a while, and let my eyes wander around the opulence of the basilica itself. And where my eyes wander, my brain tends to follow.
After scanning my usual favorites (the mosaic depicting the Temptation in the Wilderness, the bug-eyed lion of San Marco in the Prophets Cupola, the relief on the small marble altar outlining Saint Paul’s crisis on the road to Damascus), I let my eyes settle on the Pala d’Oro.
One usually has to pay a small fee to go behind the high altar to see this prodigy, but on major feast days it is rotated to face the nave. Of course, when you’re seated out there you can’t discern much detail, but even from a distance you can tell it’s something phenomenal.
As I gazed at it, I let my eyes slide beyond the extravagant assortment of enamel medallions, and the myriad (1,927, actually) precious and semi-precious stones, and its gleaming golden surface, dazzling though it all may be.
What I saw were the hundreds of people involved in making it, and how hard the work was, and how much it cost. I don’t mean the bills that were presented to various doges, or what its total price would be today in round dollars, if such a thing could be calculated, which it probably can’t.
I mean the money every single person earned who was involved in this project, bearing in mind that what we see is the result of additions, substitutions, and renovations over centuries. If thinking of Accounts Payable seems crass, it probably wasn’t so crass to the artists who made it. Art is many things, but toward the top of the list is the word “business.” I doubt that any more than .0035 percent of all the art in the world was made for free.
The number of individuals who contributed to this prodigious creation is similarly difficult to calculate, along with their vast amount of skill, effort, and imagination. So let’s take just one person.
I’m thinking about a master enamelist. First, there are the years he spends as an apprentice, doing the scut work, making mistakes, throwing things out, learning little tricks, getting yelled at. He learns how to work with wire, with glass, with color, with fire. After I don’t know how long, he ‘s good enough to get the commission to do five saints (let’s say).
So he goes home to give his wife the good news, and tells her how much he’s going to be paid (and when!). And they stay up late feeling happy and trying to decide how they’ll spend the money — finally buy that horse? Pay the butcher? Order their daughter’s wedding dress?
Then I thought the same things about the artist who applied the baroque pearls (years, labor, etc.). Then I stepped back one step to the merchants who sold and bought the pearls (years, labor). And the person who brought the pearls from the Persian Gulf to Constantinople. And the person who dived for the pearls. (I stopped short of imagining the oyster making the pearls, but you’re free to go ahead.)
Then I thought about the gold-leaf beaters and appliers. (This is no small thought, considering that the Pala d’Oro consists of gold in many forms: repousse’, cast, applique’, chased, stamped, matted, and filigrees, not to mention granulation and beading.) The gold merchant. His wife and kids. The camel-driver and ship’s captain who carried the gold. Their wives and kids. The gold miner. His wife and kids.
So I probably missed an excellent sermon while I was imagining spouses and offspring and extra food and new shoes and sick grandfathers and quack doctors and on and on, through the whole infinitely expanding intricacy of the connections between just about everything.
So whenever I see a few square inches of art (frescoes, mosaics, marble statues, kilim carpets, whatever), I sometimes unleash my mind and let it roll around like a Weazel Ball among centuries and countries and people.
I came back to my immediate surroundings when they passed to take up the collection. Speaking of money.
1848, if you’ll cast your minds back, was a year that produced a bumper crop of uprisings, insurrections, and assorted revolutions all across Europe. It was a brief, incandescent period variously known as the “Spring of Nations,” “Springtime of the Peoples,” or “The Year of Revolution.”
It happened in Venice, too.
Venice, by then, had spent 51 years — two generations — under an Austrian army of occupation, except for a few scattered years when it was the French instead.
But on March 22, 1848, the independent Republic of San Marco was declared by a group of visionaries led by a Venetian named Daniele Manin (Mah-NEEN).
Historic Irony Alert: He was a relative, by adoption, of Ludovico Manin, the last doge of Venice.
I’ve often reflected on how odd it is that there should be more memorials to Daniele Manin around Venice than to any other individual (I’ve counted five so far), and yet it seems that he has become, like so many other heroes, just another distant star in the galaxy of indifference to which even the most passionate and brilliant people seem to be consigned. If anybody utters his name today (or any day), it’s probably because they’re referring to Campo Manin.
I’m offering this brief disquisition in order to enlarge your view of what history in Venice can entail. It wasn’t just doges and fireworks, it was also patriots and blasting artillery.
I suppose you could live in Venice if you didn’t care about history, though I don’t quite see what the point would be. But if you were to actually dislike history, you should probably move to Brasilia or Chandigarh. History is what Venice is made of, and history is made of people.
In addition to Campo Manin — which you can grasp is named for a person, even if you don’t know what he did — there is the more inscrutable street name of Calle Larga XXII Marzo: The Wide Street of the Twenty-Second of March.
On March 22, 1848, Venice rose up against the Austrian occupiers, and the flag of the independent Republic of San Marco was raised in the Piazza San Marco. It was war.
Not only did the Austrian army fire on the city with cannon placed on the railway bridge (which they had built two years earlier), it also made one of the first attempts at aerial bombardment. They sent hot-air balloons aloft loaded with incendiary bombs rigged with timers; the wind, happily, blew them back to where they came from.
The Venetians and their allies fought ferociously, but whereas once the fact of being surrounded by water had been a defensive advantage, now it became a fatal handicap. The Austrians clamped a siege around the city, reducing it to starvation, which was accompanied by an epidemic of cholera.
One of the best-known poems from this period is “Le Ultime Ore di Venezia” (The Final Hours of Venice), written in 1849 by Arnaldo Fusinato. He relates the desperate last days in the city, constructing an exchange between a passing gondolier and the poet in which they give a summary of the situation in which the former republic found itself. Each stanza concludes with the poignant refrain, “Il morbo infuria, il pan ci manca/Sul ponte sventola bandiera bianca” (Disease is raging, there is no more bread/on the bridge the white flag is waving).
It had to end.
On August 22, 1849, Manin signed the treaty of surrender. The Austrians re-entered Venice, where they remained until 1861. Manin, like several of his ministers, went into exile. He died in Paris in 1857, at the age of 53.
His body returned to Venice on — yes — March 22, 1868, to a city which had finally been liberated from the Hapsburg domination and become part of the Kingdom of Italy. A solemn funeral ceremony was held for him in the Piazza San Marco, and he was placed in a tomb against the north wall of the basilica.
Lino has often told me the anecdote of the little old Venetian lady who was crossing the Piazza San Marco not long after the Austrians returned to the devastated city. A soldier walked by, and his sword was dragging — perhaps only slightly — across the paving stones.
She couldn’t take it. “Pick your sword up off the ground,” she commanded him. “Because Venice surrendered — she wasn’t taken.” Starving a city into submission is one of the least noble ways to conquer your enemy, but history shows that it does get the job done.
Final tally: Slightly more than a year of independence, almost all of which time was spent fighting.
When I reflect on much of this — I shouldn’t, but it’s more than I can resist — and observe the condition of the city’s successive administrations over the past 50 years or so, each of which seems to be a copy of its predecessor, except slightly worse, I can’t bring myself to imagine what Daniele Manin and his dreadnought compatriots might be thinking.
I suppose it’s a good thing after all that he has been “disappeared” into the deep space of cultural oblivion.
[Translation by me]: Italian Soldiers! The war of independence, to which you have consecrated your blood, has now entered a phase which for us is disastrous. Perhaps the only refuge of Italian liberty are these lagoons, and Venice must at any cost guard the sacred fire.
Valorous ones! In the name of Italy, for which you have fought, and want to fight, I implore you not to lessen your efforts in the defense of this sacred sanctuary of our nationality. The moment is a solemn one: It concerns the political life of an entire people, whose destiny could depend on this final bulwark.
As many as you may be, that from beyond the Po, beyond the Mincio, beyond the Ticino, have come here for the final triumph of our common cause, just think that by saving Venice, you will also save the most precious rights of our native land. Your families will bless the sacrifices which you have chosen to undergo; an admiring Europe will reward your generous perseverance; and the day that Italy will be able to proclaim itself redeemed, it will raise, among the many monuments which are here, of the valor and glory of our fathers, another monument, on which it will be written: The Italian soldiers defending Venice saved the independence of Italy.
The Government 12 August 1848 MANIN
If there’s one thing people everywhere know about Venice, it’s that sometimes those romantic canals try to barge into your house.
Rather than “flooding,” Venetians call this acqua alta, or “high water” (literally “high tide”). Or, depending on how deep it’s likely to be, sometimes they call it “acqua in terra,” or “water on the ground,” which is less dramatic and often more accurate.
I’ve got water on the brain at the moment because night before last, the warning siren sounded again. It indicated the lowest predicted level, one out of four, which was nice, and in the end we barely got any at all. With rare exceptions, acqua alta, more than being some kind of apocalyptic affliction, as it is often portrayed, is really a low-grade nuisance. If it happens often, as it has this winter, it becomes as annoying as any other uninvited guest who doesn’t realize it’s time to go home.
There are so many notions people have about high water, based on the generally inaccurate and overwrought accounts in the press, that I thought I’d review and readjust a few of them.
- It’s always happening, or likely to happen. Not really. This winter we’ve had more acqua in terra (again, not really what I’d call “alta”) more often than many other winters. On the other hand, there have been years when I haven’t put my boots on even once. Yet all kinds of claims keep being thrown around in stories written about this little phenomenon. The website of the basilica of San Marco states that water begins to flood the Piazza San Marco, just in front of the church, 250 days a year. Check my math, but that works out to 8 months. A photo caption on the National Geographic website claims that Venice has high water ten times a month. That’s crazy talk.
- It creates, or will create, really big, really bad problems.
I’m not sure what people think those might be, but the words “acqua alta” seem to inspire a lot of hyperventilating outside Venice (and even inside Venice, mostly from merchants around the Piazza San Marco). I’m not saying that having to put the stuff in your store up on higher shelves isn’t annoying, or that having to sweep out the receding brackish water and then wash the floor with fresh water isn’t annoying. But in 9 cases out of 10, the situation doesn’t exceed the annoyance level — not much worse than having to shovel the snow out of the driveway for the fiftieth time this winter.
- It’s going to be alarmingly deep. Those fun photos of people rowing boats in the Piazza San Marco don’t ever show how deep the water actually is. (In fact, those boats can be rowed in four inches of water.) Venice isn’t flat as a griddle — the streets undulate as much as the water does, which you discover when the water comes ashore. There can be dry spots even in a wet street.
- The entire city’s drowning. The municipal tide center reports that when the tide is predicted to reach 110 cm above mean sea level, 14 percent of Venice has water on the ground. And that that might not be a depth of more than an inch or two. Fourteen percent doesn’t strike me as an immense area, and several percentages of that would always be the Piazza San Marco, the lowest point in the city.
- It’s going to hurt you, or hurt something. Not that I’ve noticed. Acqua alta is nothing like real floods. Rivers overflowing their banks in torrential rainstorms are dangerous; tsunamis are dangerous. With acqua alta, nobody dies. People survive, buildings survive, art works are fine. The water rises very gently, even politely. Despite the distraught tones in which the event is almost always reported, I still don’t understand why the mere term seems to have acquired such a menacing overtone.
Acqua alta is not dangerous. It’s not even especially upsetting. In my experience, if it happens more than a few times, though, it can begin to seem like a two-year-old who’s gotten into the “Why?” groove. Nothing wrong with it, really, except that it gets to be irritating. The kid turns three, and spring and summer come, and all of this fades from memory.
In my next post: A few real-life aspects of acqua alta which tend to mitigate its fearsome reputation.