A World of Saints: Venice

Rain had been falling in stair rods since we landed, but we were under cover. Now, dumped on the Piazzale Roma, it left us feeling part of the lagoon. We were lost, it was dark, and we were very late. We eventually found a vaporetto to take us to St Mark’s, and started to drip dry. We knew we would have to lug our cases past Harry’s bar, and across the square, but we had direction now. The city was empty of tourists, and we were free to catch our breath once more. Now all we needed was food.

Saint Mark was an evangelist. He may or may not have been the cousin of Barnabus. His connection to the Most Serene Republic of Venice is tangential at best, but never let a Venetian catch you saying that, and if you do, leave me out of it. The Venetians hold St Mark close to their collective bosom, as close as family, and they have decorated their world with his sigils, but he is but an appropriation.

Saint Mark was born in Libya, and died at the hands of a baying mob, in Alexandria. What happened between those two points is the stuff of purest conjecture. What we do know is that his bones were ‘rescued’ from Alexandria by Venetian merchants and taken back to The Republic. They were meant to be installed in the church of Grado, but were retained by the Doge of Venice. Upon these relics was built the basilica which bears his name. I can’t imagine Venice without the Basillica of St Mark.

It is hard to fight against the crush of tourists as we push across the bridge. This is San Zaccaria, and the nearby cruise ships unload their cargo here: boats full of people come and go round the clock. They are passersby on the ocean going vessels, out of sight. The path across the Ponte della Paglia will never ever be anything other than a battle. No one is interested in this bridge, only its view. No one cranes to see this bridge, only the one it was built to gaze upon: the Bridge of Sighs. We sigh.

The winged Lions of St Mark usually hold an open book: the book refers to the legend of Saint Mark visiting the Venetian Lagoon, and being visited by an angel, saying “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.”: “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.” This playful / truthful tale was later used to justify the theft of the good Saint’s remains, in 828.

The crush of the lift is almost overwhelming. Brass and mirror, gilt and steel, radiates from the walls, multiplying the crowd from fifteen to thirty, to sixty, to hundreds. The infinite sea of human forms is pulled upwards, shaken, and rattled. The breath on the shoulder; the wheeze of an aged traveller; the grumble of a child. And then. The release of the door and the view of the lagoon. We are at the top of the campanile, and the world has stopped, if only for a beat. We are weightless. We are high.

Hunger gripped as we made our way through the sun-bleached, canal-side paths of Salute, tongues burning dry as dust. Any restaurant we had seen, along Fondamenta Zattere Al Saloni, was closed to our urges, so we came inland. The sun threatened to burn my eyes, and tried to blind me. Then: an alley, a cluster of folk. A hole-in-the-wall pizza shop: its bounty about to come, fresh, from its oven; its fridge full of cold cold drinks. Pidgin Italian spews forth and we are fed, our thirsts quenched.

They had massacred the Christians, that was the tale, old as time. That was the way they sold their phony war to the ranks. That is was likely only a ruse fails to raise an eyebrow in surprise, today no more than any other before it. But still they went, on their new crusade. The Most Serene Republic of Venice, under the command of Enrico Dandalo, attacking the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

They were not there for redemption; They were not there for revenge; the crusader armies were there for recidivism. Venice was far from alone, but they were very much participant. Among the relics sacked from Constantinople, some lost from sight forever, were nearly a million silver coins, many religious relics and works of art. Four horses – the Quadriga – would adorn the Basilica of St Mark for half a century, before Napoleon whisked them away to another serene city: Paris.

The acquisition of relics increases the prestige of a city. In Venice, St Mark’s bones were a rallying point for its imperial grandeur: his winged lions a unifying symbol of the people of Venice as a whole. The ubiquitous adornment of the city, atop every pillar, covering every flag. Always watching.

The Venetian Lagoon is an almost endless playground. That the Exarchate of Ravenna ever rose from these marshy fronds is a miracle to me. The vaporretti ripping through the waters, ferrying tourists to the out-lying islands are a joy to use, and give no evidence of the closeness of the salty floor to the gently lapping waters. The repetitive labour of the crew and their thick ropes becomes soporific.

My memories of Venice mingle with those of Osteria. Little bars where one stands, drinks Spritz – three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, one part soda – and eats Cicchetti – little delicacies, from crostini to anchovies, via baccalà. Cicchetti are cheap and plentiful, almost infinite in their variety, defined by luxurious combinations of seasonality, locality and the traditions of the bar itself.

We ate on the Campo Santo Stefano, and gorged ourselves on wine and sepia. Two women at the table next to us struggled with spaghetti, cutting it up in to bite-sized pieces, as we compared the blackness of our drunken teeth. Hawkers sold brightly coloured toys to children in the square.

We strolled through Cannaregio, hand in lingering hand. We drifted along Fondamenta Misericordia, along Fondamenta dei Ormesini. I knew where I wanted to go. The sun lashed down, contrasting the rain before it; a long straight canal, contrasting the winding streets of the centre. We crossed a low bridge, and turned in to a square. Open and bright, with several tall trees. Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.

The Venetian Ghetto was the first. It set the precedence for the infamy which followed. Jews were corralled here by the state from 1516 until its dissolution in 1797. The Ghetto was closed daily from 6pm to 12pm, and its borders policed by guards. The Jewish population were expected to perform tasks closed off from Christians, centring on financial services: usury. That the whole global financial services industry stems from this privation is testament to the will of man, not its ability to hate.

We sit at the steps of a harbour. The buildings exude gaudy colours from every pore. We are on the island of Burano, where sunglasses are advisable, even on a dull day. The canal bobs at our feet, as we catch our breath and contemplate a tramezzino. Ridiculously white bread, ridiculously stuffed with cooked ham, and cut in to a triangle, tramezzini are the staple of these islands. We decide to forego such excitement. A local bar, and a pair of Spritz Venezia, gently call out to us. We withdraw.

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