Sunday, September 25, 2016

Ponte Rialto and Canal Grande

Vaporetto stop on Grand Canal
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We explored the maze of narrow labyrinthine streets (calli) and covered passageways (sottoporteghi) away from San Marco’s Square, took some wrong turns, crossed many small bridges, walked on narrow paths along the canals, and stopped to admire the windows of some shops. I took so many pictures and I thanked my patient husband with a Venetian silk tie and a leather briefcase. I was surprised how much of the service industry had been taken over by foreigners, especially Chinese and African Muslims. Some stores had signs in the window, stating that the business was not Chinese-run or owned. Never saw this development in all my previous visits. Usually it was obvious which businesses were owned by Italians because they were spotless and tastefully decorated with the traditional Italian flair.

Venice has 350 bridges, but her most famous and oldest stone bridge, Rialto Bridge, built in 1588-1591, spans the Grand Canal at its narrowest point and is the dividing line between sestieri San Marco and San Polo. Our destination, Ponte di Rialto, was under repairs since November 2015, with the traditional cloth draping the construction.

Ponte Rialto
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The first bridge in Rialto was a pontoon bridge built in 1181 by Nicolo Barattieri and was called Ponte della Moneta (the bridge of money). As the Rialto market developed nearby, the bridge was replaced in 1255 with a wooden version which had inclined ramps to allow the passage of tall ships. Two rows of shops were built along the sides of the bridge during the first half of the 15th century. The money from rent was used to maintain the bridge. This “ponte” was partially burned during a revolt in 1310, collapsed in 1444 from the weight of people watching a boat parade on the Grand Canal, and collapsed yet again in 1524. It was time to rebuild it in stone. Famous architects like Sansovino, Palladio, and even Michelangelo proposed designs for a stone bridge that would replace the more precarious wooden construction. The winning design was that of Antonio da Ponte. The Rialto bridge remained the only means of crossing the Grand Canal until 1854.

Grand Canal
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Grand Canal winds on the same course of an ancient river bed of nearly 4 km long and as wide as 230 ft., through six city districts (sestieri), is spanned by four bridges, and is lined by 10 churches and more than 200 palazzos. Gondolas, food and trash barges, vaporettos, police boats, small boats, water taxis, and water buses cross the Grand Canal so often, it causes a constant wake. The waves lap against the buildings and the changing tides show the decay of the lower levels of the fastidious palaces. In its heyday, the Grand Canal was traveled by larger ships, past the opulent palazzos with facades so opulent and intricately designed like a table cloth of Burano lace. Palazzos displayed the wealth and social status of important Venetian nobility.

Canal Grande
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Today, any newly minted billionaire with 35 million euros to burn can own such a palazzo connected to the aristocratic families such as Mocenigo, Corner, Giustiniani, Grimani, Pesaro, and Pisani. Some Venetians still live in the ancestral home that belonged to their families for centuries but may or may not bear their name. Others have been turned into luxurious hotels, textile and glass manufacturing companies, or museums like Peggy Guggenheim’s art collection (Palazzo Venier).

Ponte dei Sospiri
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2005
A Venetian palazzo has two entrances, a water one and a land one, with the water entrance being the main façade.  The front has pergolas (balconies). The canal side level of the palazzo is seldom inhabited because of constant dampness. There is a water line with green slime, mold, and salt, showing the ravages caused by the ocean. Tiny spaces between palazzos on the land side are hidden gardens with Mediterranean flowers and wisteria. An occasional stray cat is perched on the top of the wall, looking skittishly at pedestrians.

Narrow and short passageway in San Marco's district
Photo: Ileana Johnson
From the vaporetto stop at San Toma, there is a cluster of palaces that belonged to the Mocenigo family, Ca’ Mocenigo. Seven doges came from this family. The poet Byron wrote his poem Don Juan while staying in Ca’ Mocenigo (1819-1824) and is said to have had an affair with the baker’s wife, “wild as a witch and fierce as a demon.” 

Another palazzo on the Grand Canal, Ca’ Foscari, is famous for having hosted King Henri III of France, and is now part of Venice University.

Gondola stop with gondoliers
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
One the more storied palazzos is Ca’ Dario, not because of its architecture but because it seems cursed. The owners, over five centuries, have been plagued by scandals, murder, suicide, bankruptcies, death by broken heart, and expulsion from Venice. The palazzo was, until recently, empty, as no prospective buyer would dare tempt fate and imminent calamity.

Ca’ d’Oro, which was bequeathed by the last owner, Baron Franchetti, to the city, houses now the Franchetti Gallery.  Baron Franchetti committed suicide in 1922 rather than facing an incurable disease. He had restored the palace to its original glory. Because the outside friezes were originally picked in gold, the name, Palace of Gold, stuck.

Stone Church in Erberia, Rialto
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Ponte Rialto is my favorite bridge to watch pedestrians from and to admire the gondola traffic. I have bought small souvenirs on the bridge for 22 years and walked down to the Pescheria, the famous fish market. I have picked fresh grapes before from the local vendors in Erberia and calendars from the foreign ones. I can always find a Romanian somewhere selling cheap souvenirs and t-shirts and Ponte Rialto is no exception.

Ponte Rialto Erberia
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Rialto is derived from “rivo alto” (high bank); it is Venice’s cosmopolitan center where banking and commercial exchanges took place for centuries. Even though Rialto burned to the ground in 1514 (the fire spared the stone church), it came back from the ashes like the proverbial Phoenix. The spot were Banco di Giro (1157) existed is now a bar called Al Bancogiro. Giro was a written transfer from one account to another, with no receipt issued because the bank’s register was the official record.  Armed escort moved the money at night to the mint.

Rialto's Erberia
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Rialto Bridge divides the city into two parts, the right bank is the San Marco side, Rialto di qua (this side) and the left bank is known as Rialto di la (that side). Vendor booths of every type crowd the banks and the bridge, a sort of “insect life” as Henry James described it.

The stone church, in the middle of Erberia (the fruit and vegetable stalls), San Giacomo di Rialto, is dedicated to St. James, the patron saint of goldsmiths and pilgrims. Going up the inclined cobbled-stoned street and up the bridge steps, there are many tiny gold and leather shops. The Erberia, the fruit and vegetable market, would overlook the Grand Canal if the view was unimpeded by other buildings.

Our favorite by-the-slice pizzeria is on the right bank of Ponte Rialto and the best jewelry store is at the top of Ponte Rialto. I have bought Venetian gold from the grandfather, the father, and now the two sons who own the tiny shop. We always have animated conversations in Italian and haggle over prices. This time we talked about politics and the invasion of “refugees,” occasioned by a lovely gold bracelet that featured charms with symbols of every religion.  Next to the pizza shop is a very busy gelateria with delicious assortments, an outdoor landscape painter who was selling his oil paints for 25 euros and a gondola station.

Ponte Rialto, right side
Photo: Ileana Johnson
I tried to buy Dave a hat from the Hard Rock Café on the bridge, a new addition since last time we visited, but he refused on account that the word Venice was printed in English instead of Italian, Venezia. It could be Venice, Florida or Venice, California, he said. As if the Hard Rock Café was authentic Italian, so out of place surrounded by history and medieval beauty. But then he did not want a gondolier’s straw hat either.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Gondolas are as old as Venice, able to navigate the shallowest waters and the narrowest of canals. Turkish in origin, Thomas Mann described them as “visions of death itself,” made of eight different types of woods and covered with ten coats of black paint. The ornamental bow of steel represents the doge’s cap with the six prongs representing the six districts of Venice. Each gondolier decorates the interior according to their own tastes. In the 16th century there were 10,000 gondoliers, now there are only 400 and, for the first time, a woman gondolier. The license is issued after a test, is passed from father to son, and is only available to native Venetians. Gondoliers have their own shop with typical navy-striped marine-themed attire and round straw hats with a navy or red ribbon. A half hour ride can set you back 100 euros but, if you are lucky, the gondolier will serenade you. Their English is very good and some are college-educated who prefer the life of a gondolier and the much higher earnings.

Rialto, left side of Grand Canal
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
A famous son of Venice was composer, teacher, priest, and violin virtuoso, Antonio Vivaldi, son of a barber, Giovanni Battista, who played in the orchestra of San Mark’s Basilica. Antonio would stand in for his father from time to time even though he was very young. In the western world, everybody recognizes his masterful composition, The Four Seasons. In adulthood, fame found Vivaldi, but, as a priest, his image was tainted by the affair with Anna Giro, a local soprano. When he died, La Pieta, his church base in Venice, was restored, and his chamber music is played to this day. His home next door became the expensive Vivaldi Hotel.

The gondolier specialty shop
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Vivaldi’s church, La Pieta, is located in the Castello district, with the city’s best-known waterfront. Arsenale shipyards, with its walls and towers and the Naval Museum, is visible in the eastern part of Castello.

Arsenale with the lion
Photo credit: Wikipedia commons
The Arsenale is a naval school and shipyards today, and officers and sailors can be seen from ferries passing through. Arsenale, founded in 1104 as the Venetian military power, was Europe largest medieval shipyard. As the Arabic term of origin implies, darsina’a (house of industry), the arsenal was an industrial production line, 3 km of walled compound with dry and wet docks. The vaporetto line that used to go between the towers of the water entrance has been taken out of service. During Biennale, Arsenale is used for display space and visitors can see the inside unimpeded. Biennale is an exhibition of eccentric modern art which overloads the senses, an event that occurs every two years.  A beautiful 6th century B.C. lion seems to guard Arsenale in perpetuity.

Canal gondola waiting for hire
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Life on the water seems glamorous to tourists, but it’s not an easy life.  Water buses, the famous vaporetti, ferry Venetians everywhere they want to go.  Everything is transported on water, trash pickup, supplies, food, police, firemen, ambulance help, even the dead. The speed limit cannot exceed 5 mph, with the exception of emergency services, but for Italians, legal limits are just mere suggestions. Gondoliers complain to no avail. 

Rialto Photo credit: Wikipedia
High-water sirens mean that the stormy sirocco winds are blowing. When tidal flooding occurs, the garbage remains piled on the canal banks – the trash boats cannot pass under bridges to carry the refuse to ships to be incinerated. Shop keepers place merchandise on higher shelves, locals put on rubber boots, and temporary boardwalks are put down immediately for pedestrians. The lagoon water gives character and uniqueness to Venice but at a price of constant flooding. The many projects to save Venice from sinking, including heavy concrete barriers that are raised far out at sea, have not saved the Serenissima yet.

Church of the Redentore designed by Palladio
Photo credit: Wikipedia
When we got tired of walking, we boarded the vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore, an island east of Giudecca. Part of the district of San Marco, the island is surrounded by Canale della Grazia, Canale della Giudecca, Saint Mark Basin, Canale di San Marco, and the southern lagoon.

Giudecca Island
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The island was owned by the Memmo family. The island’s church, San Giorgio Maggiore was consecrated in 829 A.D. and a monastery by the same name was established in 982. The church was designed by Palladio; the nine bells of the bell tower ring in C sharp.

San Giorgio Maggiore Photo credit: Wikipedia

The island was donated by the Memmo family specifically to build the monastery. When the Venetian Republic fell, the monastery was suppressed and the island became a harbor built in 1812 and home to Venice’s artillery. Today it houses the headquarters of the Cini Foundation Arts Center, with its library; the open-air Teatro Verde finds its home here as well.

Next stop was the district Dorsoduro with Giudecca island and Isola Sacca Fisola. It has the highest land areas of the city. Dorsoduro has many landmarks such as Ca’ Foscari, Gallerie dell’Academia, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, many churches, ospedale Giustinian, and palazzo Ariani.

Dorsoduro has a world-famous Gelato Nico. As we sat under umbrellas on the golf side, a huge cruise ship, Celebrity Constellation, was towed so close to the shore by two tugboats, practically in front of our eyes. Thousands of people were lined up on the deck to see the sights of Venice.

We strolled on the island for a while, perusing a miniature boat shop, an antique store, and taking pictures of beautiful facades that are so uniquely Venetian, I felt transported into another time and another life.

Giudecca island had beautiful palaces with gardens but in the early 20th century it became an industrial area with factories, shipyards, and a film studio. After WWII, the industry declined and the area has returned to middle class status with some expensive homes. The Palladio-designed Il Redentore church is located here. The former Molino Stucky flour mill has been converted into a luxury hotel and apartments. At the opposite end of Giudecca is the famous five-star Cipriani hotel with gardens and a salt-water pool.

Dorsoduro antique shop
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
After strolling around Dorsoduro for a while, we took the water bus back to Lido island. At the end of the street from our hotel were cozy restaurants and shops. A huge monument dedicated to Italian fallen heroes of various wars was closed and under repairs. Everything around Venice needs constant repair and restoration due to the corrosive elements.

We picked a nice restaurant for dinner, Gran Viale, and feasted on the best menu turistico we’ve had so far. The atmosphere was cozy, the space tastefully decorated, and everything was spotlessly clean. We returned to our hotel, tired and in pain, ready for the next day’s adventure, Murano and Burano islands.












No comments:

Post a Comment