Monday, January 12, 2009

Piazza San Marco; the attributes of wealth

Image of the floor of a boat approaching a camera at high speed...Dear Gentle Reader,

You probably want pretty pictures of Venice after the geo-political history tale of the Arsenale on Friday. And you probably deserve them.

The problem is that your humble scribe dropped his camera in Cambodia.

One minute it was in his lap, the next minute he was standing up whilst the camera plummeted to the floor.

There was not even time to warn the camera to assume the brace position. (It was a very, very clever camera.)

At the time your scribe thought that only the UV lens guard had shattered. After being told that there were no lens guards in Cambodia to be had for that particular model of lens, your scribe found one. Ta Dah.

Then came Geneva and the Alps; the lens still worked. But, later, in Bremen, the focusing mechanism gave up the ghost.

Image of a Venetian doorhandle, with a worn off nose and  mouth, and sad eyes.
"Could dropping the camera have done anything to the lens?" *sweetly* asked your Heroine to the service technician.

"Absolutely it could" replied the oafish boor, forgetting the bonds of gender and common decency that should have held your scribe safe.

So all your scribe had for Venice was a little point and shoot.

Felicitously, I fell in love with the Serenissma and will return to her side again. Next time with a camera to kiss, tell, and take photos.

Your humble scribe is a wicked, wicked man.

Anyway, now that you, Gentle and Clever Reader, understand the power that the Arsenale bequeathed to the Serenissima, why don't we visit her public boudoir (Venetian courtesans were famed throughout Europe) and see where some of her money went.

For that, we must visit the public manifestation of power in Venice. The place where the cash was spent. The Piazza San Marco; St. Mark's Square.

To get an idea of how much cash we are talking about, let me relay a story I read when visiting a museum in Bremerhaven (Germany).

(Bremerhaven was the second port Bremen created and annexed to herself when the first port silted up. (For clarity, the second port she created, the first she annexed to herself.) Bremen would not go gently into that good night as Brugge in Flanders had done. (Bruges in French for the Walloons of Belgium.))

One of the exhibits in Bremerhaven explained that a bag of peppercorns was found near a dock. Big deal? Big deal.

A tiny bag of peppercorns in Europe, a few hundred years ago, containing the same quantity of peppercorns as you buy in a glass jar at the supermarket to fill up your grinder, would have bought an indentured oarsman his freedom, a fine house, a good wife, and even the chance of a title. Someone must have wept tears of blood when discovering that they had lost their find, and their hoped-for future.

That was just a bagful. Imagine if you controlled, monopolized even, the whole trade...

You don't have to imagine it, just visit the Serenissma at the head of the Adriatic.

First, to see the fruits of vast wealth, approach the Piazza San Marco by sea. (Hover over the picture with your mouse to find out what is what)

Image of Piazza San Marco from the lagoon with the Doge's Palace on the right, the Basilica of St. Mark is visible behind the Doges plaza, and the Biblioteca Marciana is slightly visible on the left. Lots of gondolas are parked out front, and two pillars...

Then, let's come in closer still... (By now you ought to know to always hover over the pictures in this blog.)

Image of Piazza San Marco from the lagoon with the Doge's Palace on the right, the Basilica of St. Mark visible in the middle, and the Biblioteca Marciana visible on the left.
It is difficult to know what to look at first.

Venice is physically close to Rome, but, initially, it was under the sway of Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Why? Venice's supply chain commenced at the end of the caravan routes coming from the Far East.

Constantinople was literally beside the East, being situated at the Horn of the Bosphorus Sea beside the Sea of Marmara; so it was commercially useful to be close to the nearest major power in the region, the Christian Church's twin centre of power, at the time, Constantinople.

Until 1054 (remember the Great Schism) Christian power fluctuated between Rome and and Constantinople, but Constantinople was much farther from Venice than Rome was, so Venice also always had more leeway, having aligned herself more closely with Constantinople.

Besides, in 1204 Venice sacked Constantinople, with other Christian powers, in the Fourth Crusade. And the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) would later take Constantinople and keep it until their Empire disappeared.

(As an aside, Byzantium, which slowly became Constantinople, would not become Istanbul until seven years after the end of the Ottoman Empire, in 1930, by Turkey's founder, President Atatürk.)

Venice's years as a great power were from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries when she was truly unfettered by a Christian Constantinople (although harassed by the Ottoman controlled Constantinople, which they called Constantinya).

Further, Rome was usually glad of Venice's naval might and maritime wealth, derived from the east, for the Christian West's continuous battle against Islam in the form of the Ottoman Empire.

Venice at times felt, and proclaimed herself, to be the successor to Constantinople/Byzantium.

Byzantium's and Constantinople's armies had marched under the protection of the Madonna Nicopeia, a beautiful icon of the Madonna.

Venice took that icon from Byzantium in 1204, but said that Venice's taking of her, the Madonna Nicopeia, was proof that the Madonna was in fact transferring her allegiance to Venice, and asking Venice to look out for her.

Interesting logic. It wouldn't have happened if she did not want it. It happened, ergo she wanted it.

It sounds like a sexual assault defence in the 1960s.

But it worked for the faithful in Europe, and it justified the plundering of one of the wealthiest cities in Christendom, so the argument went, essentially, unchallenged.

What made the Serenissma so powerful was her tight grasp on the overland trade in spices and silks which would terminate at the Black Sea or the Crimean Sea or the Bosphorus. Other competitors for trade and thus wealth and power and riches included Genoa (who had that fortified port at Kaffa where the Black death entered Europe...). But, in the final outcome, Venice came out ahead time and again.

Venice's wealth allowed her the resources to build the Arsenale, which allowed Venice the strength to protect her commercial interests. The Serenissima's wealth and power, and her cultural memory of centuries of commercial and diplomatic experience in the Far East and across Europe, made the Serenissima's envoys formidable diplomats. This was the tripod of power we talked about on Friday when examining the Arsenale.

Venice's wealth meant that her merchants had great power and could confront the Church. They not only confronted the Church, they would frequently win. Rome might ban certain actions; Venice would ignore the bans and get away with it.

Politically, the merchants of the city chose the Doge, the titular leader of Venice. We say titular because no one, then or now, really knows what the Doge did. But the Doge was the head of state.

The Doge was elected from candidates from the patrician families of Venice, which were usually merchant families. And the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale) was put first (after it was constructed, of course, from 1309-1424, and then rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1574).

The Doge's Palace is the first thing you see, literally, when you approach the Piazza San Marco. From the water you see this symbol of secular power, the Doge's Palace, standing in front of the church.

Image of the Doge's palace fronting onto the Venetian lagoon, as seen from the second floor the Basilica San Marco, situated behind the Doge's Palace (when you approach from the sea, the only way to come).
Putting the Doge first, ahead of the Church, proclaims that the Merchants ruled Venice, not the Church.

This was not common in Europe at the time, but it did happen in a few other cities, like in Bremen, Germany, where the merchants, and their representatives in the Rathaus, watched over their market square and set Roland up to stare down the Church and keep the Church at a distance.

We have to get closer to see that wondrous church, the Basilica of St. Mark. Sometimes it is called the Chiesa d'Oro, the Church of Gold, because, inside, its walls and arches and domes are covered with vast polychrome mosaics of biblical themes set against a mosaic of gold. This is the greatest polychrome mosaic church in the West. I strongly urge you to visit.

And that Madonna Nicopeia? Its free to visit. Walk straight up towards the altar. Turn left, walk 10 meters, and look at the icon of the Madonna on the side altar, with all the people praying... that is the Madonna Nicopeia, that used to lead Constantinople's armies into battle.

But note my words. This is a church.

OK, now it is a cathedral, but historically it was not.

This was the private church of the Doge, and of the merchants. Venice ultimately recieved her bishophric, but the Cathedral was kept out of the way, essentially in the hinterland of the island.

You know, stepping into this square, that merchants and lucre reigned supreme, even if Venice styled herself as a Defender of the Faith.

Let's take one last look at that Basilica.

Image of the Basilica of St. Mark behind four handsome people

Image of the Campanile rising up with the Logetta forms its base.
Swinging our heads to the other side of the entrance of the square, we can see the Campanile rising high with the Loggetta at its base.

Life was often quite interesting in Venetian politics.

Venice was frequently a police state Republic. People would go missing... Dissent was not brooked, but it would rise up.

The Loggetta, housed at the base of the Campanile, housed a private force for the benefit of the Doge, conveniently located next to his palace. And the Doge maintained an armoury for them in his palace, too...

The Campanile, the tower soaring above the Loggetta, is over a thousand years old... or ninety-seven... or 495...

It depends on how you count.

The Campanile assumed its present shape in 1514, although a watchtower for the dock stood here from the ninth century. But in 1902 it came down, only to be rebuilt, as before, by 1912. Truth in tourism advertising? Hard to find...

The Campanile survived the war, but Venice is sinking, so the Campanile is under attack, again. She is tilting and gravity is pulling hard...

One of those two wise curators traveling with us told me that Venice sank ninety centimetres in the millenium which ended a hundred years ago, then sank a metre in the last hundred years. For the English and the Americans, that is three feet in a hundred years. Maybe there are too many visitors?

Apparently Venice has recently taken possession of a 22 tonne (22,000 kg = 48,502 lbs = 24.25 short (US) tons = 21.65 long (UK) tons) ring of titanium that they want to put under the Campanile somehow to stabilize it. How much is that worth, formed into a ring? No idea. Probably a lot.

That quantity of sponge titanium, unworked and unformed, would be worth approximately 580,000 USD as of January 4, 2008, sitting in a metal warehouse in Rotterdam. Then you would have to work it, transport it, and somehow place it under the Campanile by the David Copperfield of engineers...

So we begin to have some idea how much Venice values the Campanile.

But turn around again, because there is something else really worth looking at, in metal, at the top of the Basilica.

Image of the Triumphal Quadriga, the four horses that once adorned Constantinople's Hippodrome, and now adorn the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice.
These four horses once adorned the Hippodrome of Constantinople. In 1204, after the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, the Doge Andrea Dandolo had the Triumphal Quadriga, the four horses, brought back to Venice.

They were valuable, and worth a war, so they were stored with all the guns and ships of Venice in the Arsenale.

A half century later in 1254 the Doge deemed it safe to transfer the Triumphal Quadriga from the Arsenale to St. Mark's Basilica where they still stand today.

Closer image of two of the four horses of the Quadriglia on St. Mark's Basilica in VeniceA closer look is reasonable, because these bronze horses were built in the second century BC; they are about two thousand two hundred years old.

OK. In reality, these are copies. The originals are right inside, and look even better... and you can get closer. Its just that you are not supposed to take pictures, so we have none for you.

Enemies of Venice, and she had many, constantly threatened to "bridle" or "harness" her horses... and by that they meant these four horses, the Triumphal Quadriga. That was a code for saying that Venice's enemies would assault and capture Venice.

None could, though they blustered and fought sometimes, until Napolean did his Grand Tour of Europe.

Napolean, when he conquered Venice in 1797 (the first time Venice had been conquered), had the horses carted to Paris. The horses returned by 1815, but Venice had been traded to her long enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And Venice would never be a free Republic again.

The greatest treasure in St. Mark's Basilica, greater even then the Madonna Nicopeia who guaranteed the success of Byzantium's troops, is of course St. Mark the Evangelist whose body was allegedly hustled out of Alexandria, Egypt, and taken to Venice in 828 AD by two Venetian merchants. The body was taken wrapped in pork so that the Muslim occupiers of Alexandria would not look too closely inside the box and discover the real goods being "relocated".

Besides looking up to see the golden ceilings of the Basilica, be sure to pay to go to the Golden Altar at the front of the church, it is a late Gothic/early Renaissance masterpiece. I also love the reliquaries of relics in the treasure chamber, but scribes generally like those sorts of things.

Finally, if we climb the stairs of the church (and pay again) to see the polychrome golden mosaics up close, and see the original four horses up close, we can also step outside and get a bird's eye view of the Piazza... Very worthwhile.

Image of the rest of St. Mark's Square, looking down from the second floor of St. Mark's Basilica.
I could talk about the fabulous works of art in the Doges Palace, like Tintoretto's Paradiso (As you might have guessed, it happens to be the biggest oil painting in the world. But, it is also phenomenally beautiful in the half light of the central hall where elections and debates were held.) (Tintoretto was really Jacopo Comin, 1518-1594) but nothing on the web does this painting justice and I was not about to breach protocol and take a picture myself.

This particular painting is in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Hall of the Grand Council) and is the biggest hall in the Doge's Palace (which is presumably why it needs, and can showcase, the biggest canvass painting).

All Venetians (of noble birth only, of course) who had achieved 25 years of age, could enter to debate and vote; they acted as unelected representatives of all of Venice's citizens.

Just get yourself over to Venice before it sinks, 'cause Venice is sinking, and I don't wanna swim. (OK, only Canadians will get that. That is a line from "Venice is Sinking" by the Tragically Hip).

This square, the Piazza San Marco, shows what a nation can buy for itself when it controls the world's trade. Russia, China, India, and the US take note...


Other My Town Monday posts (co-hosted with Junosmom)

Travis Erwin, the regular host of MTM, had his house burn down last week. Show love here.


Barbara Martin said...

Great post, Chris, about one of my favourite European cities. Was in Venice in 1971 and now would like to see it again. We forgive you for being mean to your camera.

My MTM post is up.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Barbara,

It is pretty hard to not fall in love with the Serenissima. Although Jan Morris says it has changed significantly from her first visit in the sixties; less decaying, more touristy. But the heady whiff of history and power and old beauty is intoxicating.

That said, I am glad that we visited when the hordes of tourists were not pillaging the Piazza and camping in the campi.

Further, I was pleased that the Lagoon and the canals were not as fragrant as they are reputed to be when the heat hits...


debra said...

My post is up, Chris. I will be back later to read. Right now I have to feed animals and move furniture.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Debra,

Good luck with the animals in all that snow that Jack Frost left you this week.

Good luck on the reading too... ...I went a bit overboard with the writing and underboard with the editing.

I must remember to write less, or at least to post less...


PS Thanks for letting me know.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Venice is my favorite place in the world. It's magical.

David Cranmer said...

A place I haven't visited but after your post and the comments section, the city has been added to my list of must see. Btw great photos too.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Pattinase,

I have been smitten too.

I like the solitary highlands of the Tibetan plateaus, the thumping bass of Tokyo's glittering consumerism, and the communal haunt of loners on boards staring at the horizon and waiting for our individual waves.

Now the dry, faded, power-stained, history and intrigue drenched, etched, arched beauty of Venice has mingled her blood to mine and joined my list of loves that conquered.

Dear David,

I really cannot do the place justice. Go before it sinks in water or crowds or touristic commercialism. All would (will?) be fatal to the Serenissima.


Barbara Martin said...

Chris, the awful stuff I recall about the canals was the garbage stench from a strike and the drowned cats.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Barbara,

I think the volume of tourists, plus the summer heat, now yield foul stenches every summer, strike or no strike. Standing over the manholes proved to be an unfelicitous position in Venice, even in winter.


chuckmccky said...

My MTM fo January 19th will be up at about 11:00pm sunday; MTM - Skateboard Park"