We spent most of our second day near the Piazza San Marco. This is the tourist center of Venice – in fact, it has all the really notable landmarks. These are: St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Correr Museum, and the Campanile (belltower).
The first stop was the Basilica. The entire entrance was still flooded after the previous night, so we had to enter via the elevated walkways. The entire inside of the basilica is coated in gold leaf and mosaics of biblical scenes. Venice had heavy interaction with Constantinople (they sacked the city and stole all the artwork during the fourth crusade), and as a result the decoration feels decidedly more Byzantine than Catholic. St Mark’s is also remarkably old: it was built starting around 1073, and has been mostly unchanged for almost a millenium. It feels old – much more ancient than, for instance, the cathedral in Milan, which had a purely medieval feel.
The basilica holds the remains of a saint (like any basilica). In this case, the remains of St Mark, for which it’s named. At least, it’s reputed to hold the bones of St Mark. They were recovered from Alexandria by Venetian merchants, who hid them in pork barrels to prevent the Muslim rulers from finding them. Then they were misplaced, and conveniently recovered – now a thousand years old – by a doge of Venice. There’s at least one theory that the bones are those of Alexander the Great. The most you can say for sure is that someone is buried in St Mark’s.
We just did a walkthrough of the Baslicia (we’d return the following day). Partway through they turned on the lights, and wow! what a difference. With lights, the Basilica glowed and shimmered. But, I don’t know which look was more authentic. Would the basilica have looked that bright 800 years ago? Hard to say for sure.
Adjoining the basilica is the Doge’s Palace (in fact, the doge had a private entrance into the basilica). All the tour books had recommended visiting this building, but from the outside it was hard to see why. A pretty-enough building, with the usual Byzantine flair, it looks bureaucratic and rather dull from the outside.
That all changes inside. There’s a pretty courtyard, with a stunning marble staircase (the “Giant’s Staircase”). On the second floor surrounding the courtyard was a temporary open-air Le Corbusier exhibit. The only thing I know of Le Corbusier is that he bound a copy of his favorite book (Don Quixote) with the skin of his favorite dog. So sentimental. There was a also a nice view of St Mark’s Square and the Campanile.
The next part of the palace is the doge’s apartment. It’s extensive, and I suppose that was a necessity, because the doge could only leave the palace with the express permission of the Venetian senate. There were some nice paintings but my favorite part was the enormous map-room, covered with huge, detailed maps of the entire known world. Not to mention some great globes.
This was all well and good, but the next few rooms were increasingly memorable. These were the ‘Institutional Chambers,’ the rooms where the city’s politicians met and deliberated. It’s worth remembering that Venice was the dominant merchant power in Europe for roughly 300 years, from the time of the fourth crusade (1200) through the discovery of the Americas and Vasco da Gama’s sea-route from Portugal to India (which eliminated Venice’s monopoly on the spice trade and at a stroke turned the city into a second-class citizen). In all, Venice was a player in European politics from the twelve century through 1797, when it was conquered by Napoleon.
The doge’s palace is carefully partitioned so that visitors are led through increasingly large and ornate rooms – rooms whose walls are covered in world-class paintings, and whose ceilings are encrusted with enormous gold coils and frames and more paintings. It’s really astonishing. My two favorite rooms were the Sala del Senato, the senate room – this is the first really large room you see. But it feels positively tiny a few rooms later when you enter the Chamber of the Great Council.
The Chamber of the Great Council is 25 meters across, and 53 meters long. It feels much larger. For centuries, it was the largest room in Europe. The walls are decorated with paintings by Bellini, Titian and Tintoretto (to name a few). The ceiling is ornate. We spent 15 minutes in this room, trying to come to terms with its size. The wall behind the doge’s seat is covered with the largest canvas painting in the world, Tintorretto’s Il Paradiso Photographs simply don’t do this room justice.
After this, we walked through the Bridge of Sighs – where criminals were led to the prisons after sentencing, and sighed at beauty of their last look at Venice (or so they say). And then the prisons, which were rather conventional, but cool and moist. I wouldn’t want to spend much time there.
After the Doge’s Palace – we finished the tour at 3pm – we grabbed a lunch nearby (not great, very touristy), and regrouped at our apartment. Then we headed out to visit San Giorgio Maggiore. This island is a 3-minute ride from the main city, and has a beautiful view. By now, it was dark, so we could see all the lights of the city’s churches, cafes, restaurants and hotels. We had a huge church to ourself, and walked around the island a bit before heading back. Next we walked east outside the tourist area to the more residential districts, and the small, secluded San Pietro island.
We took the ferry boats around a bit and accidentally visited the outer islands (whoops), before returning. On the way back to our apartment, we got a bit lost. But on the plus side, I got to try fernet for the first time (yuck), and Alex got to try meringue cookies (which I love). We also got some gelato before returning to the apartment to rest up for the next day, where we’d revisit some of the major sites before heading to Florence.