“about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking on the sea” (Gospel of Mark c.66-70)
Water surely can be viewed as a treacherous element you would be safer to keep away. In fact, even Peter does not fully trust Jesus at first 🙂 But in a city like Venice, water (and mud) is a legitimate urban space. As Carlo Scarpa suggested for the Querini Stampalia Palace: “let the high water in, as in all the city, we will just need to contain, govern and use the water as reflecting and luminous element”!
Not always has this amazing potential space been understood! How can we forget the epical (and anti-biblical) intervention of the Habsburg empire? They conquered Venice and then started filling in canals and building railings on the sides of the bridges, ferrying the city into the modern era of the 19th century with its boulevards and avenues ready for wheels…
But if you are not among the ones that prefer a bedrock to water, would you know how to use a water space?
Venetians have always treasured the lagoon as a space for political, symbolic and entertaining spectacular shows.
The Ascension Festivity
I loved Gregory Dowling’s latest novel, Ascension. He set one of the most spectacular scenes of his murder story during the Ascension festivity. That was quite an event as it was marking the beginning of the trading season. Have a look at the painting by Antonio Stom dated back to the early 1703s:
You can see the triumphal gilded galley called Bucintoro sailing off to celebrate the Marriage of Venice to the Sea in expression of eternal dominion over the water —well, no longer true in the 1700s, but worth while celebrating 🙂 You will notice thousands of boats beautifully decorated crowding around the Doge and his ship… some smoke seems to suggest some weapon greeting!
Andrea Palladio and San Giorgio Maggiore island
St Mark’s basin was however very central in Andrea Palladio’s work, too. When the famous architect was commissioned the reconstruction of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in 1560, he changed the ground plan so that the church would face the water and no longer the benedictine monastery cloisters. Processions by boat therefore were arranged there to celebrate St Stephen’s Day.
When a king came visiting in Venice…
And just a few years later, in 1574, the king of France Henry the 3rd Valois, son of Caterina de’ Medici and king of Poland, visited Venice. The painting describing the welcome ceremony by Andrea Vicentino triumphs in the Hall of the Four Doors of the Doge’s palace:
Rich in detail, you can see the gilded Bucintoro to the left, elegant gondolas in their “felze” (cabins) around, blond fascinating women in their luxurious dresses gathering everywhere. The king was welcomed by the main authorities walking on a floating pontoon bridge heading to an arch of triumph and a Roman temple, also floating — i.e. ephemeral architecture designed by Andrea Palladio for the occasion, using papier-mâché and wood 🙂
The Redentore and the Pink Floyd
If a triumphal arch could be in papier-mâché, there’s one for real that every year welcomes pilgrims to the island of Giudecca for one of the most beloved feasts in Venice! Here is the beautiful front of the Redentore (Redeemer) church designed again by Andrea Palladio:
On the third Saturday in July a pontoon bridge across the Giudecca canal connects the Zattere to the Redentore. Thousands of people walk every year on the water to reach the temple built to celebrate the end of the plague in 1577 or simply to enjoy dancing and dining in the outdoor by the water and admiring the spectacular fireworks at midnight at their best 🙂
Some years ago, on the same Redentore festivity occasion, somebody thought you could celebrate in a more modern way and bring rock music to Venice. On the 15th of July in 1989 an extraordinary and very controversial event was organized in Venice on the water. On a floating huge platform (90 meters wide, 27 meters deep and 25 meters tall) while 200,000 people were in St Mark’s square and hundreds of gondolas and other kind of boats gathered around, the Pink Floyd held their famous concert. For those that were there and for the city something unforgettable, in many senses… A devastated city with garbage and human waste was in the eyes of the whole world the day after. There’s a postcard about it, which I am not sure if it really celebrates the event or wants to leave us appalled:
A final challenge: the Arsenale
I have a booklet in my hands these days. Written and published by the Forum Futuro Arsenale, it talks about an area, as large as 5% of the whole city, mostly water, now still under military jurisdiction, but soon to become civil space. You may understand how much economic interest can gravitate around such a potential and how much appetite it can whet. Associations and experts joining the Forum Futuro Arsenale have come up with some projects regarding the future of the Arsenale in Venice, evaluating the economic sustainability. In a city where the aging and depopulating phenomenon is a growing problem, the challenge has become an essential chance to keep this city of land and water… afloat. Let’s not miss it.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy