Follow the Signs Through 3000 Years in One Day

Musings

Sitting in Mass in the 1400 year old Basilica di San Marco, I felt swept away in time and faith and reality. The Italian woman who stood up and shuffled to the lectern for the Reading and Psalm looked as old as the church itself, but her voice was strong as she pronounced Paul’s letter to the Romans in her Venetian Italian. I could not understand her words but I knew what she was saying. Resting mere feet from me were the remains of St. Mark himself, entombed beneath the altar of this church and this city where he stands as the Patron Saint.

Waking up this morning, I read Paul again, this time through his letter to Timothy “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me.” I’m reminded of our guide’s counsel yesterday as she pointed to a yellow sign on a building that had an arrow below the words “San Marco;” when you are unsure of where you are, just follow the signs to San Marco.

Veneti of Veneties

After a lovely breakfast of a Cafe Americano, freshly squeezed orange juice, and toast with jam, we made our way to meet our Venetian guide, Sara. Venice was far less ominous in the morning sun, though her labyrinthine streets, alleys, and waterways were as mysterious as ever. Google was some help but quickly got confused in between the tall buildings, tunnels, and myriad bridges. With only one or two wrong turns, we found Sara and were on our way.

Sara, a native Venetian now in her early 40’s, was bright and enthusiastic. Her hair was brassy brown, her eyes seemed to match, her tongue stud seemed a surprising accessory, but her English and energy were excellent. We liked her immediately. She swept us along Venice’s streets, explaining that Venice has only one Piazza (by the Doge’s Palace and San Marco) but 118 Campo’s – smaller squares that serve each individual district (like a neighborhood), all of which were built around a church, a well, and grass at one point in time.

Now, the wells are capped (beautifully clean, running water is fully available throughout Venice), almost half the churches are inactive, and the grass is gone – replaced with stone pavers. Venice sits on 118 small islands that the original Veneti (who have inhabited the region since the 10th Century BC) were drawn to as an escape from Attila the Hun as he was on his way to sack Rome in the 5th Century. The city is literally built on wooden pillars sunk into the sandy channels that have petrified over time and now support the historic part of the city and its 50,000 inhabitants.

Winding through the dark alleys and over small bridges linking the 118 islands and their Campo’s, we emerged into the broad and bright Riva degli Schiavoni, the southern shoreline of Venice looking out over the Bacino di San Marco – the bay and larger canals that link the main part of Venice to the lagoon that surrounds it and the islands that buffer it from the Adriatic Sea. The view of the waterways and the islands across them was breathtaking. Directly across is the massive Church of St. George with architect reminiscent of the White House and Capital in Washington, DC.

The Palazzo Ducala (Doge’s Palace) was directly to our right and I immediately recognized the area from the 1979 movie, Moonraker, in which James Bond is making his way around Venice. The Grand Canal, which is the main waterway running through the center of the city, opened in front of the Piazza San Marco (by the palace) and marked on the far side by the beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria dulla Salute (St. Mary of Health) – a church built to commemorate the ending of the Beubonic Plague (which killed 46,000 Venetians) and finished in 1681.

Did I Mention that I Like Venice?

As I write this, I realize that there is so much detail that I want to share. For some reason, I find the story of Venice particularly compelling and am fascinated by its winding streets and architecture. Please bear with me a bit longer. We discovered that the Republic of Venice stood strong for 1000 years, falling to Napoleon in the late 1700’s. The Doge was an elected President who lead for life once put in office and the Venetians were a powerhouse of trade, diplomacy, art, and architecture throughout the existence of their republic.

The Basilica of St. Mark is stunningly beautiful – I’ll return to it shortly. As a major gateway to the East, Venetian architecture shows an interesting combination of influences including Byzantine, Romanesque, Venetian Gothic, and Baroque structures. At its peak, the Republic of Venice controlled much of both sides of the Adriatic Sea and led the conquest of Constantinople in the 4th Crusade. Venice enforced its influence through a powerful navy and it shipbuilding prowess.

As Sara guided us through the city streets, pointing out the Dorsoduro district (university and arts), its very large open market that has been operating for 12 centuries, the uniquely Venetian cichetti (which are like tapas and pronounced “chicketti”), and the many charming restaurants and shops, I found myself enamored with its unique personality. Today, we plan to wander around it all day to see what we see.

Paradise Lost

The downside? In general, Italy seems to suffer from a general lack of hope in the future. The country has such an overwhelmingly rich history that it seems in danger of being forever anchored to the past with declining birth rates, fiercely regional populations, little economic dynamism, and an overwhelming dependence on tourism to sustain it. At various points, Sara mentioned her fears for the future and her five year old son. “What will he do?” She asked rhetorically as she pointed to young men pushing trash carts around, opening shops, or waiting tables. “The jobs here are these. There is little opportunity.”

As we moved around the country, we’ve picked up similar sentiments as these Italians, who love their culture and country deeply, wonder about the future. References to COVID have come up frequently, as description of the disappearance of work, the four month lockdown (literally only leaving their homes to purchases groceries), and the ongoing recovery still hang heavy in the minds of this vibrant people.

This year is a record year for tourism in Italy. Venice gets upwards of 60,000 visitors a day – all of which is a happy-sad dichotomy. The tourist dollars are critical even as the volume of humanity pouring through these streets literally strains its infrastructure to the breaking point. Walking along the surface of it, we see little signs of strain other than the mass of humanity in the streets and the daily struggle to manage the volume of trash to be removed from the city through hand carts and “scavenger” boats hauling the loads of garbage to some other dumping point.

“I do no like what I see,” quips Sara as she laments many of the same struggles we see in the U.S. “Healthcare is not good. Politics are frustrating. There is little opportunity for our young. I may have to retire to another country.” Our tour of the city was absolutely wonderful and Sara was such a great storyteller recounting the many incredible moments of Venetian glory. However, I felt a pang of sadness thinking of five year old Eduardo and his future. We all want the best for our children, and though I’m sure he will find his way, the societal and cultural headwinds she described made me think of similar struggles in my own country.

San Marco

Struggles aside, did I mention that I like Venice? After a brief break in the afternoon, we headed back out, determined to turn Google off and find our own way. Heading back to the Piazza San Marco, we were able to go to the top of the 323 foot tall Campanille di San Marco (St. Mark’s Bell Tower). Stunning views on all sides. We were able to see the Dolomites in the north, find our apartment to the west, the causeway and train station, all of the islands across the lagoon, and on to the Adriatic Sea. Looking down upon the top of the St. Mark’s Basilica, the incredibly ornate structure came alive and we decided we needed to find a way in.

Actually, I didn’t want to stand in line but Sally persisted and 20 minutes later, we were in the dark interior of the Basilica. Walking in, we were immediately struck by its Byzantine flavor. Through the structure is considered to be a Venetian Goth/Romanesque style, the shape of the windows, massive arches, dark colors, and unique iconographic art gave it a very eastern flavor. The exterior and interior of the Basilica is literally decorated with the plunder of Venetian conquests during the middles ages. Statues taken from other countries, four massive bronzes horses (Horses of the Hippodrome of Constantinople), and various other artifacts coupled with differing types of marble and other building materials give the Basilica a very unique and sometimes inconsistent look. However, the overall effect is beautiful.

The ceiling of the Basilica is covered in 24k gold mosaics depicting Biblical stories, stories of the saints, and in the archways of the main entrances, the story of how St. Mark’s remains were smuggled out of Muslim controlled Alexandria in the 9th Century. There are no stand alone paintings or frescoes in the tradition of other Basilicas we’ve seen but the mosaics and iconography (two dimensional images) are visible throughout the church as are very ornate mosaics and tiles on the floors. This Basilica is one of the most unique and distinctly beautiful we’ve seen.

The Signs to 2023

Finishing our day with Mass and then dinner last night, I was awash in thoughts of faith, history, and the present moment. As Sally called home to check on her mom, I wondered quietly about this wild convergence of competing dynamics and the struggles of our time. Venice itself is slowly sinking amid literal floods, crumbling infrastructure, and the forces of our time that are moving all of us relentlessly forward toward the unknown. Back home, we wrestle with similar and different forces tugging at the fabric of our democracy and the institutions that hold it together. The deeper I delve into the history centered in this little peninsula called Italy, the more I realize that little has changed. The signs have been there all along and still remain today.

Today, we plan to “get lost” in Venice. No Google. No guide. No schedule. Even as the quiet tectonic forces move below and around us, there is still much to see, much to be done, and our own call to which we have the opportunity to respond. Perhaps Sara’s suggestion to “follow the signs” is really all we need to worry about.

Comments
  • Jerry Berry
    Reply

    A wonderfully written description of an indescribable experience.

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