Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sunday, 22nd October – Venice

One of the famous places in Venice we hadn’t made it to yet was the Doge's palace. The Doge was the elected ruler of Venice for about 1000 years, and the palace was his residence but more importantly also the house of government. Its exterior is striking, with patterned pink and white marble and elaborately carved façade, but the interior is incredibly ornate, with richly decorated ceilings and priceless artworks. Its design was intended to tell the world how wealthy and important Venice was, and you could really see what an impact it would have. The senate room is one of the largest rooms in Europe and it contains Tintoretto’s Paradise, allegedly the largest painting on canvas (74 feet by 30 feet). If it was all designed to impress, it worked. The famous Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge's Palace with the Prison next door, which we also had a look around – quite a contrast with the richness of the palace. One of the most remarkable displays was the Armory, full of vicious weapons arranged very artistically.

Next on our must see list was the Frari (short for The Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa of the Friars), a huge church which features the work of three great Renaissance masters: Donatello, Bellini, and Titian. It's unusual seeing art “in situ” rather than in a gallery; there are some impressive works there, we particularly liked the John the Baptist wooden sculpture by Donatello.

One of Venice’s lesser known areas is the Jewish Ghetto. The word Ghetto itself derives from Venice – in 1516 a law was passed in Venice confining Jews to a small island which was the site of a foundry (a ghetto). They were confined at night and the bridges were guarded. The island was so small, that they lived in apartment buildings 6 stories high – unusual for Venice – which still distinguish the area today. Napoleon gave the Jews back the freedom of the city, and today there are few Jews living there, but the area retains a Jewish culture with synagogues, a Jewish museum, shops and a kosher restaurant. At its height, around 1650, the Ghetto housed about 4,000 people in a space roughly equivalent to 2½ city blocks. Before World War II there were still about 1,300 Jews in the Ghetto, but 289 were deported by the Nazis and only seven returned. We had an enjoyable stroll through the area, and were touched by a moving holocaust memorial in the main square.

Before visiting the Frari we stopped for a pizza at a little Trattoria nearby – it was a really great pizza, but the people at the next table were eating a “fish soup” that looked really tempting, so we booked to come back for dinner. Well, the soup was excellent, brimming over with all sorts of crustaceans; it was much more than a soup. When we arrived the waitress seated us and said “Two fish soups, then?” It made us feel like locals!

It wasn’t totally crazy to go back to the same restaurant – our next destination was next door to the Frari – the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a 16th century building whose walls and ceilings are covered in paintings by Tintoretto – the crowning achievement of his career, they say. We went there for a musical evening of Vivaldi – the art was a bonus. We sat gaping at the ceiling for most of the evening. Vivaldi was Venetian, and there seems to be performances of The Four Seasons on every night somewhere in Venice, and we thoroughly enjoyed our last evening in this amazing city.