Monday, October 15, 2007

Cozy refuge


Certainly Venice is beautiful, but the unusual feeling it has, for today's visitor, is that of one big home: it feels like a sprawling ship, or some family's vast and quirky living room. The city has always been a collective refuge ... at least, it's commonly thought that this played some role in its foundation and growth. Consequently, it exudes this sense of group coziness, like a place built to protect and comfort us, binding us together in our escape from the world. Because Venice does this so well, the whole world comes to visit, to take a breath, within this ideal cozy refuge. And it's ok that everyone comes here. Everyone seems to "fit in", because everyone has problems they need to run away from, and everyone needs a special place for their escape.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

People spaces


Venice is the only car-free City left ... there are car-free towns, but any active City on land has been cut up by the automobile. Venice's ocean defenses saved it from a form of transportation whose very infrastructure destroys spaces for people.

This is the most important lesson that Venice offers the modern world ... after it has taught much else. But how many people, wandering through the City, serene in their safety from the auto, realize that it is possible to reshape Cities in the modern world? How many are inspired to take on the destructive orthodoxy of modern planning, development and architecture? How many are spurred to carve public spaces for people that are protected from the auto, spaces whose very existence will help make cars unecessary?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Venice didn't die



It's very strange to read an old-fashioned "history" of Venice, such as John Julius Norwich's. It ends with the "Death of Venice", by which Lord Norwich means the end of a particular form of government ... Doges, councils and the like. Given that this type of history is really just a long, opinionated editorial on "leadership", "legacy", "credibility" and other hypnotic political hyperbole, of course the "end of the age of the Doge" must seem like the end of Venetian history.

But it's not, of course. Venice didn't die. (Actually, cities do not die easily ... look at Hiroshima.)

And from almost any viewpoint, Venice is living closer to its 18th-century self, than any other city on the planet. After all, it's the people that matter in a city. In Venice, it's addtionally important that the City is still structured around people's needs. Its leaders, and its particular government, are far less important. Of course, no one wants to live under occupation, or without human rights, but these are issues determined by the mass of people, who are only given the rights that they decide to fight for. Those people, and indeed their opinions, were not destroyed by Napolean in 1797. They may have mourned a bit, but life continued. The City did not die. Even its political life continues, uninterrupted -- with major events to be sure -- as it has for 1,500 years.

In one sense, Venice wasn't even colonized -- despite many ocupations, and despite the modern colonizing push known as "globalization". Most Venetian buildings and businesses seem to be owned by Venetians ... and if you ask, they will tell you that, as far as they know, Venice is owned and run by Venetians. And they all seem to know each other, more or less.

In fact, if you compare Venice to other cities -- torn apart first by carriages, then trains, then cars -- reducing people to "markets" and "workforces", moving from the community-feeling of a city to a more anonymous "society"-style interaction -- then, I believe, Venice may be the only city still alive. The rest are only neighborhoods straining to stay alive in the midst of economic development that is anti-city, and anti-people.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The fabric of ancient civilization



Venice is populated entirely by pedestrians and boats ... there are no highways, no skyscrapers, no crosswalks, no streets. And yet, this is a city structure of high civilization.

It has been like this, without break, since before "Rome" fell. Of course, Rome wasn't the Roman empire, when it was sacked in the 5th century. The Roman Empire since the 4th century was what we would call Byzantium, with HQ in Constatinople. Venice gets much of its civilization, its current civilization, from this Roman Empire. And, in fact, Venice famously sacked Constantine's city in its dotage. The Turks finally terminated the Roman Empire in 1453, when much of Constantinople's power, population and influence had already moved to Venice.

What we see, in Venice, is the living fabric of an ancient city. In their monumental architecture, what we call "renaissance neo-classical" is actually classical, because this is what they inherited. In the 14th century, Roman churches were still operational (some are today), and though fashions changed, they changed also in ancient times, with about the same latitude. Add to this the living, working structure of the city in Venice, used today in approximantely the same way as it always was. Accent this with the flair and exhuberance of a madly successful and powerful ancient city, and you get Venice. It's not unchanged -- and there are small modern reminders everywhere. But if you look around, you don't even need to squint to imagine that you're part of an unbroken chain of high civic achievment going back at least to golden age Athens.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Yes, Venice parties at night


Many people wander around Venice after sundown, looking for some nightlife. They look for businesses that might be open, other than restaurants, where people might be socializing. They head to San Marco, and they find nothing but others looking for the same thing.

Well good news. There are two hotspots, awake late into the night.

In Dorsoduro, near Venice's University of Ca' Foscari, is Campo Santa Margherita, an unusually large trapezoidal plaza packed with "late night joints" -- restaurants, bars, gelaterias and pizza places (one of the latter is excellent, and used heavily by natives and students alike).

It's a dense, relaxed crowd of Venetians, of all ages -- along with professors, students, many foreigners but not many tourists. Order a "spritz", and watch the world go by.

The other hotspot is far more wild and dense. It's the vegetable market on the west side of the Rialto bridge. It is packed, and crazy at night.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The largest Western Community?


In Ferdinand Tonnies' late 19th century classic, the book that launched sociology, he described the destruction of community and the emergence of society. It was a trend that continued, and that was accelerated by things like automobiles, apartment blocks, shopping malls and zoning.

Venice seems to have missed all this destruction. It isn't the same city it was 200 years ago, of course: it had revolutions too. But the sense of community among Venetians is much stronger than you'll find in any modern city.

So, is this the largest community in the Western world? It certainly feels that way. Despite all the guests.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

English words with Venetian origins

As far as I can tell, the modern meanings and usage of the following English words, come from Venice proper:

arsenal
ghetto
conservatory
lagoon
italic
regatta
ciao
quarantine
zany
gazette
pantaloon
pants
madrigal
avocet
ballot
sequin
zero

Another country was named after Venice: Venezuela, and many islands and cities.

It's difficult to find specific orgins for the zeitgeist of contemporary meaning. But Venice was a contributor to the zeitgeist for: mask, carnivale, casino, bordello, opera, Palladian, sonata, toccata, piano, concerto, marionette, average, corporal, influenza, bank, banquet, pastel, Theorbo, imbroglio etc.

And, of course I'm leaving aside words that are still specific to Venice, and used only metaphorically otherwise: Gondola, Rialto, Doge, Magnifico, barcarole, etc.

A light, warm scarlet is "Venetian red".

Venice is indirectly mentioned in various languages, and in different ways, for its windows. In English we use both Venetian Windows and Venetian Blinds, for example.

"Polo" is a silly one: the name of the game is Tibetan, but the British used the nearest word they knew (from Marco Polo) to spell it.

Government bonds, deposit banks, disaster insurance and shared credit agreements more or less started in Venice. I'll try to track down words that crept our way (agio, or an exchange fee; cadastre, a registered property description) in those fields.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Alternating drips


There are especially Venetian patterns, which, still, are quite universal. When we're in Venice, they remind us of home. When we're home, they remind us of Venice. It's generally completely subconscious. When we peel back our conscious mind, and peek inside, we find it's the physical phenomena that resonates with us.

Water has many ways to attack a semi-transparent surface. It splashes, with big enough drops to drip along the glass surface, leaving streaks. It mists, and this water occasionally collects into small vertical ponds. Streaks usually break-up into many different-sized droplets, which dry at various rates. If this goes on for a while, you end up with something like this:



Venice has many distinctive fabric and window patterns reminiscent of this. The bullseye windows above take their shape partly from the old process of making flat glass in circles, partly from echoes of symbolic art, and partly because the overall arrangement looks like water's foggy, drippy, alternating pattern against glass.

Like all good patterns, I found this one in the shower. Probably time to change the plastic curtain.



Now, something familiar to anyone who has spent too much time in the shower: you start to see shapes. Faces, often. You'll see more faces if there are mirrors or photos of faces, or actual faces, nearby. This is the "shape echo" effect, where our eye starts to search for similar shapes in the field of view. In the above sketch, I can eek out a gargoyle:



And then you see another Venetian art pattern -- making sculpture out of the dripping spaces in the shadows. And sometimes, these get dripped upon themselves.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Patterns in a picture IV



More patterns, and the physics of Venice's effect upon people.

1. Possibility : Anything that is truly good, is possible.

Unfortunately, we rarely believe it's achievable. Usually, the behavior of other people prevented us, from when we were small, from realizing our most pleasant dreams. Maybe your village was bombed; maybe your parents told you to stop playing; maybe you feel hurt by friends; maybe teachers, bosses and mass media coerced you, or bribed you, into conformist thinking.

One way or another, if someone proposes something fantastic, not physically impossible, but simply too wonderful & difficult, we're likely to dismiss it, and say "that will never happen".

In the face of that, Venice stands. Seemingly impossible; and yet impossibly successful. Successful because it followed a simple idea: "let's live in the middle of this lagoon." It overcame the difficulties of that proposal. Its existence, and our ability to touch it, immediately gives us hope of a better world. It makes us forget bad things ... war, debts, jealousy, greed, hate ... things that have been as much a part of life here as anywhere else. But here, somehow, the normal problems of the world did not defeat an improbable, positive, massive project.

That's something to take home with you. Don't give up on a beautiful idea.

2. We are water : and water is life. When we have ideas, when we solve problems, when good things happen, when they are harmonious, we are "going with the flow". We are more "fluid". And nothing else, for some reason, can "get our juices flowing" the way that water can, and the more integrated our lives are with water, the better. No land-bound town survives without its river, its aquifers, its wells, its springs, its swales, its irrigation systems, its waterfalls, its seafront, its lakefront ... water keeps us alive, not just technically. Without being part of a natural cycle of water, of rain and evaporation, of storm and calm, it is impossible to even feel alive, let alone make the world around us more alive.

If Venice offers us any single prescription for achieving our dreams -- for fulfilling life's great possibilities -- it is this: get as close as you can to the source of life. Get in touch with water. Hold on to it, integrate it with everything in your daily life, at every scale imaginable. Take care of it, respect it, and it will feed your souls, it will continually revive your community, and anything will become possible.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Patterns in a picture III



I choose random photos here, purposely: Venice has so many overlapping good patterns, so much life, at such depth, that any glimpse of it, anywhere, reveals important principles. These are patterns that anyone can use, mutatis mutandis, for the good of their community.

1. Many stories : the great thing about a public square, or any gathering place, in this case a campo, is that everyone can be the center of attention, even if they are doing nothing at all. Here's a priest, near a newspaper kiosk, engaged in conversation, waiving his cellphone -- waiting for a call, or about to make one -- and does it have anything to do with his conversation? There are some young ladies, sitting on the well-head, preening in the shade on a hot day, looking at their camera, no doubt recording the scene in the campo, as we are. An elderly couple sits in a cafe nearby ... all of them add to the richness of life in the square, helping each other to feel more human.

2. Sub-centers, active or vestigial : the campo is clearly a major center. But it would be dead without supporting centers ... even when they are barely operational. Here's a kiosk -- closed at the moment, and many kiosks in Venice serve tourist needs more than local ones; here's a well-head -- but again, fresh water in Venice now comes from the mainland, rather than from the man-made aquifers under these wells; here's a cafe -- but note that it only has benches, a kind of temporary extension of an eating or drinking establishment. Not a decent cafe, with small tables & movable chairs. There are balconies, unused but by the flowers of window-boxes. There are trefoil windows, but no one is looking in or out. The only working apparatus is an awning, which an elderly gentleman is about to walk under, to get out of the sun for a moment. And, yet, the whole environment works -- it's profoundly comfortable and supportive for everyone there. If it were just a square with a perfectly flat, undifferentiated pavement, and blank walls, we'd think it was a prison. We know it's not : it was built, gradually, by real people, for real human-scale purpose. In this campo, we're surrounded by the force of structures ready to help us, and which have helped people in the past.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Patterns in a picture II



It's a sunny day on the Grand Canal, in front of the the Palazzo bought by Peggy Guggenheim, and now housing her private collection. This is a very popular spot. What's happening?

1. Semi-public, semi-private : anyone with a few euros can get into this private house turned museum. And yet, it's in Venice, and there are thousands of tourists outside, in the Dorsoduro sestiere.

2. Self-differentiation : Through access to this small collection, tourists can differentiate themselves from others, sorting themselves, albeit temporarily, by their interest in famous 20th century painters & sculptors. There's an opportunity, for example, to meet someone who is equally fond of a favorite of yours.

3. Interpenetration : this is similar to (1), but at an additional scale -- this balcony sticks into the canal, so that it is possible to interact with the endless, intimate, endlessly varied stream of boats passing by, more or less, with serenity. Something similar happens when an outdoor cafe bumps outwards into a pedestrian square or stream. The actual morphology here, on the lagoon, is quite different, but the effect is the same ... to separate yourself from the public, and yet flirt with it.

4. Handmade : Art is everywhere here: ancient, modern, architectural, sculptural, nautical ... studio pieces sitting on the balcony, marble windows and tiled gables across the canal, iron-work balustrades of the balcony, fashionable clothes on the visitors, accordion and violin melodies wafting in here and there from a passing gondola. All this applied talent simply makes you feel more like a human being, and gives you hope for the world.

5. Gathering center : it's not obvious unless you're there, but this balcony is a beautiful gathering spot within the museum, and the structure of the palazzo leads you onto the balcony, where you can sample perhaps the best vista in the history of civilization. But there are people there. It makes you want to hang out, chat with strangers, feel the sea-breeze, etc.

6. Places to sit : Balconies should always be sittable. So should railings (unless there's an overwhelming saftey issue). Benches, sculpture bases, steps ... people sit anywhere in a spot like this. Add a few loose chairs and this balcony would be totally packed all day ...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Pattern: conservatori


Vivaldi's time in Venice is the subject of an upcoming hollywood biopic, with Joseph Fiennes playing Vivaldi.

The movie's scope is Vivaldi's time directing the girl's orchestra at the Ospedale della Pietà. This was like an orphanage: the girls were wards of the state, given public purpose. Vivaldi put them to especially good 'use': no doubt they premiered the Four Seasons, and hundreds of other concertos. It was a heady time for music in Venice, and Vivaldi's work there deeply inspired Bach, and all music henceforth.

These state wards were known as conservatori. It is possible that Vivaldi's girls inspired our term "music conservatory".

Conservatories were meant to conserve humans, who might otherwise die, or cause other trouble to a city. The policy and pattern is more or less ancient. It's human nature to take care of the unlucky. It's also human nature to put some burden upon them. Orphans for example, have lost their family and community ties, so they need an active program of community re-integration.

In the worst of cases, they are given work that doesn't even need doing ... to simply maintain the operation or profit of the institution itself. This "busy work" means no "net gain" for the community, and is most common in large cities or societies. More positive examples exist, which give the charges some choice, and a chance to prove themselves, choosing among farmwork, craftwork, public service, etc.

But something special happened at Vilvaldi's 'first' Music Conservatory. The conservatory itself seems to have helped stimulate the subject, in this case, to new heights in music design & performance.

Vidal quotes Charles de Brosses, president of the Burgandy Parliament, who visited Venice two years before Vivaldi's death in 1741:

The girls are educated and maintained at the expense of the State, and their sole training is to excel in music. Thus they sing like angels, and play the violin, flute, organ, oboe, violoncello, and bassoon -- in fact, there is no instrument so big as to intimidate them. They are cloistered like nuns. They perform without outside help, and at each concert forty girls take part. I swear there is nothing prettier in the world than to see a young and charming nun, dressed in white, with a spray of pomegranate flowers over her ear, conduct the orchestra and give the beat with all the exactness imaginable.

Apparently, 35 years later, English musician Charles Burney, having seen this successful phenomenon, tried to reproduce it with the Foundling Hospital in London. With less success.

But it is an inspiring idea, to create centers, or conservatories, dedicated to excellence, giving chances to those who have fallen out of the system. In fact, this should become again a part of the definition of the word "conservatory" ... the social purpose, combined with an attempt to restimulate quality, giving real form to our hopes for a better world. This is of course the goal of education, and continuing education, which is woefully underfunded throughout the world. The money is there, but private interests tend to take public money for themselves, so conservatories are terribly rare -- when they launch, they are typically initiated by dreamers, and supported by a private community, until they slowly garner some public support. But they are forced to fight for every penny ... art and skill and potential are eroded and lost under such conditions. If the future is to be better, we must be aware that the conservatory is a successful pattern, and do our best to make it easy for them to exist.

Drawing by Greg Bryant, sometime in 1999

Advantage: courtesans

In 1985, Gore Vidal wrote a book, and starred in a documentary, about Venice -- if I ever find both out-of-print tapes, I'll post them on YouTube. He makes a very Vidalesque observation, about the origin of the practice of Venetian courtesans, to keep their breasts bare. "... their principle competition: transvestites from the mainland." In response, the courtesans became advertisements for their gender, using the only advertising weapon, breasts, that the tranvestites, no doubt very prettily dressed, lacked.

In the 16th century there were apparently some 12,000 registered and taxed courtesans in the city. That's nearly a quarter of today's complete body of Venetian citizens. According an excellent chapter in Venice: The Tourist Maze, courtesans began to flourish during the pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which set sail from Venice. They did well during the heydays of the Carnival and the Grand Tour ... but now there are none in the city. The Museo d'Arte Erotica, provocatively near to that former street-walking hot-spot, Piazza San Marco, is trying to remind visitors of the Venetian Republic's spicier past. However, the museum's website is down, as I write this. Perhaps the museum itself is closed? When I visited, this summer, at the height of tourist season, it was nearly empty, although the giftshop was doing decent business. Their building is huge ... so someone is subsidizing this museum. I'm sure it has an interesting story in its own right ... [12/21/06 note: I was right, the musuem has closed. UPI's article.]

Venice Monopoly -- the "Age of Discovery"

Since at least the Venetian conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Venetian dominance of mediterranean trade was extreme enough to warrant a continual search, by every other European monarch, for alternative routes. When the Ottomans captured Constatinople in 1453, the Venetians and the Ottomans were by far the largest players in the Meditteranean, and the pressure for alternative routes increased. Spain & Portugal, indulging in muslim ethnic cleansing at the time, were particularly keen to not deal with the Ottomans.

Many other forces were involved, including the European monarchs' need to conquer, to maintain growth & power. But the strategic position of Venice led, more or less directly, to the European invasion of the New World.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Capitelli: restoration under the radar


In Venice: The Tourist Maze Davis & Marvin lament that most decisions, regarding the use and restoration of structures in Venice, rarely involve Venetians themselves. But sometimes, they write, locals are in complete control of the situation:

Ordinary Venetians have, for example, continued to tend their city's five hundred or so
capitelli, or street-side shrines, "that adorn the intersection of a great many calli and canals, that illuminate dark sottoportici, or that reign on remote channel markers in the Lagoon." These little altars are part of a cultural tradition in Venice that dates back a millenium or more, though as works of art they have yet to appear on the aesthetic radar screens of UNESCO or APC. Still, modest as they are, these shrines require regular upkeep, generally from parishioners, who not only keep them in flowers and candles, but also clean, paint, and repair them when necessary. How well this work is done depends to a great extent on the "sensitivity" of the volunteers -- we never heard of anyone getting any special training in this sort of thing -- but then fixing up of such "popular" artwork is not usually subject to the same standards as those demanded for art in the recognized canon. However well the restoration is done, neighborhood people still appreciate the improvement, and they still come to make use of their local capitello -- for personal prayers, to leave ex voti, or to join together in the somewhat more formal business of chanting orations or reciting the rosary in the evenings.

Patterns in a picture



1. public square

A civic space where people can arrange to meet, and which provides a beautiful and useful place to hang out.

2. public performance

In this case, music for the benefit of the cafe patrons, but also for the general public. It helps to draw people into the cafe seating area.

3. open cafe

A cafe that the public can interact with, and walk though, but with waiters, so that if people sit, they need to get something.

4. arcades

Covered walkways, wide enough for tables, chairs & vendors, with high openings to let the light & sun in.

5. chairs and tables

If you want people to hang out in private or public spaces, make sure they have adjustable places to sit.

6. small tables

Tables that are small enough so that people can easily and comfortably talk with each other in private, even in noisy surroundings. An added benefit: smaller tables fit more easily into unusual spaces, and you can pack more of them into a cafe.

7. Inspiring ornament

In this case, on the palazzo ducale. Ornament that lifts your spirit, and which is in harmony with the above patterns.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Venetian tapestries


From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1878

Moth-eaten and faded, pale with their age and long imprisonment in dark halls into which the sunlight never crept, are the old Venetiaan tapestries. You may see them to-day, drooping, faint and humble, about the windows of the dingy shops, among the grotesque brasses, the deep-toned laces, the dark tomes and jewelled reliquaries. They shudder at every footfall -- broken old aristocrats, so long recluses through poverty that the light of day and the noise of humanity are full of terror and foreboding to them.

At a regatta-time the poor pale phantoms rise from their graves in the iron-bound coffers or the joyless banqueting halls, and flutter mournfully from under the window arches, mocked at by the stone satyr heads, or sweep below to a balcony nigh to the water's edge -- a faint color space with tones of yellow and green, darkening with the figure outlines, reproducing the shifting color effects of the palace front behind and the changeful waterway below, forming an ascending scale of harmony that gives to the wide sweeping way that subdued pearly quality of color that the old painters of the last century, Canaletto and his followers, felt and expressed -- so unconciously mournful, so symbolic of the city's decay. It is an aspect that could have been made prominent only at a time when human action had ceased to interest, and the artist soul fell back upon accessory.

On festa the damasks make blood-red stains against the gray stones, turning them to white. They have served through victory feasts and holy-tides, have symbolized rejoicing over warrior and monk, but they still glow warm in the noon-time sun, for there is in them something sturdy and martial -- the strong old democratic force that blots itelf darkly against the poor faded patrician fabrics.

They still linger in the churches, those old velvets and damasks with the odor of the centuries upon them. They glow crimson about the columns, or cover the walls, framing in the fair-haired pictured shapes. Threads of gold and silver gleam suddenly in the alter light from their tissues. In the sacristies, upon the alters, in the robes of the priests, the draperies of the holy tables, the hangings of sacred places, their rich, deep tones, mellowed by the centuries, wrought in crimson, pale green, faint yellow, are all caught up in one exquisite harmony in the soft taper glow.

The history of the sea-city is inwrought with these stately arazzi, so grand and royal in their very humiliation, no less than with the great canvases that the dying republic bequeathed to its posterity. The relation is even closer, for the soft yielding folds of the arazzi could enter secret places that were closed to the unbending canvases. In the farthest chambers of the palaces, where men bared their hearts one to another, thinking their plots secure, lurked the listening arras, waiting for their victims! What treacherous footsteps were muffled by the indulgent tapestry! What lovers' heads it touched in blessing as they passed through the portals, brushing aside the heavy folds; what death-doomed caressed with its comforting hands! Courtly, politic old nobles, these arazzi of Venice, gaining a foot-hold in every household, indulgent and liberal to guilt as to innocence -- philosophic spectators of the great tragedy of life, with no personal interests at stake.

In the early age of the republic there was weaving of stuffs in Venice, but stuffs simple, severe, of single purpose and religious aim -- stuffs that hung in long straight folds on the pious men, and draped the saintly women in noble curves. It was in this mood that the earliest artists of Venice worked, those to whom had come down the simple traditions of the early Church and their exponent, Art, and therefore, when they overlaid the domes of the basilica with holy shapes throned in a golden glow, they made their humanity higher than their garments, draping them in the coarse dark serge of the poor and the lowly. And this mood held good wherever sweet and simple thoughts were uttered upon canvas through all succeeding years.




photos borrowed from Olga Volchkova

Monday, October 23, 2006

People who died in Venice

People often say they'll see Venice and die. It's interesting to query, and find out who did.

Robert Browning, Richard Wagner, Giovanni Bellini, Antonio Lotti, Francesco Cavalli, Claudio Monterverdi, Ezra Pound, Titian, Paolo Veronese, Marco Polo, Aldus Manutius, Serge Diaghilev, Peggy Gugenheim ...

Of course, the list of people who were buried in Venice (or its Isola di San Michele Cemetery) is different, and includes Igor Stravinsky, Nobel Prize winning writer Joseph Brodsky, and perhaps even St. Mark.

Monday, October 16, 2006

"Travels through Italy and Swisserland"

by Joseph Addison
1672 - 1719

From Padua I went down the river Brent in the ordinary ferry, which brought me in a day's time to Venice. Having frequently heard this city represented as one of the most defensible cities in the world, I took care to inform myself of the particulars in which its strength consists, which I found, is chiefly owing to its advantageous situation, for though it has neither rocks nor fortifications, it is perhaps the most impregnable town in Europe. It stands at least four miles from any part of the main land, and the shallows that lie about it are never frozen hard enough to bring over an army from the land-side, and on that exposed to the Adriatic, the entrance is so difficult, that they have been obliged to mark it out with several stakes driven into the ground, which they would cut upon the first approach of an enemy's fleet. For this reason the little islands that lie at the entrance, are not fortified to the best advantage ; though these might very easily be made to command all the passes that lead to the city from the Adriatic; nor could an ordinary fleet with bomb vessels hope to succeed against a place that has always in its arsenal a considerable number of men of war and gallies, ready to put to sea on a very short warning. If therefore we would suppose them blocked up on all sides, by a power too strong for them both by sea and land, they would be able to defend themselves against every thing, but famine, and even this would be greatly mitigated by the vast quantities of fish, with which their seas abound, and that may be taken up in the midst of their very streets; which is such a natural magazine, as few other cities can boast.

Our writers of voyages represent this city as being in great danger of being left, within an age or two on the Terra Firma, from the sea's insensibly shrinking from it, and retiring into its channel. But the sea arises as high as ever, though the sand it brings along with it is apt to choak up the shallows; and they are in no danger of losing the benefit of their situation, while they are at the expense of removing these banks of sand and mud; indeed they are at a great charge in keeping the deep channels free and open. *(1)

The city is conveniently seated for commerce, and in its neighboring territories it has several navigable rivers, that run up into the heart of Italy, by which they might supply many countries with fish, and other commodities; and besides they have the greatest opportunities of carrying on a trade to each side of the Adriatic, and to the Levant: but notwithstanding these advantages, their trade is far from being in a flourishing condition; and there are high duties laid on merchandize: Their nobles think it beneath them to to engage in traffic: Their merchants who are grown rich, buy the honour of nobility, and generally give over trade: Their manufacturers are silk, cloth and glass, which were formerly the best in Europe, and are now excelled by those of other countries: They are tenacious of their old laws and customs, while a trading nation should be always making new changes, as different emergencies arise.

At a distance, Venice resembles a great town half floated by a deluge. It is everywhere crossed by canals, so that a person may go to most of the houses, either by land or water. This is a very great convenience to the inhabitants; for at Venice a gondola with two oars is as magnificent as a coach and six with a large equipage in other countries. It besides makes all other carriages extremely cheap. The streets are generally paved with free-stone or brick, and always kept very neat, for no carriage is permitted to pass through them. There is an innumerable multitude of very handsome bridges all of one arch, and without any fence on either side, which would be a very great inconvenience to a city of less sobriety. It is indeed surprizing that the Venetians should be so little addicted to drinking, since they are in moist air, and a moderate climate, and have no such diversions as riding, hunting, walking, bowling, and the like exercises, to employ them without doors: but the nobles are not to converse too much with strangers, and are therefore in no danger of learning it from them, and they are commonly too distrustful of each other, to allow of the freedoms used over the bottle.


In Venice there are many noble palaces; but their furniture is not commonly very rich, if we except the pictures, which are more numerous here, than in any other place in Europe, and done by the best masters of the Lombard school, as Titian, Paul Veronese, and Tintoret. The rooms are generally hung with gilt leather, which, on extraordinary occasions, they cover with tapestry, and hangings of greater value. The flooring is formed of a kind of red plaster made of bricks ground to a powder, and worked into mortar, and being rubbed with oil, for a smooth shining, and beautiful surface. These particularities are principally owing to the moisture in the air, which would have an ill effect on other kinds of furniture, as is too visibly seen in many of their finest pictures.

The arsenal of Venice is an island of about three miles in compass, which contains all their stores and privisions for war that are not actually employed. There are docks for their men of war and galleys, as well as workhouses for all preparations both by sea and land. The building, in which the arms are deposited, makes a great shew, and about 100 years ago was a very extraordinary place, but great part of its furniture is now grown useless. There seemed to be near as many suits of armour as there are guns, many of the swords are old fashioned and unwieldy, and the firearms fitted with locks that are not to be compared with those that are now in use. The Venetians pretend, they could in case of necessity fit out 30 men of war, 100 galleys, and 10 galeasses: but it is not easy to conceive how they could man half the number.

The Venetian Senate is one of the wisest councils in the world, though according to the reports of several who have been well versed in their constitution, a great part of their politics is founded on maxims. which are far from being hinerable: but nothing is more admirable than the great secrecy that reigns in their public councils. If we reckon only the sitting members, the Senate is generally as numerous as our House of Commons, and yet its resolutions are carried so privately, that they are seldom known till they discovers themselves in the execution. Not many years since they had great debates, relating to the punishment of one of their Admirals; and though they lasted a month together, and concluded in his condemnation, none of his friends, nor any of those who had warmly engaged in his defence, gave him the least intimation of what was passing against him, till he was actually seized and in the hands of justice. Monsieur Amelot computes, that in his time there were 2500 nobles who had voices in the great council; but I was told, that they did not now exceed 1500. However, each of these think themselves equal at least to the Electors of the Empire, and but one degree below kings. The nobility spreads equally through all the brothers, and they generally thrust the females of their families into convents, the better to preserve their estates. Hence the Venetian Nuns are famous for the liberties they allow themselves. They have operas within their own walls, and if they are not much misrepresented, often go out of their bounds to meet their admirers.

The great diversions at Venice during the carnival, as well as on other extraordinary occasions, is masking ; for though the Venetians are naturally grave, they love to give into the follies and entertainments of such seasons, when disguised as a false personage, and indeed, thet are under a necessity of finding out such diversions as may agree with their situation, and make them some amends for the loss of those pleasures which may be met with on the continent. These disguises occasion abundance of love adventures, and there is something more intriguing in the amours of Venice than in those of other countries. Operas are another great entertainment at this season; but the poetry is generally as extremely bad as the music is good. The comedies at Venice, and in all other parts of Italy, are also very indifferent, and more lewd than those of other countries; for as their poets have no notion of genteel comedy. when they have a mind to make their audience merry, they fall into the most filthy double meanings; but no part is generally so wretched as that of the fine gentleman, particularly when he converses with his mistress; for the whole dialogue is then an insipid mixture of romance and pedantry. But it is not surprising that the poets of so reserved and jealous a nation should fail in such conversations on the stage, where there are no patterns in nature. There are four standing characters which regularly enter into every piece that is acted. The Doctor, Harlequin, Pantaloon and Coviello. The doctor is a complete pedant, who with a deep voice, and magesterial air, breaks in upon conversation; backs everything he says with quotations out of Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Virgil or any other author; and all answers from his companions are considered by him as impertinences or interruptions. Harlequin's part is made up of absurdities and blunders, he mistakes one name for another, forgets his errand, stumbles over Queens, and runs his head against every post that stands in his way ; and all this is attended with something so comical in his voice and gestures, that a person sensible of the folly of the part, can scarecely forbear being pleased with it. Pantaloon is commonly an old cully *(a), and Coviello, a sharper *(b).

Among the several shews that are annually exhibited, there is one performed on Holy Thursday, which is peculiar to the Venetians. A set of artizans by the help of several poles laid across each others shoulders, build themselves up into a kind of pyramid, so that there is seen a pile of men in the air of four or five rows rising one above another, and yet the weight is so equally distributed, that every man is able to bear his part of it. The stories, if they may be so called, growing less and less in proportion as they advance higher, till a little boy represents the point of the pyramid, who, after standing thus a short time, leaps with great dexterity into the arms of one who catches him at the bottom; and in the same manner the whole edifice falls to pieces. This trick was, however, practiced by the Romans.




Original spelling preserved. I can't find a volume published in Addison's lifetime ... this is from pages 64-70. Vol. IX of a compendium, published in 1761: "A Curious Collection of Travels, Selected from The Writers of all Nations. In which the Conjectures and Interpolations of Several vain Editors and Translators Are expunged, Every Relation is made concise and plain, And The Divisions of Countries and Kingdoms are clearly and distinctly noted."

Definitions from Samuel Johnson, 3rd edition, 1768:

*(a) CU'LLY ... [coglione, Ital. a fool] A man deceived or imposed upon.
*(b) SHA'RPER ... [from sharp] A tricking fellow; a petty thief; a rascal.

*(1) One of the many politically difficult solutions explored, in the long-term salvation of Venice, is to let the lagoon silt up more -- after back-filling the deep channels: these were cut after the second World War for oil tankers.