What to see in Venice, Italy and islands nearby

The Venetian Lagoon began forming in 800 B.C. on a swamp where it is presumed there were human settlements way back in prehistoric times. In the paleoveneto era the area was inhabited by peoples who lived by fishing, producing salt and trading via sea. The intense trading traffic that joined the Adriatic Sea with central and northern Europe meant that new towns began to develop there, one of the most important being Altino. The inland inhabitants took refuge in the lagoon to escape from the barbarians who began invading the inland in the V century. In the same period the most important religious institutions began to develop in the lagoon, like the Patriarch of Aquileia in Grado and the Bishop of Altino in Torcello. In 568 B.C., when the new wave of barbarian invasions began, only the coastal strip remained under byzantine control, and from then the ancient term Venetia, which used to include the whole Veneto region, just referred to the lagoon area. Venice became one of the main trading ports and the link between east and west, generating the ideal conditions for the enterprising merchant class to develop who, in the space of four centuries, transformed the town from the original small imperial outpost into a powerful and independent owner of the seas.

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Venice is one of the Marine Republics and this provenance is recalled by St Mark’s Lion, symbol of the Serenissima Republic, which appears in the marine insignia in the Italian flag together with the symbols of the other Republics of Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi. The government was led by the Doge – dialect version of Duke from the Latin Dux. In the XIII century when it was at the height of its power, Venice dominated the majority of the Adriatic coast, Dalmatia, Istria, many of the Aegean islands, Crete, Cyprus and Corfu. Venice was the most important military power and one of the main active merchant forces in the Middle East. In the XV century, the Republic’s lands extended from Istria to the River Adda and from the current province of Belluno to the Veneto Polesine. The decline began in the XV century owing to the growth of the Ottoman Empire and the move of trading towards the Americas, which was a hard blow for the city’s maritime trading and consequently they began moving their economic interests inland. In May 1797, after 1000 years of independence, Doge Ludovico Manin and the Major Council were forced to abdicate by Napoleon who proclaimed the “Provisional Government of the Municipality of Venice”. A municipality that ceased to exist on 17th October 1797 when the Campoformio Treaty between the French and Austrian granted the Veneto, Istria and Dalmatia to Austria, which then formed the “Veneto Province” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The most famous site in Venice is St Mark’s Square, the only Piazza in Venice as the others all are called Campo or Campiello. St Mark’s Basilica stands in the square, decorated with gold and mosaics inside and out to testify the architectural links between Venice and Byzantium. Originally the basilica was built as a chapel for the adjacent Ducal Palace. In the loggia above the main door the four bronze horses stand, which came from the Constantinople hippodrome and were taken to Venice as plunder from the fourth Crusade in 1204 further to order from Doge Dandolo (the crusade commander). The basilica has five enormous domes with clear oriental style. The current building is the third basilica dedicated to St Mark built in the same place as the first two were destroyed.

The Doge’s Palace stands adjacent to the basilica and is joined to it by the Porta della Carta. The Doge’s Palace was the seat for the Serenissima government, built in the XV century from Istria marble. The site where it stands used to house a castle, which was burnt down during a popular rising. The palace contains a very interesting museum with some wonderful works by great venetian and other artists. The palace itself is a masterpiece to be visited, beginning from the Major Council Hall, which for centuries was seat for the meetings of the most powerful marine force in the world, and the Bridge of Sighs, which joins the palace to the town prison, called the Piombi or leads. In front of the basilica stands St Mark’s bell tower, built in 1173 it collapsed in 1902 and was entirely rebuilt. The base of the bell tower is decorated with a loggia by Sansovino, with bas-reliefs depicting the most famous exploits of the Serenissima. Another very important venetian monument is the Arsenal, which covers a very large area of the island city and from the XII century was the heart of the Venetian naval industry. The most florid time in the life of the Serenissima is strictly linked to the Arsenal as, thanks to the strong, impressive ships that were built there Venice managed to oppose the Turks in the Aegean Sea and conquer the merchant routes of northern Europe. Another very characteristic and interesting site is the Castello Sestiere, the district where the Arsenal stands and very densely populated in the past by the Arsenal employees.

The Basilica of Saint Mary of Health stands on the Customs Point high in the panorama of St Mark’s basin and the Grand Canal. Designed by Longhene with clear Palladian influence it is a jewel of Venetian baroque architecture. It was built further to a vow to the Madonna by the Venetians because she freed them from the plague, which had decimated the population in 1630-1631.

The Basilica di Saint Glorious Mary of the Friarsstands in Campo dei Frari, in the San Polo district, dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. It contains many masterpieces, including two paintings by Titian. Many of the town’s leading personages are buried here, including Claudio Monteverdi and Titian himself. The work to build the basilica began in the XIII century, and it was consecrated on 27th May 1492 to Santa Maria Gloriosa. Originally there was a small wood and brick monastery next to the church, but after a fire in 1369, it was rebuilt and extended. The ancient monastery was called Magna Domus Venetiarum orCa’ Granda dei Frari both for its size (it contained around 300 rooms), and to distinguish it from the other Franciscan monasteries in the town. The monastery had two cloisters (now owned by the State Archives): Della Trinità designed by Andrea Palladio but only built after his death, and Sant’Antonio by Sansovino.

Construction work for the Basilica of Saints John and Paulbegan in the XIII century, and it is also known as the “Doges’ Pantheon”, as it contains the tombs of many of the doges and other important Venetian personages from that time. Ever since it was consecrated in 1430 the basilica was constantly enriched with paintings, sepulchral monuments and sculptures by leading Venetian artists. The Basilica of the Holy Redeemeris a very important church standing on the island of the Giudecca, designed by the architect Andrea Palladio in 1577. Masterpieces are conserved inside by Domenico Tintoretto, Pietro della Vecchia, Palma il Giovane, Francesco Bassano, Paolo Veronese, Alvise Vivarini. This church is the epicentre of the Redentore festival which is celebrated every year on the third Sunday in July to remember the plague epidemic that hit the town in 1575. In just two years, the epidemic wiped out one third of the population. In September 1576 the senate pleaded for divine help and vowed to build a new church dedicated to the Redeemer – or Redentore. The decision for the site and design were very fast and in May 1577 the first stone was laid, following the design by Palladio who, from 1570, was the chief architect for the Venetian Republic. In the following July the end of the epidemic was celebrated with a procession to the church over a bridge formed of boats, which began the tradition which still remains today. The church was given to the Capuchin monks who, true to the vow of poverty, did not use any marble or other valuable materials, but simple bricks and terracotta, including to build the beautiful interiors of the church.

The Venetian ghetto, in the Cannaregio district, was where the Venetian Jews were obliged to live during the Venetian Republic. The presence of Jews in Venice is documented since the year 1000, although they only began having a stable and populated settlement in the late XIV century. Right from the beginning when the ghetto was established, Jews were free to go anywhere in the town but with certain restrictions. The area where the Jewish quarter grew was called the Ghetto at least from the beginning of the XIV century and during the XV century a number of synagogues were built one for each group of provenance. Thus the Grand German School, the Canton School (Ashkenazi rite), the Levantine School, the Spanish School and the Italian School were built. This complex of buildings is extremely interesting and they can still be visited.

The noble palazzos standing along the Grand Canal are beautiful, and are identified with the name of the family who founded them or lived there longest. The most famous are the gothic Palazzo Fortuny, donated to Venice by the widow of the Spanish artist Mariano Fortuny, Palazzo Grassi where interesting temporary exhibitions are held, Palazzo Mocenigo with its renaissance façade, Palazzo Grimani, state owned and houses the Appeal Court, and the gothic Palazzo Loredan. Many of the private residences are still called by their traditional name Ca’, which indicated the family, for example Ca’ Foscari, seat of Venice university, Ca’ Corner designed by Jacopo Sansovino in the XVI century, Ca’ Rezzonico built in the Dorsoduro district by Longhena, Ca’ Pesaro, Ca’ Vendramin Calergi and Ca’ Dario, famous for the tragic end of some of its owners. Given its ancient trading nature, Venice contains the fondachi or warehouses, built in the Middle Ages as stores and refuge for the foreign merchants. Along the Grand Canal we can see the German Fondaco, the Turkish Fondaco, now seat for the Natural History Museum, and the Megio Fondaco.

There are around 400 bridges in Venice (both public and private) which join the 118 small islands the city was built on. The majority are in stone, but wood and iron were also commonly used. The longest is the Liberty Bridge, which crosses over the Venetian Lagoon to join Venice to the mainland. The Grand Canal is the main canal that cuts through the city and it is crossed by four bridges. The oldest is Rialto Bridge (built around the XVI century), formed of two side ramps and one central ramp with shops on both sides. There are then the Academia Bridge, Scalzi Bridge and, last but not least the Constitution Bridge, built in 2008 to a design by the architect Santiago Calatrava. The most famous bridge in Venice is, without doubt, the Bridge of Sighs, built in Istria stone in the XVII century it joins the Doge’s Palace to the Lead Prisons. A curious fact is that the most famous bridge can only be crossed if you visit the Doge’s Palace. Venice is also famous for its historic cafes. Coffee was introduced to Venice by the Ottomans around the year 1615 and beginning in 1683 cafes began opening all around the city. The famous Café Florian, built in 1720, is still open in St Mark’s Square and likewise the famous Café Quadri, built in 1775.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim museum also stands in Venice with masterpieces by famous artists of the calibre of Ernst, Modigliani, Picasso, Pollock, Mirò and Kandinsky.

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