After a leisurely lunch and time sketching over the noon hour at historic Caffè Florian – the oldest café in Europe, we decided to head east along the promenade of the Riva degli Schiavoni (bayside of the Venetian lagoon) toward the eastern tip of the Venetian islands, for a mile or so, observing fishermen, boats, a large park that is home to the Venice Biennalle (public garden) with some beautiful sculpture – where a young woman was busily feeding pigeons. On the way, just past the looming façade of the Doge’s Palace, we passed over a low bridge looking over the narrow canal between the Doge’s Palace and the old Venetian Prison. Over the narrow canal is the now infamous “Bridge of Sighs,” so-called because of what one might have heard a prisoner on the way to spend their final days in the prison to utter.
We strolled past the vast Arsenale di Venezia (once home to the most powerful naval fleet the world has ever known) and the Castello district, to almost the very tip of the island, then we went back toward the Piazza di San Marco, snaking our way through narrow streets hung with laundry – where true Venetians live – far beyond the probing tourist eye.
Far away from the more touristy districts of Venice, the city felt smaller and far less-crowded. We watched people just hanging out, talking, walking dogs, wandering around with friends and, in general, living life in an unhurried fashion. In this part of working-class Venice there were fewer canals and more colorful houses on the back streets.
We eventually wound our way back to the Doge’s Palace, where we had timed tickets to personally tour the imposing structure.
We went in and immediately climbed the stairs to the grand second floor. There were huge rooms with built-in benches, apparently for waiting for an appointment to see the Doge – that is, if you were important enough to get one! The ceilings of these grand rooms were elaborately painted and gilded.
There were decorations and ornament in every square inch of the spaces – with equally elaborate wall paintings – all to, I assume, impress upon patrons the immense power of the sitting Doge – who was equal almost to the Pope in Rome in power and prestige during the height of Venetian power during the medieval period through the early Italian Renaissance. So much so, that the Doge’s instructions for over a 400-year span of Venetian influence were literally to go forth and plunder!
This was the time of the Holy Crusades, after all. Venice was truly the center of power and wealth in the known World during the time of the 14th-century explorer Marco Polo, and beyond. The goal seemed simply to be to make Venetians even richer, so they could construct their palatial Palazzi along the Canalé Grandé – the more ornate the better – the better to outdo your neighbors! For example, the elaborate Canalé Grandé palazzo, the Ca d’Oro or “golden house,” was originally covered in gold leaf, polychrome and jewels. The Ca d’Oro remains today, but gone are the more obvious signs of such incredible wealth. It is one of the oldest palazzos in Venice; a superb example of Venetian Gothic architecture.
On the massive second floor of the Doge’s Palace, there were grand room after grand room. It was hard to tell what each room’s function might have been – simply to impress? Finally, the most ornate rooms of all were the Doge’s private apartments. In many murals were scenes depicting great battles – it must have been a very bloody time!
From the second floor, we took an internal staircase back down to the ground level, which soon spilled out into a giant internal courtyard, sandwiched between the looming Basilica di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace itself. On one end, nearer the basilica, was a grand exterior staircase, flanked by two huge sculptures and crowned by the Lion of St. Mark, leading down from the second floor – it is said that the Doge would never descend this staircase to the ground level. The Doge obviously took his hold on power very seriously.
Around the courtyard were many interesting nichés with sculpture. Near the basilica was a particularly interesting loggia with a very famous statue: that of Saint Theodore of Amasea – “Il Todaro” – patron saint of Venice prior to St. Mark; from the 4th-century to the 14th. This statue once held the revered position on top of one of the two giant columns at the entrance to the Piazetta di San Marco, next to that of the lion of St. Mark. This statue of “Il Todara” is “a pastiche of parts from different eras and places: the head probably belonged to a colossal statue of the (Roman) emperor Constantine, the bust belonged to a loricate statue of a Roman emperor, perhaps Hadrian; the other parts of the body and the dragon at his feet, similar to a crocodile, were added at the beginning of the 14th-century……The dragon recalls the iconography of St. George, whose cult is traditionally linked to the protection against swamping and the healthiness of the air.” (from an information panel next to the statue)
After leaving the Doge’s Palace complex, we wandered along the Piazetta di San Marco and the Bacino di San Marco, watching the day’s waning light on the glistening water and the colorful buildings.
We happened upon a young bride and groom making their way from a motorboat along the quai. Here they met up with their families for a group photograph, then they wandered through the evening streets to the church (?) or to their hotel (?) – it was hard to tell.
The setting sun on the forms of the Doge’s Palace façade and Basilica di San Marco was very memorable. To get back to our apartment neighborhood and a nice dinner at a true Italian trattoria, we made our way across the 19th-century Ponté del’Accademia through the interesting Dosodura district.