Venice II: Madonna and the Amazons

This morning I struck out alone, early, just after sunrise.

So early, in fact, that most things were closed, even after a false start on the wrong vaporetto. St Mark’s Basilica wasn’t taking any visitors when I arrived, though at the moment it looks like a building site with all the scaffolding on its central façade.

The scaffolding curse strikes again. After my last piece on the subject disappeared under mysterious circumstances (I swear I remember publishing a piece called “Ode to the Scaffold” and Facebook tells me I’m not lying), I’m all the more convinced there’s a global conspiracy that has every major world heritage monument under restoration when I’m in town. Altamira, Fes’ tanneries, Lindisfarne, León’s cathedral, Gaudí’s Casa Battló and now the Basilica di San Marco. I’m truly cursed.

Fortunately, building interiors and Renaissance paintings don’t hold as much fascination for me as the city itself, so I set off in search of some other parts of Venice with stories to tell. And where better to begin than the Rialto? The great bridge over the Grand Canal where Shylock learned of his rival’s ruin?

I’ll admit that today was something of a schoolboy-fanboy morning. Othello and The Merchant of Venice were two of my A Level texts back in the day and walking down the very streets where some of Shakespeare’s greatest works were set felt nothing short of magical. Some come to Venice seeking romance, fine dining and Renaissance majesty, but I’m wired differently. Jews, plague and Shakespeare – that’s why I’m here.

A faceless bust of the Madonna sits carved in marble on the west side of the bridge. I can’t find anything on her, and my Italian isn’t quite up to scratch to ask a local yet, but in a city filled with busts of Mary, this faceless one grabbed my attention.

How many have touched her face over the centuries in adoration? How many have asked for her intercession? I see that many of the older Venetians, like their coreligionists across the sea, cross themselves whenever they pass one of these ancient busts. Were their wishes granted, or did their ships founder on the Goodwin Sands (or not, in a rather silly plot twist from the Bard)?

Onwards from the Rialto and deeper into the heart of the city. I’m seeking Cannaregio and the ghettos, but I keep getting distracted by the Venetians themselves. How tall these Italians are! We of Spanish blood are a stocky folk at the best of times, and I feel blessed to be taller than average for once whenever I’m there, but here I am dwarfed. Broad-shouldered gondolieri swaggering about with bolshy Italian charm, thickset old-timers puffing on cigars as they vent about che succede, exceptionally elegant young women on long legs and perfectly chosen outfits. And that especially fetching eye colour that is so particular to the Italians, a fair and greenish brown that arrests the heart for a moment.

Ok, I’m staring. Time to move on.

One thing that’s really got my attention today is how Venice has adapted to the age of Amazon Prime. In a city with no cars, the usual “white van man” has no jurisdiction. Instead, I’ve watched boats ferrying parcels in from the mainland all morning, while wiry, suntanned porters haul the day’s Amazon payload up and over the city’s many bridges using a purpose-built trolley that seems designed to tackle Venice’s myriad steps. Ingenious!

I could think of better places to work for Amazon, but as Venice has been a trading hub since its inception, I expect the Venetians are used to it.

I ate my lunch/brunch of a focaccia ai olive and an extremely filling lemon ricotta cheesecake in Campo San Geremia, after overshooting the ghetto district by a bridge or two. I listened to a Senegalese busker and wondered if African minstrels were a thing in Shakespeare’s Venice, too. His music was fun and his voice captivating. My dad would have said it was repetitive. I would have said it was catchy. Mr Busker would probably have said he was just having the time of his life – and raking it in in the process Seriously, I’ve rarely seen a busker’s cap so full – there was more shine coming off the euros on his guitar case than ripples on the Grand Canal. Venice must be a minstrel’s dream.

My thoughts and feelings wandering through the ghetto vechio and the ghetto novo were much too powerful to sum up in what is already a comprehensive article. I’ll save them for when I return tomorrow. Right now, the brightest part of the day is almost over and I’m feeling rested. Time to go and explore again. BB x

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