Thursday, March 24, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #6

By the 1070s both the Byzantine Empire and the Venetian Republic were threatened by the rapacious Normans from western Europe. The Normans were descendants of pirates, freebooters, and marauders from Iceland, Denmark, and the western Scandinavian Peninsula who by the tenth century had settled in the part of northern France that now bears their name—Normandy. Ambitious, foot-loose, and militaristic, they quickly moved east and by 1017 had established footholds in southern Italy. They soon controlled most of the southern half  of the Italian Peninsula and by 1072 had seized Sicily. Their leader Robert de Hauteville, known better known as Robert Guiscard (“the Crafty”) then set his sights on the Golden Apple, Constantinople, the ultimate prize of a long string of marauders dating back to Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun. His plan was to proceed from the Norman strongholds on the boot heel of Italy across the Strait of Otranto to the coastline of the Balkans and seize the city of Durazzo, also known in ancient times as Dyrrachium. Durazzo is now Durrës, the second largest city in the current-day country of Albania. Durazzo was the western terminus of the Via Egnatia, the ancient road built by the Romans in the second century b.c. The eastern terminus was Constantinople, 696 miles to the east.  From Durazzo Robert and his army hoped to follow the road, twenty feet wide and paved with stone slabs or covered with a layer of packed sand, straight to the walls of the imperial city.
Map showing the location of Durazzo and the Strait of Otranto, connecting the Adriatic and Ionian seas.
The Via Egnatia 
In May of 1181 Robert and 16,000 to 30,000 men (accounts vary), including 1,300 Norman knights, crossed the Strait in 150 ships. As soon as he became aware of the Norman invasion the newly crowned Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (r. (1081–1118) sent ambassadors to the Venetians with promises of various trade concessions and perks if they would throw their navy at the Normans in the Adriatic. The Venetians did not have to be coaxed. Durazzo was just seventy-five miles north of the narrowest point of the Strait of Otranto, which connects the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea. Here the strait is only twenty-one miles wide. If the Normans were able to establish a stronghold in Durazzo they would control both sides of the Strait of Otranto and would be in a position to blockade the Adriatic Sea. The Venetians could not allow this to happen.  The Adriatic was their lake, and the strait was the gateway to the rest of the Mediterranean, including Constantinople, the Levant, Alexandria, and the rest of the north African coast. Doge Domenico Selvo himself led a squadron of sixty Venetian warships down the Adriatic Sea to Durazzo. The Norman army had already been offloaded, but the Norman ships remained anchored in the roadstead offshore from the city, where they were pounced on by the Venetian fleet. On the sea the Normans were no match for the Venetians. and much of the Norman fleet was destroyed. The Venetians, however, were not prepared to fight on land. Emperor Alexius himself led an army to confront the Normans at Durazzo, but in October of 1081 the Byzantines were routed and Emperor Alexius just barely managed to avoid being captured. The fortified city of Durazzo held out until February of 1082 when it was finally taken by Robert and the Normans. According to one account the gates of the city had been opened to the Normans by a Venetian merchant who had been promised one of Robert’s daughters in marriage in return for his treachery.

Within a few weeks Robert the Crafty and his army had proceeded hundreds of miles east on the Via Egnatia. It looked as if the road was clear the whole way to Constantinople. But Emperor Alexius still had a few cards to play. He sent ambassadors to German King Henry IV who in return for a handsome bribe of 360,000 gold pieces  agreed to attack the Normans on the Italian Peninsula. Robert had no choice but to return to Italy and organize resistance to this attack on his rear, figuratively speaking. The army in the Balkans was left in charge of his son Bohemund. Robert supposedly vowed that he would never take a bath or shave until he was able to return and to the Balkans and lead his army onto Constantinople. It was not to be. For the next three years the Normans fought the Germans in Italy, the Venetians on the seas, and the Byzantines in what is now Greece, with the tides of battle ebbing and flowing. Robert was able to eject the Germans from Rome and rescue Pope Gregory VII, who had been taken prisoner by Henry IV, but the march on Constantinople led by his son was halted at Larissa, in what is now Greece,  350 miles short of the Golden Apple. On July 17, 1085 Robert Guiscard died of fever, and with him the Norman threat to Venice and Byzantium also expired, at least for the time being.

The Venetians first came to the aid of Byzantines back in 1081 after being promised trade concessions and other perquisites. Emperor Alexius I was not slow in showing gratitude. In 1082 or thereabout—the exact date is a matter of rather heated scholarly debate—he issued a Chrysobull, or decree, spelling out what the Venetians would receive for their continuing support in the battle against the Normans. (A chrysobull, or “golden bull”, was originally a golden seal (bulla = seal) attached to decrees issued by Byzantine emperors. Eventually the term was applied to the document itself.) The magnanimity of the concessions of were some indication of danger the Byzantines thought themselves to be in and how in need they were of Venetian aide. First, Venetian merchants were granted the right to trade throughout the Byzantine Empire without the imposition of any taxes or customs duties. For a society based almost entirely on trade this was an incredible boon, and gave them immense advantages over trade competitors like the Genoans.  Also, the Venetians were granted a district in Constantinople on the southern shore of the Golden Horn complete with anchorages and docks and the right to establish warehouses, offices, stores, residences, and a Catholic Church. This was the basis of the Venetian Quarter, which in time would become an almost autonomous foreign community within the city of Constantinople. In addition to these two overriding benefits the honorary title of  Protosebastos (“First of the Venerable”) and a yearly stipend were bestowed on the Doge, yearly cash donations granted to Venetian churches, and a church was founded in Durazzo, where the Venetians had first come to the aid of the Byzantines in their struggle against the Normans, and other boons.

At first glance it looked like the Byzantines had given away the ranch. But we must remember the historical context. At the Battle of Durazzo in October of 1181 the Byzantine Army had been thoroughly routed and Emperor Alexius had himself fled the battlefield with blood streaming down his face from a wound on his forehead.  This was a well-nigh unbelievable insult and injury to the person of the Emperor. By May of 1182, the  usual date given for the Chrysobull, the Norman army had advanced along the Via Egnatia well into the Balkans and at the rate they were going could be expected to be pounding on the gates of the Theodosian Land Wall in a matter of months. Alexius was clearly desperate. He would do whatever to took to get the Venetians onboard for the battle against the rampaging Normans and sort out the details later. In the meantime the Venetians based in their Quarter in Constantinople began to accumulate huge fortunes as a result of the trade advantages granted to them in the Chrysobull of 1182. The Dandolos got their foot in the door early. Within a few years Domenico Dandolo, the grandson of the Domenico Dandolo who had brought the relics of St. Tarasius from Constantinople to Venice was appointed ambassador to the Byzantine capital. His grandson, Enrico Dandolo, would instigate the sack of the city in 1204.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #5

Despite of the claims of Joseph Farrell, the Dandolos do not appear to have been descended from Mesopotamian slaves. Later, when they were one of the most prominent families in Venice, the Dandolos would promote the notion that their ancestors were among the leaders of the the refugees who had fled the depredations of the Goths and the Huns in the fifth century and that thus they were one of the founding families of Venice. This was a common claim among the families of Venice who wanted to assert that they did indeed belong to the aristocracy, much like Americans who place great stock in the claim that their ancestors come to the New World on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock. According to the legend favored by the Dandolos themselves, they were prominent citizens of Padua before moving to the islands in the Venetian Lagoon, where they took their rightful place among the Rialto elite. The truth is less clear. There is no mention of them at all in the earliest histories of Venice, written in the first half of the eleventh century. A history known as the  Venetiarum Historia, dating to the 1360s, does aver that the Dandolos were among a latter wave of refugees who in 630 had fled the town of Altino, about ten miles inland from the Venice Lagoon. According to this account they settled first on the island of Torcello, north of the Rialto islands. The historicity of the Venetiarum Historia has been questioned, however, making it a dubious source for Dandolo family history.

The first mention of the Dandolo family name on a contemporary document dates to December 20, 982. On this date Doge Tribuno Menio (979–91), three church officials,  and 131 prominent citizens of Venice signed an agreement to donate land for the foundation of a Benedictine monastery on a small island south of main Rialto islands, now known as the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The first two citizens to sign the document were Stefano Coloprino and Domenico Morosini, two of the most powerful men in Venice at the time. Other names appeared in order of importance. The forty-second signature on the list of 131 was one Vitale Dandolo, presumably an ancestor of Enrico Dandolo. From this we may include that the Dandolos had joined the ranks of the prominent families of Venice but were not yet among the highest ranking elite. Yet the family was clearly on ascendant. By 992 one Lucio Dandolo was serving as Procurator, or financial manager, of San Marco, and another Dandolo,  Carlo,  was appointed to the same office in 1033. The leader of the clan, however was Domenico Dandolo, who was actively involved in trade with Constantinople in the years 1018–25 and owned at least one boat.

The family added luster to their name by bringing back from Constantinople the body of Saint Tarasius and adding it to the large collection of relics already found in the city. Tarasius (c. 730—806) was born and raised in the Byzantine capital and was later the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. He was a noted Iconodule who believed in the veneration of icons, in staunch opposition to the iconoclasts who had come to power after Byzantine Emperor Leo III had ordered the destruction of many icons back in the 720s and 730s. Before accepting the post of Patriarch of Constantinople in 784, Tarasios made the Empress Irene promise that she would restore the veneration of icons, which she did. He was also active in the movement to unite or at least reconcile the Roman and Orthodox churches. For this he was granted sainthood by both branches of the faith. His feast day is celebrated on February 25  by the Eastern Orthodox Church, using to the Julian Calendar, and on March 10 by Roman Catholics, the same day according the Gregorian Calendar.

Tarasius’s rule as a unifier of the two churches resonated strongly in Venice, which throughout the first centuries of its existence had swerved back and forth between allegiance to the Orthodox Church in Constantinople and Catholic Church in Rome.  By the eleventh century it was firmly in the Catholic camp in religious matters, but due to its trade ties with the East it was still inextricably linked with the Orthodox world of the Byzantines. Not for nothing was it known as the westernmost city of the Orient. These bonds, it was thought, would be further strengthened by having the body of Saint Tarasius, the unifier, in Venice where it would be properly venerated. No less, it would attract pilgrims from all over the Catholic world who would drop a lot of cash in  the city, pilgrims at the time being the equivalent of today’s tourists.

Some enterprising Venetians merchants and priests in Constantinople soon located the body in a monastery near the city and concocted a plan to steal it. Surreptitiously they moved the remains of Tarasius to an awaiting ship belonging to Domenico Dandolo, who then transported it back to Venice. Dandolo was greeted with hosannahs  and the body was transported with great ceremony to the Convent of St Zaccaria, the church of which had been created to house the body of yet another saint, Zaccarios (Zechariah), This relic had actually been the gift of Byzantine Emperor Leo V the Armenian (r. 813–820 and had not been stolen. Zechariah appears both in the Bible, where he figures as the father of John the Baptist and the husband of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and in the Quran, where he  named as the guardian of Mary and also as the father of John the Baptist.

The Convent of St Zaccaria itself was home to Benedictine nuns, many of them from the city’s most affluential families, who over the years had acquired a reputation for less than strict observance of their monastic vows. In 855 Pope Benedict III was granted refuge here during the upheavals surrounding the ascension of the notorious Antipope Anastasius, named pope over the objections of church hierarchy by Roman Emperor Louis II. Anastasius was eventually sent packing and Benedict III placed on the papal throne. In gratitude to the sisters who had succored him in his hour of need (I am not suggesting anything untoward here), Pope Benedict donated to the convent a significant collection of relics, including the remains of the Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298—373) and a piece, one of many, of the True Cross. (Athanasius is also a saint according to the Egyptian Coptic tradition. During a visit to Rome in 1973 Pope Paul VI gave the Coptic Pope Shenouda part of Athanasius’s remains, which were then taken back to Egypt. The relics are now in Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. Most of Athanasius’s remains are still in the Church of St. Zaccaria.)
 Tomb of Saint Zaccaria and Saint Athanasius in the Church of St. Zaccaria. Photo by Didier Descouens. (click on photos for enlargements)
 Painting of St. Zaccaria Church and adjacent Monastery by Francesco Guardi (1790)
The Church of St. Zaccaria became famous for its assortment of relics and was soon a magnet for pilgrims visiting the city. The addition of the body of Saint Tarasius, spirited from Constantinople by Domenico Dandolo, only added to its luster.  The acquisition the relic—overlooking the small detail that it had been stolen—also added the esteem to the Dandolo family as a whole. In 1055 Domenico’s son Bono was named as one of two ambassadors to the court of Henry III of Germany, where he met with Henry and negotiated a trade treaty with the Germans. The next step in the Dandolo family’s ascendency was the founding of a parish church. Many Venetian families had cemented their membership among the elite by funding new churches and now it was the turn of the Dandolos. Teamed up with another local family, the Pizzamanos, they built the Church of Saint Luca (Luke) near one of the first Dandolo residences. The oldest document mentioning the church dates to 1072, although it may have been actually founded decades earlier.

The church in front of which I am now standing is on the site of the original Church of Saint Luca. The structure was largely rebuilt in the early 1600s and was reconsecrated in 1617. The exterior is rather plain, but the interior contains frescos by  Sebastiano Santi (1789–1866) and other works by Palma il Giovane (c. 1548–1628 and Paolo Veronese (1528–1588).
Exterior of the Church of San Luca
Interior of Church of San Luca (photo by (photo by Didier Descouens)
Ceiling Fresco by Sebastiano Santi (photo by Didier Descouens)
Veronese, one of sixteenth century Venice’s greatest painters, mentioned in the same breath as Titian and Tintoretto, is perhaps most famous for his monumental “The Feast in the House of Levi”. Measuring 18.20 by 42 feet, it was one of the largest canvasses painted in the sixteenth century. It was intended to be a painting of the Last Supper, a conventional enough theme. Veronese included in his painting, however, dwarfs, buffoons, drunken Germans (a common depiction, but an obvious anachronism), dogs, and a host of other extraneous characters that seemingly had no place in a painting of the Last Supper. The Inquisitors of the Catholic Church soon called Veronese on the carpet and demanded to know just what he had meant by this seemingly blasphemous treatment of such an important event in the life of Christ. Given three months to alter the painting or else, Veronese countered by changing the name of the painting to “The Feast in the House of Levi”, in reference to episode in the Gospel of Luke:
And Levi made himself a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of tax collectors and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
The Inquisitors relented, perhaps because the painting did appear to contain sinners, and the painting was hung in the church of  San Zanipolo in the Castello district of Venice. It now covers an entire wall in Venice’s Accademia art gallery.
I eventually visited the Accademia and was able to see Veronese’s “The Feast in the House of Levi”. It is one of the most popular paintings in the museum, and I had to wait for an hour before I could take this photo without someone standing in front of it. The time was well spent, however, since the painting presents a host of intriguing details. Especially amusing were the Black Africans peeping around the columns. Were they casing the joint? None of this, of course, has anything to do with the Last Supper, or with the Feast of Levi for that matter. 

Given his familiarly with the Gospel of Luke it is perhaps understandable that he was called upon to produce a work for the Church of Saint Luca (Luke). His altarpiece, which can still be seen in the church, portrays the Virgin Mary appearing to St. Luke as his writes Gospel. Presumably the work was done for an earlier version of the current church, since, as mentioned, the church underwent major renovations in the early seventeenth century, after Veronese had died in 1588. That a parish church like Saint Luca was able to acquire the work of a master like Veronese would seem to indicate that it enjoyed a certain degree of affluence long after the Dandolos were gone from the scene.

Oddly enough, nowadays the church turns up in tourist guides and history books not because of its association with the Dandolos and famous artists like Veronese but because  it was the burial place of the notoriously licentious gadfly and poet Pietro Aretino (1492–1556). Alessandro Marzo Magno, in his engrossingly entertaining  Bound in Venice (2013), a study of the early publishing industry in the city, tells us that Aretino was:
A genius. A pornographer. A pervert. A refined intellectual. Pietro Aretino has been called all of these and more. And, at the end of the day, all of them are justified. He published what can be defined as the first pornographic book in history. And he . . . invented the figure of the author-celebrity, the writer-star that droves of nameless readers throng to see.
Born out of wedlock in Arezzo (Aretino = “from Arezzo”), the young Aretino first achieved literary fame with a pamphlet entitled "The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno”, Hanno being the pet elephant of Pope Leo X which had died in 1516. This bitterly satirical work, which lampooned both the Pope and other political and religious panjandrums, and other similar works earned him the title of “the Scourge of Princes”. But royalty also avidly sought his friendship. The King of France, François I, presented him with  a three-pound gold chain with links in the form of serpent’s tongues as a token of his affection. One of his most notorious literary productions was entitled Sonetti Lussuriosi (Salacious Sonnets):
Let’s fuck, heart of mine, let’s fuck soon
Since to fuck is what all of us are born to do
And while it’s the cock that you adore, it’s the vulva that I love more.
Pornography it may be, but as poetry it is not exactly Wordsworth. Also, the sentiment expressed may have been less than accurate, since Aretino was a bisexual who once complained that the women of Venice were so seductive that they induced him to ignore his male lovers.

Aretino died of an apoplectic fit brought on by laughing too hard at an obscene joke he had heard about his sister and was entombed in San Luca Church. It is not clear what his connection with the church was or why he ended up here. The staid parish church has no other known connection with pornographers. He may simply have lived in the neighborhood and was interred at the nearest church, but there is no actual evidence of this. A blasphemous epigram on his tombstone was effaced during the Inquisition in Venice and his tomb disappeared sometime later. The only surviving copy of Sonetti Lussuriosi, his pornographic masterwork, was sold in 1978 by Christie’s art house in New York to an unknown buyer for $38,000. Despite Aretino’s rather questionable place in the ongoing history of civilization it is still his name that pops up first when the  Church of San Luca is mentioned in many current-day sources.
 Portrait of Potty-Mouthed Poet Pietro Aretino by Titian

Monday, March 7, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandalo #3

To the west Campo Santa Maria del Giglio opens unto a smaller square known as Campiello Feltrina. From here Calle Zaguri crosses a canal known Rio de S. M. Zobenigo.  The bridge over the canal, the Ponte de la Feltrina, is one of 435 bridges in Venice (including the island of Guidecca, south of the six districts name earlier) that cross the city’s 182 named canals. It is also considered to be of the more picturesque. I know this because I hear a tour group leader pointing it out to her ten or so charges. On the other side of the bridge is a Chinese tour group of some fifteen people led by a women carrying a long stick topped by a yellow flag that she frantically waves to assemble her wandering troops. Young Chinese women on the bridge itself pose in varying degrees of allure for photos while others jockey for positions from which to take selfies. Attracted to this site by the tourists are four beggars, two on each end of the bridge. Two are decrepit old men, obviously locals, with crutches, perhaps props, and two are black men in their twenties dressed in the gangsta style favored by American rappers. I ask one where he is from and he answers, “Nigeria.” Several people are taking his photo. In Venice he is just part of the scenery.

The mob thins out as I move along Calle Zaguri to Campo San Maurizio. The church on the northern side has been deconsecrated and now serves as a museum dedicated to the music of Baroque Venice. I have on my Kindle three novels, Whispers of VivaldiThe Iron Tongue of Midnight, and Cruel Music, all by Beverle Graves Myers, that I have been dipping as a relief from the sometimes impenetrable  profundities of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. The novels are part of a series starring Tito Amato, a castrato singer in one of Venice’s main opera houses during the flowering of Baroque music. Castratos are, of course, men who have been castrated as boys in order to preserve their pure soprano voices. Castrato singers were all the rage in eighteenth century Venice and the most successful could demand enormous fees for appearing in an opera (Ruskin, thankfully, did not comment on this phenomenon). In addition to singing in operas, Tito Amato is also an amateur detective who gets called upon to solve the various crimes which are forever plaguing those somehow connected with the world of opera. His investigations take him into all levels of Venetian society, from the most uppity of the upper crust to the lowest beggars, and thus offer an entertaining and often amusing view of Venice in the eighteen century. I am very tempted to wander into the Baroque music museum to see what more I can learn about this tantalizingly intriguing era but Enrico Dandolo calls. 

Exiting Campo San Maurizio I follow Calle del Spezier to Campo San Stefano. The street itself is named after the many pharmacies (spezieri) found here. Most are now gone, giving way to stores focused on the tourist trade. Campo San Stefano is the largest in the San Marco district, big enough to have hosted bull fights in the eighteenth century. Its southern end extends to the Accademia Bridge over the Grand Canal, beyond which is the district of Dorsoduro. At its northern end is the Church of San Stefano, an austere old Gothic pile dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr (I had earlier visited the Church Of St. Stephanos In Iran). “An interesting building of central Gothic, the best ecclesiastical example of it in Venice,” according to John Ruskin, the grand old pile stands as a silent rebuke to the rococo extravagances of the churches of San Moise and Santa Maria del Giglio. It has played a storied role in the history of Venice, although not always a salubrious one. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the church had to be reconsecrated six times because of the blood spilled on its floor from various acts of violence.
 Campo San Stefano, with the church of San Stefano on the right (click on photos for enlargements)
Church of San Stefano. It warmed the cockles of John Ruskin’s heart.
From the front of the San Stefano church Calle Frati leads to yet another square, Campo Sant Angelo. Looking back from here, we get the best view of the famous campanile, or bell tower, of Church of San Stefano. It was first erected in 1544, but in 1585 it was struck by lightening and collapsed. The lightening was so intense it melted the bells in the tower. The rebuilt version was two hundred feet high, with bells imported from England. After an earthquake in 1902 the campanile listed six feet off center, giving the Leaning Tower of Pisa stiff competition as Italy’s most famous leaning tower.  If and when it does fall over into the crowded environs of the Church of San Stefano the results are not going to be pretty. 
Campo Sant Angelo, with leaning Campanile of the Church of San Stefano beyond
Yet another street called Calle del Spezier (there are several in Venice) exits the northern corner of the square, and after changing names twice leads directly to Camp Manin. I cannot however resist the urge to make a slight detour to Rio Terra dei Assassini. A rio terra is a filled-in canal which serves as a street. Assassini is of course the Italian for assassins. In centuries past this area of narrow streets and dark allies was notorious for its criminal element, and one ventured here at one’s own risk. The dangers of traipsing around in Venice after dark were noted by many travelers, including the irrepressible English gadabout Thomas Coryat (1577–1617), whose wanderings, mostly on foot, took him through much of Europe, and on to Turkey, Persia, and India.  He has been widely credited with popularizing the use of the table fork in England (he was nicknamed Furcifer, Latin for “fork-bearer”), a habit which he may have picked up in Venice, and with introducing the word umbrella into the English language. He was most famous, however, for the wildly popular accounts of his travels, including the touchingly entitled Coryat’s Crudities: Hastily gobled up in five Moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Orisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Nether lands; Newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling Members of this Kingdome, published in London in 1611.  In Crudities he tells us that:
There are certaine desperate and resolute villaines in Deiperate Venice, called Braves, who at some unlawfull times do commit great villainy. They wander abroad very late in the night to and fro for their prey, like hungry Lyons, being armed with a privy coate of maile, a gauntlet upon their right hand, and a little sharpe dagger called a stiletto. They lurke commonly by the water side, and if at their time of the night, which is betwixt eleven of the clocke and two, they happen to meete any man that is worth the rifling, they will presently stabbe him, take away all about him that is of any worth, and when they have throughly pulled his plumes, they will throw him into one of the channels: but they buy this booty very deare if they are after apprehended. For they are presently executed. 
 These cut-throats had been plaguing Venice since at the very least the twelfth century, when Doge Domenico Michiel (1118– 30)  had to enact special laws to deal with the criminal elements that haunted certain areas of Venice. The Rio Terra degli Assassini and nearby alleys were especially fertile hunting grounds for thieves and cut-throats because wealthy Venetians used them to sneak in the back way to the  brothels on nearby Calle della Mandola. Eventually the authorities dealt with the crime problem by illuminating Rio Terra degli Assassini with cesendeli, or small lanterns, making it one of the first streets in Venice with street lighting. The problem persisted into the eighteenth century, however when Venetian chronicler G. B. Gallicciolli noted:
It had become common to wear false beards in the style of the Greeks, with the consequence that great evil was done by night, and especially in cramped passageways, like . . . the Ponte degli Assassini. Many were found murdered and no one knew who was responsible, because no one could recognize the malefactors. So throughout the territories of Venice these beards were banned by day and night, on pain of the gallows. (quoted in Ian  Littlewood’s Venice: A Literary Companion).
From this we know that by the eighteen century the bridge (ponte) and presumably the street associated with it were named after assassini—assassins. The street and bridge, however, could not have had this name back in the twelve century, when Doge Domenico Michiel addressed the problem of violence in Venice, for the simple reason that the word did not then exist in Italian or any other European language. The word assassini (singular assassino) is derived from the Arabic word hashishi, which means a user of hashish, the drug extracted from marijuana. It was used in a derogatory sense to describe low-life drug addicts, the way we nowadays might call someone a pothead or doper. In the Mideast during the twelfth century the word was used by mainstream Muslims to denigrate members of the Ismailis, a sect which had broken off from the main body of Shiite Muslims. Because of their unorthodox teachings the Ismailis were considered heretical by Sunni and mainstream Shiite Muslims alike. The Ismailis, based in Persia and Syria (I have visited Alamut, their headquarters in Persia), were notorious for murdering the leaders of their religious and political opponents. This was done by carefully trained men who often managed to insinuate themselves into the lives of their victims. They were usually killed on the spot by bodyguards or others after murdering their victims, making them martyrs for the Ismaili cause.  Sunni Muslims and other of their victims became convinced that the men who carried out the murders used hashish as a stimulant and were thus hashishi. Most modern scholars dismiss this idea, but the name stuck, and Ismailis in general became known as hashishi. 

One of Venice’s most famous sons, Marco Polo, brought back to the Occident one of the first accounts of the Ismailis, although by his time the sect had in large part been destroyed or driven underground by the Mongols under Khülegü Khan, grandson of Chingis Khan, who had captured their headquarters of Alamut in 1256. The peripatetic Polo apparently did not call them hashishi in his famous book, but the word was broadcast by other Occidental travelers and writers and soon seeped into European languages. The corrupted forms of the word—assassino in Italian and assassin in English—were eventually used to describe anyone who carried out murder for political purposes or, more generally, a professional killer. It is probably in this latter sense that the word was used to name Rio Terra degli Assassini, although most of the murders that took place here were probably linked to robbery. If we could find out when the street was named we would know that by then this foreign word had became permanently embedded in the Italian language. Unfortunately I have not been able to discover any further history of the street and so this questions must remain unanswered.  
Street sign for Rio Terra degli Assassini. All the literature uses the word delgi, but the sign uses dei. Perhaps some Italian language maven could point out the reason for this discrepancy?
Now the street is perhaps most famous for the Osteria ai Assassini, or Restaurant of the Assassins, which despite its rather intimidating name gets very decent reviews on internet tourist sites. The restaurant has not yet opened for the day, however, and I am the only tourist on the street. Is it just my imagination, or do several of the men who pass me in the street, obviously locals, look suspiciously furtive? Deciding not to linger on Rio Terra degli Assassini, I find my way back to Calle del Spezier, which soon turns to Calle della Mandola, now appearing to be devoid of whorehouses, although there are some skanky-looking women in the street. Calle della Mandola soon becomes Calle Cortesia, which then crosses a lovely little bridge into Campo Manin, graced by a statue of Venetian patriot Daniele Manin (1804–1857), who led the resistance against the ultimately successful Austrian invasion of Venice in the late 1840s. 
 Bridge over the Rio de San Luca
Campo Manin
The residences of the Dandolo family are just north of here, near the Church of St. Luca. Exiting the the square at its northern corner, I walk a couple hundred feet, turn left into Campiello  di San Luca, then continue on to the canal. There, fronting the canal is the Church of St. Luca, the parish church of the Dandolo family. It was in this neighborhood, a thousand feet or so from the Rialto, the ancient center of Venice, that the man who instigated the sack of Constantinople in 1204 was born. 
Campiello  di San Luca
 Church of San Luca (Saint Luke)
Plaque on the front of the Church of San Luca