Friday, March 4, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #2

The Hotel Casanova where I am staying is located on Frezzeria Street, named after the arrow (frecce) shops with which it was once lined. Arrows were an important commodity in fourteenth century Venice, when all adult males were expected to be proficient in the use of the crossbow. Arrows have gone the way of Zip discs; now the street hosts hotels, restaurants, and up-scale clothing stores geared toward tourists. The legendary swordsman and memoirist Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) once lived just off Frezzeria Street, in the Corte del Luganegher; no doubt the hotel got it name from this association. The English gadabout, poet, and prime-time cad Lord Byron (1788–1824) found lodging just up the street from my hotel at building number 1673 when he first arrived in Venice in 1816, and he very quickly managed to seduce his landlord’s wife, the delectable twenty-two year old Marianna, who according to Byron was “in her appearance altogether like an antelope.” Presumably this was meant as a compliment. Near Byron’s former lodging I veer into a coffee bar for a double expresso and latte chaser. This is literally a bar. Sissified customers requiring stools or tables and chairs need not enter. You drink your coffee standing at the bar the way God intended it to be done. Locals, tradespeople from the neighboring shops, pop in for a quick expresso bracer which they toss down at one go, like a cowboy downing a shot of whisky in an old-time saloon, and then quickly depart. The only thing missing is the swinging doors. 

The first item on my agenda is the birthplace of Enrico Dandolo. There are, of course, no cars in Venice. Travel is by foot or boat. I set out on foot. Venice consists of six sestieri, or districts: San Marco, Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Polo, and Santa Croce. My hotel and the birthplace of Dandolo are in the San Marco district. Each district has numerous campi (singular campo = square) and campielli (smaller squares). The easiest way for the visitor to navigate the city, assuming that he is unfamiliar with the byways, seems to be to proceed from square to square, although this may not be the shortest route to where one is going. The Dandolo residences—there were several Dandolo families in the area—are near the San Luca (St. Luke) Church, itself close to the Campo Manin. The church is indicated on detailed maps of the city, but the residences, to my knowledge, are not on any maps, nor do they appear in any tourist guides I am aware of. I have been able to locate them only by means of a scholarly biography of Enrico Dandolo and some recondite articles in obscure journals. My map of Venice indicates that I have to go through five campi or campielli to get there. 

The first is the Campiello San Moise, the small square in front of the San Moise Church. Although the church itself is ancient, build in the eighth century, the elaborately baroque facade, festooned with any number of rococo sculptures, dates from the 1660s. It was this facade that had infuriated the extremely opinionated nineteenth-century historian John Ruskin, one of Venice’s most famous, notorious even, elucidators. I had read, or at least glanced through Ruskin’s classic The Stones of Venice during a brief Anglophile period when I was a college student, and last night in my hotel room I had downloaded a copy to my Kindle and skimmed through it again. “I date the commencement of the Fall of Venice from the death of Carlo Zeno, 8th May, 1418,” intoned Ruskin, “the visible commencement from that of another of her noblest and wisest children, the Doge Tomaso Mocenigo, who expired five years later.” To him the floridly ornamented facade of San Moise represented a perfect example of the frivolousness to which the once stern and austere Republic of Venice had devolved since the Fall. The facade was “frightful,” he railed, adding that it was “one of the basest examples of the basest school of the Renaissance.” 
Facade of the Church of San Moise. John Ruskin was not amused (click on photos for enlargements). 
The half dozen people in the campo taking photos of the facade, including two using serious looking cameras on tripods, are no doubt blissfully unaware of Ruskin’s fulminations. Few twitter-era people have the desire or fortitude needed to wade through the swamps and thickets of Ruskin’s notoriously dense Victorian prose. If he is remembered at all by most people it may be because of the 2014 movie Effie Gray, starring the adorable Dakota Fanning as Euphemia Chalmers Gray, better known as Effie, the wife of John Ruskin, and heartthrob Greg Wise as the great historian himself. According to the commonly accepted story (the truth may be more nuanced), on their wedding night Ruskin was so shocked by the sight of his bride’s naked body—he was particularly appalled by her pubic hair (apparently Victorian ladies did not shave)—that he was rendered impotent, and remained so for the rest of their married life. Bizarrely, Ruskin had had a crush on Effie ever since she was twelve years old, but apparently he had not thought through the physical aspects of the relationship, at least not until their wedding night, when he made his disquieting discoveries. Claiming that the marriage had never been consummated, Effie was eventually granted an annulment and went on to marry her ex-husband’s erstwhile friend and protégé John Everett Millais, with whom she had eight children. For more on this unfortunate threesome see Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais.

On the far side of the campo is the canal called Le Rio (rio = canal) de San Moise. The bridge across it is called, predictably, Le Ponte San Moise (ponte = bridge). This is the first canal west of tourist-magnet Piazza San Marco and thus the bridge is a very popular spot for hiring gondolas. At least fifty people are lined up on both sides of the canal waiting to board their boats. Every one of them is Chinese. They appear to be members of at least three tour groups. The tour leaders shout in Mandarin, trying to direct their charges, some of them elderly and not too sturdy on their pins, onto the awaiting gondolas. The usual rate, I have been told, for using a gondola is about $100 for a forty minute ride with up to six people, although the prices can vary considerably. So a ride are not especially cheap but hey, what’s Venice without a gondola ride? The first thing you are going to be asked when you get back to Shanghai is “did you take a gondola ride?” and you better be prepared to say yes.
 Chinese tourists waiting to board a gondola
Chinese tourists setting out on a gondola ride
From the Le Ponte San Moise I mosey down Calle Larga XX Marzo (calle = street) to the end, then hang a left onto Calle de Ostreghe, which soon makes a dogleg turn to the right. After crossing a bridge I emerge into the Campo Santa Maria del Giglio. On the northern side of the square is the Church of Santa Maria del Giglio (Saint Mary of the Lily), of some note because its flamboyantly rococo facade contains no religious images at all, but is instead a bombastic memorial to one man, Admiral Antonio Barbaro (d. 1679). Barbaro had an extensive military and political career, holding posts in Rome, Padua, Corfu, and elsewhere, but most notably on the island of Crete, once part of the Byzantine Empire but which Enrico Dandolo claimed as war booty in the name of the Republic of Venice after the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Crete became the Republic’s first overseas colony and served as one of the most important way-stations in the trade networks linking Venice with Constantinople and Alexandria. Candia, the capital (now known as Heraklion), was believed to be the most strongly fortified city in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1648 the Ottoman Turks, intent on seizing Crete, invested Candia, resulting in a siege lasting twenty-one years, one of the longest in military history. Barbaro served as the governor of Candia and was also one of its defenders during the siege. Finally, in 1669 the Ottomans captured Candia and they soon controlled the entire island. 

It was a terrible blow to Venice, which had lost one of its most important trading and military strongholds. Barbaro emerged unscathed, however, and he when died he left a considerable amount of money (30,000 ducati) for the refurbishment of the church on the northern side of the square. Dating back to the ninth century, the original structure was known as known the Church of Santa Maria Zobenigo, named after the Jubanico (Zobenigo being a corrupted form of Jubanico) family who had donated much of the money for its construction (some maps still call the square Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo). Barbaro’s 30,000 ducati bequest was used to update the church, most notably adding the baroque facade. A relief the Barbaro family coat-of-arms can be seen at the top of the facade. In the center is statue of Barbaro himself, with representations of Honor, Virtue, Fame, and Wisdom on either side. The entrance is flanked by statues of various family members. Also depicted are marble relief maps showing the various places where Barbaro served.
Facade of Church of Santa Maria del Giglio, with statue of Barbaro in the middle
A representation of Fame trumpeting Barbaro’s deeds to passersby in the square
Barbaro family members on the facade
All of the self-glorification seen on the facade of Church of Santa Maria del Giglio might be considered excessive, especially when we consider that Crete, one of the jewels on the Venetian necklace of islands stretching across the eastern Mediterranean, was lost during Barbaro’s watch. The easily irritated John Ruskin, predictably, was utterly appalled by this spectacle of baroque self-indulgence, yet another example of the decadence into which once noble Venice had devolved. The church reeked of “insolent atheism,” he fumed, adding that it was “totally destitute of religious symbols and entirely dedicated to the honour of [the Barbaro family].” He had plenty of opportunities to hone his outrage, since for eight months he had lived just three hundred feet away. The Campo Santa Maria del Giglio opens onto another square, the Campo del Traghetto, which extends south to the Grand Canal. By the side of Campo del Traghetto, facing the Grand Canal, is the Palazzo Gritti, where Ruskin and his long-suffering wife Effie rented rooms in 1851–52. Aficionados of American literature may recall that the character Colonel Cantwell in Ernest Hemingway’s novel Across the River and into the Trees also stayed here, as did Hemingway himself. Now the palazzo is home to a very up-scale hotel, the Gritti Palace (cheapest room $538 a night; cheapest suite is $1,934 a night). I would stay here myself, but I am experiencing a cash flow problem, one that, unfortunately, has been dogging me for decades. 

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