JULY 2020 – I arrived back in Venice last week, travelling from London to Holland, then on to Germany and Austria by train. Still no flights from the UK to Venice. My journey took almost ten days because I helped Rosie, a childhood friend, pack up her house in the South of France, on the way. This involved a 650 kms deviation in the wrong direction and much love and emotion. We packed and sorted twenty five years worth of stuff in 5 days. When it was finished I could continue my journey. So with a mixture of trains, vans, cars and a ferry I eventually made it back to Lido di Venezia, the place I currently call home.
My first full day in Venice was spent sorting myself out, opening up the apartment and doing boring things like laundry and food shopping. Although even food shopping in Venice is fun when you go to the local market, where the stalls back on to the lagoon and the backdrop is San Marco with the snow-capped Italian Alps beyond. My immediate impression was one of tranquility, there are very few people in Venice at the moment, apart from the locals. Here’s what I wrote in my notebook,
‘La Serenissima is more serene than ever, lightly populated with Venetians, Italians and a light sprinkling of tourists – mostly from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The city is clean – pristine in fact. The lagoon is salty and a luminous green-blue colour. The Istrian stone of churches and palaces shines white in the afternoon sun. This city has defied nature to exist in its watery liminal anchorage between land and sea for generations. Venice continues to show fortitude and resilience. More than a millenium of human endeavour rising unequivocally from the wetlands where the waters of the Adriatic meet the Alpine rivers of the north. Brava Venezia! Città unica e favolosa….’
My words are perhaps a little pompous and maybe a bit too poetic, but that’s how I felt as I strolled through the streets of Castello. I’d come back to a Venice that was peaceful and a soporific calm descended from my anxious brain into my arteries and then my veins. My breath slowed down, the knots in my stomach loosened and my body began to relax. After days of apprehension at what I was going to find in this vulnerable, historic city, now bereft of the tourist dollars on which it depends, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a reality, that at least on the surface, was so familiar.
I popped into San Zaccaria, the main church in Venice before St Mark’s was built. There’s a painting by Giovanni Bellini that I particularly like here entitled; Madonna, Child and Saints. Mary and the baby Jesus are depicted centre stage, surrounded by the wise and loving figures of Peter, Catherine, Lucy and Jerome. It gives the impression of a family portrait, with hints of Venetian countryside framing the main characters. The painting was completed in 1505, so it’s more than five hundred years old. I find it humbling to remember that this painting has been in position on the north wall of the church for half a millenium. That’s a long time. In fact next year Venice will celebrate 1600 years of existence. So in terms of timescale, my four month enforced stay in London whilst the European governments enforced lockdown measures across the continent is neither here nor there. It’s a rounding error of 120 days in a total of 584,000 days since the original foundation of the City of Venezia.
I said a little prayer in San Zaccaria and contemplated the colour and beauty of the Bellini painting, then I wandered north to Campo Santa Maria Formosa. The square was filled with Venetians walking their dogs, drinking ‘aperitivi’ and chatting. A group of children were filling their toy buckets from the water fountain in the centre of the square. This scene would have been remarkably similar in 1650 or 1750 or even 1850. A plague is nothing new in Venice, it’s all happened here before, several times in fact. The churches of Santa Maria Salute and the Church of Redentore were both built to celebrate survival from previous epidemics that ravaged the city. The only difference being that in the past, far more Venetian citizens died. The term ‘quarantine’ originated in Venice. As a port city, frequently welcoming ships from all over the Mediterranean and Middle East, it soon became obvious that the ships arriving in the lagoon could sometimes be carrying disease. As early as the 15th century The Republic of Venice set up several quarantine islands known as ‘lazaretto’ where newly arrived vessels were held for a period of up to forty ‘quaranta’ days. You can read more about this in a Quarantine article I wrote in April, 2020.
When Italy went into lockdown in early March, I happened to be visiting my son in London, I thought I was on a 6 day trip, I ended up being away for four months. During that time the City of Venice, led by mayor Luigi Brugnaro, embarked on a massive cleaning programme, where the piazza of San Marco, the campos of the city, numerous alleyways and bridges have all been sanitised and cleaned throughly. The result is a city which has never looked so clean. When I stepped from the ‘Merceria‘ shopping street out into the Piazza San Marco, I was stunned by the brightness of the buildings, sparkling whiteness of the stone facades and the cleanliness of the paving stones. Even the pigeons appeared smarter and their feathers more luminous, although I’m sure I invented that impression for effect. My daughter Lucy phoned me from Germany as I walked into San Marco, she asked me what I thought of Venice. I explained to her quite honestly, that I was completely overwhelmed at the beauty of St Mark’s and had, quite literally, never seen it so pristine, in four decades of visiting. The beauty and elegance of the square brought a tear or two to my eyes.
The next day was Sunday and I decided a proper mass was called for in Venice. So I hoped on the vaporetto at about 9.00 am and bobbed across the lagoon to the Giudecca. I’d decided that my religious fix would take place at the Church of Sant’Eufemia, one of Venice’s almost 130 churches. It’s a new one for me I’d never been in before. The church itself has 9th century origins, although the classical facade with it’s columned loggia is mostly 18th century. What interested me most about this church, if I’m honest, are the views that you get from inside the building looking back towards Venice. That and the fact that the services are usually conducted by Frati Cappuccini – Cappucin Monks. This monastic order is very modest and humble, they follow the teaching of St Francis and wear brown sackcloth tunics. They also go in for an almost philosophical interpretation of the Bible and Gospels – which I actually quite like.
After church the rather hot congregation poured onto the fondamenta outside, where the views across the Giudecca Canal towards Salute and San Marco more than made up for an hour in a mask. At least the ‘monouso‘ glove requirement had been dropped – thank goodness. As usual in Italy the church faithful were busy trying to sell homegrown vegetables and bits and pieces to their fellow church goers. I started to stroll towards Il Redentore, the Palladian Church built by the Venetians in the 1580s, out of gratitude for surviving a 16th century plague. I wonder what sort of monument will be built when we feel confident we’ve survived Covid?
Nearby there were several bars, so I had a very good coffee and continued my stroll. Next I was stopped by an elderly gentleman and his younger companion, asking me the way to Cipriani. Anyone who knows Venice knows Cipriani, it is an institution. A truly world class, unique and fabulous hotel, once the private home of the Guinness family and since the 1960s a jet set destination. Of course I knew exactly where it was and directed them appropriately. The old man said to me, ‘You’re not Italian, where are you from?’ I told him I was British and he immediately asked me what I was doing in Venice and if I was a journalist. It transpired that he owned a vineyard near Treviso and was personally visiting the top hotels to try and persuade them to feature his wines in their restaurants. He invited me for lunch the next day, but I politely declined. I’ve only just got to Venice, I thought, I’m not ready to go just yet. However I was very impressed with his tenacity. It’s not easy mastering public transport in Venice and as my Granny used to say, he wasn’t great on his pins. I hope his visit was a success.
I almost forgot to mention the hidden garden behind the Church of Sant’Eufemia. Nestled in a tiny courtyard, was a green verdant paradise, filled with lush plants and a very respectable selection of flowers and vegetables. I spotted courgettes, green beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, roses and a palm tree for good measure. All lovingly tended by a lady who lived at the back of the garden.
I couldn’t finish this article without investigating a little bit further about Sant’Eufemia and how she acquired her saintly status. It turns out she was an intelligent, beautiful, young woman and a Christian (as they all were) and was persecuted by the Romans for her faith. So this must have been before the Edict of Milan (313 AD), when the Emperor Constantine passed a law allowing the people of the Roman Empire to practise Christianity freely. Poor Eufemia was a Christian when it was still a crime, legend says that she was basically fed to the lions in Chalcedon (Asia Minor) not too far from modern Istanbul. Her year of death is thought to be circa. 303 AD. Ten years after her death Christianity was no longer a crime – poor girl. The Feast of Sant’Eufemia is celebrated every year on 16th September. There was also mention of a miracle that took place on 11th July – now that’s coming up soon. I wonder what that was……….
For now though it’s time for me to head back to the Lido, that means a vaporetto or two and a face mask. I delve in my bag, out comes the mask and off I go. Once again my notion that there’s treasure around every corner in Venice has been confirmed.
- Thank you to Agnes Crawford – a superb tour guide based in Rome for bringing Sant’Eufemia to my attention. If you need a guide in Rome she’s fantastic www.understandingrome.com tell her I sent you and she’ll owe me a Spritz!
- For more on the lives of various saints I’d suggest:
- St Catherine of Alexandria
- The legend of St Lucy – that’s Santa Lucia in Italy
- Sant’ Apollinare in Classe
- To discover the richness of Venice I’d recommend:
- Venice – there’s treasure in every church
- If you’d like to see more of Cipriani then look at this article a young bride wrote about her magical wedding day there last June, 2019 when things were still normal: A Perfect Wedding in Venice
- In normal times I organise unique tours and journeys in Italy for British and American clients: www.grand-tourist.com
- My next planned tour will be to Sicily in October, 2021 – check out this article for more detail: The Treasures of Sicily