Venice: Music and Gondolas

Venezia, Italia —

Venice is unlike other Italian cities. The ‘center stage’ of Venice — the Piazza della San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) — is a gigantic demonstration of the two powerful historic struggles that set Venice apart from other destinations we have come to know in northern Italy:
1. The cultural arm-wrestling between Western (that is, Italian) culture and Eastern (that is, Byzantine) culture.
2. The thousand-year struggle for power between the Pope in Rome and The Doge (il Ducale) — the elected head of secular government of the Venetian City-State. They had, shall we say, a different view of the source of authority.

Some of the differences between Venice and other Italian destinations that emanate from these two historic struggles — some significant, some trivial — show themselves readily in a three-day visit. For example, in places we have visited like Varenna, Florence, Stresa, and other Northern Italian cities, waiters in restaurants actually seem to care about the experience customers are having. We noticed lots of eye contact and recommendations about the pairing of food and wine, willingness to engage in conversation.  In Venice, waiters make a show of demonstrating, with body language and facial expressions, that they have other more important things to do elsewhere. I believe the French derivation of the word ‘enui’ applies. Customers are just a temporary interruption in the important work they have to do, whatever that might be. This difference extends to the configuration of public spaces. In Lombardia (which includes the lake region), the Liguria (which includes the Cinque-Terre), Tuscany, and Umbria, you can tell the locals are proud of their localities and want others to enjoy them. In our experience, there is always an abundance of places to sit everywhere there is something beautiful to look at (ok, everywhere). In Venice there are essentially two places to sit:
1. The seats at the outdoor cafes all around the piazza della San Marco, where you must order food and drink and pay a six-euro per person cover charge to sit down
2. One marble bench facing the basilica del San Marco in front of the bell tower — seats for about thirty people, always full 24/7, and hundreds of people standing around lusting after these few places to sit, so forget about them.
So Venice, in general, is for standing, unless you are sitting in a gondola, which you must do at least once.
OK, so that brings me to the wonderful things about Venice:
1. The gondola ride through the small canals is a sweet experience. Our gondoliere told us his family has been piloting gondola in Venice since 1740 and told us the entire history of Venice during our one-hour ride. The ride cost 65 euro — the deal I got after walking away from his first offer of 95 euros. We enjoyed his storytelling.
2. Those same cafe tables I complained about as the only places to sit are wonderful, if you DO want to order food and drink. And one more thing — the piazza has three five-piece bands that take turns playing classical, jazz, Italian, Brazilian, French, and American standards, beautifully and playfully done! Each band has the same configuration (must be Union rules?): a female piano player, a man playing a standing base, a male flute player, a female violinist, and a crusty old guy playing a ‘Faletti-style’ accordion. Always. In three days we saw ten different bands in the piazza, each with different people in this same arrangement, all very good. We enjoyed sitting here for five meals in three days.
3. We attended a concert in a small venue where Vivaldi once worked. The five-piece orchestra filled the room with wonderful sound and the soprano and tenor sang truly magnificent well-known arias and duets from Italian Opera. The duets, Donizetti’s ‘Una parola o Adina‘ from ‘L’Elisir D’Amore‘ and Verdi’s ‘Bindisi‘ from ‘La Traviata‘ were wonderfully sung and acted with all of the personality you would expect from the fully staged operas. Of course, Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma‘ from ‘Turnadout‘ was overpowering, as it should be.
So, for the traveler, come to Venice to ride the gondola with your sweetie and for the music–both casual and formal. For the historian in each of us, I offer two observations that highlight some significant examples of the way the history of Venice contributed to additional differences between Venice and other Italian locations.
1. All Italian cities and towns are designed around a church or (in the case of cities important enough to have had a bishop) a cathedral. In other important cities (e.g., Florence, Siena, Assisi, Como) the cathedrals were built between the 12th-15th centuries, illustrating Renaissance shapes, styles, and sensibilities, some with Gothic characteristics, but all what we have come to know as ‘European’ influences. In Venice, the cathedral and its many churches, most built in the 10th-12th centuries, have distinct Byzantine influences. Compare, for example, the shapes of the domes and you will find those in Venice to more closely resemble the shapes found in minarets and mosques.
These differences are not just stylistic. When Venice was one of the most powerful City-States in the world, it got that way by dominating the trade routes to the Middle East and acquiring it’s vast wealth from selling eastern spices (most profitably, pepper, it turns out) to the rest of Europe. Middle Eastern ideas of all kinds permeated the art, architecture, and writing that molded Venice’s particular culture and kept it quite noticeably distinct from the rest of the Italian states.
2. While there were constant struggles for power between the Pope in Rome and the other Italian City-States, the Doge (Il Ducale) in Venice had more success than others at keeping the Pope out of his business. Again, the architecture in St. Mark’s Square illustrates.
The cathedral of San Marco (representing the power and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church) and the Palace of the Doge (representing the power and wealth of the secular government of Venice) stand next to each other connected by an arched breezeway.  Above the breezeway, is a very interesting relief sculpture clearly showing the bishop/Pope, with the distinctive hat and robes of a bishop, kneeling before the winged lion that represents The Doge, the elected ruler of Venice. Between them is The Book (scripture). While the bishop is kneeling, the winged lion is standing tall over him and (in a perfect reflection of the attitude of Venetian waiters toward their customers) is LOOKING THE OTHER WAY. The message? The church can kneel all it wants, whether to the scripture or to The Doge, but the Doge merely tolerates its presence and, like the waiters on the piazza, has more important things to do elsewhere. That sums up the relationship between The Pope and The Doge, between the church and the civil authority in Venice, as told to us by our gondoliere, as he skillfully guided his gondola through the canals of Venice.
His family has been piloting gondolas in Venice for 270 years, so he knows.

One Response “Venice: Music and Gondolas”

  1. Andrea says:

    Interesting story. I can’t wait for my own trip to Venice. Don’t know where the best lasagne is, but I can’t forget a cassis gelato I had in front of Notre Dame in Paris. Not only did it taste amazing, it was cold and icy on a sweltering day.