Let’s debunk a myth: Venice in Summer does not stink. A constant breeze flowing through the windows makes the heat, that’s gripping most of Italy, rather pleasant. The only odour wafting into my nostrils is the one of sea water. Early in the life of the city, its inhabitants discovered that the lagoon has a naturally regulated self-cleaning system: every 6 hours new water comes in and stale one goes out. When, in winter, the water coming in surpasses the outgoing, the phenomenon of acqua alta comes to be.
Up until the end of the 18th century, right after the fall of the Serenissima Republic of Venice and the advent of Napoleon first and the Austro Hungarians after, there was no walking in Venice. Wearing comfortable shoes and slogging through miles of calle was not a problem Venetians had to contend with. The life of a Venetian was centered around his or her Parochia (where one’s local church was) and, in turn, around the campo (or square). Everything one needed was to be found in the campo: bread, fruit and vegetables and all basic trades. The only way to get around was by boat, and the wealthy families had a gondolier on retainer who would take the boat out of its “garage” every time a family member had to go somewhere, such as the Ridotto at night, a sort of casino where people would go wearing elaborate masks to carouse the night away.
After the fall of the Republic, the need to get around in a speedier fashion became more urgent and a plethora of bridges were built to link the canals, with no rhyme or reason and, certainly, no urban planning in mind, which explains why many of the bridges don’t link the canals straightforwardly but are perched at funny angles. The Austrians, lacking imagination, built straight iron bridges, rather than arched, that had to be removed with the advent of vaporettos. The Accademia bridge, for instance, used to be such an iron specimen, now replaced with a temporary wooden one that has been temporary for a couple of centuries. Many of today’s streets were indeed canals that have been filled – every time you see a sign that says “rio tera’” (instead of calle) it means you are walking on what was once water.
Wandering around it’s impossible not to notice that most corners are filled, at knee level, with a marble or stone slab, placed there to stop men from peeing in corners – I am not making this up. At a time when street illumination was not existent, dark corners were used for all sorts of business. Well, you can now try to pee in one such corner and your pants and shoes will be much the worse for it. Ingenious as ever (let’s not forget Marco Polo came from here), Venetians also devised a strategy to prevent monkey business to take place under the sottoportego (low and very dark arches, mostly bordering canals) by placing small altars in the middle of them, with a burning candle and the effigy of some saint or other. The reasoning was that peeing or defecating (or worse) in front of a saint would bring bad luck. Think it might still work today??
Forty years ago there were around 150,000 people residing in Venice proper and now they are down to 50,000, making the chance encounter of a fellow Venetian a welcome occurrence. No wonder they all seem to know each other. I always admire their patience in dealing with the throngs of hapless tourists – maybe, rather than patience, it’s their aplomb I cherish. They call each other in the streets, with resonant Ciao’s which, incidentally, is a Venetian export. Ciao is a contraction of “Sciao” which, in Venetian, means “slave”. To greet someone with Ciao essentially means “I am your slave” which, in a twisted and not politically correct way, is rather romantic. Like the city where it originates: romantic, yes, but libertine first.
Thank you to Dr. Pino Vaccher for the historical tidbits