Venice is beautiful, terrible and a great historical city. You will find fantastic historical sites to see and the main sight is the city itself, but choose carefully when and how to go.
Adriatic pearl and predator – historical outline
Refugees fleeing from invading Germanic peoples in the 5th century made a new home for themselves on islands in the marshy lagoons of Venetia.
Venice became a lonely east-roman outpost in the west while the rest of Italy fell to invaders. Not much else to do in the swamp, the venetians became master boat-builders and traders in the Mediterranean. Before long they created a republic of their own.
They built a network of Mediterranean colonies and almost monopolized trade here, making the city prosperous in the 11th to 16th centuries by predatory pre-capitalism. The republic declined but lasted until 1797 and then soon became part of modern Italy.
The wealthy Venetian trade aristocracy built sublime palaces and was great patrons and collectors of art, making the city more or less one great art museum.
Around the Canal Grande
The main sight to see is the city itself. Its beauty is captivating; its historical layers are discernible in architecture and the best way to appreciate it to stroll around, taking the occasional taxi boat. If you do not come by ship, you will meet it first stepping out of the railway station. This puts you right on the Canal Grande about a kilometer’s walk from the centre at Piazza San Marco.
Some palaces along Canal Grande are 12th or 13th century and in Venetian-Byzantine style with loggias, round arches and polychrome marbles. Many details such as columns and sculptures are of byzantine origin. The more common, though striking Venetian Gothic architecture of the following two centuries, with pointed arches, is seen splendidly in the Doge’s Palace or the Ca’ d’Oro. There are fine renaissance and baroque palaces as well and combined with the soft Adriatic light and the ever present water, the impression is mesmerizing.
Tourism and crowding is unimaginable. Be strongly advised to go in May or October. It’s expensive to stay in the city itself and if you’re not big on spending, I suggest staying in Mestre on the land side. It’s just a short train-ride away.
Piazza San Marco
St Mark’s Square is the major public square of Venice and here you find expensive but great cafés, the cathedral Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and, not least, the Campanile, which is great to climb for spectacular views of the city.
The palace of the Doges is a main symbol of the city, has the residence chambers of the Doges and the impressive Chamber of the Great Council, all decorated with great artworks. It’s a 14th and 15th century building though much changed, rebuilt and reconstructed. The palace is connected to a prison by the famous Ponte dei Sospiri, or bridge of sighs.
Basilica di San Marco
The gold mosaics of the interior roofs of the Basilica will take your breath away. They were started in the 11th century but completed much later and has a complicated, religious narrative program.
Venetian merchants stole the alleged relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria in the 9th century. This act of theft gave the basilica its name and Venice its patron saint along with the winged lion symbol of the saint and the city.
The four bronze horses on the facade (now copies) and the famous statue of the Four Tetrarchs in an outer corner were all stolen from Constantinople at the sack of the city by the fourth Crusade in 1204 in which Venice played a significant part.
There is a plethora of museums in Venice and what you should see is up to your preferences. I suggest visiting at least one or two of the palaces and why not the popular Ca’ Rezzonico or Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Museo di San Marco inside the Basilica lets you see the bronze horses in original as well as more of the cathedral itself.
The Museo Storico Navale is somewhat elderly but full of stuff and tells the story of Venice as a great maritime republic.
The Arsenal was the city’s main naval centre from the 12th century onwards with dockyards, armories and the like. It’s a large harbor basin surrounded by naval installations of all sorts and produced both military and merchant vessels.
This may have been the greatest industrial complex in Europe before the industrial revolution, Galileo Galilei worked there for a time and it is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.
By its main gate, the Porta Magna, stands a famous great stone lion that was taken from Piraeus harbor in Greece and most interestingly has a rune inscription on it that must have been made by Scandinavians in byzantine times.
House of Marco Polo
Finally, why not have a look at the site of the house of Marco Polo at Corte del Milion? The house where he lived after having returned to the city in 1295 is not preserved. Some details, such as arches, may have been reused from his house though that is not certain. The surroundings is a good place for a stroll and for reflections on travel and on Venice anyway.