Travel can be educational, as our many study abroad programs affirm, but my recent return to Venice got me wondering whether it can also be misleading.

Show Notes

My last several episodes have been partly an exercise to help me think about and keep in mind my recent travels to Italy and, especially, to limit or qualify points I’d stressed in previous podcasts. Whereas I had previously emphasized similarities between Modern Rome and other cities that share modern liberal political principles, in Episode 48 I stressed the differences. And whereas I had previously implied that the Rome we visit today is Modern, in Episode 49 I wondered how far Rome and West have gone in welcoming a postmodern outlook. Appearances of avant-garde art in traditional places was the only kind of evidence I cited, and though this is not the whole story. Some contemporary art offers insights into contemporary thought. Since writing a week ago, I’ve discovered a few more examples of avant-garde art popping up in churches. I had forgotten them, but they turned up as I reviewed my many photographs from the trip, and I’ve added them to the blog page associated with Episode 49.

I’ve made it clear that we thoroughly enjoyed our trip and I’ve admitted to daydreaming already about another one, but I’d like today to admit and explain that travel can be deceptive as well as enlightening. A simple way of expressing this is to say it’s usually easy for us to travel from one place to another, but it is a challenge to travel from one historical epoch to another. Time travel is difficult and depends on reading with understanding, not just changing places.

This is true in Rome, and I may be partly guilty of having implied that Rome’s piazzas had the same effect on Rome when they were built as they do today. That would be wrong. When the piazzas took shape during and after the Renaissance, their fountains were vital for a city that lacked running water and all indoor plumbing, and there was not enough wealth spread around for large numbers to congregate in the afternoons to drink Aperol Spritzes, walk their dogs, and laugh with one another. Nor were the churches then mere architectural ornaments to the piazzas: they were the centers of attention, especially during religious services and on feast days. And, as I’ve noted, both the Campo de’Fiori and the Piazza del Popolo were sometimes used for public executions, which is hard to imagine today. Our experience of the city now is not a perfect guide to how Rome was, even in cases where its architecture has not changed.

But it is in Venice that there is the greatest disconnect between the real life of the city in history and the city we experience when we visit it. To put it bluntly, a visit to Venice has a better chance of being misleading than of being enlightening.

I’ve always loved my visits to Venice, and this last trip was no exception. Some of the main touristic impressions of Venice are of its beautiful architecture, where we see more Gothic and ogival arches and more stained glass than we do in Rome; its beautiful gondolas and active boat traffic; its delicious and varied seafood; its colorful paintings in the wonderful collection in the Accademia Gallery, in churches like the Frari and Saints John and Paul, and in the Doge’s Palace; and it countless shops packed with everything a tourist might be tempted to buy, from plastic gondolas, to paper mâché masks for Carnivale, to glasswork in a wide range of qualities. Getting temporarily lost and turned all around in its trackless alleys, especially of the Dorsoduro quarter, is both a common and an essential touristic experience.

The overwhelming number of tourists is also a common feature of contemporary Venice, although on our recent visit, they were fewer than in the past. COVID and the measures taken to control it are part of the explanation, but in July of this year, the Italian parliament passed a law prohibiting ships larger than 25,000 gross tons, a length greater than 540 feet, or a height greater than 105 feet to pass through the canal that leads to the docks. In past years, by contrast, floating skyscrapers would disgorge mind-boggling numbers of tourists into the city. One of my indelible images of Venice, unfortunately, is of a huge Disney cruise ship sailing past Piazza San Marco: a helicopter circled it from above, its horns blared out a version of “When you wish upon a star,” and thousands of tourists waved gaily from its many decks. The ship was taller than the buildings on the piazza, and it seemed Venice had been swallowed up in Disneyland.

Even without the cruise ships, Venice—truly charming and interesting though continues to be—is far more overrun by tourists than the other cities we visited. Tourism is big business in Rome, but Rome’s large population base still makes the city seem like an Italian city. This is less clear in Venice, where there is no economy but the tourist economy, or so it seems, and the number of people who actually live on the island is declining. As recently as the 1970’s there were over 100,000 people living on the island, and back in the Renaissance there were 180,000, but today there are only 52,000, and the decline continues. Those who work in Venice often live in Mestre or another town on the mainland and take a train or bus into the city every day.

So Venice today gives the impression of a town built and maintained to satisfy carefree tourists, and it takes a little effort to remember Venice’s history as a sober, tough-minded place that maintained a republican government for a thousand years, double Rome’s version of such an achievement. A visit to the Doge’s Palace can help with this, and so can a couple of the churches and the Naval Museum—the Museo Storico Navale di Venezia—but their lessons run the risk of being overshadowed by the general gaiety of the shops, restaurants, and wine bars.

My wife and I had the advantage of arriving in Venice by way of other cities in the general area, and thus we had the opportunity to see evidence of Venice’s land-based imperial power when we were still days of pedaling away from Venice itself. This evidence took the form of strong fortifications and of nicely carved images of Venice’s emblem, the Winged Lion.

Sirmione at the Base of Lago di Garda

We saw our first such appearance of former Venetian power in Sirmione, a charming little town on a narrow peninsula that sticks up like an epiglottis from the southern short of Lake Garda. The main attraction of the town for me was its castle, the Castello Scaligero, and there over its front entrance was the Winged Lion. Sirmione is in Lombardy, not in the region of which Venice is the capital, the Veneto, but Sirmione and surroundings were under the control of Venice for almost four centuries, from 1405 until Napoleon took Venice in 1797. And apparently the Venetians were very careful to protect the region from their rivals, for Goethe reports that when he was in the area, he was arrested as a possible spy by the Venetian authorities. He had only been sketching some Roman ruins, but it took a while for him to persuade the police of this.

The Lion of St. Mark on a Column in Verona

Venice placed its Winged Lions not only as relief sculptures on the walls and forts of public buildings but also as full sculptures on tall columns. The Ancient Romans had used statues on columns to honor their military and political heroes, as we saw with the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius; and the Church did the same for its heroes and heroines, as we see with the column in front of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which is surmounted by Mary holding the infant Jesus. I don’t know how many such columns Venice erected, but we saw one in Verona, another in Vicenza, another in Padua, and of course one in Venice itself. I was a little surprised to see that such proud reminders of the Venetian Empire had not been torn down by the cities that had once been subject to it, but perhaps they did well under Venetian rule and there was less resentment of the empire than we expect. The column with the Winged Lion in Verona was pulled down when Napoleon took Venice, but it seems this was done by Jacobin enthusiasts, not by the general population. Almost a century later, in the year in which Austria was expelled from this part of Italy, a column with the Winged Lion was re-erected in the same piazza, amid great celebrations and popular enthusiasm. Sometimes, canceled monuments can make a comeback.

The Venetian Fortress above Nafplion, Greece (photo: Brastite CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia)

I was somewhat prepared to look for these sculpted lions and the fortifications that accompany them, for I had long ago seen such a lion above the entrance to a magnificent fortress called Upper Palamede, which Venice built above the town of Nafplion on the Gulf of Argolís. From what I read, other such reminders of the far flung Venetian maritime Empire can be found in Corinth, Crete, Corfu, and elsewhere along the Dalmatian and Greek coasts.

It would be easier to see through the carnival atmosphere of contemporary Venice and appreciate her imperial and military past if the arsenal—the Arsenale—were open to visitors and equipped with a few old warships. Instead, it lies mostly abandoned. It’s just a short walk along the water beyond Piazza San Marco. It is possible to get a look at its entrance and a few other parts, but what we see of it does not bring out forcefully the fact that this was once the greatest naval shipyard in the world. At its peak, it employed some 16,000 people and occupied 120 acres, or 15% of Venice’s total land area; and by using an assembly-line of the sort that Henry Ford later made famous, it could build a galley and stock it with food and ammunition in 24 hours. The Venice that caters to tourists is a very different place.

But if the Arsenale is mostly unrevealing, there is at least a good museum right next door, the Museo Storico Navale. It takes all things naval as its subject, so its exhibits are not limited to the Venetian navy, but it includes helpful reminders that Venice was once a powerful and independent republic. Its exhibits include models of the different kinds of vessels produced at the Arsenal and models of the forts Venice built around the eastern Mediterranean. They tell us much more about historical Venice than those features of the city that usually leave the strongest impression.

The collection of beautiful Venetian art on hand at the Accademia Gallery offers undeniable evidence of Venice’s rich artistic productivity, as do her elegant buildings, but what were the political, economic, and cultural or spiritual requirements of this artistic productivity? This is again a big question that involves the general influence of the Renaissance, and I cannot answer it fully, but a visit to the Doge’s Palace, that is, the Palazzo Ducale, can also help show visitors that the Venetian Republic was tough-minded and fully aware of the importance of force and caginess in both her foreign and her domestic policy.

Minor evidence of this includes the prisons, a torture chamber, and the “Lion’s Mouth” or “Bocca di Leone,” which represented a standing invitation to all Venetians to secretly denounce anyone of crimes against the state. But it is the enormous paintings in the Room of the Great Council that most caught my attention. We might pause on their excellence, since some are by Tintoretto and Veronese, but what I want to emphasize is that the paintings on the walls intend to honor Venice for actions of power and determination—but for ones that are also of highly dubious justice or honesty. This is the case in particular of eight vast paintings representing Venice’s participation in the Fourth Crusade.

The crusade was of course intended to drive the Moslem infidel out of the Holy Lands, and Venice agreed to join this mission and send fifty fully manned galleys of war in support of it. But she also made a contract in which she was to be paid to ferry some 30,000 other Crusaders to the combat zone. When the promised funds proved lacking, Venice agreed to overlook the default if the Crusaders would only help her subdue the town of Zara, a Catholic city under papal protection but one which Venice wanted to bring back into her empire. When the first object of the Crusade became Zara rather than the Moslem-held Holy Lands, the most powerful pope in the history of the papacy, Innocent III, excommunicated the Venetians, but this did not deter them.

After taking Zara, the Venetians and the Crusaders were offered a lot of money to help a rival claimant to the imperial throne of the Roman Empire—that is, of the empire we today call the Byzantine Empire, the descendant of the Eastern Roman Empire. After installing him in power, they were disappointed with the proceeds and realized they could get still more money if they took political power themselves. Thus they overthrew him, seized the very Christian but Orthodox city of Constantinople, and established themselves as its rulers.  The crusade faded further into the background, but their rule lasted for over a half a century. To learn more, do a search for [QUOTE] “the Latin Empire in Constantinople” or, better still, read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 50.

So what was Venice’s reaction to this series of events in which she helped to hijack a religious crusade to serve her own political interests, very much at the expense of Byzantine Empire? She did not deny or cover over her actions but proudly displayed them. She put loot taken from Constantinople in public places, most noticeably the four bronze horses that still stand over the portico of the Basilica San Marco; and she commissioned some of the largest canvasses in the world to honor herself for the actions in which she redirected a crusade and advanced her empire. I’m reminded of the Ancient Romans, who did not romanticize their founding myths but openly reported that their first king killed his brother to seize the throne for himself and that he later used force and fraud to orchestrate a large-scale abduction to get women for his men.

It is easy to find cases when moral rules get bent or broken in foreign policy, but rarely are governments as inclined to publicize their transgressions as Venice was in commissioning the paintings of the conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

To mention one other way to shake free from the carnival atmosphere of contemporary Venice, visit the Church of Saints John and Paul and review the biographies of the leaders buried in it. They offer an entrée into the harshness of the political and military challenges Venice had to face when she was a sovereign state.

Monument to Marcantonio Bragadin (Santi Giovanni e Paolo, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Here is perhaps the most dramatic example. On the wall of the right side of the nave is a monument to Marcantonio Bragadin. He was the commander of Venetian troops at the fort at Famagusta, Cyprus, when the Turks decided in 1570 to conquer the island. (This seems, by the way, to be the moment in which Shakespeare set his Othello.) Bragadin held out at Famagusta after all other Venetian forts on Cyprus had fallen in battles whose toll in less than a year approached the number of American soldiers who died in ten years of war in Vietnam. Bragadin’s army was gradually worn down to a fraction of its former strength, and though he and his troops held out far longer than anyone had expected, he eventually surrendered, at which point he was treacherously and brutally mutilated and flayed alive. The painting above his bust represents his death and helps us recall a time very different from that of the lighthearted present.

Seeing is believing, but we can’t see the past as clearly as we do the present. Powerful present impressions make it easy to think we know a city, which confidence then hides the importance of getting to know how things used to be. This is true everywhere there has been change over time, but I use Venice as an example because her present life as a tourist destination is so very different from her former life as a tough-minded, powerful, cagy, and long-lived empire.

When we explain why we travel, we often say we do so to see new places and experience new cultures, thinking that this will help us see and appreciate a vast range of differences in the way people live in society. This makes sense to me: I just add that the differences among cultures in the 20th and 21st centuries are generally less pronounced than those between these centuries and, say, the 14th century. If we seek to see the range of differences among peoples, we need to add time-travel to place-travel. This is a challenge, but one that can be met if we keep it in mind and prepare for it. Reading is the biggest help, but I’m hoping that podcasts might also take us a step in the right direction.

Share this podcase episode