Blog Archives for the ‘Italy’ Category
VENICE — Oversized, languorous figures in the richest of colors and reaching toward Heaven are splashed across the ceilings and walls of the Doge’s Palace in this beguiling city. What space is not covered with Renaissance masterpieces is gilded, or it erupts in sculpted plaster flourishes.
It was good, a few centuries ago, to be a resident of the rich city-state of Venice.
Good, indeed, as long as you were behaving in a manner approved by the all-powerful figures who controlled commoners, kept a suspicious eye on each other and even had their watchdogs matching strides with the head of state, the appointed-for-life doge (pronounced DOHzh).
But if three of your fellow citizens were willing to give secret testimony about your morals or activities, you would see a part of the Doge’s Palace that Venetians and visitors learned to dread. The decorations were far less grand, though one room had a unique feature: a rope hanging from the ceiling.
Unlike those who lived for centuries near the Palace’s secret rooms, today’s visitors can leave when they want to.
The “Secret Itinerary of the Doge’s Palace” is a 75-minute guided tour that starts in the sun-splashed courtyard but moves quickly through back stairways into the darkest places, not merely of the palace but of the mind and heart.
Your guide begins innocently enough: She says you will learn about the “administration of justice” from the early 1300s until 1797, when splendid Venice fell to Napoleon’s ambition.
The Palace of the Doge held offices of the bureaucracy, the courts and the doge’s residence. The Palace presents to the throngs in the Piazza of St. Mark’s an almost delicate, lacelike facade of arches and tracery that belies the iron grip the presiding merchant/nobles had.
As the tour moves away from a second-story loggia, or arcade, the guide capsules the intricate overlap of departments and councils created by Venice’s governance by suspicious aristocrats.
Much of the ultimate decisionmaking was held by the Council of 10, so powerful that it dictated the political and moral behavior for the citizens.
Council members decreed, for instance, that no one could even meet with a foreigner without first seeking permission. Then, debriefings were held after such meetings.
As moral watchdogs, the city’s judges and bureaucratic rulers decreed how much jewelry was too much and also decided that the one-upsmanship in lavishly decorating the nobles’ gondolas would stop: Henceforth, gondolas would be painted a simple black. They still are.
Climbing four stories of back stairways, the Palace tour participants step on treads worn from seven centuries of use.
One of the tour stops is in the Secret Archives, an airy, wood-paneled room. Here, scribes copied reports from the government’s spies, from the willing citizenry and from those persons who had not volunteered information the rulers considered pertinent.
Crime and punishment
Another room on the Secret Itinerary is not much bigger than the bedroom of a modern house but is two stories tall.
On two walls, doors have been cut in the wood, with a metal grate in each door at about eye level. These are the doors to the cells for suspects. At one end of the room is a table on a raised platform and behind it, chairs for the inquisitors, for this is the Torture Interrogation Room.
There is no chair for the suspect facing the inquisitors. Instead, hands tied behind his back, the suspect stood facing the inquisitors. Through his arms would be passed a rope, which had been fed through a hook on a beam overhead.
First the prisoner was raised off the floor by pulling on the rope. Then the inquisitors would put a question to him, and the suspect would be lowered, to answer. If there was no answer, the rope would be yanked again and the prisoner raised up.
Another question, another release of the rope and a pause for an answer. If need be, there would be another yank on the rope. And another . . .
This was simply the trial, not the punishment. Those who were found guilty of repeatedly stealing would have their right hand cut off. Those who lied had their noses cut off. Those who blasphemed had their tongue cut out.
Not every guilty party was mutilated. There were jail cells for the lesser offenders. And that is where perhaps the most famous Venetian of all, Giacomo Casanova, was sent.
After spying on him for eight months, the government did not charge Casanova with what was to gain him fame: his romantic conquests of the married and unmarried (he is said to have had more than 140 lovers).
Instead, Casanova was imprisoned for cheating at cards and for speaking against the church. He was sentenced to five years in an attic cell.
A plan, of sorts
One day when Casanova was taking his exercise in the palace attic under its lead roof, he found a metal tool, which he was to hide in an armchair a patron had provided. He began calculating an escape.
And on the night of Oct. 31, 1756, Casanova made his move to join the merrymakers out that Halloween night.
He and another inmate went up, through the roof of his cell. But while they were able to get down into hallways from the attic, they found themselves locked inside the sprawling palace.
So the two simply waited near the main door for the guard to unlock it the next morning. They bolted past him, ran through St. Mark’s Square, grabbed a boat and rowed to the mainland. Casanova was not to return for 18 years.
If you go
Tour prices for adults start at about $25. To book, go to www.tickitaly.com/tickets/itineraries-tickets.php. Specify the English-language tour.
BURANO, Italy — A few minutes after stepping off the ferry to this island, you start looking for the people with clipboards, the ones asking your opinion of the brilliant colors into which every house and shop has been dipped. This must be where paint manufacturers challenge the sun to fade their most audacious colors.
Wonder what a 40- by 25-foot wall of raspberry looks like? Look at the house over there, between the tangerine and lemon, just across from the chocolate. You want to lick this village.
Brilliantly painted Burano houses.
? Take the big
boat, over there,” advises the water-bus ticket-seller near Venice’s famed St. Mark’s Square.
He is indicating the two-deck boat that is headed first for the beach island of Lido, then the little-visited island of Torcello, and 70 minutes after the lines are first pulled in, Burano.
This Sunday morning the boat is crammed with couples pushing strollers, people carrying fold-up beach chairs, pretty young things and too-cool guys wearing the darkest of shades and bobbing to the beat coming from earbuds plugged into iPods. There are tourists, too, clutching maps and guidebooks.
The boat docks at Lido, and almost everyone gets off, but we head toward the sherbet-colored island.
“Boo-RAH-no! Boo-RAH-no!” shouts the muscular young deckhand on the boat as it docks. The men living here have broad shoulders and thick forearms from hauling in fishing nets. Their wives and daughters operate tourist shops or embroider or, much less frequently now, make lace.
For centuries, Burano has been distinguished by its contrary signatures: loudly colored houses and dainty needlework.
Small fishing boats are tied along one of the narrow canals that criss-cross Burano.
The island is all narrow streets, tinier alleys and canals just wide enough to tie up narrow boats on each side. The houses are built in rows, with precious little space for privacy.
That’s what caused one resident to reach across the alley this morning and pound a broom handle against the wooden window shutters of a neighbor, protesting the volume of the rap music pouring from that house.
Bam bam bam, went the broom handle, without success. Bam BAM BAMMM!
However, that is the only jarring note in this ice-cream parlor of a village, as lunchtime arrives.
Dozens of residents, and more than a few visitors, set up small tables in the dockside park for picnics. The maitre’d of the well-regarded Al Gatto Nero-Da Ruggero cheerfully turns away would-be customers because the entire canalside restaurant, short blocks from the tourist-filled main square, is reserved for lunch.
That means more business for Da Romano, which for more than 60 years has been on the plaza. Operated by the fourth generation of its founding family, Da Romano has a menu that is an eye-opener as much for its illustrations as for its dishes:
Reproduced on the menu are the autographs of such customers as Ernest Hemingway (“To Romano, a friend of the arts – too few of them now”), Charlie Chaplin, Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, Giorgio Armani and Federico Fellini.
The shrimp risotto, for about $20, is pretty impressive, too.
Colorfully painted homes frame the leaning campanile of Burano's main church.
Just around the corner from the restaurant, and across the plaza from the old church with its dizzily leaning bell tower, is the Scuola del Merletti. For 98 years, it was the School of the Lacemakers
, a government effort to preserve a once-legendary skill and to rejuvenate the island’s sagging economy.
In the 16th century, the lace made in and around Venice was so prized throughout Europe, it was known as punta in aria, points (or stitches) in air. But there was much competition to decorate the finery of the well-to-do. And by the early 19th century, machine-made lace and embroidery reduced the area’s share of the market. Handmade lace, exquisite but time-consuming to create, became too expensive to support any sizable number of artisans.
In 1872, the government created the school to teach again the graceful art. The school was closed in 1970 and was later converted to a museum. Now, village women demonstrate the work to tourists in the museum, where cases display marvelous pieces of handiwork dating nearly 400 years.
Though shopkeepers say vaguely that “hundreds” of islanders still sew, most of them are embroidering, which is quicker and far easier on the eyesight. Prices in the shop L’Orchidea demonstrate the commercial value of the two skills:
A standard linen tablecloth with colored-thread embroidery is about $195; the same cloth with an insert of Burano lacework is about $1,200. And an all-lace tablecloth, which took four groups of women three years to make, is about $7,100.
A visit here fills no more than a half day, and then it’s time to catch the ferry. The boat moves slowly from the dock, which is a few hundred yards from the square, the leaning church tower, the lace museum, Da Romano.
Visible for several minutes, though, are the houses, painted so many vivid colors: That visibility, the story goes, is to help fishermen spot their homes as they motor in with their catch.
Some less-charitable people, allof them living in glamorous Venice, say the full-palette treatment has been utilized simply to brighten dreary winter days on Burano.
Either way, it would seem to work.