“What a funny old city this Queen of the Adriatic is! Narrow streets, vast, gloomy marble palaces, black with the corroding damps of centuries, and all partly submerged; no dry land visible anywhere, and no sidewalks worth mentioning…” Mark Twain
There was a strange calmness about the back streets which was in complete contrast to the busy main thoroughfares and here and there we came across traditional artisans shops selling glass or paper and every now and then a costumier and carnival mask maker.
Masks have always been a main feature of the Venetian carnival when traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano on December 26th and the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday and because they were so important mask makers enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild. In the tourist areas shops sell mass produced merchandise and don’t take kindly to people taking photographs or touching but the genuine traditional craftsmen were more obliging.
In one a mascherari (as the mask makers are called) broke off from delicately decorating a papier mache mask at his workbench and selected a mask and a gown and fussily dressed Kim as though in preparation for going to the ball. She certainly looked more elegant and authentic than I did in my straw gondolier’s boater!
We crossed bridges and watched the gondolas gliding serenely below us while the tourists on-board gawped open-mouthed and wide-eyed just like us an hour or so before as they fulfilled an ambition to take a boat through the ancient waterways of Venice and marvel at the palaces and houses of the Venetian aristocracy.
“Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur.” Jan Morris – ‘Venice’
One of the wonderful things about Venice however is that next to the grand mansions with their ornate exteriors there are tiny streets of working class houses with flaking plaster and rotting timber and washing lines strung across the streets with faded linen and old clothes betraying bedroom and lingerie secrets to everyone that passes by. In these strangely silent back-streets where whispers echo from the corners and recesses I was reminded again of the Shakespeare connection because here it was easy to imagine Shylock negotiating loans with the rich merchants of Venetian commerce, the noble Othello and captivating Desdemona, and the plotting Iago and Roderigo.
As best we could we kept to these old back streets and narrow service canals as we threaded our way back towards St Mark’s Square because today we planned to visit the famous Basilica and soon we slipped out of the permanent shadow of the lanes and into the harsh sunlight of the Piazza with its geometric patterns of Istrian stone and the tables and chairs of the famous cafés, Quadri and Florian set out, alongside others, with neat precision all around the perimeter where those who could afford it sat with an expensive coffee or hot chocolate and listened to the elegant music of the famous orchestras.
You won’t be stunned to hear that the prices were beyond our skinflint budget so we listened to the music and dodged the waiters and then joined the short queue of people lining up to visit the interior of the Byzantine Cathedral. In contrast to the bright sunshine it was dark inside and we took the wrong turning and found ourselves in the paying part which was a combination of museum and external galleries and although the museum was interesting we liked the balcony best with its dramatic views of the square and marble benches to sit in the sunshine and watch the activity below. Also here are the famous four bronze horses which appear to be galloping into the oblivion of a long fall but these are replicas of course because the originals are now safely inside the museum where they can be more carefully preserved.
Before leaving we passed through the interior of the Basilica with its eight thousand square metres of mosaics made of gold, bronze and precious stones, its marble floor, stone pillars and soaring dome and then we emerged back into the sunlight to plot a route back to the train station. Although we heading towards the Rialto again there are so many lanes and alleys that it was not difficult to find an alternative route to any that we had used before although on a couple of occasions my route strayed perilously close to busy shopping streets. This required all my skill and experience to avoid the shops and on one more than one occasion needing a last moment manoeuver with a clever body swerve rather like Christiano Ronaldo avoiding a lunging full back’s late tackle.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though and once across the Rialto we walked through Dan Polo and Santa Croce on a route that kept us to the rear of the palaces on the Grand Canal and right at the last moment when we reached the Ponti Delgli Scalzi while the others stopped for a final drink I dropped my guard and was abducted by Kim and led back to where we had started this morning to find a shop that she had remembered all day and where we found the souvenir carnival mask that now hangs on our wall at home and whose eyes follow me around the room with an accusing glare as though it knows that I didn’t really want to buy it!
And so we left Venice, for this time at least, because I wouldn’t like to think that this would be my last ever visit:
“Underneath Day’s azure eyes Ocean’s nurstling, Venice lies, A peopled labyrinth of walls, Amphitrite’s destined halls” Percy Bysshe Shelley