VENICE: THE CITY OF MASKS
Across the other side of the Mediterranean, Venice was quietly weaving its veins of inlets into a complex network of canals. These arteries carried the vessels transporting goods from around the world to the heart of the island. But harnessing the tidal waters of the canals, which outlined the axis of the urban grid was not that easy. Nonetheless, the floating city kept stretching vertically then horizontally, along their route. Houses rose to face the lagoon front, interlinked by foot bridges, opening onto public squares that dotted the horizon with a wealth of architectural masterpieces. The feisty island was fortunate enough to grow at the confluence of the most powerful cultural influences: Byzantine from Constantinople, Islamic from Moorish Spain, and early Gothic from Renaissance Europe. It was governed by the Doge of Venice as a republic. The Venetians’ secluded location gave them increasing autonomy, because Venice was connected by sea routes to the new Eastern Roman Empire. Hence, Venice evolved as an indulgent European superpower, controlling the marshlands of the Adriatic Sea, and the doge became a highly powerful and wealthy global leader. Inside his palace is the opulent Council Chamber, where he conducted meetings with over 2,500 representatives from across Venice. And everywhere around the city, sculptures and statues enforced the emblem of St Mark of the winged lion.
Hence, among the deep blanket of fog which sweeps inland from the marshlands of the cove, rose the silhouette of the floating city to defy nature. For centuries, the surrounding waters of the canals have been expected to gradually rise and engulf Venice with its tiny pearl of islands. But the Venetians have been living against those odds for many years and trying to tame the waters of the lagoon. They converted the swampy marshlands into a powerful maritime republic, by creating a trade based around the lagoon and its network of canals. The success of Venice relied entirely on trade from the east. And unlike other commercial centres the city was meticulously planned, with very little changed in its layout since it was first built. To get there, the early Venetians had to overcome many hurdles, and prove their brilliance in achieving monumental triumphs. They invented a new method of construction, created a new way of navigating a city built on water, and invented a new diet away from agriculture and the infertile flatlands.
Turkish merchants from Istanbul have had coffee at the Piazza San Marco, while exchanging news from back home. This is because Venice’s café culture was modelled after the coffee houses in Istanbul. And the Rialto - Venice’s downtown district - had been teeming with Venetian merchants, foreign traders and European tourists, where everyone is invited to sample the world’s most exotic goods. There were spices from India, perfumes and fabrics from Arabia, and fruits from Africa. It is the nerve of the commercial and financial heart of the city. The sociability of the Venetians led them to trade far and wide with any ideology, any religion, and with any culture to survive. Their devotion to water ferrying grew into one of the most powerful sea fleets in the ancient world. At one point, Venetian ship builders were churning out vessels at the rate of one a day. By the 16th century, they had 300 ships sailing the oceans under Venetian command. The Mamluks, who ruled a vast stretch of territory from Egypt to Syria from the 1200s to the 1500s, relied on the Venetian navy to protect their coasts. It was one of the first foreign military alliance in the ancient world.
[Painter: Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, (Venetian, 1697-1768)]