Italy 25: Full Circle

A Memorable End to an Unforgettable Trip: Back to Venice, Then Back to Toronto

May 25-27, 2019

On the morning of Saturday, May 25 (one year ago today, as I begin to write this final post), we drove the final leg of our road trip, from Florence back to Venice. It is amazing how even one previous visit, however brief, can affect you when you return to a place: even though we had been in Venice for only two days at the beginning of our adventure, the city felt welcoming and familiar. We knew our way around, knew which vaporettos went where, and knew how to get our bearings when we took the wrong turn (which we continued to do). Maybe part of the reason we felt so much more comfortable was that we had now been in Italy for three weeks, but “La Serenissima” (Venice was a sovereign state for 1100 years, from 697 to 1797, and in Venetian its name was Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta) felt very different this time from the days of our arrival. At the beginning of our trip, I had remarked to Arnie that Venice reminded me a little of West Edmonton Mall. This time I was able to get a feel for Venice as a richly historical and cultured city, rather than as a tourist destination.

The rooftop of the parkade where we dropped the rental car gave us a distinctive view of the city. We particularly noted the proliferation of cruise ships parked along the waterfront near St. Mark’s Square. As I mentioned in the first Italy post, cruise ships are (were? — who knows what will happen to the cruise-ship industry post-pandemic) a serious problem for Venetians: they bring in tourist dollars, but the ships are also destroying the environment. In addition, unlike tourists who come to Venice in other ways, many cruise-ship passengers do not stay in hotels but sleep and eat on board. So the costs can outweigh the benefits.

As we had the first few days of our trip, we stayed on Lido – the long (11k) thin barrier island that forms part of the series of islands in the Venetian lagoon. This time we stayed at the Hotel Villa Pannonia, which was modern and very comfortable. On our second-last evening in Italy, we wandered along Lido’s streets, and shared a pizza next to one of its canals. It was a lovely warm evening, perfect for a stroll through the warm night air and (of course) the consumption of a gelato.

The Jewish Ghetto

The next morning we had tickets to tour the synagogues in the ancient Jewish quarter of Venice, which has the distinction of being one of the first places in the world where people were segregated and their whereabouts monitored on the basis of their religion. In fact, the word “ghetto” — which is used in a host of different contexts now – originated here, likely because until 1516, this part of the city had been a foundry, which is a “getto” in Italian. In March of that year, the chief magistrate, or doge, turned it into an area where the city’s 900 Jews were required to live. (The population of Venice as a whole at the time was 160,000.) It was not until two hundred years later, when Bonaparte forced the Republic of Venice to dissolved itself and tore down the gates, that Jews were again allowed to move freely throughout the city.

From Wikipedia, we learn that “The ghetto was connected to the rest of the city by two bridges that were only open during the day. Gates were opened in the morning at the ringing of the marangona, the largest bell in St. Mark’s Campanile, and locked in the evening. Permanent, round-the-clock surveillance of the gates occurred at the Jewish residents’ expense.” Charming.

In 2016, the city marked the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish ghetto with five months of commemorative events, including an extensive art and historical exhibition, costume galas and even a performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony. The quincentenary program also included the first-ever performance of The Merchant of Venice in the ghetto, which must have been both moving and distressing. I well remember the scenes involving Shylock (played by Al Pacino in one of his better roles) in the 2004 movie version: these were also set in the “Campo di Ghetto Nuovo,” and they were haunting.

There are five synagogues in the small area (one and a quarter acres) to which the Jews were confined, each of them built by a different ethnic group: German; Italian; Spanish and Portuguese; Levantine Sephardic; and Venetian Ashkenazi. One can only imagine the crowds and mix of languages and cultures. An excellent article about the quincentenary that appeared in The New York Times in 2016 quotes the noted travel writer Jan Morris, who wrote that in the 17th century, “the city was a ‘treasure-box’ full of ‘ivory, spices, scents, apes, ebony, indigo, slaves, great galleons, Jews, mosaics, shining domes, rubies, and all the gorgeous commodities of Arabia, China and the Indies’.”

At its peak in the 17th century, 5,000 Jews lived in Venice; today there are about 450. Most do not live in the ghetto area (the few who do are mostly from the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher sect; the Lubavitcher we saw when we were there were visiting from New York) but the synagogues are still in use, and there is a bookstore, displays and museums commemorating the Ghetto’s past.

We toured two of the synagogues and wandered around the main square in the Ghetto. We also had the opportunity to drop into a lovely photography gallery that is located there — the Ikona Gallery — which is owned by Živa Kraus, the sister of a friend of the friend we visited in Zagreb. We had a really wonderful (if brief) visit with Živa Kraus herself, who has lived in Venice for many years (and despairs for its future).

The entire tour was memorable and enlightening. I was particularly moved by an installation in the Ghetto square, a bas relief by Arbit Blatas called “The Last Train” that commemorates the deportation of the Jews from the Venetian Ghetto by the Nazis. It is a reminder (as if we needed one) that prejudice against the Jews has continued undiminished throughout history.

Casino di Venizia

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in at the “oldest casino in the world,” the Casino di Venezia (est. 1638). I had been intrigued when I’d read about it before I left for Italy – the elegance of the gaming rooms on the top floor (which weren’t open when we were there: too early in the day) have been compared to those in Monaco. The dealers wear tuxedos, guests arrive at the front door by boat, and the decor includes chandeliers, Italian art works, and vintage mirrors from nearby Murano. It was splendid. Arnie played a game or two of blackjack; I just took in the atmosphere.

I was surprised to discover from a plaque on the wall as we entered (we came on foot, through the back door) that Richard Wagner, the composer of many of my favourite operas (I know. How can I say this in the same blog as I write about the Ghetto? I refer you to Wagner and Me, an excellent exploration of this issue of loving Wagner and deploring ant-semitism by Stephen Fry) had died in the Casino di Venizia. It wasn’t a casino at the time (it has served several other purposes since it was first established), and Wagner apparently spent quite a bit of time in Italy, part of it in exile. “After a funerary gondola bore Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal, his body was taken to Germany where it was buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth” (Where would I be without Wikipedia?).

We were not allowed to take photos inside the casino, but fortunately there are pictures of it on the Architectural Digest site.

A Dinner to Remember

We had tried without success on our first night back in Venice to get a table at the Andri Fish and Seafood restaurant on Lido, so we’d made a reservation for our last night in Italy. It was a perfect choice. The seafood was outstanding, and Arnie took a great interest in the grappa — they just put a full bottle of the powerful fruit and booze concoction down on each table with the dessert menu and let the guests go at it. Different fruit for different tables. (Ours was full of mandarins.) No charge. I doubt that anyone but the non-drinkers walked out of that place steadily. As well as watching Arnie’s enjoyment of the drink, I was intrigued by what it did to a couple sitting across from us on the patio who seemed to have barely known one another when they arrived.

The Flight Home

I’m just going to leave these photos here. The views of Greenland and northern Canada from the air may not have been worth the price of the flight, but they certainly enhanced it.

And that’s it. Thanks following along as I shared these memories. As soon as there’s a vaccine, we’re off again (right after we hug all the grandkids till they squeal. We had nine when the lockdown started. Now we have ten.) Next? España tal vez. Oder vielleicht Deutschland. 甚至中国。In the meantime, Addio per ora. (And where would I be without Google Translate?)

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

4 responses to “Italy 25: Full Circle

  1. Denis Gauthier

    Thank you Mary, for sharing your experiences and giving us such thoughtful accounts of your travels. Someday soon, I hope, Colette and I will visit Italy and Croatia and your blog will be an excellent source for travel planning. Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure!

  2. Ruth Stevenson

    I really enjoyed reading this Mary. Thanks so much for doing it and for sharing it. I loved your pictures and the history. Gracias!

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