This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
I still remember arriving in Venice for the first time. It was late (I had made the most of the many budget flights on offer), and there was an eerie stillness as I stood, somewhat disorientated, outside the Piazzale Roma – the city’s tenuous link to the mainland and the last place you will see any cars. Travelling everywhere either by boat or on foot seemed an alien concept, particularly for one whose sea legs are none too steady, but I made my way to the nearest vaporetto stop and caught a water-borne bus that seemed to be heading in vaguely the right direction. It was then the magic began.
As the boat slowly wound its way around the gentle twists and turns of the Grand Canal, the 21st century rapidly faded away and I became utterly captivated by the exquisite, crumbling, sumptuous and serene palazzi that cling to the banks of this ancient waterway. It was the beginning of a love affair I knew would last a lifetime.
The history of this beautiful city is as extraordinary – and unlikely – as the maze of palaces, piazzas and canals that define it. Venice began life as a collection of wild, marshy and largely uninhabited islands off the north-east Italian coast. In the fifth century, after the fall of the western Roman empire, the people of the Veneto (the region surrounding Venice) fled there to escape the Goths, who were blazing a trail of destruction southwards on their way to Rome. Although the settlements they created were intended as temporary, the ‘Venetians’ gradually made the islands their permanent home. Their system of building was ingenious. To create a solid foundation, wooden stakes were driven into the sandy ground. Wooden platforms were constructed on top and then buildings on top of the platforms. That these have survived hundreds of years is staggering, as is the fact that this ‘floating city’ dominated western Europe from the 13th–16th centuries.
The key to Venice’s success was trade. The riches that flowed into the city were turned into the finest, most dazzling architecture the world had ever seen. This can still be enjoyed by visitors today, even though the city is under increasing threat from the rising waters.
There are several well-known ‘must sees’ on the Venetian tourist trail, such as St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. But the best historical treasures are to be found just a few hundred feet off the well-beaten track. A favourite of mine is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. One of several such charitable and religious institutions (scuole), it was built in the 16th century and soon afterwards decorated with a remarkable series of paintings by one of the city’s most celebrated artists, Tintoretto. “Surely no single picture contains more of human life,” observed Henry James upon seeing Tintoretto’s Crucifixion for the first time. “There is everything in it, including the most exquisite beauty.” He could have been describing the whole city.
Venice has a plethora of art treasures, and the real joy is seeing them in the buildings for which they were originally painted – not just the scuole, but the hundreds of churches littered across the island. One of the most beautiful is Madonna dell’Orto, in the heart of the Cannaregio district (known as the Ghetto because it once housed the city’s Jewish population). That said, there are also some pretty spectacular art galleries, notably the Accademia.
The city has its contemporary art treasures too, thanks to the 20th-century American millionaire Peggy Guggenheim, whose 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal was given over to her extensive collection of Picassos, Pollocks and the like.
The task of hunting down all the historical treasures Venice has to offer should never be attempted on an empty stomach. Just like the buildings and works of art, the best eateries are to be found away from the main tourist centres. The delights of a pizza in Campo Santa Margherita, a large and bustling square in the Dorsodoro district, are only to be exceeded by a glass or two of prosecco and some of the exquisite chiceti (snacks) available in the city’s many cosy bars. And for dessert, head for the Zattere, a beautiful promenade on the south side of the island, which boasts the best selection of gelateria, as well as gorgeous views of the neighbouring island of Giudecca.
I have been lucky enough to visit Venice many times since that first, memorable encounter, and have even lived there for a while. Each visit has offered new historical discoveries, as well as some romantic ones (my husband proposed to me there). It is a city that has changed very little in over 500 years. Tragically, though, its significance to any lover of history is enhanced by the very real prospect that we might be one of the last generations to enjoy it.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go: Unless you want to take part in February’s world-famous carnival, the best time to visit Venice is either late spring, before the heat of the summer makes the canals somewhat malodorous, or autumn, before the streets disappear under aqua alta (high water).
Getting there: Most flights to Venice land at Marco Polo airport – from there a coach, taxi or car can be taken to Piazzale Roma. For a more scenic approach take a vaporetto (water taxi) from the airport. Train services operate to the city’s Santa Lucia railway station.
What to take: If you have a large suitcase, then John Julius Norwich’s seminal work, A History of Venice, will be your best companion. If not, make sure you read it before you go in order to whet your appetite for the historical treasures that await.
What to bring back: Venetian glass is as famous a commodity today as it was in its trading heyday. Head to Murano for the best selection.
Dr Tracy Borman is joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and an expert on the Tudor period. You can visit Tracy’s website at www.tracyborman.co.uk.