Episode 224 – Venice Day 1: Abbey & Glass

March 16, 2022. 55°F/13°C


We’re in Venice !!

That’s St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace behind us, both of which we tour tomorrow. Pinch me.

I’ve spent the last 6 months or so immersed in author Donna Leone’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice, which is absolutely going to impact my impressions of the city. Brunetti loves Venice with all his heart, but he is as much realist as romantic, so he also sees the decay … and in the novels he shares his fellow Venetians barely disguised loathing for cruise ship tourists who invade his space and disturb his contemplation of the history and beauty that surrounds him.

Oh dear.

We docked in Fusina, on one of the decidedly less picturesque of the lagoon islands in Metropolitan Venice. The smoke stacks and factories (below) brought to mind Brunetti’s rants about the toxins that factories were allowed to simply dump into the air and water. Hopefully those who turned an blind eye to that in the 1980’s have in the decades since then become more environmentally conscious, although our tour guide later in the day related stories of present-day corruption in local government that made me wonder.

Getting into the port of Fusina with a cruise ship involves a pilot boat getting up close and personal to help the ship navigate the shallow canals of the lagoon.

At the bottom right you can see how close the pilot/tug boat was to our bow.

From Fusina it’s a bus and passenger ferry ride to the city proper; cruise ships larger than a river boat are no longer allowed in the city harbour since an accident in 2019 when the MSC Opera hit a riverboat AND the dock in Venice.

Our tour today was called “The Abbey and the Island”, and featured two locations that Donna Leon has used in her book series: the island and glass workshops of Murano, and the abbey on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

We began by sailing through the Giudecca Canal, one of the major canals in the city, which separates Giudecca Island and district from Dorsoduro district.

Our transportation, and some of the scenery along the canal.

Our destination was San Giorgio Maggiore (St. George the major, as distinct from the Greek St. George). The church here is built in the Palladian style, designed by Andrea Palladio, who influenced both Christopher Wren’s design of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the design of the White House in Washington DC.

The monastery on the island dates to 982AD, and is not open to tourists.
The church (above) was not built until 1566.
The exterior of the church features statuary like Saint George (top right) as well as statues of Christ and saints with impossibly delicate halos.
The Palladian style interior differs markedly from the Gothic churches that preceded it: lighter colours, more natural light, and embellishments that draw the eye upward (toward God) to “lift the spirits”.

Inside the church, one of the highlights for me were the three Tintoretto paintings: The Last Supper, The Gathering of the Manna, and The Martyrdom of St. Stephen. Although Tintoretto was briefly an apprentice of Titian, his style is quite different, being much less detailed. He was known for the speed with which he painted, accomplished by using broader brush strokes and tricks like having faces turned away from the viewer so that he could avoid adding a lot of facial details. What I love about his paintings is the action they depict (no one is simply posed or sitting still ), and his signature use of two light sources instead of just one. It was fascinating when I saw it in art books, and glorious when seen in person. Unfortunately, except for The Martyrdom of St. Stephen (below) the other two huge paintings were hung so high and in such close quarters that it was impossible to get a really clear picture.

Two light sources: God at the top, and St. Stephen’s halo in the bottom third.

We returned to our boat to go on to the island of Murano, to which in 1291 all the Venetian glassmakers were moved, ostensibly to protect Venice from the potential of fires from the glass furnaces, but maybe to protect the secrets of the trade from non-Venetians.

En route we noted the many, many canal markers. The average depth of the lagoon canals at low tide can be as little as 2 metres (approx 6 feet) with an additional 2 metres at high tide – and even shallower in muddy areas outside the marked routes – so it is essential that boats stay between the canal markers in order not to run aground.

Left: a canal marker at low tide. Right: we docked on the Rio dei Vetrai (Way of the Glassmakers) at the water taxi markers (blue & white poles), right in front of the glass factory.

We toured the Ferro & Lazzarini Fornace, where we got a demonstration of glass blowing and shaping.

From molten ball of glass to beautiful vase in under 5 minutes.

After the demonstration, we were able to tour the gallery/store and marvel at the glassware, decorative pieces, chandeliers, and jewelry (yes, I bought a pair of fairly simple Murano glass earrings – the chunky elaborate necklaces were stunning but not practical for a full-time traveller).

The Fornace makes everything from traditional glassware to avant garde pieces to huge ornate chandeliers that can cost tens of thousands of Euros. since everything is made individually by a craftsman, no two items – even glasses – are ever identical.

On the canal ride back to our bus we passed by the “Bridges” sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn, made up of 6 pairs of clasped hands representing friendship, hope, love, help, faith, and wisdom, and the San Marco district, home to most of Venice’s iconic sites. I’ll leave more pictures until tomorrow when we actually tour San Marco on our full day “Venetian Jewels” excursion. Hopefully we’ll have a less misty day.

It was a really enjoyable tour, despite my having to acknowledge that Commissario Brunetti is only fiction. The police boats with their flashing blue lights are real, though, so I made Ted take a picture for me. The things he does for love!

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