When we arrived at the Venice Marco Polo airport, there were masked people in hazmat suit carrying contactless thermometers screening passengers. Border control and customs took merely a minute – the fastest I’ve ever encountered in any airport in the world.
That was mid-February, a month prior to the lockdown.
I came to Venice over a long weekend to spectate its famous canival.
Honestly, Venice has never been my top choice amongst travel destinations. Rumor has it: the water is dirty and smelly; there is the risk of high tide; and it’s over-run by tourists.
Which caught me by surprise as I arrived at the meeting point of the Secret Itineraries Tour in the Doge’s Palace, finding the courtyard practically empty.
Only three people showed up for the tour – me and a Portuguese couple.
Our guide showed us the lower prison – also called the Pozzi (wells) , named after the damp condition due to its proximity to water. The cells on this level are tiny with low ceilings. There’s hardly any light in the room, except from a round hole on the door. Making it an intolerable place for prisoners.
One level above the pozzi housed important officers of the republic: the Ducal Notary and the Deputato alla Segreta of the Council of Ten. The Notary functioned as secretary to the various magistrature within the Republic, whilst the Deputato alla Segreta kept a special and secret archive for the Council of Ten.
Did you know that the Bridge of Sighs – widely romanticized by Lord Byron as the prisoners would sigh on their last view of beautiful Venice before being locked up – is simply a tunnel constructed to deliver secret archives, without being seen from the outside?
A staircase led us to the large and beautiful Chamber of the Secret Chancellery, whose walls are lined with cabinets containing public and secret documents relating to the work of most of the Venetian magistrature.
The doors of the upper cabinets are decorated with the names and “coats of arms” of the chancellor. On closer look, one realizes that some of the coats of arms are completely fabricated.
This is because that a chancellor, chosen from among the secretaries, are almost always a commoner. A commoner does not have a coat of arms. Therefore a symbolic one was invented based on his surname – Saw for Sega, pumkins for Zucca-tus, so on and so forth.
The interrogations in the palace were conducted in the Torture Chamber. The most commonly used instrument was a rope, from which a prisoner can be hung with his arms tied behind his back.
The Torture Chamber is connected to the Piombi (a.k.a Leads) – located directly under the roof covered by lead plates. Unbearable in the summer, these cells were used exclusively for political prisoners or those of higher status, including one Giacomo Casanova, who claimed to be an illegitimate son of a Venetian noblemen. Known for his elaborate affairs with women, Casanova was arrested on July 1755 for offense to religion and common decency.
According to his memoir Histoire de ma vie, Casanova escaped the confinement, with the help of father Balbi – a prisoner of his adjecent cell. Having escaped the Leads, they found themselves trapped behind locked doors of the palace. Being a master of the rhetoric, Casanova convinced the guard that as guests they had inadvertently been locked in after an official function and they were thereby allowed to walk out of the palace.
After the secret itinerary tour, I wandered about the magnificent chambers of the palace, getting an overdose of artworks by Veonese and Tintoretto from the frescoed ceiling
as well as the long wall in the Great Hall
Due to its immense size, the picture was painted in sections not in the artist’s own studio but in the large main hall of the nearby Scuola della Misericordia. Most of the work was done by Tintoretto’s son, Domenico, who – as one can see – was far from faithful to his father’s orginal design.
The divine light emanates not from the dove of the Holy Spirit but from the figure of Christ the Judge, shown holding a globe surmounted by a cross; to his right stands the Archangel Michael holding out the scales of Justice.
The composition is crowded with around 500 figures, depicted in some detail. The finally effect is of an overpowering tumult that seems to celebrate the greatness of the Republic more than it does the triumph of God. The canvas would be an overwhelming success, maintaining its reputation for more than two centuries. As for the old Tintoretto, the commision was so important to him that he atually applied to the Senate for a reduction in the payment for his work.
Following my visit to the Doge’s Palace
I popped into a barcao for some local specialty finger food – Cicchetti
Just a stone’s throw from Piazza di San Zaccaria, Bacaro Risorto might not be the best bacaro in Venice, but it surely is one of the most convenient. The Baccalà Mantecato – creamed salted cod served on a crusted bread – was delicate, creamy and packed with flavors.
Before coming to Venice, I was conerned that I won’t be able to see any of masked figures
As it turned out my worries were unfounded. These lovely and spirited people were everywhere and ready to pose for a photograph.
Some delicious gelato later
It is time to ride the Vaporetto back to my hotel before dinner.