This is the first in a series of secret glimpses, explaining Venice from a different point of view: Venezia, The Humane City. It’s a virtual journey around our city, exploring her strenghts, cultivated and sometimes, lost, during 1600 years. Keep on reading!
It’s that time of the year again! La Biennale di Venezia 2019 opened on 14 May, and from this event comes to our idea to take you around the exposition area, beyond the main venues (Padiglione Centrale (Giardini) and Arsenale (Gaggiandre, Giardino delle Vergini, Lorenzo Quinn – Building Bridges) where the Biennale takes place in 2019: until 24 November.Continue reading “A Walk around the Biennale Area + Food Guide”
The event I’m telling you in this post happened three years ago, in mid-April, so the pictures show you a Venice in which spring has made more progress 🙂 This is the story of a visitor who stayed at Lina’s hotel. On the second day of his vacation, he approached Lina and said: “I’m done with Venice. Everywhere I go, I’m surrounded by crowds, pigeons, seagulls, and cheap eats. Waiters call out to me forever, stopping me five times between here and Piazza San Marco. Living in this town must be a nuisance. I’ve been longing to visit Venice for more than ten years, and now I’m just so disappointed.”
Venice is speaking to us in symbols. For example, do you know why two lamps are always lit in the southern wing of the Doge’s Palace? Even at night, when nobody is there? We’ll tell you this story in our next post 🙂 but now, you are going to read about the symbol of celebrating ancient feasts …
In this post, we tell the real story of Festa della Sensa, celebrated on Ascension Day in Venice, and the hidden meaning of the feast.
There’s some connection to the religious festivity Ascensione del Signore celebrated by the Catholic Church on that day, in the way that Ascension Day was chosen by the Republic of Venice to celebrate something in the first place: Venice celebrated that a big hurdle to embracing the future had been removed.
The Feast was introduced during times so similar to ours. Venice was at the verge of becoming a trading super power or remaining an insignificant settlement in a hostile environment on the northern Adriatic shore. The fledgling Republic needed a stable government, reliable boats capable of transporting raw materials and luxury goods to set up a trading empire, and reliable partners. On their way from Venice to Constantinople and Alexandria (Egypt), the Venetian cogs needed to make a break on the Dalmatian coast to load drinking water and food supplies for the journey ahead.
Today, times are similar as Venice is going through another defining moment in her history, tackling the following four steps: (1) defining her modern identity (mission and vision!), (2) connecting with her roots, (3) aligning roots with the present situation and (4) deducting her role from there. Becoming Veniceland is NOT the role of Venice.
The early settlers of the Lagoon were challenged by the only enemies man cannot conquer, earthquakes, droughts and an ever-shifting ground. You must know that in the year 1000 AD, the Lagoon was on the brink of turning into a swamp. River debris were cloaking canals and the Torcello archipelago, home to the Byzantine colony, was laced with mud. The inhabitants of Torcello needed to find a new harbor and home and moved to the Rivus Altus archipelago in the center of the Lagoon, those 118 islands making up Venice as we know her today. The Byzantines settled on the islands Gemine and Ombriola, today this area is called Castello. Soon, devastating seaquakes destroyed Malamocco in the southern Lagoon, forcing the Eneti living there to move to Rivus Altus as well.
Byzantines and Eneti knew they would need to look beyond the Lagoon to continue living in such a narrow space exposed to the forces of nature, so they joined forces and decided on how to best distribute work, not only to survive but to do something meaningful and beautiful. The Byzantines contributed their knowledge of building ships, setting up the Arsenal ship-building yard in Castello.
Even today, you can notice the different roots of the Venetians, which I think is spectacular after such long a time: Each sestiere (district) has kept its own distinct character and as our Grandmother told me, you can even notice a difference in the way they pronounce Venessian (Venet), which they do in a more lilting way in Castello.
On Ascension Day, Venetians celebrate an ancient ceremony which has remained the same since the year 1000 AD, recalling the defining moment when Venice was able to secure #4 of the requirements I mentioned above to become an empire, that is, safely reaching their trading partners in Constantinople, Syria and Egypt and thus being able to do business with them.
To reach their trading partners, Venetian vessels traveled all the way south along the Dalmatian coast.
Boats would stop for a few weeks and people take a break before continuing their voyage. But it wasn’t so easy, a few towns were opposed to the Venetian presence and Saracen pirates often attacked the Venetian fleet. In a diplomatic master piece, Doge Pietro Orseolo, in the year 1000 AD, commissioned an impressive fleet in the Arsenale and officially “visited” the towns on the Dalmatian coast. Instead of paying “tribute” as Venetians had done before, the Doge decided to stage a show with his impressive fleet and succeeded in “convincing” the cities on the Dalmatian coast to stop attacking the Venetians. As a result, the Doge officially proclaimed these towns “partners in all future commerce of Venice”. And that’s what they became – steadfast partners, supporting Venice long after the fall of the Republic on 13 May 1797. In addition, Dalmatia produced wine, olives and wheat for Venice and delivered pine trunks for the Venetian fleet and marble for Venetian palaces.
Every year since 1000 AD, Venetians were recalling this event, with the Doge, his entourage and the people of Venice going in their boats to the Lido (San Nicolò area), where the Doge “married” the sea (representing the newly found trading partners) by throwing a golden ring into the water. This annual celebration was interrupted only after the fall of the Republic in 1797 but taken up in 1965. Today, it is organized by the Festa della Sensa Committee.
During the times of the Venetian Republic, in addition to the formal ceremony on the boats, the Festa della Sensa was celebrated with a grand fair organized in Piazza San Marco, called Fiera della Sensa. This fair lasted two weeks, representing a sort of prolongation of Carnival. And guess who was invited as special guests to expose their merchandise – the cities of Dalmatia !!!
Today, the Festa della Sensa is celebrated as you can see above: The mayor, accompanied by the patriarch of Venice, on board the bissona boat, throws a laurel wreath into the waters. You can watch the ceremony from Venice too, just stop along Riva dei Sette Martiri.
In our opinion, the conditions for Venice to survive have remained the same. We will write about these four conditions in our next post, an interview with a Venetian who has witnessed good times and bad ones, and who has interesting answers and suggestions which I think are so worth sharing.
In this post we let you into a secret. Each Venetian neighborhood has its own, and so has ours.
This is the story of a plant, flourishing here before I was born, landmark of this little square for almost ninety years. A few people living here still recall it, and how one day in the late 1970s, it was simply cut. What’s left are a few stories and the oil painting in Nonna Lina’s living room.
This painting is testimony to a past when the little square wasn’t just a thoroughway everyone one must pass on their way from San Zaccaria to Campo Santa Maria Formosa. It shows a beautiful rambling plant surviving on uncertain soil for it didn’t have much space to grow. In Venice, growing plants can be a bit of a challenge. There simply isn’t enough soil and even if you have a garden, you cannot always tell what’s exactly below that relatively thin strati di terriccio – layers of soil. Archeologists love it but gardeners don’t.
To me, this special painting of the wisteria is a precious glimpse of a past none of us has witnessed. When Venice, especially in spring, must have looked incredibly lush and (edible) blossoms abounded on each and every square. Venetians of the past were keen gardeners and during the times of the Republic, flowers were grown by the poorer people on the squares and in courtyards, harvested and sold to one of the forty state-owned saponifici (soap factories) in town.
We can only try to imagine what Venice must have looked like during April say, 300 years ago. April was the first month of the blossom harvesting season, and it still is. Roses, elder flowers and acacia trees are now blossoming in Venice, and so is wisteria ! These spring blossoms were used to flavor food, bake cakes, create perfumes, beauty products and natural remedies (in particular, syrups and pomate – ointments), or they were sold to the soap factories.
In this case, it wasn’t the Venetian spezieri (spice masters, focusing on imported herbs, blossoms and spices), but the monasteries in town that became experts in using local blossoms for all purposes, led by the monasteries of San Zanipolo, Frari and San Francesco della Vigna.
Leafing through recipe journals written in the 19th century, you will find many requiring freshly harvested or dried blossoms as ingredients. In our case, Grandmother’s recipe journal reads like this.
Candied mimosa blossoms. Cherry blossom syrup. Lilac syrup. Baked acacia. Elder flower pancakes. Lemon blossom honey flavored with lemon blossoms. Lemon blossom tea. Parma violet pancakes. Dandelion blossom salad. Geranium-blossom flavored fish. Geranium syrup. Geranium-neroli ointment. Primrose blossom butter. Begonia-flavored brioche. Rosemary blossom-flavored brandy butter. Apricot jam flavored with white rose petals. Towards the end of spring, lavender blossoms take over, they are used to make syrup and flavor sponge cakes and biscuits. And there are wisteria blossom frittelles ..
.. which brings me back to the painting, drawing me magically when I was a child. It shows the little campo bathing in peaceful morning light. The air is calm with everything you need to feel contented.
This delightful and quiet Campo San Provolo is located five minutes from Piazza San Marco. It must have been very idyllic in the 1970s, neither too large nor too small. This is historical ground, once a major meeting point between Venetian and Greek merchants (the Greek quarter is, after all, less than three minutes away).
The pozzo (well) is still there and so is Casa Fontana, Trattoria San Provolo and Pizzeria da Roberto which is changing owners, though. On the other side, Trattoria da Nino is half hidden under Sotoportego del Vin leading towards Campiello del Vin and finally towards Riva degli Schiavoni. To the right (you can’t see it in the painting), a sotoportego leads into Campo San Zaccaria. The nuns of San Zaccaria built it to protect their peace and quiet from the lively merchant scenes of the past.
The stories each of these buildings has witnessed could fill a book, for here we are on the premises of the former monastery of San Zaccaria, and it’s here (and at the Rialto) that the islands, which were to become Venice, were urbanized first.
You wouldn’t believe how hot the little campo gets in summer. Eating lunch outside is almost out of the question and the window shutters must be closed by 9 am. The plants on the balconies are exchanged for cacti (!!), geranium, begonia etc. are arranged in their pots inside or they wouldn’t survive the parching heat. Yet, Nonna Lina tells me, the wisteria withstood it all, blossoming not only in April but a second time in late June and a third time in mid-September. Protected by its rich foliage, blackbirds were nesting, surviving the summer heat.
This special wisteria was covering the buildings lining the campo on one side and the sotoportego (covered archway) separating campo San Provolo from Fondamenta dell’Osmarin. An artist friend of our grandparents’ was so enamored with the little square and its wisteria, he couldn’t resist immortalizing the scene and gave the painting to them as a gift.
So yes, the wisteria is still being missed and a “local legend” formed, alleging that a nun had come from the monastery of San Francesco della Vigna, keeping a few of its roots. So with a bit of luck, this lush plant is still alive somewhere in the rambling gardens of this monastery.
Nonna Lina told me it had been cut because insects used twigs and branches as “bridge” to reach on the window sill and the rooms. She didn’t tell me who cut the plant in the late 1970s, but one day she came home and the wisteria was simply gone. Even Lina, practical and down-to-earth, admits that since that day, she’s been missing the sweet scent spreading from its blossoms all over the square and into her home, especially in April when the wisteria consisted of almost nothing else but purple blossoms.
Lina also harvested the blossoms of this wisteria and used them in the kitchen.
She used to make syrup and glicine fritto – fried wisteria blossoms covered in a light batter and flavored with lemon blossom honey and vanilla sugar. There are many varieties of wisteria, those growing in Venice are considered edible, I was told. In Venice, there’s mostly wisteria cinensis, and the owner of a perfumery store at the Rialto told me she still harvests wisteria in her garden on the Lido and eats fried blossoms in April.
Of course, it’s not easy to preserve the scent of blossoms once they are heated but then, we do have a few methods to deal with that. The easiest way is to use blossoms in acque profumate – flower waters. You can read more in our upcoming book Roses and Spices – In the Kitchen with Nonna.
Imagine you are a Venetian spice merchant, arriving home in the evening of 28 June 1509. As you are approaching the calm waters of the northern Adriatic shores, you can make out through the slight mist ahead the dark green and whitish shores of your home, the Lagoon of Venice.
While your merchant cog is drawing nearer to the coast, dark green patches against a rose-emerald green evening sky are appearing in front of you. It’s the pine trees lining the white sandy shores of Equilium (today’s Cavallino shores). In the 16th century, the Cavallino peninsula ws protected by a banana-shaped island consisting exclusively of white dunes. About 200 meters away, the shores of the Lido island looked much like the other side, covered with white dunes and lush pine woods. You can see the secretive atmosphere of an evening in this part of the Lagoon in the video below.
Your cog now comes to a stop and you must get off onto a smaller vessel taking you into the shallow waters of the Lagoon. Merchants and the spice loads are dispatched while the cogs are moored in front of the banana-shaped island called Scanno della Pisotta (It doesn’t exist any more but you can see it on old maps). It had a very important function to fulfill, soaking up excessive water masses coming in from the Adriatic sea. In its curve, the larger merchant boats were moored, waiting to be reloaded and sent off to the Levant on yet another spice expedition.
In the 16th century, after several outbreaks of bubonic plague in the Levantine countries, you were not allowed to go to Venice immediately after arriving but had to stay 40 days (quarantena) on one of the Lazzaretto islands, together with the goods that had been transported on the cogs, in order to avoid illnesses spread to Venice.
From my favorite restaurant in Punta Sabbioni, All’Ancora, you have a good view of this part of the Lagoon. Beyond in the mist shrouding the darkish reeds you can make out the soft green marshlands interspersed with tiny islands. And these are very special islands, holding all the ideas and visions Venetians ever created and dreamed of.
During the times of the Republic, more than 300,000 people lived in Venice. Much space was needed, yet during that time, the northern island groups of Torcello, Ammiana, Santa Cristiana and Sant’Ariano became uninhabitable. Around 60,000 people had to leave these islands due to movements of the soil called subsidenza. In addition, the rivers brought debris into the Lagoon and her existance was threatened. Everything was done to prevent Ammiana and Sant’Ariano from sinking but after 100 years of trying every possible remedy, even the Venetian engineers had to give up. The islands disappeared under the waters and some were torn apart. The nuns living on Sant’Ariano moved on to Murano. Sant’Ariano remained in unstable conditions until the 18th century when it partly re-emerged from under the water surface.
While Venice was suffering from sovrafollamento (overpopulation), the Government in the early 18th century had to find a place for the dead and gave up the cemeteries usually located next to the churches in town. They brought their dead, amongst them doges, fishermen, explorers, merchants, noblemen, housewifes, artists – in short, the people who had lived in Venice for more than 1000 years, to their new home, the island of Sant’Ariano. Perhaps even Marco Polo is amongst them for we haven’t found his grave in the church of San Lorenzo yet .. Below you can watch the calm and unique atmosphere around the island of Sant’Ariano, where the hopes and dreams of Venice live on shrouded in blue-rose-emerald sunset sparkles.
From my favorite terrace in Punta Sabbioni you can admire those rose-red-emerald sunset islands in the distance, Crevan, Sant Ariano and Ammiana and beyond, the cradle of Venice, Torcello. I love sitting here on a summer evening in June looking out for flamingos rising above the reeds. Contemplating the Lagoon during the Blue Hour can be a very soothing experience …
At 8:00 pm it is pleasantly warm and you can enjoy a dish of creamy gnocchi a i granchi e a la granséola on the terrace of All’Ancora next to the vaporetto station, located on ancient territory.
Part 3 of this blog series dedicated to Discovering the Uncharted Lagoon will present you the Lagoon when you arrive from Marco Polo Airport / Tessera. Part 1 described the unknown islands of La Porta and Lago di Campalto.
Tell-tale scents you can’t miss in Venice during these final ten days in April … so looking up in Venice these days is a must ! Our city is now enveloped in fragrant blossom cascades, for il glicine – wisteria is blooming.
Probably every Venetian has a favorite place they visit in mid-April to see how “their” wisteria is doing. In my case, it’s not just one plant but several ones I go and see during this time of the year. Join me to explore San Polo at breakfast time, and then for a second walk from San Barnaba’ to Santa Maria della Salute. It’s in this area that the passers-by get to see most wisteria plants in Venice. But then, there are many more, growing in the secret gardens that Venice still consists of. Almost half of Venice consists of private gardens!
So let’s start with one of the most fluffy and rambling wisteria plants in Venice thriving on the terrace of a building just off Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. Betraying what one would consider the needs of a plant, it seems to live on sea breeze and sun rays. Another plant I know of, that just survive without being attached on soil, is the olive tree living on top of a red brick wall on the Zattere, near the convent Santa Maria della Salute.
Now stand in front of the well (pozzo) from where you get the best view. As this plant grows on a particularly sunny place, when winter is particularly mild, I noticed that buds appear by late February.
The wisteria variety you can usually find in Venice is wisteria sinensis. It’s Chinese wisteria, and in China it has been cherished since times immemorial. Officially, wisteria arrived in Venice in the 1820s via botanists on an East India Company vessel via London. Yet, we suspect that wisteria originating in China arrived and flourished in secret Venetian palace gardens long before. After all, the Merchants of Venice for 1,100 years had brought home so many “plant trophies” from Asia, Africa and the Levant.
In the late afternoon in April, you can bathe in the soft sun rays that make April so special in Venice. A few years ago, as member of the Venetian Instagram Group, IG Venice, I was able to visit a special wisteria, the oldest plant in Venice, more than 100 years old. It still thrives in the garden of Palazzo Bernardi Nano, covering the patio. Actually, to enter the garden, you have to pass beneath the trunk of this wisteria which by now has become a veritable tree.
From Palazzo Bernardi Nano, it’s just a few steps before you arrive in Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. You could stop in this lively campo for coffee, or continue walking towards the Peggy Guggenheim Palace, walking beneath several wisteria plants protruding from behind the brick stone walls.
Now look at the entrance of Fondazione Peggy Guggenheim. Take a look at the garden, always lush, and continue towards Palazzo Dario. On your way towards the Basilica della Salute, stop on Fondamenta Venier so you can’t miss a lush wisteria plant growing on a second-floor terrace just above the courtyard of Palazzo Dario overlooking the Grand Canal.
Continue walking to towards the Basilica della Salute along Rio Terà dei Catecumeni. On 21 November, during the Festa della Madonna della Salute, most of the bancarelle (stands) of the Salute Fair (Fiera della Salute) are located here. Step on the bridge which leads into Campiello della Salute and look into the direction of the Giudecca island Another precious plant growing on a terrace, whose owners enjoy a splendid view of the Basilica just across the narrow canal …
What I can’t convey to you is the sweet scent or rather, clouds of wisteria scent are enveloping Venice. Stop on the bridge and look in the other direction towards Ca’ Maria Adele and the wisteria growing next to its water entrance. And yes, from here it’s possible to take a picture of the Basilica framed by wisteria blossoms.
But now we’ll take a vaporetto and get off at the San Zaccaria stop. From there, it’s just a few steps to reach Campo San Provolo holding the memory and the story of the lushest wisteria plant in Venice !! I’m telling its story in this post.
When grandmother Lina returned to her home in Venice after the war in April 1945, Campo San Provolo was enveloped in a fluffy fragrant cloud. Above the sotoportegho leading to Fondamenta de l’Osmarin, a lush wisteria was growing. Its cascading blossoms covered half of the campo, that is the facades of four buildings. It sounds like a fairytale – yet there’s a picture of this plant in her home, and the oil painting of this plant, never forgotten, is the reason I started writing my blog La Venessiana in the first place …
From the garden of a Venetian countess: What does a Venetian giardino pensile – a hanging garden look like ?
This garden is located in the San Basilio area ear San Nicolò dei Tolentini. On our way we could touch the dripping blossoms of wisteria (it was raining) and marvel at other trees with purple blossoms, making Venice look decidedly elegant for spring.
We arrived in a little campo located just behind the Canale della Giudecca. From here, you can see Mulino Stucky on the opposite bank, now the Venice Hilton Hotel.
Tudy Sammartini, our hostess came out of the house to greet us. Her name may be familiar to you for she’s a well-known garden architect and book author. Her latest book is called Verde Venezia – Green Venice and she also writes a blog in Italian at storieveneziane.wordpress.com.
Hers is actually a house WITHOUT a garden and no balcony. You would never even notice that because the house looks so lush wrapped in buds and blossoms !! In the pictures you can see the proof how she took up the tradition of Venetian hanging gardens, wrapping not just her own house but also others in the neighborhood in green foliage. Such a verdant space created with a purpose.
Her plants are strictly Mediterranean species loving salinity and the humid air permeating the Lagoon. There were lemon blossoms just opening, nasturtium, sage, basil and other kitchen herbs and even little strawberries growing in terracotta pots! These herbs are protected by climbers like clematis and honeysuckle.
Our hostess who had just come home buying asparagus and vegetables showed us her home and library filled with shelves of books and garden magazines, arranged around portraits and photo collections of her family.
We took the opportunity and asked a few questions about the purpose of gardens in Venice and whether there’s a future for our green spaces in town.
Ms. Sammartini stressed the importance of gardens as indispensable link between the stones of Venice and the sea. Who could live without them, what would Venice look like without them?
As long as they are taken care of by their owners, gardens will continue to exist as long as Venice does. Public gardens often suffer from lack of time and care. ALL gardens in town fulfill a special purpose thanks to the careful selection of endemic plants able to purify the air.
I would like to thank Giuseppe Boscaro – The Liquid Press and Anna Toniolo for organizing the #giardinveneziani tours. Find out more about The Liquid Press here.
Join me for a visit to Serra dei Giardni on a Saturday morning. It’s past 11 am though, they open late. In the little courtyard in front of the hothouse you can see the shelves packed with trays of new herbs and vegetables. Take a look at what we’ve got here in Venice and what will be growing in our gardens and terraces soon.
First of all, there are salvia – sage plants. We love frying freshly picked sage leaves and fry them covered with a little flour in olive oil. A crispy decoration for slices of new potatoes or used to garnish risotto.
My grandmother swears that salvia alleviates migraine, colds and a sore throat. For that purpose, she makes sciroppo di salvia, our homemade sage syrup sometimes mixed with thymes. We keep the syurp up to a year in a cool and dry place in our dispensa = pantry. Whenever someone in the family catches cold we dilute a spoonful of sage syrup in a glass of warm water and add a teaspoon of lemon and honey. It’s our natural way of making lozenges in liquid form. If you prefer them solid, just add maize starch when making the syrup, leave the syrup to cool to room temperatue, stir well and form little lozenges.
On the shelf below, you can see thymes, chives and wild oregano. We use wild oregano leaves to make a favorite dish in Venetian families, uova alla portoghese.
Portuguese eggs consist of an uovo fritto – fried egg surrounded by tomato puree (sometimes passata di pomodoro). On the table we decorate this egg dish with fresh oregano leaves, black pepper and coarse sea salt.
While I was taking a look at the shelves it started to rain all of a sudden so I went into the coffeeshop adjacent to the plant nursery. I wasn’t the only one seeking refuge from the downpour. This cat was such nice company for the next 30 minutes of my day 🙂