You know in the movies where the character comes upon a scene that is almost overwhelming for them, everything goes silent, action appears to come to a screeching halt as if its too much for all their senses to operate at the same time as they absorb their surroundings, and then slowly like dominos falling their senses gradually resumed their normal functions. That happened to me on my first encounter with Venice. I took one step from that train station and attempted to absorbed the panoramic view before me. I saw a city like nothing I’d experienced before. Looking back, I’m not sure why I responded in this way, I mean I had seen pictures so it was not like I was completely surprised, but that first physical encounter was a doozy, knocked me sideways and always kept me wanting more. For the duration of my stay, each day was an adventure, never knowing what was around the next corner.
This city defines the word:
romantic |rōˈmantik; rə-|
1 inclined toward or suggestive of the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love : a romantic candlelit dinner.
• relating to love, esp. in a sentimental or idealized way : a romantic comedy.
2 . of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality : a romantic attitude toward the past | some romantic dream of country peace.
Even the food was different than the other cuisines we encountered on our exploration of Italy, and its probably due to the outside influences imposed on it by its trading partners and the treasures associated with the spice trade. Venice was the portal by which spices such as pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves made their entrance into Europe. If ever there was a trend setting place it was Venice.
One Venetian cookbook written about the time of Marco Polo (one of Venice’s famous sons) in the 1300’s called Libro per cuoco (Book for Cook) describes a Fine Spices for Everything mix as follows:
1 oz pepper
1 oz cinnamon
1 oz ginger
1/8 oz cloves
¼ oz saffron
* Assumes spices were ground with pestle and mortar
This recipe was indicative of how the wealthy and well traveled Venetian entrepreneurs and captains ate food that tasted as exotic as possible, thanks in no small part to the spices they imported. [Source: Delizia! by John Dickie, Free Press, 2008]
Venice is a Northern Italian city famous for its tourism and industry, and for being the capital of the Veneto region. The city encompasses 117 small islands in the marshy Venetian Lagoon along the Adriatic Sea. The saltwater lagoon stretches along the shoreline between the mouths of the Po (south) and the Piave (north) Rivers.
The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and a staging area for the Crusades, and a key center of commerce and art from the 13th century up to the end of the 17th century. Goods from Champagne and the ports of the Low Countries of Europe and Cornish tin were sold side by side silks and medicine from the South China Seas. Venice was richly rewarded for its entrepreneurship and good governance and became known for its several considerable artistic achievements, and history of excellence in most of those aspects, notably during the Renaissance period.
History of Venice
In 810, an agreement between Charlemagne and Nicephorus recognized Venice as Byzantine territory and acknowledged its trading rights along the Adriatic coast. From the ninth to the twelfth century Venice developed into a city state, its strategic position at the head of the Adriatic synched Venetian power trading extensively with the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world. In 1104 the Venetian Arsenal was under construction which, when at maximum capacity could churn out a warship a day at its peak. By the late thirteenth century, Venice was Europe’ most prosperous city.
Venice closely aligned itself with Constantinople, being twice granted trading privileges in the Eastern Roman Empire, through the so-called Golden Bulls or ‘chrysobulls’. In the first chrysobull Venice paid homage to the Empire but not in the second, a clear reflection of the decline of Byzantium and the rise of Venice. It was not long before Venice saw an opportunity to advance itself and become an imperial power. Venetians financed the Fourth Crusade which seized and sacked Constantinople and established the Latin Empire. As a result of this conquest considerable Byzantine plunder was brought back to Venice.
The city was governed by the Great Council made up of members of the noble families of Venice. The Great Council appointed all public officials and elected a Senate of 200 to 300 individuals. One member of the great council was elected “Doge”, or duke, the ceremonial head of the city. A title typically lasting until death, although in practice, several Doges were forced by their peers to resign the office and retire into monastic seclusion when they were felt to have been discredited by perceived political failure.
The Venetian governmental structure was similar to the republican system of ancient Rome, with an elected chief executive (the Doge), a senate-like assembly of nobles, and a mass of citizens with limited political power, who originally had the power to grant or withhold their approval of each newly elected Doge. Church and various private properties were tied to military service, though there was no knight tenure within the city itself. The Cavalieri di San Marco was the only order of chivalry ever instituted in Venice, and no citizen could accept or join a foreign order without the government’s consent. Venice remained a republic throughout its independent period and politics and the military were kept separate, except when on occasion the Doge personally headed the military. War was regarded as a continuation of commerce (hence, the city’s early production of large numbers of mercenaries for service elsewhere, and later its reliance on foreign mercenaries when the ruling class was preoccupied with commerce).
Though the people of Venice was primarily orthodox Roman Catholics, the state of Venice was notably free of religious fanaticism, as evidenced by the lack of even a single execution for religious heresy during the Counter-Reformation. This perceived lack of zeal contributed to Venice’s frequent conflicts with the Papacy.
Venice’s long slow decline started in the 15th century, when it unsuccessfully attempted to hold Thessalonica against the Ottomans. Venetians also sent defended Constantinople against the besieging Turks, and once if fell, the Sultan Mehmet II turned his sites on Venice. The war lasted thirty years and cost Venice much of her eastern Mediterranean possessions. Then a string of continued bad luck (for the city) – Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and Portugal found a sea route to India, which eliminated the dependence on Venice’s land route monopoly. France, England and Holland eagerly followed Portugal in their new spice route, and she was sidelined in the race for colonies. About the same time, France and Spain fought for over Italy in the Italian Wars, and further marginalized its political influence.
Napoleon Bonaparte ended over a millennia of Republican independence on 12 May 1797, when his army conquered Venice during the First Coalition. The French conqueror brought to an end the most fascinating century of its history. During the Settecento (18th century) Venice was perhaps the most elegant and refined city in Europe, greatly influencing art, architecture and literature. Venice became Austrian territory when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio on 12 October 1797. The Austrians assumed control of the city in January of the following year, and there was some repeated changes of rule between Austria and Napoleon’s Italy until 1866, following the Third Italian War of Independence, Venice, with the rest of the Veneto, became part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
During the Second World War, the city was largely free from attacks, and liberated by New Zealand troops in April 1945.
The City Itself
The city is divided into six areas or “sestiere” created about 1170:
- San Polo
- Dorsoduro (including the Giudecca and Isola Sacca Fisola)
- Santa Croce
- San Marco (including San Giorgio Maggiore)
- Castello (including San Pietro di Castello and Sant’Elena)
The other islands of the Venetian Lagoon do not form part of any of the sestieri, having historically enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy. Each sestiere has its own house numbering system that can be considered a bit convoluted.
Sinking of Venice
The buildings of Venice are constructed on wood piles imported from the mainland. (Under water, minus oxygen, the environment prevents the wood’s decay. In fact, it is petrified as a result of the constant flow of mineral-rich water around, so that it becomes almost stone-like.) Most of these piles remain intact after centuries of submersion, but the buildings are often threatened by seasonal flooding from the Adriatic. Part of the explanation for the water ways is that six hundred years ago, the Venetians protected themselves from land based attacks by diverting all the major rivers flowing into the lagoon so no sediment accumulated to fill the area around the city. This resulted in an ever deepening lagoon environment.
Venice is famous for its canals, all 177 of them, that form an archipelago of 117 islands in a shallow lagoon. The islands on which the city is built are connected by 455 bridges. In the old center, the canals serve the function of roads, and almost every form of transport is on water or on foot. It takes awhile, but you slowly recognize the fact that there are no cars, when we were there, we saw some repair work being down on buildings and all the cement work was performed in a boat. Even bikes are rare as the rider would not get far before having to dismount to carry her bike over a bridge. Venice is Europe’s largest urban car free area, unique in Europe in remaining a sizable functioning city in the entirely without motorized vehicles.
Venice is famous for their unique boat, the gondola. Although now mostly used for tourists, weddings, funerals, or other ceremonies, as ascertained by the price. The Gondoliers, by law, must be of Venetian birth. Most Venetians now travel by motorised waterbuses (vaporetti) with regular routes along the major canals and between the city’s islands, and are analogous to public transport. The city also has many private boats. The only gondolas still in common use by Venetians are the traghetti, foot passenger ferries crossing the Grand Canal at certain points without bridges.
Some Venetian Islands
- Lazzaretto Vecchio
- Isola di La Grazia
- San Michele
- Isola di San Secondo
- Sacca Sessola
- Isola di San Clemente
- San Francesco nel Deserto
- San Giorgio in Alga
- San Giorgio Maggiore
- San Lazzaro degli Armeni
- San Servolo
- Santo Spirito
Many of the villas were designed by Palladio, and according to the architects, water around the villas was an important architectural element as it added brilliance to the façade. The rich and diverse architectural style, clearly shows the influence of the Gothic treatment such as the lancet arch coupled with the influence of the Byzantine style from Constantinople and the Arab influence from Moorish Spain. Chief examples of the style are the Doge’s Palace and the Ca’ d’Oro in the city.
In the 14th century, many young Venetian men wore tight-fitting multicolored hose, the designs on which indicated the Compagnie della Calza (“Trouser Club”) to which they belonged – does this trend sound vaguely familiar? The Venetian Senate passed sumptuary laws, but those clever, rebellious fashion addicts merely adapted their outfits to circumvent the law. Dull garments, worn atop colorful ones, were cut to show the hidden colors. The result was the widely adapted men’s “slashed” fashions in the 15th century.
Venice is famous for its ornate glass-work, known as Venetian glass, incredibly colorful, elaborate and breathtaking to watch being transformed, most of the work we seen today is from techniques developed by the thirteenth century. Toward the end of that century, Venetian glass industry focused its operation on the island of Murano in Venice.
Byzantine artisans contributed to the development of Venetian glass. When Constantinople was sacked by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, some fleeing craftsmen came to Venice. This scenario was repeated when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, supplying Venice with still more glassworkers, and the opportunities to learn new techniques. Despite efforts to keep Venetian glassmaking techniques within Venice, their secrets leaked out to other Italian cities and European countries. One glass company, Barovier & Toso is one of the oldest firms in the world, formed in 1295, and still making glass on Murano.
Venice cuisine is primarily seafood based, and one of the most representative dish is fish risotto in all its forms. One unique version is the risotto alle seppia with a black color from the cuttlefish being cooked in its own ink. This dish was on my list of foods to try in Venice and I was not disappointed, very tasty indeed. But the Venice cuisine is famous also for its variety of soups (brodetto di pesce), recommended the cephalopod type of fish: cuttlefish, octopus and squid. Venetians also like to marinate their fish, and a good example is sarde in saor (marinated sardines). The marinating of fish dates back to the time when this was a prescribed way to preserve fish for long voyages.
Venetian cuisine is primarily characterized by seafood, but also includes garden products from the lagoon islands, rice from the mainland, game, and polenta. Other famous dishes include:
bisàto (marinated eel)
baccalà mantecato (stockfish) – softened dried cod is cooked in olive oil, parsley and garlic and then creamed in a blender
risi e bisi (rice and peas)
fegato alla veneziana (Venetian-style liver)
seppie col nero -cuttlefish, blackened from the ink
cicchetti – tasty tidbits (think tapas)
sarde in saor – sardines in sweet-sour sauce – a type of cooking attributed to the Arabs who introduced citrus to the area
prosecco, an effervescent, mildly sweet wine
Desserts might include:
baicoli – golden, oval-shaped cookies
pan del pescatore (bread of the fisherman)
bussolai (butter biscuits and shortbread made in the shape of an “S” or ring) from the island of Burano
crostoli also known as the chatter, lies, or galani
fregolotta (a crumbly cake with almonds)
rosada – milk pudding
zaléti – cookies of yellow semolina
Venice being the port by which all goods entered Europe, first sampled the delights and imagined the possibilities of sugar. Here sugar replaced honey long before the rest of Europe.
Coffee stopped here first as well, but initially it was not given a second glance, they thought the method of boiling and fermenting too tedious be be worthwhile. Coffee shops were set up to accommodate the Turkish merchants doing business in Venice, but I guess that heady smell proved to be too tempting and the locals soon adopted this drink.
Wonderful in depth read in Venetian food.
For me the dish I had to try was the cuttlefish cooked in its own ink. Versions abound some served over risotto or pasta. This version suggests polenta. The flavor has a more earthy component thanks the the ink, but coupled with a crisp white wine (for which the region is famous), its easy to see why this dish remains a favorite.
Sepe in Umido col Tecio Nero (Cuttlefish Stewed in Its Ink)
Recipe modified from the incredible Venice & Food by Sally Spector
1 pound cuttle fish, prepared – boned, ink sac, and entrails removed, etc.
½ c dry white wine
2 cloves garlic left whole
3 T minced fresh parsley
Cover the bottom of a large pot with some olive oil, add garlic and cook over medium heat. When the garlic starts to brown, remove it. Add the prepared cuttle fish, tentacles, and ink sac to the pot, along with the wine, and a dash of salt and pepper, and parlsey. The mixture will turn black.
Cover the pot, and bring to boil and lower the heat. Cook, covered at low heat for about 40 minutes, or until tender. The cuttlefish will release moisture as it cooks. To thicken the mixture remove the lid and allow some of the moisture to evaporate.
Serve this with polenta.
Alternatively, I’ve found cans of cuttlefish in their ink in Asian markets, and I’ve combined then ingredients with the amounts of wine, parsley etc., indicated above and served it with rice or pasta. It was delicious. I found pasta that was blackened with the ink and it made for a dramatic presentation, or black rice – and the dish is indeed pitch black especially against a white serving plate. This is my kind of dining in the dark, the perfect dinner for a date, complete with a glass of vino to savor. Dark and romantic – just the way I like it.