Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2021
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The real Venice

Forget Piazza San Marco: La Serenissima comes alive in its neighbourhood squares

It’s 8:30 on a warm September morning in Venice. At an outdoor café in the Campo San Margherita, I’m nursing a cappuccino and watching the city come to life. Behind me in the café, a man suddenly bursts into song and the aroma of freshly baked goods is in the air. Venetians with cell phones and briefcases cross the square purposefully on their way to work while housewives laden with groceries stop to chat on their way home from the market.

Across the square waiters begin to set out lunchtime chairs and tables while vendors put up canopies over their market stalls. Church bells call worshippers to mass, an elegantly dressed woman walks her dog, an early tourist puzzles over her map and a man pauses on a bench to scan the headlines in today’s Il Gazzettino. Venice is waking up to another day – and right now there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

The heart of Venice is its one piazza: the great Piazza San Marco where over 50,000 visitors a day fight it out with the pigeons – and I would venture to say it’s a place many Venetians steer clear of for much of the year. But there are dozens of smaller squares, or “campos,” like San Margherita where the real daily life of Venice is played out.

The word “campo” translates as “field,” and in Venice’s distant past that’s exactly what these spaces were. The campos were also the original source of neighbourhood water supply where rain water was channeled to underground cisterns. The wellheads of these ancient cisterns can still be seen in campos all over the city.

Bullfights and powder kegs

Running off the main artery of the Grand Canal a network of smaller canals is flushed out twice daily by the tides of the Adriatic. Hundreds of bridges span the canals, knitting together a tangle of time-worn alleys, some so narrow that two people can barely pass each other. Amidst this confusion, the campos provide elements of both surprise and delight.

Some of that delight is to emerge suddenly from a shadowy alley into the sun-drenched space of a campo alive with people. I experienced it when I first entered Campo San Margherita and again when I passed under an arch to arrive at the nearby Campo San Barnaba.

One side of this smaller campo is taken up by the Church of San Barnaba and another side by a canal. But there’s still room for two or three cafés, a couple of stores and a news kiosk. The church was exhibiting some of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions but in 1989 it was where Harrison Ford sought the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A generation earlier, Katherine Hepburn fell into the nearby canal in the movie Summertime.

Some campos are lively because they are on the main route between the Rialto or Accademia bridges or between major shopping streets. The Campo San Stefano, close to the Accademia Bridge, always seems to be active and it’s one of my favourites — although I’m glad I wasn’t around in 1802 when Venice’s last bullfight took place here; the Venetian way was to tie a bull to a stake and then let the dogs loose.

At one time San Stefano was the city’s main market but that has long since shifted to the Rialto area. In the centre, kids were sitting beneath a statue of the writer Niccolo Tommaseo. He’s known to Venetians as “cagalibri” because of the pile of books under the back of his frock coat — but you’d better ask your Italian friends to translate that one.

In one corner of the campo, the Palazzo Morosini was once home to Francesco Morosini, famed for blowing most of the Parthenon sky-high in 1687 when in command of Venetian armies attacking Turkish-occupied Athens. At the time, the Turks were using the iconic building as a powder magazine.

Where the gondoliers are

The Campo Maria Formosa, in spite of being less than 10 minutes' walk from Piazza San Marco, sees few tourists. A group of striped-shirted gondoliers chatting together don’t seem to have much business and most people seem to be walking through on their way to somewhere else. But nonetheless it’s a pleasant enough space with a hotel, a few shops, market stalls and the inevitable café.

A few minutes away, the Campo Zanipolo, near Venice’s hospital, seems much more animated on a Sunday morning. People leaving the great church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo after Mass are chatting in groups or headed towards one of the cafés. Others appear to be walking towards the hospital.

Meanwhile I’m drawn to an imposing statue in the centre. My guide book says it is of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a 15th-century mercenary who left his considerable fortune to the state, on condition that an equestrian statue of him be erected in “the piazza before St. Mark’s.” The authorities wanted the money but resisted the idea of a statue in the great piazza. Instead they placed it in front of the exquisite School of St.Mark’s in the Campo Zanipolo — and claimed their money.

Leaving Campo Zanipolo, I crossed three canals in the space of two minutes and found myself in Campo Maria Nova where a lively antique market was in full swing. It overflowed into nearby spaces and as I left the campo and headed towards my hotel I plunged once more into the maze of twisting alleys.

The original "ghetto"

On my last day in Venice, I took the vaporetto to San Marcuola in the Cannaregio district, far from the tourist crowds. I wanted to see the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo which, in spite of its name, is recognized as the oldest Jewish ghetto in Europe. Amazingly, it is still largely intact.

By the15th century, many exiled Ashkenazi Jews had been drawn to Venice, their treatment ranging from acceptance to tolerance. In 1516, the Doge decreed that all Jews were to be confined to a small island in the San Gerolama district that had once been the site of a bronze foundry - or “getto” in the Venetian dialect. Gates closed at night on the two bridges giving access to the ghetto and were not opened until the great Marangona bell in the campanile of San Marco pealed the next morning. Boats patrolled the surrounding canals at night ensuring that the curfew was not violated.

By 1541, the ghetto had become so crowded with the arrival of many Sephardic Jews that an adjoining ghetto was created called the Ghetto Vecchio. So for some reason the older ghetto is called the New Ghetto and the later addition is called the Old Ghetto. Go figure.

Concentration of so many people in such a small area meant that buildings became much higher than other parts of the city, sometimes reaching nine stories. And on the top floors were the synagogues — or schola — so that there was nothing between the congregation and the heavens.

By the 17th century, the ghetto’s population had grown to over 4000, but in 1797 Venice surrendered to Napoleon who ordered the gates of the ghetto be torn down. As I relaxed over lunch at the Quattro Rusteghi restaurant, it wasn’t hard to imagine the inhabitants singing and dancing in this same space on 7 July 1797 as they celebrated their freedom. Most of the campo still looks much as it must have done then.

The wellheads that once supplied the ghetto’s water are still here and the three schola on top of the tall buildings beside me are still intact. Even the holes where the gates once joined the walls are visible. Only on the far side of the campo has much changed where a holocaust monument has been placed.

The city as museum

Leaving the ghetto, there was one more campo I wanted to visit on my way back to my hotel in the San Marco district. Only St. Mark’s Square is larger than the Campo San Polo and in 1960 Jan Morris described it as “rather dashing” in her book, The World of Venice. But Venice has changed dramatically since then.

Today the campo is far from “dashing.” It’s not just shabby – that’s much of the charm of Venice – it’s almost devoid of life. The graffiti on boarded-up store fronts combined with tightly shuttered buildings all add to the air of desolation, even on a bright sunny day, and an outdoor café is sadly empty. It’s a similar story in the Campo San Maurizio where grass grows between its stones and the pigeons are unmolested as visitors hurry though on their way to San Marco.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that neighbourhood grocery shops are being replaced by gift shops in much of Venice. After all, the population of the historic centre of the city has fallen from 171,000 in 1951 to fewer than 65,000 today and the trend shows no signs of abating. Housing in Venice has become so expensive that most of the people who provide services to visitors are forced to live on the mainland. That’s why “Venetian night-life” is largely an oxymoron. The Mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, has been quoted as saying: “We must have the tourists. But it is not enough. Venice is becoming a museum.”

Venice is arguably the most beautiful city in the world and has scarcely changed in 300 years. No wonder visitors continue to come in their millions. So steel yourself for the crowds in the Piazza San Marco, get there as early as you can, see the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica, perhaps splurge on a coffee at Florian’s (where the waiter will discreetly point out the cover charge for the live music), and then avoid the place. Explore the real Venice that somehow survives in its campos amongst the maze of alleys and canals. And do it before they put up a sign at Marco Polo Airport that says: “Welcome to The Museum of Venice.”

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Showing 1 comments

  1. On September 17, 2010, Brian McShefffrey said:
    I'm homesick for Venice even tho it is only for a weeks stay last fall. It it a tourist trap but what a magnificent one

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