Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. Get ready to be immersed in

  • the wonder of this continent's most romantic city...Venice. Thanks for joining us.

  • Venice, more than any other European city, has a seductive charm. There's no place like

  • it. For centuries it was nicknamed La Serenissima, the most serene place-and you're

  • about to see why.

  • In this first of two episodes on Venice, we'll sample the splendor of the Doge in his palace,

  • take a pilgrimage to St. Mark's Basilica, see some famous horses, enjoy a grand but

  • noisy view, feast on Venetian treats, get a splash of modern art,

  • be dazzled by masterpieces

  • of the Venetian Renaissance, and get intimate with the city of Casanova...on a gondola.

  • Located in Italy at the north end of the Adriatic Sea is Venice. It's a fish-shaped island connected

  • to the mainland by a long causeway. Its main drag-the Grand Canal-starts at the fish's

  • mouth and winds through the center. Everything we'll see is within a ten-minute walk of the

  • Rialto Bridge and St. Mark's Square.

  • Venice, more than any other city, is the place to get out early and stay out late-to be swept

  • away. On every square is a surprise and around each corner is an excuse to savor the unique

  • charms of the city. But all the magic sits on a practical foundation of political and

  • economic might.

  • With mountains of capital, plenty of traders with ready ships, and an awesome military,

  • Venice was a commercial powerhouse-among the six biggest cities in Europe. At its peak,

  • in the early 15th century, of its 180,000 citizens, nearly 1,000 were fabulously wealthy.

  • The city's ceremonial front door was unfortified and faced the sea: two mighty columns welcome

  • you to a power without equal and the most exquisite downtown imaginable in its day.

  • The winged lion is the symbol of Mark, the patron saint of Venice.

  • This was the Venetian Republic's religious and political center: St. Mark's Square, or

  • Piazza San Marco, with the Basilica of St. Mark and the Doge's Palace.

  • The Doge's Palace-the ruling center and residence of Venice's duke-was built to show off the

  • power and wealth of the republic and to remind visitors that Venice was number one. Its lacy

  • exterior, a distinct blend of east and west, is Venetian Gothic.

  • For four centuries, this was the most powerful piece of real estate in Europe. The sprawling

  • palace is a maze of richly decorated rooms. Here in the doge's lavish apartment, a map

  • illustrates the reach of the Venetian maritime empire-which stretched across most of the

  • eastern Mediterranean.

  • While it didn't have vast land holdings, Venice was a mighty trading empire-built upon a network

  • of ports and a mastery of the sea. The city was driven by an interest in dominating Mediterranean

  • trade. And, until the 16th century after explorers like Vasco da Gama and Columbus opened up

  • the world leaving Venice stuck in a geographic hole, Venice did dominate.

  • Here in the Senate Hall, nobles gathered to address their colleagues, debate, and pass

  • laws. Glorious paintings throughout the palace reminded Venetians of their heritage and divinely

  • ordained greatness.

  • Tintoretto's "Triumph of Venice" shows the city-always represented blond and virtuous-in

  • heaven among the Greek Gods, receiving the wealth of the sea.

  • The Doge was something of an elected king-which only makes sense in an aristocratic republic

  • like Venice. Technically, he was a noble selected by other nobles to oversee the carrying out

  • of their laws and decisions. There were 120 Doges over 1100 years.

  • The vast Hall of the Great Council could host a meeting of 2,500 nobles. Tintoretto's monsterpiece,

  • Paradise-the largest oil painting anywhere-reminded lawmakers that making wise decisions would

  • ultimately put you in the company of 500 saints.

  • And for further encouragement, the famous Bridge of Sighs led directly from the palace

  • to its infamous prison. According to the romantic legend, gazing out the window, prisoners tried

  • to enjoy their last view of Venetian beauty, sighed...and were taken to their cell.

  • Opponents of the government were dealt with swiftly and decisively. This prison-with discouraging

  • bars-held commoners and nobles alike.

  • The great Venetian rogue Casanova did time here. While this prison was considered relatively

  • comfortable in its day, wasting away in here, with so much beauty so close, must have been

  • a particularly cruel punishment.

  • The palace kept an armory on display-an intentionally intimidating array of weaponry designed to

  • dishearten potential adversaries. Along with a powerful collection of weapons-state of

  • the art in its day, it comes with some fun curiosities: tiny crossbows, thumbscrews,

  • and a particularly effective chastity belt.

  • Along with economic might, the splendor of Venice was built upon a foundation of military

  • power. Its formidable navy saw lots of action.

  • Nearby stand the imposing gates of the Arsenal-Europe's first great military industrial complex. The

  • Republic's fortified shipyard, with 3,000 workers using an early form of assembly line

  • production and standardized parts, could produce one warship a day.

  • The Arsenal put the "fear of Venice" into visiting rulers. When the king of France came

  • to town, he was taken here for a humbling spectacle: the creation of an entire warship

  • before his very eyes.

  • Then, after a quick glide down this canal, the vessel was completely outfitted and ready

  • to bolster Venetian dominance of the Mediterranean.

  • Power in Venice also came from some ancient bones. To gain religious importance and a

  • kind of legitimacy, the Venetians needed some important relics. According to legend, St.

  • Mark actually traveled here, personally bringing Christianity to the region. His bones would

  • be perfect.

  • So, in 828, Venetian merchants smuggled Mark's remains out of Egypt and into the church-shown

  • here as it looked in the 13th century. Mark-looking pretty grumpy after the long voyage-became

  • the city's patron saint and his symbol-the winged lion-became the symbol of Venice.

  • The grand church of St. Mark's was built in a distinctly Eastern style. Its domes and

  • elaborate exterior remind us of Venice's close ties with the Greek, Byzantine, and Muslim

  • worlds.

  • The basilica is decorated with a ragtag assortment of miss-matched columns and statues from different

  • eras, much of it pillaged from Venice's rivals. The style? I'd call it "early ransack."

  • These four guys are a favorite of mine. It's an ancient Roman statue carved of precious

  • purple porphyry stone-symbolic of power-pillaged from far away-probably Constantinople, and

  • placed here proudly as spoils of war.

  • Of all the loot ornamenting the church, its grandest prize is a set of horses, which for

  • centuries looked out over the square. While these are copies, the originals are inside.

  • These much-coveted and exquisitely cast bronze horses are a trophy befitting the city's power.

  • And talk about well-traveled: According to legend, they were cast for Alexander the Great

  • in the 4th century BC, taken by Nero to Rome, then brought by Constantine to his new capital

  • in the East...Constantinople. Later the Venetians grabbed them, only to have Napoleon swipe

  • them to decorate an arch in Paris. Today, they're back in what Venetians believe is

  • their rightful home.

  • The church is covered with glass and gold mosaics. And, in good medieval style, they

  • come with religious lessons. The entrance hall-features an elaborate and cohesive series

  • of Old Testament scenes.

  • The creation dome tells the story of Genesis with Adam and Eve and the original sin. In

  • a scene by scene story board, we see Adam lonely in the garden, the creation of Eve,

  • and then trouble: from apple to fig leaf to banishment.

  • The interior of the basilica glitters with its gold leaf mosaic work. The remains of

  • St. Mark lie beneath the high altar. The Pala d'Oro or Golden Altarpiece is a medieval masterpiece.

  • Its stunning golden wall of 250 painted enamels features prophets and saints, and, at its

  • center: Jesus, as Ruler of the Cosmos.

  • All this precious art is carefully maintained in the church's mosaic workshop. As they've

  • done for a thousand years, artisans here are patiently restoring a damaged piece of mosaic.

  • They're cleaning and resetting old stones and cutting new ones as necessary-all according

  • to the exact medieval original.

  • St. Mark's bell tower-or campanile-soars 300 feet over the square. A tower has stood here,

  • like an exclamation point, proclaiming the power and greatness of the Venetian empire

  • for 1200 years.

  • Today an elevator zips you effortlessly to the top to enjoy a commanding view. From here,

  • you can see how Venice is an island lying in the center of a vast lagoon. Surveying

  • the domes and towers of the city's skyline, it's amazing to think it all sits on a foundation

  • of pilings...millions of tree trunks driven deep into the clay.

  • For an ear-shattering experience, be here on the top of the hour.

  • About 25 miles of canals crisscross the city, flowing like streams into the Grand Canal.

  • The city is actually a car-free maze of about 100 islands-laced together by several hundred

  • bridges and a vast web of alleys and canal side walkways. With a shrinking population

  • and in a state of elegant decay, Venice survives on the artificial respirator of tourism.

  • Survey the city by cruising the Grand Canal on a boat called a vaporetto. These work like

  • city buses except that they never get a flat, the stops are docks, and if you get off between

  • stops, you may drown.

  • Joy riding through the town is one of Europe's unforgettable treats. Boats come every few

  • minutes so you can hop on and off along the way.

  • The city's main thoroughfare is busy with traffic. With water taxis, police boats, delivery

  • boats, post boats and over 400 gondoliers all navigating around the churning vaporetti,

  • there's a lot of congestion on the Grand Canal.

  • Where the Grand Canal opens up into the lagoon stands one of Venice's most distinctive landmarks,

  • the church dedicated to Santa Maria della Salute, our lady of health.

  • Plagues decimated communities throughout Europe. They were a huge concern. Entire cities would

  • make great and desperate deals with God if he'd spare them from the dreaded disease.

  • While lots of towns built plague monuments, Venice built this entire church in hopes of

  • surviving the disease that hit in 1630, and in just 14 months killed a third of its people.

  • Stepping into La Salute, the glorious architecture-a round dome atop a hexagonal base-makes the

  • relatively small church seem bigger than it is. And the theme is made clear at the high

  • altar: The Virgin Mary is approached for help by a humble Lady Venice. Mary then sends an

  • angel baby to drive away Old Lady Plague.

  • For a break from sightseeing and a fun meal, explore the back lanes, and pop into a bar

  • serving cicchetti, uniquely Venetian hors d'oeuvres. This is a great way to try a variety

  • of dishes. With a good regional wine in a rustic setting you can eat cheaply and make

  • new friends or enjoy old ones. Allesandro is joining us to give our nibbles some meaning...

  • Rick: So, what is cicchetti? Allesandro: It is a small bite, you know,

  • that you normally have when you have a glass of wine with a friend.

  • Rick: It can make a small meal. Allesandro: If you keep going for three, four

  • bars, yes.

  • Because you can't drive a car in Venice it's perfectly suited to bar hopping like this.

  • Allesandro: This is cicchetto....a little thing that you grab with the hand that's to

  • be finger food. Rick: Eat with your fingers, with your wine.

  • Allesandro: With your finger, with your wine, yeah. You help yourself, one for you, one

  • for me, a little for you, a little for me, and they try you see, look yeah.

  • Rick: Good one.

  • Allesandro says it's alright to just point at what you want, but your selection will

  • be limited to what's fresh from the market that day.

  • Allesandro: When you come here to the bar you have to order what they find in the market

  • in the morning, has to be fresh. Rick: So this is representative of what Francisco

  • found in the market good this morning. Allesandro: Yes, yes, to find in the market

  • in the morning.

  • Eating cicchetti is a tasty opportunity to try something new and unusual.

  • Allesandro: This, this one they are cooked in the oven. You grab it, they sell it from

  • the tail- Rick: By the tail.

  • Allesandro: By the tail and you eat it, just you want, they are fantastic...These are fantastic.

  • Rick: Oh, that's an explosion of taste!

  • But don't forget, according to Allesandro, you only eat cicchetti so you can have more

  • of the main course....wine.

  • Because of its former wealth, Venice is a city of palaces. The most lavish face the

  • Grand Canal. Enjoying the views from a vaporetto is the best way to really appreciate the front

  • doors of this historic chorus line of mansions, most from the 14th and 15th centuries.

  • Palaces like these are reminders that Venetian merchants amassed lots of capital. With clever

  • alliances and aggressive trade policies, for Venice, the eastern Mediterranean was a virtual

  • free trade zone.

  • As Venetian nobles traded their way into fabulous wealth, they built luxurious palaces like

  • this one which has been owned by the Pisani family for nearly 400 years. Their counterparts

  • on the mainland had to fortify their places with heavy stone and tall towers. But, with

  • their natural lagoon defenses, Venetian palazzos could be sumptuous rather than fortified.

  • A palace served all the family's needs -import/export warehouse at water level, business offices

  • above that, and plush living quarters above that- all under one roof.

  • The goods-in the case of this family: furs, salt, cotton and coffee-came off ships through

  • this loading dock.

  • Today many former palazzos survive as hotels. While there are a number of luxurious hotels

  • in town, my favorites are the smaller, family-run ones-which combine historic character, a warm

  • and friendly welcome and plenty of travel tips.

  • At this hotel, I'm splurging to enjoy that prince for a day feeling in the lounge, a

  • bedroom with all the comforts, and a view of the Grand Canal from its terrace.

  • Venice is a great place to fall in love, enjoy a honeymoon...or a special anniversary. Visiting

  • here, many feel that they're experiencing beauty, people, and even life itself at a

  • more intense level.

  • The Grand Canal cuts Venice in half and has only four bridges. The grandest of these is

  • the Rialto. With a huge span and foundations stretching about 200 yards on either side,

  • it was an engineering marvel back in the 1500s.

  • Originally, Venice had two major centers of power-one at San Marco and one here at Rialto.

  • Rialto, which left the politics to San Marco, has long been the commercial district of Venice.

  • To cross the Grand Canal where there's no bridge handy, save time and energy by hopping

  • a traghetto-one of the ferry gondolas, which shuttle pedestrians back and forth at strategic

  • locations. It's customary to stand. Can't afford a private gondola? You could take two

  • round-trips on this for the cost of an ice cream cone.

  • Among the many palaces you'll see lining the Grand Canal, only one looks modern: the former

  • mansion of Peggy Guggenheim. In 1948, the American-born heiress retired here in Venice.

  • She made her mark as a friend, patron-and lover-of modern artists. Today the palazzo

  • houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, filled with groundbreaking 20th-century masterpieces.

  • Visiting, you can imagine it as Peggy's retirement dream home-with the heiress and her Picassos

  • greeting guests in the entryway.

  • With astonishing foresight, she assembled a who's who of her generation's greatest art.

  • Her dining room, with its original table, is still decorated with masterpieces by Brancusi,

  • Braque, and others.

  • She married the painter, Max Ernst. And she supported young artists, helping turn a struggling

  • Jackson Pollock-with his Abstract Expressionism-into a celebrity.

  • By the time she retired, Peggy had become a celebrity herself. Every morning, she could

  • sit here on her terrace, sipping coffee, taking in the Grand Canal, living the Venetian dream.

  • This city also has several palaces now functioning as art galleries packed with old Venetian

  • masterpieces.

  • But I particularly enjoy seeing art in the setting for which it was designed...that's

  • in situ-like at the Chiesa dei Frari. The "Church of the Friars" was built by the Franciscan

  • order and the art that decorates it feels warmed by the spirit of St. Francis.

  • The Franciscans, inspired by St. Francis, were non-materialists-part of a reform movement

  • that spread across Europe in the early 1200s. They were all about simplicity, poverty, and

  • obedience-with an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus.

  • The long lofty nave flooded with light was ideal for large gatherings to hear sermons.

  • Originally simple and spacious, over time, it was embellished with chapels, added by

  • wealthy groups or families who hired leading artists to leave their mark.

  • In Donatello's wood carving of St. John the Baptist, the prophet of the desert-dressed

  • in animal skins and almost anorexic from his diet of bugs 'n honey-announces the coming

  • of the Messiah. Donatello was a Florentine working here in Venice at the dawn of the

  • Renaissance.

  • Adjacent, Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Saints was painted by the father of the Venetian

  • Renaissance in a softer, more Venetian style. Renaissance humanism demanded Madonnas and

  • saints that were accessible and human. Here, Bellini places them in a physical setting

  • so beautiful it creates its own mood of serene holiness.

  • Over the high altar, glowing red and gold like a stained glass window, Titian's Assumption