The Grand Canal

04/08/2017 09:10

Passengers board with the indispensable caution the walkway leading to the vaporetto after selecting the right stop at Piazzale Roma. There starts line 1, which runs unhurried along the showcase of all the vanities that grow up above the water reflections on the great aquatic avenue winding between the Venetian neighbourhoods.

Before the palaces emerged it was not merely one of the safer waterways on the lagoon because it was one of the largest with its 100 to 230 feet wide and 16 deep. When Torcello and Malamocco inhabitants decided to move they chose the islands surrounding it and established a first settlement in the area called Rivo Alto. In the maritime republic wealthy families enriched by trade chose to hold their welfare on the walls that faced the great Venetian artery. In fact the main entrances of these mansions are facing the water having just service access on the back streets.

The vaporetto that has left Piazzale Roma moves over the less noble part of the avenue, where the only link that connects it to the mainland is the Ponte della Libertà, where also run the trains that reach the Main Station, Santa Lucia. There are three crosswalks that cross the Grand Canal but actually there are seven bridges. Three of them have their origin in the Ponte della Libertà, the first two direct the road traffic to and from the Piazzale Roma, and the third one is for the freight railroads on the way to Tronchetto, the port. Since 2008 there’s a pedestrian fourth step, an expensive, pretentious and controversial slippery walkway linking the bus station with the railway that even appeared on TV Discovery Max show titled Incredible Engineering Blunders.

Along its two miles and a half overlook at this liquid avenue ten churches and no less than two hundred palaces projecting proudly over the waters, crossing five of the six city sestieres, showing randomly the succession of architectural styles developed throughout the history of an opulent Republic. From the Venetian-Byzantine typical of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with its polychrome marble, reflecting his penchant for East; the flamboyant Gothic-Venetian air with their characteristic lobulated arches whose most relevant example is Ca' d'Oro; the Renaissance of the late fifteenth century, more sober, as in the palaces Corner Spinelli, Grimani di San Luca or Ca' Dario; the exuberant baroque has no shortage of examples in the works of great masters such as Baldassare Longhena, to the neoclassicism present at the almost very beginning of the canal in San Simeon Piccolo, imitating Rome’s Pantheon, not far from San Simeon Grande, both supposedly united by an old bet made at Antioch about a Key of Solomon. Opposite is, since 1846, Santa Lucia train station, although the present building was finished in 1954. To build it up was necessary to demolish some houses and the church where lay the remains of the saint. The station took the name and San Geremia parish the relics.

Next to the Ferrovia stands the first bridge worthy of that name, it’s the Istria stone bridge of Scalzi, which takes it from the nearby homonymous church, Longhena work for the Roman Community of Discalced Carmelites. The bridge was built in 1932 and replaced the previous, iron made, led by the Austrians in 1858. Beyond the bridge, always sailing toward San Marcos, there are some notable palaces: Calbo Crotta, Flangini, Gritti, Zen... before reaching San Geremia, where from the watercourse is visible the inscription that recalls this is the Sainte new home: Lvcia, vergine di Siracusa, martire di Cristo, in qvesto tempio riposa. All’Italia al Mondo implori lvce pace. Here, Cannaregio Canal joins the waters with the Grand Canal’s.

Soon appears, to the right, the magnificent facade of the Fondaco dei Turchi, originally hostel and store for the Ottoman merchants and now home to the Museum of Natural History. San Marcuola is opposite the church and the first of the five traghetti that link both shores. The traghetto is a popular service that made the gondoliers to cross the channel in those sections that are away from the bridges. In such a short journey, the passage makes the trip standing. Barely there’s no time to sit down and stand up.

On the right the vaporetto now stops at San Stae, where the church displays a Baroque façade by Domenico Rossi, and a short walk from the palace is the Baroque Ca' Pesaro, another work of Longhena, housing today the Oriental Art and Modern Art museums.

Keeping the look at the same shore is reached the outstanding, in height, Palazzo Corner della Regina, where Caterina Cornaro was born, who would become accidentally queen of Cyprus and Armenia. Right next highlights the red facade of the small and endearing fourteenth century palace of Ca' Favretto, now converted, like many other palaces, into a hotel. Here lived in the nineteenth century painter Giacomo Favretto.

Almost suddenly, turning the gaze to the left, appears the always impressive Ca' d'Oro, which owes its name to the golden decoration that one day embellished the beautiful Venetian Gothic façade, full of stylized vegetal friezes and some fantastic animals. Its last owner was the Baron Franchetti who donated to the city the palace and the heritage that today can be seen at the Franchetti Gallery inside the same building. From its balconies can be seen, at the other side, the buildings of the Fabbriche Vecchie and Nuove and the Pescheria, which hosts every morning the fresh fish market.

Changing again the look, on the other shore stands the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the German and Hungarian version of the Fondaco dei Turchi, that later become the central post office. Almost immediately after is the second ford, it is the famous Rialto Bridge, initially built in wood has a drawbridge in its middle arch to allow the passage of boats that ventured into the canal. The stone structure was created between 1588 and 1591 by the architect Antonio da Ponte. Until 1854 it was the only one that united both banks. The bridge has two rows of shops that extend throughout its structure and currently completely dedicated to tourism. On both sides of Rialto there are the docks formerly dedicated their activity in the wine and iron trade, hence their names: Riva del Ferro and Fondamenta del Vin.

The succession of grand mansions seems endless: the Loredan palace, Farsetti, Grimani, Contarini delle Figure, Balbi... and Ca' Mocenigo, belonging to the family who gave seven doges to the Republic and where they stayed, at different times, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who finally, in 1600, was burnt at the Inquisition stake in Rome, and between 1818 and 1821, Lord Byron, whom was said he dived daily to swim in the canal. Then follows Ca' Foscari, a XV century Gothic palace now hosting the University. In the same stretch of bend follow the palaces of Ca' Giustiniani, Grassi and Ca' Rezzonico. Palazzo Grassi, neoclassical, designed by Longhena and completed by Giorgio Massari, has become a large exhibition hall and art gallery. Ca' Rezzonico, opposite, another work of both architects, houses the Museo del Settecento Veneziano. Here died in 1889, British poet Robert Browning.

Almost closing the bend appears the third bridge, the wooden bridge of the Accademia, by the Galleria dell'Accademia, one of the leading art galleries in Italy which occupies the former church of Santa Maria della Carita and the buildings of the homonymous old Scuola. From here, over the bridge, can be see one of the best known views of Venice, the final stretch of the Grand Canal with Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti right next followed by the oversized Palazzo Corner not in vain called Ca' Grande. On the right bank the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni houses Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of paintings. The palace, unfinished, was started in 1748 by Lorenzo Boschetti, architect of San Barnaba, famous church for its role in one of the films of Indiana Jones. In May 1949 the American collector bought the mansion to the heirs of the countess Castlerosse, last owner. Peggy Guggenheim installed here her extraordinary collection of contemporary paintings including works by Kandinsky, Klee, Marc Chagall, Picasso, Dalí, Picabia, Ernst and the always great Rene Magritte’s L'Empire des Lumiéres.

Beside, though separated by the Rio delle Torreselle, stands Ca' Dario, a Renaissance palace with some colourful marbles. This palace is said to be cursed because of the violent death their last owners got. On the other side is Santa Maria del Giglio vaporetto stop. Here is laid every year on 11 November, along the Salute celebration, a votive bridge supported on barges to shorten the faithful path to visit the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, last great work of Baldassare Longhena in the canal, built after the great epidemic of plague in 1630.

But just before there’s a couple of nice palaces notable for their facades decorated with mosaics: Ca' Salviati and Palazzo Barbarigo, whose decoration depicted Michelangelo talking to Titian.

The last notable building of this bank is in the Punta della Dogana, the customs office that oversaw the goods introduced into the city before the ships peer into the canal. On the tower there’s a weather vane, the statue of Fortune, located upon a golden orb held by two Atlantes.

From this point the waters of the Grand Canal bind to the Bacino di San Marco, between the Ducal Palace and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the ancient monumental entrance to the Serenissima Republic.

© J.L.Nicolas


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