In third grade, I learned that, in 1499, Amerigo Vespucci sailed westward along the northernmost coast of present-day South America, where palafitos built on stilts on the shores of Lake Maracaibo reminded him of Venetian homes (hence the name Venezuela).
Over five centuries later, a Venezuelan would come full circle by visiting La Serenissima and marveling at its seemingly floating palazzos, historic domes and romantic gondolas. Essentially unchanged since the times it ruled the world, rising sea levels threaten the city’s existence.
Either by public ferry or private water taxi, the entrance into the city from Marco Polo Airport via the Grand Canal is a triumphant one. Unmistakable landmarks like Palazzo Grassi, Rialto Bridge and Santa Maria della Salute will welcome you.
The latter, Saint Mary of Health, was our stop. The republic dedicated the two-dome, two bell-towered octagonal basilica as an offering of deliverance from the Black Plague that killed 50 thousand—a third of the population—in the 1630s.
Across the Grand Canal, one Vaporetto stop or a short Traghetto ride away sits the historic St. Mark’s Square with the Doge’s Palace. The residential and administrative compound of the Duke of Venice, built in 1340 and modified through the centuries until it became a museum in 1923, houses the Doge’s apartments, institutional chambers and infamous prisons.
A structure stands out: the Bridge of Sighs. This white limestone overpass connected the interrogation rooms with the cells over the Rio di Palazzo and provided prisoners’ final look at freedom. They peered through the small windows and saw the Ponte della Paglia with the Lagoon in the background.
Next door, St. Mark’s Basilica houses the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the city’s patron saint, smuggled out of Alexandria in 828. The current building is the third version modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, modified to meet structural needs and embellished with spoils from the Fourth Crusade to reflect the republic’s wealth and power.
Its bell tower, St. Mark’s Campanile, stands alone in the square near the front of the basilica. The contemporary structure, a square brick shaft with vertical pillars initially intended as a watch tower, was reconstructed after the original one collapsed in 1902. Historically, the campanile signaled government assemblies and public executions, among other civic and religious events.
That evening, a beautiful full moon glowed over the Laguna and bathed the city in an almost supernatural light. After dinner, we took Il Vaporetto, hopped off at the Rialto Bridge stop and headed to Campo Bella Vienna. In this ancient piazza, local kids enjoyed music, Aperol Spritzes, beers and cigarettes. I felt transported to the “Call Me by Your Name” dance scene.
We started our second day by visiting Gianni Basso Stampatore. The legend showed us around his traditional printing shop and next-door museum, including the hand-operated machines with which he and his son produce beautiful cards and stationery. Signor Basso proudly displays thank you notes from satisfied celebrity customers like the late Queen Elizabeth II. He also told us how they spent six months repairing the shop after it was severely flooded in 2019.
Up next, we experienced our “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” moment at the iconic Rialto Fish Market, which it’s been operating in the San Polo district for almost a thousand years. Five minutes away, through a maze of charming medieval streets, we found the CNN-famous All’Arco. We queued for half an hour to try the traditional Cicchetti or Venetian tapas (totally worth it!).
Then it was onto Gallerie dell’Accademia for the Anish Kapoor retrospective, presented during the Venice International Art Biennale. Beyond the exhibition, I loved the juxtaposition of contemporary art and the classic building. I see it as a city’s commitment to preserving its past while looking toward the future.
And speaking of using art to preserve the past while looking toward the future, London’s Maritime Museum showed last August the temporary exhibition “Canaletto’s Venice Revisited,” with works the acclaimed Venetian artist painted in the 1730s and how these inspired art, culture and generations of travelers.
The curators also examined Venice’s social and environmental challenges. Overtourism, while contributing to the city’s coffers, also exacerbates rising sea levels, or Acqua Alta, making plastic boots one of the best-sold souvenirs and ultimately threatening the way of life depicted by Canaletto in his paintings.
Venice, which against all odds, thrived and survived plagues, wars and invasions, may be facing its most challenging test yet. And perhaps, its traditionally representative way of government, guaranteed by a robust system of checks and balances, could be the key to its survival.
Last year, after intense activism, the city finally banned large cruise ships from sailing through the iconic St. Mark’s Square. These monstrous vessels now have to reroute and dock on the mainland: a win for Venetians and one step further for La Serenissima to look more like its former self.
Canaletto would be proud.