Moving waters glinting with light, graceful bridges, bright sun on open squares, campos. St. Mark’s Square, the only piazza, alive with music – waltzes, Baroque (Vivaldi was born, baptized, and spent many years here), haunting melodies played by violinists under white billowing awnings. We cross the broad square as pigeons scatter and music plays. A dream, a fantasy, another world. Tourist faces of wonder and delight mingled with awe. Lanes packed with crowds suddenly opening onto silent alleyways, no sounds of traffic or gunning motors. Gondoliers shouting to one another, laughing, waving their arms. Cheap souvenirs. Designer shops. Murano glass. Silk. Leather. Masks. Soaring churches. Palazzos resting on piles driven deep through sand to bedrock, waters rising. Rows of rectangular windows, prettily curved pediments, fluted columns fanning like marble flora. Gondoliers in striped shirts singing opera. Water buses packed. Bells, bells, bells, ringing over the city, the terracotta roofs.
We arrived in Venice weary after a long flight, San Francisco-Frankfurt-Venice. The new airport requires a long walk to the water taxis and dock, and we forged ahead in our travel stupor, pushing our trolleys along the walkway. The boatman loaded our luggage in the bow and we stooped to work our way through the cabin to seats in the open stern, stepping carefully as the launch rolled. Then we sped off, leaving the mainland behind, watching the wake bubble in long furrows of white foam and trenches of water. Soon we were in the broad sea lanes marked by buoys, speeding by others leaving Venice, pilots waving. We passed Isola di San Michele, the island cemetery, and worked our way to the edge of Venice, where the first settlers turned swamp land into civilization. Here, in this water bound city, the Renaissance peaked, here opera and Vivaldi flourished, here a people who loved to argue managed to live side by side in relative peace, here a flourishing hub of trade connected the East and the West, a channel for world culture. Here Saint Mark is buried.
The city on the water basks in a late September sun, the sky a dome of blue, with cool breezes hinting of fall. We’ve settled in, breakfasting along the Grand Canal with a view of Notre Dame della Salute (Our Lady of Health), a giant white sculpted church built in thanksgiving for the end of the plague.
Venice is a passionate city, full of life, and, alas, full of tourists just like us. Even so, we venture out in the morning for a long walk, planning to get lost, but also planning on finding too. The alleyways, the calles, meander here and there with signs pointing to San Marco or Accademia. We pause in shady corners, studying the fine print of the map, moving a finger along a line and holding it tight as though keeping it under control.
The churches are a great pleasure here, partly because there are so many, partly because there is such an artistic expression of joyous faith, and partly for the many Madonnas that give life to the marble interiors. Each church has its own Madonna, it seems, a colorful image above a side altar, often with fresh flowers and an intriguing history. I search for the Madonnas with their beds of flaming votives and say a Hail Mary, asking for Our Lady’s intercessions for our world.
One such Madonna and Child is in the Chapel of Our Lady of Nicopeia in the back of the great domed basilica of San Marco, and is accessible for prayer from the north side-entrance. The Byzantine image depicts a simple iconic face, the young child centered on her on her lap, her head above his. Her eyes are dark and serious, yet comforting. Evidently she was taken from Constantinople during the fourth Crusade, and previously had been used as a standard born by the army, so she is called the Madonna of Nicopeia, or Victory. Today her chapel is aflame with candles, and a daily Mass is offered at 11 a.m., the priest’s back to the small congregation. It is a sacred space, a corner of the great San Marco, a place to pray.
This was our first stop, and I gave thanks for a safe journey and the blessings of Venice.
We would visit San Marco for Sunday Mass.