9 May: Ascension Day in Venice

This where I would like to be today....

…She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea…

From: ‘On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic’ by William Wordsworth (1770- 1850)

Every Ascension Day for over a thousand years, the city of Venice -‘La Serenissima’ has renewed her wedding vows with the sea. The famous ceremony when the Doge sailed out in his golden barge 'The Bucintoro' first cast a wedding ring into the Adriatic was called ‘La Sensa’ and began in 997AD, following the Venetian conquest of Dalmatia, which brought the whole of the Adriatic under Venetian control.  The ceremony was symbolic of Venice’s dependence on and dominance of the seas.

 'Return of the Bucintoro on Ascension Day' by Giovanni Antonio Canal known as Canaletto, 1730.

The ceremony still happens every Ascension Day and takes the form of a water procession from the Basilica of St. Mark to the Church of San Nicolò on the Lido. The Patriarch of Venice blesses a golden ring, which is then tossed into the sea by the Mayor.  The ceremonial boat leads a procession of little ships and gondolas out of the city and onto the glittering Adriatic and for an hour or two Venice remembers her glory days.

I cried the first time I saw Venice. One blazing August day we parked in an ugly multi-storey car park at Piazzale Roma, went a few yards down a short flight of stone steps and suddenly I was in the middle of a Canaletto painting. The Grand Canal curved away from me; edged by fabulous palaces, bobbing boats and the striped mooring poles called ‘palo da ormeggio’.  To time travel from the twentieth century back to the sixteenth in a few seconds, was all too much and I found tears rolling down my cheeks at the sheer beauty of it all.

It is a city like no other, and it’s the place that the expression ‘shabby chic’ was designed for.  Through the window of a faded palace you catch a glimpse of rooms gilded and emblazoned with paintings and chandeliers. The sound of someone practicing the violin drifts from an attic window; a cat slinks past, a woman calls across the narrow fondamente to her neighbour a few feet away, the garbage boat chugs along the canal. There is the smell of water, diesel, coffee and Italian cigarettes. I love it. I just love it.

Of course Venice is heavy with tourists, but head away from the Rialto and St Marks Square (once you’ve had your Bellini at Florians), scuttle away down a side canal and you can be quite alone and in the ‘real’ Venice, just a few streets away from the day trippers. Seek out the Venetian Ghetto or the Arsenale where only the more adventurous tourists venture. Lose yourself in the narrow alleyways, drink coffee, sit on steps (you’ll be hard pressed to find a public bench in Venice), open the heavy creaking door of an old church and look through the incense scented gloom at smoke stained altar pieces. Sit at the back in the cool air and think of – nothing - just be in the moment. It can refresh your spirit for a lifetime.

One of my favourite places in Venice is the fish market on the Campo della Pescheria near the Rialto. Here’s Elizabeth David in her book ‘Italian Food’

‘The light of a Venetian dawn is so limpid and so still that it makes every separate vegetable and fish luminous with a life of its own, with unnaturally heightened colours and clear stencilled outlines…..In other markets, on other shores, the unfamiliar fishes may be vivid, mysterious, repellent, fascinating, and bright with splendid colour; only in Venice do they look good enough to eat. In Venice even ordinary sole and ugly great skate are striped with delicate lilac lights, the sardines shine like newly-minted silver coins, pink Venetian scampi are fat and fresh, infinitely enticing in the early dawn.’

Alongside the Grand Canal, the embankment wall of the Campo is fourteenth century and although the covered open sided market was built five hundred years later, its cheerful red awnings and elegant balcony make it blend seamlessly with the older buildings around it.

So Venice is a magical place; read Donna Leon or James Morris or Ruskin or Thomas Mann or Henry James or Byron or Truman Capote or Shakespeare….but actually nothing prepares you for the reality.  Although Mary Shelley said it best….

'There is something so different in Venice from any other place in the world, that you leave... all accustomed habits and everyday sights to enter an enchanted garden.'

This is based on a scallop salad from ‘The Harry’s Bar Cook Book’ by Arrigo Cipriani. I’ve deleted mushrooms and added polenta croutons.

Scallop and rocket salad with polenta croutons

3 fat scallops per person – with coral
1 ripe tomato per person deseeded and cut into thin slices
Half packet of ready made polenta or make your own with 50g polenta meal and 200ml water
5 tablespoons olive oil.
3 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar
Rocket – or a bag of rocket, watercress and spinach salad
Handful of finely chopped flat leaved parsley or tarragon
Salt and pepper.

Put the sliced tomato, vinegar and parsley or tarragon into one bowl and season well and keep ready. Cut rounds of polenta with a small circular cutter a bit smaller than the scallops. Fry in olive oil until golden, set aside for a moment. In the same hot pan very quickly sear the scallops over a high heat - but go carefully you don’t want hockey pucks, turn them over. After no more than two minutes tip the tomato mixture on top of the scallops and combine well. Dress the leaves and put onto your plates, tip the scallops and tomatoes over them, add the polenta croutons.

Serve instantly.

My only Venice - this is breath!
Thy breeze
Thine Adrian sea-breeze, how it fans my face!
Thy very winds feel native to my veins,

And cool them into calmness!

 From ‘The Two Foscari’  by  George Gordon Lord Byron (1788 -1824)

1 comment:

Mary Beth said...

Liz, this is pure magic! You make me want to leave for Venice tomorrow.

Yep- I think you could go on to writing travel guides next. Just lovely!