Random travel observations (Padova and Venezia)

By Lorenzo

In Padova particularly, one gets a real sense of the vigour of the Northern Italian emergence from the Dark Ages, a sense of emerging cities full of bustling purpose and underlying confidence about the possibilities of the future.

While we were in Padova Friday night, wandering along discussing the many ways Northern Italy was different to Southern Italy, a live demonstration played out in front of us. A gentleman (I would guess hairdresser by his white coat, but could have been a pharmacist) started yelling loudly (saying, at a guess, “stop thief!” with elaboration) chasing a guy in front of him. Immediately, all the pedestrians started converging to cut the fellow running away off so the angry guy in the white coat could seize him, one fellow waved and shouted to the police and last we saw, the gentleman in the white coat was dragging the recalcitrant back, presumably for him to pay.

Traffic lights are much more common (than in Sicily), people follow the rules and one actually sees traffic cops. We really are not in Sicily anymore. Southern and Northern Italy may have (mostly) a common language and they may share a state, but they do not really share a culture (in the sense of a way of life), they just pretend to.

As is normal with public transport, a Venezian water bus is rather more fun when you know what you are looking at (and what awaits you at the other end) rather than worrying about whether you are on the right route and whether you will know which stop to get off at because you have no sense of the system or the landmarks yet.

You look at male deities seizing unwilling women and you think “oh yes, scenes of male dominance”. But then you look at a Judith looking you in the eye with a knife in her had and the head of Holofernes sitting next to her and that is not quite the subtext.

The further North we go, the more African men we see. They are a notable feature of Venice, hanging around in groups, or flogging handbags, or sunglasses, or whatever.

Throughout our travels in Italy, school groups are a common sight wandering around; the children seem generally well-behaved. It is probably easier when you can just walk to places of historical interest. I also presume that successful suing for damages (and so having a legal system trying to ban consequences, particularly for children) have not yet blighted such.

Earlyish Tuesday morning, I dozily wondered why there seemed to be someone moving around in the mezzanine bedroom above me. We found out later there had been a mild tremor.

I now know why it is called the leaning tower of Pisa; it is to distinguish it from all the other leaning towers (such as the leaning tower of Castello, the leaning tower of Murana and the leaning tower of Burana, to cite three we have seen up close in the space of a couple of days).

Something that the histories do not make clear is what a destructive, thieving pest Napoleon was. Visiting Malta and Venezia in quick succession (and going to the Museums and reading the exhibitions and guide book) makes it clear how much thieving Napoleon got up to and how destructive he was (particularly in Venice).

Have been struck by the scale of medieval building. Some of the cathedrals are enormous, for example. In Venezia, the scale of the Arsenale is striking; it covered a ninth of the city at its full extent.

Have been impressed with how well-socialised Venezian children are–cheerful, well-behaved, affectionate and un-self-conscious. Watching a maybe 5 year old boy happily dance with himself down the Via Garibaldi, apparently not caring in the slightest that he could be seen by a couple of hundred people, mostly strangers, expressed the last particularly.

Traveling around, particularly to the islands of Murana and Burana, the practical Venezian attitude of “short of land? We can just make some more!” was in evidence.

Have had formaggio mista (mixed cheese) a few times in Venezia; they make what passed for cheese plates in Melbourne just look sad. Besides, as my brother says, Italian cheeses are as good as French cheese think they are.

Have admired the ubiquitous Venezian drainage system in courtyards to collect water for cisterns. In its way, something of a social comment about how things have been, and are, done in Venezia — with a sense of practicality and social obligation.

The thought of Venezian water traffic being done like Sicilian road traffic is just scary.

In Venezia, the water pouring out of fountain-plinths in squares, however traditional it might be, jars against my Australian sense that water is scarce. But we are in Europe, water is not scarce. A friend, staying in the English countryside, had her hosts state that the dry weather was being hard on the plants. “Well, you could water them” she said. Apparently, they looked at her as if she was from Mars.

Saw a t-shirt that had the Rialto bridge, Michelangelo’s David and the Colosseum on it; loved the subtext–Venezia has canals and the glorious city built on land we created; Firenze has the glories of Renaissance art; nothing worth mentioning has happened in Rome for about two millennia. [And Soutern Italy doesn’t count.]

The narrow, weaving, curving streets of Venice between looming three-story buildings (so no visible landmarks most of the time) making navigating through said streets an adventure, particularly as many of the alley ways are not even marked.

Looking at the venerated, mummified remains in glass-sided coffins in Catholic churches, the Salafist accusation that Shia are “corpse worshippers” comes to mind. Looking at the opulence of Catholic Churches, Catholics really are the Hindus of the Christian world. (The Orthodox even more so, but there is very little theological difference between them.)

One’s menu Italian generally interacted fine with serving staff’s menu English.

Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a late C15th church, effectively the first Renaissance church in Venice and the most beautiful church I had ever seen. (Ezra Pound praised it in one of his Cantos.) Passing it again later, a service was in progress, it is still a functioning church.

One of the themes of the history of the Jewish Ghetto in the Jewish Museum was that the Jews would be getting along and getting ahead (e.g. being pioneers in high quality printing), and then the Papacy would put the boot in (e.g. ban the production of Jewish religious texts).

The Grand Canal is magical by night. Architectural magnificence from the high medieval to now.


  1. kvd
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Good stuff Lorenzo; always interesting to ‘see’ places through another’s eyes. How is the birdlife? Sparrows, pigeons, seagulls, starlings etc. My now vague memory of Rome was wall to wall pigeons.

  2. Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    And, even better, Lorenzo provides us with a chit-chat thread 🙂

    I do wish you could post pics, but I am sure they will appear upon your return.

    Also, I saw the police in Rome spot-fining people for failing to stop at traffic lights last visit: something has got into the Italians!

  3. kvd
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Chit-chat? Well my daughter just reported in on her much looked forward-to Bell Shakespeare Macbeth; asked for a summary, she replied “only one witch, and no forrest”. I suspect that will become a family classic about these are harsh economic times we live in 😉

    And one for Mel, to lighten the mood, and to encourage all that replanting

  4. conrad
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I work in Padova sometimes, and I must say it is very civilized, and I like the political grafitti too — my favourite is that someone has sprayed 1984 around the place. I was tempted to start that trend here.

  5. Posted June 3, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks. Padova, I did not notice, wasn’t there long enough. Venezia, quite a lot of very unthreatened pigeons (the spikes on surfaces to stop the pigeons landing amused me), very few seagulls. It is a very clean city, so not much for them to scavenge off.

  6. Posted June 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Deeply civilised. And it had one advantage over Venezia–much easier to get a proper Italian hot chocolate, a proper cioccolata calda. (In Venezia, apparently that is something you do in Winter.)

  7. Posted June 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks. Wasn’t in Padova long enough to notice the bird life. Venezia had remarkably unthreatened pigeons, though the spikes on surfaces to stop the pigeons landing amused me. Only a couple of seagulls, but it is a very clean city so not much scavenging for them.

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