Sunday, 2 January 2022

The masks of Venice, in a time of quarantine
and pandemic, exploring the old and new

Sitting by the Grand Canal on a balcony in the Hotel San Cassiano in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The city of Venice has been celebrating the 1600th anniversary of its founding. The celebrations began on 25 March 2021, and continue until at least 25 March 2022, highlighting the history, the culture and the qualities that have made Venice the unique place it is.

Tradition claims the first stone of the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto (also known as San Giacom├ęto), was laid on 25 March 421, making it the oldest church in Venice. Historians, of course, do not agree on an exact date. But, from an early date, people were moving in and out of the Lagoon, and these first settlers were joined by people fleeing the Italian mainland and the attacks of the Barbarians.

I was back in Venice at the end of the year, celebrating some anniversaries and family milestones. Venice is celebrated for its elaborate and exotic masks during Carnival, in the weeks before Lent. But in those weeks immediately before Advent, everyone was wearing a facebmask, on the waterbuses, in the squares and narrow alley ways, in shops and even on gondolas.

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Northern Italy was one of the first parts in Europe to suffer the dire consequences of letting the pandemic go unchecked. Venice is also the city that gives us the word ‘quarantine’ at a time of plague. The word quarantena in the Venetian dialect means ‘forty days.’ Between 1348 and 1359, the Black Death wiped out about 30% of the population of Europe. To prevent the spread of plague-related diseases, ships and people arriving in Venice spent 40 days in isolation to prevent the spread of plague-related diseases.

This was probably my sixth or seventh time to return to Venice. In mid-November, the tourists seem to be few in number, and it almost seemed we had the canals and the lagoon to ourselves. This time, I was staying in the Hotel San Cassiano, housed in the Ca’ Favretto, home of the 19th-century painter Giacomo Favretto.

The hotel is in the Santa Croce district, just a few minutes’ walk from the Rialto Bridge and market. Each morning and each evening, we sat on the balcony enjoying our own intimate views of the Grand Canal.

We visited Saint Mark’s once again, dined near Rialto Bridge, and spent a lengthy afternoon in the Ghetto. But in a city as old as this, no matter how familiar anyone may be with its sites, it is always good to visit somewhere new, and so we used our tickets on vaporetti to do some island hopping in the Lagoon.

A winter stroll on the beach on the Lido of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lunch on the Lido
with Byron and Goethe


One morning, we caught a vaporetto from Zattere, near Saint Mark’s Square, to the Lido, a long and narrow island, a thin strip of land, 11 km long and hardly 1 km wide, sheltering the city from the Adriatic Sea. Its beauty is celebrated in the poetry of Byron and Goethe, yet it is often missed by tourists.

The Lido is home to about 20,400 people and the Venice Film Festival takes place there in August and September. It developed in the 19th century as a tourist resort, with many 19th century villas in the Liberty style – the Italian version of Art Nouveau – and many grand hotels.

Arriving on the Lido, the first landmark seen by most visitors is the large green copper dome of Tempio Votivo, a war memorial built in 1925-1935 and designed by the architect Giuseppe Torres. This is the last major religious building in the lagoon, built to give thanks that Venice escaped World War I without major damage, especially during the bombing on 27 February 1918.

The graves in the new Jewish cemetery on Lido include the family of Adolfo Ottolenghi, Chief Rabbi of Venice, who was murdered in Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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During our morning on the Lido, we walked along the beach and visited the churches and the cemeteries. The old Jewish cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe and is a jewel of medieval art. It dates from 1386, when the Republic of Venice granted the Jewish community a small plot of uncultivated land.

The graves include those of the poet Sarah Coppio Sullam and leading figures in the cultural life of the ghetto in the 16th and 17th centuries. Elaborate sarcophagi from the 18th century, are more ornate in their decoration, decorated with rampant lions or crowned eagles, the seven-branched menorah, the Lion of Judah, Jacob’s ladder, ram’s horns and palm trees.

The graves in the new Jewish cemetery, which opened nearby at the end of the 18th century, include the family of Adolfo Ottolenghi (1885-1944), Chief Rabbi of Venice (1919-1944), who was murdered in Auschwitz, and Michelangelo Jesurum (1843-1909), the founder of lace manufacturing in Venice and Burano.

After a walk on the beach, we strolled back along the main street of Lido, Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta, known to everyone as Gran Viale. The street crosses the whole island, from the vaporetto stop to the sea. It is a mere 1 km in width, and is lined with hotels, shops and restaurants, and we had lunch on a quiet, but sun-kissed winter afternoon.

Ballet poms on the grave of the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev on Cimitero, the cemetery island of San Michele (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Among the living and
the dead on Cimitero


If the two Jewish cemeteries on the Lido are known to few tourists or visitors to Venice, I am sure too that few stop off at Cimitero, the cemetery island of San Michele, despite its proximity to the glass-making island of Murano.

If San Michele is not crowded by living tourists, it is certainly crowded by dead Venetians. Cimitero has been Venice’s cemetery since the early 1800s, when the occupying Napoleonic forces told the Venetians to start taking their dead across the water instead of burying them in Venice itself. There was a growing shortage of burial places in Venice, but it was also in the name of hygiene, and because of fear of the return of modern plagues.

Cimitero, with a large number of cypress trees and enclosed within high terracotta walls, was originally the two islets of San Michele and San Cristoforo della Pace, and the Monastery of Saint Michael (San Michele di Murano) was a centre of learning and printing. The monks there included the famous cartographer, Fra Mauro, who drew maps for European explorers.

The large church on the island, the Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, built in 1469, was the first Renaissance church in Venice and the first to be faced in white Istrian stone. But the monastery was suppressed under Napoleon, the monks were expelled in 1814, the two small islands became Venice’s major cemetery.

At one time, coffins were carried to the island on special funeral gondolas. The cemetery is wide and calm, with a series of large gardens, studded with cypress trees and cluttered with hundreds of thousands of tombs and graves. Some are lavishly monumental, with domes and sculptures and wrought-iron gates; many more are stacked high in modern terraces, like filing cabinets.

The graves of the writer Ezra Pound (right) and the violinist Olga Rudge (left), side-by-side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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There are two smaller, separate graveyards for other Christians. In contrast to the formal, tended graves and gardens of graves in other parts of the cemetery, the Greci and Protestant sections have an atmosphere of rustic decay. Some tombstones are covered in moss, a few are leaning over, and some are collapsing.

The graves in the Greci or Greek Orthodox cemetery include the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). Venice has always had a sizeable Greek population, and here too are the graves of bishops, merchants and refugees who fled Smyrna in the 1920s.

In the Evangelisti or Protestant graveyard, we found the graves of the American poet, critic and fascist collaborator, Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who influenced the work of TS Eliot, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Buried beside Pound is his mistress, the violinist Olga Rudge (1895-1996).

Here too are the graves of the Russian and American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), and the German painter August Wolf (1842-1915). Another gravestone is of Edward Douglas Guinness (1893-1983), a member of the banking branch of the family and a partner in Guinness Mahon.


Dusk turning to darkness on Giudecca, often described as ‘the real Venice’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dusk on Giudecca,
‘the real Venice’


As dusk turned to darkness one evening, we strolled through the island of Giudecca, described by some travel writers as ‘the real Venice,’ and visited the landmark church of Il Redentore, designed by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580).

Il Redentore is one of the pinnacles of Palladio’s career, and inside there is a rich collection of paintings, including works by Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese and Francesco Bassano.

The church was built in thanksgiving for the deliverance of Venice from a major outbreak of the plague in 1575-1576, when 46,000 people, or 25% to 30% of the population) died.

Canaletto painted the church many times, and every year the doge and senators walked across a specially built pontoon bridge from the Zattere to Giudecca to attend Mass in the church. The Festa del Redentore remains a major festival in Venice.

Venice is 1,600 years old, but it never goes out of date, and there is always something old and something new to uncover or discover.

Reflections on a vaporetto on the Grand Canal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This two-page feature as first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glenadlough) in January 2022



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