Saturday, 26 February 2011

Veneto - it's Carnival time!

It's the first day of the Venetian carnevale today - one of the world's most famous carnivals, renowned for its masked balls and costume parades.  The 2011 event will run until the 8th of March, which is also International Women's Day and the theme this year is Ottocento – Da Senso a Sissi – La città delle donne, 'The 1800's - from Senso to Sissi - City of women'.

The 150th anniversary of Italian reunification will be on the 17th of March this year and the theme of the Venetian Carnevale references the famous novella Senso, by Roman-born writer, Camillo Boito, which is set in the 1860's and deals with the wars against Austria that led to reunification.  It also explores the power of female sexuality and the main female character, an Italian countess called Livia, who falls in love with an Austrian officer called Franz and betrays her homeland with disastrous consequences. 

I think Sissi is a reference to Elisabeth of Bavaria, who became the Empress of Austria and was a 19th century fashion-icon.  I'm still trying to gauge the apparent contradictions involved in Venice's love/hate relationship with Austria and the fact that International women's day will be some kind of fashion show! 

Origins of the Carnevale

Volta mask
 The origins of the word 'carnival' is uncertain.  I've read at least three possible meanings - carne levare 'removing the meat', which is a reference to the fact that carnival is the last big knees-up before Lent and all the fasting in the run up to Easter.  I've also read that it comes from an expression carni vale which means 'farewell to meat', but could also mean something like 'removing your flesh' in reference to the masks and role-playing that the Venetian carnivale is so famous for, ie. you literally become someone else for the period of the carnival.  I think my favourite theory is the one that links the carnival to an Ancient Roman festival celebrating the Egyptian goddess Isis, which was known as Carrus Navalis (ship cart) and involved a ceremony in the sea that marked the beginning of the sailing year.  This resonates with that other great Venetian festival La Sensa when Venice is 'married' to the sea in an elaborate ceremony, although this usually takes place in May. 

The Politics of the Venetian Carnevale

Whatever the meaning, there is definitely a connection with the coming of Lent, although I suspect that this might have been yet another example of how the church latched on to existing pagan festivals and there is something very un-Christian about the gaudy colours, the unrestrained sexual behaviour and the raucous nature of the event!  I hear distant echoes of a Roman bacchanalia.  Originally the Venetian festival lasted almost six months and, in the decadent 18th century, it provided impoverished nobles with an opportunity to 'dress down' and disguise their poverty.  It's also believed that the carnevale was a kind of social safety-valve for Venetian society - the rulers could dress as the ruled and vice versa, men could dress as women and women as men. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Venetian carnevale came to an end with the arrival of Napoleon.  It was revived again in the 1970's and, for a brief moment, enjoyed a genuine sense of being a community-focused street festival, before it became the tourist extravaganza that it is today.  Even in the 18th century, Venice received something like 30,000 visitors during the carnival period.  Nowadays, 30,000 people visit the Venice carnevale every day!  Its value as a tourist draw is not to be underestimated and the list of sponsors for the 2011 carnevale indicates that it's seen as a major commercial opportunity by some of Italy's top companies.

Carnival around the world

Carnival del Pueblo, South London
 The Italians take their carnivals very seriously, but it's a concept which spread from Italy to the rest of the world, so that we have even more famous carnivals in places as far away as New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.  It's much more popular in Catholic countries, therefore it tends to be celebrated in southern Europe and the southern parts of Germany and the Netherlands, as well as the Catholic countries in Eastern Europe.  It's also celebrated widely in the Caribbean and this tradition has resulted in the Notting Hill carnival in London every August which, although it's a truly secular event, it follows the blueprint of carnivals the world over.  I was quite surprised to learn that carnival is also celebrated in parts of India, especially in places like Goa, which has connections to catholic Portugal.  I know how much Indians love festivals!  I think carnival is just one of many. 

Interestingly, I grew up in a catholic country, Ireland, but I've still never really experienced a proper carnival, as we don't celebrate carnival in Ireland.  I guess we make up for it with St Patrick's day on the 17th of March.

Carnevale 2011

Carnevale will be celebrated today in Piazetti San Marco, with the Gran Brindisi or 'grand toast', kicking off at 19:00.  So if you're in Venice today, make sure to get down there and celebrate on behalf of the rest of us!  There's also the Festa delle Marie, a sort of beauty pageant today and the Festa Veneziana and Vollo dell'angelo (Flight of the Angel) tomorrow.  You can find out more about what's happening at the official web page for this year's carnevale (they have some news and pages in English). 

Carnival masks

Il Medico delle Peste
 One of the most famous aspects of the Venice carnevale is the carnival masks.  There are different types, the most famous one being the Bauta which is a plain white mask that covers your face, but leaves your mouth uncovered so you can still eat, drink and be merry!  Eye masks, mostly worn by women, are called Columbine Masks and are very pretty, usually decorated and may have feathers attached.  They are also sold on batons, so you can easily remove the mask from your face, if you need to.  Moretta masks are only for dedicated carnivalists - they are made of a black material which preserves the outline of your face.  They're held on by holding part of the material in your mouth, which I imagine makes eating, speaking and even breathing pretty difficult!  Volta masks are also plain white and non-decorative - they cover the whole face, with no opening for the mouth and they are often attached to elaborate headdresses.  The most striking (and scariest) mask, mostly worn by men, is the Medico delle Peste or 'the Plague Doctor' which is a mask with a long beak, stemming from actual masks worn by doctors during the plague.  They used to keep herbs in the beak of the mask, which helped keep the air that they were breathing pure. 

There is another interesting website on the carnevale where you can find out more about the traditions and masks that the carnevale is so famous for.

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The photos of the masks at the Venice carnevale were taken by flickruser bazzmann aka Marco Trevisan, who is the CEO of Bazzman SRL, a local media and communication company.  You can see more of Marco's photostream at the following link

The photo of the Carnival del Pueblo, South London is by flickruser snappybex aka Bex Ross, who is a Science Communicator (what is that?) originally from Edinburgh in Scotland.  You can see more of Bex's photos at

Thanks to Bex and Marco for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Veneto - the Jews of Venice

Something I didn't know about Venice was that it gave the world its first ever ghetto in the early 16th century.  Seen from an early 21st century viewpoint and after everything that happened during the last century, it's easy to condemn this action as a repressive one and a dangerous precedent for future centuries.  From a 16th century perspective, it's a bit more complicated.  Jewish history in Europe goes back thousands of years and, whilst the relationship between Jewish populations and their Christian and Muslim neighbours was never completely harmonious, there were times and places when everyone seemed to get along quite well. 

I first became aware of this when I was visiting Girona in Catalunya, a few years back.  Girona had a flourishing Jewish community back in the 12th century and Jews and Christians lived peacefully together for hundreds of years.  All of this changed with the Edict of Expulsion which saw all Jews expelled from Spain and Spanish territories, including the islands of Sardinia and Sicily - Sicily also had a sizeable Jewish population at this time.  The Portuguese expelled their Jewish population in 1497 and those who left, known as the Sephardi Jews sought refuge in more tolerant places in the Ottoman Empire and countries in northern Europe, like the Netherlands.  You can find out more about Jews in the Netherlands in my blog about the famous Sephardi philosopher Baruch de Spinoza

The Spanish expulsions triggered (yet another) wave of persecution against Jews in western and southern Europe.  Naples, which was also under Spanish rule, didn't expel its Jewish population, but the persecution of Jews was relentless in Italy throughout the early 16th century  It was in this context that the Venetians decided to confine their Jewish population to an area of the city which was uninhabited, ie. an island in the middle of the Cannaregio district of Venice, accessible by two main bridges and a place where the city's Jewish population could easily be 'protected' from anti-Jewish pogroms of their Christian neighbours. 

The origin of the word ghetto

Venice Ghetto by Adrian Murphy

I've read a few different sources on this, but most ethnologists agree that the word ghetto is a derivative of the Venetian word geto from the verb 'to throw/cast' (cf. French  jeter) which doesn't refer to the fact that the Jews were 'cast away' on this island, but rather to the slag heaps from the foundry where metal was cast.  It's hardly surprising that the Venetians came up with the ghetto concept, considering the nature of Venice, which is made up of hundreds of islands, separated (as the Jewish ghetto was) by canals and linked only by boats or bridges.  It was easy to 'seal off' an area of the city and force the Jewish population to live there. 

Although the ghetto was ostensibly a 'safe' place for Jews to live, guarded by Christian watchmen (who were paid for by the Jewish population), in reality it was, like most of the world's subsequent ghettos, nothing more than a living prison.  Jews were only allowed to roam the rest of the city during the daytime and were forced to wear red caps and badges, so they could easily be identified.  As in other parts of the Europe, the Jews were limited in terms of the professions they could have - in Venice, they were limited to work involving textiles, taxes and medicines.  Jewish doctors were renowned and the Venetian Doge always had a Jew as his personal physician.  I wonder what happened if the Doge were taken ill at night!

Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic?

Shylock and Jessica by Gottlieb
 Probably the most famous representation of life for Jews in Venice was Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.  To my great shame, I've never read the play but, as part of my research for this blog, I watched the 2004 film version by Michael Radford.  It's a great movie, with a star-studded cast, including Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino (who played Shakespeare's most famous Jew, Shylock), Lynn Collins and Joseph Fiennes.  By all accounts, the movie uses most of the lines in the original play and, whilst I don't think it was Shakespeare's greatest play (although my unfamiliarity with the text could be clouding my judgement), it did have some classic lines, such as 'all that glisters is not gold' and I was really moved by Shylock's famous Hath not a Jew eyes? speech.

As to whether or not Shakespeare was anti-Semitic?  The story of The Merchant of Venice is incredibly anti-Semitic and Shylock is presented as a caricature, more than a character, a stereotype of the Jew that an Elizabethan audience would recognise and despise.  But in the Hath not a Jew eyes? speech, it's as though Shakespeare is trying to get through the prejudices of his audience and is appealing for greater tolerance towards Jews. 

In the modern age, everyone wants to claim Shakespeare.  We all want to know whether or not he was gay, or racist, anti-Semitic, sexist or even whether or not he was actually a she.  Whilst I think it's important to speculate and this raises some interesting questions for discussion, Shakespeare was writing for an audience that he (or she!) understood very well and I'm not sure his personal opinions really came into it.  If a writer creates a character that is anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic, does that mean that the writer is any of these things?  I don't think it does.  Writers portray the society they live in and Shakespeare's plays reflect the world as it was in the late 16th century. 

I think Radford recognised the need to adapt Shylock for a 21st century audience and although he doesn't contemporise the play, as Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo and Juliet, he does direct a portayal of Shylock that is more sympathetic to a modern audience.  The danger of The Merchant of Venice is the powerful nature of Shylock's caricaturisation.  The play was popular in Nazi Germany, when it was used to vindicate the hatred the Nazis had for Jewish people.

Extension of the meaning of ghetto

One way or another, the idea of the Jewish ghetto caught on and, although it wasn't always called this, there were Jewish ghettos in most European cities.  Whilst western Europeans were persecuting Jews in the 16th century, the Polish Empire was pretty tolerant so that, by the 20th century, Poland and other eastern European countries had large Jewish populations.  When the Nazis invaded Poland, they re-established the Jewish ghettos of eastern Europe, the most famous one being in Warsaw.  The Warsaw Ghetto saw an estimated 400,000 Jews cramped in unbearable conditions in a tiny area of the city.  100,000 people died of disease and starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto, even before the Nazis started carting Jews off to the concentration camps, like the one at Auschwitz/Oświęcim.  The ghetto was completely destroyed after an uprising in 1943.

The modern concept of ghetto has extended to include any section of a city that has a large ethnic (and usually impoverished) population.  Some of the most famous ghettos are in the United States, especially in New York, where ghettos were established in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in East Harlem and in Brighton Beach.  Of course, modern ghettos aren't usually enforced by law, but come into existence due to immigration patterns and are usually reinforced by a vicious circle of invisible 'social boundaries' that keep the ghetto's inhabitants impoverished and out of the wealthier (and usually whiter) parts of the city.  Sociologists like Loic Wacquant described this as hyperghettoization, which leads to certain parts of a city becoming unmanageable in terms of providing infrastructure.  When hyperghettoization occurs, it becomes even harder to break the cycles of violence and poverty for the people who live there. 

The early 20th century saw a lot of black people migrate from the poorer southern states of the US, to the industrial cities of the north, such as Chicago and Detroit.  Much more than in the UK, American cities seem to be incredibly segregated, in terms of race.  Not through deliberate planning by the city authorities, but because of immigration patterns and the effects of hyperghettoization.  In the post World War 2 period, a social phenomenon, known as 'white flight', emerged, where poorer white families in the ghettos, who had more social mobility due to the colour of their skin, moved up the social ladder and migrated to the suburbs of places like Chicago and Detroit, leaving the ghettos almost completely inhabited by black communities, compounding the alienation and ghettoization of black culture.

Venice skyscraper by Jon Kleinman
 Getting back to the idea of the ghetto as a place of protection of refuge, there are constant debates in the LGBT community about the ghettoization of gay culture.  Whilst many modern cities have a specific gay area, often called a 'village', like Soho in London or Le Marais in Paris (which was previously a Jewish ghetto), many gay people argue that there is a real danger in living separately from the mainstream of society.  Ghettoization can reinforce the isolation of the gay community and led to greater stereotyping of people who are LGBT.

The Venetian ghetto today

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the original Jewish ghetto in Venice, is that Venetian Jews were still confined there until as late as 1866.  Although Napoleon's armies pulled down the gates of ghettos all over Europe, the Austrians re-established the Venetian ghetto and Jews continued to live there for most of the 19th century.  As the population of the ghetto increased, its inhabitants were forced to build upwards, so that the buildings of the ghetto began to ressemble 19th-century skycrapers!  The ghetto is still in existence today and is somewhat of a cultural centre for Jews in Venice.  Like most of Venice, it's now more of a tourist attraction. 

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The image of the Venice Ghetto sign is by flickruser adrian, acediscovery, a fellow-Irish man, originally from Cork, but now living in London.  Adrian is also interested in travel and the world around us - you can see more of his work (both writing and imagery) on his blog  You can also follow Adrian on Twitter @acediscovery

The image of Shylock and Jessica is by the Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb and is in the public domain. 

The image of the 'Venice skyscraper' is by flickuser drdad aka, Jon Kleinman who is from Dayton, Ohio.  You can see more of Jon's photos at

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Veneto - the Rise and Fall of the Most Serene Republic of Venice

When I first moved to Uzbekistan and visited the local history museum, it amazed me to discover a whole timeline of history that I had no idea existed.  It was like a parallel history to the one I had been taught in school, which focused on Europe and Ireland.  Suddenly discovering a whole new set of kings, wars and revolutions, was incredibly bewildering and I'm still not sure I've managed to get my head around the complexity of the history of Central Asia.  I then had a similar experience in Thailand - wars with the Khmer and the Burmese that somehow echoed the turbulent contemporary history of Europe, but happened for reasons that seem somehow unfathomable and involved kings and rulers whose names I find impossible to remember.

Doges, democracy and decadence

With the Veneto, being in Europe, I thought I would have a head start but, oddly, it's been a similar experience.  Until I read Elizabeth Horodowich's excellent overview A Brief History of Venice, I had no idea just how different Venice's history is.  Although it's part of Europe and was affected by and engaged in events that were happening around it, there is a whole parallel world of Doges, democracy and decadence that is often at odds with the history of Europe, as I learned it in school. 

I guess Venice is unique in every way and it should come as no surprise that a city built on water, turned its back on the feudal system of the mainland and built a different kind of society that was surprisingly modern and democratic in appearance.  Comparing the history of mainland Italy with that of Venice, Horodowich notes that Venice's history is shrouded in mystery.  No one can be entirely sure whether or not Venice was indeed the Most Serene Republic with a functioning democracy that engaged its citizens, or whether the reality was a lot more sinister than we imagine. That Venice was some kind of medieval totalitarian state, secretive and repressive to the extent that its darker side has been obscured by the mists of time. 

The Veneto in Roman times

Although there was a region in Roman Italia called Venetia et Histria, the city of Venice didn't exist in Roman times.  As the Roman Empire went into decline, Germanic tribes from the north, most importantly the Lombards, began to take over northern Italy.  The people of the Veneto found themselves at the crossroads of the conflict and raiding, which encouraged many mainland Venetians to get out of the way and seek sanctuary in the islands of the Venetian lagoon, safe from harm and a boat journey away from the marauding tribes.  As Venice turned its back on the chaos of the mainland, it began to build a new civilisation, nominally still under the control of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire with the nearest regional capital being Ravenna. 

It is widely recognised that Venice tended to look east to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), rather than west to Rome and I think this is a major factor that led to Venice developing a parallel history to Rome, the rest of Italy and the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, which is now Western Europe.  When Ravenna fell to the Lombards in the 8th century, Venice found itself in the position of being cut off from the Western Roman Empire and many miles away from the Byzantine capital.  From its very early days, Venice nurtured an independent streak that would be characteristic of the republic for the one thousand or so years of its existence.

The Rise of the Venetian Empire

Starting out as an 'island nation', it's hardly surprising that the Venetians became incredible boat-builders.  I'm sure we've all heard of the Atlantic Slave triangle, which brought many West African slaves to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and North America.  It surprised me to learn that this concept had a precedent in medieval times, where astute traders from Venice, Genoa and Pisa, would take slaves from the Black Sea and, what is, modern-day Russia, bring them to the Middle East, notably Egypt and return to Italy with exotic goods to sell to their Germanic neighbours. 

Venice dominated the spice trade of the Middle Ages.  With protectionist measures that meant the spices they brought back could only be bought or sold in Venice, the city became an incredibly multicultural 'shopping mall' where traders from all around western and northern Europe came to find spices like cinnamon and ginger.  I don't know if it's testament to our mediocre food, but the spice trade was incredibly important to Europe and proved to be the driving force of European expansion in Africa, Asia and the Americas.  For a while Venice had it good and the spice trade brought immense wealth to the city.  Although never particularly concerned about maintaining a land-based empire, the Venetians began to hold onto important trading posts such as Durazzo (Durres in Albania), Crete, Negroponte (Evia in Greece) and Cyprus. 

The role of Venice during the Crusades

The rise of the Franks and Normans in the west and the Seljuk Turks in the east brought about the Crusades, with knights and warriors travelling from Western Europe to recapture the Holy Lands and drive back the growing influence of Islam.  Although the Venetians were more interested in trading peacefully with Muslim tribes, than making war on them, they found themselves in the perfect position to supply the crusading armies, with goods and ships that could transport them to the Middle East. 

By the time of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century, the Venetians had managed to convince the Norman and Frankish crusaders to take a detour via Constantinople, then the heart of Orthodox Christianity, to settle some grievances the Venetians had with the Byzantine Empire.  The crusaders ransacked Constantinople, massacring their fellow-Christians and plundering the city's great wealth.  They never made it to the Holy Land during this particular Crusade!

Venetian 'democracy'

One of the reasons for Venice's great success in the early modern period was because of their system of government.  Whilst most European people at this time were landless peasants, who had little direct engagement with government or the decisions of their Kings/leaders, the Venetian doges were elected by a complex lottery voting system that, whilst it didn't involve every citizen of Venice, it did widen the participation of the nobility in the government of the Venetian state.  One doge, Marin Falier, famously tried to usurp power in the 14th century and was publicly beheaded as a grim reminder to future doges that the Venetian people, not the doge, were ultimately responsible for the management of the Venetian state!

Other progressive systems of civic engagement, such as the colleganza form of trading, which encouraged talented individuals to get involved in trading, regardless of their actual wealth and without having a lot of upfront capital, helped Venice thrive and its citizens prosper.  The first ever giro or banking system was used in Venice, as Venetian merchants found that they didn't want to be carrying around large sums of gold.  Venetians were incredibly adept at doing business and turning a profit and its not without good reason that Shakespeare wrote about The Merchant of Venice, rather than The Merchant of Genoa or The Merchant of Pisa

Another very obvious factor that helped 'democratise' Venetian society is that the republic's wealth wasn't built on land ownership, as was the case in the rest of medieval Europe, but on trade.  Even small traders could make it in Venetian society and the ideology of the state ensured that Venetian citizens worked together for the greater prosperity of the city.  On the darker side of this were the Signori di Notte, one of Europe's first police forces and the Council of Ten, a secretive group of nobles that took measures to safeguard the security of the state.

Venice in the 14th century

Horodowich argues the decline of the Venetian Republic started as far back as the 14th century.  Three events combined to bring the Venetians to their knees and knock them off their pedestal as a dominant power in southern Europe.  The earthquake of 1348 killed hundreds of people in Venice and coincided with the start of the Black Death.  That both things happened at the same time must have seemed like some kind of vengeance from God.  Venetian and Genoese ships brought rats carrying fleas infected with the bubonic plague back to Europe from Caffa (modern-day Azov in Russia), where the Venetians and Genoese had (uncustomarily) united to fight against the Tatars of the Crimea and the Don. 

An estimated 500-600 people died every day in Venice in the summer of 1348 and the city saw it's population fall by around 50%.  Fifty-five of Venice's patrician families were wiped out by the Black Death.

The third major disaster was the War of Choggia (1378-1381), which saw Genoese fleets occupy the Adriatic and was the closest Venice had ever come to being captured by an invading army. 

The Advent of a New World order

In the 15th and 16th centuries three further factors contributed to the decline of Venice, namely:

- the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453) and the subsequent loss of Venetian territories in the eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus in 1570 and their beloved Crete (although not until 1669 and after a 22-year siege, possibly the longest siege in history!)
- The growing influence of the Portuguese and the fact that they had found an alternative sea route to India. At first the Venetians weren't concerned about Portugal's growing influence on trade and they failed to recognise the significance of the 'New World' and the shift in global power to the West and North of Europe.
- the battle of Agnadello curtailed Venice's growing territorial ambitions in northern Italy.  It was a decisive defeat of Venetian troops by the combined armies of the League of Cambrai, an alliance of European countries that wished to break the power of the Venetian Republic, for once and for all.  In his book, The Prince, Machiavelli famously stated that in one day, the Venetians had "lost what it had taken them eight hundred years' exertion to conquer". 

Decadence and decay

By the early 17th century, Venice had been well and truly surpassed by the emerging powers of France, Britain and the Netherlands.  The independent nature of Venetian society and the great wealth that remained with the many palazzi and noble families, gave Venice a reputation as a place for freedom of expression, decadence and debauchery.  The entire republic was ex-communicated in 1606 and the Jesuits left the city, in a dramatic procession, refusing to live in a city which had fallen foul of Rome.  Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries was a city known for its wildly pagan Carnivale, for its courtesans and Casanova, for its prostitutes who exposed their breasts on the Ponte delle Tette in a effort to discourage Venetian men from engaging in sodomy which was, unsurprisingly, all the rage! 

At a time when the world around them was changing, the Venetians failed to adapt and modernise.  They refused to let English and Dutch ships use the city as a trading port, thereby losing out to Trieste and Ancona.  The Venetian nobility, accustomed to extravagance, continued to spend excessively, despite the decline in trade.  By the end of the 17th century, the city was full of barnabotti, impoverished nobles who'd gambled away vast fortunes and were living on state pensions.  The heavily burdened state began to sell noble titles to wealthy Germans and Spaniards, so that the list of 'official' noble families in the Libro d'Oro became debased by the presence of non-Venetians and the nouveau-riche

Napoleon and the destruction of Venice

By the time Napoleon arrived on the scene, Venice was an incredibly weak state teetering on economic collapse.  Before I read Horodowich's book, I had no idea just how much damage Napoleon's army did to Venice.  Just as the Venetians and Crusaders had ransacked Constantinople, the French troops stole, smashed and defiled everything in sight!  Apparently Napoleon hated the decadence of Venice and ordered the destruction of anything containing the Venetian symbol of the winged lion.  By the time Venice was handed over to the Austrians, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the French had destroyed approximately 80-90 churches and razed 100 palaces to the ground. 

Venice under Austrian rule was a mere shadow of its former self.  Venetians were living in extreme poverty and, although the Austrians didn't disrespect the city, in the way the French had, neither did they value it, seeing Venice as an unimportant backwater, in their expansive empire.  One thing the Austrians did do was to build a railway from the mainland to Venice, symbolically 'anchoring' the city in a way that confirmed its dependence on the rest of Europe.

Venice in modern times

It's no wonder then that the Venetians welcomed the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.  When I started researching for this blog, the Irishman in me had decided that Venice was somehow forced into a union with the rest of Italy and that it should somehow still be a free nation.  Whilst I do think it's a real shame that Venice lost its independence after more than 1,000 years, I also now realise that the unification of Italy was a good thing for Venice and helped the city recover some of its former glory.

Of course, the Venice that we know today is one of the Biennale, gondolas, uncontrollable tourism and incredibly expensive real estate.  It's sad that many Venetians can no longer live in their city, which seems to have been transformed into some kind of living museum.  Then there is the concern about rising water levels.  The flood of 1966 devastated the city, contributed to the recognition of Venice as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and highlighted the fragility of this truly historical place, which really isn't like anywhere else on earth. 

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

All the images of Venice are from the photostream of flickuser kari_1981 - Kari is a research economist, originally from Bangalore, but now living in Berlin.  You can see his entire series of Venetian photos at

Thanks kari_1981 for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons License. 

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Veneto - In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene.

Verona is the setting for one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet.  As tomorrow is St Valentine's Day and I'm blogging about the Veneto, I thought it would be apt to write a blogpost about this, probably the world's greatest love story!


The story of Romeo and Juliet has been in existence in one form or another since antiquity.  One of the earliest versions was that of Pyramus and Thisbe retold by Ovid in his collection of myths, Metamorphoses.  Where exactly Shakespeare got his version of the story from is a matter of debate, but he may have been influenced by a collection of tales called The Palace of Pleasure that was published in London in 1566 by a civil servant called William Painter.  Painter in turn 'borrowed' the story from a poet called Arthur Brook, who had translated the original text of the Italian poet, Mateo Bandello

Regardless of how Shakespeare got his hands on the story, we know that Italian romances were incredibly fashionable in 16th-century England.  Romeo and Juliet wasn't the only play that Shakespeare set in the Veneto - The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Twelfth Night and The Two Gentlemen of Verona were all set in and around the Veneto.  Whether or not Shakespeare ever read The Palace of Pleasure, he would no doubt have been influenced by the general tendency to use Italy and the Veneto as the setting for these plays.  Whilst, in a sense, Shakespeare was capitalising on the popularity of Italian stories like Romeo and Juliet, he managed to take the story even further and turn it into a classic, which has influenced generations of writers, songwriters, playwrights and movie makers ever since!

Romeo and Juliet by Sir Frank Dicksee
 Universal stories

Whilst Shakespeare could be criticised for reworking someone else's story, I strongly believe that there is no such thing as an original plot.  Every story that exists, exists because it's part of the universal human experience.  Romeo and Juliet, Prometheus, Hamlet, Oedipus - these are all stories that run deep in the human psyche. What's interesting is how they are retold by writers/poets/film-makers and how the stories are portrayed in a way that reflects the culture and concerns of the society they are being retold for.  It's interesting to see different versions of Romeo and Juliet and how these reflect the time that the plays/books/films were made. 

Shakespeare was a master of tension - Romeo and Juliet sometimes defies classification - is it a love story?  Or a tragedy?  Or even a comedy?  By alternating tragic and comic scenes, Shakespeare increased the tension of the story:  one minute you are on tenterhooks, doubting that Romeo and Juliet's love will survive the conflicts that surround them, the next you have relaxed into a false sense of joy and optimism.  Shakespeare managed to recreate the sensations we all feel when falling in love - the elation, the anxiety, the bravado, but also the fear of trusting someone so completely, with something that is so very fragile - the lover's heart!

Teenage Love

One thing that sits uncomfortably with a modern audience are the ages of Romeo and Juliet.  In modern times, Juliet is usually played by actresses who are older than 13, which is the age of the character in Shakespeare's play.  This is understandable, considering the nature of sexuality in the modern age.  On the other hand, I find the characterisation of Romeo and Juliet surprisingly modern.  Their love has the typically passionate obsession of a teenage crush.  It's a story about teenage love, written at a time when the concept of teenagers didn't really exist.  Yet again, I think Shakespeare was ahead of his time and can't help wondering if he's currently living in a flat in Brixton or somewhere, building a time machine that will take him back to the 16th century!

Juliet by Phillip H Calderon (1888)

Innumerable songs, books and movies have explored the theme of love and what it all means.  I can't help wondering what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet had lived happily ever after.  Would they have turned into a bickering old couple, who regretted having married so young - would it have ended in a messy divorce or would they have been one of those old couples you see, who still love each other passionately after decades of being together?  I guess there's no real point to wondering in this way.  Shakespeare understood the true nature of the story and that it had to end badly.  By bringing in death, he managed to eroticise a story that otherwise could have been incredibly trite and wouldn't have appealed to contemporary and future audiences in the way it has.

Zeffirelli's 1968 film version

One of the main reasons I started this blog was so I could discover seminal books, movies, food and music that everyone should learn about and know.  I can safely include Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet in this category.  It's an amazing film and is overwhelming in the rich colours and lush cinematography of a film that is very much of its time.  Zeffirelli used beautiful actors and created a movie that was both sensuous and engaging.  I studied Romeo and Juliet at school, but that was a long time ago and, despite the fact that many lines were cut from Zeffirelli's version, it all came flooding back to me.

One aspect of Zeffirelli's film that particularly impressed me was the way he managed to convey the fight scenes, as light-hearted taunting that eventually turned serious.  It captured the impulsiveness of young men and gave a very realistic depth to the violence of the story.  I think most young men who carry knives or guns have no sense of how dangerous a situation can become and how serious it is to take someone's life. 

I was also very impressed by the actress who played Juliet's Nurse - an incredibly complicated character to play, being the main comic relief in a story that is so unbelievably tragic. 

I'm posting a video from YouTube that shows the scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet - it also has the haunting soundtrack of the main song in Zeffirelli's movie, What is a Youth?

Other versions

I still love Baz Lurhmann's 1996 version William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and, in the same way that Zeffirelli captures the innocence and naked sensuality of the 60's, Luhrmann captures the grim beauty of life for the MTV generation.  Romeo and Juliet has been re-interpreted in so many ways - there have been feminist versions and queer versions, it has been set in 1950's Manhattan (Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story), in war-torn Israel and apartheid-era South Africa. 

Traditionalists may sneer at modern adaptations of Shakespeare's works, but surely that's the whole point of Shakespeare?  He adapted age-old stories to suit a 16th-century audience - it's only logical that modern artists and writers should adapt his work to suit the realities of the modern age. 

I'm going to leave you with another clip from YouTube - also when Romeo and Juliet first meet, but from Baz Lurhmann's movie this time, with the song in the soundtrack being Kissing You by Des'ree.  Enjoy!

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The images of Romeo and Juliet by the English painter Sir Frank Dicksee and that of Juliet by Philip H Calderon are from Wikimedia Commons.  They are in the public domain and are copyright-free.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Veneto - the Makings of a Venetian Feast!

I was really excited about making some traditional Venetian dishes and I spent most of last weekend, when I wasn't watching DVDs or blogging, preparing three Venetian meals, which I want to share with you below.

To compliment the three meals, I also went the extra mile to get some authentic Italian ingredients.  There's a really lovely shop in Marylebone, La Fromagerie, that stocks all kinds of regional European wines and cheeses, so I stopped off on my way from work, one day last week, to hunt down some Venetian cheese and wine.  Okay, it's a little bit pricey, but worth it, if you want to taste authentic Venetian ingredients. 

Asiago and Ciabatta
 For the cheese, I chose a sample of Asiago.  Probably the most famous Venetian cheese, it's a D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) and I got fresh Asiago, rather than mature, as I wanted to eat it with bread.  I also bought a fairly expensive bottle of Valpolicella, Villa Spinosa Classico Superiore from 2005.  To go with the cheese, I bought a delicious Ciabatta in Waitrose and a cheap bottle of Soave, a Venetian white wine, which I used in my cooking. 

Spaghetti alle Vongole

The first dish I prepared, on Saturday night, was a very traditional Spaghetti alle Vongole - the vongole in my case being some capesante (scallops) which I had in my freezer (I was being a bit economical with Saturday's meal!).  I also threw in some Gamberi (prawns) for good measure.  The other ingredients included:

 Olio d'oliva extra vergine Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Prezzemolo Parsley
4 spicchi di aglio 4 garlic cloves
2 scalogni 2 shallots
Burro non salato Unsalted butter
Peperoncino in polvere Chilli powder
Vino bianco White wine (preferably a Soave)

By the way, ignore the limone (lemon) in the photograph.  I got a bit too enthusiastic, when I was grabbing things from the fridge!

First I prepared the spaghetti in the normal way, making sure it was al dente and adding a big lump of unsalted butter to give it a slightly oily taste and stop it sticking to the pan.  I try to keep my spaghetti in boiling water for as short a time as possible and let it continue cooking in its own steam, with the water removed, when I take it off the heat.

Spaghetti with unsalted butter

Shallot & garlic with chilli powder

Next I fried the garlic and shallots until they had softened, adding the chilli powder to give it a bit of a kick.  Chilli is not something I would normally associate with Italian cuisine, but I think the food in Venice is a little bit spicier, which makes sense, considering Venice built its vast fortunes on the spice trade. 

After this I added the scallops, prawns and white wine with chopped parsley.  I simmered the dish for about 20 minutes, until the liquid had boiled off a little bit, then I served with the spaghetti. 

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Risi e Bisi

On Sunday morning, I turned my hand to Risi e Bisi or 'peas and rice', a very traditional Venetian dish which is associated with spring time.  It's a kind of soupy risotto - but it shouldn't be very liquidy.  It reminded me a lot of the Caribbean dish I love 'peas rice', except without the spices.  It was dead easy to make.  Here are the ingredients I used:

Ingredients for Risi e Bisi
 Prezzemolo Parsley
1 cipolla 1 onion
Pancetta tagliata a dadini Diced pancetta
Brodo vegetale Vegetable stock - it's good to make this from the pea shells, but I cheated with Oxo cubes!
Parmigiano-Reggiano (the original Parmesan cheese)
Burro non salato Unsalted butter
Arborio Risotto Risotto, short-grain rice - you'll find this in any supermarket in the UK
Piselli Peas - I used the frozen variety (cheating again!)

To start with I fried the chopped onion, then added the diced pancetta.  I let both of these cook for about 5 minutes, then added the rice.  I know some people struggle with risotto, but I think the key is extreme vigilance.  I covered the rice, onion and pancetta with vegetable stock, then topped up after a few minutes, when the risotto had absorbed the liquid, then topped up again, added the peas, then topped up again . . . and again, until I had added about a litre of vegetable stock to the pan. 

Fry the onion and pancetta

Add the risotto, stock and peas

Add the parsley
Add unsalted butter

Add Parmesan cheese

Risi e Bisi

To be honest, I probably added a little bit more stock than I normally would for a risotto, but I wanted to stick to the Venetian version of this dish, which is meant to be a little bit soupy.  Finally I added the chopped parsley, then the unsalted butter, then the parmigiano and served with thin slices of ciabatta, with the creamy asiago cheese! 

Sgombri Affumicati in Umido

My plans to make Anguille (Eel) in Umido were scuppered by the fact that my local Waitrose didn't have any eel (shame on them!).  I was really looking forward to cooking eel for the first time and it's incredibly Venetian!  Anyway, I had to improvise, so we had sgombri affumicati (smoked mackerel) instead.  I think in umido translates into English as 'in humid', but I'm not entirely sure what that means!  The ingredients I used were:

Ingredients for Sgombri in Umido
 Olio d'oliva Olive oil (a light one this time)
Passata di pomodoro Tomato passata (or concentrated tomato)
1 cipolla 1 onion
1 limone 1 lemon
1 spicchio di aglio 1 garlic clove
4 filetti di sgombro affumicato 4 smoked mackerel fillets
salvia sage
Vino bianco White wine

First I prepared the polenta.  I'm never quite sure how to do this, so I boiled some water, then added enough polenta to thicken into a sloppy paste.  I absolutely love polenta, but it can be unexciting, not to mention messy, when you serve it up.  To make things a little bit more interesting, I used the juice of the lemon to add a bit of zest to the polenta.  I then used a ramekin to mold polenta cakes - letting the polenta sit in the ramekin long enough to solidify, before turning each cake out onto a metal tray I use for cooking pizzas.  Once I had used up all the polenta in this way, I grilled the cakes, which helped harden the exterior, but left the polenta still soft and steamy inside.  Yum yum!

Tomato passata and Polenta

Making polenta cakes

Grilled Polenta cakes

I also prepared the tomato passata by heating it in a small saucepan, adding a glassful of white wine to give it a more liquidy texture and keeping it on a low heat until I was ready to add it to the fish.

Finally I fried the onion until it softened, added the smoked fish until it was heated through and starting to bubble a little bit.  Then I added the lemon rind, then the chopped sage.  When the mixture had cooked through, I poured over enough of the tomato passata to cover everything, let it come to boiling point, then reduced the heat and simmered for about 15 minutes. 

Fry the onion and smoked fish

Add the lemon rind

Add the parsley

Add the tomato passata

I served with the grilled polenta cakes, a couple of slices of ciabatta and the delicious Valpolicella. 

Why not give this a try at home - if I can do it, anyone can, believe me!

Sgombri Affumicati in Umido

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

All photos of the food were taken by me.  Please feel free to reuse these images under the Creative Commons License, Attribution Share Alike - preferably with a link to this blog!