In the book, The City of Fallen Angels, written about Venice, one finds out that you can never believe anything a Venetian tells you—Including that statement (if said by a Venetian). Venetians have had a long love affair with secrecy. Our tour guide at the Palazzo Ducale stopped a young boy from snapping her photograph, “In Italy, photos are private. You didn’t ask me, so you can’t take my picture,” she said rather curtly. Intricate and ornate masks fill workshops and kiosks. Venetians were permitted to wear masks for many weeks leading up to both Christmas and Lent, so people could go masked for the better part of the year, and did so. With your identity kept secret one could pursue private vices or mischief with impunity. The labyrinthine alleyways, canals, and twisting passages that comprise Venice’s city center are the perfect backdrop for secret interaction.
The Venetian Republic was an oddity—a powerful, well positioned, thriving republic in a time when kingdoms were the norm. In order to maintain their political stability as well as internal order, the Venetians turned to secrecy. The Republic was ruled by a Doge, or President, who served for life. In his residence, the Doge’s Palace, we went on the Secret Itineraries Tour because it was here that all of the official secrets of the republic were kept. Babies baptized in Venice were written into a golden book (nobility) or a silver book (commoners). The most important job in the Republic apart from that of the Doge was that of the Grand Chancellor who was the only other official appointed for life, but chosen from the silver book. The Chancellor was in charge of all the Republic’s secret documents—commercial negotiations and transactions, and war and peace documents. This person was paid a handsome salary (today’s equivalent of 600,000 Euros) to make sure these secrets never left the Republic and compromised Venice’s position.
Just as the political life churned on secrecy, so did the justice system. We saw the stone faces on the Doge’s Palace that served as drop boxes for secret accusations. Anyone could drop a letter through the mouth denouncing someone for a crime. The feared Council of Ten and Council of Three handed down sentences swiftly after hearings conducted in secret. We saw the secret torture chamber where the judges elicited confessions using the strappato. These judges only worked at night under the cover of darkness. Then we saw the prisons and walked over the Bridge of Sighs, so called because as prisoners walked over it from the Palace to the prisons they took one last look at the azure waters of the lagoon and their last breath of freedom. We also saw the cell where the Palace’s most famous prisoner was kept—Giacommo Cassanova. He was a real person (denounced in secret by jealous husbands). He and a fellow prisoner who was a priest and his accomplice were the only prisoners who ever escaped the Doge’s Palace prisons. The daring escape involved files of iron, blackmail, a giant Bible, and some pasta. When Venetian officials caught up with him years later in Paris, they employed him as a secret spy. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, employ ’em. Cassanova later wrote his own memoirs, and we were able to buy a copy in Venice.
Young girls at slumber parties often play secret. A secret whisper gets passed around from one person to the next growing more skewed until it comes out the other end utterly changed. Venice is much like this childhood favorite. You start off on one street; it changes names without warning, dead ends in a canal, twists off onto a plaza, remains unlabeled until you come out the other end of your intended trail in a completely different place than your goal. Venice is a terrible city to grow old in, a terrible place to try and bring kids who still require strollers, a terrible place to try to navigate on crutches—it is a wonderful city to get lost in—and you will, and you should enjoy it. Like anyone with a good secret, the city sometimes keeps you at a distance, sometimes takes you into her confidence, and always keeps you in a little cloud of mystery and suspense—exciting and unbearable by turns.
If you want a secret on visiting, get off the golden path—just a tiny bit. The paths between the Rialto bridge, San Marco Square, and the train station are incessantly marched by armies of tourists armed with their 6 megapixel cameras hung off their necks like precious pendants, their fanny packs, and their bottled water litter desperately trying to keep up with a tour guide holding a parti-colored umbrella while simultaneously trying to shoot pictures of the pigeons. And let’s face it, you’re a tourist, too, but take a 20 minute walk across the Accademia and on the less trodden boardwalk. The kiosks pedaling gondoliers’ striped shirts and the straw hats that say “Venezia” disappear, the herds of tourists disappear, the noise and bustle disappear, and you are left to a lovely 5 course meal (the menu della casa) in the swirling, salty sea breeze, watching the boats come in and out and listening to the soft waves lap at the algae covered banks.
Or slip into a gondola that is hidden away in a little secret side canal instead of on the Grand Canal or off San Marco’s Square. You’ll experience a gondola ride the way Venetian residents of old did, and for a cheaper price.
Venice is also a city to shop in. Filled from canal to ceiling with beautiful Murano glass works, Burano laces, Italian leather goods, traditional Venetian Carnavale masks, and much, much more, it can seriously do damage to a pocketbook. Good luck keeping those receipts a secret.