Venice: Grand Vistas And Little Details

Venice
Sean McLachlan

On my first day in Venice I walked the streets without a camera in order to savor the beauties of this unparalleled city. I was leaving the next afternoon so that morning I got up at dawn in order to catch Venice at its abandoned best.

It’s a different city, more peaceful. You can linger on a bridge or take a shot from the middle of a street without getting trampled. You can capture the way the light plays on the water or on the side of an old, crumbling building without half a dozen heads getting into the shot.

Venice has a different character in those early hours. Instead of gondolas, cargo vessels ply the canals making deliveries to this city without cars. The streets are empty but for local workmen cleaning up or getting ready to open up their shops and kiosks. The only other tourists are lone photographers like me. My idea was a pretty obvious one, after all.

The low-angled light makes for some nice play between the tops of the buildings shining golden in the morning and the still-dark recesses of the alleyways and narrow canals. The low-angled light puts faded details into higher relief, like the faded Latin inscriptions on the lintels of church doors or the weathered escutcheons on Renaissance palaces.

%Slideshow-693%The early hours are also the time for visiting the big attractions. There’s something eerie about seeing the Piazza San Marco with only half a dozen people in it. One pair was a newlywed couple. A tuxedoed man was fiddling with the camera while his stunningly beautiful wife, decked out in her bridal gown, gave instructions and adjusted her veil. Beyond them the Grand Canal shimmered in the early light. I’m sure their wedding photo is the envy of their friends.

As stunning as these broad vistas are, Venice rewards a close look. There are details in the buildings and streets that make for great close-ups. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, you have this little bronze figure, one of a set.

At the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica is the square’s most historically important work of art, a porphyry statue of four armored men clinging to one another in mutual defense. I’ve wanted to see these little guys for years.

They’re the Tetrarchs. In 293 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was too big and had too many enemies for one man to rule. He created the Tetrarchy, with an Emperor and a Caesar for both the West and the East. They were supposed to rule in harmony but of course the rivalry more often than not led to civil wars. In another century the Western Empire was a nonentity, while the Eastern Empire, known today as Byzantium, lived on until the 15th century. This famous statue originally stood in Constantinople but was stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought here.

Many people photograph this statue, yet miss something even more interesting a few feet away. On a stone bench at the entrance to the basilica there’s a strange design scratched into the surface. It’s been almost worn away by centuries of bottoms, but you can make out a square within a square, partitioned into several segments. This was a Renaissance board game that people would play while whiling away the hours on the plaza. It’s a reminder of the regular folk who lived in Venice in the shadow of the great rulers, artists and priests.

This fired my imagination. Perhaps some other detail will fire yours: the dusty icons in an antique shop, the mosaic advertisement for a pension set into a street, the half-finished Renaissance fresco in the entryway of an obscure church. When you’re strolling around Venice or any great city, keep an eye out for those little details that catch your fancy as well as the grand views that everyone admires. That way you’ll end up with a photo album uniquely your own.

Israel Restores Ancient City

Israel, Avdat
The government of Israel has just completed a $2 million restoration of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat, The Jewish Press reports.

Avdat is in the Negev Desert and was one of the westernmost points on an extensive incense trade network the Nabateans built stretching as far as the southern Saudi peninsula that flourished from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Incense was important in rituals for many civilizations, especially for Roman funerals. The trade network began to wither when Romans converted to Christianity and stopped needing incense to cover up the stink of their cremations.

The extensive ruins include houses and an acropolis with a Nabatean temple. Avdat later became part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empire. Remains of a Roman military camp and a Byzantine church can be seen there. The church has a floor made up of marble tombstones with still legible epitaphs. Like in the more famous Nabatean city of Petra, a sophisticated irrigation system allowed for agriculture and even vineyards in the harsh desert region. The residents even had enough water to make themselves a bathhouse.

The city was destroyed by an earthquake in the 5th century and was rebuilt. Another earthquake in the 7th century finished it off.

The site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, suffered vandalism in 2009. The vandals pulled down columns, smashed stones and wrote graffiti over parts of the site. They were never caught. Now Avdat has been completely restored and the local archaeologists boast that it’s better than it was before.

Avdat hit the news last year when it was discussed in historian Tom Holland’s book “In the Shadow of the Sword,” in which he suggests that Muhammad was from Avdat and not Mecca. He also calls into question much of the Muslim tradition for its own origins. The book was criticized by scholars and Holland even received death threats, presumably not from scholars.

The site is in Avdat National Park, so a visit to the ruins can also include hiking and wildlife photography. Check out the gallery for some images of this amazing site. If it looks a familiar, that’s because it was the site for the filming of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

[Photo courtesy Urij]

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Church Of The Nativity In Bethlehem May Become Palestine’s First World Heritage Site

Bethlehem
The government of Palestine is applying to put the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It would be the first such site for the emerging nation.

The government of Palestine is eager to increase its recognition among the community of nations. While 130 countries recognize it as a country, a few don’t, most notably the United States and Israel. When Palestine was accepted into the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization with a vote of 107-14, the U.S. and Israel protested being outvoted by not paying their UNESCO dues.

The church in Bethlehem is built on the supposed site of the birth of Jesus Christ. There has been a church here since the reign of Constantine, the emperor who made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine completed a basilica there in the year 333. That building burnt down and was rebuilt in 565.

Despite changes and expansions over the centuries, the interior has many original elements, including early Byzantine mosaics. Beneath the basilica lies a cave that is the purported birthplace of Jesus, with a fourteen-pointed star marking the exact spot.

The World Monuments Fund put the church on its list of a 100 Most Endangered Sites, citing decay of the structure. The Palestinian Authority responded by announcing a multimillion-dollar restoration campaign. Placement of the building on the UNESCO World Heritage List would help bring attention to its fragile state.

UNESCO will decide whether to put the church on the list later this month.

[Photo courtesy Lewis Larsson]

Mistra: a medieval ghost town in southern Greece

Mistra, GreeceOn a steep hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta in southwestern Greece stands the last capital of the Roman Empire.

In 395 AD, beset by enemies, the empire split into western and eastern halves. The Western Roman Empire was soon overwhelmed. The east flourished. Its capital was at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Known as the Byzantine Empire, it developed a distinctive style of art and architecture and protected the Greek Orthodox Church of its citizens.

Byzantium declined as civilizations always do, and suffered a serious blow during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Crusaders, who had originally set off to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, decided to capture Constantinople instead. With its capital gone, Byzantium shattered into three small states. Byzantine art and the Greek Orthodox Church survived.

The Crusaders built an imposing castle on the summit of a hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta, one of a number of fortresses to protect their new domains. That didn’t work. The Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos recaptured Constantinople and steadily pushed the Crusaders out of the lands they had conquered. The castle at Mistra was handed over to the Byzantines in 1262 and a fortified city gradually began to take shape around it. Mistra became the regional capital of the Morea, as the Peloponnese was then called.

The Palaeologian dynasty was the last to rule the Roman Empire. It was a time of political and economic decline, with the Turks pushing in from the east, the Venetians dominating trade, and numerous other enemies nibbling away at the borders. Morea was one of the last wealthy regions of Byzantium and despite the empire’s troubles witnessed a renaissance in art, learning, and culture.

Mistra is only seven kilometers outside of Sparta. It’s an easy walk but I was anxious to start my visit and so I took a taxi and decided I’d walk back through the olive groves. After a week of cloudy, cold weather, the sky had cleared and the air was cool and pleasant. The winding road up the hill is dominated by the massive town wall. Passing through the gate, I found myself walking along steep, narrow lanes between the remnants of homes, palaces, and churches. Several of these Orthodox houses of worship are still open.

These churches are deceptive. On the outside they are prettily made with patterned brick and a series of small domes and half domes around a large central dome. It’s inside that they show their true splendor. Frescoes cover the walls, domes, and pillars. Every available space is decorated with Biblical scenes and images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, all painted in a rich but somber style.
Mistra, Greece

%Gallery-146699%Mistra isn’t entirely a ghost town. A small nunnery called the Pantanassa is a miniature town inside the larger one. Men are allowed in to see its medieval church. When I arrived, one of the sisters, garbed all in black, was sweeping the sun-bathed courtyard while several cats lounged nearby. It was a perfect photo that of course I was too respectful to take. The church was built in 1428 and its rich frescoes show what a cultural high point the Palaeologian Renaissance was. The ground-floor frescoes are from the 17th and 18th centuries and represent a continuation of the art and ideas that made Byzantium great.

Back outside, I wended my way through the maze of little streets and came to the summit and its Crusader castle. Climbing to the top of the tallest tower, I looked out and saw the Vale of Sparta lay spread out beneath me, with the ancient ruins and modern city both visible. Behind me rose the snow-capped Taygetus mountains.

Of all Mistra’s medieval buildings, the most evocative is the church of St. Demetrios. Some scholars theorize this church may have been the site for the coronation of Constantine XI Palaeologos in 1449, the last emperor of Byzantium, and therefore the last emperor of Rome. He had served as Despot of the Morea while his older brother was emperor and lived in the palace at Mistra. It’s easy to imagine him here, with the images of Christ, Mary, and the saints looking down at him through the dim candlelight light as the priests sang their Orthodox hymns.

It must have been a glorious coronation and a sad one. Fears of usurpation from his other brothers meant the ceremony had to be rushed, and done in this provincial capital rather than the glorious church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. Even the crown showed Byzantium’s faded glory. The bankrupt Palaeologoi had long since hawked the crown jewels to the Venetians. Now the rightful heirs to the Roman Empire wore crowns of glass.

Besides the Morea and Constantinople, there was little left of Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were closing in and in 1453 they made their final assault on Constantinople. The siege was a grueling one and it took the Turks weeks to pound the thick city walls into rubble with their cannon. In the final assault, the Emperor Constantine fought alongside his men and fell with them. He could have escaped. He could have made a deal. Instead he died fighting so that sad shadow of the Roman Empire would go down in glory.

But still Rome did not die. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans spent time consolidating their position. Mistra survived until 1460 as the capital of the last free lands of Byzantium, and thus in a very real sense the last capital of the Roman Empire. Trebizond, a strip of territory on the south shore of the Black Sea, lasted another year, but that state had seceded from the empire before Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders and thus cannot be considered a part of it.

In the 15th century it was obvious to everyone that Byzantium’s days were numbered. Many Byzantine scholars and artists fled for safer havens. The favorite destination was Italy, where local rulers welcomed their learning and didn’t care much that they were Orthodox rather than Catholic.

These scholars brought with them books and a knowledge of Greek, Arabic, astronomy, history, philosophy, geography, and much more. They brought with them translations of the Classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome. Wealthy Italians, hungry for knowledge and for a model to inspire their own flowering culture, eagerly read these books and attended the lectures of Byzantine scholars. The influx of Byzantine learning was one of the major factors that led to the Italian Renaissance and the foundations of humanism and modern Western thought.

The torch had been passed.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Sparta: Greece’s ancient warrior city

SpartaAfter having seen Athens and Corinth, I couldn’t resist visiting one of the other great city-states of ancient Greece: Sparta.

Sparta needs no introduction. It’s a star player on the History and Discovery channels and that schlocky pseudo-historical film 300. While I wanted to see the ancient ruins where brave warriors once strode, my main reason for going was to explore nearby Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with a castle that rivals Acrocorinth. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Sparta is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Athens. The route passes along the Aegean shore, through the Isthmus of Corinth, and into the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up southwestern Greece. Passing Corinth, the road ascends into rough hills that were being buffeted by a snowstorm.

Luckily the roads were in good condition and I made it on time. The clouds were breaking over the Vale of Sparta although it remained bitterly cold. My first stop was at the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to learn more about how the economic crisis was affecting archaeologists’ ability to explore and preserve Greece’s past. The Ephorates are divided by region, in this case Lakonia, roughly the central and southern Peloponnese, and also by period. There’s a Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities too.

Archaeologists Lygeri Nikolakaki and Ageliki Mexia greeted me in their cramped office overflowing with books, reports, and maps. They spread out several maps in front of me to demonstrate just how rich their area was in medieval remains. Castles, churches, monasteries, and medieval towns dotted the landscape. This area was called the Morea in late Byzantine times and was one of the few centers of wealth, art, and learning during the waning days of the empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One region caught my eye–the Mani peninsula. The Ephorate has recorded some 2,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments on the peninsula, and the map showed hiking trails crisscrossing the area. The Maniots were always semi-independent, fierce fighters and pirates who never fully submitted to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, or Byzantines. Their culture remains distinct even today. As I was researching this trip I was already planning another one.

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Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra: a Byzantine ghost town in Greece!Nikolakaki and Mexia explained that Mistra, the Byzantine city outside Sparta, is their department’s star attraction and one of the top ten most visited historical sites in Greece. Numbers are generally down, however. There was a surge in visitors in 2005 and 2006 after the Olympics, and then a steady decline. They blame the economy and competition from more famous attractions in Greece.

Despite this, funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the European Union in recent years has led to improvement at many sites. At Mistra, the Ephorate had installed new signs in Greek and English to explain the remains, and the museum there has been reorganized and improved. The palace of the Despots (local rulers) is being restored. They hope to open a gift shop this summer.

Another Byzantine fortress city, Geraki, is being prepared for visitors and will open in two years, funding permitting. The Ephorate hadn’t received approval for their 2012 budget when I visited, and they’ve been told to “reduce expectations”. At the same time, they’ve been asked to increase the number of visitors.

The Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities may lose its independence under a new scheme by the Ministry of Culture. It’s proposing to merge the Ephorates of each region into one, so that prehistoric, Classical, and Byzantine antiquities will all be handled by one office. Nikolakaki and Mexia are cautiously optimistic about this move, saying that it may help cut waste and improve the ability of the Ephorates to manage Greek’s heritage. After all, many sites, Sparta included, have remains from several different periods.

I hope they’re correct. Mergers generally mean layoffs, and I wouldn’t want to see these dedicated researchers join Greece’s large ranks of the unemployed.

The Archaeological Museum of Sparta is worth seeing to get some background on the city and its history. Despite the cold, only the front room where the ticket seller sat was heated. The rest of the heating had been turned off to save money.

I kept my coat on as I browsed the few rooms in this small but well-stocked museum. Funerary stelae, statues of the gods, and a remarkable bust of an ancient warrior showed that while Sparta was famous for its martial skill, it produced good art as well. Some of the best artifacts are a series of mosaics discovered in Roman-period houses in the area. Check out the photo gallery for some of the best displays from this interesting museum.

Chats with archaeologists and visits to museums, however informative, can’t compete with seeing the ruins themselves. That evening, with the sun peeking through the clouds, I took the short stroll to the edge of town to see ancient Sparta.

While not nearly as impressive as the ruins of Corinth or Athens, the remains of ancient Sparta are alluring. Soon the town of modern Sparta is left behind and you enter olive groves. There were almost no other visitors when I went and the place as quiet except for birdsong. From the old acropolis you can look out over the theater and the remains of a temple to Athena. Nearby lie the foundations of a Byzantine church. The ancient stones were taking on a golden hue from the evening light.

As I stood in an olive grove looking out over Sparta’s ancient theater, a shepherd grazed his flock nearby. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds to shine on the medieval town of Mistra in the distance. Beyond that rose the snowy peaks and gorges of Taygetus mountains. Perfect.

A friend who has traveled extensively in Greece says that the country’s scenery “does tend to sneak up on you like that.”

Greece sneaked up on me several times during my trip.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra!