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.

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.

Athens day trip: Acrocorinth, one of Greece’s greatest castles

Acrocorinth, Greece, castle, castles
Greece is justly famous for its ancient monuments. The Acropolis, Delphi, and other Classical sites are the reason most history lovers come to this ancient land. The medieval period, however, produced many equally impressive monuments and it’s a shame they’re so often overlooked. Greece is filled with giant castles, remote monasteries, and lovely churches decorated with gold mosaics and richly colored paintings.

One of the largest castles in Greece is Acrocorinth, less than an hour away from Athens by train. It sits atop a rocky hill 1,800 feet high overlooking the famous city and harbor of Corinth. Its strategic location close to the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land connecting the Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, makes it one of the most important castles in the country.

I arrived there one rainy morning to find the hill and its castle wreathed in mist. A taxi ride from the train station took me up a winding road past sheer drops. No approach to the summit is easy, and from some sides it would take a skilled mountain climber to get up. Only the western slope is relatively passable, and it’s protected by triple walls.

Acrocorinth is such an obvious point for defense that there’s been a castle here for more than 2,500 years. The ancient Greeks built a temple to Aphrodite at the top and built walls made of massive stones to serve as a refuge for the Corinthians against pirates and invaders.
In AD 146 the Romans destroyed Corinth and its castle and for many years they lay abandoned.

The temple was replaced by a church in the 5th or 6th century AD. By this time the Western Roman Empire had collapsed and the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, was a powerful Christian state ruling over much of the eastern Mediterranean with its capital at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Corinth and Acrocorinth became important again as a Byzantine regional capital.

%Gallery-146085%The Byzantines had their hands full fighting Muslim armies and were seriously weakened when they lost most of what is now Turkey. Little did they expect the next blow to come from fellow Christians. As knights from Western Europe set out on the Fourth Crusade, they originally planned on retaking Jerusalem from the Arabs. Instead they diverted to Byzantium and sacked Constantinople in 1204.

The Crusaders surrounded Acrocorinth but saw that an assault would be foolhardy and settled down for a long siege. Acrocorinth was defended by the Greek lord Leo Sgouros. For four years he kept the Crusaders at bay, but the strain of living within the walls eventually drove him mad. One day he mounted his horse and galloped over the cliffs to his death. This didn’t deter his garrison, however, and they continued to hold on until 1210, when the situation became so hopeless that they finally surrendered. The French knight William de Villehardouin built a castle on Acrocorinth and strengthened the walls.

The Byzantines slowly pushed the crusaders out of their empire and Acrocorinth was retaken in 1395. The ravages of the Fourth Crusade permanently weakened Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were moving in from the east and took Constantinople in 1453. The Peloponnese held out for a time and Acrocorinth didn’t fall until 1458 after a long siege during which Greek soldiers snuck through Turkish lines and climbed the cliffs to bring supplies to the beleaguered defenders. The Venetians took the castle from the Ottomans in 1687 and many of the walls visible today are their handiwork. After a long war the Ottomans retook Acrocorinth, only to lose it for good to the Greeks in 1823 during the War of Independence.

The view from the top had me entranced. To one side, ancient and modern Corinth lay at my feet, with the Aegean stretching out beyond. To the other side lay olive groves and open countryside. As I explored the rugged hilltop with its medieval walls, Crusader keep, and remnants of temples, churches, and mosques, I was entirely alone. Two American tourists left just as I arrived, and besides a guard and a workman at the gate, I saw no one. That was fine by me. Places like this are best seen in silence and solitude.

It doesn’t bode well for the local economy, though. Sure, winter is low season, but there should be more people seeing this wonderful place. Low season in Greece also means shorter hours. Acrocorinth shut at 3pm. Old Corinth, with its important museum and picturesque Temple of Apollo, shut at the same time. If I wanted to do the castle justice I didn’t have time see Old Corinth.

As the guard closed and locked the castle gate I walked down the road back to Old Corinth a few kilometers away. It had stopped raining and I didn’t mind the walk. This being Greece, however, a passing motorist stopped to pick me up. It turned out to be the workman I had spotted on Acrocorinth, an archaeologist working on the restoration of Villehardouin’s tower. His English was limited but he expressed his gratitude at my visit. He loved the castle as much as I did, and was thankful that money for its restoration was still coming through. Not from my visit, though; entrance is free. I would have happily paid five euros.

Down at Old Corinth everything was closing. I took some photos of Apollo’s temple through the fence and wandered down a street lined with tourist shops and restaurants. All were open and none had customers. I settled in for lunch at a restaurant called Marinos. The owner and his family and friends were having a big, loud meal. I was the only customer. The food was excellent, though, and they serve a wine from their own vineyard not just a hundred meters away. I hope they have better business in the high season; they deserve it.

From the restaurant I called the taxi driver who had brought me up to the castle. It was getting late, the rain had started again, and walking all the way to the train station after sampling the local wine didn’t appeal.

“You liked the castle?” he asked as we drove down the hill.

“Loved it. Too bad I couldn’t see Old Corinth.”

“Yes,” he sighed in obvious frustration. “They should stay open longer. You would have bought a ticket. Instead you end up less happy than you should be.”

“Has business been bad?” I asked.

“The tourists are still coming but they’re getting a bad experience. I do day tours and sometimes we show up at a site and it’s closed. People fly all the way here and don’t get to see what they want.”

“People being the way they are I guess they sometimes blame you.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Sometimes they do.”

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

Coming up next: The Acropolis!

Greek museums face the economic crisis

Greek museumsIt’s not easy being the caretaker of Greece’s heritage these days. Greek museums are facing budget cuts, strikes, reduced staff, even loss of visitors due to riots. The National Archaeological Museum had many rooms closed during the peak tourist season last summer due to budget cuts, and strikes are regularly closing all publicly owned museums.

Take the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. It collects the nation’s Medieval heritage, focusing especially on the glory days of Byzantium. When the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves in 395 AD, the West fell apart within a century, but the East, known as Byzantium, survived for another thousand years. Byzantium produced a distinct and beautiful artistic style and preserved many Classical works that then became the inspiration for the Renaissance.

The museum was founded in 1914 in the palace of a French noble. For most of the twentieth century the displays didn’t change much and visitors tended to pass it by for the more famous Classical sights.

“It was a place only for scholars,” said Nikolas Constantios, an archaeologist and museologist who works there and showed me around the recently revamped permanent exhibition.

And what an exhibition! Some four hundred icons are on display. Richly embroidered church vestments stand next to colorfully painted manuscripts, gold coins, and day-to-day objects. It’s all laid out in an open, well-lit fashion that reminded me of the new Ashmolean in Oxford. This modern style replaced the old “cases filled with stuff” museum design and helps combat museum fatigue.

This ten-year revitalization project almost came too late. The money, half of which came from the Ministry of Culture and half from the European Union, was already earmarked when the crisis hit.

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“We were safe because we were almost finished,” Constantios said. “If the crisis had happened five years ago we would have had a lot of problems.

The final touches are due to be completed by May and include a public garden, gift shop, and cafe.

While the present looks rosy for this museum, there are some serious challenges ahead. Museum director Anastasia Lazaridou said the Ministry of Culture has cut the museum’s budget by 20 percent. She has had to let some of the staff go, especially short-term contractors whose work is important for their well-known conservation department, which remains the biggest in Greece.

“We will try to find money from the private sector and create a bigger network of collaborations with foreign museums to share expenses,” Lazaridou said.

With the recession, though, the museum has found getting large donations to be more difficult than it used to be. Tickets help–with the renovation visitors numbers are ten times what they were a decade ago–yet many of these visitors get in for free.

When I visited there was a typical crowd for the low season: three other tourists and several school groups. Entrance is free for under-18s. Luckily this situation reverses in the high season. Check out the photo gallery and you’ll see why the Byzantine and Christian Museum is getting on the map.

The Museum of the City of Athens is facing even greater challenges. Housed in the former royal palace of King Otto, the first monarch after independence from the Ottoman Empire, it’s situated close to the municipal government buildings. Several riots have occurred right outside their door and now many tourists avoid the entire neighborhood. Museum director Aglaia Archontidou-Argiri told me visitor numbers dropped 70 percent last year.

Luckily the museum is a private foundation so they are in no danger of closing, yet they’re scrambling to find money for extra programs. Last year they ran a free program teaching Greek culture and history to immigrants. It ran for six months and included students from the Roma, Georgian, Bulgarian, and other communities. Now they have no money to continue, but Archontidou-Argiri remains optimistic they’ll find the money somewhere.

Like with the Byzantine museum, many visitors are school groups, who come to see the displays illustrating the development of their city. While the museum charges them, it lets in kids for free if their families can’t afford the €2 ($2.63) entry fee. With the crisis worsening, this is becoming increasingly common. There is also a popular music and lecture series that attracts many locals, but it is also free.

So far these two museums are doing fairly well. Both have been lucky in their funding, but with the crisis tightening wallets all over Europe, the caretakers of Greek heritage have a tough job ahead.

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

Coming up next: Athens day trip: Acrocorinth!