My Venice - the inspiration behind The Spy of Venice
Venice is a magical city today but in the sixteenth century it was a place of wonders. The Spy of Venice is set in 1585. By that time Venice was no longer at the height of its power. Its great Mediterranean sea empire had been rolled back by the advances of the Ottomans and other, envious, Italian states had challenged its control of the Veneto region. Nonetheless, there were few that could challenge the city for splendour and richness. Indeed, the people of Venice were keen to show off their City in an attempt to convince the world that they were still strong. As a result the late sixteenth century saw an explosion of building as Venice sought to cement its myth of power – Venice the Just, Venice the Rich, Venice the Magnificent.
A visitor, like William Shakespeare, arriving across the lagoon would have landed on the Piazetta di San Marco, the smaller piazza adjoining the Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Doge. Venice prided itself on its system of government, ostensibly republican but in practice oligarchical. The Ducal Palace was and is a magnificent symbol of the power and wealth of Venice and an essential element of any trip to the city. There are often long queues to get in so good trick is to go round the corner to the Museo Correr and buy one of the tickets that includes access to the Ducal Palace to avoid the queues. Before you go in to the Palace you should pause to admire the carving atop the pillars around the colonnade at the base of the Palace. That at the corner shows the temptation of Eve but all along are symbols of the importance of the sea to Venice’s power. Inside, don’t forget to spot the bocca del leone – the Lion’s mouth – a fantastical carved post-box into which accusations against fellow citizens could be placed for the attention of the Signoria, the government of Venice.
Past the Ducal Palace, at the head of the Piazza San Marco, is the Basilica di San Marco – a church in the eastern style. It is little appreciated that Venice was essentially a Byzantine city and began its history as a province of the Byzantine Empire. Venice would later turn on its former master, encouraging the members of the Fourth Crusade to sack Constantinople, and carrying back much of the looted plunder to adorn the city. Atop the Basilica one can still see the four prancing horses taken from the Hippodrome in Constantinople. Of them the Genoese, the City’s great rivals, used to say that Venice’s arrogance would never be bridled until those four horses were.
If you pass on from the Basilica you go through an arch under the magnificent astronomical clock that marks the eastern end of the Procuratie Vecchie, the offices of the government of Venice. It is here that William and Oldcastle, in their guise as the English ambassador and his man, would have presented themselves. Now one can enjoy a delicious coffee at one of the cafés overlooking the square (although one would be wiser to use the cheaper and better café in the Museo Correr instead!) The Piazza was a place for many to meet and to do business. If you had been there in 1585 you would have appreciated how Venice was a liminal city – at the border of east and west, a cosmopolitan city – as William says in the novel – it was not so much Urbis forum as orbis forum – not a marketplace for a city but a marketplace for the world. And truly all the people of the world were there: Thomas Coryat says in his 1611 travelogue:
"[In St Mark's Square] you may see many Polonians, Slavonians, Persians, Grecians, Turks, Jewes, Christians of all the famousest regions of Christendome, and each nation distinguished from another by their proper and peculiar habits. A singular shew, and by many degrees the worthiest of all the European Countries."
The road from the astronomical clock leads north from San Marco towards San Pollo and then Rialto. If you keep heading north you will reach the Rialto bridge. In 1585 it wasn’t yet built. The previous bridge had burned down at the beginning of the sixteenth century and the present bridge would not be built for several years. The area is now often over-crowded with tourists but before you leave its heavingcrush try to find the statue of Gobbo, the hunchback. It is surely no coincidence that Shakespeare names the clown in Merchant of Venice Launcelot Gobbo after this statue…
If you had been Shakespeare you would have had to cross the Canal Grande using one of the ferry points. Though, you would have tried to avoid using the ones by the Rialto though. Coryat warns:
“There are in Venice thirteen ferries or passages, commonly called Traghetti, where passengers may be transported in a gondola to what place of the City they will. Of which thirteene, one is under this Rialto bridge. But the boatmen that attend at this ferry are the most vicious and licentious varlets about all the City.”
Keep going but now heading more west than north and you will approach the Ponte del Tette – the bridge of – there’s no polite way to put this – tits. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponte_delle_Tette This is an unassuming little bridge but from the balconies and windows about it the courtesans would display their wares. Venice took a pragmatic view of prostitution. Since only the oldest son of a wealthy Venetian family might marry, to preserve the family’s fortunes in one set of hands, there was a surplus of unmarried young men with energy to spare and needing an outlet. In addition, in those unenlightened times, it was seen as a way of averting the sin of homosexuality. It is estimate that nearly 1 in 10 people in Venice in that period earned their living through prostitution.
Near to the bridge is a restaurant called Antiche Carampane. The Ca’ Rampane – literally the House of Rampane – was a famous brothel and the name became synonymous with “prostitute”. If you can ignore the fact that the restaurant’s name means “Old Prostitutes” you will enjoy a fine, traditional Venetian meal.
Head on to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. This was a guild house and contains some of the finest paintings of Tintoretto. Tintoretto’s son Domenico painted Veronica Franco, who is the basis for the character of Isabella Lisarro in the novel. The interior is a cool, quiet haven from the turmoil of Venice outside and the second floor contains a richness of decoration that has to be seen to be believed. It is no wonder then that in the novel it is here that William chooses to go about his wooing of Isabella Lisarro. Before you go, look at the stone bench outside on which is carved a nine-men’s morris field – so that sixteenth century Venetians might have something to entertain themselves with before going to the church nearby.
Now head south towards Dosoduro. You will come to the Ponte dei Pugni, the Bridge of Fists. It is the most famous of several such bridges in Venice and in the Spy of Venice, William comes here to muse and remarks on the four footprints set in the bridge’s floor. These marked where the champions of the Nicoletti and Castellani clans would stand before one of the bridge battles. These were tremendous pitched combats between different groups in Venice. Done as entertainment and as a way of honing the fighting spirit of the Venetian youth they were ideal training for a city that mostly fought in Galley’s. Indeed Venetian experts in the close-quarter combat skills that these contests demanded would travel throughout Europe teaching their skills. The violence finally became too much for the city’s authorities to bear though and the contests were finally banned in the eighteenth century. Thereafter, participating could leave you serving six years chained to an oar in the galleys.
Venice is an eminently walkable city. It is particularly good to visit in February and March – after Carnival. The city is quieter then but still lovely and one can enjoy the way that it presents a new, astounding vista with every corner turned. It is a City of possibilities, or romance and of mysteries – and so William finds it The Spy of Venice.
About Benet Brandreth
Benet Brandreth is a barrister, rhetoric coach and authority on Shakespeare. He works regularly with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Donmar on Shakespeare’s use of language. The Telegraph has called Benet Brandreth "one of our nation's most accomplished raconteurs" when reviewing his one-man show, “The Brandreth Papers”, which was a five-star reviewed sell-out at the Edinburgh Festival and on its London transfer. He has also written and performed for radio and the stage. He has twice been the World Public Speaking Champion.
By Benet Brandreth
Published by twenty7 (24 March 2016)
CJ Samson meets Shakespeare in Love - a historical thriller with a swashbuckling twist and a hero like you've never seen him before When he's caught out by one ill-advised seduction too many, young William Shakespeare flees Stratford to seek his fortune. Cast adrift in London, Will falls in with a band of players - but greater men have their eye on this talented young wordsmith. England's very survival hangs in the balance, and Will finds himself dispatched to Venice on a crucial embassy. Dazzled by the city's masques - and its beauties - Will little realises the peril in which he finds himself. Catholic assassins would stop at nothing to end his mission on the point of their sharpened knives, and lurking in the shadows is a killer as clever as he is cruel.