Venice, as one knows, is a very old city. Not many things there are new and one is always immersed and surrounded by history in every part of the city.
But this history resides not only in the city’s well known sites like the Basilica San Marco or the Duke’s Palace. Signs of the near and distant past are also to be found on the walls of the city’s buildings and churches and along its narrow alleyways.
These signs are often unusual or intriguing and frequently reveal things one might never have thought of.
Why is there a bas-relief above the arch, leading to the Bianca Chapel and just past the clock tower, which is engraved with the date “15 June 1310”? Furthermore, why does it bear the figure of an old woman dropping a mortar?
Legend has it that this falling mortar hit the flag bearer of a rebel faction of the Baiamonte Tiepolo causing them to flee. As a sign of gratitude, the doge placed this commemoration which survives to this day.
In Calle de le Boteghe, leading away from Campo Santo Stefano towards San Samuele and on the corner of a building at the end of the street, you will find a carving of some shoes. What could they signify?
They indicate the site of the ancient “Hospital of the Calegheri Todeschi” (the German cobblers) according to a plaque found on the centre of the wall. It was a hospitable in the sense that it was a care-taking association offering assistance to members of that profession.
Instead, along the walls of the Venice Arsenale there are many empty pedestals. Upon closer look, they show signs that something originally there was chiselled away.
When the French troops of Napoleon entered the devastated city, the lions placed there were chiselled out as symbols of the then fallen Venetian Republic.
Meanwhile, the houses near the Arsenale belonged to the labourers who worked there. Still today, you can read the positions these inhabitants held on some of the architraves.
“Patere” with Byzantine motifs are also placed on many Venetian houses and include coats of arms and other stone and marble inserts. These inserts were often made from the remains of older, earlier constructions which were employed to make new structures or expand already existing ones.
Elsewhere, at the entrance to the Campo di Zechariah, a sacred place within the church and convent of the same name, you can find stones indicating one is prohibited from playing games, making noise, swearing and disposing of rubbish or otherwise risk being severely punished.
Another curiosity is found inside the Fondaco of Todeschi, a few steps from the Rialto Bridge and in a recently reopened shopping area where all the big names in fashion have businesses.
If you look carefully, you will see that the parapets of the different floors bear various carvings of coats of arms, dates or chessboards. These were made by merchants from Germany and Northern Europe who traded and stayed in Venice.
Eventually, you also get to more recent history. You can come upon certain areas of the city which have cannonballs embedded in the marble of their churches. These are a reminder of the Austrian bombardments during the War of Independence in the mid-1800s or from the last century when Venice first suffered aerial bombardment during the first World war.