At Home In Venice: Bridge to the past
As Venice remembers the flood that, 40 years ago this week, engulfed the city, Francesco da Mosto describes local life in one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. Interview by Aoife O'Riordain
Sunday 29 October 2006
I was born in Venice and have lived in the city for most of my life. I went to school and studied architecture at university here and while I have also spent time away, I have always come back to Venice. This is my home and it's somewhere that is part of my soul.
When you live in Venice you have to accept certain things. You don't have a car and you have to carry all your groceries. Then again, even if you've never met someone, you'll know their face and you always say hello. There are no boundaries - it's not like other places where you have a big car and a big wall around your house. Living in Venice is a bit like always being on a stage.
Since I was born and grew up in Venice, I feel very much part of the place. I have seen how the city has changed. I recall there was quite a lot of fog when I took the vaporetto to school. I remember that period as if it were a dream or a fairy tale. Now, when I take my children to school there are lots of people, as if the fog has been substituted with crowds. In my lifetime I have also seen the water level rising. When I was a boy, flooding seemed to be less frequent. Now, more than 30 years on, one street I used to walk along is often under water. People come up with lots of facts and figures, but I hope this helps you to understand what is happening.
I live near Rialto with my wife and children in our family home. The palace was originally built in around 1588 for the Muti family, who were silk merchants from Bergamo. When I was finishing my degree I decided to make our palazzo the subject of my final architecture exam, because I wanted to learn about the history and the evolution of the building. About a month before I was due to hand in my thesis, I discovered that the architect, Antonio da Ponte, had also designed the nearby Rialto bridge. I uncovered this information in a document in the Venetian archives.
The palazzo came into our family when it was bought, in around 1919, by my grandfather Andrea da Mosto. I never knew him because he died before I was born. Coincidentally, he was the director of the state archive and sometimes, in the course of my research, I would come across his writing in pencil along the margins. In a strange way I met him in those documents.
Rialto, which means high ground, was one of the first places to be colonised on the islets of Venice. When they were designing the palazzo, which at seven storeys is unusually tall, they had to build the house like so many others between the street and the canal. Perhaps the most unusual feature is that one of the staircases - a double helix with two staircases that start from different places and spiral around each other. The two never meet, so people can come in and out of the house without ever being seen. I've never seen another like it. I call myself an architect, but the people who built the palazzo, they were architects.
The concept of these merchants' houses in Venice is unique. On the one hand, their owners had to have marvellous spaces to show whatever they were selling, but on the other hand the building also had to function as an office, a factory and a store as well as a residence. In the early to mid-18th century our palazzo was home to the Vezzi family. They had obtained the secret formula for making Meissen porcelain and began producing it in Venice. The palazzo was their headquarters for 10 to 15 years. Venice was the base from which to send your merchandise around the world; Venice was a place of exchange.
My family has been connected to Venice for centuries so it was very interesting researching our history. Although we have never had a doge in the family, several were high-level officers of the republic. One of my most important ancestors was Alvise da Mosto, who started sailing around the Mediterranean when he was only 14 years old. During a voyage in the 1450s, his ship lost direction in a storm and by chance they discovered the Cape Verde Islands.
If you want to find the real Venice, I think the Rialto market is still the place to find it. I'm lucky because it's about five minutes away from where I live. I think it's still somewhere you can see everyday Venetian life, even though the Rialto is close to more touristy parts of the city such as San Marco and Santo Stefano. I also think places such as the Fondamenta Nuove in Cannaregio and beyond San Marco around the Arsenale in Castello are the best places to explore. You will still see tourists there, but you will also see local people going about their daily lives. It's nice to lose yourself. All you have to do is turn down a little street and you can escape the tourists and begin to find little places for yourself and, with it, a sense of the old Venice.
Lots of visitors go to see the famous round staircases of the Scala del Bovolo in San Marco. I love the Madonna dell'Orto, but before you get to the church you also pass a little shop. On the façade there are three stone carvings of three Moors and a camel - all connected to the business of the merchant that lived there. This is one of the things I love about Venice: you find some strange story or someone's name in a book which leads you to discover the human history. Sometimes we stop and just look at the buildings, but if you go beyond that you can really discover something about the people and feel more connected to them.
Being Venetian you need to know how to row. I have a motorboat and a rowing boat so I teach my three children how to navigate in both. We have a little hut on a tiny island in the lagoon, just a room made out of wood. We go there most weekends and spend the night - it's just like
camping. When I was growing up in Venice I missed nature - you don't see many trees and I wish there were more. Taking my children to the island is a way for them to connect with nature, because in the lagoon you are surrounded by it. The island of Sant Erasmo, famous for its artichokes, is just like the country. When we go there, the fishermen teach the children how to catch crabs and it's important they learn things like that.
The Regatta Storica in September is quite interesting. I go to the lagoon and I notice the teams training in all types of weather between Venice and the island of Burano. The gondolino is the most important race, because the boat is so thin and precarious that there has to be a perfect combination of strength and agility. It's a great thing to witness.
Touring the lagoon is a great thing for any visitor to do. Rent a boat and just lose yourself in it - going slowly, of course. There are always lots of tourists on the islands of Burano and Murano, but I would suggest going to the island of Torcello, which has a certain atmosphere. Another place worth visiting is Brenta, one of the rivers that feeds into the lagoon, where all the Venetian patricians built their grand villas. I think going there also helps people to understand the relationship between the lagoon and the land. At one time in the Republic around the 18th century, everything was very expensive and a lot of people from Venice went to live on the mainland where things were cheaper. These days it's the same and people move there because it costs less and the way of life is more "normal".
The local population of Venice has dropped a lot in the past few decades. In the 1950s, there were about 120,000; now there are about 60,000 officially. You also need to add the transient student population and foreigners who have bought property here, but even foreigners who live in Venice are helping. It's very important that people come to live on the island here to halt the loss of workshops, craftsmen and local businesses like bakeries and everyday shops. There need to be more tax breaks for people to restore houses, because it costs three or four times more than it does elsewhere. The state does give some money for restoration, but there is very little support for local productive activities. There are too many glass shops and big shops such as Gucci. We are losing everyday life. If the city is going to die, this is the way it will happen.
I think there could be a new kind of Venetian - people who love the town and who come to live here, but not to profit from it. This could be the future for Venice. People living in Venice give life back to the city, a life that is not just about tourism.
One of the strongest emotions I have is when I take the traghetto, a large gondola ferry, across the Grand Canal - it opens my heart. For the five minutes that it takes to cross the water, I am in the hands of the gondoliers and my thoughts swirl around my head - as I can simply look and admire.
'Francesco's Italy', published by BBC Books is out now, price £25. 'Francesco's Venice' is published in paperback on 8 February, price £16.99
My best bar
Naranzaria (00 39 041 7241035; naranzaria.it), a bar and restaurant in the Rialto market, is owned by a friend of mine. Opening a bar meant he did something for the town and I think that's important. The wine is good and it's also one of the few places that makes sushi with fish fresh from the market. It's Venetian, but also modern.
My top restaurant
Trattoria Antiche Carampane (00 39 041 524 0165; antichecarampane.com) is one of my favourite restaurants in Rialto. Every morning I meet the owners in the market when I am taking my children to school. It serves marvellous fish - they simply pick the best of what's available each day and cook it.
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