Go With The Flow

Imagine a large city in the United States or Europe where it is impossible to drive a car. Catch a bus. Ride a bicycle. Or a horse. Go to a football match. Or hang out at the mall. Such a place, if it existed, would be doomed to failure.

For its citizens, the cost of living would be huge. Bulk supply lines for food, water, and all other goods would not exist, and the logistic challenges alone would paralyze the economy.

What about construction? Building anything without access to a cement mixer, or delivery trucks, would require technologies from the Middle Ages.

And how would older people get around? How do you walk, and negotiate steps, when your gait is crippled and hobbled by the ravages of age?

And yet such a city not only exists, but thrives. The answer to all those questions is not easy, and it revolves around water. The fact that construction is so difficult, particularly using modern materials and techniques, has preserved the architecture―the need to either walk, or take a boat, has given Venice an appeal which transcends the passage of time.

Once upon a time, water was the most appealing mode of transport. Before mechanization, the only two energy subsidies Man could harness were animals and wind. Animals, of course, included their fellow humans, forced into slavery. Other animals were useful for certain jobs, but there was no replacement for a slave who could be instructed in the arts of cooking, cleaning, and cultivating.

If you sail the Mediterranean, sprinkled with the white pearls that mark the coastal towns of Turkey and Greece, it becomes clear that they belong to a long-vanished sailing economy. Historically inaccessible from land, these cities face the sea, ageing fortresses pointing rusted cannon at the Phoenicians and Saracens of yesteryear.

Like Lisbon, Venice is a city that was coveted by all. From the Ottomans to the Austrians, from Napoleon to the Nazis, all came and went.

No rush at all. One of the many squares, usually known as a ‘campo’, that dot the hinterland of the Grand Canal.

The Turk attacked with typical brutality, hungry for Marco Polo’s treasures as the fortunes of the city waned, voided by the Portuguese of The India Road. Polo’s silk road, the spice caravan that built so much of Venice, suffered a fatal blow at the hand of the Perfect Prince. Venetians emigrated to Lisbon, seeking to establish themselves in trade, switching camels for caravels.

By 1496, the ships that took them to Iberia returned laden with the Portuguese Jews from the Poniente, the west.  Dom Manuel, the Fortunate King, had replaced John II, poisoned with arsenic by his disgruntled wife.

Manuel was in love with his cousin by marriage, the Spanish princess Isabel, daughter of the Catholic Kings of Aragon and Castille. The new king of Portugal had fallen in love with the young princess when he first escorted her to meet her bridegroom, Afonso, crown prince of Portugal.

After the riding accident that claimed her young husband, the widowed princess wanted to retire to a convent. She knew what had killed her prince: poisoned by the venom of Tomás Torquemada, the founder of the Holy Inquisition, she hated the Jews that surrounded King John, the astronomers and physicians of the Mathematical Junta, whose spells and plots had felled Afonso.

Six years later she agreed to marry the new king of Portugal, but only if he expelled the Jews. Citizens were encouraged to denounce Jewish families, based on evidence which can best be described as tenuous.

… If they light candles on a Friday evening

If they wear bright clothing on a Saturday

If they eat celery during Easter Week …

The Sephardi from Spain had already left. When Columbus was preparing to sail west, in July 1492, the last Jews who refused to convert were jamming the port of Cadiz, whole families fleeing the flames of Christendom. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had to swallow his pride and sail from Palos, a minor port to the west.

The Jews came to Venice, where they resided in the Ghetto―although the area was only formally constituted in the early XVIth century.

Estimates of the total residents vary, but there is a consensus they may once have numbered in the thousands. Now the Ghetto houses twenty people. The Nazis were responsible for the disappearance of three hundred souls.

When the Portuguese Sephardi arrived in the Ghetto, following their Spanish cousins, they were allowed to hold only four professions: merchants, moneylenders, pawnbrokers, and later physicians. By 1516, the uneasy co-existence of Venice and her Jews had led to the first gated community in the world. In Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, a stone’s throw from Fondamento di Mori, the Jews were locked in every night. The two exits were gated and the entryways guarded by Christians. The Jews paid for the guards.

In a shop in the Jewish quarter an Italian book traces the history of the migrants from the Portuguese diaspora. The names form part of any Lisbon phone book: Fonseca, Gomes, Lopes, Nunes. Soares, Texeira, Ximenes. These names are so common in the Portugal of 2012 we might make a case that we are all Jews. But the beauty of Portugal is that whether we are or not, no one cares. It’s that cultural depth that has kept Portugal in the heart of Mozambicans and Angolans, forty years after independence. It’s that warmth and simplicity that built the most perfect multiracial society on earth―a little place called Brazil.

When Mussolini came to town, he put his stamp on it by building the Santa Lucia railway station, in a style best described as neo-fascist grotesque. It was built on the spot of the beautiful church depicted here. Thank goodness for canals.

After Napoleon conquered Venice, he imposed the ideals of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The Austrians arrived at the peak of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and decided canal traffic was just too complicated. So they levelled a canal and called it the Strada Nuova―it is by far the widest street in the city. I suppose if they’d stayed longer, the whole place would be full of autobahns, supermarket chains, and bierkellers. Certainly the opportunities for progress would have been much greater, and the older buildings would rapidly have been replaced by the monstrosity of concrete.

Luckily that didn’t happen. In this anachronism of western civilization, culture and beauty are on every corner, just a boat ride away.

Not everyone fully appreciates it. Two Russian tourists, part of a new cycle of wealth, were asked whether they had visited St. Mark’s square. They pondered and discussed. Finally, they concluded.

“Of course, Prada and Gucci. Yes, we were there.”

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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