Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Little altars everywhere

Click all photos to "embiggen", of course!
A tourist's life in Venice is one of depraved indulgence. You shop, eat, wander, drink. You laze at outdoor cafes and watch the ever-changing parade of other tourists. A good place to do this is at the broad campo near the Rialto Mercado vaporetto stop. Here, the venerable old building that once housed Venice's thirteenth century bank, now houses several cafes and bacari where you can sit and enjoy a spritz or a glass of wine while overlooking the grand canal.

Ah, the hedonistic decadence of such a life!

Still, when one is in Venice, one can't help notice the presence of religion. There are over one hundred churches in the city, and everywhere you look there is a reminder of the deep vein of spirituality, devotion and - indeed - superstition upon which this city was founded, as strong as its foundation of timbers driven into the mud of the lagoon itself.

Even this place - where tank-topped tourists sip their spritzes and eye the gondoliers, posing brides and overburdened backpackers - you'll find it. If you look up from your drink, you'll see a glass enclosed shrine facing the cafe tables and the canal, with a figure of the Immaculate Virgin, flanked by two tapers.

As you wander the narrow calles of the city, especially when you wander off the travelled paths of tourism and landmarks, you'll encounter tiny shrines - little altars everywhere.

They may be over a door; they may be at the corner. They may be secreted within a dark sotoportego. They may be present in dark and twisted alleyways to provide a protective presence for passersby - for who would rob or mug someone in the presence of a saint?

Some shrines are enclosed in small, niche-like cabinets, or tabernacles, and protected from theft or vandalism by ornate iron grilles.  The grille's design subtly reinforces the symbol of the cross.

Some even have electric lights inside them - a tradition begun in 1128, when the Doge of the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, decreed that street shrines, or capitelli, should be lit by oil lamps each night beginning at dusk, to make the dark streets safer for pedestrians.


Most are adorned with flowers, potted plants or other tokens of devotion. When you see this, you can tell that someone nearby probably cares for the shrine.  

The figure behind the glass or iron grille may be a small statue, a centuries-old bas relief, or a faded sentimental print from the 19th century. Often, an older niche has been "modernized" with a new image substituted for one that has succumbed to time.

Shrine in San Polo, in a sotoportego near the San Silvestro traghetto station
A shrine may be shamefully faded and bedraggled, or it might be bright and fresh.

At the Ca' d'oro traghetto station
Here, at the traghetto stop near the Ca' d'oro, a bright and new-looking shrine protects the gondoliers and their passengers, right at the landing.

A graffiti besmirched and pockmarked wall in the Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini in Santa Croce holds a beautiful stone carved shrine, protected by a modern glass and steel cabinet.

The carving may date from the medieval era, while the fabric roses are a modern improvement that endures - well, not quite as long.

In San Marco where the shops are busy, this stone niche high above the first floor holds an ancient saintly figure that oversees your travels and blesses your souvenir shopping.

One can encounter a shrine in any narrow corner or campo. This one is behind the church of San Cassiano in San Polo.

This mosaic shrine in Cannaregio, near the church of Santa Maria Assunta and facing a busier calle, is well cared for. Other observers report that each night the shutters are closed by an unseen but dedicated caretaker.

This shrine in the sestiere of Dorsoduro is mounted at the corner of the house, above the first floor. It has a protective enclosure with a peaked roof, like a space capsule. The saint peers dimly through the murky glass.

Photo taken with a flash 
Sometimes the shrine is almost invisible, hidden above the arch of a darkened sotoportego, and illuminated only by the flash of a camera, as this stone bas relief of the Madonna and child with a frieze on the bottom of romping dogs.

Here at the boat landing on the small island of Torcello, a brickwork niche holds a more accessible shrine, a carved bust of the Madonna on a broad shelf, with plenty of room for gifts of flowers or candles.

Even churches themselves adorn their outer walls with shrines - perhaps to allow folks too busy to step inside an opportunity for a quick devotional. This prettily carved plaque is on the side of the church of San Cassiano that faces the campo.

Even the most well-known tourist sites are blessed with shrines - here on the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge, a shrine and a carved angel are convenient for viewing from your gondola.

At the Pecheria, or fish market, a shrine to the Madonna and Child is mounted at the foot of the bridge, decorated with fresh flowers from the market.

Whether the modest offerings of flowers and candles are given in gratitude, or as bribes against future ill luck, or just as a way to hedge one's bet it's hard to tell. But Venice is a city where, at each turn, you find a small, humble reminder of human faith in divinity. Believer or non-believer, the traveler is still charmed to know that their wanderings are overseen by a benevolent tradition.


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

With a title like that, I wasn't sure if this was going to be a book review or a travel post. :)
My mother spent some time as one of those "overburdened backpackers" about 15 years ago, and the closer I get to her traveling age, the more amazed I become.

You have a true photographer's eye, Aunt Snow, to notice these shrines and record them so diligently. Thanks for sharing them with the rest of us! :)

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Sign me up for the next Aunt Snow walking tour! LA, Italy, or beyond. You have a great eye for details. Love this!

smalltownme said...


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

They may be present in dark and twisted alleyways to provide a protective presence for passersby - for who would rob or mug someone in the presence of a saint?

The hope of human existence, sadly mugged by reality!

Wonderful pictures, Aunt Snow.