Venice: Secrets of the Doge’s Palace and Other Tales

Visiting Venice last year I had the opportunity to delve into aspects of city life in the 1550s, all helpful research for the then work in progress, The Apostates. For instance, the current Rialto bridge wasn’t in existence when my characters were living there, in fact there was no bridge at all at the time since it had collapsed under the weight of a crowd rushing to watch a wedding.

Rialto Bridge designed by Antonio da Ponte, construction began in 1588 and was completed in 1591

The city fathers were determined to replace previous wooden bridges with a stone built one that would last (see the painting below by Carpaccio of an earlier bridge made of wood) and asked Michelangelo, amongst others, to submit a design. When the Rialto Bridge was finally erected, many assumed it too would collapse from the weight of the marble, especially since it had no central supporting pillar. The gondoliers no doubt were very happy that it took thirty odd years before the new bridge was constructed since they provided the only means of crossing the Grand Canal.

Segment from Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge, 1496.

In writing The Apostates it would’ve been all too easy to assume the current Rialto Bridge, finished in 1591, would’ve been in existence. It’s those small details which can really catch a writer of historical fiction out – or this one anyway.

My research is never particularly well planned, more a stumbling on curious facts and following my curiosity. For example, cities in Europe during the era were invariably bounded by high city walls, very necessary for their defence, and yet Venice has no such defences, apart from the Fort of San’Andrea. However the canals themselves formed a line of defence. There were markers in the very shallow water within the lagoon to guide ships and boats, which could, at need, be removed making any attacker likely to run aground.

Nevertheless I found it curious that the Ottomans had never attacked – if they could take Constantinople then Venice wouldn’t have posed much of a problem. Although at times they were at loggerheads, the two regimes kept ambassadors permanently in one another courts. Cyprus for instance, was under Venetian rule and in 1570 Famagusta was besieged by the Turks yet it never erupted into open warfare between the two states. The Venetians eventually surrendered Famagusta in 1571 but the Turkish commander, furious that he’d lost over 50,000 men, breached the terms of the surrender and murdered all the Christians left in the city then flayed alive the Venetian commander.

In response the Venetians, in an unusual alliance with Spain and the Pope, won the sea battle of Lepanto and displayed the heads of the Ottoman commanders on their ships (which I cover in the most recent in series, The Familists). But these territorial skirmishes never resulted in an open declaration of war between the Doge and the Sultan. The smooth flow of trade, it seems, was more important than territory.

Da Vinci’s design for a canal dredger

The islands of Venice sit within a tidal lagoon and the waters rise and fall by several feet each day. Even in the 1400s there was a concern about how to maintain the depth of the canals, which were the receptacles for all the sewage, detritus and general rubbish of the day. Leonardo’s design for a dredger was never actually built but it shows the pre-occupation with depth.

We booked a tour of the secret rooms and hidden passageways of the Doge’s Palace. Here’s the torture chamber where a prisoner could watch, from the small square window high on the right, his fellow inmate being tortured knowing it would be his turn next.

Torture chamber within the Doge’s Palace

The cells in the basement of the Doge’s Palace flooded when the tide came in so prisoners would find themselves waist deep in water every twelve hours. The wealthier prisoners were held in the attics, which had the benefit of being dry but they either baked in the summer or froze in the winter beneath the lead roof.

Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro in Piazza San Marco

The two pillars in St Mark’s Square, one with a winged lion and the other with the figure of St Theodore patron saint of Venice atop, were a gift from the Byzantine Emperor in the 12th century. Brought from Constantinople, there was a third column but it fell off the ship into the sea. In the era in which my books are set any member of the aristocracy sentenced to death would be hung between the two pillars and his body left swinging there for several days as a warning to others.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

Visiting Venice was incredibly helpful to get a sense of the sheer scale of the buildings and the opulence my character Bethia, a wee lassie from St Andrews in Scotland, would have been exposed to. In the first in series The Castilians, Bethia’s mother is obsessed with having a painted ceiling but it would’ve been much diminished next to the grandeur of Venetian painted ceilings such as the one pictured above.

The Scuola Grande was an organisation of merchants and others who did charitable works – a precursor of the Rotary Club perhaps – but they clearly needed a grand setting in which to meet and chat about those good works.

The mosaic marble floors too would have been stunning, and so smooth underfoot for a Scottish lass.

15th century Venetian floor reminiscent of the Dutch artist Escher

Venice is a city of light and water and flowers. But windows then still had opaque glass. Here’s one from Ferrara that has survived for five hundred years – not great for letting in the light but very beautiful to look upon.

Window of House in Ferrara dating from 1500s

My third in series, The Apostates, is set partly in Venice.

The Apostates by VEH Masters

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Venice: A Sense of Place

My second book came out during the second year of lockdown. The Conversos is mainly set in Antwerp and there was no possibility of visiting the city in 2021 when all travel was forbidden. Several reviewers asked if I’d been to Antwerp for research, to the point I felt quite defensive. As it happened I had been there in 2018 but had no notion then of writing a book set in what was, albeit briefly in the 1500s, the most powerful city in the Western World. So I did have a general sense of the place, but not much more.

Arrival of the Spanish Merchants to Antwerp in 1560. Look and Learn

Most cities have, of course, changed dramatically since the sixteenth century and much of what a visitor or researcher can explore are museums, ruins and the occasional castle or house which is still habitable. The traffic, the clean streets, the smells, the sheer number of people, the building restrictions – for instance we’re no longer permitted to keep adding more stories to the top of our houses so they lean out over the street until they’re nearly touching the houses opposite – mean often a more accurate picture of life in the period can be culled from books, paintings and maps of the era than I would ever get visiting the place in the current day.

Here’s a drawing of Geneva from 1559, which I referred to constantly when writing the third in series The Apostates which is set in 1549-53. Calvinist Geneva was an austere place: dancing and plays were forbidden; murals whitewashed over; the manufacture of playing cards forbidden; brothels shut down. Yet before Calvin it was also known as the dirtiest city in Europe and he insisted girls should have the opportunity to attend school too. All this I learned from research and, having been in Switzerland although not Geneva, considered it sufficient to achieve a sense of place.

View of Geneva from an original drawing by Claude Chastillon (1559-1616) reproduced by kind permission of the Bibliotheque de Geneve

The Apostates is set mostly in Venice so I had the perfect excuse to go there, just as the world was opening up again, masks on and vaccination certificates in hand, and it wasn’t as crazy busy as usual..

Canal in Venice

Visiting the ghetto (the word originated in Venice and referred to the area where Jews were required to live) and especially walking through the same gateway which was locked each night to keep them in, was atmospheric. Seeing the tall houses with windows facing inwards and peering in to see where rooms had been spilt horizontally to cram in another family was fascinating.

The Ghetto in Venice where the houses were built high and crammed together

But I’d already researched this before I ever set foot in Venice.

Canal in Venice

So, did I really need to go there?

Venice, a city without cars, has not changed as dramatically as most places have in the past five hundred years and wouldn’t have looked so very different to my characters.

Torre dell’Orologio, St Mark’s Square Venice

Seeing the Torre dell’Orologio, the amazing clock tower in St Mark’s Square gave me an idea for a plot point – I hadn’t really registered up until then that astrology and the movement of the stars was found on clock faces of the era and much studied in the Renaissance. So yes, it was useful to visit.

But sometimes too much familiarity with a place can get in the way. For instance my first book, The Castilians, is the story of the siege of St Andrews Castle, Scotland, in 1546. There are a number of buildings in St Andrews still standing from that era, albeit many in ruins.

St Andrews Cathedral, destroyed during the Scottish Reformation 1559

I grew up in St Andrews and feel a visceral connection to its streets and of course I knew all about its weather – the haars that blanket the town in chill mists; the times when the east wind blows straight from Siberia; waves breaking onto the long stretch of the West Sands on a sparkling day.

It was easy to portray the setting, almost too easy with a place I was so familiar with for of course it had changed significantly in nearly five hundred years. For instance the harbour in 1546 had quays built from wood, which were actually longer than the current piers – and these were built from the stone pillaged from the cathedral and castle, destroyed during the Scottish Reformation. Doing the research was important!

Stone Pier at St Andrews, Scotland, the old wooden ones were longer

Some settings are impossible to experience, thankfully. I found a heart wrenching memoir about life as a galley slave by a French Protestant, written in 1713 but somehow I doubted things would have changed much from 1547 when my character is enslaved on one. As one lovely Goodreads reviewer wrote of The Conversos, ‘Grand characters and thrilling story. The place descriptions are unforgettable, and I will never forget the horrors of being a galley slave.’

Each place I’m writing about is very different and conveying the richness of setting and the world inhabited then certainly has me stretched. Three of my main characters are Scots and I could sense how stunned they’d be to come from the relatively small confines of St Andrews, albeit one of the richest cities in Scotland of the time to Antwerp, which had a population of around eighty thousand, then on to austere Protestant Geneva and from there to the opulence of Venice.

The Familists by V E H Masters

My current work in progress The Familists is primarily set in Constantinople and a trip to Istanbul is already planned. I’ve done loads of research but it’s not enough. This setting is just too unfamiliar to write about without a visit!

A series which never fails to get better and always leaves me wanting more.’ Esther Mendelssohn

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