Ciao Amici (hello friends),
Every major city in the world has its iconic town center, square or plaza (piazza in Italian). New York has its Times Square, London has Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus and Paris has Place de la Concorde. However, possibly the greatest of all is Venice’s Piazza San Marco, surely my favorite and not just because of its historic architecture. When there, you have the opportunity to sit at the outdoor cafes, people watch all day, feed the pigeons and all this can be done in silence due to having no automobiles for miles. Napoleon had called Piazza San Marco “the finest living room in Europe”. No matter time of day and or season you find yourself, Venice is truly magical in all regards.
Marco Polo was Venetian and in his travels, during the 1200’s to the far east, in search of silk, gold and other riches which is said to have inspired Christopher Columbus to likewise find a trade route to the east and we know what Columbus found!
This month’s question addresses the tradition of feeding the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square and the gondolas of Venice; found no where else in the world, taking a gondola ride is the most wonderful experience and one you’ll never forget.
On our trip to Venice last summer, my 10-year old son was amazed at the number of pigeons in Piazza San Marco and thoroughly enjoyed feeding them. And after our gondola ride through the canals he questioned why all the gondolas are painted black?
Seaside Heights, New Jersey
As you enter Piazza San Marco you are immediately impressed with the grandeur of the Basilica San Marco and the architecture of this historic 1000-year old piazza…and the pigeons!
The pigeons are considered the unofficial mascots of Venice and are practically sacred, or at least highly respected. For example, you’ll never see pigeon (squab) offered as a menu item in a Venetian restaurant.
According to tradition the original pigeons were released on Palm Sunday from the balcony of the basilica. It seems the pigeons liked the piazza as much as the locals did and they learned how to thrive and coexist. Locals and visitors alike enjoy feeding the pigeons and watching them do their dance to earn the little bird food they are offered. In 2008 Venice tried to outlaw the feeding of the pigeons, but that law didn’t take well, and while not legal, people still enjoy feeding the pigeons as has been done for centuries. I often took my sons to Venice when they were young and this picture of my son G is one of our classic family photos.
The gondola is black for two reasons: a practical one, and a historical one. The practical reason is that gondolas are sealed with pitch in order to keep it watertight, and since the pitch is black, it was easiest to paint the entire boat black. It was painted black as far back as anyone knows about which dates to the 1400’s. The historical reason is that in the 1600’s, in response to the noble families who competed with each other to see who could have the fanciest gondola; the then socialist city of Venice passed a law stating that all gondolas had to be painted black, except certain gondolas for dignitaries.
Some people believe that the gondola is black because they were used to carry the bodies of the victims of the plague, or “Black Death” and that this color just became habit. However, it is said that this is not true and this is just a somber myth.
Here are a few other fun facts about gondolas
All gondolas are the same length and width, give or take a few inches. This is not by law, but born out of tradition and practicality. If the gondola were smaller and lighter it would not be able to handle the currents in the canals or the weight of the loads. If they were larger they could not be maneuvered through the small canals. There is quite a variation in the curvature and decoration though, except that they are always painted black.
WHOSE BRIGHT IDEA WAS THIS ANYWAY?
Because the gondola is a boat that came about as an evolution since Venice began over 1000 years ago, there is not a single person or moment in time when it was invented. We can start to understand what the gondola looked like from early artist’s drawings. The oldest paintings of the gondola date back to the 1400’s, where we can see a boat similar to the present day gondola that is rowed in exactly the same manner as today.
WHATS THIS GONNA COST ME?
Expect to pay 80 euros for a half-hour in the daytime and 120 euros for a half-hour in the evening; this can be for up to six passengers. There are gondoliers in all of the major tourist spots along the canals. It is a wonderful experience, as the gondolier will take you along the back canals, often singing and telling stories. For me, in the quiet of the evening, after dinner is the most magical time to enjoy a gondola tour.
The Bellini cocktail was invented in Venice by Giuseppe Cipriani, the owner of Harry’s Bar; it is a blend of sparkling Prosecco wine and white peach puree. Because of its unique pink color, it reminded Cipriani of the color of the toga on a saint in a painting by 15th-century Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini, and he aptly he named the drink the Bellini.
Harry’s Bar was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Orson Welles, among many other celebrities and dignitaries. The drink was the perfect aperitivo (before dinner drink) on a hot summer day and pairs perfectly with dishes like prosciutto and melon, and carpaccio, another Venetian creation. Today the Bellini is enjoyed all over the world, another fabulous creation by the Italians!
Christian Pepe’s Bellini Recipe:
Master Mixologist, Christian Pepe, took the Bellini to another level with this popular version served at our restaurants Little Napoli and Vesuvio in Carmel, California.
Bellini Cocktail Cristiano
1 can peaches (drained)
2 Tablespoons Stirrings Brand peach liqueur
1 Tablespoon St. Germain liqueur
Blend all ingredients together very well.
Strain to remove as much pulp as possible.
Refrigerate. Can be stored for one month.
To Assemble Cocktail:
In a champagne flute or tall wine glass, pour 1 ounce of Bellini mixture in bottom of glass. Pour into glass about 6 ounces of a crisp sparkling Prosecco wine. Gently stir to form a little frothy head. Serve and enjoy!