When it comes to souvenirs the most famous apart from the obligatory Gondola keyring is the Venetian mask. These are sold in their thousands to tourists from stands and hawkers at every opportunity. I can understand the Venetians fascination with the mask because Venice itself is the ultimate mask.
Venice hides in its lagoon, behind its waterways, it hides behind the faded grandeur of the Grand Canal.
Venice hides behind its Baroque facades and Gothic mansions.
Venice it hides so much that even its citizens cannot direct you around their own city. It even has its own perfume to ward off strangers — yet we are inexplicably drawn to the mask it presents to us with its promise of romance, intrigue and cultural delight.
What lies behind the masks that are Venice?
First, it is not built on water — it is built on mud islands surrounded by water. The foundations of all the buildings are constructed first of tree trunks, then wooden pilings driven into the mud. The piles penetrate a softer layer of sand and mud until they reach a much harder layer of compressed clay. Over time, these have petrified and created the bedrock upon which Venice is built. The Venetians deforested all of the area north and north east in order to lay foundations for their city republic. The water — its canals are its pavements and roads.
Venice rose out of the lagoon and from behind the mask it has fought to stay on top of it ever since thanks to its wood pile foundations. A good summary of the current battle to stay afloat can be found here.
We have had a glimpse of what lies behind the mask of the Grand Canal — narrow passageways and alleys that rarely see the light.
We have seen the removal of the glass industry to Murano to cut down on the fire risks that glass blowing involved — but they still sell Venetian Glass.
They hide their other industries just as well, bespoke boat building — sailing and motor boats — luxury class, rope making, as well as fashion and lacework. There is also a tobacco factory and iron foundry hidden away.
What lies underwater is also hidden — an exhibition of house construction — or a living museum where you could see restoration being carried out on all levels from the mud up would have been an amazing thing to see.
If a local child drops his favorite toy in the water — is it retrieved, and, if so, how? Do they have a special task force to dredge the canals and retrieve the inevitable dropped camera or handbag — or is that all left for criminals to plunder along with coins and lost earrings?
The biggest mask of all is Venice itself hiding its people and its way of life, the everyday lives of men and women, their homes and their pastimes. No chatting over the fence here, no children’s playgrounds — not even a football game in the alleyways.
Venice is almost like a 24-hour “production” — I want to see behind that mask and see how people there really live when the spotlights are off and the world and its tourists are not looking.