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Hidden Treasures of Venice

top the Pigeons!

If you get the impression there are more pigeons in St Mark's Square than inhabitants in the whole of Venice, you're right. Officials estimate the pesky pigeon population at around 100,000 (but how do you count them?). Anyone who has been dive-bombed by squadrons of these parasitic marauders on this most beautiful of squares will probably not be overly unhappy to hear that La Serenissima is striking back. Tests have shown that around 15% of the flock have salmonella and can pass it on to their hapless human victims, and so the city fathers have ordained a culling programme. In the past there was an attempt to sterilise them with chemically treated birdseed, but they didn't swallow it. Equally unsuccessful is the supposed ban on feeding the little beggars. There is purportedly a €51.65 fine for this activity, but to judge by the birdseed vendors and the throngs of delighted tourists allowing birdies to poop on their shoulders for that memorable St Mark's Square photo, that rule died at birth.Worse than the poop on the people is that on the monuments - the acid in bird droppings eats away at the stone. People involved in restoration pull their hair out at the thought of the vast sums spent to restore monuments, only to see the work imperilled by the toilet habits of these gormless birds. Please don't feed them!

Food for Thought

From Calle della Croce, you can make a detour to one of the rare strips of footpath actually on the Grand Canal. Turn left (north) up Calle Larga dei Bari, right along Lista dei Bari and left (north) along Ramo Zen then Calle Zen to the Riva di Biasio. A couple of the mansions here are interesting enough to behold and the views to the other side of the canal are more impressive still. But the prize goes to a tale we all hope is taller than true. A sausage-maker by the name of Biagio (Biasio) Cargnio had a shop here in the 16th century. They say he was sent to the next world on charges of having sausages made of - wait for it - children.

Light on the Heart of Darkness

If you pass under the sotoportego (a street that continues under a building) to the east of the Vecio Fritolin, you'll notice on the left an altar in the wall. In fact, you may already have seen them scattered about town; there are some 500 in all. Their purpose was not just to encourage passers-by to stop for a moment of prayer and contemplation. Apart from helping to bring light to the darkness of tormented souls, the candles or oil lamps kept alight in the altars also served as a form of street lighting in medieval times.

Shining Path

Until proper street lighting began to make an appearance in 1732, anyone game enough to venture into the streets at night would, if they had any sense, hire the services of a codega. This fellow has traditionally been depicted as a mere lantern-bearer who would precede you down the twisting calli to your destination and so light your way. However, nocturnal crime was something of a problem in Venice (as in most other cities), so it seems logical to assume that these fellows were fairly well versed in the gentle art of street brawling should the need arise.

Making His Mark

The story goes that an angel appeared to the Evangelist Mark when his boat put in at a deserted island of what would become known as the Venetian lagoon while on the way to Rome from Aquileia. The winged fellow informed the future saint that his body would rest there. When he did die some years later, it was in Alexandria, Egypt. In 828, two Venetian merchants persuaded the guardians of his Alexandrian tomb to let them have the corpse, which they then smuggled down to their ship in port. You've got to ask yourself why they would bother with such a strange cargo. Well, in those days, any city worthy of the name had a patron saint of stature. Venice had St Theodore (San Teodoro), but poor old Theodore didn't really cut the mustard in the Christian hierarchy. An Evangelist, though, would be something quite different. Did Doge Giustinian Partecipazio order this little body-snatching mission? We will never know. Whatever the truth of this tale, it seems that someone's putrid corpse was transported to Venice, and that everyone rather liked to think St Mark was now in their midst. St Theodore was unceremoniously demoted and the doge ordered the construction of a chapel to house the newcomer. That church would later become the magnificent St Mark's Basilica. St Mark's symbol in the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) is a winged lion, and this image came to be synonymous with La Serenissima.