Here are the thoughts of the final-year Undergraduates who travelled to Venice for the History Special Subject ‘Sin Cities or Cities of God?’.
‘After touching down in Verona airport we went straight out for dinner, ‘la via Italiana’: prosciutto, good cheese and prosecco. After refuelling we were treated to a twilight tour of the city by Katie, where we got to take in some of the city’s greatest sights such as the amphitheatre and, of course, Romeo and Juliet’s infamous balcony! But from the point of view of an early modern historian what was perhaps the most captivating was the seemingly more mundane: the imposing city walls, the marketplace and the Piazza Erbe – a monument on which sinners and criminals would be displayed and humiliated as retribution for their crimes. It was through encountering these aspects of the city that one best experiences everyday life in early modern Verona.
The next day we left for Venice. After arriving in the Venezia Santa Lucia train station we took a water taxi along the Grand Canal. The turquoise canal, the colourful buildings and grand architecture really are best seen by boat. Venice by foot also has its charms…and pitfalls! The city is a maze of narrow streets. But the miles walked and hours spent trying to orientate ourselves were not to be resented – some of our most magical finds were incidental: a traditional printing shop (run by one Sig. ‘Guttenberg Sr.’) using only historic printing methods and apparatus, a small wine repository serving only local wines in traditional baskets and from the tap, a classic gelateria….Venice is full of hidden gems!
Our first bit of major sightseeing was the Doge’s Palace, the administrative hub and seat of government of the early modern Republic of Venice. Here we experienced one of the focal points of our study in a way that books cannot provide: the hidden passageways used by officials, the chambers of the Council of Ten, the office of the Grand Chancellor, the city’s archives, and even the city gaol (including the cell of the infamous Giacomo Casanova!). At the Doge’s Palace we got a chance to really ‘feel’ how the city was run, and the meticulous and grandeur nature of its administrative system.
Through the rest of the week we came face to face with sights and locations that really brought our studies to life, such as the Venetian ospedale and the exterior of the scuole grandi, the early modern confraternities housed in the city. On the penultimate day we had a guided tour around the Venetian ghetto. What was perhaps most interesting about the ghetto tour was the way the history of the ghetto was presented by the tour guide, who was keen to make it known what a tolerant and unified city Venice was – the myth of Venice lives on!
By the final day, leaving the vibrancy, the culture and the buzz of Venice felt like it had come too soon. But with the rich history and numerous hidden treasures tucked away in the city’s maze-like streets, Venice is a city that can be visited many times and still offer something new.’
Ellie Janik, BA History/Political Science
‘Our group study trip to Venice was amazing and has been one of the highlights of my university experience so far. Articles and books that I have read in preparation for seminars often discuss Venice and its significance during the early modern period and it was exciting to see the city for myself. I had never been to Venice or anywhere else in Italy before and the city exceeded all my expectations. The trip enhanced my understanding of early modern cities and our group had a fantastic time together.
The trip had so many highlights that it would take up far too many pages to discuss them all in detail. However, one of the most exceptional moments of the trip for me was the visit to the Doge’s Palace. This location comes up a lot in readings and the ‘Secret Tour’ expanded my existing knowledge of it. I enjoyed listening to the tour guide tell us stories about prisoners who had been contained in the Palace cells and of those prisoners who had managed to escape. The artwork on display, the architecture, and the Palace as a whole was phenomenal and I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the city. Equally enjoyable was the visit to the Jewish Ghetto. Again, I have done a lot of reading about minority groups in early modern Europe and the Jewish Ghetto has been analysed time and time again by historians. Seeing the place for myself allowed me to think about how the Jewish population in Venice not only lived in the city, but suffered. It was a very moving experience and really brought history to life. I also enjoyed visiting the Museum of Public Health. The instruments and diagrams on display were incredibly interesting (and also terrifying!) and the visit proved useful in our week 9 seminar on health and disease.
What made the trip so good was that we were given a lot of flexibility. Rather than adhere to a strict plan, we were able to follow our historical interests and visit parts of the city that appealed to us the most. Equally, we had free time to enjoy and engage with the culture of modern day Venice. It was carnival season and we could not resist buying ourselves masks and joining in with the fun. I sampled lots of tasty food (mainly pizza, pasta and ice cream!) and enjoyed spending time with my peers and tutors. The trip was so well organised – hats off to Dr Simone Laqua-O’Donnell and Katie for all their hard work!’
Amy Evans, BA English Literature and History
‘One of the most memorable and intellectually stimulating experiences of my undergraduate degree has been our group study trip to Venice. The trip has heightened my interest in the early modern city, and encouraged me to undertake independent research. For example, while visiting the Scuola Grande di San Marco, a medical museum, my attention was drawn by an instrument that I could not identify. After researching the object, I discovered that it was a sonometer, a diagnostic instrument used to test an individual’s hearing or measure their bone density. Viewing these medical instruments was also relevant to my autumn option, which covers health and disease in early modern Europe. Viewing first-hand some of the equipment that I have studied helped to bring the subject to life and stimulated my interest in early modern medicine.
Another aspect of our trip that I found particularly interesting was our visit to Saint Mark’s Square. The juxtaposition between the narrow, crowded streets of the city and the open space of the square helped me to appreciate the importance of space within the city. Moreover, before flying to Venice, each student was asked to research an aspect of the city they found interesting, and their research was added to a handbook which each student had a copy of. As part of my research, I studied Venetian art, in particular Venetian representations of the city of Venice. Gentile Bellini’s 1496’s painting the ‘Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco’ depicted an event taking place in Saint Mark’s Square. Visiting the Square gave me an exciting opportunity to visit an area I had previously only experienced via academic works.
Our trip to Venice has also helped me to engage with many of the topics we have covered in our seminars. For example, reflecting upon my own experience of navigating through the city helped me to understand the effect of space upon the everyday lives of early modern Venetians. This is especially true regarding the Grand Canal. Having read several articles exploring the importance of space and place within Venice, actually experiencing the waterways first-hand has helped me to understand academic emphasis upon the canal as both a barrier and connector between different areas of the city. Furthermore, viewing the islands within the Venetian lagoon has helped me to appreciate the role of water in dividing the city.
Visiting Venice as a group also helped us to get to know each other, which facilitated class discussion and engagement once the trip was over. We have been able to organise revisions sessions among ourselves in preparation for our exams, and have drawn on each other for academic advice and support, both in relation to our special subject and other aspects of academia. Before going on this study trip, I had never visited Venice, and had the trip not taken place, I would have missed out on a fantastic opportunity to experience a truly unique city.’
Emily Robson, BA History
‘Venice was a remarkable adventure and an unmissable study trip. It was a real joy to see the spaces that have occupied my study for so long, and to experience a world that has only ever lived in my imagination. Exploring the streets of Venice was a perfect way for me to engage with another time and place, every corner and landmark bringing to mind the things I have read about over the course of the module. I especially enjoyed our visit to the Doge’s Palace where we went on a ‘Secret Itineraries’ tour where we could see several of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ rooms we had discussed in seminars before exploring the great rooms of state whose art and architecture was astounding. More than that, I feel that this trip has challenged me to move outside my comfort zone and to experience new things. Everyday I was trying something new as my tutors encouraged me to engage with Italian life and culture. While my language skills still leave much to be desired, I have been inspired to learn more and fully intend on continuing studying Renaissance Italy into my post-graduate year. I feel as if my horizons have been broadened and I have never felt more enthusiastic about a topic and period after having experienced the reality of it myself.’
Thomas Wood, BA History
‘There is something about being in the Doge’s Palace, walking across the Rialto, standing looking out over the Grand Canal and getting lost amongst the web of side streets and snaking water ways that run throughout the city of Venice that you just cannot understand by reading an article. History takes on a new kind of being when experienced in the flesh, and in Venice it is inescapably striking. In spending a week here I found myself un-surprised that the ‘Myth of Venice’ has survived for quite so long within history.
Not only was the architecture arresting and the canal picturesque, but reminders of the city’s past are constant on this study trip. Even in moving away from the Rialto and San Marco Square and more obvious historical monuments, one could still sense the history of this place. As a student interested by material culture, it was particularly interesting to see the remains of denunciation boxes littered around the city. These boxes, placed in the squares and street corners, are easily overlooked and appear unassumingly ‘normal’ amongst the wider mosaic of buildings and streets in Venice. Originally placed around the city in the early modern period, these boxes were carved out of the stone in the shape of a winged lion – the symbol of Saint Marco, the patron saint of Venice. Individuals could place their denunciation into the mouth of the lion and their denunciation would be collected in a box on the opposite side of a wall. The lion motif though has been nearly entirely removed from these boxes, and so only the stone slabs with small openings for these notes remain. Finding one of these boxes was harder than expected, even with a free dinner up for grabs for the first person who found one!
These denunciation boxes were just one of many methods employed by the civic authorities to help establish civic order that we learnt about whilst in Venice. Our guided tour of the Doge’s Palace helped explain some of the other methods in more (graphic!) detail. In moving from the cells of the prisons, through to the offices of the clerks and finally up towards the torture chamber, one could really gain a sense of the inner workings of municipal government. This tour really helped connect the different arms of the city’s bureaucracy within my mind, helping to explain how political structures worked in the early modern period.
This trip was made all the more interesting and enjoyable by the group. The willingness of each individual – student and staff – to explore, to discuss and to reflect on what we saw meant that this trip became far more than just sightseeing. This study group encouraged me to think critically about what I saw, and consider how the individual aspects of the city that we explored fit into a broader historical narrative of early modern Venice. Especially in exploring the Venetian Ghetto, we debated as a group how historians should write about marginal groups within early modern cities. As my Undergraduate dissertation was on Jewish settlement and the concept of the ‘ghetto’ in the 19th century, this conversation was particularly thought provoking.
If the conversations provoked by exploring Venice made this trip great, then the students and staff made it outstanding. The true strength of this trip lay not just in the location but in the company – and I remain very grateful that I could be a part of it.’
Katie Woodhouse, BA History