The walk along the waterfront near Piazza San Marco is one which every visitor to Venice makes. First time travelers are amazed by the beauty of Palazzo Ducale, the gondolas floating in the Bacino and the views on San Giorgio Maggiore and Punta della Dogana. If you are a frequent visitor like myself, you probably rush through the Riva degli Schiavoni to escape these hurds of tourists.
There are however many intriguing elements hidden along the Rivas which are worth a closer look. This walk takes you from the Ponte della Paglia (next to Palazzo Ducale) on the Riva degli Schiavoni over the Riva Ca’ di Dio and the Riva San Biasio to the end of the Riva dei Sette Martiri (just before Giardini).
In this post, I will share with you 9 secrets which you can discover along the way. If you want to skip some, you can jump immediately to the one that intrigues you most.
1. Ponte della Paglia – 2. Vittorio Emanuele II monument – 3. Pietà foundlings wheel – 4. Caserma Aristide Cornoldi – 5. Santa Maria alla Ca’ di Dio – 6. Museo Storico Navale – 7. San Biagio dei Marinai – 8. Giovanni and Sebastiano Caboto – 9. Palazzina Canonica
RIVA DEGLI SCHIAVONI
Let’s first understand the name before you start walking. ‘Riva’ means shore and refers to its location next to the lagoon. ‘Schiavoni’ was the Old Italian word for Slavs. It relates to the people from Dalmatia and Istria (now Croatia) who settled in this part of the city to trade their goods.
The Riva degli Schiavoni was built in the 9th century. It was much narrower than it currently is as it was only a bit wider than the bridges. In 1060, the Riva was expanded with the draining of a swampy area. The shore was paved for the first time in 1324, using terracotta flooring. Finally, architect Tommaso Temanza widened it to the current dimensions between 1780 and 1782.
1. Ponte della Paglia
The Ponte della Paglia must be one of the most undervalued bridges in Venice. Every day, thousands of people stand on it to take pictures of the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), but no one looks at this Bridge of Straw. It owes its name to the boats that moored here to deliver bales of straw to the Palazzo Ducale and to the prison (which is the first building after the bridge). The construction of the Ponte della Paglia started in August 1630. It was one of the first stone bridges in Venice. It was rebuilt and enlarged around 1850.
Before you get on the bridge from the side of Palazzo Ducale, look at it from the side of the lagoon to discover the relief Madonna dei Gondolieri, which dates from 1583.
DID YOU KNOW? The Ponte della Paglia marks the border between the San Marco and Castello sestieri.
2. Vittorio Emanuele II monument
Between the stalls with cheap souvenirs, you will notice a huge monument dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II. It was built in recognition of saving Venice from foreign oppression and inaugurated on May 1, 1887. Military badges decorate the monument, in honour of the veterans of 1848 – 1849.
The equestrian statue shows Vittorio Emanuele II as the Padre della Patria (father of the country). Vittorio Emanuele II was King of Sardinia from 1849 until March 17, 1861. At that point, he assumed the title of King of Italy. He was the first king of a unified Italy since the 6th century. He held this title until his death in 1878.
On either side of the monument sits a woman, who represents Venice, with the winged lion of San Marco. At the front, the Venice of 1866 is dressed in a royal gawn. She raises her left arm in a victorious pose and holds her sword in her right hand. The lion stands on a chained scroll marked with the year 1815, which refers to the start of the second domination by the Austrians. He also has a paw on a book with the results of the referendum to include Venice in the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. At the rear, the Venice of 1849 looks exhausted from a battle. Her sword is broken and she holds the flag behind her. The lion is equally passive and is gnawing at his chains. According to some sources, this symbolises the shame felt by the city following the return of the Austrian rule.
3. Pietà foundlings wheel
In the Calle de la Pietà, you can find a green rounded door at the side of the Hotel Metropole. This used to be the foundlings wheel of the Pietà convent. Parents who couldn’t take care of their baby put the child in a rotating cradle. This was much smaller than the door, so only a baby would fit inside. When they turned the door, the nuns were alarmed by the system and would take care of the infant. A little bit further in the street, there is also a relief of a women with a child where you could leave a donation.
DID YOU KNOW? Foundlings wheels have been put in place by Pope Innocent II (1198 – 1216) who had been horrified by the sight of abandoned babies in the Tiber river.
The children were raised at the Ospedale della Pietà, the orphanage where Antonio Vivaldi taught and for whose talented girls he composed most of his concerts (more information in my post ‘Discover the hidden musical heritage of Venice‘). Vivaldi never played in the current Chiesa della Pietà on the Riva degli Schiavoni. The rebuilding of the chapel of the Pietà took place between 1745 and 1760, which is after his death. Following the wish of Vivaldi, architect Giorgio Massari designed an oval-shaped church to ensure optimal acoustics, particularly for choral performances.
4. Caserma Aristide Cornoldi
When you reach the more quiet part of the Riva degli Schiavoni, you will see a large orange façade with an Italian and a European flag. There are also signs for the Comando Presidio Militare and the Circolo di Presidio Esercito.
After the death of Elena Celsi (widow Vieni) in 1410, her small house was used as a hospice for pilgrims heading to or returning from the Holy Land. In 1471, the patricians Beatrice Venier and Polissena Premarin started following the rules of the Third Order of Saint Francis, the ‘Tertiaries’. At the beginning of the 16th century, the convent was enlarged and two courtyards were created, one of which was cloistered. The façade was also completely rebuilt under the direction of the architects Aniello Porzio and Alessandro della Via and later embellished with a portal and a statue of Tommaso Rangone. This is now kept in the Museum of the Patriarchal Seminary.
The convent was suppressed following the Napoleonic decree of April 21, 1806 and later transformed into military barracks. Various commandments and departments were based here, such as the French Royal Guard, Austrian Infantry departments and various Italian Infantry Regiments. In 1914, the site was named after Aristide Cornoldi, a Venetian captain who fell in Tripolitana in the battle of the Due Palme.
After the Second World War, the Military Presidio Command Army and the Unified Circle moved into the Cornoldi barracks. It includes a large guesthouse and restaurant for the Italian military, but it is rarely open for visitors. They did however organize an exhibition for the Biennale a couple of years ago in one of the courtyards. I was lucky to see it, but it was my first and only glimpse inside.
RIVA CA’ DI DIO
5. Santa Maria alla Ca’ di Dio
Ca’ di Dio was originally a 13th century hospice used by pilgrims on the journey to the Holey Land.
In 1545, the famous architect Jacopo Sansovino built a new wing of Ca’ di Dio to house 24 poor women for the Procuratia de Supra. He took inspiration from the order of Doge Andrea Gritti in 1527 which stipulated that each unit should have a fireplace. Hence, the building can easily be recognized by the series of 9 outsized chimneys along the rio wing. Ca’ di Dio was later used as a home for senior residents.
The building is now under reconstruction. The plan was to open a five star luxury hotel at the end of this year, but apparently this idea has been cancelled. As soon as I know more about its future, I will add it here.
DID YOU KNOW? The relief of grain above a door on one of the next buildings refers to the military bakery which was located here. While the glass furnaces were forced to move to Murano due to the danger of a fire (more info in my post ‘Murano glassmasters: artisans or artists’), those baking dry bread could stay in Venice because they were essential to feed the ships’ crews.
RIVA SAN BIASIO
The Riva San Biasio starts when you cross the bridge across the canal to the Arsenale. The bridge has 4 pillars on it and the outside of the bridge is decorated with 4 sculptures of a ram and the prow of a ship. Take a look at it after you crossed it.
6. Museo Storico Navale
The Naval Historical Museum is dedicated to the splendor of the Venetian naval tradition. It is located on the Campo San Biagio in a 15th century building which was formerly used as a granary by La Serenissima. The museum is owned by the Marina Militare Italiana and one of the official city museums of Venice.
At the end of the 17th century, the Casa dei Modelli showed already models of the ships built on the shipyards in Venice (more information in my post ‘The fascinating transformation behind the Arsenale walls’). The current collection is spread over 5 levels and 42 exhibition rooms. The most famous pieces on display are an impressive reproduction of the Bucintoro, a decorated galey used by the Doge to perform the ceremony of the Marriage of the Sea (more information in my post ‘The Festa della Sensa is the wedding of the year in Venice’) and the stunning gondola with a cabin for privacy of Peggy Guggenheim (more information in my post ‘The artistic legacy of Peggy Guggenheim in Venice‘).
The museum has been closed for several years, but it was recently reopened.
7. San Biagio dei Marinai
Next to the museum, you can see the San Biagio church which resembles a temple with its columns. It was originally built in 1052 by the Boncigli family for new immigrants. In 1470, the Council of Ten allowed the large Greek Orthodox community in Venice to use this church together with other religions. In 1498, they were given permission to establish a Scuola, in the name of Saint Nicholas (more information in ‘Scuole grandi combine social history and art in Venice’). The Greek soldiers however wanted to move to larger premises and a distinct place for their growing congregation. They eventually moved to San Giorgio in 1543.
The church was rebuilt around 1750 by Francesco Bognolo, the architect of the Arsenale. It closed in 1810 and reopened in 1817 as the parish church of the Navy. The interior is decorated with ceiling frescoes attributed to Scagliaro and with 5 altars taken from the church of Sant’Anna. There is also a monument for Admiral Angelo Emo. He was the last admiral of the Venetian Navy, who defeated the Bey of Tunis in 1784 – 1786 and who invented the floating battery. The monument was made by Giovanni Ferrari and taken from the demolished church of Santa Maria dei Servi in 1818.
Even though the church is located in Venice and hence in the territory of the Venetian patriarch, it is officially part of the Italian army. A naval chaplain is officiating at the rare services. Unfortunately, the church is seldom open, so it’s very difficult to visit.
INSIDER TIP: Before you cross the bridge to the Via Garibaldi, stop at Il Pinguino for a scoop of icecream.
RIVA DEI SETTE MARTIRI
The Riva dei Sette Martiri starts when you cross the bridge across the canal to the Arsenale. The construction began in 1931, during the fascist years, which is more than 10 centuries later than the Riva degli Schiavoni. It implied the demolition of many workshops and shipyards. The Riva dell’Impero was inaugurated on March 23, 1937. The name refers to the constitution of the Italian Empire by Benito Mussolini.
A tragic episode led to the renaming into Riva dei Sette Martiri or 7 martyrs. During the Second World War, a drunk German soldier fell in the water and drowned. The German command thought that it had been caused by a Venetian partisan fighter and decided to shoot 7 political prisoners in retaliation. They were picked at random from the city’s prisons of Santa Maria Maggiore and Ca’ Littoria. On the morning of August 3, 1944, the men were shot in front of over 500 Venetians who were obliged to watch. At the end of the fascist regime and with the constitution of the Italian Republic, the City of Venice changed the name of the shore in its current name in memory of this appalling event.
8. Giovanni and Sebastiano Caboto
The house on the corner of the Via Garibaldi, which has the shape of a ship, was owned by Giovanni and Sebastiano Caboto. This father and son discovered Canada in 1497. Giovanni Caboto (c. 1450 – c. 1500) was a Venetian navigator and explorer. His discovery of the coast of North America in 1497 was the first European exploration of coastal North America. He traveled on the ship Matthew from Bristol to Canada, which he mistook for Asia. As he was under the commission of Henry VII of England, he made a British claim to the land in Canada. After setting sail in May 1498 for a return voyage to North America, both Giovanni and his son Sebastiano disappeared.
Their historical palazzo, which dates from around 1400, was abandoned for a long time. The Venetians avoided it as they thought it brought bad luck after the explorers disappeared. There is a memorial stone with the San Marco lion on the façade at the Via Garibaldi to remember them and one on the side of the Riva dei Sette Martiri with the names of the 7 martyrs. To mark the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the expedition of John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto’s name in Canada), the Canadian and British governments appointed Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, as Caboto’s first landing site.
INSIDER TIP: Stop at the Marinaressa gardens and take a look at the sculptures Dilemma of Man and Metamorphosis of the Iranian sculptor Masoud Akhavanjam. They are part of 2019 Art Biennale. The Ponente and Levante gardens were built in the 1930s together with the Riva dei Sette Martiri. They have recently been renovated by the European Cultural Centre who uses it as an exhibition location.
9. Palazzina Canonica
The last stop on our itinerary is the beautiful neo-Renaissance palazzo built by Pietro Canonica (1869 – 1959). He was an Italian sculptor and composer and appointed senator for life by Luigi Einaudi in 1950. His residence in Rome (La Fortezzuola) is part of the Villa Borghese park and is now the Canonica Museum.
He built his second home in Venice in 1911. At that time, there was no riva yet and the palazzo had a water entrance from the lagoon. Unfortunately, the villa was confiscated by the fascist regime, who changed the interior drastically. One striking example is the dark brown colour, symbol of fascism, which dominates the entry hall and the staircase. There is no sign anymore of the former marble interior.
Palazzina Canonica is now home to the Historical Library of Adriatic Studies of the ISMAR-Institute of Marine Sciences. ISMAR is a research institution which is part of the Italian National Research Council (CNR), to who Canonica donated his residence. The library includes an important collection of ancient documents dating back to the 16th century. A rich archive of ancient maps, pilot books, documents, books, and unpublished manuscripts has recently been discovered during the renovation and restoration works.
In 2017, the palazzo opened its doors to the public for the first time since the 1970’s for the exhibition Leviathan. Also this year, you can take the opportunity to visit it as part of the 2019 Art Biennale. The New Zealand Pavilion has selected Dane Mitchell to present his new work, Post hoc, in this beautiful location. If you get the chance, don’t miss the opportunity to go inside. It’s really fascinating.
INSIDER TIP: Before crossing the bridge, take a look at it from the side of the lagoon. You will another relief, this time of an angel holding an anchor.
To relax from your long walk along the Riva degli Schiavone, the Riva Ca’ di Dio and the Riva dei Sette Martiri, I suggest you go for a drink at the greenhouse Serra dei Giardini in Viale Garibaldi or for a drink with a view on the lagoon at In Paradiso. These are amongst my favourite places in Venice.
If you want to continue your discovery of Castello, you can read my post ‘Castello: Mark these hidden gems on your Venice map’.
Enjoy your walk!
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