There were only 4 things on my list to do while we were in Venice: visit Liberia Acqua Alta, have a coffee at Caffè Florian, paint Carnivale masks, and, however touristy it may be, take a gondola ride (photos in the previous post). Venice is full of things to do and see but I’m glad we only had a few “must-do” things because as it was our first time, we spent quite a bit of it getting lost, attempting to learn the waterways, and trying to avoid getting trampled by people. Anything more and I just think that it would have made for an unpleasant trip!
Many years ago I found an article on this place in Venice and I told myself that if I were ever to make it to Italy then I had to visit: Liberia Aqua Alta. Of course, it’s much more well-known now, probably no thanks to social media and more use of the internet, but it’s still not to be missed! Dubbed the “most beautiful bookstore in the world” it is composed of a number of over-stuffed rooms literally stacked wall-to-wall with books, magazines, and numerous other things. Due to constant flooding, piles of materials are placed inside bathtubs, waterproof bins, and in one room a fill-sized gondola! Their “fire-escape” is a door that leads directly out onto the canal! Although it is now an extremely touristy place, you somehow can still get a little whimsical feeling as you’re herded through the tight spaces. Oh, and they really really like cats.
I love coffee and I adore Italian coffee. Almost everywhere I go I look see if there is some historic cafe or type/brand of coffee that I need to try while in a new area. I’ve found historic and old cafès in Rome, Naples, and now Venice, that have housed writers, politicians, popes, and many other influential and well-known people.
Caffè Florian is considered the oldest cafè in Europe, founded in 1720, and considered a symbol of the city of Venice. Located under the Procuratie Nuove in Saint Mark’s Square, the finest wines and coffees from the Orient, Malaysia, Cyprus and Greece were served inside. Its windows have witnessed the splendor and fall of the Serenissima Republic of Venice and the secret conspiracies against French and then later Austrian rule; later, its elegant rooms were used to treat the wounded during the 1848 uprising. Right from the beginning Caffè Florian has had quite the clientele, including Goldoni, Giuseppe Parini, Silvio Pellico, and many others. It’s interesting to note that also besides being the most famous coffeehouse, Caffè Florian was the only meeting place of the time that admitted women, which explains why Casanova chose it as his “hunting ground” in continuing his quest for female company (www.caffeflorian.com).
Painting masks was an extremely expensive outing, but as it is a huge part of the Venetian culture (and super exciting and fun for the kid) we decided to give it a whirl anyway. Since we were already planning on spending a lot, we figured why not pay a visit to Ca’Macana, dubbed the best workshop for traditional Venetian masks founded in 1984. One of the reasons this shop is one of the most well-renowned and respected producers of Venetian masks is the fact that they still follow the authentic technique of producing refined and durable paper-mâché masks. We signed up for a private session to learn about the history of this ancient craft and to paint two of our own masks. Their collection ranges from traditional masks to fantastical unique creations.
One type of mask that I was particularly interested in learning more about was the “plague doctor mask.”
We know only a little about its origins, but it is clear that the plague doctor figure was common throughout Europe since the Middle Ages. In the 17th century, a famous French doctor, Charles de L’Orme, perfected the plague doctor mask, giving it the look we recognize today. It was, in fact, a mask with purpose. It was actually worn by doctors and physicians as a medical uniform, under the supposition it would have protected them from disease when they visited people infected. The theory was that it would isolate the physician and prevent direct contact with the bodies of plague victims. The full outfit, which covered the plague doctor from head to foot, consisted of an outer garment tightly enclosed around the mask. The plague doctor mask covered the physician’s face in the shape of an oval with two open round holes located in the eyes. The holes were sealed by two pieces of glass, while the lower part of the face was covered by a powerful, hooked nose resembling a long beak- the plague doctor’s trademark feature. On both sides of the “beak,” two horizontal cuts were made to let air pass through. The beak was meanwhile filled with aromatic herbs to filter and purify the air breathed by the plague doctor intended to prevent contagion. According to the miasmatic-humoral doctrine, the plague was due to “bad air.” One could say that the plague doctor mask was the world’s first attempt at a gas mask. Gloves and the wand, which the plague doctor holds in all- but rare- original representations, completed the ensemble. This also served specifically to avoid direct contact with the plague victims’ bodies.
The plague doctor mask had a practical use to be sure. So why did it look so terrifying? The deeper aspect of the plague doctor mask has more to do with superstition and ancient ideas of the plague than with the practical needs of physicians. At the time of the plague, nothing was known about microbes or viruses. Rather, it was believed that disease was carried by spirits or “negative influences” that caused disorder in the patent’s moods. The mask served, on the one hand, to physically prevent the spirits from entering the physician’s body and, on the other hand, to frighten them and drive those spirits away.https://www.camacana.com/en-UK/plague-doctor-mask-history.php
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!