and when you’re this close to god, nothing you do is wrong

We found a place on Via Germanico to leave our bags for the day, an unmanned locker room where you pre-book a timeslot online and present a QR code to the computer terminal to pop open a door. There were no human staff, no coin slots, no keys, just a bunch of shiny yellow doors and a highly effective computer system. I expect I will look back on this fully-automatic service as completely normal, but in the autumn of 2017 it is still slightly odd.

From far off, or from photos, the Piazza San Pietro looks like a huge open space where Papa can address his spiritual children, ringed by saints standing on its immense double colonnade. The reality on the ground, however, is a bewildering mess of bollards and barriers, some to pen in the crowds for the blessing, some to delineate the queues for the basilica, some with no obvious purpose at all. We identified the correct (long, long) queue to get to the basilica; half an hour in, a small gang of smelly German teenagers shouldered their way a little way front of us and received ferocious tuts, death looks and murmurings of international contempt from all around. Some did at least look a little shamefaced. About an hour later (grr) we were finally in.

 

The basilica is, to give it its due, very impressive. It is quite stupidly big, and feels curiously unoriginal, possibly because it is the original, the masterpiece of counter-Reformation form and decoration that hundreds of subsequent churches riffed on. It’s also quite tasteful (with the incredibly strong qualifier “for a 17th century Catholic mega-cathedral”), with precisely the right amount of awe-inspiring polychrome decoration and sufficient breathing space for the various individual chapels and memorials.

It’s not boring, but the most interesting parts were the flourishes of proper Baroque weirdness: the brass skeleton of Time and/or Death suffocated by a blanket of red stone at one pope’s reliquary; the insane curly-wurly bronze columns supporting the centrepiece canopy; the magnificent, unnerving Chair of St Peter, a glaring golden window which bursts into waves of gilt sculptuary that spill out over the columns around them, throwing gleaming clouds and sunbeams crawling with angelic hosts to support a giant floating chair marvelled at by four gigantic bronze saints. (My pictures didn’t come out well, so here’s a better one. For scale, please note that the blokes at the bottom are around seven metres high.) Also rather original are the grottos full of dead popes underneath – a curious leftover-feeling space – and the Swiss Guards, a few in the tasteful but still very 17th-century blue uniforms, many in the eye-wrenchingly garish puffed-and-slashed tricolour ones, like Romanian flags put through a shredder.

 

The wrought iron bars of the Ponte Sant’Angelo (built as the Pons Aelius, eighteen hundred years ago) are too thick for the obnoxious love padlocks to infest it as they have so many other bridges. But a couple of larger loops had been attached in places, with other smaller locks latched onto them in clusters like weird brass tumours. I would love to be the man with the bolt cutter. The Gelateria del Teatra was a regular feature in the top 10 of on Roman ice cream blogs (I had no idea those existed) and I’d happily rate it the best place we found. Certainly it’s the most adventurous, with intriguing herbal flavours: raspberry and sage, chocolate and red wine, white chocolate and basil.

Castel Sant’Angelo combines almost everything I can possibly find cool in a building. It’s distinctive – a weird, towering drum sitting in a crenellated square like a militarised cake. It’s absurdly old, built almost two millennia ago to house the ashes of the most powerful man in the world. It’s a fortress, a slab-sided fighting tower ringed with gunports and set in a crown of triangular bastions, its ramparts crowded with catapults and cannon, its guardrooms with halberds and morions. It’s a palace, with exquisite interior decoration painted in an age of incredible artists. It is concentrated history: in its decline from imperial mausoleum, to source of building materials, to defensive keystone of a frightened successor state, to papal bolthole and shag pad, to otherwise purposeless tourist attraction, you can read the decline evolution decline of Rome in one building. It has secret passages, great views, and is crowned by a statue of a vengeful archangel. It is basically perfect.

 

You arrive across a drawbridge and tour the ramparts (armed with a tumbledown collection of dusty originals and rusty replicas) before ascending in a path that cuts through through the grand drum, through the columbarium chamber where Hadrian’s ashes were once kept. Even after a week of glorious interiors, the papal apartments are rather excellent, one glorious main hall featuring baboons, muses and a painting of Hadrian with an expession that clearly said “what the hell are you cockroaches doing to my grave?” We had a nice coffee under the leafy trellises of the upper drum, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a small but excellent armoury full of Risorgimento curios next door. The labelling is generally excellent.

In one treasure room, massive iron boxes once held the Pope’s ready cash if Rome looked likely to fall (“I wondered about hiding €20 contingency money in my bag, but thought it would be a bit unnecessary. This guy’s contingency money was a chest the size of an elephant.”), in one tower was the entrance to the fortified passage to the Vatican, used in war on two documented occasions. The lurid murals of the papal bedroom depict, among other things, “the story of Cupid and Psyche”, with an incredibly unconvincing label explaining the pious Christian justification for decorating the Pope’s sanctum sanctorum with pornography.

 

 

We descended the spiral used for the funeral processions of emperors, bare brick now, with only a plaque talking about travertine and mosaics to suggest its original beauty. On the way out (foolishly) there is a fantastic set of wooden models showing the castle through its various ages, which would have helped enormously. Out, onto the banks of the Tiber, where the touts roll up their blankets and peg it whenever the polizia roll by. As dusk began to settle, it was time: we recovered our bags from the inhuman locker room, wolfed a quick gyros and shouldered our way onto the metro for the sky, and home.

 

I got a house made of gold and a city to match

Click the images for full-size versions!

 

At the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona I had my first in-the-stone encounter with Bernini, one of the greatest sculptors of his age and possibly more responsible for the “look” of Rome than any man since ancient days. The shining white unpainted classical marble Renaissance artists were so fond of, we now know, isn’t anything like what the fun-loving ancients actually had (though one hopes the painted originals looked slightly less cartoonish and bonk-eyed than current reconstructions). But the fanfiction version has almost completely eclipsed the original. Not that I’m complaining, because the Baroque aesthetic is absolutely fantastic. The fountain is an eerily organic creation, four legs of marble littered with flora, fauna and gods, surmounted by a genuine ancient Egyptian obelisk. The density of political and mythological allegory the fountain presents is too much to easily take in (Wikipedia it) and so I simply appreciate it as gorgeous.

We had gelato. Fran may have spent an entire evening reading gelato review blogs, finding a bunch of lists of the top 10 gelateria in central Rome and seeing which were on multiple lists. She might’ve noted their locations on a map and had me plot out our journeys so she could see if gelateria were en route or nearby. I might have asked if she was overdoing it a bit. She might have looked at me very seriously and said “this is important”. All I remember for sure is, we ate a lot of gelato, and it was very good.

The Pantheon is impressive in three entirely separate ways. One, that its monolithic, unreinforced concrete dome is something modern engineering still hasn’t equalled (the unbelievably complicated efforts of Brunelleschi in trying to create the same effect with Florence Cathedral’s dome, 1300 years later, are fascinating). Two, its basic amazingness as a building (gigantic and open-topped but oddly intimate; entirely unlike any other ancient building, but clearly from a classical mindset and ruleset; original Roman interiors from the second century). Three, that it has survived thousands of years more or less intact, saved from greater vandalism by consecration as a Christian church. Victor Emmanuel and his son are buried there, but their caskets are tucked in awkwardly behind the columns with an uneasy sense of being latecomers.

Through the packed alleys, the Trevi Fountain. Rome has more fountains than any other city, partly because they served as the delivery point for water (aqueduct or otherwise) for most of its history: they were public utility as well as public art. Photos do justice to the Trevi’s craftsmanship but not its scale, white marble swarming with nymphs and tritons pouring down as fluidly and convincingly as the gushing water. Even in this off-season, tourists gather like flies round a cow’s eye. As tourists, we had our fill of moisture and then buzzed off to the Piazza di Spagna. The Spanish Steps are really just a large and somewhat fancy staircase, turned into a large tourist park by dint of partial shade and relative benchiness, and we rested up a bit chatting about Romantic poets (Keats died in a house nearby.)

There are so many irritating touts about St Peter’s trying to flog queue-jumping tickets and guided tours to anyone looking remotely interested that we developed an active distrust and hostility towards anyone trying to be helpful, including the probably-legit city-run info booth which would have saved us fifteen minutes of traipsing around trying to find where the museum entrance was. The Vatican is massively fortified, the edges of its trace-italienne bastions coincidentally being ideal for lining up queues.

“There are so many women of the cloth here they should call it Nunsuch Palace.”
“Go away.”

And so, the treasure house of the richest and most powerful organised religion in the world.  Classical imagery everywhere, original and replica, heroes and monsters and muses, all with dicks and tits hanging out in something of a mockery of the strict dress code. There is, to me, a bizarre tension between the place’s status as the Holy See and the reams and reams of obviously non-Christian iconography (not helped by ads for a temporary exhibition on, of all figures, Sekhmet). I suppose it’s that spirit of the Renaissance thing: the scions of Rome obsessing with the ruins of the substantially more advanced, more creative and more all-around impressive civilisation all around them and striving to emulate it by imitation. It fits in the ever-popular narrative of the decline of Man: see the glories of a past age, see the debased state to which our race has been reduced, pay your indulgences and pray for a higher life everlasting.

I grew up among the half-dead leftovers of a humourless, flat Victorian Protestant godliness; the idea of a fun, inspiring, living faith filled with vigorous symbolism and sympathetic characters (saints seem an excellent way of getting the perks of polytheism without the concomitant lack of overall focus) is something I’ve only read about. Acknowledging that blind spot, I still find it hard to reconcile the head office of the theocracy being a museum of pagan idolatry. But it’s far, far preferable to the cold, ascetic Lutheranism of the north or the violent outbursts of iconoclasm that characterised both early and middle Christianity, and, let’s be honest, in a gigantic golden palace complex raised in the name of the messiah of the meek and the poor, it’s not the biggest hypocrisy going.

Simply naming highlights of a Greatest Hits of pre-industrial southern Europe would take a while, but: the map corridor, with all its rigorous depictions of forts and ports of the era; the sarky Raphael caryatid working a broom; the trompe l’oeil everything, better shaded than real life; the enormous painting of Jan Sobieski bringing the Polish-Lithuanian winged lancers to the field in 1683; and a set of vellum maps from 1530 which give a decent layout of Tenochtitlan but not Scotland. The Sistine Chapel was good, but too busy and too overwhelming to really be appreciated on its own terms. And, of course, there were about five thousand gift shops through the complex.

 

Rome feels oddly militarised, especially near St Peter’s; there are army jeeps everywhere guarded by pairs of handsome men with ugly rifles, as well as the beat cops and the gorgeously outfitted carabinieri on their motorbikes. We had already become wary of the modern Romans’ relaxed interpretation of street lights, dodging the clouds of scooters and smart cars. The Tiber is heavily silted and half dried up in early autumn, its ancient bridges seeming overkill for a dribble that couldn’t handle anything with more draught than a kayak. We found dinner at a lovely local where we were the only tourists (always a good sign) – deep-fried stuffed olives and a fantastic crisp pizza, scattered with meat and drowned with rocket, eaten under awnings as the trams sparked and rumbled by.

And then, of course, more gelato.

*

“time has filled it with eternity”

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We rose, not as mosquito-bitten as in Venice but still noticing a few little red bumps, breakfasted on apples and wandered out along the cobbled streets. Central Rome is littered with gigantic baroque churches, fitting almost seamlessly into the blocks of insulae, and we wandered some way into one (Sant’Andrea della Valle, if you’re wondering) before realising there was actually a service going on in one of its wings, and politely withdrawing.

We ascended the vast, cold, gleaming marble typewriter of the Vittorio Emanuele monument – a vulgar triumph of 19th century bombast over classical class, and the imaginary Italian concept over the concrete Roman one, stamped in blazing, incongruous white on the knocked-down rubble of archaeology and filled with a museum to Italy’s triumphs over the only people Italians have consistently beaten on the battlefield (other Italians). Down its slippery white steps to the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the Mussolini-era road running roughshod across the entire ancient forum, which is on reflection an even more offensive piece of nationalist vandalism than the “Altar of the Fatherland”. At least the typewriter is fancy.

Along the road, millennia-old bronze emperors look down on the African touts and the strings of fat tourists on segways with dark, empty eyes. Behind their plinths are great tracts of pure archaeology. Trajan’s column, as magnificent in person as expected, showed Romans building bridges and oppressing Dacians, and the Colosseum loomed vaguely in the hazy eastern sky. Rather than join the immense queues there, we slipped on past to the near-deserted ticket booth for the Palatine Hill, which conveniently also gets you into with the Forum and… the Colosseum.

Despite the clouds of fellow tourists and the hot midday sun, the Palatine was quiet and serene. We looked down on the weed-strewn but vast Circus Maximus, across at the dark humps of the other hills of Rome, and strolled through an enormous complex of ruined aqueducts and ancient palaces. The hill’s name casts a long shadow – palace, paladin, Palatinate – and so do the enormous ruined complexes that crowd its upper levels, less a single unified palace than a series of attempts to outdo each other by successive emperors, occupying the same space with a tightly-packed collection of megastructures. The ruins are mostly made of the wide, flat Roman bricks, rather than the “classical” marble they were once clad in; their skins were nicked by the smaller, lesser Christian successor states to build their smaller, lesser palaces. Here and there, the terracotta core of a column is still half-clad in white marble, a coffered roof retains gorgeous plaster detailing, a breathtakingly beautiful piece of carved marble lies on its side in the long grass – but most of the detail, and most of the grandeur, now only exist in illustration and imagination.

Someone had talked the Hill’s conservators into running a set of modern art pieces among the palaces, which ranged from the merely pointless (look, some umbrellas) to the pointlessly offensive (falling Jesus babies, a giant stuffed Goofy taking a shit). If anything, the total intellectual and artistic poverty the modern tosh showed made the palaces seen even classier. Some English-speaking tourist with a biro had said what we were all thinking, leaving notes of “what are you thinking of your work is crap” and “art??? NO” on the associated signs.

Down into the Forum, an eclectic mix of remains ranging from still-recognisable temples, forlornly standing columns and scatters of stone things that make sense only to archaeologists. Highlights included the absolutely staggeringly huge Basilica Maxientius (the only thing more impressive than its cathedral-sized trio of arches is the fact that it’s less than a third of the original building) and a catacomb marked with one of the best phrases in any language, the “Neronian Cryptoporticus.” Exit signage wasn’t good, and we spent quite a while frustratedly wandering the labyrinth of ankle-twisting cobbles before getting back out onto the streets.

Gelato revived our spirits; a restaurant offered me the choice of the €15 “Being A Bit Sick” or the €20 “Kill Yourself”, and as it was a hot day I went for the former. Then, to the Colosseum itself, now that the queues had abated a little – colossal, and even late in the day absolutely rammed. There’s only so much to say about the Colosseum – everyone has seen it, it’s painfully iconic and pretty much exactly the way you’d think. But bloody hell is it impressive.

 

 

do there as the romans do

Click the images for full-size versions!

 

For €2, the traghetto combined a more interesting way of crossing the Grand Canal than one of the bridges with a much cheaper source of gondola fun. We crossed in a green, hazy morning, poled fore and aft by men in stripey black-and-white jumpers. The euro coins were just stacked on the gunwales, showing great confidence the boat wouldn’t list too much and dump a day’s fares on the bottom of the canal. In a rare display of Venetian machismo, the locals stood rather than sitting in the tiny, heaving boat. The traghetto put us off at the fish market, piled high with sad looking fish and things with tentacles, and we wandered through an entirely different set of winding passages to the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

This gallery holds da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, although not actually on display (sadly), and a magnificent collection of largely religious art, although half the gallery was closed off (something they didn’t warn us about at the door; this was a recurring theme in Italy) and we killed some time with a set of mediocre nationalist statuary packed away in the basement. The early Renaissance saints and the terrifying baby-head-studded ceilings were high points, although not so high as the couple of genuine Hieronymous Bosches. A vaporetto took us all the way back to the railway station – Italian for railway is “ferrovia”, exactly cognate with “eisenbahn” or “chemin de fer”, just not with “railway”. Depressingly, the train down to Rome was already nicer, cheaper and more comfortable than pretty much anything on the rails in England.

In a touristy country, in a day and age where English is very much the tourist lingua franca, the train of course had English-language announcements alongside the rapid-fire Italian ones. They had a very clear, careful, neutrally accented voice, which would be excellent if they included the names of stations. Unfortunately, they just put in the Italian voice clips, leading to “The next stop is [avalanche of Italian syllables in a completely different voice]”, which was almost totally incomprehensible. A pair of rather fat Americans sat in the seat in front of us, one upbeat about the excellent landscape zipping past, the other generally moaning about Italy, but they got off at Florence.

Roma Termini station is about 70% boutique, 30% trains and 0% useful signage; it took about twenty minutes of increasingly sun-scorched irritation to find something which would sell us a bus ticket. Having done so, the bus journey was one of the worst I’ve had in a first world country, a packed, rolling sweat-dungeon with barely any seating or suspension which vibrated across the inexplicably cobbled streets like a tiny mobile hell. The suffering was slightly alleviated by two priests who got on next to us and gossiped for the entire trip. I couldn’t make out a word, but it was superbly entertaining.

Our airbnb was a little tucked-away flat in a 17th century block of flats, down a street which in most cities would actually be considered an alley; it had a lovely wooden ceiling, solid quarry tiles, and a bell in the courtyard that had probably chimed the same hours in the same way since the time of Good Queen Bess. Our host showed us the wifi code and indicated the location of some good restaurants, and we followed those directions across the orange-lit Tiber to Trastevere. There, after a good amble around the cobbled streets eyeing up restaurants, a man in plastic Roman armour finally snared us into a restaurant with a mascot which looked oddly like Ian McShane. It’s funny, I think the centurion was actually scaring a lot of punters away as an engineered touristy gimmick, though we couldn’t doubt that the guy genuinely thought it was a charming local touch people would like.

 

We went for the set menu: pickled mushrooms, salami in oil, spicy bruschetta and rubbery strips of salted pig skin. I feel every pig-based culinary culture has invented its own approach to pig skin: British scratchings, Ukrainian salo, the weird Romanian thing I had over there, whatever that Hungarian crackling spread is called. I also feel that, having grown up with one of these things, you will find all the others faintly disgusting. However, the pickled mushrooms were lovely. The vast second course (maccheroncelli and ragu; the proprieter gave me a bib) would have been worth the whole meal on its own, and the main (lamb chops and crispy roast potatoes in the local fashion) was absolutely divine.

It was a warm night, and we took a wandering journey home along the high bank of the low Tiber. Archaeology is absolutely everywhere, and every few hundred yards we would encounter a curiosity like a terrace of buildings plonked atop the crumbling remains of an ancient theatre, or a digsite showing the compound remains of a half-dozen ancient temples built on top of each other’s foundations, and we detoured away from the river a while to gaze down the moonlit vastness of the Circus Maximus, beneath a horizon contoured by the immense silhouettes of the Palatine Hill.

 

a palace and a prison on each hand

The Doge’s Palace is a place of almost unbearable grandeur. It’s not just where the Doge (a non-hereditary, very carefully elected* ruler) hung his amusingly unique sort-of-like-a-flaccid-Phrygian-cap hat, but is also a functional government complex, where high courts sat and Councils of Forty, Ten, Greatness etc met. The members of these courts and councils were all scions of staggeringly wealthy merchant families, who were denied many other forms of showing off (to forestall dangerous bling arms races, Venice’s oligarchs collectively kept a tight lid on most public displays of wealth – it’s why gondolas are glossy black, and why there are essentially no public statues before 1797, when the Republic fell.)** So the Palace and its decoration represented not only the political institutions of the Republic (of which they were quite justifiably proud, maintaining something like a millennium of stability at the centre of a multi-continent hurricane of money and invasions) but also, personally, the best opportunity for most of the richest people in southern Europe to show that they were men of wealth and taste.

Thus, its staircases feel like ascending into a heaven made of gold-leafed stucco, and the rooms they lead to range from exquisitely realised high-relief classical pantheons to acres of Old Masters plastered across every flat surface. The finest painters and sculptors of Europe were brought here to decorate the walls and ceilings with various Doges and allegorical figures doing thematically appropriate things: trashing Turks, dispensing justice, chilling with saints, accepting the benedictions of classical figures. The largest walls are reserved for apocalyptic naval battles or twenty-five-metre-wide murals of God and all His angels, the ceilings covered in yet more magnificent paintings separated by rivers of gold leaf. The effect is overwhelming. The flat roofs seem oddly boring until you realise how much harder they were to build than vaulted cathedral ceilings; similarly, the building’s flat square facade, pre-modernism, would be obvious to everyone as incredibly accomplished as well as space-efficient. Oddly, the armoury is the one part not filled with bling; the weapons there that aren’t trophies of war are mostly functional, serious things for the palace guard, swords and crossbows and what may be an original Puckle gun. The Bridge of Sighs takes you from palace to prison, a glum, intimidating place of graffitied stone and very well made interlocking iron bars.*** Back in the palace, one room contained an absolutely marvellous temporary exhibition of Indian jewellery. Jade thumb rings and tulwar hilts shimmered with rubies and emeralds under two-storey paintings of the Battle of Lepanto.

Most clock faces show twelve hours, and trust the time-checker to work out from context whether it is midday or midnight. Several around Venice, apparently not trusting their audience, have twenty-four, either numbered I-XXIV or with two I-XII sequences continuing from each other. One clock inside the Doge’s palace, however, only shows six hours. Along the walls of the first floor loggia, specially carved lion-faced postboxes swallow anonymous denunciations; in the courtyard below them is a statue of the unloved St Theodore, who was the patron saint of Venice until the city, wishing to distance itself from Byzantium, stole the bones of St Mark from Alexandria and took him as their patron. Poor displaced Theodore appears here and there but is easily mistaken for the more popular Saint George (they share the “stabbing a dragon” gimmick), and everywhere in the city the symbol of  St Mark, a winged lion, holds its book open with expressions ranging from “READ THIS, SINNER” to “hurr hurr funny book”. Here and there you can find plaques thanking the British “Venice in Peril” fund for stopping some part or other of the city from falling into the waves.

St Mark’s Square was full of predatory seagulls, making close passes overhead; I shouted a warning to Fran, but she misheard it as being about pedestals, and ten seconds later her panini was inside a mob of opportunistic birds; this is the second time this has happened this year. We had reserved a timeslot for St Mark’s Basilica, which given the huge queues turned out to be a brilliant idea; waiting for that slot, we took a lift up the Campanile for views of the city’s sunlit roofs. Down in the canals below, gondoliers offered parties of pensioners and Chinese tourists a production-line trip (€80 for an hour, probably quite a bit more for the optional extra musicians.)

Here’s a video I took of one of the best ones.

The basilica itself is a different style of magnificent. Its lower levels are a gorgeous selection of patterned marbles in white, green, grey and purple; the serious decoration, the stucco and mosaics, only starts a couple of metres up. Inside, it feels more Orthodox than Catholic, with gilt mosaics and long-faced saints smeared across the inside of a clutch of great domes.  It feels larger inside than out, and it’s a strikingly patched-together, almost ramshackle place – the ragged, uneven floors, the repairs and compromises made to the architecture over a thousand years, the plaintive cries of “no photo!” from staff ignored by tourists and tour guides alike, the little extra barriers inside trying to charge you a few euros more to go up on the balcony or look at Those Famous Horses**** and the general gloomy lack of light all give the place an ancient, entropy-laden, wonderfully Byzantine atmosphere.

We strolled down the wide, stall-strewn waterfront, where little pumps recirculate water over overpriced chunks of coconut and crowds of tourists go to and from the day ferries, to the Arsenal, the real source of Venice’s power. The naval museum (its doors flanked by the immense anchors of the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts Tegetthoff and Viribus Unitus) was closed, but in the Arsenal sheds to the north they keep an amazing collection of boats: gilt barges, tiny fishing skiffs, a large WW2 torpedo boat and a complete boiler and engine assembly from a huge yacht. The ticket to the Doge’s Palace also gave access to the museums ringing St Mark’s; it said “museums” as if they were plural, but all seem to be part of the same complex, a multi-level sprawl whose contents ambled amiably from leathery old globes and classical statuary to bits of Napoleonic and Habsburg swag; among one suite of grander rooms, a great deal of noise is made about “Sissi” as if anyone this century should know or care who she was.***** Most entertaining of all were the uniquely Venetian things, like a complete set of every coin ever minted in the Republic, a pair of flood shoes somewhere between platforms and ship rudders, and a model depicting an apparent traditional Venetian pastime: making a human pyramid on top of two barges.

*An amusing exception being the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary general who left an enormous endowment to Venice on condition that a statue be erected to him in St Mark’s Square. The Venetian government thought about it very hard and said they’d take the money, but the statue would go up opposite the school of St Mark, a vastly less grand location.

** I quote: “New regulations for the elections of the doge introduced in 1268 remained in force until the end of the republic in 1797. Their object was to minimize as far as possible the influence of individual great families, and this was effected by a complex electoral machinery. Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors.”

*** Looking out on the shimmering green waters, imagining that this is the last time you ever will, you can see how the bridge got its name. Although it’s not clear if that’s actually true or just a very old urban legend.

**** The four horses on the balcony of St Mark’s are replicas anyway. The originals: are shrouded in myth, may have been from Rome, were definitely in Constantinople for centuries, were nicked by the Venetians when Crusaders sacked the city in 1204, were nicked again in 1797 by Napoleon but returned to Venice after Waterloo, and now hide indoors from air pollution. Their story is fantastic but the horses themselves are quite boring, and the reverence and significance which these obviously incomplete parts of a looted chariot statue were and are given is an essay in itself about Europe’s relationship with the classical world. Though to be fair they’re also covered in gold and quite shiny.

***** “Sissi”- Elisabeth of Bavaria – was the wife of Franz Josef I, who through his immense longevity and witlessness presided over the destruction of the otherwise extraordinarily long-lived and resilient Habsburg empire. Sissi herself was a vain, pointless, miserable consort known only for being pretty and dying violently. She is still, bizarrely, the object of intense devotion both here and in Vienna. Anyone who, like me, is wondering when the Diana meme will finally die will find it distressing that Sissi’s cult appears to be going strong after 120 years.