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Gold: A Venetian Obsession

“The blood that runs through Venetian veins has morphed into liquid gold: creativity and cultural traditions pulsate with a lifeforce”

They say rose-coloured glasses are the best way to see the world, but have you ever tried them in gold? I have, and I’m not the first to look at life through a golden haze; man has sought out gold for time immemorial. Some have gone crazy in pursuit. Fool’s gold. They should have saved their sanity. For there is one place where golden lenses are not necessary to see better: Venice. For in Venice, all is gold. 

On a late summer evening just before sunset, a walk through Venice is like following in the footsteps of Midas. The glossed ebony gondole that drift alongside the canals have golden, metallic lines for contours, and golden putti (cherubs) frame those on their own watery journey through the city. Just above the eyeline, the lion of Saint Mark, with amber slits for eyes, looks down from above doorways and from flags fluttering in the wind, directing your movements with more intent than the “Per San Marco” (Towards San Marco) signs in faded yellow. On inevitably being swept by the tide to the Piazza San Marco, you find yourself at the centre of the solar system, dazzled by its radiance. All eyes are drawn to the epicentre, to the Basilica San Marco. Its façade boasts mosaics of golden half suns that change with the hours like the sun’s passage across the sky. At midday, they are a brilliant yellow; at sunset, they are burnished gold; and by midnight, they gleam from within, projecting eery reminders of all they have seen over the centuries. 

One early morning in late January, I crossed the Piazza San Marco as I have countless times before. The mist from the lagoon lay like a carpet, blurring the boundary between land and sea–a boundary that is always transient in Venice. The air was so thick that early morning walkers emerged like ghosts from its depths. The immense doors of the basilica loomed into view, solemnly closed, while a smaller, less imposing sidedoor beckoned me in, a welcome respite from the grey surroundings. It was time for mass, but I was not there for prayer: I came with a mission. Beyond the apse in the sacristy, there is another fresco scheme (possibly designed by Titian), that can only be accessed by worshippers, but which I, the ever-determined art historian, needed to see. Notebook–bound in gold Fortuny fabric–in hand, I waited patiently, my eyes roaming the walls. Daylight had not yet broken, and with the little light, shadowy forms loomed from the dark. From one wall, apostles glanced slyly, while Christ looked down on me from above. The clock struck 8:00 and the priest appeared. “Sei qui per la messa?” (“Are you here for mass?”) he whispered, and I followed him into another room covered floor to ceiling with sparkling mosaics of Christ and the Apostles. Mission accomplished, mass attended and soul cleansed, I returned to the basilica just as the morning sun started to stream through the windows. The rays hit their golden targets: gold particles remained suspended in the air, reminding me of princess Danäe caught in a shower of golden rain. 

I first noticed an Italian obsession with gold not in Venice, but in Rome. It was early September and everyone was back in town from the Ferragosto holiday, proudly displaying their spiaggia-bronzed bodies. On a detour from my usual stomping grounds in Trastevere, I found myself near the Spanish Steps and decided to head to the gardens of the Hotel de Russie for a break from the tourist melée. While waiting for my Americano to arrive, I reverted to that timeless pastime of people watching. To my left, a lady with fingers covered in golden rings sipped an espresso; slightly further away, a pair of men puffed on cigars, thick golden bracelets on their wrists and loafers with golden logos on their feet; another woman walked by, her latest golden bag glimmering on her arm. The more I looked, the more gold I saw. And then I understood: Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli…they all tap into an Italian lust for gold that is the legacy of the Roman Empire.   

In Venice, this gold lust was nurtured not by a debt to Rome, but to the “New Rome”: Istanbul. From the 4th century, the Byzantines enshrined their gods in golden mosaics, championing gold fever; when they came to Venice as emissaries, they brought this glimmering vision. The craftsmen plotted little gold squares in a heavenly jigsaw over the Basilica of Torcello, before turning their eyes across the Lagoon and dedicating their attention to the masterpiece that houses the body of Saint Mark. Has there ever been a greater shrine than one built over centuries, piece by piece, gold on gold? And crowning it all is the Basilica di San Marco’s high altar, the Pala d’Oro: three metres wide and two metres high of layer upon layer of solid gold, studded with pearls, rubies, amethysts–the ultimate altarpiece. San Marco is not just a place of worship, but a shrine to auromania: the obsession with gold.  

Studying Venice’s past gives you a vision of halcyon days gone by, of Venice’s key position on the Silk Route when all precious materials passed through its ports, of a heyday when gold was used as if it was going out of fashion. Altarpieces of the early 1400s were made with ground gold in a blaring statement of wealth and status; as the centuries progressed, they learned to tone things down a little. Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini only used gold in his altarpieces in order to imitate the mosaics of San Marco, while in Titian’s Assunta in Santa Maria dei Frari, the glow of the heavens was created through little more than orange and yellow pigments suspended in oil…all that glitters is not gold. Processions through the city used to be accompanied by golden candlesticks larger than the men who carried them. When the Venetians commissioned a new structure to welcome returning seafarers and process customs at the Punta della Dogana, they could not resist gilding the globe held aloft by Herculean figures, bodies bent under the sheer weight of the metal. One Venetian merchant even went as far as to gild in gold the entire façade of his palazzo on the Grand Canal. How many hours have I stood on the Riva de l’Ogio, looking over at that fabled residence, the Ca’ d’Oro, trying to picture how it might have once appeared? Now the gold has receded to hidden corners, but sometimes when these fragments catch the light, it gleams a shadow of its former self. 

A city hewn from gold requires artisans capable of working a metal of alchemic qualities. No one is more deserving of the title of Goldfinger than Marino Menegazzo, whose family has been goldsmiths since 1926. Under his reign as custodian of the artisanal gold laboratory Berta Battiloro, solid blocks of pure gold are melted and hammered into sheets thinner than paper and finer than air, then bound into books of a librarian’s dream. This is the final stronghold of the crafts of batti e tira oro (literally to ‘’beat and pull gold’’) that at its zenith in the 1700s, was practised by more than 40 workshops across the city. Mario’s ancestors built the blocks of Venice for centuries, and he retains that role to this day as supplier to the city’s artisans. At Angelo Orsoni, the last mosaics furnace in Venice, mosaic squares are still constructed from tiny pieces of gold leaf suspended between glass. The few remaining glassblowers at Murano depend on gold leaf for the foglia d’oro technique they’ve perfected over generations. Over on Mazzorbo island at acclaimed restaurant Venissa, Battiloro’s gold leaf decorates the estate’s bottles of Dorona: the last surviving stronghold for this golden grape that was once grown in vineyards across the Venetian Lagoon.

Why am I talking of “the last”? When I meet up with Venetian friends for cicchetti dinners at our neighbourhood haunts, our discussion inevitably oscillates between Venice’s past and its future. We reflect on the things that remain the same as they have been for centuries and reminisce about the locals who deserted the city in favour of more secure ground. We ask: will the long-awaited flood barriers really work? Or will the image of Venice no longer be that of Italo Calvino’s “jewel city, all inset and inlaid”, but an Invisible City like Atlantis? People might be able to collect their possessions and leave, but the structures that make this city a jewel are destined to a watery fate. If you walk across Piazza San Marco just before Acqua Alta on a deserted night, when reflections of the surrounding buildings are cast in the seawater pooling in the square, you can imagine how it might appear. 

To speak of the past and the future is to not to forget Venice’s present. Over the centuries, the blood that runs through Venetian veins has morphed into liquid gold: creativity and cultural traditions pulsate with a lifeforce. Venetians refuse to let their heritage die, restoring their golden realm with the stubbornness of a people who have perfected the art of building land on water. New pieces of the 1400-year old jigsaw are slotted into place at Torcello’s cathedral; mirrors are regilded, throwing into relief the patina accumulated over centuries on the glass; antique furniture is reupholstered with golden thread. The oddly dry Venetian sense of humour dictates that there is often a game to be had. On the first night I returned to Ristorante Quadri after its renovation, the faces of the Alajmo brothers, Max and Raf, stared down at me, woven in gold thread into the Bevilacqua fabric that covers the walls. Over midnight negronis, I asked Giovanni, Raf’s son and now manager of Quadri, why gold is so important to his family. He simply looked at me and replied: “Gold for us is a symbol of resistance against l’acqua alta and the passage of time, because its beauty never fades.” No further explanation was needed.  

Perhaps this Venetian infatuation with gold can be encapsulated in a single event: the Festa della Sensa. When the rest of Italy is celebrating the day of Christ’s Ascension up to heaven, the Venetians are looking down into their Lagoon. With all the necessary fanfare, a regatta fronted by a golden barge–with golden oars and a golden merman at the helm–sets off for the monastery of San Nicolò al Lido. The event culminates with the mayor throwing a golden wedding ring into the glimmering waters–a symbolic union with the sea. It’s a ritual that has been practised for 1,000 years. Countless golden bands are now swept by the current across the Lagoon, turning Venice into a city of gold above and below the water.