At Our Fingertips

The history of Venice is written not only in the official chronicles of the Republic but also on her stones. A collection of countless and insignificant acts performed by thousands of people over a thousand years are etched on her skin. To read them, all we have to do is close our eyes and move our hands over the stones like a needle over the groove on an old record.

The Rialto Bridge, the red lions of the Piazzetta, the benches under the loggia in the Doge's Palace, the paving stones in Campo San Stefano, they all have a hidden story to tell, or perhaps an open secret to keep.

They have seen people walk, sit, step, lean and rub on them or just gently caress them. Day after day and one by one, the residents of Venice have microscopically eroded her stones and left their inconsequential marks all over their city. But the insignificant and inconsequential do eventually add up and become an indelible message, here, in front us, at our fingertips.


On the Molo, go past Ponte de la Paglia. Between the Prigioni and the new wing of the Danieli there is an opening no wider than a slit, go through it – if you do it quickly people around you may think that you have vanished, swallowed up by the city– and you will be in Calle dei Albanesi. On the wall of the prison there is a patch of stone, concave and polished, left by numberless hours of leaning, back against building, uniform against granite; a legacy of the prison guards' extraordinary patience.

I can picture them having furtive encounters with their inamoratas who would casually walk by to drop a zaletto or a kiss. If they were there today, they would probably be smoking and engaging in conversation with the waiters of the Danieli, smoking too, by the back door of the hotel.


Very early in the morning; late at night; on a stormy day in the dead of winter: These are the only times when you will find a sliver of stone to sit on under the loggia of the Doge's Palace. The first bench, the one closest to Porta della Carta, was Wagner's favorite. It must have given him pleasure to sit in this semisecluded corner and see the world unfold while listening to his own music coming from Caffè Lavena, also his favorite. Referring to this place he said that "it is impossible to describe all the things one sees there ... and, apart from a few foreigners, nobody takes any notice of one". His wife, Cosima, echoed his words when she wrote in her diaries "it is
so lovely that he will one day be found lying dead there."

Wagner visited Venice on several occasions between 1858 and 1883. The benches under the loggia were made of wood when he first arrived but were replaced by stone slabs during the big restoration of the palace in 1875. A tria, an old board game popular in Venice – a variation of the game known in English as Nine Men's Morris – was chiseled out on the first bench but is barely noticeable today, worn away by more than a century of unintentional burnishing. A better preserved one can be found on the fourth bench. Another tria can be observed on the paving stones of Salizada San Pantalon in Santa Croce and on the marble bench outside the Scuola di San Rocco in San Polo.

                                                 Photograph taken in 1853 (J. A. Lorent)

Piazzetta dei Leoncini

"We belong to no country but to the land of our childhood," I remembered reading somewhere as I stroked the silky back of the red lion and a flashback of a boy riding a puma fired up in my mind. It has been a few decades and many thousand miles since I last rode on the back of the bronze puma in Chacabuco Park in Buenos Aires, but I can still feel the cold metal against my bare legs and the touch of its skin textured like an orange's and slightly discolored. My brother trying to dismount me to claim his dominance over the beast.

These lions have been here for almost three hundred years. The red

marble brought from the Sabine Hills of Cottanello was highly valued by the Romans who almost exhausted the quarry. Bernini used it to sculpt the columns for the nave of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome and Giovanni Bonazza, more modestly and probably unintentionally, to bring merriment to thousands of Venetian children.

Past riders of these lions, sons and daughters of the Venetian diaspora, you are bound to come back to this place, to this square, no matter where you are, in an instant, summoned by bronze pumas the world over, because you are still riding these lions. You never left.

Photo credit: Alejandro P. from Buenos Aires  

The Stones of Campo Santo Stefano

Circular indentations left by the bronze mortars used to make teriaca outside an apothecary's shop in Campo Santo Stefano. Until recently the pharmacy was still in the same corner it was for centuries, off Calle del Spezier; but it is no more. Just the circles remain.

Teriaca was a cure-all Medieval concoction for which Venice was very famous across Europe and Asia. Its production was closely controlled by the state. 

The few chemists that had a license to make it, had to do it on a certain day of the year in the open and under the scrutiny of the state officials and the public. The ingredients, over sixty in all, included the flesh of vipers (boiled and made into a paste), opium, herbs, roots, barks, honey and Malvasia wine. At its peak Venice produced 600,000 pounds of teriaca, most of which was exported to the rest of of the world.

 Above: Campo S. Stefano, paving stones. Right: Making Teriaca by the Rialto Bridge. The apothecary Alla Testa d'Oro (The Golden Head) used to be in that location.

Ponte de le Maravegie

A city in which we move around naked, deprived of our modern armors: the automobile, is a city meant to be purposely caressed, accidentally rubbed and continuously brushed and grazed. Ponte de le Maravegie, or Bridge of Wonders, is a testament to that.

Ponte de le Maravegie, at the crossroads between the Accademia and the Zattere has a fascinating history and no less interesting a present.

According to legend, seven sisters lived in the palace to the left of the bridge as you look in the direction of the Grand Canal. Six were beautiful and one, Marina, ugly. A boatman called Matteo wanted to marry one of the beautiful sisters and visited the palace often but fell ill, prey to a debilitating disease that made him weak and frail. He attributed his illness to witchcraft perpetrated by the ugly sister who had constantly avoided him. One Good Friday, as he approached the palace from the bridge, he saw through one of the windows Marina praying and crying in front of a crucifix.

He was moved by this tender scene and by the sudden apparition on the sky of six bright stars and a dim one. But the six stars soon disappeared and the dim one became so bright that it lit the whole sky. At once Matteo was overcome with emotion and a new and unknown feeling for Marina took hold. He saw her beautiful. Marina also confessed her love for him. In fact, she had been praying to God that his life was spared and hers taken instead.
Matteo was cured and they were both happily married. The name Maravegie makes reference to all these wonders that once took place on this bridge.

Long gone are the days of Matteo, Marina and the big wonders on the bridge. Today the bridge is crisscrossed by thousands of people  hurriedly moving about in all directions; and the bridge's outer posts tell us where they go, a small wonder, one may think. If you observe closely the tops of the stone posts, you would notice the wear that had rendered them smooth and shiny but to different degrees.

The post closer to the Accademia is the smoothest, being the one more people rest their hands on as they stamp over the bottom step of the bridge. It's followed by the post closer to the Zattere, then that nearer San Trovaso, and the least polished and least traveled of them all, that leading to Pensione Accademia. If an alien were to land in Venice in the middle of the night, he would know, just by looking at the bridge, where to sit and wait for people to show up.

                                                                                             Towards Accademia

                                                                                                  Towards Zattere

                                                                             Towards San Trovaso

                                                                           Towards Pensione Accademia

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