Traveling all of Michelangelo’s routes, studying opera at Italy’s Julliard, and writing cookbooks on Italian cuisine are just a few of the experiences Fred Plotkin enjoyed while working toward the ideal of the Renaissance Man. Considered an expert on all things Italian, Plotkin recently came to the Smithsonian Associates to take the audience on a journey through the region of Veneto, Italy. The event was the first of six that focuses on the highlights and history of a specific region’s cities and provinces.
Map of the Veneto Region | Photo credit: Maps of World
Veneto offers much to the traveler. The most geographically diverse region, visitors can walk along the seashore or scale the Dolomites. They can visit cities known for medical innovation and art, and enjoy Italy’s most famous brands and best wines. The region is made up of many amazing cities, but is most famously known for Venice.
Spread across 118 islands, Venice is Veneto’s most famous city and Italy’s youngest major city. The city is symbolized by a winged lion, and a statute of the lion was built in the cities Venetians took over. The lion was chosen because it also represents St. Mark, who became the saint of Venice when two Venetian merchants brought his stolen remains back to the city.
Lion of St. Mark in Venice | Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Festivals and celebrations are held in Venice each year, many of which were designed to attract tourists. Venetians created the festival of Carnevale to bring tourists during the colder days of winter. Another event created to bring in tourists is a tradition where the Doge (the ruler), drops a gold ring into the lagoon as a symbol of marriage between Venice and the sea.
The relationship between Venice and the sea led to Venice becoming the shipbuilding capital of the world. Eventually some Venetians sailed off to create a place in the new world, moving to “Little Venice,” or what’s more commonly known as Venezuela.
Venice Beach wharf | Photo credit: California Historical Society
While Venice offers a lot for the traveler to experience, much of what people praise Venice for actually came from another city in Veneto: the older city of Aquileia. The design of Gondolas, for example, came from the design of Aquileian fishing boats.
Aquileia was the first city in the world to allow women to vote, teach, and read. Aquileia was also one of the wealthiest cities in the Early Roman Empire, until Attila the Hun attacked and destroyed it. Fortunately, Attila left alone the Patriarchal Basilica, a building with gorgeous mosaic floors, which is now one of the oldest standing Basilicas in the world.
Aquileia Basilica | Photo credit: Giovanni Dall'Orto
Survivors of Attila’s attack fled to another city in Veneto, Torcello, and began rebuilding what they had in Aquileia, and eventually began building Venice.
Several iconic parts of Veneto are found outside Venice. Many travelers headed to Venice stop to pray in Padua because it’s home to the church of St. Anthony—the saint of travel. Another important religious building, the Scrovegni Chapel, is found in Padua and is the first great cycle of paintings painted anywhere in a cathedral in the world. The paintings took so long that the artist lived in the building for the years he painted. Illiterate people in the town would come to the chapel to look at the paintings to learn about key events from their religious beliefs.
Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel | Photo Credit: Public Domain
Padua also has the second university built in the world. Founded in 1222, The University of Padua had famed teachers such as Galileo and famed students such as Copernicus. The university was the first in Europe to accept Jews, and the first woman to receive a doctoral degree graduated from there.
Galileo teaching at University of Padua | Photo Credit: Public Domain
The oldest botanical garden in the world, found in Padua, includes plants from Asia, the Middle East, and North America, which were studied for their pharmaceutical benefits.
Verona is a city in Veneto where Thomas Jefferson visited. He planted the first grapes and rice in North America, which came from Verona.
Jefferson also brought back ideas about architecture after he came to Veneto to study the style of Andrea Palladio, who is considered by some to be the greatest architect in history.
Palladio built the Teatro Olimpico, which was the first time in history that sets were built as part of a theater. People could shift the scenery by sliding the set on rollers. As Plotkin points out, “the theater was designed in such a way that anyone who saw it saw theater in a new way.”
From theater to festivals, Veneto offers many experiences to travelers. But there’s much more to Italy than Veneto. The expert on all things Italian will be returning to the Smithsonian to highlight five more regions in Italy, spotlighting one region a month. To learn more click here.