A church with maps in Venice

SANTA MARIA DEL GIGLIO, or ‘Santa Maria Zobenigo’ as it is commonly named in Venice, is a baroque church with a magnificent façade. It was built between 1678 and 1681. The edifice was constructed by Giuseppe Sardi for Admiral Antonio Barbaro, who died in 1679. Amongst his many achievements he was Provveditore Generale (Governor General) of Venetian Dalmatia and Venetian Albania in 1670-71.

During my many visits to Venice, most of which were made annually with my parents during the 1960s, I have passed the church and noted an interesting feature of its façade. The base of this is decorated with six carved stone bas-relief maps. These have always fascinated me, but it was only after our recent trip to Venice in September 2022 that I finally got around to investigating them.

The maps are of Spalato (Split in Croatia); Corfu; Roma (Rome); Padoa (Padua); Candia (Haraklion in Crete); and Zara (Zadar in Croatia). Except for Rome, these are all places that were once governed by Venice. The maps depict places where Antonio Barbaro served in one capacity or another.

Wnen James (later Jan) Morris wrote “Venice” (published 1960), which is I believe the best book written about Venice, he/she noted of the façade of Santa Maria Zobenigo that:

“… it is notorious because not one item of its convoluted design has any religious significance whatsoever.”

Morris also pointed out something I have never noticed on that façade. Namely, that it bears a crest with a double-headed eagle, the crest of the Barbaro family. As this symbol interests me, I checked it out. The Barbaro family might have used it because of their connection to the Vlasto family, who were prominent in Rome by the end of 2nd century AD (see; www.christopherlong.co.uk/per/vlasto.byzantium.html). By the end of the 11th century, the Vlasto family was members of important families including the Barbaro’s. The Vlasto family crest includes the double-headed eagle, which amongst other things, was a Byzantine symbol. Interestingly, the Vlasto’s had already begun using it in the early 1st century AD, while the Byzantines only began using it in the 12th – 13th centuries. Maybe I never noticed the double-headed eagle because whenever I have passed the church, my eyes have been drawn to the maps on its fine façade. They fascinated me so much that I never bothered to look upwards.

Carpaccio and the Albanian community in Venice

THE ITALIAN WORD ‘scuola’ (plural: scuole) does not always mean ‘school’ (i.e., an educational establishment). In Venice, there are several scuole, which were never schools, but confraternities (or guilds). Well-known examples of these include the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which contains many fine paintings by Tintoretto (1518-1594), and the Scuola Dalmata dei Santi Giorgio e Trifone, which contains a superb set of paintings by Carpaccio (1465-1525). The latter, also known as the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, was founded by Slavs (‘schiavoni’ in Italian) from Dalmatia (now mainly Croatia).

Another group of migrants from the Balkans, Christian (mostly Catholic) Albanians, began arriving in Venice in the early 15th century, both as traders and refugees from the Ottomans. In 1442, the Albanian community in Venice established its own confraternity, the Scuola di Santa Maria degli Albanesi. The building that housed it from the end of the 15th century still stands on a narrow passageway, the Calle dello Spezier, connecting Campo San Stefano and Campo San Maurizio. During our annual family holidays in Venice in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, we often passed along the passageway whilst walking from the Academia Bridge to Saint Mark’s Square. After my interest in Albania was first kindled in about 1967, I learnt about the Albanian scuola and always felt excited when we walked past its façade decorated with bas-relief stone carvings.

Three of the sculptures, which are affixed above the ground floor windows, depict two saints (Gallo and Mauritius) with the Mother and Child between them. Above them and located between the two second floor windows there is a larger bas-relief. It portrays a scene with two men in turbans standing on a rock facing a high hill on top of which there is a building with two heraldic crests. One of the men is brandishing a curved sword. This scene is a representation of the great Siege of Shkodër (1478-79). The city was then a Venetian possession. One of the men with a turban is a depiction of Mehmed II. The shields on the building and on the top corners of the sculpture were those of the Loredan and Da Lezze families, who were heroes of the siege.

The Albanian community in Venice was quite important during the period of the Venetian Republic, which ended in 1797. Several years ago, I met the Kosovan scholar and diplomat Bejtullah Destani, who told me that the city’s archives contain many documents charting the activities of the Albanians in Venice, and they have yet to be examined in detail.

Like the Scuola Dalmata, the Scuola degli Albanesi was decorated with a series of paintings by Carpaccio. In 1780, the Albanian scuola was closed. Its building became home to a bakers’ confraternity. 28 years later, when Venice was under Napoleonic rule, the other scuole were all suppressed. The Carpaccio paintings have long since been removed from the Albanian scuola, and can be found in museums in Venice, Milan, and Bergamo.

To get some idea of how splendid the Scuola degli Albanesi must have been in its heyday, a visit to the wonderful Scuola Dalmata should do the trick. Even if you have minimal interest in either Albania or Dalmatia, the paintings by Carpaccio make a good reason to visit Venice.

A fortnight in Yugoslavia in the 1950s

I FOUND A SHELF of rather tatty looking second-hand books for sale outside an antique shop in Great Dunmow (Essex). Each was being sold for 50 pence. Among them, I picked up a copy of a slender volume by Christopher Sidgwick with the title “A Fortnight in Yugoslavia”. Having visited the former Yugoslavia numerous times between 1973 and 1990, I was curious to see what was written about it when the guidebook was published in July 1955. This was only about 7 years after the country detached itself from Soviet Russian domination. In relation to this, the author wrote:

“Since the war ended, the Yugoslavs have I think been acting in perfect character. They are not a people … to be impressed by other people’s size. The war brought them victory on the side of Russia … and they set out with immense courage to re-form their way of living on copybook communist lines. But before long, of course, they found that the printed dogma of Marx did not turn out at all as they were led to expect: and instead of cooking the argument, as other communists have frequently done … their honest Yugoslav common sense came conveniently to hand: when Tito, in Moscow, realised that he was now to toe the line as a satellite country, to live in virtual starvation, while the country’s raw materials were sent off to Russia … he said to Stalin: ‘Rubbish! In that case, we might as well still be under the Habsburgs!’”

Under Tito’s leadership, Yugoslavia went its own distinct way. In his text, Sidgwick asked:

“Is the country a dictatorship? In the sense that it is nothing like Hitlerite Germany, nihilist at root, the answer is ‘no’. In the sense that it is a one-party country, with the state controlling the police, the radio, the press, and education, the answer must of course be ‘yes’.”

Further on, he added:

“… it is clear that broader and broader opinion, differing from the party line, is being permitted and even encouraged.”

And this was as early as 1955. By the time I began visiting Yugoslavia, liberal and alternative voices were becoming quite prevalent.

Although Sidgwick did not discourage the individual traveller, he believed that there was much to be said in favour of organised group travel. Visas were then required, and could be obtained for 11 shillings (55 p) at the Yugoslav Consular Department in Kensington (48 Phillimore Gardens). In 1955, £1 sterling would buy you about 840 Yugoslav dinars, and on entering the country, “…any note exceeding 100 dinars in value is liable to be confiscated from you, so don’t buy higher-value notes even at a good rate of exchange: it’s black money.”

Amongst things you were advised to pack in 1955 were: sunglasses; toilet soap (“cost up to 7/6 (37.5p) a tablet”); half a pound of tea; ear-plugs (“invaluable while travelling or while waiting for the dance-band to close down for the night”); pipe tobacco; an inflatable cushion; and a universal bath plug.

Regarding food in Yugoslavia, Sidgwick mentioned that pancakes were good, and:

“… they have no disgusting dishes – frog, snails, and so on – and local national dishes are always worth trying. Ražniči is veal on toothpicks. Ćevapčići is meat and little mince rissoles. Djuvec is a Serbian edition of Irish stew, highly seasoned with paprikas.”

Well, I have eaten frog in Yugoslavia and I had friends who harvested snails for gastronomic reasons. Sidgwick added:

“Meal-service is almost always slow by our standards, largely, I think because Yugoslavs themselves are in the habit of taking their time over food, enjoying it as a social occasion. In busy restaurants it is unwise to expect to get through dinner in less than ninety minutes.”

I have always eaten well in Yugoslavia, and with my many Yugoslav friends every meal was a joyous social occasion.

The guidebook dedicates most of its travel advice to Croatia and the Dalmatian coast (pages 32 to 51). The rest of the country was described between pages 51 and 62. In the short section on Serbia (pages 58 to 60), Sidgwick wrote:

“To describe Serbia in a page or two is like describing London on a cigarette card: insulting to the inhabitants”

He did it to keep the book short, and I suspect, because in the 1950s few British travellers to Yugoslavia ventured much further inland than the coastal regions.

Who was Christopher Sidgwick? He lived from 1915 until 1978.  He wrote several guidebooks to places such as Germany and Greece. His “German Journey” was published in 1936 and his guide to Greece in 1974. “German Journey” was one of several books written by British writers who visited Nazi Germany to find out about Hitler’s regime and the effect it was having on the country. Unlike others, who judged the country mainly by what had been shown them in Berlin and reported favourably on the regime, Sidgwick wanted to avoid “… ‘thinking that what is seen in the capital […] is representative of that country’” (quoted from “Britain and the Weimar Republic” by Colin Storer). This is probably why he reported on a visit to Dachau’s concentration camp before WW2.

Sidgwick also wrote “Manhunt in Dalmatia”, published in 1959. Amongst his many other books, he wrote “Whirlpools on the Danube”, which was published by in 1937. This was reviewed in the journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs by no less a historian than Carlile Aylmer Macartney (1895-1978), a specialist in the history and politics of Central Europe. I guess from this that Sidgwick must have been a significant traveller and observer in his time.  

Finally, although I paid only 50 pence (in Great Dunmow) for this book about a country that exists no longer, its cheapest price on bookfinder.com is 20 times as much. My own recollections of the country and its people are published in my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, which is available from lulu.com, bookdepository.com, and Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scrabble-Slivovitz-Once-upon-Yugoslavia/dp/1291457593).