Celebrating La Festa di San Marco

Traditional dishes with which we celebrate this feast and a legend connected to a red rose are just the peak of the iceberg. Let’s dig deeper and explore what we really celebrate on 25 April in Venice.

25 April, La Festa di San Marco brings me to the core of the issue which I felt was missing for so many years. While on the one hand, Venetian architecture draws so many visitors every year, I’m asking myself how much do they know about life in and the real function and purpose of Venetian buildings. Not the special history of a building but the general picture. Where the money came from to build these sumptuous palaces (or ca‘ as they were called, a Venetian understatement).

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I think the notion “Piazza di Rialto” covers it all. It’s a sort of umbrella term for all trading and business done during 1,300 years. And Piazza I use in the literal sense meaning stock exchange. In reality, this wasn’t the fish and fruit market but the core of a vibrant trading nation. Where all parts of the value chain of a business venture were steered from. Tutte le cose passano per Rialto. All things pass through Rialto. It’s here where goods were unloaded. Sorted. Mixed. Packaged. Loaded on Ships. Financed. Fortunes Won. Lost. New Strategies Made.

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Vivid, scintillating colors of merchandise just brought in and loaded off the boats moored on Riva del Vin or farther ahead along the Grand Canal. So yes, during the times of the Serenissima, the Grand Canal was lined with merchant vessels but they could only enter the Grand Canal after passing customs (Punta della Dogana, dogana = customs).

Rialto is the heart of Venice, the essence of what was going on behind these facades lining the Grand Canal. On 25 April we’re celebrating the tissue of this town coming alive with artisans, artists. I mestieri di Venezia – the tradespeople of Venice.

The commercial background of Venetians opening doors to the Levant, Asia and Africa. Importing goods to Europe and the New World that we all take for granted today. Pioneering in food and cooking. Collecting and raising botanical treasures from the Far East. Creating a fragrant pharmacy and public health initiatives still practiced today.

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Venetian merchants made most of their money with the spice trade which accounted for more than 70% of income in town. These facades in Venice, the architecture everyone marvels at was financed by the spice trade.

You can now go one step further and understand how Venetians for more than 1,600 years developed an own style of cooking. Venetian merchants brought back from their spice ventures and overseas voyages not just spices but valuable edible plants.

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Venetian spezièri (spice experts, apothecaries, patissiers and chefs) experimented with these ingredients and created a unique fusion kitchen combining local plants, exotic herbs, blossoms and spices from Asia and Africa.

During their decade-long trips, the Venetian spice merchants came across Ayurvedic dishes and traditional Chinese medicine in the 10th century. Marco Polo wasn’t even first to travel along the silk road to China. But Venice was also a province of Byzantium and her cooking style and choice of ingredients were influenced from the beginning by ancient Greek dishes. It’s these forgotten flavors that captured the world for 1,300 years and made Venice the town you can see today and marvel at.

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