Venice is rich in hidden treasures and coming across its Arco del Paradiso (Arch of Paradise) makes you feel like a proper explorer of the city instead of simply following the trodden tourist trails down to St. Mark’s Square.
The Arco del Paradiso is a triangular Gothic arch which stands at the end of one of Venice’s best preserved medieval streets and right on the dot where darkness and light meet.
Darkness, as the houses flanking the street – called Calle del Paradiso (Paradise Street) – form an uninterrupted line on both of your sides. Their upper floors – wider than the ground-level ones – are supported by mighty wooden beams jutting out above your head and making the street feel even narrower than it is.
These wooden beams, called barbicani in Italian, are very similar to the English barbicans. It’s just that, instead of serving a defensive purpose, they only aim to enlarge the living space on the upper floors thus enclosing the street below in an eternal semi-dusk.
And light, because as soon as you pass underneath the Arch of Paradise, you find yourself on Ponte del Paradiso – one of Venice’s many bridges over one of Venice’s many canals the water of which casts beautiful teal gleams in the sun.
Such a sudden change from darkness to light is a bit of an assault to the eyes, but, at the same time, it provides the perfect opportunity to stop for a moment and admire the Arch of Paradise.
Made of Istrian stone, it connects the two opposite houses at the end of Calle del Paradiso and with its pointy shape makes you lift your gaze towards the blue Venetian sky.
Having been at that same spot for centuries, about 25 years ago the arch was in decay. Between 1993 and 1994 a UNESCO-organised restoration took place in order to clean, strengthen and protect the arch for the generations to come.
On the street-side of the arch you will see the Madonna of Mercy at whose feet a devout couple kneels in prayer. On the canal-side of the arch, the Madonna is depicted again, but her open mantle protects a single praying figure.
Look at the two bottom corners of the arch and you will spot two faded coats of arms. They belong to the Foscari and the Mocenigo – two powerful Venetian families which had been united through marriage.
If you wonder why both family names ring a bell, I am sure that at the back of your mind you are thinking of:
- Ca Foscari – the lavish Gothic palazzo built by the Venetian Doge Francesco Foscari in 1453 on the Grand Canal. This is where the University of Venice was founded in 1868, hence the University to this day is known as ‘Ca Foscari’; and
- Palazzo Mocenigo – which nowadays is one of Venice’s best museums where you can see sumptuous collections of fabrics, costumes and textiles.
So, the union of the Foscari and the Mocenigo families happened in 1491. Pellegrina – daughter of Michiel Foscari – married Alvise Mocenigo dalle Zogie – a rich merchant who took important political posts and ambassadorial tasks . In commemoration of their wedding the Arch of Paradise was installed at the end of the Calle del Paradiso.
Well, apparently, the young bride’s dowry was such, that her husband was able to purchase all 26 houses along this same street. One of them – the Casa Foscari Mocenigo dalle Zogie – had been, actually, Pellegrina’s childhood home. This is the stunning palazzo on the right-hand side of the Arch, if you look at it from the bridge.
You can see both Byzantine and Gothic influences in the architecture of the houses lining up the street, with parts of the oldest buildings there dating back to the 13th century. The newest houses are as young as the 16th century.
The narrow street is called ‘of the Paradise’, supposedly, due to the lavish way it used to be decorated during the feasts and holidays celebrated in Venice of yore. A particular highlight were the decorations put up there for Good Friday.
Nowadays, it is very easy to overlook this street. It is located, after all, in one of the least visited by tourists Venetian neighbourhoods – the sestiere of Castello. The barbicani keep it dark and it feels removed from Venice’s main sights.
Yet, if you make the effort to find it, you will be in for a treat. First, you will be able to see the beautiful arch and walk up and down a street the foundations of which were laid centuries ago. And then, just around the corner from it, you will be able to enjoy some more of Venice’s hidden treasures without being caught in a huge suffocating crowd.
For example, just 2 mins away from the Arch of Paradise is the Church of San Lio. There you can admire Tiepolo’s stunning ‘Angels and Virtues’. Also there you can see the great Venetian artist Canaletto’s final resting place. Not to mention the many other works of art which adorn this quiet and peaceful church.
And just 1 min away from the Calle del Paradiso and its triangular arch, but in the opposite direction to the Church of San Lio, you will find a gorgeous Venetian square bathed in sunlight – Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Here children play and adults sip coffees sitting outside picturesque cafes and restaurants. The square is home to several stunning palaces, the Santa Maria Formosa church and the unmissable Foundation Querini Stampalia where you can admire a whole room with paintings perfectly illustrating Venetian life, among many other priceless artifacts and stunning rooms.
The Arch of Paradise is also just a stone’s throw away from the famous Rialto Bridge and its lively fish market.
So, when you want to escape the crowds and see the real face of Venice, make sure that you come to Paradise. You will be as close to the real thing (if it, of course, exists) as possible, considering that you will be surrounded by beautiful architecture, symbols of past times and some of Venice’s most precious art.
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