We stayed this time in the district we call Miracoli, whose open space, the Campo Santa Maria Nova, looks across a canal to the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli with its unique outside-and-in cladding of delicate marble.
As we relaxed in the campo, I noticed a turret still touched by late sunshine, and got up to go around a corner and find where it was. (I didn’t find it, because it was nearer than I thought, merely a chimney on a house.) I found that the canal met another, at a bridge with one of those names you fail to memorize: Ponte del Piovan o del Volto. As I stood looking down from this bridge, a gondola came from beneath. The gondolier had to steer sharply rightward because of moored boats ahead. To me the action of the gondola oar, a mere waggle, looks inefficient, and I wondered how he was going to be able to correct his direction in time to avoid the boats and bank on the other side. Well, he shot out his left leg and kicked a narrow bit of brick wall, an instant before it became too distant.
The action was so quick that even his passengers may not have noticed it.
Another time, exploring along a fondamenta, or canal-side path, we came opposite to a gap in the buildings lining the other side of the canal. This gap revealed gaggles of walkers in a parallel but more important street: in fact, the main long shopping street (called, in parts, Strada Nuova) that runs through the Cannaregio district.
The reason for the gap was that it was the forecourt in front of the west portal of a large church (Santa Fosca). We crossed the little bridge to this space. In the middle of it was a statue of Paolo Sarpi.
Paolo Sarpi was a cleric and scholar who, among many other achievements, played a part in the beginning of telescopes for astronomy.
His enlightened ideas included tolerance for heretics, so that some suspected him of being a secret Protestant or even an atheist. He believed in the separation of church and state. In the early 1600s there sprang up a serious struggle in which the pope tried to exercise tight control over the free Republic of Venice, especially in religious matters, and resorted to excommunicating the whole city. The Catholic Powers – France and Spain – were almost drawn into this quarrel. Sarpi, with his many eloquent writings, became Venice’s appointed intellectual champion. He won the argument. In April 1607, the pope yielded, but he and his henchmen did not forgive Sarpi. In September of the same year, three men were caught before they could assassinate him; then on October 5 another bunch of ruffians set on him – near this spot – and left him for dead, with fifteen stiletto wounds and one knife still sticking in his head.
There was jubilation in the papal territories. But Sarpi lived.
It was a little more than a year after this, in November 1608, that rumor reached him of an optical gadget that had been invented in Holland and was now being sold as a toy in other countries. In March 1609 he wrote for more information about this to one of his many correspondents, Jacques Badovere, in Paris. When, two months later, Badovere’s reply arrived, Sarpi showed it to another scientific friend, who happened to be visiting him: Galileo Galilei, who was professor of mathematics in the university of Padua (a possession of Venice) and had been Badovere’s teacher. Galileo, the day after he got back to Padua, began making his own telescopes – and was the first to turn them seriously on the night sky.
Plots against Sarpi’s life continued, and he sometimes spoke of taking refuge in England. But he lived on in his beloved city until 1623, writing, keeping up with research in physics, anatomy, astronomy. His last words, “Esto perpetua” – Latin, “May she be everlasting” – were quoted two centuries later by John Adams; Sarpi referred to the Republic of Venice, Adams to the United States.