Italy’s Invisible Cities: Historian Michael Scott on hidden Venice

Scott and Alexander Armstrong's new BBC1 series steps back from the tourist clichés to uncover the secrets of La Serenissima

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There are many glorious sights in Venice: the Rialto Bridge, the gleaming St Mark’s Basilica, the colourful palazzos lining the Grand Canal, gondolas gliding along ancient waterways. But for his new BBC1 series, Italy’s Invisible Cities, classical historian Michael Scott passed them by in favour of some lesser-known landmarks.

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His favourite discovery came after he zipped up a wetsuit and joined a team of underwater engineers whose job it is to look after the foundations of Venice. “I had a few reservations given the charming state of Venetian canals! But I was provided with the latest in medical support: a bottle of medicated olive oil to spray in my ears. It was very disorientating because it’s very, very difficult to see down there.”

Michael Scott (left) diving to discover the secret of what keeps Venice afloat

So what did he spy in Venice’s murky depths? “The original occupiers hammered large wooden poles into the edges of the marshes in the lagoon, which provided a barrier so they could build a stable foundation of stone on top. The crazy thing is that poles bashed into the mud some 600, 700 years ago are still in absolutely perfect condition because there’s no oxygen down there.

“And as I was looking at the exposed tops of these poles, feeling like I was intruding on the magic that keeps Venice afloat, a mother and baby crab came along and stood on top of a pole, as if to say: ‘What the hell are you doing here? This is our world, not yours.’”


 Radio Times Travel: Classic and undiscovered Venice, four nights from £499pp


Italy’s Invisible Cities – which teams Scott with Alexander Armstrong, his co-presenter on Rome’s Invisible City – aims to get under the skin of Naples (this week), Venice (next week) and Florence. “Venice is a brilliant example of human ingenuity in the face of extreme difficulty,” he explains.

“The city was born when the Roman Empire was collapsing: people were fleeing the mainland as all these barbarian hordes were invading Italy, and the people of northern Italy fled into the lagoon. They went as far as they possibly could and ended up on islands of marshy ground on top of the sea. The Rialto Bridge is beautiful, but it’s only made possible by the fact that there are 6,000 wooden poles underneath each side.”

The Rialto Bridge

Scott recently decamped to Venice with his wife and baby daughter for three months, and such ingenuity never ceased to amaze him.

“The thing that really plays with your head in Venice is that everything has to be reinvented so it can happen on water. The ambulance service, the police service, rubbish collection – everything has to happen by water. Every day’s a surprise. None more so than the weekend in November when the locals build a pontoon bridge across the Grand Canal just so that people can go on foot to the church of Santa Maria della Salute.” 


 Radio Times Travel: Lake Garda, Venice & Verona tour, seven nights from £619pp


Michael Scott’s 5 Venetian secrets

1. Caffè Florian

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, Venice was the pleasure capital of Europe, full of prostitutes and courtesans who would wear ridiculously high heels so they could be seen above the crowd. Caffè Florian, in St Mark’s Square, claims to be the oldest café in the world. While you’re enjoying a cappuccino served by waiters in tails, remember that there used to be a brothel on the first floor.”

2. Ponte delle Tette

“The ‘bridge of tits’ is where prostitutes stood with their breasts on display so that potential clients could see their wares — and in an age when homosexuality was considered undesirable, so the authorities could check they weren’t men.”

3. Lazzaretto nuovo

“The island where plague victims were taken to the ‘hospital’ — a chilling place to visit where you are literally walking over the bones of the dead. You can visit at weekends from April to October or by pre-arrangement.”

4. Doge’s Palace

“Worth a visit for the glamorous public rooms, but especially when they open up the torture chambers and prison cells in the roof (including the one Casanova was put in). They reveal the darker side of life in the Venetian Republic.”

Doge’s Palace

5. Ponte dei Pugni

“In the 1600s, boxing matches took place on bridges around the city and drew huge crowds. Look for the white marble footprints in each corner of the ‘bridge of fists’ — this is where the boxers stood before the fight started. You’ll also find great ice cream and wine bars near both Ponte dei Pugni and Ponte delle Tette!” 

Italy’s Invisible Cities begins on Wednesday 4 January BBC1 9pm

Download an immersive Italy’s Invisible Cities Virtual Reality experience onto your smartphone, a whistle-stop tour of Naples, Venice and Florence presented in 4K Ultra-High Definition. Go to bbc.co.uk and follow the programme links.


Radio Times Travel holidays

Classic and undiscovered Venice, four nights from £499pp. What’s included: return flights, four nights’ bed and breakfast, sightseeing tour of Venice, timed entrances to the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Cathedral, sightseeing tour of undiscovered Venice, boat tour to Murano and glass-making demonstration. Click here to book and for the full itinerary

Lake Garda, Venice & Verona tour, seven nights from £619pp. What’s included: seven nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast, guided tours of Verona and Venice, all transfers, tour of Lake Garda, tour of the Dolomite mountains, scheduled flights. Click here for the full itinerary and to book

Sorrento and the Bay of Naples, seven nights from £489pp. What’s included: seven nights’ bed and continental breakfast or half-board accommodation at your chosen hotel, return flights from your chosen airport to Italy, return airport-to-hotel transfers, the services of a friendly, experienced Tour Manager. Click here for the full itinerary and to book

View all Italy holidays

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