BBC iPlayer: Italy’s Invisible Cities: Venice

BBC4 has re-broadcast Italy’s Invisible Cities: Venice and what a treat for the eye and intellect it is.

This is your chance to be escorted round Venice by Professor Michael Scott and presenter  Alexander Armstrong, who delve into the history and development of the city – and offer up such interesting peccadilloes as where Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock, would have worshipped and what Venetian courtesans put on their hair. Prof Scott calls Venice “one of the most unique places in the world”.

Venice – born out of ruin

Venice was founded in the 5th century AD after the fall of the Roman Empire, as Visigoths invaded the Mediterranean and set up home in Roman preserves such as the nearby city of Verona.

Rialto Brdge

Venice is comprised of 80% salt marshes. We learn how genius architects such as Antonio Da Ponte – a Mr Bridge who built the Rialto Bridge – devised a method of sub-aquatic underpinning using preserved tree trunks to support the city’s foundations.

Venice – city of “erotic pleasures”

We visit San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and the Arsenale – and as befits a city known for “erotic pleasures”, Prof Scott “slips into neoprene”, doses himself to the eyeballs with medicated olive oil and scuba dives in the Grand Canal like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

The Grand Canal is full of sewage, you see, hence the olive oil.


Meanwhile, Alexander Armstrong samples cucina with a real Italian Countess, who cooks shellfish from the canal, which he duly tucks into, despite declining the scuba diving opportunity somewhat squeamishly.

Later, a real-life Doge makes an appearance – and Armstrong visits the deserted island Poveglia, where plague victims were sent.

Brothels and breakouts

We learn of the aspects of Venetian life that once made Venice the capital of pleasure, including the now-genteel Florian cafe’s upstairs brothel; and , of course, Casanova, the only man known to have escaped from the Doge’s prison.

Lake Garda and Venice June 2012 560
Bridge of Sighs

We discover that Venetian courtesans put urine on their hair to make it glow with reddish and golden lights. Fortunately for some of us, we just have to walk out into the Venetian sunshine to achieve that, except we are red from top to toe.


La Serenissima 

Venice is known as the Serene Republic of Venice and the city maintains its serenity, despite the rigorous traditions of international trade and tourists trampling all over the place.


Of Venice, Charles Dickens said: “Opium could not build such a city.”

Venice and the lagoon became UNESCO Heritage Sites in 1987.

We go to see Venice,  but Venice is watching us, also, to borrow from the poet Alexander Pope (The Dunciad IV) – as we roam about the narrow streets, eat gelato and bob up and down in gondolas on the canals, getting horribly sunburned.


Prof Scott and Alexander Armstrong answer the important questions of how Venice was founded, developed and survived.

However, there is one vital question left unanswered – why is it Italian men are so charming and attractive?

Italian Invisible Cities: Venice is available on BBC iPlayer.

Buon viaggio!


Images copyright A. Meredith 2018


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