Venice can readily be experienced from afar through the eyes and words of others; through incredible paintings, stunning photographs, entertaining films, classical and contemporary literature. This past spring, I experienced the vibrant, mysterious mood of Venice first hand.
It was a splurge trip, kept short to compensate. With just under 48 hours to spend in the city, my itinerary included strolling about the Piazza San Marco, taking in the Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo Fortuny, seeing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and a visit to the Luigi Bevilacqua textile house.
Within minutes of stepping off the Vaporetto, in search of my hotel, map in hand, I became lost. I knew that I had to take a left turn, it’s just that I was looking for a narrow street not a crevice.
I stayed at the Hotel Al Reali, choosing the hotel based on its location and positive reviews. It’s only a few minutes walk (not including extra time allotted to taking wrong turns) from both the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco.
The reviews reflected reality. My room, service and dinner at the hotel restaurant were top-notch. Architectural details of the 17th century palazzo are found throughout the small hotel. My room, was well-appointed, comfortable and spacious. Plus, it overlooked a canal. During a few minutes of downtime, I visited the cosy ground-floor library, perusing books about Venice’s history, architecture, art and artists. After checking in, I headed over to Piazza San Marco (along with a throng of other tourists making their way through the narrow, twisty lane ways). Over the centuries, many artists have painted scenes of the picturesque and historically significant square. The artworks enable us to step back into the Venice of yesterday. If you swap the Venetians seen in Gentile Bellini and Canaletto’s paintings below with modern-day global tourists, you could be looking at scenes from today.
Gentile Bellini and Canaletto were both Venetian and both from families of prominent artists. Both were prolific artists of their times. Unfortunately, in 1577, a fire destroyed much of Bellini’s work. Canaletto’s actual name was Giovanni Antonio Canal. He became known as “little canal” to differentiate his artwork from that of his father. While Bellini was best known as a portraitist, many of Canaletto’s works depicted daily life in Venice. Wealthy British, many on their “Grand Tour,” snapped up Canaletto’s paintings almost as soon as the paint was dry.
Across the front of Basilica di San Marco are a series of domed alcoves. Each features brilliant gold and coloured mosaics. The one shown in the photo below, dating from 1660, is of the arrival of St. Mark’s remains in Venice.
Much of the ornamentation seen on the exterior of the Basilica di San Marco was acquired through invasions.
The bottom left photo is of the 4th century Roman porphyry sculpture called “Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs.” The sculpture was likely looted from Constantinople in 1204 during the 4th Crusade.
Did you notice the white-coloured foot? A section of the original sculpture is missing. Archaeologists came across the missing foot in Istanbul during the 1960’s, giving substantiation to the looting theory. It’s now part of the Istanbul Archeology Museum’s collection.
The entryway, called Porta di Fiori, in the photo above is on the north-side of the Basilica. The Moorish architectural influences add a beautiful rhythm to the building. The nativity scene above the door is 13th century.
The four bronze horses shown in Sickert’s 1901 painting were sacked from Constantinople during the 4th Crusade. Some scholars believe they’re of 4th century Greek origin. Others, based on the high copper content of the statues, say they are Roman. Napoleon whisked them off to France in 1797 after invading Venice. They were later returned to Venice. However, what you see now on the basilica’s exterior are replicas. To protect the ancient bronzes from the elements, they are safely displayed inside.
A few dozen oohs and ahhs later, it was time to find a spot for dinner. Quite hungry, I opted for the convenience of the first available table that I came across. Surprisingly, given Venice’s reputation for high prices and poor service, my meal was affordable (at least relative to Swiss standards) and the service and food quality were reasonably good.
On day 2, I decided to visit the current art exhibition “Manet, Return to Venice” at the Palazzo Ducale instead of touring the palace buildings. Manet’s Grand Canal of Venice was one of the masterpieces on display.
Two other paintings of the grand canal (sadly not on display in Venice), Monet’s above and Turner’s, at the end of the post, are among my favourites. The soft blurring of colour and light in the paintings elegantly capture the grand beauty of the city.
After viewing the not-too-crowded Manet exhibit, I ate lunch on the terrace of a canal-side café. I enjoyed watching the gondolas glide by as I dined on house-made gnocchi served with fresh spring peas and a delicate white wine cream sauce. Watching the impressive manoeuvres required to lift a large refrigerator out of a boat across the canal had me wondering how if many deliveries land in the water and whether there is a retrieval service.
I spent the afternoon enjoying the contemporary artworks on display that The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The collection is located in the low palazzo seen in the photo of Grand Canal below. You can read about my visit and Peggy Guggenheim’s connection to Venice here and here.
My evening meal the hotel’s Alle Corrone restaurant was excellent. The restaurant offers seasonal Venetian cuisine.
Dinner was briefly interrupted by the sounds loud clanging at the canal-side door as hotel staff worked quickly to slide a metal barrier in place to guard against the rapidly rising water level in the canal. By the time dinner was over, the square leading to the the hotel was under about four inches of water. This is the acqua alta, or high water effect. The night manager said the water would continue to rise for a least another hour, partially due to the full moon.
Day 3 arrived all too quickly. I spent the morning at the Rialto Market. While it was a chilly, grey and rainy day, I enjoyed the warmth, colours and liveliness of the market.
Across the canal from the market is Ca’ D’Oro. The palace’s lace-like loggia panels are reminiscent of the Alhambra’s Moorish architecture.
Ca’ D’Oro, or Palazzo Santa Sofia, was constructed between 1428 and 1430. It’s now an art museum. Built for the Contarini family, one of the founding families of the Venetian Republic, the Venetian Gothic façade was once covered in gold leaf, thus the origin of the d’oro reference.
The world’s “most beautiful city” had humble beginnings as a series of scattered fishing settlements. In the 6th century AD, the area was a haven for Italian refugees, gradually expanding to become a major trading centre for exotic spices, sumptuous silks, precious jewels and metals from the East and South.
By the early 1500’s Venice’s craft guilds were known for their high-quality silks, beautiful brocades and velvet, exquisite gold work, glass work, including eye glasses, and armour. Wealthy Venetian merchant families built grand palaces and sponsored talented artists.
With Columbus’ arrival in the new world and Portugal’s discovery of a new ship route to India via Africa’s Cape Horn, Venice’s trade monopoly with the East ended, sliding the city into an economic decline. By the late 17th century, tourism became an important source of revenue for the Venetians, with wealthy young men travelling to Venice while on their Grand Tour of Europe.
Before leaving Venice, I did venture into a tiny Bevilacqua shop, a treasure chest of exquisite silk upholstery textiles. Touring the Palazzo Fortuny is still on my wish list. As I learned all too late, it’s only open during special exhibitions.
Visiting Venice wasn’t on my bucket list. I’m glad I went. Mysterious, vibrant, proud and beautifully captured in the following poem by Anna Akhmatova (1889 – 1966).
Gold dovecote by waters,
Tender and dazzlingly green;
A salt-breeze sweeps away
The gondola’s narrow wake.
Such sensitive, strange eyes in the streets,
The bright toys in the shops:
A lion with a book, on a lace pillow,
A lion with a book, on a marble pillar.
As in an ancient, faded canvas,
The sky is a cool, dull blue…
But one’s not crushed in the crowd,
Nor stifled in this damp heat.
To further experience Venice through the eyes and words of others…
- Photography books: Venice: City of Art, Serenissima: Venice in Winter, Francesco’s Venice: The Dramatic History of the World’s Most Beautiful City
- Films shot in Venice: The Italian Job (2003), Bread & Tulips, (2000), Death in Venice (1971)
- Some literature set in Venice: The Merchant of Venice, Death in Venice, Vaporetto 13, plus a lot more – this blog has an extensive list and provides reviews written by the blog author, Jeff Cotton.