I am one of the 83,000 tourists per day that the 55,000 Venetians have to put up with. But as there are only two industries here – regular tourism and the Biennale exhibitions, which alternate between art (odd-numbered years) and architecture (even-numbered years), they’re glad to see me. The locals, though, can hardly afford to live here and so some rent out their homes and stay on the mainland.
One hundred and twenty islands, many of them housing the palaces of aristocrats, joined together via bridges and collaboration to form Venice. The buildings remain standing because they’re mounted on massive wooden piles driven down and down, past water and sand, into the stable strata. The unique over-the-top architectural style called Flourishing Baroque, resulted from the necessity to make the facades as light as possible, thus the filigreed décor.
We take an excellent free walking tour (tip what you want at the end – I suggest €15-20) via http://venicefreewalkingtour.com/ with the charming Camilla who moved to Venice from Padua a decade ago in order to study art history. On top of her prodigious knowledge of Venice art, she is full of anecdotes about gender and sexuality through the ages, several of which I can repeat here to this sophisticated readership.
Camilla took us over the Ponte delle Tette – the Bridge of Boobs – in the old red light district. Prostitution had been legalized in the 15th century in what was already a very cosmopolitan city. Around the beginning of the 16th century, to counter homosexuality, prostitutes were encouraged to hang out topless on the bridge in order to excite/convert the passing gay guys. When for some reason that didn’t work, the authorities initiated curfews so that men wouldn’t be alone together at night.
In the 18th century, a rich passionate Isabella held an artistic salon where she was rumored to enjoy great intimacy with some of the artists. One made double marble sculptures of her that stand near her home to this day. Public theatre – where you can buy a ticket – was invented in Venice in the 17th century. Theatre had hitherto been restricted to the homes of the aristocrats who commissioned plays as private entertainment. Friend of playwrights and actors, Isabella so enjoyed the stage that she had a bridge built directly from her home into her fancy box in the theatre on Calle de la Comedia.
Camilla pointed out the plaque marking the home of Aldus Manutius, a prominent printer in Venice (which had enthusiastically taken up the new German invention: the press). Aldus Manutius invented paperback books by 1482 so that he’d have something to read on his trips – thus democratizing reading. He liked, in particular, to print banned books.
We bought a travel card at the airport that allowed us to get on and off the vaporeti (water buses) unlimited times and it eliminated futzing with change or trying to decide if something was “worth it.” They move at a slow pace along the Grand Canal which might be annoying if you are commuting to work, but which affords the rest of us perfect cruising opportunities.
Walking is the main way locals get around – with exceptions for weather, night, distance, and mobility. It is, in fact, a difficult city for people with mobility challenges because most of those 400 bridges over those 117 canals are arched via steps. Don’t fear getting lost: there will be a glorious palace or church around in the next piazza (square). When you’re walking, look up. You’ll see all sorts of surprises. If you have access to the internet, try to check on Trip Advisor or some such what the ratings are for restaurants you’re going to. There’s a break in the middle of the day after lunch when most restaurants and many non-touristy shops are closed. Dinner is served from 19:00 or 20:00.
A tip about the supermarkets. If you’re buying bread rolls or fruit or veggies, you need to bag them and then weigh them (using the number of the card in that bin); the scale produces a price tag. The first evening I had to leave my place in a very long line to go weigh the rolls and then when I finally got up to the cashier again, it turned out that I had to leave my place to weigh the fruit. Tourists provide ongoing amusement to all at supermarkets. Also take a bag to carry stuff: or buy one in the shop for 10 cents.
Venice can be wet and cold, except in the summer. Our weather in March is frightful. My backpack is heaving with an umbrella, which turns out to be less than useful because of the wind, and a fold-up raincoat. I’m forced to wear waterproof boots instead of my more comfortable trainers. As a tourist, one simply has to decide to accept the weather and get on with it. Or come in the summer when the place is packed with other admirers.
My friend Miri and I are staying for six nights in an Airbnb that luckily has a great heating system and plenty of hot water. The first night we are there we hear a bizarre sound that goes on and on. Later we find out that it was Venice’s flood alarm giving people three hours to prepare to be awash in high tides. In fact, friends in Europe and the States send me photos of people up to their thighs in water in Piazza San Marco, one of the lowest points in the city, but I wrongly think they are archival shots because our area did not flood. The municipality also sends out warning text messages to the residents.
What causes the canal’s high tides? The moon, wind, climate change, and dragging out the canals so bigger tour boats can pass through them. Speedboats (the equivalent to private cars), when they exceed the speed limits, create wakes that push into the foundations of buildings. In low areas, there are metal guards in front of the doors and tables along the roads to climb on and walk above the floods, which can happen several times a month between autumn and spring. Bring Wellingtons (that’s the British name) if rains are predicted.
The following are some of the sites I visited, although there are many more that I didn’t take in on this trip, from the truly astonishing Jewish Ghetto (the gates of which Napoleon eventually opened), the lace museum on the island of Burano, and uncounted museums, galleries, and churches.
The Peggy Guggenheim collection, housed in the unfinished Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, her home for 30 years, is featuring a special exhibition of the work of Claire Falkenstein, one of many artists to whom Guggenheim was a patron. Visitors to this modern art gallery will recall Falkenstein’s metal and Murano glass gates that lead into the garden from the main building.
Using a kind of multi-material fused latticework based on her idea that “basic abstract units could be multiplied into a set,” she creates intricate pieces that fascinate and thrill. With its lighting and spacing, this particular exhibition perfectly highlights her.
The Guggenheim collection is remarkable for its modern range. The 1% really used to know how to create and corner the art market. Some of my favorite artists are displayed. Fernand Leger’s “Men in the City” (1919) is an excellent example of his pre-WWI concept of urbanization and the new-ish metropolitan experience that industrialization led to. Here too is one of the largest of the eighteen versions of Rene Magritte’s “Empire of Light” (1953), in which it is still daytime in the blue sky with fluffy white clouds, while the house below is already in shade, lit only by the lamps. Max Ernst’s “The Antipope” (1942) with its surrealist masks and costumes and teasing nudity somehow fits right into Venice’s Carnival tradition. I was particularly taken with the sandy grey and blue of Pablo Picasso’s “On the Beach” (1937), the figures abstracted but full of gaiety. Sculpture is not neglected with Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and more.
The wind was too chilly to take full advantage of the sculpture garden, but I had, of course, to take my photo – from a variety of angles – next to the notorious bronze “Angel of the City” (1948) – a naked horserider with a hard-on riding his steed. Sitting in full view of the Grand Canal, the sculptor Marino Marini was forced to make the cock detachable for modesty’s sake, but after it was stolen at one of Peggy’s bashes, it was welded firmly in place.
Lunch at the charming café was a tasty pleasure, with the most elegant paper napkins I’ve ever seen, two of which somehow made it into my backpack, I blush to admit.
It was international women’s day and somehow I came upon a listing of a gallery in Fortuny Palace that was featuring four women artists. It is an underrated, less famous, but fascinating gallery. Inside, you need to mount a lot of steps and the bathroom is on the top floor, which I only discovered after having come back downstairs. I’ll mention two of the artists.
The first half of the exhibition by Venetian painter Ida Barbarigo (1925) was called “Venus still lives here.” A series of paintings of a woman named Erma, done from 1981-84, dripped with the fog and rain of Venice that we had just come in from, as the woman stood with her back to the sea. In many, a large plant was placed in the foreground. Beautiful Erma stared forward into our eyes. She had been painted with love, each image titled with her name and the year. In the last of the series, she was draped, perhaps buried, in plants and it was entitled Melancolie.
The next series by Babarigo were strong-stroked, disintegrating images with figures who clutched their faces. Now the palate turned from the sea/sky greys to strong earth tones. Ida had clearly lost the apple of her eye. These were less representational but filled with distress and pain. I was sure the entire show was about loving and losing Erma.
Many works by the lesbian painter Romaine Brooks were also displayed, including a portrait of her friend Jean Cocteau with the Eifel Tower behind him. The two rooms of her work and bio material were all about a rich, self-indulgent woman who had not recovered from her unhappy childhood.
I happened to look in the window of a gallery and saw a painting I couldn’t resist. “Venus in a Landscape” by Palma il Vecchio (1480-1528) was for sale for a mere million euros, but believe me this langorous nude was worth it. I was lucky to have a long chat with one of the owners of the gallery (his father founded it) and learn about the new technologies that allow them to scrutinize all the layers of the painting. In the case of my naked Venus, they learned that she was originally painted with her legs open, but apparently the patron who commissioned the work demanded she pull her knees together so her “immodesty” was painted over.
What a world and what a life this man had inherited from his father, and he was in no doubt that he had been entrusted with peerless works of art. He was charming and gracious and this was one of the few extended conversations with a Venetian that I had.
The Correr is located opposite St. Mark’s Basilica in the main square of Venice, Piazza San Marco where, by the way, it is no longer legal to feed the pigeons. It is a cold, imposing 19th century palace and the museum occupies the Napoleonic Wing.
The Correr Museum held a highly advertised exhibit of the works of Schiavone (1510-1563), considered an innovative artist. Entitled “Splendors of The Renaissance in Venice,” it juxtaposed the paintings of Andrea Schiavone with those of Parmigianino, Tintoretto, and Titian, showing the influence of this central figure in Venetian Renaissance painting. I’m afraid that I remained unmoved by the frequent double images, set up in an almost competitive manner, but perhaps it was a function of jetlag and exhaustion.
Since I last visited the Murano Museum of Glass (1861) almost 20 years ago, they have been through a renovation that expanded the facility. It is a jewel full of fabulous chandeliers, and works of glass from BCE to today. The island of Murano only joined the Venice municipality in 1923, but it is just a quick vaporeti (water bus) away. Once inside, check out the film about the making of glass (or visit a glass factory in town before or after the Museum), to see the remarkable collaborations that are critical for the artisans who work in glass. Look for the new room that has an overview timeline, with examples, of the history of glass.
Glass seems to have come from ancient Egypt and Syria around the 10th century BCE and Romans stepped up to glass blowing around the 2nd or 3rd century. A Murano glass-worker came up with clear glass in the 15th century, propelling a series of further inventions, like filigreed, in Murano through the 17th century.
I was particularly moved by a display of the sculptures and vases of Alfredo Barbini – he’s from a huge Murano family. From his stylized nude (1950) to his iridescent work in the 1990s, he pushed the boundaries of what glass can become.
Although Murano is entirely built around glass, the industry’s health has been up and down, particularly when the Venetian Republic fell in 1797 and the Napoleonic regime abolished the arts and trade guilds. It revived in the 19th century when young artisans began to innovate and export, especially to the British market.
A spin around the sculpture garden full of rescued fragments from demolished Murano churches, and we head out to search for lunch. Unfortunately at the Ristorante Dalla Mora, along the main canal, we had an unhygienic, overpriced, distasteful meal and abysmal rude service. My review is here: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g681249-d1087291-r354337609-Ristorante_Dalla_Mora-Murano_Veneto.html
The next time I go to Venice, I may well stay in working-class Murano, where the two and three-story buildings are in beautiful tones of terracotta and ochre. There were no Airbnb listings when I searched this year, but we did pass several lovely pensions and hotels.
On our return to our apartment, we dropped into the neighborhood Jesuit church S. Maria Assunta (from the 12th century) with the imposing Baroque façade. Inside the white and green marble inlays were highly decorative and Tintoretto’s “Assunta” was grand and exciting. The Venetian school of painting includes, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Titian, and Paul Veronese – and we have run into them everywhere.
Unlike any city in the world, Venice is dreamlike and masked – not the least during its annual festival of Carnivale. Even its birthday is made up – March 25, 421 – to coincide with the date of the Holy Mother’s ascension. Fiercely independent, Venice adopted its own saints – Marco and Mary – so that it was independent from Rome. Warships coming from the Adriatic Sea cannot penetrate its shallow Venetian Lagoon – included as part of the Venetian World Heritage Site. Because of trade, Venice became incomparably wealthy, and thus we are left with palaces and churches of unreal beauty.
Venice still prides itself on its independence from the national government. When Italy decided to change all the street signs from Venetian dialect to “standard” Italian (which involves a lot of double letters, apparently), Venetians simply painted over the superfluous letters in the middle of the night. They have the skills to do this because Venice is splashed with a great deal of graffiti.
Most of all, you will feel why Venice is one of the wonders of the world, unique, exquisite, complex, and full of mystery. On the nearly unanimous recommendation of friends, I read Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers which takes place in Venice. Miss Garnet is a retired single American communist virgin who moves to Venice. The book is a smooth read, beautifully written, and dripping with an insider’s insights to this extraordinary place. It will be your comfort and your companion.
And as an entertaining postscript, those odd cone-shaped hunks of concrete placed along the sidewalks at the corner of buildings are built to prevent men from peeing onto the building’s bricks. They're called "splash corners" because I guess the curve splashes it right back at the dudes.