“You will fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else” – Peggy Guggenheim
“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Marco Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at one, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”
For the Part I of the Venice (History, Piazza San Marco, The Grand Canal, Sestieri di San Marco & Castello) click here.
Sestieri San Polo and eastern Santa Croce
San Polo is Venice’s smallest but oldest sestiere, dating back to the 9th century. The Rialto, as area near the bridge is known, takes its name from rivo alto (high bank) and was one of the first areas of Venice to be inhabited. A banking and then market district, it remains one of the city’s busiest and most bustling areas. Home to the number of colorful cicchetti pubs, it is a great place to explore and have lunch. I spent quite a lot of time in this part of town, because it is a beautiful, mostly residential area, has plenty of sights, museums and mask ateliers, but also because I saw a pair of earrings in a shop window so I kept coming back there, every single day, until the shop was finally open (Frederica Rossi). I became so acquainted with the neighborhood, that I no longer needed a map or street name to know where I was; the sestiere’s shop owners, consequently, got to know me as well.
I begin the tour of those two areas (I combined San Polo with the very eastern part of Santa Croce, as they organically form a ” dog’s head” on the map of Venice), from the Rialto Bridge (p.63 on the map). Of Venice’s more than 400 bridges, only four cross the Grand Canal and Rialto was the first among them all. The original Rialto Bridge, dating from 1180, was a platform supported by boats tied together. It linked the political side (palazzo Ducale) of the city with the economic center (Rialto). When Venice was Europe’s economic superpower, this was where bankers, brokers, and merchants conducted their daily business. Rialto Bridge II was a 13th century wooden drawbridge. It was replaced in 1588 by the current structure, with its bold single arch (spanning 50 m) and arcades on top designed to strengthen the stone span. Its immense foundations stretch almost 200 m on either side; heavy buildings were then built atop the foundations to hold everything in place. This superb feat of engineering by Antonio da Ponte cost 250,000 gold ducal to construct – a staggering sum that puts Calatrava Bridge cost overruns into perspective. The Rialto remained the only bridge crossing the Grand Canal until 1854.
Marking the geographical center of Venice (midway down the Grand Canal), the Rialto is the most sensible location for retail shops. The government built it with an accurate expectation that it would soon pay for itself with rent from the shops built into it. Like the older Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto was originally lined with luxury gold and jewelry shops, but now its vendors sell cheap Chinese items of Venetian resemblance. The bridge is cleverly designed to generate maximum rent: three lanes, two rows of twelve shops each, with a warehouse area above each shop under the lead-and-timber roof.
Reliefs of the Venetian Republic’s main symbols, St. Mark and St. Theodore, crown the arch. Barges and vaporetti run the busy waterways below, and merchants vie for tourists’ attention atop. The Rialto has long been a symbol of Venice. Aristocratic inhabitants built magnificent palaces just to be near it. The poetic Lord Byron swam to it all the way from Lido island and thousands of marriage proposals have been sealed right here, with a kiss, as the moon floated over La Serenissima.
From the top, walk down the bridge (heading away from the St. Mark’s side) and about 50 m onward, until you see an old square with a fountain on your right – Campo San Giacomo. The square looks like it did in the 16th century. After a fire devastated the area, this High Renaissance square was built, in 1520 – or “MDXX”, as it says on the arcade. The church San Giacomo di Rialto (p.28 on the map), which escaped the fire, had one of the oldest facades in town, with a clock that predates minute hands. Notice that the square sloped toward the center – originally, rainwater flowed to the center, filtered down through limestone, where it was collected in an underground cistern. Several thousand cisterns like this provided the city with its drinking water up until 1886, when an aqueduct was built (paralleling the railroad bridge) to bring water from nearby mountains. Back when the Rialto Bridge was a drawbridge, big ships would dock here to unload their spices, oil, wine and jewels. The line of buildings between Campo San Giacomo and the canal was once a strip of banks – the Bancogiro. Today it’s a line of popular eateries. Behind today’s trashy jewelry stands are real jewelry shops, which have thrived here for more than 500 years.
Opposite the church, find the granite hunchback supporting steps leading to a column. Back when this prosperous neighborhood was Europe’s Wall Street, the column was its “Wall Street Journal”. A man climbed the stair each noon, stood atop the column, and read aloud the daily news from the doge: which ships had docked, which foreign ambassadors were in town, the price of pepper, and so on.
Walk along the left side of the church and turn left, to the canal’s edge. Look back at the large white building behind the church (the city’s fiscal administration building). Notice how it tilts out, probably because the bridge’s huge foundation is compressing the mud beneath it. Now, walk along the canal to a little canalside dead-end, that is as close as you can get to the Rialto Bridge. Take in the great view of the bridge. The former post-office (directly across) was originally the German merchants’ hall but it is about to be reincarnated as a shopping center.
You are standing under a former prison, study the orin grills over the windows – notice the interlocking pipes with alternating joints – you couldn’t cut just one and escape. From the prison, walk back along the canal, through the triple archway, cross the square, and enter another one named Casaria (for the historic cheese market). Today, this is Venice’ produce market. Colorful stalls offer fresh fruit and vegetables, some quite exotic. Nothing is grown on the island of Venice, so everything is shipped in daily from the mainland. The Mercato Rialto vaporetto stop is a convenient place for boats to unload their wares, here in the heart of fish-shaped Venice. #203-204, the shop called Macellaria Equina sells horse and donkey (asino) meat, if you are looking for extreme, but I, as a pescaterian, followed my nose to Mercato del Pesce (p. 59 on the map). This market is especially vibrant and colorful in the morning. The opening stalls have the catch of the day – Venice’s culinary specialty. Find eels, scallops, crustaceans with five-inch antennae, and squid destined for tonight’s risotto soaking in their own ink. This is the Venice that has existed for centuries: workers toss boxes of fish from delivery boats while shoppers step from the traghetto into the action. It is a good peek at workday Venice. In the courtyard between market buildings, locate a square white Istrian stone on the wall between two arches. It lists the minimum length permitted for a fish to be sold. Sardines must be 7 cm, mussels (peocio) – 3 cm. When you are ready, follow Ruga dei Spezieri (Spicers’ Road) back toward Rialto. Along the way, pop into Antica Drogheria Mascari at #380, which hides a vast enoteca holding 600 different Italian wines arranged by region, plus spices and lots of gifty edibles. At the end of Ruga dei Spezieri, you will see a sign for Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni, turn right along it.
Here is a very antique Chiesa di San Giovanni Elemosinario (San Giovanni Elemosinario, p.5 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures are allowed). Nestled into the dense area near the Rialto Market (with your back to the Bridge, turn left just past the flea market booths; the entrance will be through the frescoed arch behind iron gates on your left). Founded in 1071, this soaring Renaissance brick church, was re-built by Scarpagnino after a disastrous fire in 1514, which destroyed much of the Rialto area. Cross the darkened threshold to witness flashes of Renaissance genius: Titian’s tender “St. John the Almsgiver” and gloriously restored frescoes of frolicking angels by Pordenone.
This busy Ruga street is lined with shops that get progressively less touristy and more practical. As you walk, you’ll see fewer trinkets and more clothes, bread, shoes, watches, shampoo, etc. The Ruga changes name as you go, but just keep heading basically straight (when in doubt, which is a permanent condition in Venice, follow signs pointing to Ferrovia train station). Shortly, you come to Campo San Polo – one of the largest squares in Venice – it is shaped like an amphitheater, with its church tucked away in the corner. The square’s shape was determined by a curved canal at the base of the buildings. Today, the former canal is now a rio tera. A few rare trees grace the square, as do rare benches occupied by grateful locals. The Chiesa di San Polo (Church of San Polo, p.6 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures are allowed) is one of the oldest in Venice, and dates from the 9th century. Rebuilt in the 15th and revamped in the early 19th century in Neo-Classical style, this church is worth visiting for the lovely Gothic portal and the Romanesque lions at the foot of the 14th century campanile – one holds a serpent between its paws, the other – a human head. The wooden, boat-shaped ceiling recalls the earliest basilicas built after Rome’s fall. While the church is skippable for many, art enthusiasts shouldn’t miss it. Under the carena di nave ceiling, Tintoretto’s “Last Supper” shows apostles alarmed by Jesus’ announcement that one of them will betray him. But also, there are Gianbattista Tiepolo’s “Virgin Appearing to St. John of Nepomuk” and his son Domenico’s “Stations of the Cross”, and Veronese’s “Betrothal of the Virgin with Angels”.
From the Church of San Polo, continue about 200 m, cross the bridge onto Calle dei Nomboli, until you see Casa di Goldoni (Carlo Goldoni’s House, p. 72 on the map, Museum pass, photos allowed). Casa di Carlo Goldoni was built in the 15th century and has maintained all the features of Venetian Gothic architecture of that period. The particularly interesting aspects of the building are the three-part canal facade with its richly-decorated four-arched window, and the entrance giving onto Calle dei Nomboli, which leads into an atmospheric courtyard with an external two-flight staircase bound by a banister in small columns of Istrian stone.
Initially owned by the Rizzo family, the palazzo was rented to the Centanni family and became the centre of a very active artistic and literary Accademia in the 16th century. Towards the end of the 17th century, Carlo Alessandro Goldoni – the playwright’s paternal grandfather and a notary from Modena – took up residence here. Carlo Goldoni himself was born here in 1707 (25 February), and the building would remain the family home until 1719. Playwright Carlo Gondoli mastered second and third acts as well: he was a doctor’s apprentice before switching to law, which provided handy when an opera buffa (comic opera) didn’t sell. In 1914 Aldo Ravà, a noted scholar of 18th century Venice – together with Count Piero Foscari and Commendatore Antonio Pellegrini – bought the palazzo from its owner, Contessa Ida Manassero Camozzo, with the idea of using it to house a museum dedicated to the great playwright and to the history of Italian theatre. The project came to nothing because of the outbreak of war, and then in 1931 Ca’ Centanni was donated to the City Council to be restored and – with a slight variation on the original scheme – turned into a Goldoni museum and a study centre for matters relating to theatre. Again, war held up the work, which was only completed in 1953. The building houses a small museum of Goldoni memorabilia and artifacts relating to Venetian theatre, but focuses primarily on its role as a study centre, with constant additions to its library and archive.
Across from Casa di Goldoni, at #2800 is Tragicomica Mask shop, one of Venice’s best mask stores and a workshop that offers a glimpse into the process of mask-making. Venice’s masks have always been a central feature of the celebration of Carnevale – the local pre-Lent (the translation of the word means “goodbye to meat”, referring to the lean days of Lent). Many masks are patterned after standard characters of the theater style known as commedia dell’arte: the famous trickster Harlequin, the beautiful and cunning Columbina, the country bumpkin Pulcinella (who later evolved into the Punch of marionette shows), and the solemn, long-nosed doctor. My husband and I came to Venice to attend one of the Carnevale’s balls so Tragicomica became our masks and costume supplier, but we will talk about Carnevale later.
Continue along, cross the bridge and veer right till you bump in the back end of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. (Frari Church, p.7 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures are allowed. Rick Steves’ audio tour of the Frari, allow 60-90 mins). After the Basilica di San Marco, dei Frari is the most remarkable ecclesiastical complex in Venice, as well as one of the most important Franciscan foundations in Italy. For me, this church offers the best art-appreciation experience in Venice, because so much of its great masterpieces are in situ – right where they were designed to be seen, rather than hanging in the museum. Originally built between 1236 and 1338 by the Franciscan Conventual Friars, the structure was thoroughly re-modeled in the 14th century and given its present more grandiose form of central nave, two side aisles and seven apsidal chapels after Franciscan-Gothic designs. The Franciscan order was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi (c.1182-1226), who dedicated himself to a non-materialistic lifestyle. The spirit of St. Francis of Assisi warms both the church of his “brothers” (frari) and the art that decorates it. The Franciscan love of all of creation – Nature and Man – later inspired Renaissance painters to capture the beauty of the physical world and human emotions showing worshippers the glory of God in human terms. Over the centuries the basilica has become a veritable treasure-chest of exceptional works of art.
Enter the church and find the spot with a good view down the long nave toward the altar.
The simple, spacious (100 m long), well-lit Gothic church (p.1) – with rough wood crossbeams and a red-and-white color scheme – is truly a remarkable sight in a city otherwise crammed with exotic froufrou. Because Venice’s spongy ground could never support a real stone Gothic church (such as those you’d find in France), the Frari is made of light and flexible brick. Traditionally, churches in Venice were cross-shaped, but this T-shaped footprint featured a long, lofty nave – flooded with light and suited to large gatherings – where common people heard sermons. The wooden choir area in the center of the nave allowed friars to hold smaller, more intimate services. From the early 16th century, as worshippers entered the church and looked down the long nave to the altar, they were greeted by Titian’s glorious painted altarpiece – then, as now, framed by the arch of the choir entrance.
Walk prayerfully toward the Titian, stopping in the finely carved 1480s choir (p.10). Notice the fine inlay above the chairs, showing the Renaissance enthusiasm for Florentine-style depth and perspective. Approach Titian’s (Tiziano Vecellio) “The Assumption of the Virgin” (1516-1518) (p.2). Glowing red and gold like a stained-glass window, this altarpiece sets the tone of exuberant beauty found in this church. At the end of her life (though looking 17 here), Mary was miraculously “assumed” into heaven. As cherubs lift her to meet a Jupiter-like God, the stunned apostles on earth reach up to touch the floating bubble of light. Look around. The church is littered with chapels and tombs “made possible by the generous financial support” of rich people who donated to the Franciscans for the good of their souls (and usually for tomb-topping statues of themselves, as well). For the altar, they hired the new whiz artist, Titian, to create a dramatic painting. Unveiled in 1518, the work scandalized a Venice accustomed to simpler, more contemplative church art. The rich colors, twisting poses, and mix of saccharine angels with blue-collar apostles were unheard of. Most striking, this Virgin is fully human, not a stiff icon on a throne. The Franciscans thought this Mary aroused excitement rather than spirituality. They agreed to pay Titian only after the Holy Roman Emperor offered to buy the altar if they refused. In a burst of youthful innovation, Titian had rewritten the formula of church art, hinting at changes to come with the Mannerist and Baroque styles. He energized the scene with a complex composition, overlapping a circle (Mary’s bubble) and a triangle (draw a line from the apostle reaching up to Mary’s face and down the other side) on three horizontal levels (God in heaven, Man on earth, Mary in between). Together, these elements draw our eyes from the swirl of arms and legs to the painting’s focus – the radiant face of a triumphant Mary, “assumed body and soul into heaven”.
Flanking the painting are marble tombs lining the walls. On the wall to the right of the altar is the Tomb of Doge Foscari (15th century) (p.21). This heavy, ornate tomb marks the peak of Venice’s worldly power. Doge Francesco Foscari (1373-1457) assumed control of the city’s powerful seafaring empire and then tried to expand it onto the mainland, battling Milan in a 31-year war of attrition that swept through northern Italy. Meanwhile, on the unprotected easter front, the Ottomans took Constantinople and scuttled Venice’s trade. Venice’s long slide into historical oblivion had begun. Financially drained city fathers forced Foscari to resign, turn in his funny hat, and hand over the keys to the Palazzo Ducale.
In the first chapel to the right of the altar, you will find Donatello’s Statue of John the Baptist (1438) (p.6). In the center of the altarpiece, the cockeyed prophet of the desert – emaciated from his breakfast of bugs and honey and dressed in animal skins – freezes mid-rant when he spies something in the distance. His jaw goes slack, and he twists his face and raises his hand to announce the coming of…. the Renaissance. Florentine expatriates living in Venice commissioned Donatello to make this wooden statue, and it reflects their tastes. The Renaissance began in Florence in the 1400s, where Donatello (1386-1466) created realistic statues with a full range of human emotions. This warts-and-all John the Baptist is harshly earthy, with muted colors. By contrast, Venetian art is generally soft-focused and beautiful, with bright colors.
Enter the sacristy through the door at the far end of the right transept. You’ll bump into an elaborate altar crammed with reliquaries. Opposite that (near the entrance door) is a clock, intricately carved from a single piece of wood. At the far end of the room, you’ll find Giovanni Bellini’a “Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels” (1488) (p.8). The Pesaro family, who negotiated and acceptable price and place for their family tomb, funded this delightful chapel dominated by a Bellini masterpiece. Mary sits on a throne under a half-dome, propping up Baby Jesus (who’s just learning to stand), flanked by saints and serenaded by musician angels. Bellini (1430-1516), the father of the Venetian Renaissance, painted fake columns and a dome to match the real ones in the gold frame, making the painting seem to be an extension of the room. He completes the illusion with glimpses of open sky in the background. Next, he fills the artificial niches with symmetrically posed, thoughtful saints – left to right, find Saints Nicholas, Peter, Mark, and Benedict.
Bellini combined the meditative poses of the Venetian Byzantine tradition with Renaissance improvements in modern art. He made the transition from painting with medieval tempera (egg yolk-based) to painting in oil (pigments dissolved in vegetable oil). Oils allowed a subtler treatment of colors because artists could apply them in successive layers. And because darker colors aren’t so muddy when painted in oil, they “pop”, effectively giving the artist a brighter palette. Bellini virtually invented the formula (later to be broken by his precocious pupil, Titian) for Venetian altarpieces. This type of holy conversation between saints and Mary we already observed in Chiesa di San Zaccaria. Renaissance humanism demanded Madonnas and saints that were accessible and human. Bellini delivers, but places them in a physical setting so beautiful that it creates its own mood of serene holiness. The scene is lit from the left, but nothing casts a harsh shadow – Mary and the baby are enveloped in a glowing aura of reflecting light from the golden dome. The beauty is in the details, from the writing in the dome, to the red brocade backdrop, to the swirls in the marble steps, to the angels’ dimpled legs.
In the adjoining room, find a painting in the shape of a Gothic arch, it is Paolo Veneziano’s “Madonna and Child with Doge Francesco Dandolo” (c.1339) (p.9). Bellini’s Byzantine roots can be traced to Paolo Veneziano (literally “Paul the Venetian”), the first “name” artist in Venice, who helped to shape the distinctive painting style of his city. Veneziano paints Byzantine icons, then sets them in motion. Baby Jesus turns to greet a kneeling Doge Dandolo, while Mary turns to acknowledge the doge’s wife. None other than St. Francis presents Dandolo to the Madonna. Both he and St. Elizabeth (on the right) bend at the waist and gesture as naturally as 14th century icons can.
Return to the nave and head left, toward the far end. Turn around and face the altar. The Tomb of Titian (1852) (p.11) is in the second bay on your right. This enormous carved marble monument is labeled “Titiano Ferdinandus MDCCCLII.” The tomb celebrates both the man and his famous paintings (depicted in the background reliefs). Titian (1488-1576) sits center stage, with a beard and crown of laurels. Titian was the greatest Venetian painter, excelling equally in inspirational altarpiece, realistic portraits, joyous mythological scenes, and erotic female nudes. As a young man, he studied as a mosaic-maker and then a painter under Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione. Soon he established his own bold style, which featured teenage Madonnas, like the Frari altarpiece. He became wealthy and famous, traveling Europe to paint stately portraits of kings and nobles, and colorful, sexy works for their bedrooms. But he always returned to his beloved Venice (see winged lion on top)… and favorite Frari Church. In his old age, Titian painted dark, tragic masterpieces. His “Pieta” (see relief in upper left) was intended for his tomb but ended up in the Accademia. Nearing 90, he labored to finish the Pieta as the plague enveloped Venice. One in four people died, including Titian’s son. Heartbroken, Titian died soon afterward. The cause of his death was probably the plague, although his death was officially chalked up to influenza to keep his body from being burned – a requirement for plague victims. His tomb was built three centuries later to remember and honor this great Venetian.
On the opposite side of the nave is the pyramid-shaped Canova Monument (1827) (p.12). Antonio Canova (1757-1822, see his portrait above the door) was Venice’s greatest sculptor. He created gleaming white, highly polished statues of beautiful Greek gods and goddesses in the Neoclassical style. The pyramid shape is timeless, suggesting pharaohs’ tombs and the Christian Trinity. Mourners, bent over with grief, shuffle up to pay homage to the master artist. Even the winged lion is choked up. Follow me here. Canova himself designed this pyramid-shaped tomb, not for his own use, but as a tomb of an artist he greatly admire: Titian. But the Frari picked another design for Titian’s tomb, so Canova used the pyramid for an Austrian princess in Vienna. After his death, Canova’s pupils copied the design here to honor their master. In fact, Canova isn’t buried here – he lies in southern Italy. But inside the tomb’s open door, you can barely see an urn, which contains his heart, as if he would want it.
Head back toward the altar, halfway up the left wall is Titian’s “Madonna of Ca’ Pesaro” (1519-1526) (p.13). Titian’s second altarpiece for the Frari Church displays all his many skills. Following his teacher Bellini, he puts Mary (seated) and baby (standing) on a throne, surrounded by saints having a holy conversation. And, like Bellini, he paints fake columns that echo the church’s real ones. But wait. Mary is off-center, Titian’s idealized saints mingle with Venetians sporting five o-clock shadows, and the stairs run diagonally away from us. The precious keys of St. Peter seem to dangle unnoticed. These things upset traditional Renaissance symmetry, but they turn a group of figures into a true scene. St. Peter (center, in blue and gold, with book) looks down at Jacopo Pesaro, who kneels to thank the Virgin for his recent naval victory over the Ottomans (1502). A flag-carrying lieutenant drags in a turbaned captive. Meanwhile, St. Francis talks to Baby Jesus while gesturing down to more members of the Pesaro family. The little guy looking out at us (lower right) is the Pesaro descendant who administered the trust fund to keep prayers coming for his dead uncle. Titian combines opposites: a soft-focus Madonna and photo-realist portraits, chubby winged angels with a Muslim prisoner, and a Christian cross with a battle flag. In keeping with the spirit of St. Francis’ humanism, Titian lets mere mortals mingle with saints. And we are right there with them.
In the middle of the nave, Baldassere Longhena’s Doge Giovanni Peraso funereal monument (p.15) is hoisted by four burly black-marble figures bursting from ragged white clothes like Invisible Hulks.
Exit dei Frari and walk around it to a small campo, home to one of the artistic treasures of Venice – Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Chiesa di San Rocco (p. 124 on the map. €10 entry with audioguide, allow 60 min for the visit, pictures allowed). The building was the seat of a confraternity established in 1478, named after San Rocco, popularly regarded as a protector against plague. The members of the “Confraternity of St. Roch” were a group of wealthy Venetian citizens, who chose their site to be next to the church of San Rocco which houses the remains of the saint. It is the only brotherhood to have been spared by Napoleonic edicts and has continued its activities without interruptions up till modern times. It now counts about 350 capitular Brothers (women among them) who assemble in a General Council once a year.
In January 1515 the project of the building was entrusted to Bartolomeo Bon to whom we owe the ground floor. In 1524 his work was continued by Sante Lombardo, and after 1527 by Antonio Scarpagnino, who finished the upper part and harmonized the facade with double rows of pillars. Following his death in 1549, the finishing details were executed by Giangiacomo dei Grigi, completing the construction in September 1560.
The design was similar to other scuole in Venice, characterized by two halls, one at ground floor level, the other at first floor level. The Sala Terra (lower) has a nave and two aisles, with the entrance from the campo outside. From this hall a stair (with a landing surmounted by a dome) led to the upper floor. The Sala Superiore (“Upper Hall”) was used for meetings of the fellows and had a wooden altar. It provided access to the Sala dell’Albergo, which housed the Banca and the Zonta (the confraternity’s supervisory boards). The 50-plus painting in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – ofter called “Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel” – present one man’s very personal vision of Christian history. Tintoretto spent the last 20 years of his life working practically for free, driven by the spirit of charity that the Scuola, a Christian organization, promoted. For Tintoretto fans, this place is the ultimate experience. Even for the art-weary, his large, colorful canvases, framed in gold on the walls and ceilings of a grand upper hall, are an impressive sight.
The art of the Scuola is contained in three rooms – the Ground Floor Hall (where you enter) and two rooms upstairs, including the Great Upper Hall, with the biggest canvas. Enter the ground floor, which is lined with big colorful Tintoretto canvases and begin with the first canvas on the left.
“The Annunciation” (a) – an angel swoops through the doorway, dragging a trail of naked baby angels with him, to tell a startled Mary she’ll give birth to Jesus. This canvas has many of Tintoretto’s typical characteristics:
- The miraculous and the everyday mingle side by side. Glorious angels are in broken-down house with stacks of lumber and a fray chair.
- Bright light and dark shadows. A bright light strikes the brick column, highlighting Mary’s face and the angel’s shoulder, but casting dark shadows across the room.
- Strong 3-D sucks you into the scene. Tintoretto literally tears down Mary’s wall to let us in. The floor tiles recede sharply into the distance, making Mary’s room an extension of our real space.
- Colors that are bright, almost harsh, with metallic “black-velvet” sheen, especially when contrasted with the soft-focus haze of Bellini, Giorgione, Veronese and sometimes, Titian.
- Twisting, muscular poses. The angel turns one way, while Mary turns the other, and the baby angles turn every which way.
- Diagonal composition. Shadows run diagonally on the floor as Mary leans back diagonally.
- Rough brushwork. The sketchy pattern on Mary’s ceiling contrasts with the precise photo-realism of the brick column. And finally,
- The Annunciation exemplifies the general theme of the San Rocco paintings – God intervenes miraculously in our everyday lives in order to save us.
Further down on the left wall is “The Flight into Egypt” (c) – there is Mary, Joseph and the baby, but they’re dwarfed by palm trees. Tintoretto, in his old age, returned to composing a Venetian specialty – landscapes – after years as champion of the Michelangel-esque style of painting beefy, twisting nudes. The leafy greenery, the still water, the supernatural sunset, and the hut whose inhabitants go about their work tell us better than any human action that the holy family has found a safe haven.
Over your right shoulder, above the door is “The Circumcision” (another name “The Presentation in the Temple”) (g) – this painting, bringing the circumcision of the Baby Jesus into sharp focus, is the final canvas that Tintoretto did for the Scuola. He collaborated on this work with his son Domenico, who carried on the family business. In his long and prolific career, Tintoretto saw fame and many high-paying jobs. But at the Scuola, the commission became an obsession. It stands as one man’s very personal contribution to the poor, to the Christian faith, and to art.
Climb the stairs (taking time to admire the plague scenes that are not by Tintoretto) and enter the impressive Great Upper Hall. Wow! Before I go over the big canvases in this huge room, let’s start where Tintoretto did – in the Albergo Hall – the small room in the left corner of the Upper Hall. On the ceiling of the Albergo Hall is an oval painting of San Rocco, best viewed from the doorway.
“San Rocco in Glory” (1564) (A). Start at the feel of San Rocco, a French medical student in the 1300s who dedicated his short life to treating plague victims. The Scuola di San Rocco was a kind of Venetian “Elks Club” whose favorite charity was poor plague victims. This is the first of Tintoretto’s paintings here and it is also the one that got him the job, beating entries by Veronese and others. Tintoretto amazed the judges by showing the saint from beneath, as though he hovered above in a circle of glory. This Venetian taste for dramatic angels and illusion would later become standard in Baroque ceilings. Tintoretto trained by dangling wax models from the ceiling and lighting them from odd angles.
On the walls are scenes of Christ’s trial, torture, and execution. Work counterclockwise around the room. Start with the one to the right of the door, (as you face it). “Christ before Pilate” (T) – Jesus has been arrested and brought before the Roman authorities in a cavernous hall. Although he says nothing in his own defense, he stands head and shoulder above the crowd, literally “rising above” the slanders. Tintoretto shines a bright light on his white robe, making Christ radiate innocence. At Chris’s feet, an old, bearded man in white stools over the record the events on paper – it’s Tintoretto himself. “Christ Crowned with Thorns” (S) – Jesus beaten, whipped, then mocked by the soldiers, who dressed him as a king “crowned” with thorns. Seeing the bloodstains on the cloth must have touched the hearts of Scuola members, generating compassion for those who suffer. “Ascent to Calvary” (R) – silhouetted against a stormy sky, Jesus and two other prisoners trudge up a steep hill, carrying their own crosses to the execution site.
The cycle culminates on the opposite wall with “The Crucifixion” (V). The crucified Christ is the calm center of this huge chaotic scene that fills the wall. Workers struggle to hoist crosses, mourners swoon, riffraff gamble for Christ’s clothes, and soldiers mill about aimlessly. Scarcely anyone pays attention to the Son of God… except us, because Tintoretto directs our eye there. All the lines of sight point to Christ at the center: the ladder on the ground, the cross being raised, the cross still on the ground, the horses on the right, and the hillsides that slope in. In a trick of multiple perspectives, the cross being raised seems to suck us in toward the center, while the cross still on the ground seems to cause the figures to be sucked toward us. Above the chaos stands Christ, high above the horizon, higher than everyone, glowing against the dark sky. Tintoretto lets us appreciate the quiet irony lost on the frenetic participants – that this minor criminal suffering such apparent gradation is, in fact, triumphant.
Displayed on an easel to the left of and beneath “The Crucifixion” is a small fragment of three apples. This fragment, from the frieze around the upper reaches of the Albergo Hall, was discovered folded under the frieze in 1905. because it was never exposed to light, it still retains Tintoretto’s original bright colors. All of his paintings are darker today, despite cleaning, due to the irreversible chemical alteration of the pigments.
Now step back out into the Great Upper Hall. 34 enormous oil canvases, set into gold frames on the ceiling and along the walls of this impressive room, tell biblical history from Adam and Eve to the Ascension of Christ. Tintoretto’s story-telling style is straightforward, and anyone with knowledge of the Bible can quickly get the gist. Tintoretto’s success in the Albergo Hall won him the job of the enormous Upper Hall.
The ceiling displays Old Testament scenes; the walls show events from the new Testament. Beyond that, the layout is not chronological but symbolic, linked by common themes. Tintoretto shows how God leads mankind to salvation. Evil enters the world with the Original Sin of “Adam and Eve” (3). From there, man must go through many trials, as the ceiling shows – the struggles of Moses and the Israelites, Jonah, and Abraham. But God is always there to help. In the 3 largest paintings on the ceiling, God saves man from thirst (“Moses Strikes Water from the Rock” – 8), illness (“The Miracle of the Bronze Serpent” – 16), and hunger (“The Fall of Manna in the Desert” – 22). Christ’s story (along the walls) parallels the struggles of men (on the ceiling). But while the first humans succumb to Satan’s temptation, Christ does not (“Christ Tempted by Satan” – 7). And ultimately – at the altar – mankind is saved by Christ’s sacrifice (“The Passover” – 29 and “The Last Supper” – 32). The art captures the charitable spirit of the school – just as God has helped those who suffer, so should we.
Let’s look at a few pieces in depth. Start with the largest painting in the center of the ceiling. View it from the top (the Albergo end) “The Miracle of the Bronze Serpent” (16). The tangle of half-naked bodies (at the bottom of the painting) represents the children of Israel, wrestling with poisonous snakes and writhing in pain. At the top of the pile, a young woman gestures toward Moses (in pink), who points to a pole carrying a bronze serpent sent by God. Those who looked at the statue were miraculously healed. His work all done, God (above in the clouds) high-fives an angel. This was the first of the Great Hall paintings Tintoretto painted in response to a terrible plague that hit Venice in 1576. 400 people a day were buried. Like today’s Red Cross, the Scuola sprang into action, raising funds, sending doctors, and giving beds to the sick – and aid to their families. Tintoretto saw the dead and dying firsthand. While capturing their sufferings, he gave a ray of hope that help was on the way: turn to the cross, and be saved by your faith. There are dozens of figures in the painting, shown from every conceivable angle. Tintoretto was well aware of where it would hang and how it would be viewed. Walk around beneath it and see the different sides come alive. The painting becomes a movie, and the children of Israel writhe like snakes.
The rectangular panel at the Albergo end of the hall is “Moses Strikes Water from the Rocks” (4). Moses (in pink, in the center) hits rock in the desert with his staff, and it miraculously spouts water, which the thirsty Israelites catch in jars. The water spurts like a ray of light. Moses is a strong, calm center to a spinning wheel of activity. Tintoretto worked fast, and, if nothing else, his art is exuberant. He trained in fresco painting, which must be finished before the plaster dries. With these paintings, he sketched an outline right onto the canvas, then improvised details as he went. The sheer magnitude of the San Rocco project is staggering. This canvas alone is 28m2 – like painting a bathroom with an artist’s tiny brush. The whole project, counting the Albergo Hall, Great Upper Hall, and the Ground Hall together, totals some 790m2 – more than enough to cover a typical house, inside and out (The Sistine Chapel ceiling, by comparison, is 530m2)
“The Fall of Manna in the Desert” (22) – it is knowing bread, as God feeds the hungry Israelites with a miraculous storm. They stretch a blanket to catch it and gather it up in baskets. Up in the center of the dark cloud is a radiant, almost transparent God, painted with sketchy brushstrokes to suggest he is an unseen presence. Tintoretto tells there Bible stories with a literalness that was very popular with the poor, uneducated sick who sought help from the Scuola. He knew how to bring imagination to life, to make the miraculous tangible.
You could grow old studying all the art here, so here are a few more of the New Testament paintings on the walls. “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (6) – Christ’s glorious life begins in a straw-filled stable with cows, chickens, and peasants who pass plates of food up to the new parents. It’s night, with just a few details lit by phosphorescent moonlight: the kneeling shepherd’s forehead and leggings, the serving girl’s shoulders, the faces of Mary and Joseph… and little Baby Jesus, a smudge of light. Notice the different points of view. Tintoretto clearly has placed us on the lower floor, about eye level with the cow, looking up through the roof beam at the night sky. But we also see Mary and Joseph in the loft above as though they were at eye level. By using multiple perspectives (and ignoring the laws of physics), Tintoretto could portray every detail at its perfect angle.
In the middle of the long wall, on the same side is “The Resurrection” (19) – Angels lift the sepulcher lid, and Jesus springs from in a blaze of light. The contrast between dark and light is extreme, with great dramatic effect.
Head for “The Last Supper” (32), and on the way there, look on the wall for a wood carving of Tintoretto (3rd statue from altar, directly opposite entry staircase, where the artist holds the tools of his trade. His craggy, wrinkled face peers out from under a black cap and behind a scraggy beard). A dog, a beggar and a serving girl dominate the foreground of Christ’s final Passover meal with his followers. More servants work in the background. The disciples themselves are dining in the dark, some with their backs to us, with only a few stray highlights to show us what’s going on.Tintoretto emphasizes the human, everyday element of that gathering, in contrast to, say, da Vinci’s more stately version. And he sets the scene at a diagonal for dramatic effect. The table stretches across a tiled floor, a commonly used device to create 3-D space. But Tintoretto makes the more distant tiles unnaturally small to exaggerate the distance. Similarly, the table and the people get proportionally smaller and lower until, at the far end of the table, tiny Jesus (with glowing head) is only half the size of the disciple at the near end. Theatrically, Tintoretto leaves it to us to piece together the familiar narrative. The disciples are asking each other: “Is it I who will betray the Lord?” Jesus meanwhile, unconcerned, hands out Communion Bread.
Browse the Great Upper Hall and notice the various easel paintings by other artists. Contrast Titian’s placid, evenly lit, aristocratic “Annunciation” by the altar with the blue-collar Tintoretto version downstairs. Once, you’ve had enough, head out of the building to visit the Chiesa di San Rocco (free entry, pictures allowed). Originally built by Bartolomeo Bon in 1489-1508, this church got a facelift in 1765-1771 with a grand portal flanked by Giovanni Marchiori statues. Bon’s rose windows were moved to the side of the church, near Bon’s original side door.
Inside the church’s Sala dell’Albergo are a couple of comparatively quiet Tintorettos, including “San Rocco Healing the Animals” and the bones of San Rocco.
From Campo San Rocco head straight north until you reach a relatively large square housing a Chiesa di San Giacomo dell’Orio (p.8 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures allowed). This church is a focal point of a quiet Santa Croce. The name “dell’Orio” may derive from a laurel tree (alloro) that once stood near the church (however, the church’s brochure indicates the the current name “Orio” derives from the name of the place “Luprio”, meaning “marshlands”). La Serenissima seems serene as ever inside the cool gloom of this Romanesque church, founded in the 9th-10th centuries. The 1225 re-building work incorporated within the structure Byzantine pieces that had been brought back from the Levant after the Fourth Crusade.
Notable 14th to 18th century artworks include luminous sacristy paintings by Palma Il Giovane, a rare Lorenzo Lotto “Madonna with Child and Saints”, and an exceptional Veronese crucifix. Don’t miss Gaetano Zompini macabre “Miracle of the Virgin”, which shows a rabble-rouser rudely interrupting the Virgin’s funeral procession, only to have his hands miraculously fall off when he touches her coffin. Architectural quirks include decorative pillars, a 14th century carena di nave (ship’s keel) ceiling and a Lombard pulpit perched atop a 6th century Byzantine green-marble column.
A short walk to the north of San Giacomo dell’Orio is the Museo di Storia Naturali di Venezia (Natural History Museum of Venice, p.81 on the map, Museum pass, photos allowed). Situated on the Grand Canal, this institution hosts numerous collections and a notable library. The museum’s staff also conducts monitoring and research into the lagoon of Venice and its fauna. If you are in Venice for a very short term, feel free to skip this Museum as perhaps, your hometown would have a similar one. However, I was interested not only in the collections but in the building itself – the Fondaco dei Turchi (former Turkish trade-house). The palace was constructed in the Venetian Byzantine style in the first half of the 13th century by Giacomo Palmier, for the Pesaro family. The Venetian Republic purchased it in 1381 for Niccolò II d’Este, the Marquess of Ferrara and later the palazzo served as a residency to many visiting dignitaries. From the early 17th century through to 1838, the fondaco served as a one-building-ghetto for Venice’s Ottoman Turkish population and represented a combination of home, warehouse, and market for the Turkish traders. A number of restrictions were placed on the fondaco and its residents, including certain times one was able to enter and leave the ghetto, as well as on trading (wax, crude oil and wool). After the Venetian Republic was abolished by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, the Turkish traders continued to live in the palazzo until 1838. The building was in a very bad state by the mid-19th century, and was completely restored and rebuilt between 1860 and 1880. Thereafter it housed the Museo Correr and later, from 1923, the Natural History Museum. Over time, the materials added up, through acquisitions and donations, to make up the present rich, varied and fragile collection that spans 700 million years, with 2 million finds, zoological, entomological and botanical collections, fossils and anatomic preparations, as well as ethnographic collections.
Never ming the doge: insatiable curiosity rules Venice, and inside the Museum it runs wild. The adventure begins upstairs with dinosaurs, then dashes through evolution to Venice’s great age of exploration, when adventurers like Marco Polo fetched peculiar specimens from distant lands. Around every turn, scientific marvels await discovery in luminous new exhibits. The obvious stars of the museum are the spotlit dinosaurs, including a terrifying Ouranosaurus nigeriensis from Sahara and a psittacosaurus mongoliensis, a 120-million-year-old baby dinosaur skeleton from the Goby Desert.
The curators and designers of the museum’s stunning new exhibit steal the show, leading visitors through evolution with a trail of dinosaur footprints and into galleries that follow the tracks of Venetian explorers. In hot pursuit of ancient legends from mummies to headhunters, macabre colonial trophies like elephant’s feet, and circus-sideshow curiosities including a two-headed goat, Venetian explorers like Giuseppe Reali and Giancarlo Ligabue stumbled across wondrous scientific specimens. As you might expect from this lagoon city, the marine-biology exhibits are especially breathtaking. The most startling ceiling in Venice isn’t a salon Tiepolo fresco but the Museo’s 19th century “cabinet of curiosities” covered with shark jaws, poisonous blowfish and other outrageous sea creatures. Corals and starfish fill glass columns in the glowing tidepool chamber, leading into a marine-blue room with deep-sea specimens encased in glass bubbles. This undersea journey is accompanied by a spooky soundtrack that brings to mind whale-song recordings.
The museum’s grand finale downstairs is comparatively anti-climatic: a fish tank of Venetian coastal specimens bubbling for attention. Still, don’t miss a close-up glimpse of the enormous dugout canoe at the water door – an unexpected sight for vaporetto riders along the Grand Canal.
Palazzo Mocenigo (p.102 on the map, Museum Pass, allow 45-60 min, pictures allowed) belonged to the Mocenigo family, one of the most important Venetian aristocratic clan. No less than 7 family members became doges and a considerable number of others became procurators, ambassadors, captains, priests and scholars. The main branch of the family lived in the huge palazzi in San Samuele, near San Marco. However, the descendants of Nicolo, brother to Doge Alvise I, moved to this palace of Gothic origin at the beginning of the 17th century. It then underwent significant restructuring and expansion, transforming it into the building we can still admire today. The external facades looking on to the street and San Stae canal are characterized by their large Serlian windows, a common feature in Venetian architecture during the 17th and 18th centuries: these are three-light windows with a central opening and a semi-circular arch above and two lower windows at the sides with entablature that also make it possible to alternate the piano nobile with mezzanines. The street facade, today the entrance to the palazzo, highlights its extension on the left side, which was the result of the acquisition of adjacent buildings. With a large central hall (portego) that was used for official functions and goes right through the building, flanked by the other rooms, its interior is typical of all Venetian patrician homes.
Until recently the Mocenigo family still lived in the palazzo and on the first piano nobile one can see Rococo or Neo-Classic style frescoes and furnishing that mostly go back to the 2nd half of the 18th century. Of particular note are also the root wood doors and engraved, gilded cornices. Many of the rooms are decorated with paintings celebrating the family glories, the climax of which was when Alvise IV was doge (1763-1778). Of considerable interest are the ceiling frescoes, completed in 1787 for the marriage of the doge’s nephew to Laura Corner. The family’s last descendent, in 1945 Alvise Nicolo bequeathed the palazzo to the city on the condition it became an “Art gallery to complete the Correr Museum”; 30 years later, following his wife’s death, it was then left to the city. Opened to the public in 1985, it became the Study Center of the History of Fabrics and Costumes, housing the vast collection of ancient fabrics and clothes.
Completely renovated and expanded at the end of 2013, the itinerary winds its way through 20 rooms on the first piano nobile. As a whole, the rooms skillfully evoke the different aspects of the life and activities of a Venetian nobleman between the 17th and 18th centuries, and on display are mannequins wearing valuable ancient garments and accessories. Made of patterned fabric embellished with embroidery and lace, they are testimony to the astounding expertise of scores of craftsmen and the refined, luxurious elegance for which the Venice was famous. A new section dedicated to a particular aspect of the history of Venetian tradition was added: perfume, which up until now, has not been studied in depth.
Portego. Flanked by the other rooms, this large central hall is typical of the structure of Venetian palazzi and was used for celebrations and official occasions. The paintings on display here are either nearly all portraits of the Mocenigo family or depict events in which they were involved. Four of the large portraits on the walls (1, 2, 4, 5) are of the sovereigns under whom the Mocenigo family were ambassadors, while two of the seven doges are located above the door (6, 7) and others (18, 28, 38, 40, 41) in the long frieze below the ceiling – inspired by the one in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale. The walls were decorated with architectural motifs by Agostino Mendozzi Colonna in 1787.
Proceed to the room on your right, looking at the main entrance, with its marble double door – Room 1. The paintings in this room all belong to the palazzo and are of famous members of this family. The two that are set in Rome are reference to Pietro Mocenigo (1632-1678) who was first ambassador in London and then in Rome; the pastels portray of Doge Alvise IV, his headstrong wife and a brother.
Room 2. The 18th century carved, lacquered furniture belonging to the palace is on display with contemporary blown glass from Murano and the paintings on the walls are from the Correr Museum collections. The ceiling fresco goes back to the period of the extensive decorations carried out in the palazzo on the occasion of the wedding, as do all the frescoes in the other rooms. Here we can see the allegorical figures of Fame, Glory, and Hymen, god of marriages.
Room 3. On the table, decorated with a handmade lace is tablecloth from Burano, and on the consoles is 18th century Murano glass blown and worked by hand, while the Venetian made bottles and glasses are in “Bohemian” style, i.e. blown, cut and decorated in gold. The furniture belongs to the palazzo and is all from the 18th century, except for the screen which is dated later; the paintings on the walls come from the Correr Museum and Ca’ Rezzonico collection. The allegorical fresco on the ceiling alludes to military value, guarantor of peace, prosperity and good government.
Room 4. The carved, lacquered and gilded 19th century furniture belongs to the palazzo; the glass pieces decorating it – from the Murano Museum – go back to the 18th century with the exception of the multicolored filigree candleholder on the table, which is dated later. Of the paintings, the “Virgin” by the Bellini school belongs to the palazzo’s collection, as do the chandelier and multi-colored wall lights in the shape of bouquets of flowers (“a cioca”) from the 18th century. The Mocenigo coat-of-arms stands out on the Venetian stucco floor, while once again the ceiling fresco alludes to marriage, with Hymen coming down from heaven, the bride with the pierced heart, Cupid, Poetry and the fertility of Spring.
Room 5. The paintings in this room depict was scenes or Mocenigo family events. The naval battle (5) is for instance, a fight near the island of Sapienza in Greece between pirates and Venetians led by Zaccaria Mocenigo (1634-1665), who preferred to set fire to his ship and die than fall into enemy hands; the Contarini figure portrayed in the large painting (4) in the carved, gilded frame is Dove Alvise IV’s son’s father-in-law. The ceiling fresco is surrounded by extensive perspective tromp l’oeil and depicts pairs of allegorical figures that are the apotheosis of the family: the winged Knowledge inspiring its behavior, followed by political and religious Power, Justice with the scales, Peace with an olive branch, Fortitude and warrior Virtue. Of particular value is the chandelier – original part of this room’s furnishing- is blown glass and hand-worked into bouquets of flowers, attributed to the most important Venetian glassmaker in the 18th century – Giuseppe Briati (1686-1722)
Room 7. Paintings here again depict the stories of the family. Particularly striking is the large table that has been laid and is covered with valuable ancient 13-14th century fabrics. Of different kinds, there items have silver and gold thread, as can be seen in the extremely rare piece of allucciolato brocade (the 7th on the table when coming from room 6) reflecting the light and producing a sparkling effect. From the same period are the glass objects (chalices, fruit stands, plates), all of which are slightly fume, mould blown and worked freely by hand. They are from Murano as are some of the other pieces on display here that go back to the 18th century; the candleholders and mirror with frame (soaza) decorated with glass plated, enamel amorinos and racemes.
Room 8. All the portraits on display here are of Venetian patricians, some of which belong to the palazzo – as does the furniture. Others come from the Correr collection, such as the two original paintings on fabric dedicated to Doges of another important Venetian family, the Morosini, that not only produced four doges, but also bishops. The Morosini women were also of considerable interest: Tomasina (1250-1300), Queen of Hungary, Costanza’s aunt, Queen of Serbia and sister of Albertino, who therefore became viceroy of Illyria. In Mocenigo family, before becoming doge in 1414, Tommaso carried out delicate diplomatic peace missions including the one depicted here, with Sigismund, King of Hungary. The 17th century glass on the consoles is from Murano. Men’s clothes, the most of the garments in this room, abandoning the severe models of the 16th and 17th centuries of military inspiration, assumed looser and more refined forms, adopting many of the features present in female fashion, such as copious lacework and embroidery. The gown was the official form of dress for patricians. Made of black fabric with large sleeves, for the Savi, Adogadori and heads of the Quarantia, it had red lining while for the ducal Senators and Advisors it was completely red. All members of the nobility had to wear the gown when carrying out their institutional functions, or sitting in the Councils or staying in the entire area of Piazza San Marco.
Room 9. The paintings in this room, of which only some belong to the palazzo, evoke marine settings whilst continuing the series of famous portraits. On the left of the 19th century portrait of one of the Mocenigo’s doges, there is a meditative portrait of Gregorio XII, pope at the beginning of the 15h century, coming from the noble Venetian Correr family and one of the few to abdicate as pope. On the right is a portrait of the noble scholar Marcantonio Michiel. On the table are 16th century cisele soparizzo velvets and contemporary glass pieces, mould blown or worked freely by hand. The 18th century pieces of furniture belong to palazzo.
Room 10. The paintings by Antonio Stom on display here belong to the series of the “Splendors of the Mocenigo Family”. They refer to the visit of Princess Violante Beatrice of Bavaria (1673-1731), wife of Ferdinando de Medici, heir to the Tuscan throne, in the territory of the Republic of Venice, being received by a member of the Mocenigo family. The charcoal on the bureau depicts Costanza, wife of the last Mocenigo, who lived in the palazzo before turning it into a museum. The 20th century photos depict members of the Aosta branch of the Savoia family. On the table at the back of the room are 8 valuable ancient fabrics, of composite production (cisele and embossed – for example the 3rd from the right), and glass from different periods: the filigree plate and the 3 fume buckets go back to the 16th century, the fruit stands and candleholders – to the 18th, the chalcedony chalice – to the 19th and the goblet – to the 20th. The furniture is from the 18th-19th centuries and only some pieces belong to the palazzo.
Room 11. The room is dedicated to this classical garment with more than 50 samples on display. Knee long, completely buttoned up in the front and made of a valuable fabric, the waistcoat became common at the end of the 17th century. It was worn under the jacket; the front was usually made of silk and the back of linen or cotton. In that period it still had sleeves and was mainly meant as protection against the cold. It later changed form: in the 18th century, the period the models on display here were made, it was shortened and reached just below the waist, ending with two “tails”. At the end of the century it no longer had sleeves, but sometimes had a collar instead. Its decorative function was emphasized thanks to the embroiderers’ skill, as they were able to make each garment into a masterpiece, with perfect, realistic weaving.
Room 12. The Mocenigo legacy also included a complex of noble archives of outstanding importance. Carefully preserved on one of the palazzo mezzanines, it included the collections from different important families, covering a period from the 11th to the 20th centuries and which arrived in the Mocenigo collection as a result of marriages or bequests, although most of it has clearly separate inventories and ancient indices. This is a collection of outstanding historical and documentary importance that has not yet been studied in depth. Offering a selection of 205 archive bundles, rearranged at the beginning of the 20th century by the last owner, the room wants to evoke this importance.
Room 13. Decorated with paintings from the Correr Museum and Ca’ Rezonnico collections, this room is the beginning of the museum section that is devoted to a particular aspect of the history of Venetian costumes – perfume. This is also the beginning of a sort of “change of pace” in the exhibition: while still perfectly integrated with the evocative settings we have seen so far, there are now multimedia instruments in each room.
Room 14. Although not a perfect reconstruction, this room resembles what was an almost alchemical laboratory of the perfume maker or muschiere, who from the 16th century on in Venice was the keeper of the techniques and recipes to make soap, oils, pastes, powders, and liquids to perfume things, people, clothes, gloves and rooms. Expensive and much sought-after, perfume required raw materials that were often very rare and exotic, coming either from the plant, such as the benjamin tree, cinnamon, or from the animal, such as the zibet or grey amber. This room has an interactive wall panel with a scented map that demonstrates the fascinating, impenetrable routes that Venetians had to cover to obtain these raw materials. Original 19th-20th century instruments or reconstructions, such as the loom to extract essential oils from flowers or the chest full of white cold paste Venetian soap, filtered using an ancient process, give us a glimpse of the partially magical and partially industrial atmosphere of this great tradition. Of particular note is Pietro Andrea Mattiolo’s 16th century herbarium that illustrates, amongst other things, the technique of distillation.
Room 15. This room is also dedicated to raw materials and production techniques. The books on display, one of which (4) can be used virtually in the interactive totem next to the bookcase, were printed for the first time in Venice in the middle of the 16th century, revealing the “secrets” of an art of perfume – that also comprises cosmetics, medicine, science and magic. Some of the “real” raw materials are on display here, such as musk from animal glands or valuable grey amber – the intestinal secretion of the sperm whale – and, on the table, many of those mentioned in the ancient recipes exhibited here. Room 16. Founders of the Drom Fragrances in Munich, Bavaria in 1911, with great skill and passion the Storp family collected a rare and extremely important compilation of perfume phials and containers with a total of more than 3,000 pieces and spanning 6,000 years of history. Room 17. The “Fragrance families” are a sort of classification of perfumes on the basis of the elements they are made up of. On the large table are 24 containers with the same number of essences, forming six of the main families, all of which have fascinating names: citrus, floral, oriental…. Visitors may experiment with fragrances or study this intoxicating but rigorously scientific world in more depth.
Rooms 18 & 19. The paintings in room 18 are both intimate and private: of particular note is the rare “Perfume maker’s Organ”, an extraordinary instrument used to invent perfumes using the more than two hundred essential oil in the phials arranged in the shape of an amphitheater. In the small room 19 we can see two paintings with religious motifs that belong to the palazzo, as well as the 18th century furnishings.
A gift-shop on the ground floor is a great place to purchase some of the perfumes exhibited in the museum, so you have a small souvenir (and a smell) to take with you.
Another great place to explore in the area is the Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna e Museum d’Arte Orientale, housed in Ca’ Pesaro along the Grand Canal (International Gallery of Modern Art and Oriental Art Museum, p.70, Museum pass, pictures allowed). The palace was built in the second half of the 17th century for the noble and wealthy Pesaro family, a project by the Venetian architect, Baldassarre Longhena, who also designed the church of the Salute and Ca’ Rezzonico. On Longhena’s death in 1682, the palace was still unfinished, so the Pesaro family entrusted its completion to Gian Antonio Gaspari who concluded it in 1710, in compliance with the original project. The palace still conserves some of the fresco and oil decorations of the ceilings, the work of artists such as Bambini, Pittoni, Crosato, Trevisani and Brusaferro. But the collections of the Pesaro family, as documented in the archives, must have been even more remarkable, including works by artists such as Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, as well as the most famous Venetian artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This great heritage had been completely dispersed by 1830, the year of the death of the last Pesaro family member, who auctioned most of the collection in London (sadly, many palaces in Venice met similar fate). The palace was passed on firstly to the Gradenigo family and then to the Armenian Mechitarist Fathers, who used it as a college. It was finally bought by the Bevilacqua family, and became the property of Duchess Felicita Bevilacqua La Masa, who bequeathing it to the city in 1898, as a museum of Modern Art.
The first floor of Ca’ Pesaro contains important 19th- and 20th-century collections of paintings and sculptures, including masterpieces by Klimt, Chagall, Kandinsky, Klee and Moore, as well as a rich selection of works by Italian artists and an important section on graphic art. The second floor is home to temporary exhibitions and the third floor hosts the Museum of Oriental Art. Let me take you step by step.
1. Dialogues. Three fundamental exponents of not only the collection but also 20th century European sculpture, offer an impressive opening to the tour: August Rodin (1840-1917), the greatest French sculptor of his times, Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) and Adolfo Wildt (1868-1931). The monument to the Burghers refers to an event in the 14th century when six inhabitants of a besieged Calais offered the enemy their lives to save the city. Commissioned by the city council, the work met with resounding success although Rodin’s wishes were not actually respected: he had wanted it to be placed on the town hall steps without a pedestal so it would have encouraged a sort of immediate dialogue between the ancient burgher heroes and the current world. Medardo’s “The Concierge and the Child in the Soup Kitchen” belong to what was still a profound realist phase, in which the interplay of lights is given an emotive role, while the “Woman with a Veil” is the impression of an instant, a fleeting meeting on the street. The evocations that result from the combination of the sculptures in the room are around Rodin. According to reports, Rodin and Medardo both admired and respected one another and they even exchanged their works but this came to an abrupt end in 1898 when critics observed that Medardo might have influenced Rodin’s innovative style in his monument to Balzac. On the other hand, Wildt seems to have followed Rodin’s lessons in his experimentation of the infinite expressive possibilities that every part of the human body offered.
2. From the Macchiaioli to scientific Luminism. The latest French trends, from anti-academic Realism to the more recent examples of landscape following the Barbizon school were presented in Paris in 1855 at the Universal Exhibition. Various Italian artists visited it with great interest: in Italy art was experiencing the path of the “real” and the Academy was losing its role as guide; furthermore, painters of different origins were united in trying their hands at painting outdoors – elaborated by real facts and worked through in an innovative fashion – whilst also having an opportunity to meet on the battle fields of the Risorgimento, sharing the same patriotic ideals (and dying in great numbers too). It was in this context, between 1850 and 1860 that the Macchiaioli movement developed in Florence; its aim was to portray reality as seen by the human eye, in other words, through light and splashes of color. This led to the study of new values in painting that were founded on the relationship between colors and volumes expressed in synthetic contrasts of light and shadow. It was an innovative movement, and one that – owing to the clear differences in its studies, range and results – preceded but didn’t anticipated Impressionism (which was officially founded in Paris in 1874). The Tuscans Telemaco Signorini and Giovanni Fattori are outstanding exponents of the Macchiaioli movement, to which in many ways the Venetian Guglielmo Ciardi also belonged. Of Signorini’s two works on display here, the rigorous interior of the Florentine lunatic asylum surpasses the Macchiaioli instances, representing one of the greatest achievements of Italian painting of reality. Fattori’s canvas is almost like a snap shot of a military subject that has been treated with concise realism, without any rhetoric but with heartfelt participation.
3. From Realism to the Belle Epoque. Between 19th and 20th centuries, the most important European countries and the United States witnessed that proved to be staggering industrial development, accompanied by continuous fundamental technological progress, urban revolutions and great expansionist and colonial designs. Maker and protagonist of this new world, the bourgeoisie also expressed a demand for self-representation, thus encouraging the birth of new painting genres. Numerous universal exhibitions offered an opportunity for international exchange; in addition, it was in this context that art merchants began to play a new, decisive role – from Paul Durand Rouel to Goupil with his branches in many European capitals and in New York – in mediating and meeting their clients’ tastes and determining and promoting the success of artists. Amongst theses were the “Italians in Paris”: Giuseppe di Nittis and Federico Zandomenaghi – whose works on display here focus on female figures – interpreting the social circles with the greatest skill, and achieving both fame and success in the French capital. Noteworthy are also the painting by the Spaniard Zuolaga, purchased at the 1903 Biennale, with its great expressivity and elegance, and the family group that Giacomi Fevretto painted when he was barely 24 years old, skillfully paying great attention to detail, interplay of light and eyes. On the other hand, social themes were still receiving attention and being met with appreciation, with portrayals of scenes of a laborer’s or farmer’s life, filtered through the lesson of Impressionism but understood and reworked differently. For ex, the light in the splendid canvas by the Spaniard Sorolla is completely Mediterranean; it was displayed at the 1905 Biennale where the city of Venice made a considerable investment to purchase it, together with the “Peasant Girl” by the Dutch artist Toorp. Another example is Liebermann’s claim and delicate portrayal of the lacemakers.
4. Expressions of symbolism and secession. Positivist faith in industrial and technological progress was no absolute dogma. On the contrary, at the end of the 19th century in Europe intellectuals, artists and men of letters of different social standing all distanced themselves from these values; they were expressing the need to go “beyond” the rational-scientific fact of visual perception and to pay more attention to spiritual contents, the world of ideas and unfathomable nature of the abysses of the mind, the different possible network of sensations and their portrayal using evocation and symbolic synthesis. The roots of this symbolist aesthetics lie in Baudelaire’s poetry (his “Fleurs du Mal” published in 1857 was to be a source of inspiration for many painters in the following generation) whilst its theoretic support is to be found in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaad, Nietzsche as well as scholars much as Mallarme. It spread throughout Europe in greatly different forms that all shared that refusal of themes linked to topicality – preferring references to poetry, mythology and psychological studies – and the tendency to favor a sort of integration between the arts, taking Wagner’s total work of art as an example. It is precisely this idea of “total work of art”, in which elements of symbolism, painting, sculpture, architecture and decoration all come together, that was also the source of inspiration for artists in Central Europe who were fed up with academic authority and the official organization of the art system and thus detached themselves during the 1890s, creating alternative movements, the so-called “secessions.” The first (1892), established in Munich by Franz von Stuck, was followed in 1897 by the most famous one in Vienna under Gustav Klimt; the following year saw Berlin as protagonist, including artists such as Max Klinger and Edvard Munch. Many of their works are on display in this room (purchased by the city of Venice on the Biennale from 1899-1912). Von Stuck’s “Medusa” is characterized by dark tones, and a dense and allusive atmosphere while the continuous and sinuous line of Klinger’s “Bather” anticipates one of the dominant characteristics of Art Nouveau. With its strong emphasis on color, agonizing tension of the hands and restless sensuality, Klimt’s “Judith II” anticipates expressionist themes. The influence of Secessionism is also evident in Wildt’s marble and gold group of sculptures. On the ceiling: Cinolo Bambini (1651-1739) “The Glory of the Pesaro Family” (in the middle) and “Prudence and Fortitude” (at the sides).
5. Man and his thoughts. Auguste Rodin and Adolfo Wildt. Rodin’s thinker, Wildt’s silent man or faceless speakers and the essential spirituality of Chagall’s rabbi: these are all artists’ insights into the most profound identity of the human being, with his eternal questioning of material and spirit, life and death. The most famous exhibit here is probably Rodin’s in the plaster version that was presented at the 1907 Biennale. The initial idea of the “Thinker” goes back to 1880 when the artist was commissioned with a monumental gate for the Musee des Arts Decoratif (that was never completed). Inspired by the “Devine Comedy”, with no less that 186 different figures this “Gate of Hell” was meant to rise to the symbolic portrayal of human passion. Around 70 cm high, at the tip of the “Thinker” was Dante. Enlarged and exhibited as an individual sculpture in London and Paris in 1904, the work became a modern thinker, a naked man reflecting on his fate: it met with such success that the artist was asked to create a bronze version (now at the Paris Museum of Rodin). The works on display here by Adolfo Wildt include a selection from the important nucleus of 43 works that the Woldt-Scheiwiller heirs donated to the museum in 1990 and which reveal his unceasing formal studies and the dense web of different cultural references. In his abstract nude of “Silent Man” and the Phidian body resting on a Christian shield in “The Crusaders”, the alliance between classicism and symbolism is extremely close whilst the work “The Speakers” is remarkable: originally the two figures had their backs to one another and were looking backwards while speaking, but were later modified by Wildt so that only one of the figures remained, removing its head, foot and arm, and thus emphasizing the tension of the form. The bronze version of the “Vir Temporis Acti”, the highly dramatic tormented figure of a soldier, is based on another large marble bust without arms, the legs cut off at the knee and a sword at his side. The only painting in this room is the famous “Rabbi of Vitebsk”, that Chagall painted when he was 28 y.o. in 1914 when he returned to Belarus after 4 prolific years in Paris: here the traditional portrait theme is combined with more modern, revolutionary solutions regarding the geometrical simplification of the lines, the emphasized and contrasting whites and blacks, in which different shades define the lean face of the man in prayer.
6. Venice: exponents of the Italian Secession. Following an initiative of the Venice City Council, the Biennale originated in 1895. It was immediately met with resounding success and favored celebrated names and confirmed trends when selecting the works to exhibit. Ca’ Pesaro on the other hand, was founded as space that was to be dedicated to young people “who were often forbidden from entering great exhibitions”. The exhibitions “Bevilacqua La Masa a Ca’ Pesaro” were meant to be a sort of “field of young experimentation” as a collateral event to the main exhibition but almost immediately they took on such strength and identity that they were soon playing an alternative, antagonistic role. The “Ca’ Pesaro artists” – a significant selection of whom are on display here – vary greatly from one another; what they have in common is their interest in experimentation and reflection on the latest studies on the international scene. Umberto Boccioni is here because it was in Ca’ Pesaro that he had his first solo exhibition in the summer of 1910 – immediately after the futurist leaflets were dropped from the Clock Tower against “past-loving Venice”, causing a sensation – with 42 of his works (including “Portrait of Sister Reading”), documenting his studies of the previous five years, and in particular the divisionist lesson he learnt in Rome from Giacomo Balla, of whom there is a portrait from 1901. Within a very brief period both were to be the protagonists of the pictorial concretization of the futurist programme. However, the driving forces in the Ca’ Pesaro were Gino Rossi and Arturo Martini. Works on display here by the former, a restless artist who learnt much from Gaugin and Cezanne include a “Breton” portrait dated 1909 and an essential female figure painted shortly after; the latter, who worked together with Rossi in Paris was also open to the stimuli from the Viennese Secession, as can be seen by his extraordinary sculptures here, in which both expressionist and symbolist stylistic features are manifested. Felice Casorati’s famous painting, purchased at the Biennale, also echoes Secessionist and Central European evocations. On the ceiling: Giambattista Pittoni (1687-1767) “Jupiter Protector of Justice, Peace and the Sciences”.
7. Archaistic expression. The 1920s and 1930s. During the early 20th century diverse avant-garde artistic movements were founded and diffused, all united in the intransigence of their research and the primary importance of overcoming the norms that had guided artists’ work for centuries. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Abstractionism – to name but a few of the artistic galaxies that were created and developed during this periods – the first 15 years of the century were characterized by an abundance of manifestos, declarations of intent, reviews, programmes of the total new foundation of art and effective, extraordinarily innovative results. However, it was inevitable that the tragedy of the WWI let to interruptions, conclusions, changes in direction and other actions and reactions. This is why in Europe the 20s also witnessed the birth of groups and movements that were striving for a “return to order”, wanting to question the methods and results of the avant-garde, whilst also reviving a reinterpretation of the great figurative tradition of the past, with particular reference to before the Renaissance. For ex., Picasso’s position in all of this was emblematic: after a trip to Rome in 1917, in this period he produced not only Cubist works but also figurative compositions of sculptural and mock-classical bodies. In Italy, under the Fascist rule that began in 1922 and lasted two decades, this trend found expression in Novecento, a movement founded by Margherita Sarfatti, a keep art critic who did her utmost to take advantage of her good relationship with Mussolini to launch an artistic project, the main objective of which was quality rather than ideology; the trend also found expression in several magazines, including “Valori Plastici”, which was published between 1918 and 1922, with articles by Carlo Carra amongst others. A former leading exponent of Futurism, he distanced himself in 1915 and set to work on Giotto and Paolo Uccello’s Primitivism before taking part in the most intense phase of metaphysical painting. The works on display by Carra are from the 1930s and synthesize the two fundamental moments of his research after 1915; there is also one of his works from the 1950s, places alongside Sironi’s “Figure with a Bowl” for comparison. However, the room also allows an immediate comparison of the “change in pace” of two outstanding artists on the Italian scene during that period: Arturo Martini and Felice Casorati, who were amongst the protagonists of the Ca’ Pesaro movement. In Martini’s works the expressionistic and almost grotesque intentions of his sculptures before the war make room for solemn meditation and solid, closed and essential forms. Casorati’s girls, on the other hand, which are so different to the young ladies he painted 14 years earlier, evoke a suspended dimension that is emphasized by pure forms, long shadows and apparent immobility. In a room full of Italian artist there is also a charcoal drawing, purchased at the 1924 Biennale, by the Belgian artist Constant Permeke; and original figure on the European scene between the two wars and indifferent to avant-garde experimentation, he found inspiration in the great Flemish masters, portraying the everyday life of fishermen and poor farmers with intense feeling.
8. Echoes of the metaphysical. Metaphysical painting expresses the subjectivity of vision, offering seemingly real facts to a variety of possible interpretations and perceptions: evoking the unconscious and dreams, it anticipates the surreal. The history of metaphysical painting can be divided into two stages: the first was from 1911 to 1914 and was dominated by Giorgio de Chirico, while the second was from 1915 to 1920, and was marked by the meeting between de Chirico and his brother Andrea with Carlo Carra, and later joined by Giorgio Morandi, Mario Sironi and Filippo De Pisis. It was never a real movement as such but rather a sort of close but temporary collaboration during the unfolding of the artistic development of theses different figures. On display here are the different unique results of their respective paths, with works after the years of their actual partnership in which “echoes of the metaphysical” are still loud and clear. Two versions of Giorgio de Chirico’s famous theme “Mysterious Baths” are here, it developed in the middle of the 1930s and originated on the one hand in the memory of a beach he had gone to as a child in Volos, Greece, where he was born, and on the other, in an association of ideas between polished floors and water. This was a return to the metaphysical, after the artist had devoted himself to other genres at the end of the 20s. On display here is also the beautiful portrait by de Chirico of Professor Lionello De Lisi (1885-1957), a great collector and famous neurologist who bequeathed an extensive collection to Ca’ Pesaro, now on display in different sections of the museum. In this room, the works from the De Lisi legacy include the “Urban Landscape” by Sironi from 1950, with clear metaphysical echoes in the cold, leaden colors chosen by the artist and a “Still Life” by Morandi from 1948. On the ceiling: Gerolamo Brusaferri (1677-1745) “Jupiter and Juno”.
9. The infinite research of color. All the works on display here are characterized by the fundamental, persistent role of an infinite, endless research on color. When he was still very young, Pierre Bonnard was a member of the Nabis group, which was active during the 1890s and aimed to overcome Impressionist naturalism and create a language that was based on color and formal synthesis; at the beginning of the 1900s Emile Nolde was part of the movement Die Brucke (the Bridge) that not only fought for coordination amongst the avant-garde striving to renew art, but also dedicated the greatest attention in painting to the role of color. This movement was founded in the same year (1905) as the group Fauve (wild beasts), led by Matisse and included Derain and then Dufy among its members. The name Fauve – coined by unkind critics during their first exhibition – comes from their use of bright, arbitrary colors in soft splashes to create smooth surfaces and achieve the total correspondence between emotive suggestion and expression in painting. It was the case with many other avant-garde groups in that period, these movements – founded in the wake of Gaugin, Cezanne and Van Gogh – were more or less organized and they soon dispersed, with each artist going his own way and achieving his own specific results. Emile Nolde’s painting is the only one that goes back to when he was a member of the group mentioned above. Despite the layout that was still linked to Impressionism, here the emphasis, energy, “storm” of colors and the simplification of the forms all herald the Expressionist works this artist was to go on to produce. Bonnard’s nude, on the other hand, is dated 1931. Purchased at the 1934 Biennale, it goes back to one of the artist’s favorite themes, offering a virtuoso portrayal of free light and color that unfold in the interior on both the objects and a figure, altering radically the Impressionist lesson of the imaginary dimension. Derain’s canvas also goes back to the 30s and is devoted to a theme – landscape – that became one of his favorites after his travels to Italy in 1921, and experiencing different phases and at times contrasting sources of inspiration. Works by the Italian painter and cultivated writer De Pisis are also on display here; after his metaphysical experience with De Chirico before the 1920s, he moved to Paris in 1925 where he remained for a good while, meeting the Fauves and studying the Impressionists, the influence of this experience is clear in the still life on display, while references to the 18th century strokes and coloring of painters such as Francesco Guardi can be seen in his large 1948 landscape. On the ceiling: Antonio Buttafogo (1772-1817) “Triumph of Hercules”.
10. Incumbent ghosts of power. The 1930s and 1940s. During this historically complex and dramatic period, totalitarian regimes established themselves throughout Europe. Before leading up to the appalling catastrophe of the WWII, the violence of dictatorship that is evoked in the name of the room also expressed itself in widespread ideological control from the ’30s on in particular, affecting artistic expression as well. The reaction to the avant-garde, some of the results of which we have seen in room 7, and the need to a return to order did not completely correspond to dictatorial policies. The movement “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) for ex., founded in Germany in 1925 with the aim to returning to figurative painting, included both instances of explicitly social criticism of some artists (that was to result in their being included in the “degenerates” in 1937), and the more “Classicist” aspirations expressed by others. Influenced by metaphysical painting and associated with the magazine “Valori Plastici”, this “Classicist” current was also known as “Magic Realism”. Two of its main ambassadors in Italy were Antonio Donghi and Cagnaccio di San Pietro, and their works are on display here. Their immobile figures portrayed with such detailed realism and emerged in limpid light and restless, and pensive suspension really do create the effect of an ambiguous, alienating enchantment. Several of the other works here deal with one of the regime’s favorite themes at the time, celebratory sports, but interpreted in a strange way: martinis “The Hundred-Meter Sprinter”, portrayed whilst still immobile before the start is both anti-monumental and startling; Martinuzzi offers a classical portrayal of the boxer’s muscles while he is realistically sitting on a stool in the ring whereas the black background and the lack of any details in the “Race” by the Russian painter Deineka are highly anti-realistic, drawing attention to the dynamism and tension of the pose. The room houses two other works that are radically different. One is by Armando Pizzinato, a staunch adversary of the Fascist regime who did not paint from 1943-1945 but played an active part in the partisan movement. On display here is a large canvas from 1949 with a realism that is mindful of not only Futurist and Cubist influence but also of symbolic meanings, which was part of the heated debated of that period, amidst political commitment, renewed hope and the new nightmare of the Cold War. The same is evoked by Henri Moore’s helmet, which is two interlocking pieces that have no meaning on their own. Here Cubism and Surrealism unite in the ambiguity of the portrayal of a figure that is no longer human. On the ceiling: Gianbattista Crosato (1697-1758) “Down on the Carriage”.
11. Expressions of Surrealism and Abstraction. This room is named after two of the most important and complex avant-garde currents in the past century that still focused on the fundamental relationship between art and reality, with articulate but diverse results. The concept of abstraction in art implies distancing oneself from any kind of imitation of nature of visible reality and instead, encouraging the expression of interiority by means of painting. Surrealism starts with portrayals of the real world that seem to have been transformed but are combined in associations that have absolutely no rational ties; on the contrary, they are aimed at liberating the unconscious, chance, dreams and amazement. While Wassily Kandinsky offers early 20th century Abstract art the most lucid theoretical contribution, Max Ernst was one of the founders of Surrealism. Other members of this movement included Tanguy, Miro and Jean Arp, the latter coming from another avant-garde experience, Dada. Paul Klee, on the other hand, was an Abstract artist friend, partner and colleague of Kandinsky in the Bauhaus movement and on display here is a pastel from the very year in which Andre Breton cited him in his first manifesto on Surrealism in 1924. The expressive research on these artistic trends continued until well beyond the middle of the century: on display here with a famous mobile from the early 1950s. Calder’s abstractionism in both playful and ironic; Picasso’s painting from the cycle “The Painter and the Model”, which was a constant theme in his work during the late 1950s, and in which Matisse’s influence can be seen. The works by some of the most famous exponents of Surrealism on display here go back to the 1950s as well: Max Ernst’s disquieting man-animal-bird, donated to the museum by the artist; Tanguy’s surreal landscape with meaningless objects; Miro’s watercolor evoking childhood visual associations. However, during this period Tapies was also close to Surrealism: offering a bunch of incongruous objects that are a little magical and little geometrical, the hand on display here seems to evoke both Miro and Klee.
12. Transition. This room represents a “transition” in both the true and metaphorical sense of the word. WWII was over, Europe was coming to terms with not only the material rubble but also contradictions and political failure, with human and civil drama, and with a new world to be built on a democratic basis while new threats were looming. Artists were seeking expressive forms that had nothing to do with the years of totalitarianism. A forerunner of the most innovative trends and sympathizing with “the right side”, on the democratic front, Picasso was the model of very many. Post-Cubism then became a dominant current, remaining as such until at least 1950. And this marked the new beginning. Purchased by the city, during the 1954 Biennale, Ben Nicholson’s large canvas represents one of the most successful works of this trend. Nicholson recaptures Cubism in its different phases but he revives it, transforming the work into a sort of contemporary event that is still able to encompass its own formal history. This is how the painting’s title should be understood; significantly, it includes not only the indication of the dominant color, but also the day on which it was completed.
13. Abstraction of signs. The 1950s. This room marks the start of a unique path, offering examples from the intricate galaxy of the particular expressive moment which affected European, American and even Japanese artists in the 50s and 60s, but with different nuances, trends and names: Informale in Italy – that returned to the European art scene in this period, Informel, Art Autre, Techisme in France, Auction painting or Abstract Expressionism in the US where New York became the most important reference point worldwide for creative innovation. The Informale is not a group and neither is it an avant-garde movement; it is instead a conception of the artistic act as something individual, unique and direct, overcoming any kind of mediation, preventive codification or linguistic formalization. It is both an existential and creative process, very closely linked to the terrible legacy of the WWII. It aims at the freest possible expression of passion, tension and sensations, by transforming them into signs, action, colors and materials. Although it goes beyond the meaning the avant-garde attributed to this expression 30 years earlier, the matrix is therefore basically abstract. Trends that were part of this field include the abstractionism of action and of material, but also the abstraction of signs and, to a certain extent, also Spatialism. Exponents of these tendencies on display here include Eduardo Chillida and Marc Tobey with works that were awarded prizes in the 1958 Biennale and then donated to the museum by the artists. Chillida’s sculpture is a sort of a graphic sign in space that he creates with the incisions and torsions of a single piece of metal; with his interest in the linear abstraction of Oriental calligraphy, Tobey’s work is also “graphic” and is combined with research that is similar to the of American abstractionism. Another artist who tried his hand at diverse styles during his development is Mirko: in the bronze sculpture on display we can see a combination of reworking of Oriental references with plastic and spatial research.
14. Gestures and colors. The 1950s. After the war, the Biennale reopened in 1948. The exhibition that year included a Picasso retrospective, a Peggy Guggenheim collection and, with its own room, the group Fronte Nuovo delle Arti. The latter had been founded in ’46 in Venice by several artists – Emilio Vedova, Renato Birolli, Ennio Marlotti, Armando Pizzinato, Giuseppe Santomaso, Alberto Viani, Bruno Cassinari, Renato Guttuso, Leonicillo Lleonardi and Carlo Levi – with the aim of understanding the diffusing the latest artistic researches in Italy. It was a moment of great visibility and success for the group that, however, in an internal and international political context that was characterized by stark ideological contrasts, soon found itself questioning the role of the artist and the social function of art. The “realists” believed that direct, orthodox political commitment was necessary for the transmission of contents, while the “abstract artists” asserted the primacy of the freedom of inspiration. It was against the backdrop of this diatribe that the Fronte broke up in 1950. Two years later, 8 non-figurative painters including Afro Basaldella, Renato Birolli, Ennio Morlotti, Giuseppe Santomaso and Emilie Vedova founded the Gruppo degli Otto. At the 1952 Biennale they were presented with the words: “They aren’t and don’t want to be abstract painters ….neither do they want to be realist painters; they want to get out of this antinomy. If reality may be included in their arabesque image of a boat or any other object, they do not forego the enrichment that that object may give. If…they find pleasure in a material…, a poetic harmony of color, the effect of a shade, they don’t renounce it. They aren’t puritans in art like the abstract artists: they accept inspiration on any occasion and they wouldn’t dream of denying it.” No less than 5 of the “Otto” are in this room: Emilio Vedova, one of the greatest Italians is here with a work of abstract expressionism in which color is the absolute protagonist; Giuseppe Santomaso and Renato Birolli, with two paintings reflecting the definition of the “abstract-concrete” that characterized the group: for both artists the starting point is an everyday life subject, becoming an occasion or pretext for a work of lyrical abstraction in which color plays a fundamental role. Moreover, in Morlotti’s painting the informal use of color and dense matter still convey an interpretation of recreation of nature. Afro joined the Otto after visiting the US. This experience gradually resulted in a transition, as can be seen in his work here, from a Cubist-style expressionism to the freer, more emotional ground of informal abstraction.
While the second floor of Ca’ Pesaro contains the temporary exhibits, the third is home to an unusual Museum of Oriental Art. Prince Enrico di Borbone, Count of Bardi was the son of Carlo III and Maria Luisa of Parma and Piacenza. In 1887, the Prince left with his wife and a small retinue for a “voyage around the world” which concluded in 1889. Enrico visited Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, Indochina, China and Japan, and in these countries he acquired more than 30,000 items, which he sent back to Europe. On his return, he displayed his collection in Palazzo Vendramin Calergi where he spent part of each year as a guest of his grandmother, Carolina di Berry. Enrico died in 1906 and his widow placed the collection in the hands of an Austrian antique dealer, many items were sold while others were sent to the dealer’s shop in Vienna. With the outbreak of the WWI, the Austrian dealer was declared an enemy alien and his property was seized. When hostilities ended, the Italian government came into possession of this collection in partial reparation for war damages, and in 1925 it was installed in Ca’ Pesaro. On display are examples of Japanese art from the Edo period (1600-1868), including 6 full sets of armor, lacquerware, scroll-paintings, musical instruments and a porcelain sedan chair, but also a beautiful 18th century Chinese chessboard.
Just 2 mins walk north from Ca’ Pesaro is a small Campo di St. Stae housing the church of the same name – Chiesa di San Stae (San Stae, p. 9 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures allowed). English painter William Turner painted San Stae obsessively, capturing early-morning Grand Canal mists swirling around the angels gracing its Palladian facade, and I can totally see why, as it is one of the prettiest churches decorating the main avenue of the city. Founded in 966, it was already a parish church by 1127. Towards the end of the 17th century, in dire need of restoration, it was completely re-planned and therefore rebuilt by the architect Giovanni Grassi. The facade, projected by the architect Domenico Risso, was built in the 18th century, thanks to a donation from the Doge Alvise Mocenigo, now buried in the center of the nave. The large semi-circular windows allow the sunlight to stream in, light that, reflected by the predominately white decoration, makes the interior strikingly luminous. In the church you can admire important works by Nicolò Bambini, Giuseppe Camerata and Antonio Balestra. These works include such absolute masterpieces as “The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew” by the young Giambattista Tiepolo, “The Martyrdom of St. James” by Giambattista Piazzetta and “The Liberation of St. Peter” by Sebastiano Ricci. In the Sacristy there are also some interesting works such as Pietro Vecchia’s “Dead Christ” and Giambattista Pittoni’s “Trajan ordering St. Eustache to adore Pagan Idols”.
In order to get to Dorsoduro, Venice’s largest sestiere, you would likely cross Ponte dell’Accademia (Academia Bridge), a very busy bridge and rightfully so, as it offers the best view of the Grand Canal. So, come early in the morning or late at night (with a tripod as I did one dry night), but don’t skip this part or the visit to Dorsoduro, as it is home to Venice’s best art.
You won’t need to wander far to locate the art jewel of Venice – Gallerie dell’Accademia (p. 77 on the map, €9 – entry, €6-audioguide, pictures allowed, allow 2-3 hours) is the very first building you see, the moment you get off the bridge. The Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia was founded on 24 September 1750 and it was the first institution not only to exhibit the collection of art spanning five centuries (from the 13th to 18th) but also study the art restoration. When Napoleon took power in the late 19th century, he disbanded many religious institution, including the Scuola della Carità (the oldest of the six Scuole Grandi formed in 1260 and the building dated back to 1343), the Convento dei Canonici Lateranensi (started in 1561 by Andrea Palladio) and the church of Santa Maria della Carità. All those buildings were re-assigned by Napoleon to become the permanent home of the Accademia.
There are many ways to explore this excellent, yet compact museum. You can follow the audio guide or Rick Steves’ “tour of Accademia”. For this blog, I go with the second one. The Venetian love for luxury shines through in Venetian painting. We’ll see grand canvases of colorful, spacious settings peopled with happy locals in extravagant clothes having such a great time, you will regret you weren’t born Venetian. The museum proceeds chronologically from the Middle Ages to the 1700s. But before we start at the medieval beginning, let’s sneak a peek at a work by the greatest Venetian Renaissance master, Titian, so head upstairs to a large hall filled with golf-leaf altarpieces. At the top of the stairs, turn left and enter the small Room 24.
(1) Titian (Tiziano Vevellio) “Presentation of the Virgin” (“Presentazione della Vergine”, 1534-1538). A colorful crowd gathers at the foot of a stone staircase. A dog eats a bagel, a mother handles a squirming baby, an old lady sells eggs and onlookers lean out the windows. Suddenly, the crowd turns and points at something. Your eye follows up the stairs to a larger-than-life high priest in a jeweled robe. But wait! What’s that along the way? In a pale blue dress that sets her apart from all the other colored robes, dwarfed by the enormous staircase and columns, the tiny, shiny figure of the child Mary almost floats up to the astonished priest. She’s unnaturally small, easily overlooked at first glance. When we finally notice her, we realize all the more how delicate she is amid the bustling crowd, hard stone, and epic grandeur. Venetians love this painting and call it, appropriately enough, the “Little Mary.”
The painting is a parade of colors. Titian leads your eyes from the massive buildings to the deep blue sky and mountains in the background to the bright red robe of the man in the crowd to glowing Little Mary. Titian painted the work especially for this room, fitting it neatly around the door on the right. The door on the left was added later, cutting into Titian’s masterpiece. This work is typical of Venetian Renaissance art. Here and throughout this museum, you will find: bright, rich colors; big canvases; Renaissance architectural backgrounds; slice-of-life scenes of Venice and 3-D realism. It is a religious scene, yes, but it is really just an excuse to display secular splendor – Renaissance architecture, colorful robes, and human details.
Now, that we’ve gotten a taste of Renaissance Venice at its peak, let’s backtrack and see some of Titian’s predecessors. Return to Room 1 “Medieval Art”, stopping at (2) Paolo Veneziano “Madonna and Child with Two Donors” (“Madonna col Bambino e Due Committenti” c. 1325). Mary sits in heaven, the child Jesus is a baby in a bubble, a symbol of his “aura” of holiness. Notice how two-dimensional and unrealistic this painting is. The sizes of the figures reflect their religious importance – Mary is huge, being the mother of Christ as well as the “Holy Mother Church”. Jesus is next in size, then the two angels who crown Mary. Finally, in the corner, are two mere mortals kneeling in devotion. The golden halos let us know who’s holy and who’s not. Medieval Venetian artists, with their close ties to the east, borrowed techniques such as gold-leafing, frontal poses, and “iconic” faces from the religious icons of Byzantium. Most of the paintings in this room are altarpieces, intended to sit in the center of a church for the faithful to mediate on during services. Many feature the Virgin Mary being crowned in triumph. Very impressive. But it took Renaissance artists to remove Mary from her golden never-never land, clothe her in human flesh, and bring her down to the real world we inhabit.
On the left side of the room, you’ll find (3) Jacobello dei Fiore “Coronation of the Virgin in paradise” (“Incoronazione della Vergine in Pasadiso”, 1438). This swarming beehive of saints and angels as an attempt to cram as much religious information as possible into one space. The architectural setting is a clumsy try at three-dimensionality (the railings of the wedding-cake structure are literally glued on). The color-coordinated saints are simply stacked one on top the of the other, rather than receding into the distance as they would in real life.
Enter Room 2 dedicated to Early Renaissance (1450-1500). Only a few decades later, artists rediscovered the natural world and ways to capture it on canvas. With this Renaissance, or “rebirth”, of the arts and attitudes of ancient Greece and Rome painters took a giant leap forward. They weeded out the jumble of symbols, fleshed out cardboard characters into real people, and placed them in spacious 3-D settings. (4) Giovanni Bellini “Enthroned Madonna with Child a.k.a San Giobbe Altarpiece (“Madonna in Trono col Bambino”, c.1480). Mary and the baby Jesus meet with saints beneath an arched half-dome, engaging in a sacred conversation (sacra conversazione). A trio of musician angels jams at her feet. In its original church setting, the painting’s pollards and arched matched the real ones around it, as though Bellini had blown a hole in the wall and built another chapel, allowing us mortals to mingle with holies. Giovanni Bellini takes only a few figures, places them in this spacious architectural setting, and balances them, half on one side of Mary and half on the other. Left to right, you find St. Francis, John the Baptist, Job, St. Dominic, St Sebastian, and St Louis.
The painting has a series of descending arches. At the top is a Roman arch. Hanging below that is a triangular canopy. Then comes a pyramid-shaped “arch” formed by the figures themselves, with Mary’s head at the peak, echoed below by the pose of the three musicians. Subconsciously, this created a mood of serenity, order, and balance, not the hubbub of the Coronation. Look at St. Sebastian – even arrows can’t disturb his composure. In Bellini’s long career, he painted many altarpieces in the sacra conversazione formula: The Virgin and Child surrounded by saints “conversing” informally about holy matters while listening to some tunes. The formula, developed in the 1430s and 1440s by Fra Angelico (1400-1455) and other Florentine artists, became a common Renaissance theme. Compare this painting with other sacras by Bellini in the Frari Church and the church of San Zaccaria.
In Room 4 (or room 24), find (5) Andrea Mantagna “St George” (“San Giorgio”, c.1460). This Christian dragon slayer is essentially a Greek nude sculpture with armor painted on. He rests his weight on one leg in the same asymmetrical pose (contrapposto) as a classical sculpture, Michelangelo’s “David”, or an Italian guy on the street corner. The doorway he stands in resembles a niche designed for a classical statue. Mantegna was trained in the Tuscan tradition, in which painters were like sculptors, “carving” out figures like this with sharp outlines, filling them in with color, and setting them in distant backdrops like the winding road behind George. When Mantegna married Giovanni Bellini’s sister, he brought Florentine realism and draftsmanship to his in-laws. “St. George” radiates Renaissance optimism – he’s alert but relaxed, at rest but ready to spring into action, humble but confident. With the broken lance in his hand and the dragon at his feet, George is the strong Renaissance Man splaying the medieval dragon of superstition and oppression.
In the same room, (6) Giovanni Bellini “Madonna and Child between St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene” (“Madonna col Bambino tra Sta. Caterina e Maria Maddalena”, c.1490). In contrast to Mantegna’s sharp-focus 3-D, this painting features three female heads on a flat plane with a black-velvet backdrop. Their features are soft, hazy and atmospheric, glowing out of the darkness as though lit by soft candlelight. It’s not sculptural line that’s important here, but colors – warm, golden, glowing flesh tines. The faces emerge from the canvas like cameos. Bellini painted dozens of Madonna and Childs in his day. This Virgin Mary is pretty, but she’s upstages by the sheer idealized beauty of Mary Magdalene (on the right). Mary Magdalene’s hair is down, like the prostitute that legend says she was, yet she has a childlike face, thoughtful and repentant. This is the perfect image of the innocent woman who sinned by loving too much. Bellini was the teacher of two more Venetian greats, Titian and Giorgione, schooling them in the new medium of oil painting. Mantegna painted “St. George” using tempera paint (pigments dissolved in egg yolk), while Bellini pioneered oils (pigments in vegetable oil) – a more versatile medium. Applying layer upon transparent layer, Bellini painted creamy complexions with soft outlines, bathes in an even light. His gift to the Venetian Renaissance was the “haze” he put over his scenes, giving them an idealized, glowing, serene, and much-copied atmosphere.
In Room 5, you will find (7) Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco) “The Tempest” (“La Tempesta”, c.1505). It’s the calm before the storm. The atmosphere is heavy – luminous but ominous. There’s a sense of mystery. Why is the woman nursing her baby in the middle of the countryside? And the soldier – is he ogling her or protecting her? Will lightning strike? Do they know that the serenity of this beautiful landscape is about to be shattered by an approaching storm? The mystery is heightened by contrasting elements. The armed soldier contrasts with the naked mother and her baby. The austere, ruined columns contrast with the lusciousness of Nature. And, most important, the stillness of the foreground scene is in direct opposition to the threatening storm in the background. The landscape itself is the main subject, creating a mood, regardless of what the painting is “about”. Giorgione was as mysterious as his few paintings, yet he left a lasting impression. A student of Bellini, he learned to use haziness to create a melancholy mood of beauty. But nothing beautiful lasts – flowers fade, Mary Madgalenes grow old, and Giorgione died at 33. In “The Tempest”, the fleeting stillness is about to be shattered by the splash of lightning, the true center of the composition.
Browse through several rooms till you reach Room 10 and Venetian High Renaissance (1500-1600), here you find (8) Paolo Veronese “Feast in the House of Levi” (“Convito in Casa di Levi”, 1573). Parrrtyyy! Stand about 10 m away from this enormous canvas to where it just fills your field of vision… and hey, you are invited to the party. Venice loves the food life, and the celebration is in full swing. You are in a huge room with a great view of Venice. Everyone is dressed to kill in colorful silk and velvet robes. Conversation roars, and the servants bring on the food and drink. This captures the Venetian attitude (more love, less attitude) as well as the style of Venetian Renaissance painting. Remember, the painters had mastered realism and now glories in it. I already mentioned the “Feast in the House of Levi” early, it is indeed a religious work painted for a convent. The original title was “The Last Supper”. In the center of all the wild goings-on, there is Jesus, flanked by his disciples, sharing a final meal before his crucifixion. This festive feast captures the optimistic spirit of Renaissance Venice. Life was a good thing and beauty was to be enjoyed. Renaissance men and women saw the divine in the beauties of Nature and glorified God by glorifying man. Uh-uh, said the Church. In its eyes, the new humanism was the same as the old hedonism. The false spring of the Renaissance froze quickly after the Reformation, when half of Europe left the Catholic Church and became Protestant. Veronese was hauled before the Inquisition, the Church tribunal that punished heretics. What did he mean by painting such a bawdy “Last Supper”? With dwarf jesters? And apostles picking their teeth (between the columns, left of center)? And dogs and cats? And a black man, God forbid? And worse of all, some German soldiers – maybe even Protestants! – at the far right? Veronese argued that it was just artistic license, so they asked to see his – it had expired. But the solution was simple. Rather than change the painting, Veronese simply changed the title “Fecit D. Covi. Magnv. Levi”.
(9) Titian “Pieta” (c.1573). Jesus has just been executed and his followers grieve over his body before burying it. Titian painted this to hang over his tomb. Titian was the most famous painter of his day – perhaps even more famous that Michelangelo. He was cultured and witty, a fine musician and businessman – an all-around Renaissance kind of guy. Titian was old when he painted this. He had seen the rise and decline of the Renaissance and had experienced much sadness in his own life. Unlike Titian’s colorful and exuberant “Little Mary”, done at the height of the Renaissance, this canvas is dark, the mood more sombre. The dead Christ is framed by a Renaissance arch like the one in Bellini’s “Enthroned Madonna”, but here the massive stones overpower the figures, making them look puny and helpless. The lion statues are downright scary. Instead of the clear realism of Renaissance paintings, Titian uses rough, messy brushstrokes, a technique that would be picked up by the Impressionists three centuries later. Titian adds a dramatic compositional element – starting with the lion at lower right, a line of motion sweeps up diagonally along the figures, culminating in the grief-stricken Mary Magdalene, who turns away, flinging her arm and howling out loud. The kneeling figure of an old, bald man is a self-portrait of the aging Titian, tending to the corpse of Jesus, who symbolizes the once powerful, now dead Renaissance Man. In the lower right, a painting-within-the-painting shows Titian and his son kneeling, asking the Virgin to spare them from the plague of 1576. Unfortunately, first the son and then the father succumbed.
(10) Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) “The Removal of St. Mark’s Body” (“Trafygamento del Corpo di San Marco”, 1562-1566). The event that put Venice on the map is frozen at its most dramatic moment. Muslim fundamentalists in Alexandria are about to burn St. Mark’s body (there is the smoke from the fire in the center), when suddenly a hurricane appears miraculously, sending them running for cover. (See the wisps of baby-angel faces in the storm, blowing on the infidels? Look hard, on the left-hand side). Meanwhile, Venetian merchants whisk away the body. Tintoretto makes us part of the action. The square tiles in the courtyard run straight away from us, an extension of our reality, as though we could step right into the scene – or the merchants could carry Mark into ours. Tintoretto would have made a great black-velvet painter. His colors burn with a metallic sheen, and he does everything possible to make his subject popular with common people. In fact, Tintoretto was a common man himself, self-taught, who apprenticed only briefly with Titian before striking out on his own. He sold paintings in the marketplace in his youth and insisted on living in the poor part of town, even after he became famous. Tintorettos abound here, in the next room, and throughout Venice. Look for these characteristics, some of which became standard features of the Mannerist and Baroque art that followed the Renaissance: heightened drama, violent scenes, strong emotion; elongated bodies in twisting poses; strong contrasts between dark and light; bright colors; diagonal compositions.
Spend some time in this room, the peak of the Venetian Renaissance and the climax of the museum. After browsing, enter Room 11, exhibiting Elegant Decay (1600-1800) to see (11) Giovanni Battista Tiepolo “Discovery of the True Cross” (“La Scoperta della Vera Croce”, c.1745). Tiepolo blasts open a sunroof and we gaze up into heaven. We stand in the hole where they’ve just dug up Christ’s cross, looking up dresses and nostrils as saints and angels cavort overhead. Tiepolo was the last of the great colorful, theatrical Venetian painters. He took the colors, the grand settings, and the dramatic angles of previous Venetian masters and plastered them on the ceiling of Europe’s Baroque palaces, such as the Royal Palace in Madrid, the Residenz in Wurzburg, and the Ca’ Rezzonico. This piece is from a church ceiling. Tiepolo’s strongly “foreshortened” figures are masterpieces of technical skill, making us feel as if the heavenly vision is taking place right overhead. Think back on those clumsy attempts at three-dimensionality we saw in the medieval room, and realize how far painting has come. The fresco fragments hanging around the corners of this room were salvaged from a church bombed in WWI.
Along the long corridor to your left, in Room 17, you’ll find works of the later Venetians. By the 1700s, Venice had retired as a wold power and became Europe’s number one tourist attraction. Wealthy offspring of the nobility traveled here to soak up its art and culture. They wanted souvenirs and what better memento that a picture of the city itself? Canaletto and Guardi painted “postcards” for visitors who lost their hearts to the romance of Venice. The city produced less art as it became art itself. Here are some familiar views of the city that has aged gracefully.
(12) Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) “Perspective with Portico” (“Perspettiva con Portico”, 1765). Canaletto gives us a sharp-focus, wide-angle, camera’s-eye perspective on the city. Although this view of a portico looks totally realistic, Conaletto has compressed the whole scene to allow us to seem more than the human eye could realistically take in. We see the portico as though we were standing underneath it, yet we also see the entire portico at one glance. The pavement blocks, the lines of columns, and the slanting roof direct our eye to the far end, which looks very far away indeed. Canaletto even paints a coat of arms (at right) at a very odd angle, showing off his mastery of 3-D perspective.
(13) Francesco Guardi ” San Giorgio Maggiore and the Giudecca” (“San Giorgio Maggiore e Giudecca”, c.1774). Unlike Canaletto, with his sharp-focus detail, Guardi sweetens Venice up with a haze of messy brushwork. In this familiar view across the water from Piazza San Marco, he builds a boatman with a few sloppy smudges of paint. Guardi catches the play of light at twilight, the shadows on the buildings, the green of the water and sky, the pink light off the distant buildings, the Venice that exists in the hearts of lovers – an Impressionist work a century ahead of its time.
(14) Gentile Bellini “Procession in St. Mark’s Square” (“Processione in Piazza San Marco”, 1496). A fitting end to our tour is a look back at Venice in its heyday. Painted by Giovanni’s big brother, this wide-angle view – more than any human eye could take in at once – reminds us how little Venice has changed over the centuries. There is St. Mark’s: gleaming gold with mosaics, the four bronze horses, the three flagpoles out front, the old Campanile on the right, and the Doge’s Palace. There’s the guy selling 10 postcards for a euro (but there is no Clock Tower with two bronze Moors yet, the pavement’s different, the church is covered with gold, and there are no cafe orchestras playing “New York, New York”. Every detail is in perfect focus, regardless of its distance from us, presented for out inspection. Take some time to linger over this and the other views of old Venice in this room…. The get out of here and enjoy the real thing….
But not for long, as we are heading to Peggy Guggenheim Collection (p.73 on the map, €15 – entry, allow 60 min or more if you are a fan of Modern Art, pictures allowed). After tragically losing her father on the Titanic, heiress Peggy Guggenheim (a niece of Solomon Guggenheim, who built New York’s modern art museum of the same name) befriended Dadaists, dodges Nazis and changed art history at her palatial home on the Grand Canal. Peggy’s Palazzo Venier dei Leoni is a showcase for surrealism, futurism and abstract expressionism by some 200 breakthrough modern artists. As a gallery owner, she introduced Europe’s avant-garde to a skeptical America. As a collector, she gave instant status to modern art that was too radical for serious museums. As a patron, she fed (and slept with) starving artists such as Jackson Pollock. And as a person, she lived larger than life, unconventional and original, with a succession of lovers that enhanced her reputation as a female Casanova. In 1948, Peggy “retired” to Venice, renovating a small, unfinished palazzo. Today it is a museum decorated much as it was during her lifetime, with one of the best collections anywhere of 20th century art. It is the only museum where the owner (and her multiple Tibetan Lhasas dogs) are buried in the garden.
You’ll enter a garden courtyard sprinkled with statues. There is a wing to the left (with a cafe) and a wing to the right (with the main collection, where we start), plus a modern annex. The collection is very roughly chronological, starting to the left with Cubism and ending to the right with post-WWII artists. The collection’s strength is its Abstract, Surrealist and Abstract-Surrealist art. The placement of the paintings may change, so I am going to give the overview, and not painting by painting, description. What makes this collection unique is that it hangs here in Peggy’s home, much as it did in her lifetime. So, head through the black iron-grille doors, into the Entrance Hall: Meet Peggy Guggenheim. Picture Peggy greeting guests here – standing before the trembling-leaf mobile by Alexander Calder, flanked by two Picasso paintings, surrounded by her yapping dogs and meowing cats, and wearing her Calder-designed earrings, Mondrian-print dress, and “Cat-woman” sunglasses. During the 1950s and 1960s, this old palazzo on the Grand Canal was a mecca for “Moderns”, from composer Igor Stravinsky to actor Marlon Brando, from painter Mark Rothko to writer Truman Capote, from choreographer George Balanchine to Beatle John Lennon and performance artist Yoko Ono. They came to sip cocktails, tour the great art, talk about ideas, and meet the woman who had become a living legend.
Pablo Picasso “On the Beach” (1937). Curious, balloon-animal women play with a sailboat while their friend across the water looks on. Of all of Peggy’s many paintings, this was her favorite. By the time Peggy first became serious about modern art (about the time this was painted), Pablo Picasso – the most famous and versatile 20th century artist – had already been through his Blue, Rose, Fauve, Cubist, Synthetic Cubist, Classical, Abstract, and Surrealist phases, finally arriving at a synthesis of these styles. Peggy had some catching up to do.
1900-1920: Cubists in the Dining Room. Peggy’s dining room table reminds us that this museum was, indeed, her home for the last 30 years of her life. Most of the furniture is now gone, but the walls are decorated much as they were when she lived here, with paintings and statues by her friends, colleagues and mentors. Here, she entertained countless artists and celebrities from Paul Newman to Allen Ginsberg, from sculptor Henry Moore to playwright Tennessee Williams, from James Bond creator Ian Fleming to glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Most of the art in the dining room dates from Peggy’s childhood, when she was raised in the lap of luxury in New York, oblivious to the artistic upheavals going on in Europe. Her grandfather, Meyer Guggenheim, had emigrated from Switzerland to America and then had the good fortune to invest in the silver mines at Leadville, Colorado. When in 1912, Titanic went down taking Peggy’s playboy tycoon father with it, 14-year old Peggy was left with small but comfortable trust fund. Approaching adulthood, Peggy rejected her traditional American upbringings. She started hanging out at a radical bookstores, got a nose job (a botched operation, leaving her with a rather bulbous schnozz) and began planning a trip to Europe. In 1920, 21-year-old Peggy arrived in Paris, where a revolution in art was taking place. Pablo Picasso “The Poet” (1911). Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris, shattered the Old World into brown shards (“cubes”) and reassembled it in Cubist style. It’s a vaguely recognizable portrait of a man with the waist up – tapering to a head at the top, smoking a pipe, ad cradling the traditional lyre of a poet. While the newfangled motion-picture camera could capture a moving image, Picasso suggests motion with a collage of stills. Marcel Duchamp “Nude” (Study”), “San Young Man on a Train” (1911-1912). In self-portrait, Duchamp poses gracefully with a cane, but the moving train jiggles the image into a blur of brown. Duchamp is best known not for paintings like this, but for his outrageous conceptual pieces: his urinal-as-statue (“Fountain”) and his moustache on the “Mona Lisa” (titled L.H.O.O.Q., which when spoken aloud in French – is a pun that translates loosely as “she has a hot ass”). In a 2004 poll of British artists, Duchamp’s urinal was named the most influential modern artwork of all time. Constantine Brancusi “Maiastra” (c.1912) – for the generation born before air travel, flying was magical. This high-polished bird is the first of many by Brancusi, who dreamed of flight. But this bronze bird just sits there. For centuries, a good sculptor was one who could capture movement in stone. Brancusi reverts to the essential forms of “primitive” African art, in which even the simplest statues radiate mojo.
Head next door, into the Kitchen – Marc Chagall “Rain” (1911). The rain clouds gather over a farmhouse, the wind blows the trees and people, and everyone prepared for the storm. Quick, put the horses in the barn, grab an umbrella and round up the goats in the clouds. Marc Chagall, a Belarusian living in France, reinvented scenes from his homeland with a romantic, weightless, childlike joy in topsy-turvy Paris.
1920s: Abstraction and Various “-isms”. In the Roaring Twenties, Peggy spent her twenties right in the center of avant-garde craziness: Paris. For the rest of her life, Europe – not America – would be her permanent address. In Paris, trust-funded Peggy lived the bohemian life. Post-WWI Paris was cheap and, after the bitter war years, ready to party. Days were spent drinking coffee in cafes, talking ideas with the likes of activist Emma Goldman, writer Djuna Barnes, and photographer Man Ray. Nights were spent abusing the drug forbidden in America (alcohol), dancing to jazz music into the wee hours, and talking about Freud and sex. One night, at the top of the Eiffel Tower, a dashing artist and intellectual nicknamed “The King of Bohemia” popped the question. Peggy and Laurence Vail soon married and had two children, but the partying only slowed somewhat. This thoroughly modern couple dug the wild life and the wild art is produced. Vassily Kandinsky “White Cross” (1922) – I see white, I see crosses, but where’s the white cross? Oh, there it is on the right, camouflages among black squares. Like a jazz musician improvising from a set scale, Kandinsky plays with new patterns of related colors and lines, creating something that’s simply beautiful, even if it doesn’t “mean” anything. As Kandinsky himself would say, his art was like “visual music – just open your eyes and look”.
Continue across the hall, into the Living Room, Piet Mondrian “Composition with Red” (1938-1939). Like a blueprint of Modernism, Mondrian’s T-square style boils painting down to its basic building blocks – black lines, white canvas, and the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue) arranged in orderly patterns. This stripped-down canvas even omits yellow and blue. Mondrian started out painting realistic landscapes of the orderly field in his native Holland. Increasingly, he simplified things into horizontal and vertical grids, creating rectangles of different proportions. This one has horizontal lines to the left, vertical ones to the right, The horizontals appear to dominate, until we see the they’re balanced by the tiny patch of red. For Mondrian, who was heavily into Eastern mysticism, up vs. down and left vs. right were metaphors for life’s ever-shifting dualities: good vs. evil, man vs. woman, fascism vs. communism. The canvas is a bird’s eye view of Mondrian’s personal landscape.
Head next door, into the Library. 1930: Abstract Surrealists. In 1928, Peggy’s marriage to Laurence Vail ended, and she entered into a series of romantic attachments. Though not stunningly attractive, she was easy to be with, and she truly admired artistic men. In 1937, she began an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with playwright Samuel Beckett. Beckett steered her toward Modern painting and sculpture – things she’d never paid much attention to. She started hanging out with the French Surrealists, from artist Marcel Duchamp to writer Andre Breton to filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Duchamp, in particular, mentored her in modern art, encouraging her to use her money to collect and promote it. Nearing 40, she moved to London and launched a new career. Yves Tanguy “The Sun in its Jewel Case” (1937) – in May of 1938, this painting was featured at Guggenheim Jeune, the art gallery Peggy opened in London. Tanguy’s painting sums up the turbulent art that shocked a sleepy London during that first season. Weird, phallic, tissue-and-bone protuberances cast long shadows across a moody, dreamlike landscape. (Peggy said the picture “frightened” her, but added, “I got over my fear… and now I own it”.) The figures are Abstract (unrecognizable), and the mood is Surreal, producing the style cleverly dubbed Abstract Surrealism. Peggy was drawn to Eves Tanguy and had a short but intense affair with the married man. Tanguy, like his art, was wacky and spontaneous, occasionally shocking friends by suddenly catching and gobbling up a spider and washing it down with white wine. The Surrealists saw themselves as spokesmen for Freud’s “id”, the untamed part of the personality that thinks dirty thoughts when the “ego” goes to sleep. The Guggenheim Jeune gallery exhibited many of the artists we see in this museum, including Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Calder. Guggenheim Jeune closed as a financial flop after just two years, but its shocking paintings certainly created a buzz in the art world, and as the years passed the gallery’s failure gained a rosy glow of success. Salvador Dali “The Birth of Liquid Desires” (1931-1932). Salvador Dali could draw exceptionally well. He painted “unreal” scenes with photographic realism, making us believe they could truly happen. This air of mystery – the feeling that anything is possible – is both exciting and unsettling. His med explores the caves of the dream would and morph into something else before out eyes. Personally, Peggy didn’t like Dali or his work, but she dutifully bought this canvas (through his wife, Gala) to complete her collection.
1939-1940: Peggy’s Shopping Spree in Paris. Peggy moved back to Paris and rented an apartment on the Ile St. Louis. In September, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, sparking WWII. All of France waited…and waited.. and waited for the inevitable Nazi attack on Paris. Meanwhile, Peggy spent her days shopping for masterpieces. Using a list compiled by Duchamp and others, she personally visited artists in their studios – from Brancusi to Dali to Giacometti – often negotiating directly with them. (Picasso initially turned Peggy down, thinking of her as a guache, bargain-hunting house-wife. When she entered his studio he said, “Madame, you will find the lingerie department on the second floor.”) In a few short months, she bought 37 of the paintings now in the collection, perhaps saving them from a Nazi regime that labeled such as “decadent”. In 1941, with the Nazis occupying Paris and most of Europe, Peggy fled her adopted homeland. With her stash of paintings and a new companion – painter Max Ernst – she sailed from Lisbon to safety in New York.
1941-1945: Surrealists invade New York. Trees become women, women become horses, and day becomes night. Ball dangle, caves melt, and things cast long shadows across film-noir landscapes – Surrealism. The world was moving fast, and Surrealists caught the jumble of images. They scattered seemingly unrelated things on the canvas, leaving us to trace the connections in a kind of connect-the-dots game without numbers. Peggy spent the war years in America. She married Mex Ernst and their house in New York became a gathering place for exiled French Surrealists and young American artists. In 1942, she opened a gallery/museum in New York called Art of This Century that features, well, essentially the collection we see here in Venice. But patriotic, gung-ho America was not quite ready for the nonconformist, intellectual art of Europe. Max Ernst “The Antipope” (c.1942) – the horse-headed nude in red is a portrait of Peggy – at least, that’s what she thought when she saw it. She loved the painting and insisted that Max give it to her as a wedding present, renamed “The Mystic Marriage”. Others read more into it. Is the horse-headed warrior (at right) Ernst himself? Is he being wooed by one of his art students? Is that Peggy’s daughter, Pegeen (center), watching the scene, sadly, from the distance? And is Peggy turning toward her beloved Max, subconsciously suspicious of the young student… who would (in fact) soon steam Max from her? Ernst uses his considerable painting skill to bring to light a tangle of secret urges, desires, and fears – hidden like the grotesque animal faces in the reef they stand on.
Paul Delvaux “The Break of Day” (1937) – full-breasted ladies with roots case long shadows and awaken to a mysterious down. If you are counting boobs, don’t forget the one reflected in the nightstand mirror.
Rene Magrite “Empire of Light” (1953-1954) – Magritte found that, even under a sunny blue sky, suburbia has its hard side. The improbable combination of daylight sky and nighttime street in one scene is the kind of bizarre paradox that Surrealists loved.
1945-1948: The postwar ynypears. Pollock in the Guest bedroom. Certain young American painters – from Mark Rothko (from Belarus) to Robert Motherwell to Robert de Niro Sr. – were strongly influences by Peggy’s collection. Adopting the Abstract style of Kandinsky, they practiced Surrealist spontaneity to “express” themselves in the physical act of putting paint on canvas. The resulting style (duh): Abstract Expressionism. Jackson Pollock “Enchanter Forest” (1947) – “Jack the Dripper” attacked America’s postwar conformity with a can of paint, dripping and splashing a dense web onto the canvas. Picture Pollock in his studio, jiving to the hi-fi, bouncing off the walls, throwing paint in a moment of alcohol-fuel enlightenment. Peggy helped make Pollock a celebrity. She bought his earliest works (which show Abstract-Surrealist roots), exhibited his work in her gallery, and even paid him a monthly stipend to keep experimenting. By the way, if you haven’t tried the Venetian specialty spaghetti al nero di seppia (spaghetti with squid in its own ink), it looks something like this. In 1946, Peggy published her memoirs, titles “Out of This Century: The Informal Memoirs of Peggy Guggenheim”. The front cover was designed by Max Ernst, the back by Pollock. Peggy herself was now a celebrity.
1950: Peggy in the Bedroom. As America’s postwar factories turned swords into kitchen appliances, Peggy longed to return “home” to Europe. The one place that kept calling to her was Venice, ever since she visited here with Laurence Vail in the 1920s. “I decided Venice would be my future home”, she wrote. “I felt I would be happy alone there.” In 1947, after a grand finale exhibition by Pollock, she closed the Art of This Century gallery, crated up her collection, and moved to Venice. In 1948, she bought this palazzo and moved in. This was Peggy’s bedroom. She painted it turquoise. She commissioned the silver-headboard by Alexander Calder for her canopy bed, using its silver frame to hang her collection of earrings, handmade by the likes of Calder and Tanguy. Venetian mirrors hung on the walls, along with a sentimental portrait of herself and her sister as children. Ex-husband Laurence Vail’s collage-decorated bottles sat on the nightstand. The same year she moved in, Peggy showed her collection in its own pavilion at the Biennale, Venice’s world’s fair of art, and it was the hit of the show. Europeans were astounded and a bit dumbfounded, finally seeing the kind of “degenerate” art forbidden during the fascist years, plus the radical new stuff coming out of New York City. In 1951, Peggy met the last great love of her life, an easygoing, blue-collar Italian with absolutely no interest in art. She was 53, Raoul was 30. When Raoul died in 1954 in a car accident, Peggy comforted herself with her pets.
The tiny room adjoining the bedroom displays paintings by Pegeen, Peggy’s daughter, who inherited some of Laurence Vail’s artistic talent, painting childlike scenes of Venice, populated by skinny Barbie dolls with antennae. She married twice, had four children, suffered badly from depression, and died of a barbiturate overdose in 1967.
The guest bedroom (where the Pollocks are) was a busy place. Pegeen and her brother, Sinbad, visited their mother in Venice, as did Peggy’s ex-husbands and their new loves. Other overnight guests ranged from sculptor Alberto Giacometti (who honeymooned here), to author and cultural explorer Paul Bowel.
Now, return to the Entrance Hall, the go out onto the Terrace, overlooking the Grand Canal. The obvious exuberant figure in Marino Marini’s equestrian statue “The Angel of the City” (1948), faces the Grand Canal, spreads his arms wide, and tosses his head back in sheer joy, with an eternal hard-on for the city of Venice. Every morning, Peggy must have felt a similar exhilaration as she sipped coffee while taking in this unbelievable view. Marini originally designed his bronze rider with a screw-off penis (which sounds dirtier that it is) that could be removed for prudish guests or by curious ones. Someone stole it for some unknown purpose, so the current organ is permanently welded on.
The palazzo – formally Palazzo Venier dei Leoni – looks modern but is old. Construction began in 1748, but only the ground floor was completed. Legend has it that members of a rival family across the canal squelched plans for the upper stories so their home wouldn’t be upstaged. The Palazzo remained unfinished until Peggy bought it in 1948 and spruced it up. She added the annex in 1958. The lions (leoni) of the originally palace still guard the waterfront entrance.
Peggy’s outlandish and rather foreign presence in Venice – drinking, dressing up outrageously, and sunbathing on her rooftop for all to see – was not immediately embraced by the Venetians. But for artists in the 1950s and 1960s, Peggy’s palazzo was the place to be, especially when the Biennale brought the jet set. Everyone from actor Alec Guinness, to political satirist Art Buchwald, to gossip columnist Hedda Hooper signed her guest book. Picture Peggy and guests, decked out in evening clothes, hopping into her gondola to ride slowly down the canal for a martini and a Bellini a Harry’s Bar.
So far, we’ve seen the core of Peggy’s collection and home. But the museum complex also houses two other collections donated by Peggy’s fellow art lovers, as well as a fine garden. The recently acquired Schulhof Collection brings the museum into the late 20th century. It is exhibited in the small wing perpendicular to the main house. In the 1950s and ’60s, the trend was toward bigger canvases, abstract designs, and experimentation with new materials and techniques. Enjoy the simple lines and colors of big, empty canvases by Americans such as Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. They were following the footsteps of Abstract artist such as Mondrian and Kandinsky (whose work they must have considered busy). Calder’s mobile is like a hanging Kandinsky, brought to life by a gust of wind. The geometrical forms here reflect the same search for order, but these artists painted to the 5/4 asymmetry of Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic, “Take Five.” Other painters explored a new dimension: texture. Some works, such as those by de Kooning, have very thick paint piled on. Some, by Dubuffet or Tapies, applied material such as real dirt and organic waste to the canvas. Fontana punctured the canvas so that the fabric itself (and the hole) became the subject. The canvas is a tray, serving up a delightful array of substances with interesting colors, patterns, shapes and textures.
In the psychedelic ’60s, Pop Art (Warhol) raised popular cultural icons to the level of hight art, and Op Art (Riley) featured optical illusions that mess with your mind when you stare at them. Cy Twombly added crayon-scribbled doodles to the canvas, suggesting handwritten messages with mysterious meanings. Also in the collection are a number of sculptures by Chillida, Calder, Hepworth and Arp. By the war, many of the Schulhof artists – Calder, Fontana, Chillida, Riley and Twombly – were first introduces to the world at the Venice Biennale.
The Mattioli Collection, normally housed in the cafe/shop building across the garden from the main palazzo, features paintings and sculptures by well-known Italians, as well as the less-famous postwar generation of young Italians who were strongly influenced by Peggy’s collection. You’ll see a lone canvas by Modigliani, pieces by the Futurists, and some fine sculptural works by the father of Futurism, Umberto Boccioni. His “Dynamism of a Speeding Horse” + Houses” (1915), assembled from wood, cardboard, and metal, captures the blurred motion of a modern world – accelerated by technology, the shattered by WWI, which would leave 9 million Europeans dead and everyone’s moral compass spinning. (In fact, this statue was shattered by the destructive force of Boccioni’s own kids, who scattered the cardboard “houses” while using it as a rocking horse.) Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913) seems inspired by the flowing works by Picasso and Duchamp we saw earlier. The energetic cyborg speeds forward, rippled by the winds of history, as it strides purposefully into the future. This work may look familiar – check you pocket for on of Italy’s 20 cents coin and compare. Peggy’s sponsored young artists, including Tancredi – just one name, back when that was odd – who was given a studio in the palazzo’s basement. Tancredi had a relationship with Pegeen, with her mother’s blessing.
Sculpture Garden. Peggy opened her impressive collection of sculptures to the Venetian public for free. It features first-rate works by all the greats, from Brancusi to Giacometti. After so much art already, you might find the trees – so rare in urban Venice – more interesting.
Finally, in the southwest corner of the garden (along the brick wall), there is Peggy and her dogs’ graves. “Here lie my beloved babies” marks the grace of Peggy’s many dogs, her steady companions as she grew old. Note the names of some of these small, long-haired Lhasa Apsos. Along with “Cappuccino”, and “Baby”, you will see “Pegeen” and “Sir Herbert” (for Herbert Read, the art critic). Peggy’s ashes are buried alongside, marked with a simple plaque “Here Rests Peggy Guggenheim 1989-1879″. Over your right shoulder, the olive tree is a gift from one of Peggy’s old traveling buddies – Yoko Ono. In the nonconformist 1960s, Peggy’s once shocking art and unconventional lifestyle became more acceptable, even common-place. By the 1970s, she was universally recognized as a major force in early modern art and was finally even honored by the Venetians with a nickname “The Last Dogaressa” (L’Ultima Dogaressa).
Once you finish your visit of Peggy Guggenheim Collection, walk out of the courtyard and turn left, in just a few minutes, you will reach Campo Salute with an impressive Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute (Our Lady of Health, p.40 on the map, free entry, pictures allowed). Likely, you have already seen this church from multiple points in the city, as it is one of the most imposing architectural Venetian landmark, and a huge one! Henry James likened it to “some great lady on the threshold of her salon.” Baldassare Longhena started the church in 1630 at the age of 32, and worked on it for the rest of his life. It was not completed until 1683, five years after his death. La Salute was his crown achievement, and the last grand Venetian structure built before Venice’s decline began.
The white stone church has a steep dome that rises above the octagonal structure. It is encrusted with Baroque scrolls, leafy Corinthian columns, and 125 statues, including the lovely ladies lounging over the central doorway. The architect conceived of the church in the shape of a crown. During the bitter plague of 1630, the Virgin Mary took pity of the city of Venice, miraculously allowing only one in three Venetians (46,000 people) to die. During this terrible time, Venetians built this church in honor of Our Lady of Health. Her statue tops the lantern, and she’s dressed as an admiral, hand on a rudder, welcoming ships to the Grand Canal. Even today, Mary’s intercession is celebrated every November 21, when a floating bridge is erected across the Grand Canal so Venetians can walk from San Marco across the water and right up the seaweed-covered steps to the front door. Architect supported the city’s heaviest dome by sinking countless pilings (locals claim over a million) into the sandy soil to provide an adequate foundation. The 12 Baroque scrolls at the dome’s base function as buttresses to help support the mammoth structure.
The Madonna provided essential inspiration, but La Salute draws its structural strength from a range of architectural and spiritual traditions. Architectural scholars note striking similarities between Longhena’s unusual dome octagon structure and both Greco-Roman goddess temples and Jewish cabbala diagrams. The lines of the building ingeniously converge beneath the dome to form a vortex on the inlaid marble floors, and the back dot at the center is said to radiate healing energy. Join me on a tour around La Salute.
(1) View from the Entrance. The church has a bright, healthy glow, with white stone (turned gray because of a fungus) illuminated by light filtering through the dome’s windows. The nave is circular, surrounded by six chapels. In contrast to the ornate Baroque exterior, the inside is simple, with only Corinthian columns and two useless balcony railings up in the dome. The red, white and yellow marble of the floor adds a cheerful note. Longhena focuses our immediate attention on the main altar. Every other view is blocked by heavy pillars. A master of “theatrical architecture”, Longhena reveals the side chapels only one by one, as we walk around and explore. Viewed from the center of the church, the altar and side chapels are framed by arches. Some of the “marble” is actually brick (lighter material) covered with marble dust; the windows, with clear glass in a honeycomb pattern, bring in maximum light. (2) Bronze Plaques. The church is dedicated not just to physical health but to spiritual health as well. The plagues relate that on September 16, 1972, Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I, visited here and paid homage to the Virgin of Health (6 years later, he fell sick and died only after 30 days in office).
(3) Main Altar. The marble statues on the top of the main altar tell the church’s story: The Virgin and Child (enter) are approached for help by a kneeling, humble Lady Venice (left). Mary shows compassion and sends an angel baby (right) to drive away Old Lady Plague. The icon of a black, sad-eyes Madonna with a black baby (12th century Byzantine) is not meant to be ethnically accurate. Here, a “black” Madonna means an otherworldly one.
Find the entrance to the (4) Sacristy (€3 – entry) – along one wall is Tintoretto’s big and colorful “Marriage at Cana” (1551). The receding dinner table leads the eye to Jesus, who is surrounded by the bustle of the wedding feast. On the right, the host (in gray) orders the servant to bring more wine. The apostles at the table portray leading Venetian artists of the day. On the ceiling are three ultra-dramatic paintings by Titian, with gruesome subjects: “Cain Clubbing Abel”, “Abraham Sacrificing His Son” and “David Slaying Goliath” (c.1543-1544). The panels – featuring stormy clouds, windblown hair, flat tones, and overwrought poses – date from Titian’s “Mannerist crisis”. After visiting Rome and seeing the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Titian abandoned his standard, sweet, and tested style to paint epic, statuesque, and dramatic works in the Mannerist style. To appreciate his range of genres, contrast the ceiling panels with the painting over the altar, Titian’s stately “St. Mark Enthroned with Saints” (c.1511).
Luca Giordano (1632-1705) celebrates the Virgin in three paintings with similar compositions – heaven and angels above, dark earth below. Giordano, a prolific artist from Naples, was known as “Luca fa presto” (Fast Luke) for the speed (some would say sloppiness) with which he dashed off his paintings. In the chapel to the right of the main altar is (5) Giordano “Birth of the Virgin” (1674) – little baby Mary in her mom’s arms seems like nothing special. But God the Father looks down from above and sends the dove of the Holy Spirit. In the middle chapel (on the right side), look for (6) Giordano “Assumption of the Virgin” (1667) – Mary, at the end of her life, is being taken gloriously, by winged babies, up from the dark earth to the golden light of heaven. The apostles cringe in amusement. A later artist thought his statue was better and planted it right in our way. In the chapel closest to the entrance, see (7) Giordano “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple” (early 1670s) – notice how the painting fits the surrounding architecture. It’s great to enjoy art in situ. The child Mary (in blue, with wispy halo) ascends a staircase that goes diagonally ”into” the canvas. Giordano places us viewers at the foot of the stairs. The lady in the lower left asks her kids, “Why can’t you be more like her?!”
Across on the other side of the nave is (8) Titian “Pentecost (1546) – the dove of the Holy Spirit sends spiritual rays that fan out to the apostles below, giving them tongues of fire above their heads. They gyrate in amazement, each one in a different direction. Using floor tiles and ceiling panels, Titian has created the 3-D illusion of a barrel-arched chapel, with the dove coming right into the church through a fake window. But the painting was not designed for this location and, up close, the whole fake niche looks…. fake.
After leaving church, we continued east to Punta della Dogana (p.65 on the map) – located between the Grand and Giudecca Canals at the tip of an island. The point was used for docking and customs as early as the beginning of the 15th century. The temporary structures built to store merchandise and customs workers were replaced by a permanent custom house – Punta della Dogana (construction 1677-1682). Atop the building are statues of Atlas, built to represent the supremacy of the Republic of Venice. The two slaves hold a golden ball upon which Giuseppe Benoni‘s “Fortune” stands. True to its hame, this 17th century statue turns in the wind. A massive renovation (at the cost of €20 million) was completed in 2009 and now, Punta della Dogana houses an art museum, called Dogana da Mar. The day we visited the Peak Dorsoduro, on early February morning, the entire Venice was blanketed in such heavy fog, that it was difficult to see Piazza San Marco, hardly over 100 m away. Though, it added even more mystery to this romantic city.
Walk around Punta della Dogana and continue via Fondamenta Zattere along the Giudecca Canal to the first vaporetto stop. Here you find Santa Maria Del Rosario, commonly known as I Gesuati (p.13 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures allowed). At the Zattere, in the parish of Sant’Agnese, in 1397 some lay brothers took up residence in order to form the Company of the Poveri Gesuati and build a small church dedicated to the Visitation of Mary. After the Council of Trent fell into decline and the Order was suppressed in 1668, the premises were taken over by the Dominicans, who soon realized that the church of the Gesuati was too small to accommodated the pilgrims and the faithful who flocked there. Thus a new one was built dedicated to Santa Maria del Rosario, without sacrificing the little church of the Visitation – still standing today next to the new bigger one.
The new church was built thanks to the contribution of three great Venetian artists of the 18th century: the architect Giorgio Massari, the sculptor Giovanni Maria Morlaiter, and the painter Giambattista Tiepolo, who, in the splendid ceiling frescoes, executed the iconographic plan dictated by the Dominicans and based on the theme of the Rosary. The result, as we can clearly see, was a great artistic and spiritual coherence. 270 piles had to be driven into the soil to support the weight of the facade, while giant Corinthian pilasters support a heavy triangular pediment. The main entrance door, surmounted by a curved pediment with an inscription above, is flanked by four niches with large statues representing the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. The decoration of the interior commenced in 1736, ten years after building started. Although the outside walls make a plain rectangle, the interior of the nave (surrounded by Corinthian columns supporting an entablature with rounded corners) has the apparent shape of an ellipse. There are three altars set behind the line of the pillars on each side. The nave is lit on both sides by large high windows, which show off the contrasting tones of the white walls and grey stone.
The ceiling decoration was entrusted to Tiepolo who signed a contract with the Dominicans in May 1737. It was completed two years later. There are three frescos in the ceiling. Nearest the entrance is the “Glory of St. Dominic” (his assumption into heaven) and nearest the altar is the “Appearance of the Virgin to St. Dominic”, while in the centre is a large fresco, a great masterpiece, representing the “Institution of the Rosary“. The Virgin, in a blue sky with clouds, angels and cherubs, is supporting the Christ child who holds out the rosary to St. Dominic. The saint stands at the top of a long flight of marble steps from which he is making the rosary available to the people, both rich and poor, including a doge and a pope. At the bottom, the darkest part of the painting, damned souls (heretics) tumble out of the picture frame. This was one of Tiepolo’s first large fresco commissions.
After leaving Santa Maria del Rosario, turn right and then another right before the bridge to Fondamenta Nino, right across the Rio de San Trovaso you will see Squero San Trovaso (p.66 on the map). Today, Venice has about 425 gondolas in active service, and all are made by hand. A typical gondola is built from nine different types of wood and several hundred parts, including a carved oarlock called a forcola and a weighted bow ornament known as a ferro that helps to counterbalance the weight of the gondolier who rows while standing on the boat’s stern. A gondola isn’t a cheap purchase (hence, the ride fees are high too) and it can cost upwards of €20,000, depending on its amenities, and it requires regular maintenance. Gondola construction and repairs are supplied by a handful of squeri, or boatyards, in Venice and the Venetian Lagoon. Most of these boatyards are in locations that tourists seldom see, but you are in luck today, as you are standing in front of the oldest and most famous yard – the . Although the squero isn’t open to the public, you can enjoy a view of the gondola craftsmen at work from the opposite bank of the San Trovaso Canal.
Another place to check out along the Grand Canal is Ca’ Rezzonico (p.71 on the map, Museum pass, pictures allowed, audioguide) – a museum dedicated to 18th-century Venice. The building began by the Bon family, who commissioned it to Baldassarre Longhena in 1667, but the funds of the Bons ran dry before the second floor was started. In 1712, the unfinished palace was bought by the wealthy Rezzonico family of Genoa, who spent a large portion of their fortune on its completion. Today, the Ca’ Rezzonico (a.k.a. The Museo del Settecento Veneziano) contains furniture, decoration, and artwork from the period. The grand home on the Grand Canal is the best place in town to experience the luxurious, decadent spirit of Venice in the Settecento (the 1700s).
If you are arriving by water, step onto the dock on the Grand Canal and admire Ca’ Rezzonico’s heavy stone facade. This dock was, of course, the main entrance back in the 1700s. Next, appreciate the 1700s-era covered gondola in the courtyard. Picture this arriving at the Ca’s dock for a party during Carnevale. A charcoal heater inside kept the masked and caped passengers warm, as they sipped Prosecco and chatted in French, enjoying their winter holiday away from home…
Go inside and from the ground floor ascend the grand staircase to the first floor, entering the ballroom. From here, simply follow the one-way route through the numbered rooms:
(1) Ballroom – this would be a great place for a wedding reception. At 520 m², it could be the biggest private venue in the city. Stand in the center and the room gets even bigger, with a ceiling painting that opens up to the heavens and trompe l’oeil (optical illusion) columns and arches that open into fake alcoves. Imagine dancing under candlelit chandeliers to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. Servants glide by with drinks and finger foods, the gentlemen wear powdered wigs, silk shirts with lacy sleeves, tight velvet coats and breeches, striped stockings, and shoes with big buckles. They carry snuffboxes with dirty pictures inside the lids. The ladies powder their hair, pile it high and weave in stuff – pictures of their children or locks of a lover’s hair. And everyone carried a mask on a stick to change identity in a second. The chandeliers of gold-covered wood are original. But while most of the furniture you’ll see is from the 1700s, it is not from the Rezzonico family collection.
(2) Nuptial Allegory Salon – in fact, there was a wedding here – see the happy couple on the ceiling, arriving in a chariot pulled by four horses and serenaded by angels, cupids and Virtues? In 1757, Ludovico Rezzonico exchange vows with Faustina Savorgnan in this room, under the bellies of the horses painted for the occasion by Giombattista Tiepolo. Tiepolo, the best known decorator of Europe’s palaces, was at the height of his fame and technique. He knocked this off in 12 days! His bright colors, mastery of painting figures from every possible angle, wide knowledge of classical literary subjects, and sheer, unbridled imagination made his frescoes blend seamlessly with ornate Baroque and Rococo furniture. The Rezzonico were a family of nouveaux riches who, in 1687, bought their way into the exclusive club of Venetian patrician families. The state, which needed money for its military adventures, actually sold noble status to parvenue families like the Rezzonico. These upwardly mobile families then followed a strategy to be accepted by the old nobility. Over the course of several generations, the Rezzonico bought and decorated this fancy palazzo, married into high society, managed to secure a prestigious Venetian office, and even put one of their relatives on the papal throne. In early times, art was about scoring religious points to gain the way into heaven. In the 18th century, wealthy people commissioned art like the works in this palace simply to gain respect. The “Portrait of Clement XIII”, pink-cheeked and well-fed, shows the most famous Rezzonico. As pope (elected in 1758), Clement spent his reign defending the Jesuit society from anti-Catholic European nobles. A prayer kneeler (in the tiny (3) adjoining chapel) look heavily used, dating from the sin-and-repent era of Settencento Venice.
(4) Pastel Room – Europe’s most celebrated painter of portraits in pastel was a Venetian, Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757). Wealthy French and English tourists on holiday wanted a souvenir of Venice and Carriera obliged, with miniature portraits on ivory rather than the traditional vellum (soft animal skin). These were products of narcissism – the 18th century photos that proclaimed, “Look how charming/interesting I am”. She progressed to portraits in pastel, a medium that caught the luminous, pale-skin, white-haired, heavy-makeup look that was considered so desirable. Still, her “Portrait (Ritratto) of Sister Maria Caterina” has a warts-and-all-realism that doesn’t hide the nun’s heavy eyebrows, long nose, and forehead vein, which only intensifies the spirituality she radiates. At age 45, Carriera was invited by tourists whom she’d befriended to visit them in Paris. There she became the toast of the town. Returning triumphantly to Venice, she settled into her home on the Grand Canal and painted until her eyesight failed. Also in the room is a “Portrait of Cecilia Guardi Tiepolo”, wife of Giambattista Tiepolo, sister of famous painter Francesco Guardi, and mother of not-very-famous painter Lorenzo Tiepolo, who painted this when he was 21.
(5) Tapestry Room – tapestries, furniture, a mirror, and a door with Asian themes that shows an opium smoker oh his own little island paradise (lower panel) give a sense of the Rococo luxury of the wealthy. In a century dominated by the French court at Versailles, Venice was one of the few cities that could hold its own. The furniture ensemble of gilded wood chairs, tables, and chests hints at the Louis XIV (claw-foot) style, but the pieces were made in a Venetian workshop. Despite Venice’s mask of gaiety, in the 1700s it was a poor, politically bankrupt, dirty city. Garbage floated in the canals, the streets were either unpaved or slippery with slime, and tourists could hardly stand visiting Basilica di San Marco or the Palazzo Ducale because of the stench of mildew. But its reputation for decay and sleaze was actually romanticized into a metaphor for adventures into shady morality.With licensed casinos and thousands of courtesans, it was a fun city for foreigners freed from hometown blinders.
(6) Throne Room – “Nowhere in Europe are there so many and such splendid fetes, ceremonies and public entertainments of all kinds as there are in Venice”, wrote a visitor from France. As you check out the view of the Grand Canal, imagine once again that you’re attending a party here. You could watch the Forze d’Ercole (Force of Hercules) acrobats, who stood in boats and kept building a human pyramid – of up to 50 bodies – until they tumbled, laughing into the Grand Canal. At midnight the hosts would dim the mirrored candleholders on the walls, so you could look out on a fireworks display over the water. The ceiling fresco, again by Tiepolo, certainly trompe l’oeil (best viewed from the center). Tiepolo opens the room’s sunroof, allowing angels to descend to earth to pick up the Rezzonico clan’s patriarch. The old, bald, bearded fellow is crowned with laurels and begins to rise on a cloud up to the translucent temple of glory. The angels hold Venice’s Golden Book, where the names of the city’s nobles were listed and Tiepolo captures the moment just as the gang is exiting through the “hole” in the ceiling. The leg of the lady in blue hangs over the “edge” of the fake oval. Tiepolo creates a zero-gravity universe that must have astounded visitors. Walk in circles under the fresco, and watch the angel spin.
(7) Tiepolo – the ceiling painting by Tiepolo depicts Nobility and Virtue as a kind of bare-breasted duo defeating Treachery, who tumbles down. The painting – which is on canvas, not a fresco like the others – was moved here from another palazzo. Portraits around the room are by Tiepolo and his sons, Lorenzo and Giovanni Domenico. The paintings are sober and down-to-earth, demonstrating the artistic range of this exceptional family. Tiepolo was known for his flamboyance, but he passed to his sons his penchant for painting wrinkled, wizened old men in the Rembrandt style. In later years, Tiepolo had the pleasure of traveling with his sons to distant capitals, meeting royalty, and working on palace ceilings. Giovanni Domenico contributed some of the minor figures in the Ca’ Rezzonico ceilings and went on to a successful artistic career of his own (his works are upstairs). This was the game room, and you can see a card table in the center. The big walnut cabinet along the wall is one of the few original pieces of furniture from the Rezzonico collection.
(9) Library – Ca’ Rezzonico was the home of the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) in his later years. Imagine him here in this study, in a melancholy mood after a long winter, reading a book and thinking of words from a poem of his: “Oh to be in England, now that April’s there…”
(10) Lazzarini – the big, colorful paintings are by Gregorio Lazzarini (1655-1730), Tiepolo’s teacher. Tiepolo took Lazzarini’s color, motion, and twisted poses and suspended them overhead.
(11) Brustolon – Andrea Brustolon (1662-1732) carved Baroque fantasies into the custom-made tables, chairs, and vase stands that he crafted in his Venice workshop. In black ebony, redding boxwood, and brown walnut, they overwhelm with the sheer number of figures, yet each carving is a gem worth admiring. The big case stand is a harmony of different colors: a white vase supported by ebony slaves in chains and a brown boxwood Hercules. The slaves’ chains are carved from a single piece of wood – an impressive artistic feat. The room’s flowery Murano glass chandelier – of pastel pinks, blues and turquoise – is original.
(12) Portico (Portego) – the funny little cabin in the room is a sedan chair, a servant-powered taxi for Venetian nobles. Four strong-shouldered men ran poled through the iron brackets on either side, then carried it on their shoulders, while the rich rode in red-velvet luxury above the slimy streets.
Take the stairs to the second floor.
You emerge into (13) Painting Portego- Canaletto. Rich tourists wanting to remember their stay in Venice sought out Canaletto (1697-1768) for a “postcard” view. “The Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to Rialto” captures the view you’d see from the Palazzo two doors down. With photographic clarity, Canaletto depicts buildings, boats, and shadows on the water, leading the eye to the tiny, half-hidden Rialto Bridge on the distant horizon. The “View of Rio dei Mendicante” chronicles every chimney, every open shutter, every pair of underwear hanging out to dry. Canaletto was a young theater-set painter working on Scarlatti operas in Rome when he decided his true calling was painting reality, not Baroque fantasy. He moved home to Venice, set up his easel outside, and painted scenes like these two, directly from nature. It was considered a very odd thing to do in his day. Despite the seeming photorealism and crystal clarity, these wide-angle views are more than any human eye could take in without turning side to side. Canaletto, who meticulously studied the mathematics of perspective, was not above tweaking those rules to compress more of Venice into the frame. In the “Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to Rialto”, notice there are shadows along both sides of the canal – physically impossible, but more picturesque. His paintings still have a theater-set look to them, but here, the Venice backdrop is the star. To meet the demand for postcard scenes of Venice, Canaletto resorted in later years to painting from engravings or following formulas. But these two early works reflect his pure vision to accurately paint the city he loved. Grant Tour visitors routinely reposted that Venice pleased the eye but not the heart or mind. Just as they experienced the city without feeling any real passion, these paintings let you see it, marvel, and move on.
(14) Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s Frescoes from the Villa Zianigo. The son of Tiepolo decorated the family villa with frescoes for his own enjoyment. They are far more down-to-earth that his father’s high-flying fantasies. “The World” features butts, as ordinary folk crowd around a building with a peep-show window. The only faces we see are the two men in profile – Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (far right with eyeglass) and his father (arms folded) – and baby brother Lorenzo (center). The “Pulcinella Room” has several scenes (including one overhead) for the hook-nosed, white-clothed, hunchbacked clown who, at Carnevale time, represented the lovable country bumpkin. But here, he and his similarly dressed companions seem tired, lecherous, and stupid. The decadent gaiety of Settecento Venice was at odds with the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité erupting in France.
The 18th century was a time of great change. The fresh ideas and innovations of the Enlightenment swept more adaptable societies upward into a thriving new modern age. Meanwhile, a Venice in denial declined. Venetians bought into their own propaganda. The modern ideas coming out of France threatened the very foundation of what La Serenissima was about. Over time Venetians stopped trading, stopped traveling, and became stuck in the mud. Like Marie Antoinette retreating into her little hamlet at Versailles, the aristocracy of Venice withdrew into their palaces. Insisting their city remained exceptional, Venetian society chose to dance rather than to adopt. As Venice fell, its appetite for decadence grew. Through the 18th century, the Venetians partied and partied, as if drunk on the wealth accumulated through earlier centuries.
(15) Spinet Room – the 1700s saw the development of new keyboard instruments that would culminate by century’s end in the modern piano. This particular specimen has strings that are not hammered (like a piano) but plucked. At this point, a pluck was just a pluck – always the same volume. When hammers were introduces shortly after this, the novelty of being able to play both soft and loud sounds prompted Italians to name the instrument the fortepiano (loud-soft).
(17) Parlor – Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), like Canaletto, supplied foreigners with scenes of Venice. But Guardi uses rougher brushwork that casts a romantic haze over the decaying city. “The Parlor (Il Parlatorio delle Monache di S. Zaccaria)” is an interior landscape featuring visiting day at a convent school. The girls, secluded with their servant girls behind grills, chat and have tea with family members, friends, ladies with their pets, and potential suitors. Convents were like boarding schools for aristocratic ladies, where they got an education and learned manners before re-entering the world. Note the puppet show (starring spouse-abusing Pulcinella). Guardi’s “Il Ridotto di Palazzo Dandolo” shows partygoers in masks at a Venetian palace licensed for gambling. Casanova and other claimed that these casino houses had back rooms for the private use of patrons and courtesans. The men wear the traditional bautta – a three-piece outfit consisting of a face mask, three-cornered hat, and cowl. This getup was actually required by law in certain seedy establishments to ensure that every sinner was equally anonymous. The women wear Lone Ranger masks, and parade a hint of cleavage to potential customers.
(18) Longhi – there is no better look at 1700s Venice than these genre scenes by Pietro Longhi (1702-1785), depicting everyday life among the upper classes. See ladies and gentlemen going to the hairdresser or to the dentist, dressed in the finery that was standard in every public situation. These small easel works provide a psychoanalytic insight into society. They come with an overwhelming sense of boredom. There is no dynamism. There aren’t even any windows. It is a society closed to the world, without initiative, and, it seems, with no shortage of leisure time. Contrast these straightforward scenes with Tiepolo’s sumptuous ceiling painting of nude gods and goddesses. The Rococo fantasy world of aristocrats was slipping increasingly into the more prosaic era of the bourgeoisie. (21) Alcove – Casanova daydreamed of fancy boudoirs like this one, complete with a large bed (topped with a Madonna by Rosalba Carriera), a walnut dresser, Neoclassical wallpaper, and silver toiletries. Even the presence of the baby cradle would not have dimmer his ardor.
The 3rd floor of the museum is a large collection of Venetian paintings amassed by a local scholar name Egidio Martini. Most are by lesser-known artists from the 1600s and 1700s, but there is one room of 19th and early 20th century works, including a few Impressionists.
A few doors north, along the Grand Canal, there is another interesting palazzo (actually three) to visit – Ca’ Foscari University (p. 69 on the map, €5.50 – entrance, guided tours only, booked here, pictures allowed). Home to the headquarters of the University of Venice, this building has a very interesting history and destiny. A Byzantine palace, known as the “House with the Two Towers”, it was bought by the Republic of Venice in 1429 from Bernardo Giustinian, to serve as the main residence of the vice-captain of the Republic, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga. However, in 1439, the palace was given to another captain, Francesco Sforza. who, just 8 years later betrayed the Republic and was deprived of the residence. In 1453 the Republic of Venice regained possession of the palace and sold it by auction to the Doge Francesco Foscari; who had the palace demolished and rebuilt (by the architect Bartolomeo Bon) on the bank of the Grand Canal in late Venetian Gothic style. Remember, that doges lived in Palazzo Ducale till their deaths, but it looks like Foscari sensed that his Venetian expansion in the mainland and endless wars wouldn’t end well for him. And he was right, in October 1457 the Council of Ten forced him to abdicate and he retired to his new home… but died there just a week later.
Not much is known about the building from that time till 1868, when it became home to the School of Commerce (Regia Scuola Superiore di Commercio), except that in 1574 king Henry III of France was housed in the second floor of the building. As the reputation of the school grew, so did the student numbers (which are nearly 20,000 today) and very shortly, Ca’ Foscari was joined by Ca’ Giustinian (the palace adjacent to Ca’ Foscari) and Ca’ Dolfin (across Rio de Ca’ Foscari). All buildings were recently renovated and now anybody can take a 60-min guided tour around the premisses of the Ca’ Foscari University, which takes you to the most beautiful halls, such as the “Aula Baratto” and the “Aula Berengo”.
The portal of Ca’ Foscari is today the main entrance of the building and was restored in 2008. It is made of Istrian marble in rectangular shape and surmounted by a lunette; on its perimeter it is decorated with checkered patterns. The coat of arms inside the lunette is composed of a central blazon and three putti (one on each side and one on the top); inside the blazon is depicted the winged lion of St. Mark holding an open book. In 1797, following the forced surrender of Venice and overthrow of the Republic by Napoleon, family blazons were abolished; consequently, they were hidden, taken down or, as at Ca’ Foscari, covered with whitewash.
Ca’ Foscari is a typical example of the residence of the Venetian nobles and merchants. The structure is one of the most imposing buildings of the city and its external patio is the second biggest courtyard of a private house after that of the Palazzo Ducale. In common with other palaces, Ca’ Foscari’s principal and most decorated facade and entrance faces the Grand Canal and its façade is characterized by a rhythmic sequence of arches and windows (style, known as Floral Gothic). At Ca’ Foscari, the tops of each column are decorated with carved quatrefoil patterns; the Gothic capitals are adorned with foliage, animals and masks. Above the Gothic window is a marble frieze with a helmet surmounted with a lion couchant representing the role of the doge as the captain of the republic; at each side of the central helmet we can find two putti holding a shield symbolizing the Foscari’s coat of arms with the winged lion of Saint Mark, symbol of Venice.
Since most locals were traders, many Venetian palaces served their practical purposes, that of the “fondaco” – the headquarters for the family’s trading ventures. The main features of these early palaces were two-storey arcades or loggias along the waterfront; on the ground floor was portal for loading and unloading merchandise. The portal often led into an entrance hall (portigo) used for business negotiations, with storerooms and offices on either side and a kitchen at the back. The living quarters (“piani nobili“) were upstairs, with the rooms leading off great T-shaped central room; a well and an open staircase were placed in the courtyard. The loggias, tied one above the other, are now glazed and light the large halls behind. Through the portigo, our guide took us to the courtyard of Palazzo Giustinian.
The building edifice was built in the late 15th century, perhaps with the participation of Bartolomeo Bon. The palace consisted originally of two separated sectors, one for each branch of the family (Nicolò and Giovanni Giustinian), which were later harmonized through a central section in the façade; these are known as Ca’ Giustinian dei Vescovi (now housing part of the Ca’ Foscari University) and Ca’ Giustinian dalle Zogie (which is still privately owned). Behind the façade, they are separated by an alley which, through a sottoportego (portico-tunnel), connects to the central portal. The two sub-palaces share numerous decorative features with the annexed Ca’ Foscari. They have an L-shaped plan with four floors, the upper ones having mullioned windows. At the “piano nobile” they form a six-arches arcade with an interwoven motif of multi-lobes circles. The single windows are ogival, or decorated with a three-lobe motif. Ca’ Giustinian dei Vescovi has in the rear a court with a Gothic staircase, while Ca’ Giustinian delle Zogie has a large garden. The family sold the palazzo in the 19th century. Since then, personalities such as painter Natale Schiavoni, German composer Richard Wagner (who wrote the second act of Tristan und Isolde here between 1858 and 1859), the last Duchess of Parma, Louise d’Artois, Hungarian violinist Franz von Vecsey and American novelist William Deal Howells have lived here.
Then, we ascended to piano nobile – the Great Hall dedicated to Mario Baratto (a professor of Italian literature and antifascist, who died in 1984). The Aula Baratto is used today to host conferences, conventions, formal ceremonies and other important events of Ca’ Foscari University. Scarpa designed the Great Hall in order to replace the Museum of Commerce. A massive portal with the Latin inscription ″STUDY DECUS ORNAMENTUMQUE VITAE″ introduces the hall. Our guide pointed out a few most interesting features of this room: two frescos painted by Mario Sironi and Mario Deluigi, (1936-1937) and the enhancements made by Carlo Scarpa (the window, the boiserie and the footboard), however everybody’s eyes were glued to the views from the windows – the palace is located on the widest bend of the Grand Canal. Here, during the annual Regata Storica (Historical Regatta), held on the first Sunday in September, a floating wooden observation platform known as La Machina is placed; this also the site of the finishing line, and the venue for prize-giving.
Between 1935 and 1937 Mario Sironi was asked by the rector Agostino Lanzillo to decorate the Great Hall of Ca’ Foscari. He was chosen because he was considered an artist able to convey the faith and the fervor of the Italian Fascist youth of that period. The “Italy, Venice and Studies” fresco includes a student athlete holding a book and a musket, the allegory of Technique, the allegory of Medicine, the city of Venice sitting on a throne, the lion of St. Mark and the domes of the basilica. It also shows a figure in chains called Motherland, which represents the victory of Italy in Ethiopia. There is an inscription over the Motherland figure: “Italy will do by itself”; it refers to the autarky pursued by Italy and to its ambition to become an imperial power.
The second painting “La Scuola” represents the school of philosophers by Mario De Luigi. In the middle there is the thinker surrounded by the students. The painting presents traces of cubism, but there is also the three-dimensional element.
We left Ca’ Foscari and crossed a small rio de Ca’ Foscari to reach Ca’ Dolfin, another of the University’s property, acquired in 1955. From 1961 till 1973 it housed the College, while the main hall became the university’s Aula Magna. This splendid room is dedicated to the memory of Silvio Trentin, one of the most influential and important figures in 19th century Veneto history. He was a great academic from Ca’ Foscari, a pioneer of regional politics and a resolute opponent of the Fascist regime. Like many other palazzi on the lagoon, Ca’ Dolfin, emerging from the area of San Pantalon, is also closely linked to the history of the family who inhabited it. The Dolfin family was one of the 24 “case vecchie” or founding families of La Serenissima. Among its members were cardinals, senators, ambassadors, scholars, admirals and one doge. By the end of the 13th century, Giacomo Dolfin (1283-1285), son of the forefather Gregorio Dolfin, Duke of Candia, had a palace built “in confinio S. Pantaleonis.” The current palace was constructed in the 16th century on foundations dating back to the 9th century. Originally from the Secco family, it was acquired by Cardinal Giovanni Dolfin (1545-1622) in 1621. It was renovated at the end of the 1600s by architect Domenico Rossi (1657-1737), who brought extensive modernization and enhancements to the ground and first floors. On February 11, 1709, Girolamo Dolfin (1679-1715) organized a gathering at Ca’ Dolfin in honor of Federick IV, king of Denmark and Norway who had embarked on a tour of Italy.
The restoration to the palace was completed in the years immediately following by the addition of upper floors and completion of the hall on the first floor, where Nicolo Bambini (1651-1739) painted an apotheosis of the Dolfin family on the ceiling. The frescoes were completed by 1721, as by then, the English writer Edward Wright saw and described them after the visit to the palace. Antonio Felice Ferrari (1667-1720) worked on the illusionistic quadraturas, other frescoes and stuccos including the ten architectural frameworks on the walls which remained blank for several years. Upon the wishes of Daniel Giovanni Dolfin (1656-1729), Giambattista Tiepolo painted ten large canvases, depicting memorable episodes in the history of Rome, from its foundation until the rule of Italy: “Mucius Scaevola before Porsenna”, “Brutus and Arruns”, “Veturia Pleading with Coriolanus”, “Cincinnatus Offered the Dictatorship”, “Fabius Maximus before the Senate at Carthage”, “Hannibal Contemplating the Head of Hasdrubal”, “The Triumph of Marius”, etc. The intention was to conceive a sort of temple to the Dolfin family able to honor the dedication of its members to their country and their moral and civil rectitude. In any case, it dealt with subjects who were all part of a single iconographic theme collectively with the large fresco on the ceiling and the pre-existing artwork on the walls.
After the death of the last male descendant of the Dolfins of San Pantalon – Daniele Andrea Dolfin (1748-1798) – the palace passed down along the female line to Gasparo Lippomano, and then in 1854 to Giovanni Querini Stampalia, who then left it to the Querini Stampalia Foundation in 1869. The consecutive passages of property were so convoluted that the lack of one owner led to the early deterioration of the palace and the depletion of its most previous decorations. In 1871, the entire residence was acquired by the Venetian antiquarian Moise Michelangelo Guggenheim, who immediately sold the ten canvases by Tiepolo: five went to the Stieglitz Museum in Saint Petersburg and were then passed on to the Hermitage in 1934, two canvases were sold to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and three – to the Met Museum in New York. The palazzo, stripped of all its furniture and all its paintings, and by now in dismal condition was bought in 1876 by Milanese architect Giambattista Brusa, and underwent a renovation. Among other things, he had placed mirrors in the places left by the removed Tiepolo’s canvases.
The palace was bought by the university in 1955 and was intended to house the College of merit for men only. After the acquisition, the building underwent a restoration (1958-1960) and till 1971 hosted students from all over Italy, free of charge based on their merit. Therefore, almost a century after it ceased to be the residence of one of the oldest Venetian noble families, stripped of all its beauty and grace, Ca’ Dolfin had the opportunity to host a group of young academics who then went on to distinguish themselves in the field of science and business. With its spacious and evocative rooms, its ceilings and wall adorn with magnificent frescoes, medallions with allegorical figures, Murano glass chandeliers and mirrors, the Aula Magna is still the setting for official events and university ceremonies.
Sestiere di Cannaregio
The last sistiere on my tour is Cannaregio – Venice’s northernmost and the most populous one (over 13,000 residents). Deriving its name from the Cannaregio canal, the area dates back to the 11th century when local swamps were drained and parallel canals were dredged. Since elegant palazzi were built facing the Grand Canal, the area grew primarily with working class housing and manufacturing, which is still very visible today.
Beginning in 1516, Jews were restricted to living in the Venetian Ghetto. It was enclosed by guarded gates and no one was allowed to leave from sunset to dawn. However, Jews held successful positions in the city such as merchants, physicians and money lenders. Restrictions on daily Jewish life continued until Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797; he removed the gates and gave all residents the freedom to live where they chose. In the 19th century, civil engineers built a street named Strada Nuova through Cannaregio, which is the “Broadway” of the sestiere. Today, the areas of the district along the Grand Canal from the train station to the Rialto Bridge are packed with tourists, but the rest of Cannaregio is residential and relatively peaceful, with morning markets, neighborhood shops, and small cafés. There are no palazzi here, but very simple and straightforward residential quarters. In a few hours that I spent browsing the area, I’ve heard half of a dozen European languages, Russian and Polish including, spoken not by tourists, but locals, busily running about their daily chores.
I reached Cannaregio by vaporetto #4.2 and got off at S. Alvise stop, location of Chiesa di Sant’Alvise (p.10 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures allowed). The northern area of the city of Venice, formed by long and narrow “insulas” between parallel canals, is an environment that is still fascinating today. In this place, solitary and remote at the edge of the lagoon, once full of gardens and parks, a small hermitage of Augustinian nuns was established in 1388. Tradition has it that St. Louis of Toulouse, appeared in a dream to the patrician lady Antonia Venier to convince her to build a convent bearing his name. The simple facade, in bare brick, presents a profile that is unique in Venice: it is cadenced by six pilaster strips and crowned by suspended arches, with inclined roof surfaces in the central part. The only decoration on the facade are an oculus in Istrian stone and a Gothic portal with the 15th century statue of St. Louis in the lunette, attributed to the Florentine Agostino di Duccio, present in Venice around 1442. In 1456 the monastery acquired three important relics of the Flagellation that turned this tip of the city into a palace of devotion and pilgrimage.
In the years to follow the Passion of Christ inspired the church’s artistic heritage: in 1735 the nuns commissioned from Giambattista Tiepolo “The Road to Calvary” that together with two other masterpieces, “The Flagellation” and “The Crowning with Thorns”, artistically enriched the church and at the same time invited visitors to reflect on the episodes of the Passion. A soon as you enter the church, the eyes are attracted by the perspective illusions of the ceiling – highly evocative but out of keeping with the Gothic environment – which gives the impression of breaking through the roof: the real walls of the church seem to support the unreal walls of a “Heavenly Jerusalem”, frescoed by Pietro Antonio Torri and Pietro Ricchi.
Above the main entrance there is the nuns’ choir gallery resting on two columns with capitals and 15th century barbacani (wooden beam supports). Below, on the entrance facade, we can admire the 8 panels with “Episodes of the Old Testament” (previously erroneously attributed to Carpaccio), painted by Lazzaro Bastiani in the late 15th century, coming from the suppressed church of Santa Maria delle Vergini. We are struck by the narrative condor of these works, accompanied by a graphic rigidity reminiscent of Mantegna. The painting in the chancel is the most dramatic: the scene is lively and of great tragic effect, inspired by the luministic dynamism of Tintoretto and the engravings of Rembrandt. Most striking in this large canvas is the prostrate body of Christ, with an expression of intense suffering and extremely contorted posture. The characteristic common to the three altarpieces of the “Passion” is the reference to theater, in particular to the many melodramas presented in the city at that time, to which Tiepolo was greatly attracted, as we can see in the costumes of the depicted characters.
Once I left the church and walked towards the Jewish Ghetto, I realized that I was in the most residential part of Venice: washed clothes was drying on the strings, kids were playing football on the field, mail was delivered to homes and fruit vendors were curiously glancing at me. It might not be the most picturesque neighborhood, but it was definitely the most “Venetian” one.
I have already mentioned Venetian Ghetto (p.57 on the map) a few times. Indeed, both, the word “ghetto” itself and the concept of secluded living arrangement came from this place – Venice’s Jewish population once lived here, segregated from their non-Jewish neighbors. Today, this small area has centuries of history and a few Jewish-related sights and eateries. In medieval times, Jews were grudgingly allowed to do business in Venice but in 1516, the doge restricted them to this area near the former foundry (“ghetto”). In time, the word caught on across Europe as a term for any isolated neighborhood. At one time, Venetian Jews were obliged to wear red or yellow marks sewn onto their clothing and distinctive-looking hats. However, keep in mind that unlike most European cities of the era, pragmatic Venice granted Jewish communities the right to practice certain professions key to the city’s livelihood, including medicine, trade, baking, fashion and publishing. When the Inquisition forced Jews out of Spain, many fled to Venice. Campo do Ghetto Novo is the ghetto’s center. In the 1600s – the Golden Age of Venice’ Jews – the Campo had 70 shops and 5,000 Jews lived nearby, many packed into the six-story “skyscrapers” that still surround the square. To save space, the synagogues were built atop these tenements. Though it was home to a large number of Jews, they never assimilated to form a distinct, “Venetian Jewish” ethnicity. Four of the five synagogues were clearly divided according to ethnic identity: German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and Levantine Sephardi communities. The fifth, the Scuola Canton, was built as a private synagogue for the four families, one of them the Fano family, who funded its construction, and also served the Venetian Ashkenazi community. The ghetto two bridges were closed at night, but in 1797 Napoleon ended the ghetto’s isolation and in 1860s the Italian republic granted Jews full citizenship.
Today the square is quiet. Only 500 Jews live in the former ghetto, and the Jewish people you may see are likely tourists. The main sight is the Jewish Museum at #2902b – it has silver menorahs, cloth covers for Torah scrolls, and overview of ghetto history. From the Campo, you can see two synagogue exteriors (with their five windows) and three cistern wells. The large “Casa Israelitica di Riposo” is a Jewish senior community center that is becoming a hotel. It is flanked by two different Holocaust memorials, marking where the Nazis rounded up 200 Jews for deportation. Only 37 of them returned.
I have been told by a regular, that cafes and restaurants near the Jewish Ghetto were the best in town, so I stopped at one for a cup of tea and a delicious cannoli, and while slowly moving back to the Rialto area, I finally met one of 3 (!!!!) boat-women in whole of Venice – Chiara Curto. She isn’t a gondolier as she doesn’t navigate a gondola, but sandolista – she operates one of only 40 sandoli in Venice. Please reach out to her here (her tel is +34 958 70150) as we MUST support women in every trade!
Another interesting place to check out in Cannaregio is Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli (p.4 on the map, Chorus pass, pictures allowed). Unlike all the other churches in the city, which have all been overlapped by different styles, the church of Miracoli was practically untouched: founded later than the others, it was designed, built, and decorated by father-son team, Pietro and Tullio Lombardo and their workshop in one only stage. This Venetian architecture masterpiece, also known as the “Marble Church” (it was built of creatively repurposed polychrome marbles plundered from Egypt to Syria from the sides of Basilica di San Marco), comparable for its distinctiveness to an extraordinary treasure chest sculpted and redressed of marble. It is also the church where many Venetians like to get married.
The church was built between 1481 and 1489 upon commission of Angelo Amadi, who intended to hold an image of the “Virgin Mary with Child and Two Saints” in his possession – an image which, after Pope Sextus IV’s declaration of the Immaculate Conception Cult, has been declared miraculous. The façade, with the original semicircular front adorned by rose windows, was realized on two orders of arcades carved in marble, and the cylindrical roofing, perfectly enclose the volume of the church. The arrangement in the underlining of the spaces, throughout pillar sheets of different colors and cornices, resend a Florentine Renaissance style, but the decoration of the chromaticism clearly responds to a Venetian taste.
The interior, a single nave with a raised presbytery, is decorated even more sumptuously with pink, white and grey sculpted marble. On the altar stands Zanino di Pietro’s supposedly miraculous work of the “Virgin Mary and Child” (15th century). The imposing barrel vault is decorated with wooden coffering and fifty panels depicting “Prophets and Patriarchs”, painted by Pier Maria Pennachi and assistants. The pendentives of the cupola houses statues of the “Four Evangelists”, probably the work of Pietro Lombardo himself – as is the splendid transenna in front of the presbytery. Above the entrance is still preserved the old wooden choir stalls (barco) of the nuns from the nearby convent, who used to gain access to the church by means of a raised passageway that has been demolished.
By mid 1980s, the church’s marble cladding contained 14% of salts, and was on the point of bursting. The New York based Save Venice, Inc raised $4 million for the restoration of dei Miracoli, which took ten years to complete (from 1987 till 1997) and required all marble cladding to be removed, and then cleaned in stainless steel tanks, in a solution of distilled water. And today, you can safely enjoy the church whose angles aren’t going to fall on your head!
Isola di San Michele. Despite strict funeral laws in regard to non-Venetians, I knew that Venice was the last resting place to a long list of celebrities and artists, but I had a particular interest in visiting the local cemetery (Cimitero di San Michele), to pay my tribute to three great Russians buried there – composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), founder of Ballet Russe Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) and Nobel prize winning poet Iosif Brodsky (1940-1996). Until Napoleon established a city cemetery on Isola di San Michele, Venetians had been buried in parish plots across town – not the most salubrious solution, as Napoleon’s inspectors realized. Today, incorrigible romantics, music-lovers and Russophiles like myself pause here with flowers in hand to pay their respect. Architecture buffs stop by to see the Renaissance Chiesa di San Michele (begun by Codussi in 1469) and the smaller San Cristoforo. You can also visit the ongoing cemetery extension, including the recently completed Courtyard of the Four Evangelists – a sunken bunker, with a concrete colonnade and basalt-clad walls engraved with the Gospels.
From Piazza San Marco I took vaporetto 4.1 and 45 minutes later got off the stop “Cimitero”. It was a very cold, misty and foggy day, but I still chose to ride outside, trying to soak in the barely visible views of industrial Giudecca, recreational Santa Elena and guarded Arsenale, and I almost missed it! And by “it” I mean a ship, a very familiar ship even though I’ve never seen it with my own eyes – Sea Shepherd “Bob Barker” was docked just near the “Bacini” stop. “Keep up with the great work that you do” I wanted to scream, but I knew, they didn’t need my encouragement to go on protecting the seas from illegal fishing practices.
The entire island is a cemetery, so the moment I got off, I was already inside (entry is free, no pictures allowed). By the entrance, there was a flower shop and according to my tradition, we always bring flowers to the graves, so I bought 3 yellow roses for 3 masters. The cemetery is divided up into many sections, and without a map it is a very confusing site (however, it wasn’t easy to find with a map either).
Signs conduct visitors to the Orthodox and Protestant cemeteries; other sections are harder to locate. Wandering around can be an interesting and touching experience. One area is given over to the humble memorials of nuns and the sometimes less humble graves of priests. According to the Time Out guidebook, there is a section for gondoliers, although I haven’t found it.
The Orthodox area is a charming walled garden which traps late sunlight and seagulls. Against the far wall, almost next to each other, visitors will find the tombs of Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky, festooned with the offerings of ballet and music-lovers. Other graves around the walls are also fascinating, bearing testament to the lives of exiles in Venice of days gone by – Russian princesses and counts, for example.
Joseph Brodsky is also buried in the same area but closer to the left wall.
Right at the entrance to the compound, there is a small wooden box, reminding me of the bird houses I used to build as a child. When I opened it, I realize it was a sort of “farewell box” filled with notes addressed to Brodsky – in Italian, English but mostly in Russian. Some contained just a few lines but some were the 4-5-page long letters.
Ezra Pound and his mistress Olga are buried in the Protestant section – his tomb is hard to spot; it’s to the left of the central path and resembles a flowerbed. However, if you wish to visit the place he lived last in Venice, head to Dorsoduro, his house address is 252 Calle Querini (on the Rio Fornace).
Space is limited on the island, although an enlargement is under way, and burials are squeezed in tightly. Nowadays dead Venetians are only guaranteed a few years of rest on San Michele – after a period of around ten years, remains are exhumed and stored in an ossuary. Discreet noticeboards around the entrance list the timetable for exhumations.
Carnevale di Venezia
But of course, my husband and I arrived to Venice to witness and be part of the Carnevale! Celebrated 10 days before Lent (and ending on Throve Tuesday), “carnevale” literally means “farewell to meat”. First mentioned in 1162, it became particularly famous in the 17th and 18th century, when well-headed revelers came from all over Europe to take part in the festivities. Masks became ubiquitous, affording anonymity and pardoning 1,000 sins. They permitted the commoners to attend the balls and mingle with the Venetian nobility. Important to mention that Carnevali of the 18th century tended to last 2 and even 3 months, starting as early as November, so no wonder the doges condemned and the popes denounced them. However nothing could spoil the Venetian Carnevale spirit until Napoleon arrived in 1797 and put an end to the party. Resuscitated in 1980, by local tourism powers to fill the winter months, Carnevale isn’t as promiscuous as in its heyday, however the smart branding policy helped establish Carnevale’s image as neither a free-for-all outdoor party nor a continuation of the exclusive private balls in the Grand Canal palazzi available to only a few.
Today, with or without a ball, there are plenty of fun things to do in the streets. The moment you land, an airpot usher would hand you a schedule and a map of all the events taking place in town. You’ll find a patchwork of musical and cultural performance, many of them free of charge, that appeal to all tastes, nationalities, ages and budgets. At any given moment, events are staged in many of the city’s dozens of piazzas and special art exhibits are mounted at numerous museums and galleries. However, keep in mind that Carnevale is not for those who dislike crowds, as the crowds are what it is all about. All of life becomes a stage, and everyone is on it. Whether you spend months creating an elaborate costume or hire one from multiple ateliers in town, Carnevale is about giving in to the spontaneity of the magic and surprise around every corner, the mystery behind every mask.
Masks and costumes are everywhere, with the emphasis on the historical, because Venice’s Carnival is a chance to relive the glory days of the 1700s, when Venetian life was at its most extravagant. But you might encounter everything from male geisha to Three Musketeers, so be prepared. In my opinion, the city is the quintessential set and the perfect venue as even Hollywood couldn’t create a more evocative location. This is a celebration about history, art, theater and drama. Venice and Carnevale were made for each other!
I guess there are several ways to experience the festival. You can buy a mask at one of hundreds of mask shops, put it on and blend in with the crowd. You can even add a cape to make it more dramatic. Nevertheless, my husband and I wanted to have an ultimate Venetian Carnevale experience, that is why we decided to attend a traditional Venetian ball. A few months prior, we researched the site related to the festivities which indicated many activities, including information about private balls. Since Il Ballo del Doge organized by Antonia Sautter (she designed and executed all the costumes for “Eyes Wide Shut”) was sold out, we optioned for the second best – The Grand Masquerade Ball at Palazzo Flangini that fell on Saturday, February 6.
After booking our tickets online (€880 per person), we received a few follow-up emails: we were to inform the ball organizers about our food preferences and allergies, as well as languages spoken or preferred to be spoken at the table. Another email requested our detailed body measurements and once we provided all the information, we were sent a catalogue of costumes in our sizes to pick. Dimitris and I selected a few to match each other’s outfits and luckily, our first choice was available. We were given a set time to come for the costume trial. A tip -try to arrange a trial as soon as possible as by the time we were booking, there were very few open time slots left if any. A few days before the ball, we stopped at Tragicomica shop in San Polo at 8 am to try out our costumes and choose accompanying items – powdered wig, a cape and a mask for me and trendy shoes with a buckle for my husband. Price €1100 for the 24-hour costume rentals. I want to point out that the “costume” wasn’t really a costume, it was a real dress (weighing about 10 kg with multiple underskirts and blouses), professionally and very carefully done. It was a state-of-an-art dress, both, mine and my husband’s.
The very next day, the concierge at the hotel arranged a costume pick up for us, while we were getting ready for a photo session with Pietro Volpato (€300 for 4 hours). Indisputably, Venice was a perfect place and Carnevale was a perfect opportunity to capture this beautiful moment of us, dressed as the 18th century nobility promenading the city’s alleyways. It was the last Saturday of the Carnival so Piazza San Marco and every street in Venice was full of masked merry people, many dressed up in period costumes! Pietro was a perfect photographer, very knowledgeable and respectful of others and believe me, it is not an easy task to take pictures when you are just one of 50 other guys with a camera!
Violin d’Oro organized a small party at the hotel’s restaurant so before heading out to the Ball, we came down and had a few glasses of Prosecco. We took a water taxi to Palazzo Flangini (built in the 17th century by a Greek Cypriot family) and got to its main Grand Canal entrance at around 20.30.
After checking in my cape and making sure I was looking my best, we entered the main hall on the ground level. For the next 45-60 minutes we were entertained by multiple performances, from dancers and musicians to violin players and satirical artists, with Casanova in charge! And trays with petit fours and Prosecco were coming in, ceaselessly. At around 21.30, the maitre d’hotel announced that dinner was going to be served shortly and asked everyone to proceed to “piano nobile” named after Giuseppe Sardi (the architect of the palace).
The room was decorate on par with our costumes and in perfect accordance with everybody’s mood. We weren’t fools to expect to dine with the real nobility of Venice. Everyone at the Ball was a tourist, just like us, but we all got caught in a moment… one moment that took place somewhere in the 18th century. Once we got seated at assigned tables (we got an English speaking one), I had a chance to look around and scan both the guests and the decorations. The place held about 150-200 guests. And even though, majority of people wore masks, I still could tell that the most of them were between 25 and 45 years old. Our table had another American couple from San Francisco and a few New Zealanders. Every woman openly paraded the excitement of being dressed in the most elaborate costume she had ever wore in her life (including her wedding dress), and I felt exactly the same way. And if women took full advantage of all those skirts and high wigs, men looked very proper and even sombre, as if the shoe buckles or thick frock coats with gold embroidery lent them more dignity, power, or wealth!
Chandeliers, crystals, exquisite china, romantic candlelit ambience were all matched by a very delicious dinner. And all throughout the courses, we were entertained by opera singers and Casanova with his gang of masked artists.
After dinner was over, at around 23.30, we went downstairs for some proper dancing and more drinks. I assume the period music would have been a perfect match for our mood, but I am glad the DJ played something from our, 21st era. We left at around 2.30 and it took me some time to fall asleep that night. We spent a day in a magical city, dressed in magnificent clothes, dancing at a private Ball in one of the Grand Canal Palazzi. It was worth every penny and every moment of planning.
Venice might be a compact town but during our 10-day stay, we hardly saw any grocery stores or street vendors, so keep in mind to research shop locations in advance, if you are planning to buy food and cook at your AirBNB. However, Venice has plenty of restaurants, cafes and little eateries. Map of “Food in Venice”. We found Fuori (Calle dello Spezier, 2764) and Bar Redentore (Via S. Maurizio, 30173) to be perfect places to grab a quick breakfast or a cup of coffee with Venetian biscuits. Vino Vino (Ponte delle Veste, 2007/A) was one of our regular places – no-frills, always busy and always serving good quality food at more than a reasonable price. Hotel recommended us to try Trattoria alla Scala (Corte Lucatello, 571) and even though it wasn’t easy to find, their fish carpaccio and grilled sardines are totally worth it. Well, the service and ambience were excellent too. During the Carnevale, we literally got caught in a concert right in the middle of our dinner.
If you are in for something more posh and “dressy”, try Antico Martini (Campo Teatro Fenice, 2007), on the same campo as La Fenice. Founded in 1720 as a spot to enjoy the new trend of drinking coffee, we were told that this is one of the best restaurants in Venice. We dined there on the night we attended an opera.
For drinks, I recommend Terrace at the Gritti Palace as service was impeccable and the views – like nothing else in the world. For the taste of the true local Venetian cicchetti paired with excellent Italian wine – try Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi (Fondamenta Nani, 992). But when our friends Brooke and Till came to visit us in Venice, we all went to Cantina do Spade (San Polo, 859), founded in 1448!!!! And the food was superb! However, if those are not enough, check out the list Francine Segan (food author) sent me:
- Ca’ d’Oro/ Alla Vedova, Cannaregio, 3192 – run by the same family for over a century, most beloved bacaro in Venice
- La Cantina, Cannaregio – very near alla Vedova, specialties: beef tongue; fresh ricotta
- All’Arco, San Polo 436 – pesce-crudo-topped toasts, near Rialto fish market, favorite with locals
- Al Merca, San Polo 213 – terrific lo spritz
- Al Timon, Cannaregio- favorite with locals
- Anice Stellato, Cannaregio – frittura mista
- gia Schiavi, Dorsoduro 922 – superb porchetta sandwiches, near Guggenheim Museum
- do Mori, San Polo 429 -near the Rialto, try “francobolli” (postage stamp)-mini sandwich of chicory, gorgonzola cheese & cold cuts. Other specialty is musetto (pork snout) sandwich
- do Spade. San Polo 860 – dating to 15th c
- Osteria Alla Ciurma San Polo – meatballs & stuffed zucchini flowers
- Osteria Bancogiro Campo San Giacometto, 122, 30125 Rialto – black polenta topped with baccalà mantecato
- da Fiore, San Marco 3461 Calle de le Boteghe, 3461 – Polpette di carne
- Rosticceria Gislon ,Calle della Biscia, 5425, San Marco – inexpensive, excellent lunch favorite with locals
- Torrefazione Cannareggio/ Marchi,–favorite local coffee shop– Cannaregio, 1337, near the Jewish Ghetto
Centuries ago, in an effort to flee barbarians, Venetians left dry land and drifted out to a flotilla of “uninhabitable” islands in the lagoon. Survival was difficult enough, but no Venetian has ever settled for mere survival. The remote ancestors of the present inhabitants created the world’s most beautiful city. To your children’s children, however Venice might be nothing more than a legend. The city is sinking at an alarming rate of about 5 cm per decade, and at the same time, the damp climate, mold and pollution are contributing to the city’s decay. Estimates are that if no action is taken soon, one-third of the city’s art will deteriorate within the next decade or so. Clearly, Venice is in peril and we must do everything in our power to save it.
As our stay came to an end, I realized that I still had a long list of places to visit. But I was also deeply and utterly in love with this place, home to Casanova, Titian, Vivaldi, Marco Polo and Helen Cornaro, the first woman to get a University degree in the 17th century. I knew, that Henry James was write when he wrote: “A visit to Venice becomes a perpetual love affair”, and mine has just begun.