One of the benefits of living in Italy is that you can visit popular tourist sites off-season. Venice is one of the most challenging destinations, because it really doesn’t have much of an off-season. “Go during Quaresima (Lent),” we were told — after Carnevale and before Easter. Most years, folks said, it was warm enough to sit outside in early March.
Not this year. Not only was it about 20 degrees colder than normal during our visit, it even snowed the first day — a rare event in Venice. The snow was pretty to look at, but with all the cobblestones and polished marble, walking around was like negotiating an ice-skating rink without skates. Fortunately, the bridges had handrails. And the city employed a small army of workers spreading salt on the sidewalks — hard on leather shoes, but better than falling. The temperature rose a bit after Thursday, although it still wasn’t really warm, and by Sunday all vestiges of the snow were gone.
Since we had been to Venice before, we concentrated on the art in smaller churches, which typically you don’t have time to see on a short visit. Venice was a prosperous city for several centuries, and each parish wanted to build its own magnificent church, complete with what seemed like foundries full of marble, and decorated with paintings and sculptures from local artists. And what artists they were — Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo…. I am particularly fond of one work by Tintoretto which imagines Mary as a young girl, climbing an impossibly steep flight of stairs to an imaginary Temple.
My personal favorites, though, were the works of Giovanni Bellini. His special skill was making two-dimensional paintings seem three-dimensional — an effect that’s hard to see even in photographs. I’m sure he used some tricks to attain this effect — he often put figures in niches with stairs leading up to them, which creates a geometric illusion. But other painters did that, too, and their paintings are still flat. I guess that was his particular genius — and one reason why his paintings are considered nearly impossible to forge.
Also during our trip, we experienced two “acqua alta” (high water) events. Acqua alta is a tidal event, enhanced by certain wind patterns most prevalent in winter. It is not primarily a function of the rain, although winter is the city’s rainiest season.
Because it is a tidal event, the high water doesn’t just lap over the embankments the way you think it might. In Piazza San Marco, which is low-lying and frequently floods, the water seeps up from generally unobserved drainage channels in the middle of the piazza, and the far side, furthest from the Grand Canal, floods first.
The first night, we got caught out on the wrong side of Piazza San Marco coming back from dinner, and since we weren’t wearing hip waders we had to make a big detour to get back to our hotel. The next evening, we stayed on the right side of the Piazza, but we were able to observe water all the way to the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale. It was a strange effect, almost as though the city were sinking under the water in slow-motion — which, in a way, it is.
The poor weather did have some compensations. You could visit popular sites like the cathedral of San Marco and the Accademia without waiting on line. The stores were all open and uncrowded — Venice has some of the best shopping in Italy, even if like us you’re mostly window-shopping. Hotels offer deep discounts (although some smaller ones close) and it was easy to get restaurant reservations. Best of all, people had time to talk to you, which rarely happens in summer. All things being equal, though, I think we’ll wait for better weather next time.