Venice – the City I Never Tire Of

We recently returned from a short trip to Venice – readily accessible to us via the excellent Italian high speed rail network. We like to go in March – a relatively tranquil month after the mass party scene of Carnevale and before the onslaught of day tourists and cruise ship excursions which tend to increase after Easter. (Cruise ships are no longer allowed into the portion of the Venetian lagoon right in front of San Marco, but they can dock elsewhere in the lagoon.)

Venice is a city that should not exist. And yet it does.

Founded in the 5th C on a series of islands in the Venetian lagoon, additional building space was created by driving poles (about 60 feet long) deep into the ground. The islands are now connected by innumerable bridges, but the streets follow no grid or recognizable plan. Some streets end with a sottoportego (an arched passageway underneath a building), while others deadend into a canal. Using Google Maps is a challenge, and pretty much everyone but the locals gets a little bit lost at some point.

Water is never far away, in any direction. If you happen upon a construction project, you will see the workers wearing high rubber boots, because subsurface water is visible as soon a you dig up the pavement. During some high tides, water bubbles up from under the surface into low-lying areas, including the Piazza San Marco. Unless the tides are really high, these usually result in nothing more than big puddles. The operators of the cafes in Piazza San Marco are very good at reading the tide forecasts, and setting up their outdoor tables just out of puddle range.

90 cm tide in San Marco from Museo Correr

During certain high tides, called generally by the name acqua alta (high water), the puddles turn into flooded squares. The city puts up raised walkways throughout the city, and there are even maps at various transit stops detailing how you can safely navigate to your destination.

But forecasts aren’t perfect, and sometimes the water level will be unexpectedly high. In consequence, many Venetian buildings have metal barriers that can be placed to help prevent inside flooding. That’s also why most hotels in Venice do not offer rooms on the ground floor.

After the devastating acqua alta of 2019, the Italian government activated the newly constructed MOSE barrier which can be deployed against high water events. Even so, the Basilica of San Marco, which suffered significant flooding in 2019, now has new glass and rubber-sealed barriers around the exterior to help prevent a recurrence.

There are no cars within the old city – the narrow streets wouldn’t be navigable in any case. All transport is by boat – the vaporetti (the equivalent of a public bus system), the water taxis, commercial boats, and private boats. Although the famous gondolas are these days used for the experience rather than transport, there are still a few places along the Grand Canal which you can cross by traghetto – a public gondola service where you ride standing up and facing backwards.

Virtually everything comes in an out of Venice by boat, whether it’s the fruits and vegetables coming into the market or the garbage going out. Package delivery is also by boat, with the last 100 meters or so being covered by wheelbarrows, whose operators weave expertly through the pedestrians. That’s one reason why, in Venice, it’s always a good idea to walk “fila indiana” (single file).

We’ve been to Venice a number of times before, but in a city like this you never can see everything. And we often find that it’s worth revisiting some of the more important sites. Even if they don’t change, you have.

Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace)

We visited the Ducal Palace, which we haven’t seen for many years. The place is massive in scale, and built inside and out with a range of costly materials – rare and expensive marbles, carved wood, heroically sized paintings – even gold leaf on the principal staircase. The palace designed to impress, which it certainly does. I can only imagine the impact it had on a medieval visitor.

Every inch of blank space was filled in – including the ceilings.

Veronese, Venezia nell’atto di conferire onori e ricompense, Ducal Palace
Veronese, Marte e Nettuno (centro soffitto), 1575, Ducal Palace

The public parts of the palace include a series of large rooms, used for various public purposes – receiving foreign embassies, holding meetings for the ruling council, dispensing justice (which had a special exit by which an unfortunate prisoner, after sentence was passed, could proceed directly to the dungeons next door). The prisoner could catch what was probably his last glimpse of Venice when passing over what came to be known as the Bridge of Sighs.

Bridge of Sighs, from the inside

One of the large rooms featured battles, most long forgotten, in which the Venetian navy had emerged victorious. One painting depicted the Battle of Lepanto, which was portrayed as the victory of the Venetians over the Turks, with the minor help of the Pope and some other guys. Amusingly, in our visit to the Colonna Palace in Rome a few months ago, the same battle was depicted as having been won by Admiral Colonna, head of the Papal fleet, almost singlehandedly.

Some things never change.

Andrea Vicentino, The Battle of Lepanto, 1595-1603, Ducal Palace

One room had a particularly interesting depiction of the Republic’s peaceful transfers of power. Much like the Pope, Venetian Doges were elected for life. But they were not kings – the son of a Doge did not inherit, and every time a Doge died representatives of the 100 or so wealthy families entitled to vote would meet to elect the next one. Venice had no standing army, so during the vulnerable time between the death of one Doge and the election of the next one, the boat builders, whose major facility was nearby, were given access to some serious weaponry and deputized to guard the city. The boat builders did not have the right to vote, but their livelihoods were intimately connected to city’s prosperity which is likely why they were considered trustworthy. Whatever the rationale, it worked. The city of Venice, over a period of nearly 1000 years and over 100 Doges, experienced only one attempted coup. In the 14th C, a newly elected Doge attempted to convert his elective office into a hereditary monarchy. The attempted coup failed, and the coup plotters were swiftly brought to justice.

This event is commemorated in the Ducal Palace by a black banner over the place where this Doge’s name would have been – a symbolic representation of how his name was expunged from the city’s history.

This wonderful painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was not part of the public rooms – perhaps it had once been part of a Doge’s private collection?

Artemesia Gentileschi, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, ca. 1619, Ducal Palace
Fortuny Museum

The Fortuny Museum is a relatively new public museum in Venice. It was the former home of Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949), who was born in Spain and raised in Paris, but spent most of his adult life in Venice.

Fortuny was interested in fabrics at an early age, and with his wife and collaborator Henriette opened a fashion house in 1906. Rebelling against the constricted silhouettes of the day, he created many styles using designs of the ancient Greeks, including the iconic Delphos dress. He created his own dyes using ancient pigments, and invented methods for printing his designs on clothes. His fashions are still being sold under the Fortuny name in Venice.

Fortuny was also very interested in theatrical design, and he designed theaters which used what was then the new technology of back lighting. Not surprisingly, he also became a noted designer of theatrical costumes.

In the museum, you can see examples of his clothes, his set designs, and his theatrical costumes, as well as the workshop where he personally created most of his pieces.

You can also see the murals that Fortuny painted on the walls of his own residence, which are exuberant and colorful, if a bit over the top.

Museo Correr

The Correr museum is a collection of unusual items which runs along one whole side of the Piazza San Marco. While the museum does have a painting collection, to me the most interesting items are those you wouldn’t see elsewhere. There’s a collection of coins of the Venetian Republic going back nearly 1000 years, with samples of coinage from virtually every Doge – an amazing testament to the strength of the Venetian currency as well as the foresight of the city government in preserving this part of its history from a very early era.

There’s an interesting collection of ancient sculptures, paired during our visit with some works by Antonio Canova, a 19th C sculptor from nearby Treviso who worked in the classical style.

Canova, Icaro e Daedalo, Museo Correr

The picture collection is small, but contained this wonderful work by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, in which the BIblical visit of the Three Magi is reimagined in early 17th C Flanders.

Pieter Breughel il Giovane, L’Adorazione dei Magi, Museo Correr

Entry to the Correr Museum provides access to some of the rooms of the Marciano library, which was founded in the 15th C and is one of the oldest public libraries in Venice. The current Library dates from the 1520s.

During our visit, the Library had a special exhibit of early modern botanical books One book included one of the first depictions of tomato and chili pepper plants from the New World. Pietro Antonio Michiel, a 16th C Venetian, had obtained samples from Venice’s Ambassador to Spain and had managed to grow these plants in his garden.

The library also had an exhibit of early modern maps and globes, including this mid-15th C map by Fra Mauro, which has an unusual perspective (Europe is in the lower right, and upside down relative to our usual vantage point).

World Map of Fra’ Mauro, 1457-9, Biblioteca Marsiana (note Europe is bottom right)
Ca’ Pesaro Galleria D’Arte Moderna

The Ca’ Pesaro is the modern art museum of the city of Venice. It was established at the turn of the last century as a place for keeping some of the work being exhibited at the then new Venice Biennale art exhibition.

It includes a number of works by early 20th C Italian painters.

I liked this one because it depicts a way of life in the Venetian lagoon which seems very ancient, but was only a century ago.

Umberto Muggioli, Primavera a Treporti, 1914, Ca’ Pesaro
Umberto Muggioli, La Casa dell’artista, 1918, Ca’ Pesaro
Felice Casorati, Ragazze a Nervi, 1926, Ca’ Pesaro

There are also works by non-Italian artists, including Klimt and Chagall.

We liked this work by the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla of village women mending fishing nets – a humble job made beautiful by the special quality of light.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, 1896, Sewing the Sail, Ca’ Pesaro

And of course, wherever you go in Venice, you’re never far away from art glass.

Esecuzione Venini, Figure of an Elephant, 1928, Ca’ Pesaro
Basilica Santa maria Gloriosa Di Frari

We have been to the Frari church before, but this time we were finally able to see Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which has recently been returned to its place at the main altar after a 6 year restoration. Somewhat surprisingly to me, this painting, which today is considered one of Titian’s best works, was not well received when it was first completed. Perhaps the startled expression on the Virgin’s face didn’t comport with 16th C conceptions of holiness – today, it’s what makes the painting so interesting.

Tiziano – L’Assunta – Basilica dei Frari

A second work by Titian in the same church is a spectacular example of the artist’s mastery of color.

Tiziano, Pala Ca’ Pesaro, Basilica dei Frari

The Madonna by Giovanni Bellini in a side chapel is easily missed if you don’t know it’s there. But once you’ve seen it you can never forget it. I still haven’t figured out how he created an illusion of three dimensions in his two-dimensional work. I’m not the only one – a famous art forger once noted that Bellini was the only artist whose work he would have a hard time copying.

Bellini masterwork @ Basilica dei Frari
Other sites

The Fondazione Querini Stampalla includes a public library and a small museum. In addition to a collection of paintings depicting Venetian life, there is a work by GIovanni Bellini depicting the Biblical scene of the Presentation of the Baby Jesus in the Temple. The work is a family portrait of sorts – the models for the biblical figures include have been identified as Bellini’s parents, his brother Gentile, his sister Nicolosia and her husband, the painter Andrea Mantegna.

Bellini, Presentationat the Temple, Fondazione Querini-Stampalia (note Bellini and step-brother Mantegna at right, Bellini’s sister and mother at left)

Here’s the same scene, done by Tintoretto, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine.

Tintoretto, Presentation of Gesu, Chiesa Santa Maria dei Carmini

The Scuola Grande del Carmine, right next door, including an interesting grisaille (black and white) work by the 18th C artist Niccolo Bambini.

Niccolò Bambini, Circoncisione di Gesù, c. 1733, Scuola Grande dei Carmini

More from the Carmine.

A Madonna by Lorenzo Lotto (1546) and Sts. Jerome, Lorenzo and Prospero by Veronese (1581) in the church of San Giacomo dell’Orio

One of a group of paintings illustrating the story of Esther, painted by Veronese between 1555 and 1570 on the ceiling of the church of San Sebastiano. The works have recently been restored to brilliant color.

Veronese ceiling – Chiesa di San Sebastiano

I’ve always been moved by the image, in this work by Tintoretto, of the indomitable little girl ascending the stairs to be greeted by these formidable looking men.

Tintoretto, Presentation of Maria at the Temple, 1552, Chiesa di Madonna dell’Orto

Venice is notorious for being a place where it’s all too easy to get a bad meal. But with a little research and advance planning, you can eat well here – especially if you like fish.

At Corte Sconta, after their marvelous (and very large) mixed antipasto, we asked to split a single order of pasta. It came to us already plated in half portions – a gracious touch.

Maccaroni w/ scampi @ Corte Sconta
Risotto with Scampi @ Covino

Eating cicchetti (small plates) is one way to save money dining out in Venice. Works better at lunch time, though.

At the Enoteca Schiavi

Moeche (soft-shell crabs) are local to the Venetian lagoon, and are available only in the spring and fall. If you happen to be there during their season, do not fail to sample them.

Moeche @ Gatto Nero

Parting Shots

Even on a short trip, there are just too many photos!

But here are a few parting shots.

Venice by day

Venice by night


And the two of us on the island of Burano

Until next time!