“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” Truman Capote
This August I went to Venice and Venetian Riviera for my holidays, and below I am sharing some of the cultural highlights from my trip.
I. Piazza San Marco
I started my excursion with the Piazza San Marco, probably the world’s most famous town square, bordered by the Doge’s Palace and Basilica San Marco. The tall bell tower is the Campanile, constructed in 1912, since the original collapsed in 1902. The famous Café Florian (which some say is the most expensive café in the world) can also be found on this square, once being a host to a diverse literary clientele, including Stendhal, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Moore, Charles Dickens and Henry James.
An architectural wonder that caught my attention was the Torre dell’ Orologio, a Renaissance clock built in the late fifteenth century and designed by Antonio Lombardo. It displays the hour of the day, the zodiac signs, the sun and the moon phases. The tower’s bell is struck every hour by two large bronze figures known as the Moors (“Do Mori”). A gruesome story that I have heard associated with this masterpiece is that the two inventors who designed the clock had their eyes gouged out afterwards so that they would not be able to complete a similar complex mechanical construction. I love these kinds of medieval constructions, and this clock reminded me of the astronomical clock of Prague (“Prague Orloj”), which was also built in 1410.
II. Grand Canal
If you step into a vaporetto (water bus) No 1, it will take you slowly along Venice’s Grand Canal aka “the most beautiful street in the world”. The pace will be leisurely, and it will enable you to take in sights unhurriedly and take photographs. The length of the canal is nearly four kilometres, and Venice’s most beautiful palaces can be found along it. Taking this vaporetto was definitely one of my trip’s highlights, and I appreciated all the Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architectural splendours. The Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges crossing the canal, is also be best viewed from a vaporetto.
Notable palaces along the Grand Canal which I found fascinating and was able to capture were the following:
🏰 Ca’ Pesaro & Ca’ Rezzonico, the two Baroque splendours designed by Italian architect Baldassare Longhena (1598 -1682), with the former completed by Gian Antonio Gaspari in 1710. Both are now museums: Ca’ Pesaro was initially built for Leonardo Pesaro, who was the Procurator of San Marco, but now hosts modern and Asian art, while Ca’ Rezzonico was once a home to Robert Browning and his son, and is now a very well-known art museum of the eighteenth century art, having works by Francesco Guardi and Giambattista Tiepolo. Baroque palaces have bold ornamentation, animated by carvings of all kinds, cherubs, masks and garlands, among other things.
🏰 Ca’ Dario & Villa Salviati; Ca’ Dario is a palace in Venice’s Dorsoduro area built for aristocrat Giovanni Dario in 1479. This architectural design has very distinguishable marble-encrusted oculi, circular openings. At the end of the nineteenth century, it belonged to the Countess de la Baume-Pluvinel, a French aristocrat and writer. As Atlas Obscura reports, since that time it has gathered a strange, dark reputation, and some say that troubles, accidents and deaths follow its owners; Villa Salviati was once a home to the Salviati glass-producing company and still retains its glass mosaic.
III. La Fenice Opera House
My next stop was La Fenice, an opera house that was built in 1792 and is city’s oldest theatre. It received its name (“the phoenix”) after a fire in 1836 (“so it rose from its ashes”). There was again a fire in 1996 and it is now restored. This opera house once saw the premiers of Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and Rigoletto (1851), as well as Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (1954), to name just a few productions. There is a nice souvenir shop inside.
IV. The Accademia Gallery
Gallerie dell’Accademia was “a must” on my Venice list. It hosts “the largest collection of Venetian art in existence”, starting from the Byzantine art in Room 1 and continuing to Early and High Renaissance, and Baroque paintings. My highlight was seeing Giorgione’s The Tempest (c. 1507), an enigmatic painting, whose ambiguousness still astounds and inspires many (Lord Byron was a fan), Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1525), whose many symbolic details I was completely missing before, as it turned out, and Paulo Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi (1573), which originally meant to be a painting depicting the Last Supper. Unfortunately, the painting that I really wanted to see – Healing of the Madman (c. 1496) by Vittore Carpaccio was not on display as it was being restored, but I was more than “compensated” by the series of paintings – Cycle of St. Ursula (1490-98) by Carpaccio. A whole room is devoted to this cycle, and large wall paintings transport you to the sorrowful tale of St. Ursula, who, according to a legend, was the daughter of the Christian king of Brittany, betrothed to a pagan prince who was supposed to convert to Christianity as his marriage condition. The couple made a pilgrimage to Rome, but, returning, St. Ursula was killed by Attila the Hun, and her 10.000 virgin-followers were also massacred. Arrival of the Ambassadors, depicting the meeting between the king and the ambassadors, and The Dream of St. Ursula are particularly striking, the latter depicting the saint sleeping and an angel entering her chamber, announcing the forthcoming martyrdom (see also my post Dreaming in Art: 5 Fantastical Paintings for comparative paintings).
Another great thing for me was seeing Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, which I did not think I would see during my visit. His Visions of the Hereafter (1505-1515) was on display, showing life after death, with Heaven showing people enjoying themselves in the lush Garden, Hell showing sinners drowning in a sulphurous swamp, and two other panels describing souls in transition between the two worlds. Bosch’s the Hermit Saints (1493) triptych was also part of the collection.
Overall, visiting the Accademia was an immersive, unforgettable cultural experience, especially since I thought there were hardly any people in the museum despite the summer season.
V. Naval History Museum
This museum was not planned, but turned out to be a great choice. It traces the Venetian naval history from ancient times to the present (for example, displaying Italian navy equipment used in the World War II). There are many ship models on display, as well as examples of sailors’ attires, ship figureheads, navigation equipment, old maps, celestial atlases and sea-inspired paintings. The collection also showcases naval exhibits from around the world, such as models of Egyptian river boats, and there is the Swedish room. One of the highlights for me was to see the honour sword presented to Giuseppe Garibaldi by the women of the Italian community in Montevideo, and what I also did not expect was to find so many Japanese artefacts in the museum. There were on display examples of sea-inspired kimonos, ship insignias and a Japanese rickshaw uniform.
Murano is a series of islands not far from Venice and is historically known as a centre of glass-making industry, which originated some time in 1291. From the thirteenth century, it was self-governing, and in the sixteenth century, the island gained its reputation as the main glass-producing centre in Europe. There is a glass museum (Museo del Vetro) to visit on Murano, and there are plenty of souvenir shops selling different Murano glass objects, including jewellery and household items. I found the island a peaceful break from all the hustle of central Venice. Other lagoon islands that attract visitors are Burano (the colourful, “lace-making” island) and Torcello (to visit the Basilica).
VII. Souvenirs/Things to Buy
There were so many souvenir shops in Venice that I did not know where to look. Inexpensive and colourful Venetian masks are the specialty of each, but for “authentic” ones, store Tragicomica is a good place to go (it also sells commedia dell’ arte figurines). I also think that buying dried pasta of some unique variety/taste and a lemon liqueur is a must, as is enjoying an espresso at a Venetian café or having a glass of local wine at a popular local enoteca.
Stay tuned for my next post – A Trip to Venice II: Literary Highlights, where I will talk about my favourite, newly-discovered bookshops in Venice, places associated with famous authors, as well as gush about books I bought!