Seeing the city afloat and afoot

I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed. Right from the water’s edge rose long lines of stately palaces of marble; gondolas were gliding swiftly hither and thither and disappearing suddenly through unsuspected gates and alleys; ponderous stone bridges threw their shadows athwart the glittering waves… Music came floating over the waters-Venice was complete.

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad,


SINCE 1869, that scenario has been replayed thousands of times for visitors seeing Venice for the first time or for the hundredth time. Some things don’t change, and this city is one of them. Venice remains complete-a world of its own, yet belonging to everyone.

This almost always has been the case. Venice’s fame has been derived as much from its famous visitors as from its illustrious history. Although this small archipelago was for centuries a great empire, commanding the finest navy of its day-back when the Mediterranean was the center of the universe-no one remembers that now. They remember, instead, that it is a graceful, decaying city of islands. This is where Shakespeare and Jonson set their best comedies, where James and Waugh and others came for vacation and inspiration. It’s where Lord Byron came after English society denounced him and where Hemingway came after denouncing the world. These people have given Venice a reputation “of poetry and romance” that would be impossible to live up to, if it were anyplace else. But Venice does. Although its days of maritime power and prestige are long gone, the city is marvelously intact. And if it is no longer of much topical interest, at least its historical appeal never wanes.

When you’re in Venice, tradition demands that you do two things: ride in a gondola down the Grand Canal and go to St. Mark’s Square. The gondola, of course, is part of the ritual that is Venice. As Mann wrote, “Is there anyone but must repress a secret thrill on arriving in Venice for the first time-or returning thither after a long absence-and stepping into a Venetian gondola? That singular conveyance, come down unchanged from ballad times, black as nothing else on earth except a coffin-what pictures it calls up of lawless, silent adventures in the plashing night.”

St. Mark’s Square, named for the city’s patron saint, is the ideal starting point for any tour of Venice. It is the heart of the city, its buildings reflecting 10 centuries of Venetian history. If you enter the square from the Riva degli Schiavoni (the wide brick walkway that runs along the edge of lagoon), you’ll first notice two pillars-winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark atop one; the other pillar depicts s Theodore, the first protector of the city

On your right is the Venetian-Gothic Doge’s Palace, where the Doges (duke ruled-at least nominally-until 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city. First ci structed in 1309, it was destroyed by fire ai rebuilt during the 16th century. The palace was also the seat of the real government council of citizens (rich merchants, that is who modestly called themselves the Worthy Ones. Inside, the Hall of the Great Council and other rooms now serve as galleries for the works of the city’s Old Masters: Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Carpaccio and others. Directly behind the palace is one of Venice’s best-known landmarks: the beautifully sculpted Bridge of Sighs, which connects the palace with a prison across the canal. For centuries, a prisoner who was found innocent at his trial walked out the front door of the palace, while one who was found guilty walked across the bridge to prison, where death or torture awaited him. You can retrace these steps today and view the gruesome reminders of what corporal punishment meant in those days.

North of the palace is the spectacularly ornate cathedral, the Basilica of St. Mark. Its builders thought nothing of mixing styles-Byzantine domes with Gothic turrets and a few Romanesque elements to boot-but the result is gaudily harmonious nevertheless. Begun in the ninth century to house the remains of St. Mark, the present structure dates from 1094. (Two Venetian merchants smuggled the saint’s body from a tomb in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was martyred. According to legend, the body was wrapped in pork so the Muslims wouldn’t find it.) The elaborate mosaics on the fa?ade illustrate the life of St. Mark and the transport of his body to Venice for burial. Some items on the fa?ade were added in later years, including the four bronze horses that march proudly above the front entrance.

These bronze horses have traveled more miles than any of their living counterparts, if we believe the tales about them. The work of a third-century B.C. Greek sculptor, they were gilded and possibly drew a chariot originally. The sculptures were housed in Rome until the capital of the Roman Empire moved to Constantinople (330 A.D.), where they stayed until 1204, when the merchants of Venice helped the Pope ravage Constantinople in the name of God. As a result of this-the Fourth Crusade-the merchants received the horses as part of the spoils. The continuing saga of the horses picks up five centuries later, when Napoleon conquered the city and stole, among other things, the horses and the winged lion from the pillar and carried them back to Paris. After much negotiating and name calling between the two countries-during which time Napoleon fell out of grace-the items were returned.

Inside the Basilica are a multitude of treasures, captured and bought at the height of Venetian wealth and power. The most spectacular is the 10th-century Pala d’Oro altarpiece, which was taken from Constantinople and was later reconstructed by a Venetian craftsman. Made of gold and enamel, its surface is studded with hundreds of precious stones. And, don’t miss Titian’s Last Judgment.

On the northeastern edge of the square is the 15th-century Clock Tower, atop which stand two bronze Moors that keep time by striking a bell. The other three sides of St. Mark’s consist of Renaissance buildings that form symmetrical walls of multiple columns, arches and friezes. They now house offices, cafés, and even a museum (the Cor-rer). (The cafés, incidentally-Florian’s and Quadri’s in particular-occupy a hallowed place in Venice-related literature. There probably isn’t an author worth his salt who didn’t have a café scene of his protagonists sitting, drinks in hand, idly watching the flocks of pigeons and tourists.) With the voluptuous splendor of the Basilica nearby, the lavish Renaissance facades seem almost austere. Flashes of de Chirico come to mind, and yet the arched doorways are never frightening. Forget you ever saw films like Don’t Look Now. Nothing bad could ever happen here, or so it appears.

Completing the southern edge of the square is the Campanile, or Bell Tower, a replica of the original that collapsed in 1902. From the top of the Bell Tower (or the edge of the Riva degli Schiavoni), there is a beautiful view of the mouth of the Grand Canal and of the southern islands, La Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore. Stately churches, all of them worth exploring, dominate the view: the Basilica of Maria della Salute near the Canal, II Redentore (The Redeemer) on La Giudecca and St. George’s on San Giorgio Maggiore. The first two churches have similar histories: both were the Venetians’ tangible gratitude for the ending of medieval plagues, and both have annual festivals inspired by these events (Salute, November 21; Redentore, the third Sunday in July

The city’s splashiest event, however, is the annual regatta down the Grand Canal, which dates back seven centuries. Held every September, it is proceeded by a parade of vessels, the pomp and ceremony of which are based on the Queen of Cyprus’ visit to the city in 1489. All Venetians turn out for this event, some even donning the ceremonial costumes of the Doges or the Queen of Cyprus. Only non-Venetians, of course, are impressed by the Canal on the other 364 days of the yea

THE GRAND CANAL, once called “the most beautiful street in the world,” forms an inverted “S” two and a half miles long and runs the length of the archipelago. The southern end of the Canal, near St. Mark’s Square, opens into the lagoon. Start there, and work your way north, viewing the historic waterfront palazzi. On your left, as you enter the Canal, is the dome of the Basilica della Salute. Then comes the Academy Bridge, the first of three bridges that span the Grand Canal. On your left as you pass under it is the Academy Gallery, which houses the world’s largest collection of Venetian painting-Giorgione’s Tempest, Titian’s Pieta and Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Saint are among the highlights. Not far away is Ca’ Rezzonico, where Robert Browning once lived, now the 18th Century Museum. Next are the Gothic Giustiniani Palaces, where Wagner composed Tristan und Isolde.

On your right as you glide along the Canal are the the 17th-century Mocenigo Palaces (the 1818 home of Lord Byron), the 16th-century Corner-Spinelli Palace and the Gol-doni Theater. Soon after, you’ll pass under the most celebrated of the three bridges, the Rialto, built in 1592. (The Rialto area is one of the city’s better shopping districts.) Past the bridge, as the Canal begins to wind toward the west, is the 15th-century Venetian-Gothic palace Ca’ d’Oro (House of Gold), so called because it was once gilded. Inside, you’ll find the Franchetti Gallery, which displays Titian’s Venus and Man-tegna’s St. Sebastian, along with works by Lombardo, Tiepolo and Van Dyck.

Opposite Ca d’Oro is the 17th-century Baroque Ca’ Pesaro, Longhena’s masterpiece, which now houses the Museum of Modern Art and a gallery of Oriental art. On the right, you’ll pass Ca’ Vendramin-Calergi, where Wagner died. The city’s finest example of Lombardesque-Renaissance architecture, it’s now the winter home of the Venice Casino. Also on the right is the Church of the Scalzi (built in 1609 by Longhena), which has frescoes by Tiepolo. From there, you pass under the Railroad Bridge to the Piazzale Roma, which marks the west end of the canal.

Of course, not all of Venice’s beautiful sights are so conveniently located. Others worth seeking out are the Guggenheim Collection, the Church of the Frari and the Church and School of San Rocco.

The Guggenheim Collection is in Ca’ Venier dei Leoni, Peggy Guggenheim’s Venetian home, just off the Grand Canal and a short walk from the Academy Gallery. Here is Venice’s finest collection of modern art, featuring works by Pollock, Ernst, Picasso and Miro. Outside the palace is a garden with sculptures by Brancusi, Moore and Giacometti.

The Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, known simply as the Frari, is west of the Grand Canal near the Rio Terra dei Saoneri. Built by the Franciscans in the 14th and 15th centuries, it is one of the city’s most striking Gothic churches. Over the main altar hangs Titian’s Assumption, which depicts the Madonna rising on a cloud, surrounded by cherubs, with the saints looking on. With its glowing reds and blues, the Assumption is a good example of the strong color that Venetian Renaissance painters used so well. (Even Michelangelo admired their use of color, although he added, “It’s a pity you Venetians cannot draw.”) Other art-works here are Madonna and Four Saints by Giovanni Bellini and the sculptured tomb of the artist Canova.

Nearby are the Church of San Rocco and the School of San Rocco. The school holds over 50 paintings by the Venetian master Tintoretto, most of which depict Biblical scenes. Some of his greatest works are here, including Crucifixion (his personal favorite) and Annunciation.

Besides the main islands of Venice, you may choose to explore some of the nearby islands, including the Lido, Murano and Burano. During the Twenties and Thirties, the long white beaches of the the southern island Lido were as popular as those of the Riviera. Today, although the Lido has lost much of its former status, it’s still a jet setter’s paradise. From April to September, the Venice Casino is located here. (Keep in mind that everything is more expensive here than in the rest of Venice

Murano, a group of islands north of Venice. is renowned for its intricate glassware. The glass factories were moved here from the main islands in the 13th century because they were the cause of too many fires. Touring a factory is easily arranged-the people of Murano are only too happy to show you around (and to urge you to buy. afterwards). But resist until you return to Venice, where the same glassware is less expensive.

Burano, farther north, is the home of hand-woven Venetian lace, known for its delicacy and original design. There, the lace makers-all women-still sit in groups along the street, each with her own project. just as they did centuries ago. During the 19th century, the lace industry was severely threatened by machine-made goods; by late 1872, when a lace-making school was established, only one elderly woman knew the techniques. Today, however, the Burano lace industry is thrivin

YOU CAN GET around easily on foot most of the time. In the Grand Canal area, though, ferries will transport you from one side to the other. Often, that’s easier than walking around, since the Canal has only three bridge

Although the gondolas may be the most romantic way to see Venice, don’t use them all the time. Vaparettos (water buses) are cheaper and faster. You can haggle over the price with some gondoliers and a few vap-aretto owner

Shops and churches in Venice are generally open from 9 a.m. to noon and from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Some churches have dress codes, so inquire in advance. Also, a number of buildings at any given time are closed for restoration. Again, ask before you go.

Knowing Italian may not help you much in Venice, where the dialect differs considerably from standard Italian. The best advice is to speak slowly and ask others to do the same. Prices for everything are higher here than in other parts of Italy.

The better hotels, shops and restaurants are in the St. Mark’s and Rialto areas. Three deluxe hotels near St. Mark’s are the Gritti Palace (Hemingway’s favorite), the Danieli Royal Excelsior and the Bauer Grunwald. Restaurants to try include Taverna La Fenice, Antico Martini and Harry’s Bar (another Hemingway haunt).


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