Palazzos and arias

Finding good night life is a bit difficult in Venice at this time of year. We had arrived post Christmas season, and well before Carnivale. However, we read about an opera being performed in the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto and decided to go.

The tiny palazzo is not at all grand, nor easy to find. Knowing that it might be impossible to find at night (and perhaps a bit frightening, given the number of dark and tiny alleyways we had to go through), we spent part of an afternoon searching through a maze of canals and side streets. Our wanderings took us to a dead end, where we met a fellow tourist, also looking for the palazzo. She had been assured that this was the location. And although there were no markings or signs, we agreed to come back that evening.

We arrived early, 7:00, to find a single light at the end of the dead end, and a sandwich board with information about the opera. We pressed a buzzer, a gate unlocked and we were guided through a courtyard, up a massive staircase, to a Baroque drawing room where we paid for our tickets. We were advised to return at 8:00, which we did, and joined 38 other audience members for an intimate evening of La Traviata.

The opera was scaled down and performed by only 3 singers, who were accompanied by 4 musicians (violin, viola, cello and piano). Act One took place around a grand piano in the drawing room. Lit by candles, we were complicit in the action, with Violetta handing a Prosecco to Tim as part of the action of the play. We moved to a smaller drawing room for Act Two, where Violetta could compose her tragic letter to Alfredo. Act Three took place in a marvelously decrepit boudoir, cracks in the plaster, smokey trails on the walls, with a huge bed for Violetta to sing and die on.

The whole experience was absolutely marvelous, the soprano’s high notes almost blasting our brains out in that small space. “Musica a Palazzo” regularly performs different opera evenings in Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto. Click the link and watch their trailer to get a feel for what they are doing. It was a treat to be in this environment and a unique way to experience opera.

The other great musical treat of our stay in Venice was “Le Quattro Stagioni di Vivaldi”, the Four Seasons, performed by the San Marco Chamber Orchestra in the church of Ateneo San Basso. Originally built in 1076, the building is no longer a church but is used for classical music concerts. The San Marco Chamber Orchestra works to reproduce the conditions under which Vivaldi’s music was first performed and the Ateneo San Basso has the exact same dimensions as the Pieta Institute Music Hall, where Vivaldi composed.

The concert was sublime. Growing up on the Four Seasons and overwhelmed by CBC’s incessant playing of various seasons, neither of us had ever seen the concertos live. It was like a dance between the soloist and the two violins, viola, cello, bass and harpsichord. We were carried away with the emotion, with the technical virtuosity, with the layers of sound. We walked out into the night of San Marco and it all made sense. The music, the architecture, the art.

Night time in San Marco

Leaving Venice was very, very hard. We wanted to treat ourselves to what we hoped would be a special meal for our last night. In general, Venetian restaurants were overpriced, with uninspired food and arrogant waiters. We decided to try “Gam-Gam” the Kosher restaurant just down the street from our apartment. It was by far the best meal we had in the entire time in Venice.

We had gotten used to small, unappealing portions and so were stunned when our huge Contorni arrived. My “Eggplant, Ghetto Style” was in fact 4 different eggplant dishes which included baba ghanoush, marinated eggplant slices and baked eggplant with tomato. Tim’s Hummous with mushrooms included piles of hot, freshly baked pita breads. The main course of Tagliatelle with Salmon was lemony and light, one of the best pasta meals I have ever tasted. Tim had the exquisite Cous-Cous with fish, harissa sauce and vegetables. Our sorrow was that we were too full to face the Dolci Ebraici, assorted cookies and cakes that looked fabulous as they passed by our table.

We were delighted to find a restaurant that we know we will go back to, soon, on our next trip to Venice.

Amanda on a bridge. Looking forward to another time in Venice.

Excess and Vision in Venice

One of the reasons why Venice was so successful as a republic was its unique governance structure in which the merchant aristocracy was closely involved in the rule of the city. At the head of the republic was “Il Doge”, the Duke, and the Doge’s palace, “Palazzo Ducale”, was the seat of power. Meant to impress visiting dignitaries, it is overwhelmingly impressive to lowly visiting tourists.

Palazzo Ducale from the Grand Canal
Palazzo Ducale ("The Wedding cake") from the side
Palazzo Ducale, detail

Venice was the centre of the universe. Covering the walls of the Map Room are huge 16thcentury maps of the known world, with everything radiating outwards from Venice. The palace is filled with paintings by Titian, Veronese, Bassano, and Tintoretto, everything placing Venice at the centre of the action. Every room is filled, every corner has detail, and excess is the model.

Eve in the garden. Detail on one of the pillars of the Palazzo Ducale. Each pillar is carved with different images, different stories.

The Sala del Maggior Consiglio is the largest room in all of Europe, 53’ long x 25’ wide x 12’ high. Tinteretto’s painting “Paradise”, covers one entire wall and is the largest canvas in the world. The room was designed to hold over 2000 men from the merchant aristocracy who came on a weekly basis to share in the governing of Venice. It is unspeakably vast, as though a whole piazza was put inside the palace. There are portraits around the walls of all of the known Doges, all except for Doge Marin Faliero who, for attempting a coup in 1355, was labeled a traitor and beheaded. He was placed in damnatio memoriae meaning that his name and image were totally expunged. He is represented by a painting of a black cloth, with the irony that it ensures that his name and deed live on in tourist books.

Criminality was on our minds as we wound our way down to the prisons. We walked across “The Bridge of Sighs”, named so by Bryon as the bridge was the last glimpse that a prisoner would have of the outer world as he travelled from the criminal court to the wet, stone cells beneath the palace.

Bridge of Sighs, connecting the criminal courts and the prison

Apparently acclaimed as a paragon of comfort in the 17th century, the cells were cold, dark and cramped, with graffiti carvings and charcoal drawings by 16th and 17th century prisoners. We were relieved to make our way back to the sunshine into the vastness of Piazza San Marco, Napoleon’s “drawing room of Europe”, the place to see and be seen.

Peggy Guggenheim knew all about being seen and about showing what was important to be seen. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of 20thcentury European and American art is in her Palazzo, where she lived and collected art for over 40 years.

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

An heiress who met and worked with all of the important visual artists of the 20th century, she brought modern European art to America and American art to Italy. The café in the museum is filled with photos of her at the palazzo –  standing beside her Calder bedstead sporting her Calder earrings, or in front of the fireplace with the Brancusi sculpture on the hearth. The current exhibit is “The Avant-Garde, from Picasso to Pollack”. It is a personal and moving collection, a wonderful balance to the excess at Palazzo Ducale. The Guggenheim palazzo was under restoration, so we were not able to visit all of the magnificent rooms, nor visit Peggy’s simple grave in the garden. (As one guide book quipped, it is the only gallery in the world where the patron is buried out back). But even with that, it was one of the best gallery experiences either of us have ever had. Her artistic eye led her to collect pieces that made a profound impact on 20th century art. She was a visionary who helped us to see who we are.

Entering the world of the lagoon

Even in January, Venice is filled with tourists. While the Piazza San Marco holds architectural wonders, we wanted to continue to enjoy the quiet nooks of Venice wherever possible.

Deserted islands in the lagoon

The Venetian lagoon, at 520 square kilometers, is the world’s largest wetland. The islands are mostly empty, sporting bits of crumbling masonry from centuries gone by. They are used by the local population for picnics and for fishing. But there are a few islands where people live and one very important island for the dead.

We started the day on Cimitero di San Michele, the cemetery island.

The church of San Michele in Isola
Cimitero di San Michele, a sculpture of the dead being ferried to the island in a gondola

The Roman Catholic church of San Michele in Isola was built on the island in 1469, on the site of an older church and in 1807, during the French occupation, the island was selected as the site for the city’s cemetery. Napoleon had decreed that it was unsanitary to have a cemetery within the city boundaries, so all cities had to move their burials plots outside of the city walls.

It is a beautiful and peaceful place, with tall cypress trees and large topiaries. There are different sections – the sad children’s section, the Greeks and Protestants, the war veterans, the gondoliers. There were fresh flowers on many of the graves, and we shared the early morning boat with Venetians paying their respects. Cimitero di San Michele is the final resting place for a number of famous people who died in Venice, including Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev.

Photo and pointe shoes on Diaghilev's tomb
Diaghilev's tomb

The pointe shoes on Diaghilev’s tomb were fresh and clean – clearly recently renewed.

From Cimitero, we took the boat to Murano, the glass island. In 1291, the Venetian’s decided to move all glass making production to the island of Murano, for fear of the effects of a possible fire from glass factories in the main city. The expertise of the craftsmen flourished and by the 16th & 17th centuries it was the world centre for glass production. Murano trained craftsmen were not permitted to leave the island – anyone doing so was proclaimed a traitor. Today, the island caters to the tourist trade, with tours of the glass blowing facilities and stores selling an overabundance of mass market glass beads and knick knacks. In and amongst these, however, there are still fine craftsmen, producing unique and collectable art.

Coming in the off-season, we were not harassed by glass salesmen and could enjoy walking around the island.

The Grand Canal in Murano

The Murano Grand Canal weaves lazily through the town. There’s a great museum on the history of glass, the Museo dell’Arte Vetrario, housed in the 17th century Palazzo Giustinian. With huge glass chandeliers, a great exhibit of early Roman glass, and fabulous contemporary pieces, the museum helped us to see past some of the tacky glass shops to the history and beauty of glass.

From Murano, we took the boat to the small island of Mazzorbo. Mazzorbo has no claim to fame, other than to be a quiet and tranquil place to live. It was settled around the 10thcentury, but is not at all built up.

The quiet church of Santa Caterina on Mazzorbo

There are quiet garden plots, and little fishing boats. The 14th Century church of Santa Caterina still has its original bell, dating from 1318, making it one of the oldest in Europe. Apparently Winston Churchill, amongst many others, came here regularly to paint. Yet you can walk through Mazzorbo in about 10 minutes, cross the lovely wooden bridge and arrive at the island of Burano.

Burano is the lace island. It had a thriving lace industry in the 16th century, and an important lace making school in the 18thcentury, but today is mostly known for it’s colourful houses.

Looking from Mazzorbo to the colourful houses on Burano

The apocryphal story is that local fishermen all painted their houses bright colours so that they could see them from out in the lagoon. Apparently the colours are highly regulated now, and owners must apply to the local government to find out which colour they are permitted to paint. Because we were visiting in the off-season, the island was even quieter than normal.

The colourful houses on the quiet canals of Burano

We found a great place to have some lunchtime pasta, but the charm of the island was mostly in the walking amidst such exuberant and vibrating colours.

From Burano we took the ferry to Torcello, said to be the birthplace of modern Venice.

Walking into quiet Torcello

It was founded in the 5th century by citizens of the town of Altino, fleeing from the mainland. In the 14thcentury there were 20,000 people living on the island. But it is the most boggy and marshy of the islands, and inhabitants suffered from the excessive mosquito population and thus plagues of malaria. Today the island is home to about 100 residents. In tourist season there are a couple of lovely places to eat, but when we arrived everything was closed and shuttered. It was late in the afternoon and we were just in time to enter the church of Santa Maria Assunta, one of the oldest and most beautiful of all the churches we saw in our time in Venice.

The church of Santa Maria Assunta

Santa Maria Assunta dates from 639 and has amazing floor, vault and wall mosaics dating from the 9th to the 12th century. A huge Romanesque/Byzantine wall mosaic of the Last Judgment covers one whole wall of the church and shows pictures of the blessed and damned, of heaven and hell. Sitting on the edge of a small, virtually deserted island, the church had a magical and spiritual feel that was stronger than all of the huge cathedrals in Venice combined.

Sunset over the canal of Torcello

We walked back to the vaporetto dock into a magnificent sunset. We left the deep, murky mysteries of the lagoon and headed back on into the city, “the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” –Erica Jong. We had travelled far.

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” –Giuseppe Verdi

The shock of Venice

Welcome to Venice. Greeted by the church of San Simeone Piccolo

It is impossible to go to Venice without a preconceived vision. It must be the most painted, photographed, fictionalized and filmed city in the world. But it was still a shock. It was the most “foreign” experience I have ever had.

One knows that Venice in on the water. But I don’t think I had really understood what that meant. On another planet, in another universe, perhaps all cities are built on the water. Here on earth, there is only one.

The city of Venice is on a lagoon of 117 islands. While lagoon dwellers have lived there since the 10th century B.C., the impetus for modern day Venice began when people from northern Italy were fleeing Germanic and Hun invasions in the 4th century A.D. The early peoples brought wood from the forests of northern Italy and began the process of building on the lagoon and creating a unique world of interconnected islands. Their strategic position at the head of the Adriatic eventually gave the city naval and commercial supremacy and by the late 13th century, Venice was the richest city in all of Europe. It was ruled by the “Great Council”, made up of all of the leading Venetian families. They vied with each other to build the largest palazzos (palaces), decorated with the work of the greatest artists of their time.

But as with all empires, Venetian fortunes changed. Trade routes altered. Over a three-year period in the 16th century, the Black Death killed a third of Venice’s population. Venice would never have the same military force. But it has never lost its grace and beauty.

Today, the city relies on tourism to keep it afloat, quite literally. Over 50,000 tourists visit Venice per day. We were, again, very glad to be visiting in the off-season.

“Ask Venetians why they stay, nearly suffocated by mass tourism and rising water levels, and they will tell you that the tourists are supernumeraries, the acqua alta part of the scenery, and the play itself is still the greatest show on earth” (Time Out, Venice)

Of course, I love a good stage set. I love crumbling and fading beauty, where sculptures and painting are tucked in and around every façade. A world where attention is paid to every detail, and yet so little is kept in good repair.

And I love living in a city with no cars, where early morning deliveries are made by quiet barges skillfully maneuvered through narrow canals.

The view from our window in Cannaregio

We had rented an apartment in the Cannaregio region, near the Jewish ghetto, away from the mad tourist dash of San Marco and the consumerism of the Rialto.

Tim outside the door of our apartment

Here, people were living their lives amidst the beauty and decay. There were little stores on every corner, with all manner of cheeses, meats and wines. There was a large fruit and vegetable market, fish market, bakeries and cafes.  What more could a person ask for?

The word ghetto comes from Venice. It meant iron foundry, a place where iron was cast (gettato). The foundry was in the island of Cannaregio until 1390. In 1516, the Jewish population was given permanent residency status in Venice, but they were confined to this area. It was a haven for Jews who could take refuge here from other parts of northern Italy. But it also became a prison where the bridges were locked after dusk. It is the one region where there are tall buildings — since people were confined to a small area, they built upwards. It was not until the arrival of Napoleon in the 18th century that the Jewish population were given full rights of citizenship. Many chose to remain in Cannaregio.

The Ghetto

Living in Cannaregio, we decided to make our first stop a pilgrimage to the memorial for the 202 Venetian Jews who were deported from Venice to death camps in 1943. The central piazza in the ghetto was cold and still in the early morning sunshine. The memorial was overpowering.

Memorial for the Venetian Jews deported during the holocaust

Venice is a city built on water, but it is also a city made for walking and getting lost. No street is straight or long. It is an intense maze in which a map is almost useless.  We spent the morning walking. And walking. And walking. Trying to get a sense of the geography, and realizing that it is more like understanding a forest than a city. Learning to recognize shapes, trusting more to instinct than reason.

So we switched our perspective and took a trip through the city by boat. At 75 euros for 50 minutes, we couldn’t afford a gondola, but for 6.50 euros we could take the vaporetto (the water bus) through the city, enjoying the twists and turns of the Grand Canal. We armed ourselves with a great guide book and Tim read through the “tour” as we went along.

The perspective on the city is entirely altered from the water. Grand entrances, designed for water access and invisible from the streets, are revealed in all their glory.

Ca d'oro, The Palazzo Santa Sophia

Commerce and daily lives are conducted here.

The fish market. Where fish can be unloaded directly from the boat.

The rich and mighty socialize, wheel and deal. It is a vision of power, wealth and astonishing beauty.

Red carpet treatment at the grand Casino. Lives of the rich and famous

We finished our Grand Canal tour at the Piazza San Marco. But we decided that we needed to wait a couple of days before submersing ourselves in the intensity of San Marco. Instead, we walked away from the tourist hub, along the cobbled seaside walkway, far enough that we could find a glass of wine that we could afford (the closer you are to San Marco, the more expensive the wine, and the seats).

Wine in the January sunshine

We watched the world go by, the boats heading to islands, the sun starting to set behind the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. As the dusk set in, we headed back through the narrow streets, finding new adventures around each corner.

Sunset behind San Giorgio Maggiore
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