Venice is a shapeshifter — just take the artworks that have sought to capture its beauty. From the sumptuous interiors of a Titian to the calm ordered panoramas of a Canaletto to the brilliant skies of a J.M.W Turner, each painting reflects a different face of the lagoon.
For today’s visitor to the floating city, there is always another side to Venice. Drift away from the well-beaten path and look beyond the famous museums to discover a masterpiece of a city which is constantly transformed with every passing season.
One reason for Venice’s ever-changing face is La Biennale — or rather the Biennales, as the Art and the Architecture festivals alternate year by year. Inaugurated in 1895 and setting the model for art fairs worldwide, the Biennales see the international art world descend upon Venice to view the artworks and structures exhibited by competing nations in their respective pavilions. Most of the action takes place down at the official venues at the Giardini and the Arsenale, where the monumental spaces originally used to construct Venice’s shipping fleet now represent the vanguard of contemporary design.
In recent years of some of the most-talked about installations have become the collateral ones as they allow access to normally inaccessible locations across Venice: stand out experiences have been Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile in the Ateneo Veneto and Jan Fabre’s Glass and Bone in the Abbazia di San Gregorio. The result is a citywide event with Venetian summer months bringing with them the promise of blue skies, Riva rides down the Grand Canal and a pantheon of new artworks to discover.
Explore Castello and Cannaregio
No matter how beautiful it is to bask in the golden light glistening on the water along the Riva degli Schiavoni, deviate between the Arsenale and the Basilica San Marco and lose yourself in the narrow calle (alleys) of Castello. It is one the most characteristic yet undiscovered of Venice’s sestiere (neighborhood), hiding a number of artistic gems. A 10-minute stroll through the tranquil area takes you between the Chiesa di San Zaccaria, the Chiesa di San Giovanni in Bragora and the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni which respectively house the masterpieces of High Renaissance heavyweights Giovanni Bellini, Cima da Conegliano and Vittore Carpaccio.
Replenishment in the form of lunch at local and international favorite Al Covo is a must. Start with the local specialties of baccalá mantecato (creamed cod)and sarde in saor (sardines in a sweet and sour sauce) and finish off with a grappa under its bottle green awning. Set along the aptly named Campiello della Pescaria, the restaurant has been running since 1987, yet its old-world sophistication makes it feel like it has been there forever.
Afternoon ambles around Venice always pay off — any direction will do. Heading north of the famed Rialto Bridge will bring you to the tranquil canals of Cannaregio. Marvel at the marble walls of jewel box Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli and drop in to see Titian’s chiaroscuro masterpiece of “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” in the church of I Gesuiti en route to the Fondamente Nove. This kilometer long quayside opens onto the northern front of the lagoon, offering unrivaled views across the waters and on a clear day you can even see the snow-capped tips of the Dolomite mountains range.
No matter how far you wonder, always aim to end up sitting with a spritz in hand at the outdoor tables of the long-established Pasticceria and Gelateria Rosa Salva watching the lengthening shadows creep their way across the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo.
Evenings in Venice are a strange affair. In essence, the aperitivo hour should whet the appetite, yet once the spritz glasses are full or the wines are poured, dusk fades to night and everyone is too content where they are to think of heading anywhere else. Vino Vero remains a go-to partly for their amazing selection of natural wines and partly for their innovative crostini combinations – try the mackerel and pink peppercorn – that invite repeated temptations. For something a little more intimate, opt for WineBar 5000 in Castello where canal-side tables flicker with candles. Or follow those in the know towards the Rialto and Al Mercà to stand chatting and laughing, glass of Friulian orange wine in hand, in the Campo Cesare Battisti late into the night.
Artisanship In The Lagoon
Sunsets in Venice are magnificent, but the city is at its best at dawn. In the early morning, you can still walk through a deserted Piazza San Marco and watch as the rising sun turns the mosaics into a blazing gold, the white marble into a delicate pink and makes the expanse of water in front of the piazza glimmer silver.
Follow with a morning espresso at the marble topped counter of Gran Caffé Quadri, whose 400-year-old building underwent a restoration by local architects and craftsmen. Venice’s flourishing artisanal culture is indebted to the city’s historic trade routes with the East which contributed to the import of artistic techniques and materials including silk, gold and ultramarine that are still worked today in workshops that often remain in the same families as they have for centuries.
This fusion of tradition and innovation are visible at the Stanze del Vetro which showcases Venice’s glassmaking industry. Located on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, a pure white space serves as a backdrop for an ever-changing roster of exhibitions by master glassmakers including Ettore Sottsass, Paolo Venini and Maurice Marinot.
The myriad of forms and colors of the objects on display pay testimony to their genius in making the seemingly impossible possible. The mission of the Stanze del Vetro is to show that Venetian glassmaking is very much a living craft and to such ends they have inaugurated of the annual Venice Glass Week. The designers to know are Giberto and Yali Glass, who adopt a fully modern vision to create pieces that turn the everyday into art.
In much the same way that Venetian glass has global acclaim for its quality, so too does the cloth produced in the city. The 200-year old looms at Bevilacqua still click-clack away to weave sumptuous upholstery fabrics, while over on the island of Giudecca, the secrets of Fortuny printed fabrics reman closely guarded. You can, however, admire all the patterns in their airy showroom: mull over which fabrics to take home over a Bellini cocktail next door at Harry’s Dolci. The city’s other famed tessitura (textile factory) is Rubelli whose rich silks can also be found at Banco Lotto No.10 – an initiative in which female prisoners make whimsical dresses, coats and tops to purchase or to order.
Alongside fabric and glass, paper is another of Venice’s historic trades. Hand marbled notebooks from Alberto Valese make perfect gifts, while customized business cards from Gianni Basso Stampatore are the ultimate symbol of a Venetian insider.
Venetians have honed the skill of blending old and new across the centuries thanks to the spatial limitations of their islands. Byzantine churches stand alongside Baroque façades while the recently renovated Renaissance Palazzo Grimani has a room filled with classical sculptures. No one, however, has had as much of an impact on the modern face of Venice as Carlo Scarpa.
His designs pepper the city, from the Biennale’s now defunct ticket booth to the Olivetti Glass Showroom to the Fondazione Querini Stampalia where he reduced Venice’s architecture to its essential elements: the portego, the garden, the entrance and the bridge. Strolling the zen garden of the museum to the sound of lapping water, surrounded on all sides by crumbling palazzi, it is impossible not to think of the defining sentence of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice.“
Where To Stay In Venice
This vibrant artistic community is a constant reminder that Venice is a city to be lived in and experienced, so choosing the right place to stay is key. Among the latest openings, The Venice Venice Hotel is a contemporary art filled palazzo by the Rialto, while Ca’ di Dio’s medieval structure has just undergone a renovation by Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola and now seamlessly merges gothic architecture with contemporary elegance. For the complete artistic immersion, the finest place to stay is at the Aman Venice where you can dream under rosy-cheeked putti frescoed by Tiepolo.
Even if you don’t stay at the Aman, it is a must to reserve a table for dinner to dine in the soft glow cast by age-speckled Murano mirrors. The hotel’s gourmet restaurant Arva is among a new generation of restaurants that have modernized Venetian cuisine together with other favorites Ristorante Local, Estro and CoVino. Using the lagoon’s fresh fish and vegetables grown on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo, the food at these addresses is light, innovative and displays pride for the local produce of Venice.
For a complete sense of terroir, the ultimate dining experience is at Venissa, an idyllic winery and resort. Catch a boat across the lagoon to reach the tiny island of Mazzorbo where you can indulge in Venissa’s farm-to-tabel tasting menu accompanied by the golden hued Dorona wine grown on the surrounding vineyards. Opt to spend the night in night in one of their sleekly designed rooms and you will be rewarded in the morning with the sight of the sun burning through the early mist on the water.
After a sumptuous breakfast, head over to the neighboring island of Torcello to stand before the oldest mosaics in the Lagoon. Located in the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta and created by artisans who travelled from Istanbul, they serve as a reminder that Venice was once considered both the center of the world, and a world of its own. Maybe it still is.