how to enjoy Venice

I love Venice. My family and I just returned from an idyllic week there and are mourning our departure. However, we noticed that a lot of the other visitors didn’t look very happy. Maybe they were having a better time than it seemed as we watched them trudge across the Piazza San Marco. I’m sure that some of them enjoy activities that I don’t happen to like (such as shopping), and that’s great. But I also know from overhearing their conversations that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit this small city every day are quite unhappy.

Venice is a city of crowds, of heat in the summer and dampness in the winter, of bad smells. The tourist industry, which arrived in the eighteenth century, is virtually the only business today, and that means inflated prices and sometimes mediocre food. The crowds–to which we contributed our own four bodies–contain very few Italians. There’s nothing wrong with masses of Americans and other stranieri, but it isn’t a novel cultural experience for us to hear American voices.

So why go there at all? Because there is an indescribable richness of art, architecture, and political and social history in every Venetian neighborhood. I don’t think that any other spot on earth has the same concentration of beauty and interest. (It’s amazing to know that an estimated 96% of its paintings permanently left Venice during the French and Austrian occupations of the early 1800s. So many remain.)

It takes a fair amount of information and background to reveal that beauty. If you rely on a Fodor’s guide or the equivalent, then you will go where everyone else goes–to places like San Marco, where the crowds are most intense. Behind the crowds, the gondolas, and the water, you will see a multi-colored, variegated, architectural backdrop. You may like that setting, or you may not, but you probably won’t like it enough to compensate for long lines, high prices, and difficulties getting your restaurant bill or finding the right vaporetto.

In a bid for readability, guide books typically provide anecdotes about each location. But why do you need to stand outside the jail from which Casanova escaped? The story is just as good if read more comfortably from home.

What you need is some way to make sense of all that decoration–not to mention what’s hidden away in remoter Venetian neighborhoods and inside all those the buildings. Works of art and architecture are deliberate and specific statements of meaning, not just efforts to be pretty. They are solutions to specific problems. As with nature, so with art: you need to understand before you can appreciate.

Unfortunately, you would need a vast amount of knowledge to make sense of Venetian art, which was excellent from the ninth century to the nineteenth. (There are also fine Greco-Roman, modern, and post-modern works in the city.) The scope and variety is intimidating.

Here, then, are some ways to narrow the focus. Even if you could only do one or two of these activities, I think you would enjoy the city more than if you tried to hit the top-ten list from Fodor’s.

  • Go around the city contrasting Veronese and Tintoretto. Their lives overlapped for 60 years. They had the same influences, the same set of skills, some of the same patrons, and the same basic ingredients. But Veronese was decorative, sunny, apparently more interested in pretty women, clothes, and architecture than in religious subjects–or at least so the Inquisition thought. Whereas Tintoretto appears, on the evidence of his painting, to have been an obsessive, tortured, and deeply spiritual genius. Often they painted similar subjects, which makes for direct comparisons. (E.g. Tintoretto’s “Marriage of Cana” in S. Maria della Salute versus Veronese’s “Banquet in the House of Levi” in the Accademia–great to see on the same day). In addition to the other paintings by each artist in the Accademia, and Tintoretto’s harrowing cycle in S. Rocco, it would be important to visit each man’s parish church, where he painted a great deal and was buried. (It’s S. Sebastiano for Veronese; Madonna del’Orto for Tintoretto.)
  • Focus on the major scuole, charitable fraternities for bourgeois Venetian laymen. You can obtain an introduction to the history of Venetian art by visiting the following scuole in this order: the Scuola Grande di S. Marco (hard to get into, but the facade is an experiment in early Renaissance architecture and scientific perspective); the Scuola Grande di S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni (with charming early Renaissance paintings by Carpaccio); room 21 of the Accademia Gallery (equally charming Carpaccios taken from the Scuola di Sant’ Orsola), room 24 of the Accademia (a whole preserved chamber from the Scuola della Carita with a high-renaissance masterpiece by Titian), the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco (Tintoretto’s cycle from the end of the Renaissance), and the Scuola Grande dei Carmini (with elaborate and cheerful rococo ceilings by Tiepolo).
  • Consider the facades of a dozen Venetian churches–there are more than 125 still standing–as efforts to solve a common problem. The typical Christian church has a high central nave and two lower side aisles. This is a design borrowed from Roman law courts, which were called “basilicae.” Many people find the plain front of a basilican church an ugly shape: a high box with two smaller boxes on either side. So the architect must cover, conceal, or soften it without tacking on a completely different shape. There are dozens of solutions to this problem in Venice, some original, and each reflecting specific values. For example, Palladio, wanting to imitate classical aesthetics, started with two Greek temples. He put the larger one in front of the nave and sliced the smaller one in two, putting each half in front of an aisle. He used this solution at least four times in Venice, and it’s interesting to compare the subtle differences.
  • Buy a Chorus Pass, which provides admission to 20 Venetian parish churches. Each participating church provides laminated cards that identify the significant works of art. Visit as many of the churches as you can. The cards won’t help to distinguish works that are commonly considered masterpieces from ordinary paintings and sculptures. But maybe that’s an advantage. Decide which works you like best, and keep a record of your favorite artists.
  • Take the King James’ version of the Bible along and read the passages that are illustrated in so many works of art, starting with the fine early Christian objects in Torcello and the Basilica of S. Marco. For instance, all artists who portray a scene called “The Annunciation” choose a specific phrase from Luke 1:28-38 to illustrate; which phrase they choose makes a significant difference.
  • Sit alongside a picturesque stretch of canal and consider the buildings opposite, one by one. It would help to have a detailed guide, like Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide to Venice, and some schematic drawings that distinguish Byzantine, gothic, Renaissance, and baroque architectural elements. Each facade tells a story. For example, two columns incorporated into an old window may be of Greco-Roman origin. The arch over the same window, if it’s Venetian gothic, reflects powerful Moorish influence. (Venice grew rich trading with the Muslim world.) The little round opening below the window may be modern, cut to accommodate an electric fan. The next window was perhaps used for loading freight onto boats; now it’s bricked in. The whole scene is a record of human adaptation and expression over scores of generations.