The first-time visitor to Venice arrives full of expectations, most of which turn out to be well founded. All the photographs you’ve seen of the Palazzo Ducale, of the Basilica di San Marco, of the palaces along the Canal Grande – they’ve simply been recording the extraordinary truth. All the bad things you’ve heard about the city turn out to be right as well. Economically and socially ossified, it is losing hundreds of residents by the year and plays virtually no part in the life of modern Italy. It’s deluged with tourists and occasionally things get so bad that entry into the city is barred to those who haven’t already booked a room. And it’s expensive – the price of a good meal almost anywhere else in Italy will get you a lousy one in Venice, and its hoteliers make the most of a situation where demand will always far outstrip supply.
As soon as you begin to explore Venice, though, every day will bring its surprises, for this is an urban landscape so full of things to do that you can’t walk for a minute without coming across something that’s worth a stop. And although it’s true that the city can be unbearably crowded, things aren’t so bad beyond the magnetic field of San Marco, and in the off-season (Nov to Christmas; Jan to Easter, excluding Carnevale) it’s possible to have parts of the centre virtually to yourself. As for keeping your costs down, Venice does have some good-value eating places, and you can, with planning, find a bed without spending a fortune.
The monuments that draw the largest crowds in Venice are the Basilica di San Marco – the mausoleum of the city’s patron saint – and the Palazzo Ducale – the home of the doge and all the governing councils. Certainly these are the most dramatic structures in the city: the first a mosaic-clad emblem of Venice’s Byzantine origins, the second perhaps the finest of all secular Gothic buildings. But every parish rewards exploration, and a roll-call of the churches worth visiting would feature over fifty names, and a list of the important paintings and sculptures they contain would be twice as long. Two of the distinctively Venetian institutions known as the scuole retain some of the outstanding examples of Italian Renaissance art – the Scuola di San Rocco, with its sequence of pictures by Tintoretto, and the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, decorated with a gorgeous sequence by Carpaccio.
Although many of the city’s treasures remain in the buildings for which they were created, a sizeable number have been removed to Venice’s museums. The one that should not be missed is the Accademia, an assembly of Venetian painting that consists of virtually nothing but masterpieces; other prominent collections include the museum of eighteenth-century art in the Ca’ Rezzonico, the Museo Correr (the civic museum of Venice), and the city’s superb showcase for contemporary art, the Punta della Dogana.
Venice’s cultural heritage is a source of endless fascination, but you should also allow time just to wander – the anonymous parts of the city reveal as much of the city’s essence as the highlighted attractions. And equally indispensable for a full understanding of Venice’s way of life and development are expeditions to the outer islands of the lagoon.
Tourism is far from being the only strand to the economy of the Veneto, the surrounding region of which Venice is capital. The rich, flat land around the Po supports some of Italy’s most productive farms and vineyards, and industrial development around the main towns rivals even the better-known areas around Milan, making the region one of the richest in Europe. At Marghera, just over the lagoon from Venice, the Veneto has the largest industrial complex in the country, albeit one that is now in decline. Padua and Verona are the main tourist attractions after Venice, thanks to their masterpieces by Giotto, Donatello and Mantegna. None of the other towns of the Veneto can match the cultural wealth of these two, but there are nonetheless plenty of places that justify a detour – the Palladian city of Vicenza, for instance, the fortified settlements of Castelfranco and Cittadella, and the idyllic upland town of Asolo.
For outdoor types, the interesting terrain lies in the northern part of the Veneto, where the wooded slopes of the foothills soon give way to the savage precipices of the eastern Dolomites. Because most of the high peaks of the Dolomites lie within Trentino-Alto Adige, and the eastern Dolomites are most easily explored as part of a tour of the range as a whole, the area of the Veneto north of Belluno is covered under Trentino-Alto Adige. Similarly, the eastern shore of Lake Garda is covered as part of the Lombardy and the lakes.
Small groups of fishermen and hunters were living on the mudbanks of the Venetian lagoon at the start of the Christian era, but the first mass migration was provoked by the arrival in the Veneto of Attila the Hun’s hordes in 453, and the rate of settlement accelerated when the Lombards swept into northern Italy in 568. The loose confederation of island communes that developed owed political allegiance to Byzantium. But with the steep increase in the population of the islands the ties with the empire grew weaker, and in 726 the settlers chose their own leader of the provincial government – the first doge.
The control of Byzantium soon became no more than nominal, and the inhabitants of the lagoon signalled their independence through one great symbolic act – the theft of the body of St Mark from Alexandria in 828. St Mark displaced Byzantium’s St Theodore as the city’s patron, and a basilica was built alongside the doge’s castle to accommodate the relics. These two buildings – the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale – were to remain the emblems of the Venetian state and the repository of power within the city for almost one thousand years.
Before the close of the tenth century the Venetian trading networks were well established through concessions granted by Byzantium in the markets of the East. By the early twelfth century Venetian merchants had won exemption from all tolls within the eastern empire and were profiting from the chaos that followed the First Crusade, launched in 1095. Prosperity found expression in the fabric of the city: the basilica and many of its mosaics are from this period. The Fourth Crusade, diverted to Constantinople by the Venetians, set the seal on their maritime empire. They brought back shiploads of treasure (including the horses of San Marco) from the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, but more significant was the division of the territorial spoils, which left “one quarter and half a quarter” of the Roman Empire under Venice’s sway and gave it a chain of ports that stretched to the Black Sea.
After the Sack of Rome in 1527 the whole Italian peninsula, with the exception of Venice, came under the domination of Emperor Charles V. Hemmed in at home, Venice saw its overseas territory further whittled away by the Turks as the century progressed: by 1529 the Ottoman Empire extended right along the southern Mediterranean to Morocco, and even the great naval success at Lepanto in 1571 was followed by the surrender of Cyprus.
The decline continued throughout the 1600s and by the eighteenth century Venice had become a political nonentity: the playground of Europe, a city of casinos and perpetual festivals. Napoleon finally brought the show to an end: on May 12, 1797, the Maggior Consiglio met for the last time, voting to accede to his demand that it dismantle the machinery of government. After Waterloo, Venice fell to the Austrians and remained a Habsburg province until united with the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
The need for a more substantial economic base led, in the wake of World War I, to the construction of the industrial centre across the lagoon at Marghera, adjacent to Mestre, which in 1933 was connected to Venice by a road link. After World War II Mestre-Marghera’s growth accelerated greatly, and the mainland conurbation has continued to expand, to the detriment of the centro storico. The factories of Mestre-Marghera are essential to the economy of the province, but have caused problems too: apart from polluting the lagoon, they have siphoned many people out of Venice and into the cheaper housing of Mestre, making Mestre-Marghera today more than three times larger than the historic centre of Venice, where the population has dropped since World War II from around 170,000 to under 60,000. No city has suffered more from the tourist industry than Venice – around twenty million people visit the city each year – though without them Venice would barely survive.Read More
Venice in flood
Venice in flood
Called the acqua alta, the winter flooding of Venice is caused by a combination of seasonal tides, fluctuations in atmospheric pressure in the Adriatic and persistent southeasterly winds, and has always been a feature of Venetian life. In recent years, however, it has been getting worse, with more than a hundred floods a year – though most of these are minor. If the siren sounds, you can expect a serious flood in three to four hours’ time. A system of plank walkways is immediately set up in the low-lying parts of the city – most boat stops have maps of where those walkways run. The usual high-tide season is September to April, with the worst flooding between November and February.
A grand plan is being implemented to protect the city, involving building a tidal barrier across the three entrances to the lagoon. Nicknamed Moisè (Moses), the barrier aroused considerable opposition, both to its cost and to its potential environmental impact. However, mounting concern about global warming gave the matter more urgency and has led to widespread acceptance. More than twenty years after the first plan was submitted, work finally began on the barrier in 2003 and is due to be completed in 2014.
The Canal Grande
The Canal Grande
Below is a selection of the most impressive buildings to be seen on the Canal Grande. To see both banks at once, make sure you get a seat at the front or the back of the vaporetto; and don’t miss the experience of a nocturnal boat ride.
1. Calatrava Bridge
The newest feature of Venice’s cityscape is officially known as the Ponte della Costituzione, but Venetians generally use the name of its designer, Santiago Calatrava. The elegant arc of steel, stone and glass is modelled on a gondola’s hull.
2. Scalzi Bridge
The successor of an iron structure put up by the Austrians in 1858–60, which had to be replaced in the early 1930s to give the new steamboats sufficient clearance.
3. Fondaco dei Turchi
A private house from the early thirteenth century until 1621, the Fondaco dei Turchi was then turned over to Turkish traders, who stayed here until 1838. Though over-restored, the building’s towers and arcade give a reasonably precise picture of what a Veneto-Byzantine palace would have looked like. It’s now the natural history museum.
4. Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi
Begun by Mauro Codussi at the very end of the fifteenth century, this was the first Venetian palace built on Renaissance lines. The palazzo’s most famous resident was Richard Wagner, who died here in February 1883. It’s now the casino.
5. Ca’ Pésaro
The thickly ornamented Ca’ Pésaro, bristling with diamond-shaped spikes and grotesque heads, took half a century to build – work finished in 1703, long after the death of the architect, Baldassare Longhena.
6. Palazzo Corner della Regina
This palazzo was built in 1724 on the site of the home of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, from whom the palace takes its name.
7. Ca’ d’Oro
Incorporating fragments of a thirteenth-century palace that once stood on the site, the gorgeous Ca’ d’Oro was built in the 1420s and 30s, and acquired its nickname – “The Golden House” – from the gilding that used to accentuate its carving.
8. Ca’ da Mosto
The arches of the first storey of the Ca’ da Mosto and the carved panels above them are remnants of a thirteenth-century Veneto-Byzantine building, and are thus among the oldest structures on the canal.
9. Rialto market
10. Fondaco dei Tedeschi
The fondaco was once headquarters of the city’s German merchants, who as early as 1228 were leasing a building here. In 1505 the Fondaco burned down; Giorgione and Titian were commissioned to paint the exterior of its replacement. The remnants of their contribution are now in the Ca’ d’Oro.
11. Rialto Bridge
12. Palazzo Loredan and Palazzo Farsetti
These neighbouring palazzi are heavily restored Veneto-Byzantine palaces of the thirteenth century; now the town hall.
13. Palazzo Grimani
Work began on the immense Palazzo Grimani in 1559, to designs by Sanmicheli, but was not completed until 1575, sixteen years after his death.
14. The Mocenigo palaces
Four houses that once belonged to the Mocenigo family stand side by side on the Canal Grande’s sharpest turn: the Palazzo Mocenigo-Nero, a late sixteenth-century building, once home to Byron; the double Palazzo Mocenigo, built in the eighteenth century; and the Palazzo Mocenigo Vecchio, a Gothic palace remodelled in the seventeenth century.
15. Ca’ Fóscari
The largest private house in Venice at the time of its construction (c.1435), Ca’ Fóscari was the home of Doge Francesco Fóscari, whose extraordinarily long term of office (34 years) came to an end with his forced resignation.
16. The Palazzi Giustinian
These twinned palaces were built in the mid-fifteenth century for two brothers who wanted attached but self-contained houses.
17. Ca’ Rezzonico
Longhena’s gargantuan Ca’ Rezzonico was begun in 1667 as a commission from the Bon family, but they were obliged to sell the still unfinished palace to the Rezzonico, a family of stupendously wealthy Genoese bankers. Among its subsequent owners was Pen Browning, whose father Robert died here in 1889.
18. Palazzo Grassi
This vast palazzo was built in 1748–72 by Massari, and was the last great house to be raised on the Canal Grande.
19. Accademia Bridge
As the larger vaporetti couldn’t get under the iron Ponte dell’Accademia built by the Austrians in 1854, it was replaced in 1932 by a wooden structure, later reinforced with steel.
20. Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
In 1759 the Venier family, one of Venice’s richest dynasties, began rebuilding their home, but this palazzo, which would have been the largest palace on the canal, never progressed further than the first storey. The stump of the building is occupied by the Guggenheim Collection.
21. Palazzo Dario
This exquisite little palazzo was built in the late 1480s, and the multicoloured marbles of the facade are characteristic of the work of the Lombardo family.
22. Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande
The palace that used to stand here was destroyed when a fire lit to dry out a stock of sugar ran out of control. Sansovino’s design – built from 1545 – is notable for its rugged lower-storey stonework, which makes it the prototype for the Ca’ Pésaro and Ca’ Rezzonico.
Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
Venice specializes in fish and seafood, together with exotic ingredients like pomegranates, pine nuts and raisins, harking back to its days as a port and merchant city. The surrounding Veneto vies with Lombardy for the risotto-making crown – the end product tending to be more liquid than those to the west, usually with a seafood base although peas (bisi in the local dialect) are also common, as are other seasonal vegetables including spinach, asparagus and pumpkin. The red salad-leaf radicchio also has its home in the Veneto, as does the renowned Italian dessert, tiramisù. Polenta is eaten, too, while pork in all forms features strongly, together with heavy soups of beans, rice and root vegetables.
Pastries and sweets are also an area of Venetian expertise. Look out for the thin oval biscuits called baicoli, the ring-shaped cinnamon-flavoured bussolai (a speciality of the Venetian island of Burano) and mandorlato, a cross between nougat and toffee, made with almonds.
The Veneto has been very successful at developing wines with French and German grape varieties, notably Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. The quintessentially Italian Bardolino, Valpolicella and Soave are all from the Verona area and, like so many Italian wines, taste better near their region of origin. This is also true of Prosecco, a light champagne-like wine from the area around Conegliano. Grappa, the local firewater, is associated particularly with the upland town of Bassano di Grappa, where every alimentari stocks a dozen varieties. Made from grape husks, juniper berries or plums, grappa is very much an acquired taste.
The sestieri of Venice
The sestieri of Venice
The 121 islands of central Venice are divided into six districts known as sestieri, and the houses within each sestiere are numbered in a sequence that makes sense solely to the functionaries of the post office – this explains how buildings facing each other across an alleyway can have numbers that are separated by hundreds.
Venice’s main thoroughfare, the Canal Grande, divides the city in half – three sestieri to the west and three to the east. On the east side of the Canal Grande is the sestiere of San Marco, the area where the majority of the essential sights are clustered, and accordingly the most expensive and most crowded district of the city. East of San Marco is Castello, and to the north is Cannaregio – both of which become more residential, and quieter, the further you get from the centre. On the other side of the Canal Grande, the largest of the sestieri is Dorsoduro, stretching from the fashionable quarter at the southern tip of the canal to the docks in the west. Santa Croce, named after a now-demolished church, roughly follows the curve of the Canal Grande from Piazzale Roma to a point just short of the Rialto, where it joins the smartest and commercially most active of the districts on this bank – San Polo.
Festivals and events
Festivals and events
Venice’s Carnevale (w carnivalofvenice.com) occupies the ten days leading up to Lent, finishing on Shrove Tuesday with a masked ball for the glitterati and dancing in the Piazza for the plebs. After falling out of fashion for many years, it was revived in 1979 and is now supported by the city authorities who organize various pageants and performances, beginning with the “Flight of the Angel” from the Campanile. Apart from these events, Carnevale is an endless parade: during the day people don costumes and go to the Piazza to be photographed, while business types do their shopping in the classic white mask, black cloak and tricorn hat. In the evening some congregate in the remoter squares, while those who have spent hundreds of pounds on their costumes install themselves in the windows of Florian and pose. Masks are on sale throughout the year, but special mask and costume shops magically appear during Carnevale, and Campo San Maurizio sprouts a marquee with mask-making demonstrations and a variety of designs for sale.
La Sensa and the Vogalonga
From the twelfth century until the fall of the Republic, Ascension Day was marked by the ceremony of The Marriage of Venice to the Sea, a ritual which was followed by a huge trade-fair called the Fiera della Sensa (Sensa being dialect for Ascension). Today the feast of La Sensa happens on the Sunday after Ascension Day, and features a feeble modern version of the ceremony, plus a gondola regatta. Far more spectacular is the Vogalonga or “long row”, held a week later. Established in 1974, the Vogalonga is open to any crew in any class of rowing boat, and covers a 32km course from the Bacino di San Marco out to Burano and back, with the competitors setting off from in front of the Palazzo Ducale around 9am.
The Venice Biennale (w labiennale.org), set up in 1895 as a showpiece for international contemporary art, is held from June to November of every odd-numbered year. Its permanent site in the Giardini Pubblici has pavilions for about forty countries (the largest for Italy’s representatives), plus a thematic international exhibition. Supplementing this central part are events at venues all over the city: the salt warehouses on the Záttere, for instance, or the Corderie in the Arsenale. In even-numbered years the city hosts an architecture Biennale, a smaller-scale event which usually runs from September to November; this overlaps with a short music Biennale, and is preceded by a two-week dance Biennale (usually in June).
The Film Festival
The Venice Film Festival (w labiennale.org) – the world’s oldest, founded in 1932 – takes place on the Lido every year in late August and/or early September. Tickets are available to the general public on the day before the performance, at the Palazzo del Cinemà and PalaBiennale ticket offices. Any remaining tickets are sold off at PalaGalileo one hour before the screening, but nearly all seats are taken well before then.
The Regata Storica
Held on the first Sunday in September, the Regata Storica is the annual trial of strength and skill for the city’s gondoliers and other expert rowers. It starts with a procession of historic craft along the Canal Grande course, their crews all decked out in period dress, followed by a series of races up the canal. The opening parade is a spectacular affair, and is followed by a race for young rowers in two-oared pupparini; the women come next (in boats called mascarete), followed by a race for canoe-like caorline; and then it’s the men’s race, in specialized two-man racing gondolas called gondolini.
La Festa del Redentore
For Venetians it’s not Carnevale that’s Venice’s quintessential festival – it’s the Festa del Redentore, which marks the end of the plague of 1576. Celebrated on the third Sunday in July and the preceding Saturday, the festa is centred on Palladio’s church of the Redentore, which was built in thanksgiving for the city’s deliverance from that terrible epidemic. On the Saturday the bishop of Venice marks the commencement of the festive weekend by leading a procession to the church, crossing the Giudecca canal on a bridge that’s supported by dozens of boats that are strung across the waterway from the Záttere. By the evening the Bacino di San Marco is clogged with boats, as people row out for a picnic on the lagoon, then at midnight there’s the mother of all firework displays, after which it’s traditional to row to the Lido for the sunrise.
La Festa della Salute
Named after the church of the Salute, the Festa della Salute is a reminder of the plague of 1630–31, which killed one third of the city’s population. The church was built after the outbreak, and every November 21 people process to it over a pontoon bridge across the Canal Grande, to give thanks for good health, or to pray for it.
With every passing year the population of Venice falls, while commercial rents increase. The result: small-scale family-run shops are an endangered species here. Venice has two major shopping districts – the Mercerie, connecting the Piazza to the area around the Rialto Bridge; and Calle Larga XXII Marzo, running west from the Piazza – and these zones are almost monopolized by Italian mega-brands such as Gucci, Dolce e Gabbana and Prada, which you’ll find in every other major tourist destination in Italy. On the island of Murano you’ll find a lot of showrooms selling local glass, but much of the cheaper stuff is mass-produced outside Italy – look for the “Vetro Artistico Murano” trademark, the sign of authenticity. Likewise, most Carnival masks – the quintessential Venetian souvenirs – are manufactured abroad.
Limitless demand for holiday accommodation has made this city the most expensive in western Europe, and the high season here is longer than anywhere else in the country – it officially runs from March 15 to November 15 and then from December 21 to January 6, but many places don’t recognize the existence of a low season any more. Several hotels, on the other hand, lower their prices in August, the month in which many Italians – including Venetian restaurateurs and bar owners – decamp to the beaches and the mountains. It’s wisest to book your place at least three months in advance, but should you bowl into town with nowhere to stay, you could call in at one of the VeneziaSi booking offices: at the train station; on the Tronchetto; in the multistorey car park at Piazzale Roma; and at Marco Polo airport. They only deal with hotels, and take a deposit that’s deductible from your first night’s bill. Finally, the tourist office’s website (wturismovenezia.it) gives details of accommodation of all types.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
Venice has fewer good moderately priced restaurants than any other major Italian city, but things have been improving in recent years, due in part to the efforts of the Ristorante della Buona Accoglienza, an association of restaurateurs determined to present the best of genuine Venetian cuisine at sensible prices – which in the Venetian context means in the region of €35–40 per person. A distinctive aspect of the Venetian social scene is the bácaro, which in its purest form is a bar that offers a range of snacks called cicheti (sometimes spelled ciccheti); the array will typically include polpette (small beef and garlic meatballs), carciofini (artichoke hearts), eggs, anchovies, polipi (baby octopus or squid) and tomatoes, peppers and courgettes cooked in oil. Some bácari also produce one or two more substantial dishes each day, such as risotto or seafood pasta. Excellent food is also served at many of Venice’s osterie (or ostarie), the simplest of which are indistinguishable from bácari, while others have sizeable dining areas.
Venice does not have a single club, and though there’s a number of late-opening bars with DJs or live music, strict bylaws against late-night noise mean that the gig often entails nothing wilder than an aspiring singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar. The Teatro Malibran stages concerts by Italian rock outfits from time to time, but bands rarely come nearer than Padua, and the biggest names tend to favour Verona. Music in Venice, to all intents and purposes, means classical music.