An account of a week-long exploration of churches and art in Venice
Tuesday: A three-hour delay from Gatwick meant that we arrived in Venice after dark. But a vaporetto from the Railway Station to Santa Maria della Salute and our hotel nearby was ample compensation. Palazzo after palazzo, moonlight glinting off rippling water, gondolas gracefully bobbing, snatches of music: there is no where else like it.
Glory and decay
Wednesday: St Mark’s Square must be the first call for any visitor. The tourist season was not into its stride. A clear sky and a cool breeze made the conditions perfect. The Square was busy enough but not oppressively so and, although a third of the Basilica was behind scaffolding it still had the capacity to take the breath away. We walked through the streets to the Rialto and wandered through the market. Food stalls still predominated and were a riot of colour and richly fragrant but there seemed to be more gift stalls selling trinkets that were shoddy and vulgar but not cheap. Another trip down the Grand Canal: this time seeing the buildings in all their glory and some in their distress. Venice remains on that tantalising cusp between glory and decay.
Thursday: Where better to begin than with one of the greatest of Venice’s churches: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The space is magnificent, generous in width, soaring columns and there is fascination with every step. The highlight is to see Titian’s masterpiece, The Assumption of Our Lady, in the place for which it was intended, the altar-piece for the High Altar. In the chapel immediately to the south of the Sanctuary is the exquisite statue by Donatello of St John Baptist. It is a pity that Titian’s nineteenth-century funerary monument is grandiose and dull. Then to Piazza Santa Margherita for Spritz (the Venetian speciality: a choice between Campari or Aperol, sharp or sweet). We passed a trio of street musicians playing and being photographed beside one of the small canals. I hurried past while my companion (a keen photographer) snapped away. We settled down to lunch when they appeared in the square and my heart sank. Acoustic guitar, flute and accordion: my nightmare combination. Post lunch saw us in the Accademia, moving slowly from one masterpiece to another: richer than the richest marsala-soaked, mascarpone lathered tiramisu.
Friday: A day of more churches. We walked from the Rialto to the jewel box, the small, perfect gem of a church, Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Yellow, cream and gold marble, it is rich but not cloying. It has a cool reserve and integrity and contains a beautiful Bellini Madonna. And who should be in the Campo but my nightmare musicians. We made our escape into the vast SS Giovanni et Paolo. The tombs to several Doges in varying degrees of Renaissance magnificence spoke of the power that was Venice, of the wealth and influence that maintained the city. The Campo San Stefano was a discovery, over the bridge (from which there is the best view of the dome of Santa Maria della Salute) from the Accademia. Here we found a small, delightful bar with the best pizza. Food is Venice is notoriously indifferent but, with the odd exception, we ate well but not cheaply. The best was on the Dorsoduro: seafood risotto, silky smooth, followed by hare pappardelle, rich and powerful.
Saturday: A long trip to the islands. It was longer than it should have been because I had an out-of-date guide book. The book to have with you, although dated now, was recommended to me and I pass on the recommendation: Hugh Honour’s The Companion Guide to Venice. It was published in the Sixties. It is beautifully and evocatively written and stands up well today. It is worth having for his description of the seasonal food stalls in the Rialto market alone: a lyrical masterpiece. The funeral island of San Michele was hauntingly beautiful. Murano was busy and more commercial than I remembered it from 25 years ago. Some of the Murano glassware was sumptuous but too much of it for my taste was grotesque trinkets, the glass equivalent of garden gnomes. Torcello and its stunning gold murals in the Basilica did not disappoint. Anyone with any feeling for the past cannot be other than moved by the image of Our Lady in golden apsidal dome. The fairly recent restoration has revealed the mosaics in glowing colour.
A transporting moment
Sunday: A similar transporting moment came with the Missa Solemnis in San Marco. Tolerate the untidy ceremonial, appreciate Gabrieli sung (if slightly shouty) in the place for which it was written, hear the vernacular Mass with Latin Creed, and look heavenwards. The golden domed ceiling and its potent saintly iconography are moving beyond tears. The gold might look better by candlelight flickering and glancing off the carefully positioned pieces but no matter. ‘There’s glory for you.’ And back into the Square for Après Mass in the ‘drawing room of Europe’: and where better than Florian’s for coffee and cake. The afternoon was given over to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art. The setting was wonderful, the house charming, the garden beautifully laid out, the café excellent, sitting on the steps overlooking the Grand Canal for half an hour was delightful. However, there was not one painting, not one piece of sculpture that I did not dislike or hate and happily would have consigned to the flames.
Monday: Yesterday’s weather had been warmer and the first, possibly the only, mosquito in Venice emerged, found my hotel room and found me. Looking in the bathroom mirror it looked as if I had been shot in the shoulder. But it was worth it. La Serenissima had worked its potent magic and enslaved another devoted visitor.