La Serenissima Under Siege

Friday, July 21, 2017

A few days after an unofficial referendum in which 99 per cent of voting Venetians demanded that leviathan cruise ships be kept out of their lagoon, we arrived to spend nine nights in a city we weren’t sure would welcome us. We were wrong. We just had to stay away from the handful of places we’d seen on previous brief trips. Then, we followed the ritual path from St. Mark’s Square to the Rialto Bridge to the Accademia Museum to restaurants full of other tourists before returning to the central square for a nightcap at the Florian, the famous cafe that once famously hosted the most famous Venetian after Marco Polo, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova.

Save Venice, the New York-based non-profit that restores and protects Venetian art and architecture, was in town that week, too, for one of its regular fancy-dress four-day galas. Yet hostile hand-made signs around town made clear that these days, the floating city’s citizenry are more concerned with saving it from its latest invading hordes—those floating ecological time bombs and their passengers. These are the sort of visitors most safely viewed from St. Marks Square as they queue up for hours outside the Basilica, swarm the Rialto Bridge and poke each other with selfie sticks on the Riva degli Schiavoni near The Bridge of Sighs. While some of them shop in the big-brand stores clustered around San Marco, leaving a few Euro cents behind in Venice, most take home only the sort of generic souvenirs (masks, tchotchkes, Chinese-made “Murano” glass) sold in the tourist shops that have multiplied around the Piazza like mushrooms after a spring rain. Unlike the benefactors of Save Venice, these visitors contribute little more to the historic city than a sense that it’s been turned into a theme park. And, as the crumpled water bottles floating past the gondolas attest, the city still struggles to deal with repercussions of its popularity.

It’s sad that central Venice has become impassable (and impossible) in summer, its main sights full of packs of downscale tourists following flag-waving guides. Sad, too, that the Florian’s plaza tables sit empty, and the place now shuts down before midnight. But it’s fortunate that this sort of invader doesn’t drift far from their top-five-sights itineraries, leaving most of the city’s sublime delights—even La Fenice, the restored opera house where we saw Bellini’s La Somnambula—blissfully free of crowds and freshly glittering from renovations subsidized by wealthy patrons. Those range from Save Venice to brands like DFS, Prada and Gucci, whose owners have transformed several grand buildings into monumental showcases.

That ego and commerce play a vital role in such endeavors doesn’t diminish the delight of being able to see the lagoon from inside the former customs house at Punta della Dogana, or a 360 degree view of Venice from the roof of the Fondaco Dei Teseschi, the 13th Century building that was the trading post and home for German merchants during the reign of the Doges, a customs house under Napoleon and a Mussolini-era post office. Reinvented by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Rem Koolhaas and Silvia Sandor, the building, now owned by the Benetton family and leased to LVMH’s Duty Free Shops unit, is filled with big brand boutiques and a restaurant, but the upper level is an event space and the roof is a wonder. A short wait on line is rewarded with exquisite views. Not even the giant mega-cruise ship that butted into the Giudecca Canal while we watched could spoil that experience.

Artist Damien Hirst’s comeback exhibit, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, mounted to coincide with this year’s Venice Biennale, will be on view at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana through December 3rd. Fascinating as a car wreck, it is likely meant to restore Hirst’s art market value, which took a hit after a two-day auction at Sotheby’s in 2008 that proved to be as ill-conceived as it was unprecedented. Hirst’s giant fantasy, which purports to tell the story of an ancient shipwreck, and display the bounty “recovered” from it,  unfolds at the Palazzo Grassi, a classic Grand Canal palace, and Dogana de Mar, Venice’s 17th Century customs house. It is no doubt a total coincidence both venues were restored by Francois Pinault, who created the Kering luxury conglomerate and whose holding company, Artemis, owns Christie’s auction house—Sotheby’s bitter rival. But it’s likely the show was conceived not as a comment on the threat to Venice posed by giant sea-faring vessels, but rather as a device for Hirst, reportedly the wealthiest visual artist in the world, to one-up Jeff Koons, the American artist whose style, reputation and wealth comes closest to his own. The whole thing felt rather Koons-ish.

The Hirst show is hardly the only non-quite-the-Biennale art in the city: it competes with a far less compelling installation called The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied, at the Ca’ Corner della Regina; a show of some of Robert Rauschenberg’s last work at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in the monumental complex of the former Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore; Glasstress, a group show of 33 artists working in the medium at the Palazzo Franchetti, and countless other art exhibits, all either associated with or latching onto the Biennale which opened in May and continues through November.

While the Biennale itself is a subject of justifiable debates about everything from the quality of the art on display to the meaning of art itself, one benefit of its presence is the opening of beautiful, historic, and peculiar buildings usually closed to the curious all around Venice; they serve as off-site venues for art shows large and small. While there are no doubt guides to those many presentations, it is arguably more fun to wander the city and stumble on them, as we did, just by turning a corner or crossing a bridge over a canal.

That’s also in keeping with a current awareness campaign run by the City of Venice, encouraging travellers to go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes. #DETOURISM, as it’s called, was concieved to promote slow and sustainable tourism, and encourage visitors to discover the true soul of the city and experience Venice as the Venetians do by leaving the usual tourist trail. Here is AVENUE‘s guide to doing just that, one couple’s experience earlier this month of Venice beyond the obvious.

STAY: We rented a well-appointed, air conditioned one-bedroom apartment through Truly Venice, a ten-year-old Swiss based company that leases properties for short and long term stays. A minute from Campo Santo Stefano, a plaza with bars and restaurants; the Accademia Bridge and the Palazzo Grassi, the apartment cost about $200 a night. One special treat was the altana, or rooftop terrace of the small building, which had sweeping views, including the campanile in St. Mark’s Square, a ten minute walk from our front door.

EAT: In our quest to live like Venetians, we decided to avoid restaurants favored by Americans (sorry, Harry’s Bar), in favor of shopping in Venetian markets (repeat after me: scala, intestino e decapitato means scale, gut and cut), cooking at home and patronizing the equivalent of neighborhood restaurants. (Some of them, admittedly, are also Michelin-starred, but you’re still as likely to hear Italian being spoken as Noo Yawk English.) Al Bacareto (Calle delle Botteghe, 3447 San Marco), steps away from our apartment, is a perfect local, warm and welcoming with a fresh seafood menu and plentiful outdoor tables. Nearby, Trattoria Da Fiore (Calle de le Boteghe, 3461 San Marco) has a rustic interior, a popular bar serving wine and cicchetti, the famous Venetian snacks, and a wide-ranging menu. We stumbled onto Osteria ai Pugni (Fondamenta Gherardini, 2836), a tiny canal-side restaurant  in Dorsoduro, and had the best meal of our trip With just five tables a chalk-board menu that changes daily, and food as serious as its rock and roll attitude (try the black pasta with Lagoon octopus), it was the “find” of the week.

Friends in town for the Biennale took us to Ristorante Da Ivo (Calle Fuseri, 1809), a high-end restaurant with two dinner seatings that boasts on its website that its clientele includes Elton John, Paul Newman, Denzel Washington, Barbra Streisand and Jacques Chirac, and is so popular with visitors, it demands a booking fee. Ignore the prices and try the giant curried shrimps, mammoth lobsters, or Taglioni with white truffles.

Cip’s Club, the informal restaurant at Belmond’s grand Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca (take the hotel’s private boat from its dock near the Molo), is also expensive, but well worth it. Have sweet and tart Bellinis, carpaccio and huge plates of perfect grilled langoustines on its deck over the Giudecca canal. Those fortunate enough to stay in the hotel also gain access to something quite valuable on a summer day in Venice: an outdoor swimming pool.

Osteria Bancogiro near the Rialto Bridg has good food right on the Grand Canal and offers a bit of protection in a high-traffic zone. (Campo San Giacometto, 122)

And if you’re willing to travel back towards the airport on the mainland, or to take a day trip to Padua to see Giotto’s frescoed masterpiece, the Cappella degli Scrovengi, try Ristorante Nadain (via Ghebbie 26, Oriago di Mira), where you can gorge on fresh grilled seafood for a fraction of what it costs in Venice.

VISIT: The Scuole Grandi of Venice (multiple locations) are gilded versions of guild halls, albeit on art steroids. The Scuola Grande di San Marco’s main chapter room has a painted wooden ceiling still houses paintings from the original decorative cycle by Domenico Tintoretto and Palma il Giovane. For a small fee, visit the sala capitolare on the second floor with an altar by Sansovino, a medical museum with exhibits by turn fascinating and scary, and the Sala dell’Albergo, home of an historical medical library. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was decorated in the mid-16th Century by Tintoretto and his assistants and family. The Scuola Grande dei Carmini in Dorsoduro was likewise decorated by Tiepolo, among others. /

The Fortuny Museum (Calle Pesaro 3958) is a Gothic palazzo in Campo San Beneto once owned by the Pesaro family, but transformed by Mariano Fortuny into a studio for his photography, stage-design, textile-design and painting. While much of the interior is given over to a fascinating temporary art exhibition called Intuition, equally fascinating is the building itself, with its rooms created by Fortuny, hung with precious wall-hangings, paintings, and lamps reflecting how the intellectual and artistic vigor of Venice persisted even as its economic and political fortunes declined after the fall of the Doges in the 19th Century. The palazzo was donated to the city in 1956 by Fortuny’s widow. Murano, Burano and Torcello can be visited in half a day by private boat, or by the public ones known as vaporettos.

Wander the fishing village of Burano and stop for lunch at Trattoria da Romano (Via Baldassarre Galuppi, 221).

On almost deserted Torcello, visit the cathedral with its 11th and 12th Century Byzantine mosaics, climb the Campanile for a bird’s eye view of the lagoon, and even if you don’t stay eat there, poke your head into Locanda Cipriani, a tavern and inn where the walls are hung with photos of British royals like Diana, Princess of Wales, and American guests like Kim Novack and Ernest “Papa” Hemingway.

While Murano glass itself is now a rarity outside the realm of art, The Museo dei Vetro there tells the history of the local glass trade, beginning more than 2,000 years ago and including masterpieces from the 15th to the 20th century.

The Museum of Fondazione Querini Stampalia (Campo Santa Maria Formosa, 5252) is one of the finest house museums in Europe. The noble floor recreates the residence of the Querini Stampalia family and contains precious furniture, paintings, porcelains, globes, fabrics and sculptures, and walls covered in luxurious plasterwork and frescos.

This is just a small sample of what’s hidden in plain sight off the beaten track of Venice. Skip the gondola and take a long walk in the Floating City. It’s to sigh for.


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