What can I say about Venice that hasn’t already been observed by travelers for hundreds of years? Pilgrims, poets, philosophers and merchants have described its otherworldliness, the seemingly miraculous way that the colourful buildings seem to rise out of the sea. The approach by boat, now as 700 years ago, is as weird and wonderful as it always has been; squint and try to forget the vaporetto engine and the other trolley-laden tourists beside you, and you can truly imagine yourself in the city’s glorious past.

The approach by boat, now as 700 years ago, is as weird and wonderful as it always has been…

For all that every article or itinerary on Venice will recommend that you wander the calli and stumble upon hidden campi and campielli with churches containing famous works of art, my approach to travel is too methodical, art-historical, or simply type-A to do that. Getting lost happens, and I do stop, look, or change direction, but when I visit Venice, I have a list of places I want to re-visit, of paintings I need to return to after years of absence, of architecture to photograph and observe. One never has enough time in Venice, and I always seriously underestimate the time it takes to get between my chosen locations and overestimate how much I can walk or how long I can go without rest. So take my advice with a grain of salt; you may be wise to wander more than I.

Only when wandering do you capture canals like this, with their special light and colours.

I returned to Venice this summer soon after travel between regions and countries reopened, hoping to be one of the first to have this privilege. I wasn’t the only one, that’s for sure, but the unsustainable hordes that have plagued the city for a few decades haven’t yet returned. I stayed three nights –a week would have been better, though a few years would be required to fully grasp this city’s peculiarities. I chose a central location in the San Marco area, an ample and luxurious apartment in the noble Palazzo Ca’Nova that allowed me to stop by for a rest and a shower or even a meal before heading out again, refreshed and ready to take in more culture.

The church of San Zaccaria, not far from San Marco, is one of my old favourites

As most of my readers will know, I’m a Renaissance art historian by training. While my focus was primarily Florentine, Venice has always been my secret lover. If you ask me right now, I’d say Bellini is my favourite painter, sometimes Giorgione (and don’t get me started on Titian and especially Lorenzo Lotto!). It all began with one professor, Gary Radke, who led a traveling summer seminar to Italy in 1997 and in six weeks managed to instill a lifetime passion for the country [read my article “Renaissance art in Italy: an itinerary” for more information]. While preparing for my latest trip, the course syllabus fell out of the textbook we used and brought back so many memories. I wanted to properly revisit the churches he took us to when he magically packed in so much ground and detail; I’ve rarely had the opportunity to spend more than one night in Venice since.

After more than twenty years in Italy, I’m (thankfully) no longer a student, which has certain advantages in Venice. I gave myself a theme: discover the luxury of Venice, past and present. Not simple, accessible luxuries in the modern sense of the term, but a kind of treasure hunt to spot the details that bear witness to the city’s great wealth and its particular manifestation in everything visible.

San Marco: gold as far as the eye can see

It may be number one on the tourist path, but to understand Venetian art, piazza San Marco and its Basilica really are essential. It’s hard to know where to start, or even where to look, when you enter this shimmering church that encapsulates so much of this city’s aesthetics. It’s a sumptuous, golden pastiche that combines spoils from the crusades with centuries of artistic interventions by all the important artists of the lagoon, yet it’s unified in its overall glory.

San Marco's golden domes

Although seemingly gigantic, San Marco isn’t as big as it looks. My husband, Tommaso, had never been inside and he commented that he thought it would be larger. This almost paradoxically intimate feeling, I think, comes from the numerous shimmering domes that delineate a series of consecutive spaces. Few angles allow the viewer to take in the whole. This may be why the pastiche of styles – layers of imagery from Byzantine to High Renaissance – is so successful, or at least not disturbing to our eyes.

To understand Bellini’s or Titian’s approach to light, we must appreciate the domes of the interior of this church and the way that the single mosaic tesserae that wedge real gold leaf between sheets of glass reflect light streaming in from windows. The mosaic technique also informs the later Venetian understanding of colour and how our brain compensates for what the eyes cannot distinguish from a distance. Like Impressionism in painting, mosaics are skilfully laid dots of colour that we interpret as a whole. Late Titian and Tintoretto use a similar expedient, counting on our natural smarts to meld colours and shape from a distance.

As the ducal chapel, San Marco is also central to the establishment of the doge, Venice’s ruler, as he who unifies church and state. Connected to the Ducal Palace, the elaborate Gothic building that extends from the church to the Grand Canal, centuries of wealth are concentrated in a limited amount of space.

The Scuole: civic engagement and patronage

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco’s main meeting hall is unquestionably grand.

The ruling power of Venice was concentrated in a very small percentage of hereditary patricians, but the city’s wealth was distributed amongst a greater number thanks to mercantile activity. Venetian history credits the presence of an active alternative for civic engagement, that of the scuole, as a factor that ensured peace. You probably know about these lay confraternities whose role began as a spiritual one but developed into being important culturally and socially, as well as in terms of patronage.

The seven scuole grandi and the many more scuole comuni accepted members limited only in number. There were the extremely rich, major ones like the Scuola di San Rocco or San Marco, but also ones for specific social groups (like immigrants from certain countries) or guilds. The scuole were important in Venetian ritual life, taking part in massive processions that were demonstrations of Venetians’ piety as well as wealth, but they also played a social function, taking care of members and their families (such as providing dowries or burial services when needed).

Given the size and wealth of decoration of the major scuole, on this trip I only had time for one, so I headed to San Rocco for an overload of Tintoretto. Tintoretto isn’t my favourite Venetian artist; he came after Titian (some say he briefly trained with Titian, but this is undocumented) but when he and his workshop was active – 1540s through 90s – style had evolved from the luminous and elegant precision of the earlier Venetian Renaissance to the dark, energetic and intense style of the later Renaissance.

Tintoretto at San Rocco - the Crucifixion

One has to admire Tintoretto’s lifelong dedication to the scuola of which he was a member. In 1577, he agreed to an annual salary of 100 ducats in exchange for 3 paintings a year, allowing the confraternity to cover their significant amount of wall and ceiling space for a much lower price than had they commissioned artists individually, and all by one of the top artists of his time. (This blog post is an excellent summary of how Tintoretto managed to insert himself into this ambience by working for free or cheap until he received the fuller commissions.)

These paintings embellish pretty much every space of the building – one of the most famous canvases, an Annunciation with Mary surprised in an apparently modest home, hangs just above the ticket booth to the left of the entrance. Head upstairs to the Sala Superiore, which Tintoretto painted from 1575 to 1581, complete with gold frames on the ceiling and elaborately carved seating along the side walls, where members of the brotherhood would sit for meetings.

Up the stairs towards the treasury, don’t miss the tiny room on the landing that houses a painting of Christ carrying the cross that is attributed to Giorgione. This small and damaged (or unfinished) painting was previously in a chapel in the church of San Rocco, but the chapel was redecorated in the 18th century and the painting moved to the Scuola. Attribution wavers between Giorgione and Titian, with no thanks to contemporary sources – Vasari mentions it twice and contradicts himself – but I’ll believe Pignatti and Pedrocco’s reasoning on the matter, who give it to Giorgione.

Venice’s churches: costly piety

Venice prided itself on being a highly pious city, and the number of ornate churches certainly reflects this. The number of paintings by notable Venetian artists that you can spot in any given church is mind-blowingly high, and while a trip to the Accademia museum is a once-in-a-lifetime must to see some major masterpieces, many others that you’ll recognize from art history 101 are still to be found in their original locations in churches.

In my lost wanderings I twice ended up in front of this jewel-box of a church, Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

I had a list of churches I hoped to visit on this trip to Venice, and it didn’t all happen. A local chef observed to me how funny he finds it when people try to rush around and be on time in Venice, and the impossibility of this is what has led many type-A people to leave Venice for the easier-to-navigate mainland. I’m probably not by nature a Venetian. I was unable to complete my list, because 500 meters on the map might take an hour of getting lost or simply of distractions like the need to photograph every canal or enter every church you see on the way.

Bellini, Frari Tryptich

If you only have time to find one church during your wanderings, I’d say go for the Frari. Don’t be fooled by its rather bland brick exterior, this massive church in the Venetian Gothic style has a lot to explore inside. In chronological order, I would first run off to the sacristy at the right side of the church in order to visit the precious Frari Trypich by Bellini (also known as Pesaro Tryptich, 1488). Remember me saying how essential San Marco was to future Venetian artists? Here’s your proof – just look at that golden dome! I absolutely adore this painting, which is a lot smaller in person than it seems in reproduction.

Bellini's later painting at San Zaccaria

A larger and in my mind related painting is Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece (since I’m writing, we can jump over to this church across Venice for just a moment). Dating to 1505, you can see how Bellini has now moved all his figures into the same space, and incorporated the golden dome into fictive architecture and natural space, breaking the bonds of gold frames imposed by the International Gothic style, but holding on to the particular Venetian sensitivity for the treatment of light and colour. The figure of Saint Peter, with his head in foreshortening, becomes particularly relevant for later artists like Lorenzo Lotto or Pordenone, but that’s a story for another day.

A couple admires one of the most innovative works in Renaissance art history at the church of the Frari.

Back to the Frari, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) was commissioned by the church’s Franciscan prior Germano di Caiole for the high altar (it’s currently under restoration). Its monumental scale with a clever division of vertical space immediately set a new standard in painting that was to kickstart the High Renaissance in Venice.

The painting Titian began right afterwards is another milestone: the Pesaro Madonna (1519-26) is located on the left side of the church and the artist seems to have taken this into consideration when composing his painting on the diagonal, generating immense dynamism that we art historians like to codify as being “typical of Venetian painting” after this time, for this appears to be the first time the Madonna and Child are moved off to one side of a Sacra Conversazione. The columns and the diagonal composition make the painting an extension of the church’s side wall. Another really notable element in this painting is the lavish representation of expensive textiles such as the black damask cloak with a red lining worn by the patron, Jacopo Pesaro, in the left foreground, or the red damask-covered figure on the right in the group of the patron’s family members.

Showing off: cloth, costume and jewelry

In all the paintings we’ve seen in Venice, did you notice the prominent role of cloth, jewels and other ornaments? Venice was where valuable velvets with complex patterns were created and this made the city famous in Europe. Taffeta was used as wallpaper. Silk was finished on looms operated, initially, by Tuscan immigrants using imported raw materials from Syria, Turkey, Persia… far-off places that Venetian merchants regularly visited. And beyond these fabrics, skilled hands transformed them, giving them visible form in patrician and merchant homes, where no surface escaped decoration, as well as in dresses worn by Venetian women.

For a sense of these historical fabrics and how they are represented in paintings of the day, a trip to Venice’s textile museum, the Palazzo Mocenigo is handy – I did this on my last visit to Venice so didn’t repeat it this time. This time, I had an opportunity to meet up with one of the artists who keeps Venetian historical costume alive thanks to a new project called Venice Original, developed by CNA Venezia (the business association for artisans and SMEs) with funding from JP Morgan.

Susanna and her sister at La Scatola Magica

Susanna Lazzaro ushered us into La Scatola Magica, her atelier located in an ex-industrial building just off a leafy courtyard. This is where a select group of the real carnival-goers order their costumes a year in advance, but the studio is famous not only for these works of art but for the costumes that star as much as the dancers in professional ballet companies in Venice and beyond. For us mere mortals, Susanna and her two very chic sisters also offer a sartorial fashion line and home accessories.

Susanna remembers the very start of Carnevale: she graduated from her studies in textiles in 1979 and opened her atelier the year before Carnevale began. She said it all started with the ballet, with the dancers sporting their costumes in the street. She lived through the exciting start of it all, which was a most creative moment. The commercialization and privatisation of the event as it got larger in the 1990s did not stop her creativity, though she says it profoundly changed the nature of the event.

Months of teamwork go into every historical costume made for her demanding clients, who, Susanna modestly claims, sometimes know more about historical costume than she does. The Settecento and Ottocento for which Venice is best known are the most requested styles, though Renaissance dresses are also ordered. These attendees of the famous private Carnevale parties number a few hundred, and over the years, they acquire dozens of costumes, introducing a new one each February. The sisters source and sew the best available textiles and accessories for these original works of art.

Of course, jewelry was an essential way of displaying ones riches, and we know from contemporary portraiture that Renaissance Venetian women adorned their hair, hands, necks and waistbands with distinctly tooled designs in fine metals, pearls and jewels. Fabio Quintavalle is a Burano-based jeweler trained in traditional techniques but who offers a line of modern, architectural-inspired jewels. The forms of his ducal-palace ring, for example, perfectly reproduce the shapes of the building in piazza San Marco and use a hand-crafting method of traforo with an effect similar to buccellati, a delicate and traditional technique updated for the occasion.

I also met up with artisans working in two fields related to costumes and home accessories: lacemaking and beading were complementary to the historical clothing industry and were important female contributions to the Venetian economy. On the fishing island of Burano, in the nineteenth century every woman in town could be seen sitting outside with her round lace-making pillow, bobbins or needle in hand. The extremely fine merletto for which Burano has been renowned since Caterina de’ Medici wore it at the French court is a painstaking and skilled task for which, sadly, there is now rather little market.

I met Sandra Maravacchio in her small shop in Burano, where she is one of a handful of women carrying on the traditional role of merlettaia, passing on the knowledge to her granddaughter. She demonstrated her fine stiches for me, the thread much thinner than what you’d use to sew a button, and showed me some of her prized artworks – a framed fan that took three years to make, and a precious set of sheets for a young woman’s hope chest that represented years of work for her and a team of artisans.

Another type of artisan I wasn’t familiar with before my trip is the impiraressa, of which I met perhaps the most passionate exemplar, for Luisa Conventi preserves a whole selection of historical examples of her trade, as well as storing hundreds of kilos of the last glass beads actually made in Murano. She showed me how the tiny beads used to be made by hand on the Venetian island, but after the 19th-century boom, the last factory for this closed in 2007. These beads were made in Venice since the 14th century and were an important trade item, especially to Africa where they were regarded as important status symbols. The impiraressa’s job was to create pre-worked strings of beads using a fork-like tool dipped into a concave tray; at the height of this trade there were 5000 women working on this in Venice, and this was the first step to making beaded purses, fringes, glittering lampshades and decorative flowers that rendered the patrician palaces notably ornate.

Noble palazzi (and one to stay in)

Venice’s domestic architecture is just as important and miraculous as its churches. Seemingly growing out of the water, the many merchants established their homes on the Grand Canal or in the various neighbourhood campi, calling them Ca’ (for casa) rather than palazzo. In striking difference to Florentine tower-houses and the general style of Tuscan housing (dark!), Venetian homes are a series of large openings, often ornamented with marble to highlight Byzantine features like ogival arches. They tend to develop vertically, and in the Renaissance period, often each floor was an apartment so that family units such as brothers and their families would each have their own space. Often the ground or first floor would be a grand open space used as a sales room by merchant families. The fanciest homes had direct boat-access, the Venetian equivalent of a garage.

I had the pleasure of staying at Palazzo Ca’Nova which indeed has access on the Canal Grande, placing it amongst a handful of highly desirable buildings. I didn’t take advantage of this port, though: reserved for the family, guests can access it if they book a private water taxi from the train station or airport, but we normal commoners opted for the vaporetto, the public boat that makes way too many stops but generally runs on time. It stops at San Marco and from there it is only a very short walk “home”.

My favourite part of the Hayez Apartment at Palazzo Ca'Nova? This bed!

The just-restored palazzo with its four spectacular apartments is now owned by Marchesa Barbara Berlingieri, who has kept a part of it for her family. The history of this palazzo goes all the way back to the 12th century. Its current form is owed to more recent history: the successful Jewish banking and ship-owning family, Treves, barons de’ Bonfili, purchased the building in 1827 when local law enabled Jews to buy property outside the Ghetto and they commissioned the architect Giuseppe Borsato (who also decorated Teatro La Fenice) to redesign the property.

The latest intervention preserves much of this Neoclassical style, seen in the Berlingieri family’s antique furniture as well as in the choice of colours – muted orange, pastel green, vivid blue. Our safe haven for this long weekend of tightly-planned explorations, the part I like best may well be the king-sized canopy bed designed by the palazzo’s interior decorator Anna Guarini, inspired by the Dream of Saint Ursula by Carpaccio in the Accademia (a bed I’ve always admired, though I’d rather not have the dream, in which an angel comes to her to inform her of her upcoming martyrdom). Details like the softest sheets on earth and the fragrant rose toiletries from The Merchant of Venice, the well-equipped kitchen and the delivery of fresh pastries every morning made this stay absolutely perfect.


Disclaimer: I was hosted on this trip by Trust and Travel Villas, the company that partnered with Palazzo Ca’Nova for the renovation, redecoration and management of the historic property. They have a number of truly stunning, historical properties across Italy in their portfolio – do check them out.

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