In travel, the ultimate test of authenticity is quite simple: on a very rare occasion and quite unexpectedly, the place you are seeing for the first time is just like you always imagined it. In Venice, this sensation of originality, fidelity and historicity works for me every time I visit. And I have visited a dozen times since my first whistle-stop tour of Italy as a teenager in 1995.
Back then, as I leaned against the railing of an overcrowded vaporetto on the Grand Canal, I was totally unprepared to take it all in. I still am today. Whether I roll into the city on a Freccia speed train that slows down graciously as it reaches the Santa Lucia terminus or I arrive on a humble ATVO bus into the Piazzale Roma station, I am swept into the vortex of beauty.
Whether I stand in St Mark’s Square or stroll along an obscure calle, ruga or ramo, I blink and stretch my eyes in disbelief: this city is magic. It is sturdy but fragile, discreetly hiding an ingenious engineering below the water line and exuding an utmost sophistication above it. The city’s allure is a bundle of contradictions: it has survived for centuries virtually unchanged when it is amazing that it even exists today.
Through its immense and unique art and architecture, it continues to flaunt its wealth, despite a long and spectacular decline. Nowadays it is overtouristed and overwhelmed and yet it carries on as a living community, although a shrinking one. Of all the places in the world, Venice is where I want to live. And if and when I do, I won’t need to go anywhere else.
In Venice, an epidemic is an old (plague doctor’s) hat
To visitors of Venice and Venetians alike, the measures taken against the coronavirus outbreak should ring a bell or two. During the historic outbreaks of plague, mandatory quarantine, fumigation and social distancing were the norm.
Chairman Mao in Venice, courtesy of Erró
Venice sure gets its fair share of visitors, including some famous oddballs, but Chairman Mao is bound to take the cake. His stroll across the Piazza San Marco is, of course, imaginary and part of Erró’s Chinese Paintings from the 1970s.
Florentine drawing or Venetian colour?
In Renaissance painting, in contrast to Florentine disegno, where “drawing” best approximates nature, stands Venetian colorito where “colour” and its judicious application best captures the look of life. How do they compare?
Monet’s Venice bathes in light and shadow
Claude Monet turned out 37 paintings of Venice where images, many of which had been reproduced before, appear fresh: the blue-green waters, hazy skies and buildings that melt into the sky above and into the canals below.
San Simeone Piccolo: A dome without a church
If you arrive in Venice by train, the odd little church with an oversized green eggcup dome is the first thing you see from the steps of the railway station across the Grand Canal. Napoleon famously called it “a dome without a church”.
Marco Polo: Venetian patron of travel
The name of Marco Polo, Venetian merchant and adventurer, is one that everyone now associates with travel and discovery. Despite a sometimes sceptical reception, his travel memoir became one of the world’s first bestsellers.
El Greco: Named and schooled in Venice
It was in Venice where he mastered the elements of Renaissance painting, including perspective and the ability to stage elaborate narratives. It was also in Venice where he got the nickname El Greco, meaning the Greek, and it stuck.
Vivaldi’s footsteps in Venice are elusive as his music
One of the cultural symbols of Venice during its last century as an independent republic is Antonio Vivaldi, the composer whose works marked a turning point in the development of the concerto and shaped the classical symphony.
Veronese: Venice’s life-of-the-party guy
Paolo Veronese, Venice’s 16th-century Mannerist master, is famous for combining biblical themes with sumptuous banquet scenes. One of them in particular, The Feast in the House of Levi, didn’t sit well with the Inquisition.
Visentini: Venice for mass consumption
Antonio Visentini is now known chiefly as the master engraver of Canaletto’s Venetian vedute. Their copies, mass-produced in England and elsewhere – even today, put Venice, for the first time, within the reach of the middle classes.
Bartolomeo Vivarini: Venice’s arch conservative painter
Working in a conservative style, Bartolomeo Vivarini was a technically expert painter known for his intense colour palette. He has also been called a derivative artist who combined different influences but never developed his own style.
Teodoro Correr: Venice’s first antique hoarder
Long before modern billionaires realised how hollow their lives had been without a private museum, there was Teodoro Correr. Left to Venice, his antique collection would form the nucleus for the present-day Museo Correr.
Gentile da Fabriano: Venice’s International Gothic inspiration
No Venetian painter could claim to be untouched by Gentile da Fabriano’s International Gothic innovations and Jacopo Bellini who probably trained with Gentile certainly wouldn’t. These developments changed Venetian art forever.
Bastiani’s doge starts the Venetian portrait tradition
Padua born and trained Lazzaro Bastiani may be best known for his figures of saints that seem to glide in ethereal atmospheres but he also painted one of the first secular portraits in Venetian art – that of Doge Francesco Foscari.
San Giorgio Maggiore: Palladio’s dream island church
They say that visitors come to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore for the views and stay there for Palladio. The appeal of this grand monastic church isn’t just its location – and, yes, it’s a piece of prime real estate – it’s also how it fits there.
Carpaccio’s knight is a web of infinite connections
Vittore Carpaccio’s Young Knight in a Landscape is the earliest full-length portrait in Western painting – on the assumption that it’s a portrait. It overflows with realistic detail and dramatic narrative, but also remains full of mystery.
Bellotto’s Venice is like Canaletto’s, only bigger
Bernardo Bellotto’s views of Venice have the same realism as his uncle Canaletto’s vedute but are noticeably darker and colder in tone and colour. Also, even his compositions derived from Canaletto’s works tend to increase in scale.
Carpaccio’s doge offers a glimpse of Venice
No matter the subject, Vittore Carpaccio always sneaks Venice into the picture. Unlike other artists who set their doges against simple backgrounds, his Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan comes with a view of the Venetian lagoon.
Lorenzo Veneziano: First Venetian painter from real life?
A remarkably inventive artist, Lorenzo Veneziano was the leading Venetian painter of the second half of the Trecento. Much of his skill derived from first-hand observation and real life, an obvious innovation in Venetian art.
Whistler’s Venice is a night-time mystery
American artist James McNeill Whistler, known primarily for the iconic Whistler’s Mother, was also an accomplished painter of Venice. He captured the city, often at night-time, in a heavily atmospheric style known as Tonalism.
Francesco Hayez: Venice’s runaway painter
Despite being born in Venice, Francesco Hayez, the foremost painter of Italian Romanticism of the 19th century, is known for having no professional connection to Venice. This would have been unthinkable even a century earlier.
San Moisè: Venice’s Late Baroque oddity
The Late Baroque façade of the church of San Moisè, designed by Tremignon, is dripping with lush ornamentation of garlands, scrolls, cherubs – and camels. It’s a far cry from the Venetian Baroque of Longhena’s La Salute.
Jacometto Veneziano: Purveyor of mophead portraits
Jacometto Veneziano, a little known painter in Early Renaissance Venice, was mainly active as a manuscript illuminator and a portraitist. It’s his portraiture that now truly stands out for its detail, technique and backgrounds.
Jacopo Bassano: Venetian painter-choreographer
Jacopo Bassano’s party trick is his placement of figures to create a dynamic composition which leads your eyes around every detail of the canvas. Together with vibrant colours and animated figures, this is the essence of Mannerism.
Madonna dell’Orto: Venice’s survivor church
When you visit today, you’d never know that the Venetian church of Madonna dell’Orto had been left to crumble as horse stables, a store and a warehouse. Its current state is a true miracle – perhaps the work of its miraculous relic.
Venetian beauties of Palma the Elder
With few public commissions during his lifelong career in Venice, Palma the Elder mostly catered to private patrons and for this reason he may be best known for his half-length pseudo-portraits of beautiful Venetian courtesans.
Ponte di Rialto: A Venetian bridge too far
From the engineering point of view, the single-span Rialto Bridge, laden with two rows of shops and three walkways in between and around them, would have a tough sell on solid ground. On Venice’s shifting soil it defies gravity.
Jacobello does justice to International Gothic in Venice
Jacobello del Fiore is a transitional figure in Venetian art. His work builds on the simpler and local Early Gothic and then transitions towards a more decorative International Gothic style in its final stages. His mastery of it is definitive.
In Venice, modernity arrives by train
The fascist-era edifice of the Santa Lucia train station is as modern as Venice ever gets. The construction of the railway linking the city with the mainland in the 1840s began to transform the look of the last stretch of the Grand Canal.
Tintoretto: Master of Venetian 3D
Linear perspective was a Renaissance tool for creating illusions of three-dimensional space. Tintoretto, one of the stars of late Venetian Renaissance, takes this idea beyond the bursting point with his absurdly vast perspectives.
La Maddalena: Venice’s mysterious masonic church
Modelled on the Roman Pantheon, the tiny church of Santa Maria della Maddalena, or simply La Maddalena, is a Venetian mystery. The all-seeing eye inside an interlocking circle and triangle above its door is a symbol of freemasonry.
Giorgione or Titian? – Shifting attributions in Venetian art
Venetian Renaissance painting has famously been plagued by mistaken attributions as academic research continues to identify individual masters’ hand and separate it from that of their pupils, followers, imitators, and others.
Miracoli: Venice’s slab of marble wedding cake
The Renaissance church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli is one of Venice’s smallest but greatest architectural treasures. More sculpture than building, this jewel box of a church decked out in polychrome marble is simply surreal.
Rilke’s Venice is a matter of faith
Travel for Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke served a single purpose – to seek inspiration for writing. Venice perpetually enthralled him and in his poetry about the city, two main themes prevail: affection and authenticity.
Gentile Bellini’s portrait of Venetian power
Gentile Bellini is the supreme chronicler of Venetian society of the 15th century. In his paintings, Gentile is out to capture Venice’s customs, values and power – and his portraits, like that of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, do the same.
Antonello da Messina: Key influence on Venetian art
With oil paints, Antonello da Messina’s pictures glow with their own light. His glassy oil surfaces and his practice of building form with colour rather than line greatly influenced the Venetian painting technique, known as colorito.
Venice: A tour de force in Sorrentino’s Youth
In what may well be one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema, Venice appears in a dream since at the best of times, the floating city is really a mirage. Sorrentino’s Youth is a tour de force, for the filmmaker and Venice itself.
Marin Falier: Venice’s black-listed doge
In the Doge’s Palace, Marin Falier’s face is missing among the portraits of the Venetian doges. He was only doge to be thus airbrushed from history – as well as beheaded – for attempting a coup against the Venetian Republic.
Guariento takes the great leap from Giotto
Guariento di Arpo combines the Byzantine tradition with the Gothic style while anticipating early Renaissance. His attempts at portraying human movement, both physical and emotional, are a step beyond the established norm.
San Sebastiano: Venice’s Sistine Chapel
One of Venice’s five plague-churches, the church of San Sebastiano is known as the ‘Veronese’ church. Its patron and early Christian martyr – St Sebastian – takes centre stage in the church’s interior in Veronese’s wall-to-ceiling art.
Peterzano: Caravaggio’s Venetian influencer
Venetian-born painter Simone Peterzano who is better known today as the teacher of Caravaggio than for his own work is an influence behind Caravaggio’s style that so irked his contemporaries and so awed his modern critics.
Henry James’s Venice is a sinking beauty
Henry James – who is considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language – had an intimate relationship with Venice which gave him a profound knowledge of the city’s art and architecture.
Why are there so many churches in Venice?
For a compact city of some six square kilometers, Venice does seem rather heavy on churches – there are 139 of them to be precise. Yet it is nothing short of a miracle that so many Venetian churches still survive today.
Cima da Conegliano: Poet of Venetian landscape
Cima da Conegliano, one of the leading painters of early Renaissance in Venice of the generation between Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, never strictly made a landscape painting but it is for his landscapes that he is best remembered.
Fondaco dei Turchi: Venice’s Byzantine revival
Fondaco dei Turchi, Venice’s lodgings for Turkish merchants, is considered to be one of the finest examples of early Veneto-Byzantine architecture. In reality, it is an example of Byzantine revival due to its 19th-century restoration.
Paolo Veneziano: Byzantine master who turns to Gothic
It is a credit to Paolo Veneziano, the principal painter of the Byzantine style in 14th-century Venice, that despite his repetition of subjects and figures in a consistent idiom, he became the most innovative and the first distinctive Venetian painter.
San Lazzaro: Venice’s little Armenia
Between Venice and the Lido and off the checklist for mainstream tourists lies San Lazzaro degli Armeni, the Venetian lagoon’s Armenian monastery. It is open to visitors for a brief daily tour to coincide with limited vaporetto traffic to the island.
Jacopo Bellini: Venice’s emerging Renaissance painter
Largely overshadowed by his son Giovanni, Jacopo Bellini became instrumental in the creation of Venetian Renaissance painting. A pupil of Gentile da Fabiano, he represents a transition from International Gothic to Renaissance.
Berenson’s love of Venetian art came at a price
American art historian Bernard Berenson was a major figure in the attribution of Old – particularly Venetian – Masters but his financial interest in the art he was authenticating for sale has thrown into doubt many of his attributions of authorship.
Goethe’s Grand Tour of Venice
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who is universally recognised as the greatest poet in the German language, wouldn’t ordinarily be anyone’s go-to person for travel advice for Venice had he not also written his Italian Journey.
Leaning towers of Venice
The Leaning Tower of Pisa has some stiff competition all around Italy as far as tilting bell towers go and Venice, unsurprisingly with its shifty foundations, counts as many as four such structures if you include one on the nearby island of Burano.
Venice shines through rare travelguides in Dublin
What can long-dead writers teach you about travelling to Venice? A great deal, I would say, as The Voyage of Italy: 200 Years of Travel Guides, a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, has taught me.
The Google Earth of Renaissance Venice
Despite all the romantic hype about getting lost in Venice without a map, there is one map every visitor to this city should seek out as I do whenever I visit the Museo Correr: Jacopo de’ Barbari’s bird’s-eye print of Venice.
Lost Venice survives in view paintings
In the absence of pre-1800s photography, view paintings, or vedute, now serve as visual proof of Venetian buildings that no longer exist. They possess unique value for research of places for which no other evidence survives.
Caterina Cornaro by Gentile Bellini – and beyond
Caterina Cornaro, the Venetian-born Queen of Cyprus, was an important figure in Renaissance politics, diplomacy and arts. Her iconic portrait by Gentile Bellini now hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
Vedova: Venice’s own abstract expressionist
Emilio Vedova, a native of Venice and a postwar abstract expressionist, would be far better known today had he been American rather the leftwing, cranky, bearded and bespectacled hero of the radical Italian art he is remembered to be.
Sardi: Venice’s High Baroque engineer
Not to be confused with a better known Baroque architect of the same name from Rome, the Venetian-born Giuseppe Sardi is responsible for several High Baroque church façades and an engineering restoration in Venice.
Tiepolo: Last big name in Venetian painting
Giambattista Tiepolo’s ceiling and wall frescoes are unrivalled not only in their ability to demonstrate the artist’s imagination and virtuosity in the application of paint, but also in their sheer size and abundance throughout Venice.
Venice as a character in Visconti’s film classic
Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice is not set in the city of travelguides, but a cold and hostile place that indulges in voyeuristic obsession and conveys the feeling of decay.
Fall of San Geminiano: Vandalism or upgrade?
Sotoportego San Geminiano with the funerary plaque of Jacopo Sansovino on the pavement under the arcades of Ala Napoleonica – the Napoleonic Wing – is all that remains of San Geminiano, one of Venice’s lost churches.
With Massari, Venetian architecture ends in style
In the latter part of the 18th century, Venice as a trading empire and a proud republic was a sinking ship but it was determined to go down in style. Giorgio Massari, as a talented architect, was only too happy to oblige.
Gentile Bellini’s Venetian propaganda piece
One of the most emblematic images of Venice at the height of its power at the end of the fifteenth century, Gentile Bellini’s Procession in the Piazza San Marco, is a subtle propaganda piece designed to celebrate Venetian authority.
Rossi: Master blender of Venetian styles
Domenico Rossi blended Palladian architecture with the Baroque achievements of Longhena. Together with his contemporaries, he is now credited with bringing stylistic consistency to 18th-century Venetian architecture.
Rare early Canaletto in Toronto
One of the finest examples of early Canaletto – The Bacino di San Marco, from the Piazzetta, around 1736 – is on display, of all places, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto.
Sansovino and Venice as a new Rome
Several buildings around the Piazzetta of San Marco – the Zecca, Biblioteca Marciana, and Loggetta – have a distinctive Roman feel. They all are works of Jacopo Sansovino who recast Venice as the true successor of Rome.
Caffi and the 19th-century idea of Venice
Ippolito Caffi, the foremost 19th-century representative and innovator of the urban vedute is an undeserved victim of the general interest in much earlier periods of Venetian art.
Bon: A byword for Venetian Gothic
As an architectural style, Venetian Gothic is largely synonymous with architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Bon and his palaces along the Grand Canal and church portals all around Venice.
Venice’s only Rubens: Sacred or profane?
In Venice even the most obscure church hides a big-name masterpiece. At Santa Maria del Giglio, the already high expectations of finding a masterpiece are exceeded handily: there’s a Rubens and the only one in town!
Giovanni Bellini’s spiritual force in New York
The spiritual force of Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the Desert is undeniable. The painting has been called the artist’s finest and – since it is the centrepiece of the Frick Collection in New York – also the greatest Renaissance work in America.
Scamozzi’s last word on Venetian Renaissance architecture
Venetian architect and theorist Vincenzo Scamozzi bridges the era between Palladio, whose unfinished projects he inherited, and Longhena, his only pupil and architect, who in turn completed his teacher’s unfinished work.
Turner’s Venice: Translucent, mysterious, sublime
Among Venice’s many distinguished artistic visitors, the English Romantic painter JMW Turner stands out as someone whose Venetian experience was more about capturing a mirage rather a real place.
Giovanni Bellini through the lens of Struth
It is a sign of the times that Thomas Struth’s artistic cross-referencing of Giovanni Bellini’s luminous San Zaccaria Altarpiece has resulted in a renewed interest in the old master and in photography itself.
Palladio and the genius of Venice
In Venice, Palladio’s clean lines, elegant proportions and classicising porticos are found on three churches that stand outside of the city’s core but, for this very reason, can be viewed against an uncluttered background.
Canaletto’s foray into real Venice
To those who know Canaletto as the painter of cityscapes with topographically accurate depictions of urban vistas or monuments in which the human figures play a secondary role, The Stonemason’s Yard comes as a surprise.
Ruskin on Venice is a mixed bag
For anyone in love with Venice, an encounter with The Stones of Venice and John Ruskin, Victorian art critic and social commentator, is inevitable. The truth is, however, that Ruskin comes with lots of baggage.
Carpaccio’s window onto medieval Venice
One of the great topographical paintings of Venice, Vittore Carpaccio’s The Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto combines the miracle with a scene at the financial heart of the medieval city.
Venetian vedute shimmer in Mexico City
The most expansive collection of Venetian vedute spanning three centuries I have seen anywhere outside of Venice itself is on permanent display inside the shimmering amorphous Museo Soumaya in Mexico City.
Titian launches Venetian career with a masterpiece
Popularly known as Assunta, the main altarpiece of Venice’s Franciscan church, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari – The Assumption of the Virgin is Titian’s undisputed masterpiece.
Dürer in Venice and The Feast of the Rosary in Prague
Albrecht Dürer is known for his familiarity with the art of the Venetian Renaissance and the works of German humanists. His artistic conflation of the two is obvious in The Feast of the Rosary which now hangs in Prague.
Marieschi’s spirited, vivid vedute in Budapest
The vedute of Michele Marieschi, Canaletto’s contemporary, offer the same topographical views of Venice’s landmarks but they also come with a more spirited and atmospheric handling of the brush and a more vivid palette.
Venice comes alive with Giovanni Bellini’s doge
Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan is a masterful depiction of the ascetic and brutally focused man that Loredan needed to be in order to climb his way up the greasy pole of Venetian politics.
‘La Salute’: Longhena’s Baroque sensation
Baldassare Longhena’s two-domed votive church of Santa Maria della Salute, or just the Salute, is a byword for Venetian Baroque and it has come to overshadow all else that was built in Venice during the 17th century.
Veronese’s take on the Battle of Lepanto
In Venetian iconography, the Battle of Lepanto is the stuff of legend and so is Paolo Veronese’s depiction of this largest naval battle in Western history since classical antiquity in his Allegory.
Codussi nudges Venetian Gothic towards Renaissance
A genius at blending Venice’s traditional styles with the classical forms of antiquity, Mauro Codussi signals the change of Venetian architecture from Gothic to Renaissance. In doing so, he changes Venice forever.
Peggy Guggenheim’s modern art revamps Venice
Against the backdrop of historic Venice, Peggy Guggenheim’s Grand Canal palazzo displaying works of 20th-century artists seems as incongruous – but fabulous – today as it would have in her heyday.
Alvise Vivarini’s groundbreaking sacra conversazione
Alvise Vivarini’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints is groundbreaking sacra conversazione which shows the evolution not only of his personal style but of the Venetian painting at the end of the 15th century.
Guardi’s long wait for artistic recognition
Francesco Guardi, who is now regarded as Canaletto’s greatest rival, was in his lifetime a struggling artist and died in poverty. It wasn’t until the late 19th century – at the highpoint of Impressionism- when he was rediscovered.