Venice. The Jewel Of The Adriatic
Game of Masks
Music: Winter in July, Sarah Brightman
Movie: Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips)
Book: The Honest Courtesan, Margaret Rosenthal
For the entire summer, the cruise ship docks in Venice for three days every three weeks. A few minutes stroll through a sea of tourists that swarm the city in the summer months takes me to Piazza San Marco.
Even closer to the pier is an extension of the Giardini della Biennale, called Viale Giuseppe Garibaldi. My favourite quiet place in Venice. Here, I like to spend time alone with a book, sitting on one of the benches strewn along the shaded alley.
Most of the time, though, I am prowling along the secondary canals around the historic city looking for all things not famous, not noticeable, not picture-perfect but normal in this unique place.
The Serenissima is the most beautiful city in the world; many could state this and win the argument. It undoubtedly is to the proud locals. I’m still debating, but I lean more towards Barcelona.
In the immense diversity of Italian geography, culture and history, Venezia is the most beautiful place. Not only because it is built like no other city on Earth on millions of upside-down-petrified-in-mud trees, but because her fabulous architecture still stands against all the odds. The sea is threatening the island with relentless steadiness. The city still stands, sixteen hundred years on.
Every minute I’m free, I’m out exploring the Serenissima, mesmerised by her duality.
Venice is the Carnevale. She is also the mask. The imposing palazzi along the Grand Canal impress with a beautiful facade. At a second look, though, you’ll notice that the side walls are peeled bare exposing the bricks. They are also partly covered in slime and show signs of a losing battle with the water they spring from.
On the smallest canals, many modest houses don’t even have a facade. After all, Venice is no longer a rich city. It is, though, incredibly rich in history and art.
Long gone are the power and glory of the Venetian Republic. Today, the island presents an illusion. The maschera conceals her flaws. And yet, her beauty continues to strike all visitors.
Venice is the silent observer of the countless probing eyes mesmerised by her unique beauty. You’d think you see her, yet she takes great care to conceal her secrets.
The Serenissima, the name Venice is still referred by, has the meaning of ‘the most serene’ of the Italian Republics. Peace was not always easy to keep in the long and troubled history of this place. But a sense of eerie tranquillity still emanates from all pores of this city choked by hordes of tourists every summer.
The Grand Canal divides Venice in a curved shape, from the world-famous Piazza San Marco to the train station and the carriageway that connects the island with the mainland.
The first time I set foot in Venice, I decided to just walk along the Grand Canal. I wanted to discover what the Serenissima has to offer without a map in hand and preferably without getting lost in the intricacy of the city.
It took me a few hours to make it to Rialto Bridge. Not because it is that long a walk, but because I stopped countless times to take in the beauty of the island. As Fermo, the florist philosopher in the movie said, “Le cose belle sono lente!” (Beautiful things take time!)
Soon, I decided that I’ve seen enough of the obvious. It was time to see the city and all her layers. I had no clue where I was, so I kept walking. I got lost in Venice, and I loved it!
One small canal looks like the other. In time, I got comfortable enough with the whiff of stale water to ignore it. My eye recorded everything around me when the camera was off.
At some point, I got hungry. A salad bar to the right and a pasticceria to the left helped me decide quickly. A minute later, I continued my walk. I had a pack of baicoli (local biscuits) in one hand and a cup of divinely scented cappuccino in the other.
More canals and bridges, a myriad of balcony flowerpots and more peeled render came and went under the relentless Italian sun. At each corner, step by step, the Serenissima revealed her secrets to me.
Adjacent to the State Archive, I bumped into Basilica dei Frari. A massive brick building, blending in perfectly with the rest of the constructions in this corner of this island called San Pollo.
Whenever I am in Italy, I have a compulsion to enter every church I see. And I do, not only to find a minute of peace and contemplation but because churches are authentic exhibition halls in this country.
Beyond a grand structure, intricate stone carvings and incredible stained glass, many Italian churches impress with their painted walls, some by great hands, as old as time. They are unexpected art galleries where one stops to search for the meaning of life and finds so much more.
The price of a coffee granted me entrance to Dei Frari. The experience, though, was priceless.
Did you ever have that feeling when you stepped into an old place that you got transported into another time? I did. The minute I set foot on the cold slabs of Dei Frari, I travelled back into a time of Republics, Renaissance, sublime art.
I was still holding a twenty-first-century camera. Yet, I saw a little redheaded boy running around and wondering at the arches suspended so high or at Donatello’s sculptures. I saw the awe in his big brown eyes. I saw what he saw when he caressed the bare brick walls: the paintings that will be. The boy’s name was Tiziano Vecellio.
I twirled round to see more of this massive place, more of the richness that adorns its walls. All the noise faded; all the visitors vanished.
The little boy metamorphosed into a grown man with splotches of paint in his scruffy beard. He was mixing colour with precision, focused on his masterpiece: The Assumption of the Virgin.
He did not know that his strenuous work will become the masterpiece that will mesmerize viewers for centuries to come. But he had an inkling that his bold use of colours will enthral simpletons and crowned heads alike.
At twenty-five, he had the Serenissima at his feet as the anointed official painter of the Republic. He climbed the squeaky wooden ladder in a rush to apply the fresh colour on the Virgin’s mantle, ignoring that paint from his pallet stained his smudged tunic.
Another spin. When I faced the Assumption again, I saw him, an older man now, taking his last pest filled breath. He was pointing to his burial place inside the same church.
The clamour returned, and people started moving around, paying more or less attention to what they came here to see.
I saw all I needed to see. What is left, is the artist’s tomb, at the foot of a non-existent Pietà he never got to finish and which was supposed to dominate the Altar of the Crucifix. Instead, the marble figure of the old artist was looking back at me with an all-pervading view transcending the centuries.
Titian, as his name is known in English, the master of brush and colour, requested to spend eternity in the Frari, the place where he spent years filling the bare brick walls with his inestimable gift.
To me, it was all juxtaposed images, snippets of time, and remarkable art display. Dei Frari, only a minor church by Venetian standards, is my favourite place in the entire city.
Soon, the canals held no secrets for me. I will come back here and pay the price of a coffee to enter this magical place again and again. And each time, I travelled back to another century! I could not get enough of it. This and reading some book on a bench, in the shade of the lofty trees off the fringe of Bonaparte’s Giardini della Biennale.
Over the summer, I did all that everyone who visits Venice does. I visited all the attractions. I’ve seen the Dodge’s Palace a few times, from the opulent salons to the desolate jails in stark contrast.
I went to see glassmaking in the industrial Murano and strolled on the canals of colourful Burano admiring the intricacy of another old trade: lacemaking.
I spent money in the city’s stylish shops. I took a gondola ride down the canals and bought a bag of cherries from Rialto Market every time I crossed the bridge.
I visited museums and seen most of the exhibitions on the island. A few times, I took the bus to the mainland.
The only things I did not see were the smaller islands and the Lido. I don’t even remember if we offered a tour to the beach. I had no interest, anyway. I could swim all I wanted in Villefranche-sur-Mer or Barcelona. There was too much to see in Venice to idle by the beach.
At the end of the season, on the last Mediterranean cruise in late October, I went to see Titian one last time. To say goodbye until I will return.
The crowd of tourists that usually suffocate the city was gone. The church was almost empty—all the better. I got my time alone with all the artists and their works without having to worry that I might accidentally bump into other visitors.
Outside, in the crisp autumn, life went on in Serenissima as it did since the Romans built her. The locals went about their business, relieved that the summer rush is over and the city could breathe lighter. Until the Carnevale in February or March, the island will not see much tourism.
As it happens, I am still to return to Venice. I will, one day. And I know the first thing I will do will be spending a coffee’s worth on the entrance to Dei Frari just to see a little boy running around in the coolness of the lofty arches above his redhead. This church will still be my favourite place in Venice. I have no doubt.