“When I went to Venice, my dream became my home.” —Marcel Proust
Here it is, the Venice of your dreams, wooing, intriguing, disorienting, and exhilarating visitors like no other city on earth. Misty and mystical bridge between East and West, straddling both yet belonging to neither, Venezia is like a faded, once great queen that still manages to enchant and beguile. The never-ending stream of tourism began well over 1,000 years ago, and no wonder: As Henry James said, a visit to Venice becomes a perpetual love affair.
Gallerie Dell’Accademia—Venice’s largest museum, the Accademia contains the most extensive collection of Venetian masters in the world, spanning the 13th to the 18th centuries and all the major painters, including Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Veronese, Bellini, and Carpaccio. Viewing 15th-century depictions of the city, it’s amazing to see how little has changed.
Ca’ d’Oro and the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti—Created by early-20th-century philanthropist Baron Giorgio Franchetti, the Ca’ d’Oro comprises two joined palaces (the opulent 15th-century Ca’ d’Oro—one of the city’s most famous and beautiful canal side palazzi—and the smaller Ca’ Duodo) and contains the baron’s private collection of paintings, sculpture, and furniture, which he donated to the Italian government during World War I. Among the masterpieces on display are Titian’s Venus and Mantegna’s St. Sebastian.
Chiesa dei Frari (Church of the Friars)—In a city filled with churches, this immense Franciscan bastion—built in the 13th and 14th centuries—stands out as the home of several masterworks, including Titian’s Assumption, depicting the ascension of the Virgin Mary into heaven; Donatello’s wood-carving St. John the Baptist; and Bellini’s 1488 triptych The Madonna and Child Enthroned.
Chiesa dei Santi Giovanni and Paolo (Church of Saints John and Paul)— Also built during the 13th and 14th centuries, this massive Gothic church—the largest in Venice after St. Mark’s—contains the tombs of twenty-five doges, plus works by a number of Venice’s greatest painters, including Bellini and Veronese, whose ceilings depict New Testament scenes.
To the right of the church is Andrea del Verrocchio’s famous 15th-century bronze statue of the mercenary Bartolomeo Colleoni astride a horse, one of the great masterworks of early Renaissance sculpture.
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)— Between the Basilica di San Marco and St. Mark’s Basin sits the palace from which the dukes ruled La Serenissima (the Most Serene Republic) and much of the eastern Mediterranean for 1,000 years, with each doge elected for life.
Filled with paintings by the greatest Venetian artists, including Veronese and Tintoretto, the present pink- and-white marble structure is the cumulative work of many architects over the centuries, meant to impress Venice’s wealth and power upon visitors arriving by ship.
Highlights include the doge’s private apartments, the assembly room of the Council of Ten, and the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri), which links the palace with the Palazzo delle Prigioni, where prisoners were held after being judged by the council.
The Romantic poets gave it its name. Take an English-language tour or a self-guided audio tour to really understand the palace and the maritime empire that was governed from its halls.
The Grand Canal—Venice’s Main Street, its 2-mile aquatic thoroughfare, is lined with hundreds of weather-worn Byzantine and Gothic palazzi and abuzz with canal life.
For a nominal fee, jump on the number 1 vaporetto (water bus), which plies the full length of the S-shaped “Canalazzo,” for a cruise through 1,000 years of local history, dodging errant gondolas and delivery boats. Starting at either Piazza San Marco or the Santa Lucia train station, savor it once by day for rush-hour stimulus and once at night for the quiet, unmatched romance of it all.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection—One of the world’s great collections of modern art, housed in a palazzo on the Grand Canal that was once the home of Peggy Guggenheim, patron to many of the greatest 20th-century artists, including Jackson Pollock and her husband, Max Ernst. Her collection includes works by Duchamp, Picasso, Leger, Klee, Magritte, Rothko, Chagall, Mondrian, and many others. A sculpture garden contains works by Giacometti, Claire Falkenstein, and Mirko.
Interestingly, Ms. Guggenheim’s palace is an unfinished work, begun in the 1750s and intended to rise two stories taller than it ended up.
Basilica di San Marco—Sitting at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco, the basilica was originally built as the final resting place of St. Mark, whose body was smuggled by two merchants out of Alexandria in 828.
The current structure is the third church built on the site, and dates from the 11th century. Byzantine, almost mosque like in style, it is one of the world’s most richly embellished and distinctive Roman Catholic churches, surmounted by replicas of the Quadriga, the four famous bronze horses looted from Constantinople in 1204. (The originals are currently in St. Mark’s Museum, inside the basilica.)
Other “appropriations” from around Venice’s once huge merchant empire decorate the structure inside and out. Byzantine mosaics cover the dimly lit ceilings of the interior. The sarcophagus of St. Mark sits beneath four columns in the presbytery, while behind the altar is the Pala d’Oro altar screen, one of the basilica’s greatest treasures, comprised of more than 2,000 precious stones and enameled panels.
Piazza San Marco—The heart of Venice then and now, St. Mark’s is one of the world’s most beautiful public squares, full of cafes, shops, tourists, and, of course, flocks of overfed pigeons. At its wider end, the not- so-square square is crowned by the beautiful St. Mark’s Basilica (see above) and the famous Campanile, the tallest structure on the Venice skyline.
The current tower is a 20th-century re-creation of the 8th-century original, which collapsed without warning in 1902. Ascend to its summit for a miraculous view. On a clear day you may be able to see the faint outline of the Dolomite Mountains.
When Napoleon arrived in 1797 he called the square “the finest drawing room in Europe,” and so it may very well remain today, with its throngs of visitors staring in wonderment at the elegant colonnades and at the Basilica’s ornate facade, sipping espresso at the Caffe Florianor Caffe Quadri while the orchestras play, or simply sitting in the sun, chatting. Every sixty minutes, two bronze Moors atop the 15th- century Torre dell’Orologio strike the hour.
To get the full effect, go several times: in the early morning to have it all to yourself, in the afternoon for the spectacle of the crowds, and at night for intense romance.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco—Built in 1515 as the home of a religious and social confraternity (one of many in Venice at the time), this structure is by far the most renowned of them all, gaining lasting fame because of its collection of works by Tintoretto, who painted some fifty works for the scuola over thirty years from 1564 to 1594. It’s the largest collection of his dark and dramatic work anywhere. The top floor contains scenes from the New and Old Testaments, including the enormous Crucifixion, considered Tintoretto’s masterpiece.
Other Must Do’s
Gondola, Gondola!—Yes, they’re touristy and overpriced and the Venetians won’t go near them, but they’re also the most enjoyable and romantic way to see the hidden comers of this unique city whose streets are filled with water. The gondolier won’t sing, and can often be taciturn, but it’s best anyway to glide in silence through the enchanting web of more than 150 sleepy back canals, immersed in your own fantasy of traveling back 500 years to the heyday of the Most Serene Republic.
Torcello—You won’t want to follow Katharine Hepburn into the waters of a Venetian canal (as in the 1955 classic Summertime), but find a Rossano Brazzi lookalike and head for the green, quasi- deserted island of Torcello for an idyllic picnic, far from the crowds of tourists and pigeons in the Piazza San Marco.
Forgot your picnic hamper? The country-cozy Trattoria al Ponte del Diavolo is the best option among slim dining pickings, its garden tables promising a perfect lunch. Let dessert be a viewing of Torcello’s ancient cathedral and its breathtaking 12th- and 13th-century Byzantine mosaics, some of the most important in Europe.
Vivaldi’s Church—Officially called the Church of La Pieth, this was the site where local Baroque maestro Antonio Vivaldi worked as choirmaster for an orphanage arid conservatory from 1703 to 1741, while composing some of his masterworks. Today, those works (and others, by the Red Priest’s contemporaries) are performed here by candlelight on a regular basis. There’s nothing like hearing a performance of Le Quattro Staggioni (The Four Seasons) beneath Tiepolo’s luminous ceiling fresco. Or is it the excellent acoustics?