Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Venice offers such an embarrassment of riches that the thought of taking a daytrip away from the Serenissima had always struck me as absurd. And so, a mere 30-minute train ride westward in Padua (Padova in Italian), the Scrovegni Chapel remained high on my “someday” list. Until now.

The Chapel of Atonement

Padua-Scrovegni chapel.

The chapel was originally attached to the Scrovegni Palace.

The chapel, originally adjacent to a luxurious palace built by affluent Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni, was to serve as the family’s private oratory and funeral monument. And, so historians assure us, it was intended to atone for the sins of his father (Reginaldo Scrovegni), a moneylender with practices so vile they had landed him a part in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as one of the souls consigned to the Seventh Circle of Hell.

While the building itself, all that remains of the original estate, is an unremarkable rectangular gothic structure, the younger Scrovegni commissioned the great Tuscan master Giotto di Bondone to decorate the interior. It is there that Giotto at the height of his career, from 1303 to 1305, created a cycle of frescoes that became widely recognized as one of the most important milestones in the evolution of Western art.

The Birth of Western Art

Padua-Giotto cycle.

Giotto’s cycle is divided into three tiers of frescoes.

Under the vault of an intense blue sky sprinkled with golden stars and medallion portraits of the Evangelists, the story of the redemption of man unfolds through the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers along the lateral walls.  The story of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Virgin, is told on the upper right tier, Mary’s own early life is recorded on the upper left tier. The early life of Jesus and his miracles are depicted throughout the center tier, while the bottom one is dedicated to the Passions of Christ.

Padua-Giotto kiss

The kiss between St. Joachim and St. Anne is one the earliest represented in Western art

On the wall opposite the altar, the entire pictorial space is covered by the grandiose Universal Judgement. While these themes were pervasive in sacred art at the time, Giotto’s interpretation marks a radical departure from the stylized, elongated figures of the Byzantine tradition. Now the scene becomes three-dimensional, alive with the faces and gestures of living subjects. Gone are the formalized draperies; here the characters are clothed in garments that hang naturally and follow their movements. Some face inward, back turned to the viewer, creating a spatial illusion. For the first time, human emotions are shown in a realistic way, including one of the earliest representations of a kiss in Western art (The meeting of St Joachim and St. Anne at the Golden Gate).

Padua-Wedding Cana.

The Wedding at Cana is the first miracle attributed to Jesus.

This new style is so revolutionary that it is not fully understood until Masaccio’s paints the Brancacci Chapel in Florence a century later. And it is the Scrovegni Chapel that influences Michelangelo’s own Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel (circa 1536). It is not known whether the chapel was able to make up for the sins of the father, but there can be no doubt that these dazzling frescoes paved the way for the great masters of the Renaissance.

 

 

The Monastery Next Door

Padua-Apulian Crater.

This spectacular Apulian crater is attributed the the great 4th century BCE “Truro Painter”.

The Scrovegni Chapel is now enclosed within the City Museums (Musei Civici) complex housed on the grounds of what was once a monastery for Ereminati (hermit) monks located nearby. Both are accessed through the serene gardens of the cloister, and admission to the museum is included with the chapel entrance fee.

 

Bellini’s portrait of a young senator.

Since I hadn’t given any thought to this side visit prior to the trip, the ground floor Archeological Museum is an unexpected treat. Its wealth of artifacts from local excavations and private collections provide an interesting illustration of the archeological and historical development the area, from the Paeloveneti who inhabited the area between the 10th to 4th century BCE to Roman times. There are also a number of bronze and ceramic funerary items from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome. But it is the collection donated to the museum in 1994 by Professor Calogero Casuccio that takes my breath away. Of the 170 items of Greek and Italot (Greek colony in ancient Italy, i.e. Apulia) in the Casuccio Collection, many are remarkable pieces both in terracotta and painted pottery. The most important are a group of Apulian “figured” vases, including a stunning phiale (drinking vessel) and a spectacular crater (wine urn), both attributed to eminent 4th century BCE painters.

Upstairs, the rambling Museum of Medieval and Modern Arts collection does include a few interesting works by the greats of Italian painters from the 1300s to 1800s, Bellini, Gorgione, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese among them. The highlight of the collection is the Crucifix by Giotto that was originally located on the altar of the Scrovegni Chapel.

Padua- Tanagra figurines.

Terracotta figurines from the Greek city of Tanagra (4th century BCE).

Good to Know

  • Getting There – The train ride from Venice Santa Lucia to Padua takes 30 to 45 minutes via regional train or 25 minutes with FrecciaRossa (High Speed Train). The difference between the two on the 40 kilometer (25 mile) route is not so much one of time than cost. One-way fare on the regional train is approximately €6 versus €16 with FrecciaRossa. Once in Padua, it’s a 10-minute walk straight down the Corso del Popolo, which about half-way becomes the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, to the Piazza Eremitani and the Scrovegni Chapel.
  • Visiting – The Scrovegni Chapel, Piazza Eremitani 6, Padua, is open all year from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, except January 1, May 1 and December 25-26. The Musems of Archology and Medieval and Modern Art are also closed on Monday. Note – For reasons of preservation of the artwork, visit of the Scrovegni Chapel is strictly regulated and advanced booking is imperative. Booking is through the website. Visitors must collect their pre-booked tickets at the box office at least one hour before the visit. After checking their bags at the free cloakroom of the main museum building, they are expected to arrive for admission a few minutes before their allotted time. They then sit through a 15-minute audiovisual presentation in a climate-controlled air-locked chamber to allow their body humidity to be lowered and dust pollution filtered. This is to protect the frescoes from moisture and mold. Finally, the group (25 people maximum) is ushered into the chapel for 15 minutes to view the artwork.

Location, location, location!

Scrovegni Chapel

The islands of the Venetian Lagoon

The islands of the Venetian Lagoon

It’s easy to fall under the spell of Venice, the brilliant mosaic of Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque splendors sprinkled with hints of Islam, born from a series of islands stitched together by arching footbridges. But a short boat ride away into the northern lagoon lay a scattering of small islands where Venice began, long before it became the Serenissima.

Watery Highways

Venice -San Michele in Isola.

The church of San Michele in Isola was the first Renaissance church to be built in Venice.

The Venetian lagoon is very shallow and depending on the tide, can be half mud. Wooden poles lashed together (bricole) emerge from the water to mark the deeper canals. The boats must follow these watery highways between the mud banks to avoid the risk of running aground.

Shortly after departure from the Fondamente Nove vaporetto (water bus) stop , we pass the island of San Michele. Once a monastery, it became the city’s offshore cemetery in the early 19th century. Its proximity to Venice makes its long enclosure wall a familiar line across the north lagoon. The boat ride also offers a rare opportunity for a close up view at its white Istrian stone church, San Michele in Isola (1469), the first Renaissance church to be built in Venice.

The Island of Glass

Venice-Murano bell tower.

The bell tower dominates the center of Murano.

Because of its proximity to the city and the worldwide reputation of its hand-blown glass, Murano is the most visited of the islands. It is a microcosm of Venice, with a few elegant palazzos and the Romanesque church of Santa Maria e San Donato, known for its 12th century mosaic floor. Murano also has its own “grand canal”, which is lined with glass shops and showrooms.

Murano-Showroom canal.

Glass showrooms line Murano’s “grand canal”.

Venice had been famed for its glass since the early 13th century. By 1291, the glass furnaces were all moved here to protect the city from outbreaks of fire, and to safeguard the secret of glassmaking techniques. Glass is still Murano’s trade, although nowadays it’s as much a tourist attraction than a center of industry. Most of the souvenir items that fill its shops come from China. But there are still a number of working glass furnaces on the island, where you can observe artisans at work on authentic Murano glass pieces as you go by. There is also a Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro) for those interested in the history of glass making.

 

Mystery Islands

Lagoon- San Francescso.

The monastery island of San Francesco del Deserto is concealed behind a jagged line of cypresses.

As we continue on our way northward, I notice on our right an exceptionally long shadow across the water. It’s Sant’Erasmo, the garden that produces vegetables for the markets of Venice, especially renowned for the quality of its asparagus and artichokes. At 3.25 square kilometers (800 acres) this green island dotted with tiny farmsteads is the largest of lagoon.

Now in ruins, Madonna de’Monte is crumbling into the lagoon.

A bit further on, a small rectangular island appears, entirely boxed in by dark cypresses. It’s San Francesco del Deserto, a Franciscan monastery founded in 1230 and still active today. San Franscesco is accessible only via private craft and can be visited only by prior arrangement with the resident monks. The monastic buildings include the original Medieval cloister and a Renaissance one built in the 15th century.

Lagoon-Burano bell tower.

A precariously angled bell tower marks the approach of Burano.

Then, just as the precariously angled bell tower of Burano begins to materialize in the distance, we pass one of the smallest island of the lagoon. It’s Madonna de’Monte, characterized by a long, crumbling two-story brick structure emerging from a blanket of vines. Once home to an early 14th century Benedictine monastery, then a convent and finally in the mid-1800s an ammunition depot, it is now a ruin. The surrounding levee has disintegrated and the island is shrinking with every passing year. It may soon be the first one in the lagoon to disappear altogether.

Colorful Islands

Lagoon-Mazzorbo

Mazzorbo is a quiet neighborhood of brightly painted rowhouses.

Linked only by a long footbridge, the twin islands of Mazzorbo and Burano (population 7,000) are a fisherman village version of Venice. Mazzorbo is a quiet neighborhood of comfortably lived-in houses, festooned with drying laundry and flowers on windowsills, clustered around common patches of grass. On the Burano side of the bridge things become livelier. Several small canals act as thoroughfares. Alleys lead to a couple of sunny squares. Signs of the island’s busy fishing industry are still found in the boats filling the tiny harbors that dot the shoreline and the nets drying here and there.

Lagoon-Burano (2)

Boats line the small canals of Burano.

What both islands have in common is a tradition of brightly painted facades, said to have started so that fishermen coming back in the fog could identify their homes from afar. Today, practically all the houses are painted, and the festive atmosphere of these two colorful village draws boatfuls of tourists.

In earlier times, while the men were on the lagoon the women made lace, and Burano became famous for the high quality of its lace. These days, most of the products that fill the shop windows throughout the center of town come from Asia, but more than two hundred examples of precious Venetian lace from the 16th to the 20th century are on display at the Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto).

The Island Where Venice Began

Lagoon-Torcello town square.

The tiny town square of Torcello.

From Burano, a small vaporetto (Line T) makes the short journey across to Torcello, the first of the lagoon islands to become home to mainlanders fleeing the hordes of Attila the Hun, sometime in the 5th century. By the 11th century, it had become a thriving center of trade with a population estimated around 10,000. It is from here that settlers first started moving to the area around the Rialto Bridge. Then malaria, along with competition from the upstart community we now know as Venice, set in and depopulated Torcello. Its abandoned palaces were scavenged for materials to build La Serenissima.

Lagoon-Torcello mosaics.

The Christ Pantocrator is one of the fine ancient mosaics in Torcello’s Basilica dei Santa Maria Assunta.

Today, with only a handful of permanent residents and green fields surrounding its few remaining buildings, peaceful Torcello exudes a lovely lost-in-time atmosphere. From the dock, one long canal leads past a small vineyard to a gravel town square with by a cluster of buildings dominated by one of the finest early Venetian-Byzantine churches in Italy, the Basilica dei Santa Maria Assunta. Its 12th century mosaics, the oldest in the Veneto, of the Madonna and Child and the Last Judgment, are dazzling gold-flecked masterpieces that rival those of the San Marco. And they can be enjoyed in quasi seclusion, as few tourists ever make it this far.

Lagoon-San Michele.

The wall surrounding the island cemetery of San Michele is a familiar golden line across the north lagoon.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around Venice and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. including Murano and Burano (Line 12) from the Fondamente Nove and San Zaccaria stops. Single fare tickets are available but travel cards for unlimited travel during a set period (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) are a more cost effective option. During the day, the Line 12 runs approximately every 30 to 45 minutes. A separate shuttle runs between Burano to Torcello (Line T) several times per hour.
  • Visiting – The shops and furnaces of Murano operate on a limited schedule and are usually closed by 5:00 or 6:00 pm. The  Murano Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro), Fondamenta Marco Giustinian 8, 30141 Venice, is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm from November 1st to March 31st  and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm from April 1st to October 31st. The Burano Lace Museum  (Museo del Merletto) Piazza Baldassarre Galuppi, 187, 30142 Burano, Venice, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Monday.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Murano

Burano

Torcello

Living Venice – The Great Museums of the Dorsoduro

Living Venice – The Great Museums of the Dorsoduro

Venice has raised cultural overload to, well, an art form. In addition its renowned museums and the ethereal beauty of its architecture, every neighborhood church is likely to be graced with at least a couple of notable works by Renaissance masters.

The Treasures of the Dorsoduro

Venice-Dorsoduro I Gesuiti.

The Dorsoduro Church of Santa Maria del Rosario rises from the Giudecca Canal.

The Dorsoduro alone, my favorite place to stay in the Serenissima, is home to the Gallerie dell ’Accademia, 20-plus rooms overflowing with the works of the Venetian greats: Titan, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Carpaccio, Giorgione, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni), et al. And a barely 5-minute walk south, the white façade of Corinthian columns topped by a triangular pediment of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario (commonly known as I Gesuati) soars from the edge of the Giudecca Canal. The interior is a Tiepolo showpiece with majestic Rococo ceiling frescoes and a large, arched portrait of the Madonna with three Dominican female saints.

Venice-Dorsoduro Basin.

The Basin of St. Mark viewed from the Zattere Promenade.

Then, another 10-minute walk east along the Zattere Promenade, taking in the fabulous view of the Giudecca Canal and the St. Mark Basin, leads to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Inside, the Baroque landmark at the mouth of the Grand Canal is a Titian extravaganza, with for good measure on the high altar a 12th century Byzantine Madonna and Child brought from Greece in the 17th century after the fall of the city of Candia to the Ottomans.

After a few days of overindulging on majestic public buildings with bejeweled interiors brimming with Madonnas and martyrs, it’s time for a visit to Peggy.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The Pallazo Vernier dei Leoni, for three decades the Grand Canal home of American heiress and legendary Honorary Venetian Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), is as unique as the woman herself and the impressive modern art collection she accumulated there.

Venice-Guggenheim foyer.

The central foyer showcases Calder’s “Arc of Petals” mobile and Picasso’s canvas “On the Beach.”

What looks at first glance like a low-slung contemporary villa of white stone, stretched between the canal and a large leafy garden, turns out to be the first floor of an unfinished 18th century palazzo. Nobody knows what caused the Verniers, one of the oldest noble families in Venice, to abandon the construction. Nor is it known how the palace came to be associated with “leoni” (lions), although that is likely to be have come from the yawing lion’s heads of Istrian stone that decorate the façade at the water’s edge. What is clear, however, is that the palazzo is a uniquely intimate setting for the impressive collection that reflects Peggy Guggenheim’s passion for 20th century art.

Venice-sculpture garden.

Germaine Richier’s “Tauromachy” takes pride of place in the sculpture garden.

She surrounded herself with major works ranging from Cubism to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. The greatest artists are represented, from Picasso, Braque, Leger and Brancusi to Ernst, Kandinsky, Magritte, Miró and Rothko Jason Pollock gets a whole room, Calder’s Arc of Petals the focal point of the central foyer. The grounds are an inviting sculpture garden with works from Giacommeti’s “Woman Walking” to  Fritz Koenig’s “Chariot” and Germaine Richier’s “Tauromachy.”

Venice-Costantini glass.

Glass sculptures by Egidio Costantini after sketches by Picasso.

From 1951 on she opened her house and collection to the public during the summer months, all the while adding to her collection over the next three decades. And in 1976, she bequeathed her Palazzo and art to her uncle’s Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. And there it remains today, the most welcoming of the great House Museums in Venice, a relaxed retreat from the crowds shuffling around the San Marco district right across the Grand Canal.

 

Ca’ Rezzonico

Venice-Ca'Rezzonica.

The Baroque marble facade of the Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico.

Another Dorsoduro House Museum not to be missed is Ca’ Rezzonic, located a few minutes away westward at the point where the Grand Canal is joined by the Rio di San Barnaba. The sumptuous white marble Baroque pallazo, originally commissioned in 1648 by one of the great patrician dynasties of the city, was another masterpiece interrupted when the family’s finances collapsed. A century later, ownership passed to the wealthy merchant and banker Giambattista Rezzonico. The completion in the Palazzo marked the pinnacle of the new owner’s upward social journey. In addition to completing the palazzo, Rezzonico commissioned frescoes for the ceiling of all the public rooms by noted artists, including Giambattista Tiepolo. The frescoes remain in place to this day, and are considered among some of the best-preserved in Venice.

Venice-Canaletto.

“Rio dei Mendicanti” is one of only two Canaletto paintings remaining in Venice.

By 1819, the family had died out, leaving only their palazzo to memorialize the Rezzonico name. The building passed through various owners until it was finally sold the Venice Town Council in 1935. Today, as the Museum of 18th century Venice, it is one of the gems of the city, displaying furnishings and art created for great palaces, thus offering visitors a glimpse into the life of the upper class in Venice’s Golden Age. The ballroom and state rooms are reached by a regal marble staircase, its balustrades decorated with statues by Giusto Le Court, the leading venetian sculptor of the late 17th century. There are Murano chandeliers, local scenes by Canaletto and Tintotetto hanging on the walls.And from the soaring façade windows, eye-popping views of the Grand Canal and the heart of Venice.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Dorsoduro District is linked to the San Marco District by the Accademia Bridge across the Grand Canal. Another way to get across is the traghetto – If the ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents. One of the stops is close the the Accademia Bridge.
  • Visiting – Gallerie del Accademia, Campo Della Carità, 1050, 30123 Venice. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:15 am to 7:15 pm and Monday from 8:15 am to 2:00 pm. Santa Maria Del Rosario – Fondamenta Zattere Ai Gesuati, 30123, Venice. Open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, closed on Sunday. Santa Maria della Salute, Campo della Salute, Dorsoduro, 1, 30123 Venice, Open every day from 9:00 am until noon and 3:00 pm until 5:30 pm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 704 Dorsoduro, 30123, Venice. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday. Ca’ Rezzonico Dorsoduro 3136, 30123 Venice. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday.

Location, location, location!

Dorsoduro

Living Venice – The Castello District

Living Venice – The Castello District

It was my first visit to Venice. One instant, I was in central Milan, the next I was on a vaporetto (water bus) chugging along the Grand Canal, watching Gothic palaces float by. I remember nothing of the three-hour train journey in between, but this long ago boat ride from the Venice Santa Maria train station to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) is forever etched in my memory. I had arrived at the core of the political and economic power that ruled the mighty Republic of Venice for a thousand years; the grandiose showpiece built to inspire awe from its citizenry and visitors. It still worked.

First Impressions

Venice-St Mark horses.

The Triumphal Quadriga was originally part of a monument depicting a four-horse carriage used for chariot racing,

Over the next two days, I engaged in a marathon of the timeworn clichés of the St. Mark District, starting with the Basilica and its 8,000 square meters (2 acres!) of gold mosaics. The cavernous cathedral was so dark I could barely make them out. But the Basilica Museum one floor above the main level was worth the climb. In addition to getting a better view of said mosaics, I got a close look at the Triumphal Quardiga, the magnificent life-size bronze statues of four horses in motion. Dating back to the third century AD, they were first installed on the outer loggia of the cathedral in 1204, after being looted from the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Recently moved inside to protect them for the ongoing pollution, they were breathtaking. And the exact copies now prancing on the loggia did them justice.

Venice-St Mark clock tower.

The 15th century clock tower was placed to be visible from the lagoon and give notice of the wealth and glory of Venice

Venice-Rialto.

The Rialto is the oldest of four bridges spanning the Grand Canal.

Next door, the immense Doge’s Palace still overwhelmed with its gold and fresco-encrusted halls. But lacking fondness for oppressively grand interiors designed to intimidate, or detours into basements of dank prison cells and medieval torture chambers, I thought the best feature of the palace to be its lacey pale stone façade. I then rode the up the 99 meters (324 feet) to the top of the Campanile (St. Mark’s bell tower) for a panoramic view of the city. I lingered there, eyeing the top of the clock tower across the square until the two bronze figures struck the hour on the bell. I walked across the Rialto Bridge, and along the Riva degli Schiavoni Promenade to admire the great Palladian Church of San Giorgio Maggiore on its own island across the St. Mark Basin.

Then, with barely time for a passing glance at the labyrinth of alleyways and stepped bridges that lead to tiny piazalle and dead-end courtyards where the heart of the city had been beating of over a millennium, I was gone. I had seen the Serenissima, and missed the essence of Venice.

The Source of Power

I have returned several times since then, to explore the ancient side canals and back alleys where everyday Venetian lives happened, and still do. Each district has its own personality, but I find none more fascinating than the Castello.

Venice-Arsernal factories.

Owned by the state, the Arsenale was responsible for the Venetian Republic’s naval power.

Venice-Porta Magna.

Built into the fortifications, the Porta Magna was designed by Bellini.

Right behind the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, across the Canonica Canal (of Bridge of Sighs fame), the diverse Castello spreads through the entire eastern end of the city. This is where in 1104 Doge Ordelafo Faliero founded the Arsenale, the shipyards that quickly developed into the largest industrial complex in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Stretched over 46 hectares (114 acres), it built the fleet of merchant vessels and military ships that ensured the Republic’s naval dominance and its prosperity for centuries.

The vast complex of factories and docks is surrounded by 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) of ramparts dominated by two crenellated towers at the entrance of the arsenal’s basin. On the front campo (square), four lions (symbol of St Mark, Venice’s patron saint) guard the Porta Magna, the spectacular main gate designed by Bellini in 1460. The most imposing of these lions is Greek (circa 360 BC). Originally a landmark in Piraeus, the harbor of Athens, it was plundered by Venetian naval commander Franscesco Morosoni in 1687.

A minimal part of the Arsenale is still in operation, mainly for boat supplies. The Museum of Naval History is also housed here. It includes a sumptuous model of the Bucintoro, the Doge’s gilded ceremonial barge that was destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1798, and a ship pavilion with vessels of historical significance.

Colorful Castello

Venice- City hospital entrance.

The main entrance of the Scuala de San Marco, now the city’s public hospital.

Venice-Santi Giovanni e Paolo church.

The walls of the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo is lined with funerary monuments.

Yet the Arsenale occupies barely 20 percent of the Castello. Since not all wealthy merchants could aspire to a palazzo on the Grand Canal, many settled in the western part of the district, creating a residential neighborhood desirable for its proximity to the San Marco district. Great churches and religious institutions followed. On the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo (Saint John and Paul), the Scuala de San Marco, a major religious confraternity patronized by the Venetian high society from the 16th to the 18th century stands out as a lovely example of Venetian Renaissance architecture. Spectacular carvings of lions top the portal of what is now the main entrance of the city’s public hospital. The hospital itself is in principle not open to tourists (unless they are in need of medical assistance), but it is nonetheless possible to walk through the main public areas and admire the building and its inner garden.

All but unnoticed on the side of the campo is the massive gothic brick façade of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the principal Dominican church in Venice, built to hold large congregations. Its interior is notable for its large polyptych altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini, and for the funerary monuments of 27 doges and other prominent men of the Republic who are buried there.

Venice-Castello canals.

The side canals of Castello.

Venice-San Giorgio del Creci.

The Orthodox Church of San Giorgio del Creci, and its noticeably leaning bell tower.

Meanwhile, most of the men who worked in the sprawling arsenal lived in the modest houses at the eastern end of the district, as did fishermen, creating a lively working class neighborhood that still endures. Here, the streets and canals bustle with activities, and laundry flaps in the sea breeze on lines stretched between realistically ramshackle buildings on both sides of the narrow canals.

Not far from there, the secluded San Giorgio del Creci church is the hub of the large Venetian Greek community. Greek merchants had been a regular presence in Venice since Byzantine times, but their numbers increased exponentially after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Built in the 16th century according to in the Orthodox model, the church includes some spectacular mosaics. Next door, what was once the headquarters of the Scuola dei Greci is now a rich museum dedicated to Greek Icons. In addition to ancient icons brought by the 15th century refugees, it hold some that were later manufactured locally, thus providing a unique insight on the evolution of Greek art in Venice.

A Renaissance Comic Strip

Venice-Carpaccio Frescoes.

A cycle of frescoes by Vittore Carpaccio line main hall of the Scuola de San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni.

Venice-Carpaccio detail.

Detail of St. Jerome leading a wounded lion by Carpaccio.

However, of all the artistic riches of Castello, my personal favorite is the Scuola de San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni, a small confraternity and church founded in 1461 by Dalmatian merchants and sailors (i.e. Schiavoni or Slavs from the East Coast of the Adriatic in today’s Croatia) living in Venice. In 1502, they commissioned the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio to decorate the first-floor hall with a narrative cycle of frescoes recounting episodes from the lives of the Dalmatian patron saints: St. George, St. Tryphone and St. Jerome.

The ten frescoes line the walls like a wonderful Renaissance comic strip. Originally dismissed as primitive, Carpaccio is now considered one of the early masters of the Venetian Renaissance. But art history aside, I love the tongue in cheek story-telling quality of the images; the terrified monks tripping over their robes to flee as St. Jerome leads a wounded lion into the monastery; the before and after pictures of St. George first charging a fearsome dragon, then dragging the crestfallen beast into the village square. There is more art in the upstairs hall, including an interesting relief painting of St. George over the altar, but everything pales in comparison to the Carpaccios.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting around – The best way to get around Venice is usually on foot. But if you get tired of walking, the Venice public transports company, ACTV , runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around Venice as well as the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are € 7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop.
  • VisitingVenice Naval Historical Museum, Rio della Tana 2162 c, Castello, Venice (close to the Arsenale bridge). Open every day from 8:45 am to 5:00 pm. Santi Giovanni e Paolo church, Campo Giovanni e Paolo Santissimi, Castello 30122, Venice . Open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from noon to 6:00 pm. Greek Icons Museum , Castello 3412, 30122 Venice. Open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, 3259 a Calle dei Furlani, Castello 30122, Venice. Opening hours: 9:15 am to 1:00 pm and 2:45 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.

Location, location, location!

Castello District

The Magic of Venice in Winter

The Magic of Venice in Winter

Venice is unique, dazzlingly so. It’s a fabled destination that belongs on everyone’s European bucket list. A distinction that during the tourist season, from Easter thorough October, turns the city of the Doges into a chaotic citywide museum, overrun by millions de visitors. At the height of the summer rush, cruise ships alone can unleash a daily stampede of up to 30,000 day-trippers onto the tiny island city. In the narrow lanes and lovely little squares along the de-rigueur circuit from the Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, foot traffic slows to a shuffle, and lines for anything from entering the Basilica to buying a gelato can reach epic proportions. But come winter, the crowds fade away and the magic of centuries past returns. The Serenissima becomes once again serene.

The Romance of Winter

Italy-Venice mist.

A gauzy mist spreads over the lagoon.

Venice is a winter place, romantic and mysterious, especially when fog drifts in across the lagoon, swathing the whole city in a gauzy mist. Come evening it becomes an eerie place where footsteps echo along empty alleyway. It can be damp too, downright wet actually when acqua alta (high tide) blurs the line between lagoon and pavement. Boardwalks are quickly set up as water rises, and pedestrians walk on unconcerned. And it can get bitingly cold when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, adding a bitter edge to the damp air as it clears the sky to a crystalline blue. Time to wrap up warmly and enjoy the exquisite golden light that brushes the lacey façade of the ancient Byzantine palazzos.

Italy-Venice canal at night

The canals become eerily quiet on winter nights.

Winter is the time when Venetians bring out their fur coats and their perfectly groomed little dogs bundled in stylish quilted jackets. Of course there are still tourists, there always are, but they are few and mainly focused on their own artistic pursuits. Local people go about their business and stop to chat in the small neighborhood squares. And this is hot chocolate season, time to dive into a cozy café for an afternoon cup of decadently rich cioccolata calda and perhaps a frittella, the plump little doughnut oozing with sweetened ricotta or zabaglione that is a pre-Lenten staple. Everywhere the mood is one of conviviality unknown once the tourists take over.

It is this wintery Venice that cast its spell on me decades ago, on the November weekend of my first visit, and draws me back every few years. Over time, I have set for myself a few necessities for an ideal Venice sojourn.

Arrive by Train

Italy-Venice train.

The train reaches the lagoon with the morning light.

Not just any train mind you, but the overnight train from Paris, one of a handful of sleeper trains still operating in Western Europe. This is not your Agatha Christie sort of train, but a comfortable, moderately priced no-frill one (complimentary welcome glass of Prosecco served with dinner in the cafeteria-style dining car notwithstanding). The private cabin I am sharing with my girlfriend is made up into two bunk beds while we dine. Traveling at pre-high-speed pace over the Alps and down the Po Valley, we ease into Venice rested, just in time to watch the sun rise over the lagoon.

Italy-Venice San Simone

Voyagers step off the train right onto the Grand Canal.

It doesn’t get any better than a morning arrival at the Santa Lucia train station, where you step out straight onto a Canaletto painting of the Grand Canal, with the regrettable but necessary contemporary addition of a major vaporetto (water bus) hub. The sudden transition into the timeless universe of Venice feels a bit surreal.

Take the Vaporetto

Italy-Venice Zattere.

The Canal of the Giudecca. offers a unique view of the Zattere Promenade.

Venice may be a puzzle of 118 islands stitched together by 400 foot bridges, but constrained within its watery boundaries, the overall city is actually quite small (about 4.5 kilometers, or 2.75 miles east to west, and 2.5 kilometers, or 1.75 miles north to south), making it possible to walk just about everywhere. Although we could walk from Santa Lucia to our Dorsoduro District hotel in about the time it takes reach it by vaporetto, only a boat approach will do. As soon as it has extricated itself from the traffic in front of the station and circled the western tip of the island, the vaporetto enters the broad outer Canal of the Giudecca. The familiar stretch of the Dorsoduro’s Zattere Promenade comes into focus, punctuated by the soaring classical façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosatio glowing in the morning sun. From here, Venice unfurls itself in all its splendor.

Stay in the Dorsoduro

Italy-Venice San Trovaso.

The Squero di San Trovaso is oldest gondola yard in Venice.

Located on the south side of the Grand Canal, right across from the San Marco district, the Dorsoduro is my favorite place to stay, for its authentic lived-in neighborhood atmosphere and relaxed pace. Here, housewives roll their small shopping carts to the market in the morning, and children play in the squares after school. On the San Troveso Canal that links the Giuadeca to the Grand Canal, the city’s oldest working gondola yard, the 17th century Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last two surviving in Venice, is still bustling with activity.

Italy-Venice Ca Foscari

The Ca’ Foscari University overlooks the Grand Canal.

Home to several of Venice’s leading museums, including the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venetian paintings) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (modern art), the Dorsoduro is also the main university area of the city. Both the Ca’ Foscari University and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) are located here. Between classes, students fill the small, convivial cafés that serve inexpensive ciccheti (small snacks) at all hours. These are fun places where to pop in for a quick lunch.

But for now, lunch is still some ways off and our room won’t be ready “until afternoon.” We entrust our luggage to the desk clerk and head out to enjoy a favorite Venice pastime: wander along back alleys, cross narrow stepped bridges and peer through open doorways into hidden garden. Just get lost for a while and let the city reveal itself.

Italy-Venice Dorsoduro

Vaporetto approach of the Dorsoduro.

Good to Know

  • Getting thereThello is a subsidiary of Trenitalia (Italian Railways) formed to operate trains between the Paris Gare de Lyon and Venezia Santa Lucia railway stations with stops in Dijon, Milano Brescia, Verona, Vicenza and Padova. The refurbished Wagons-Lits Company sleeping-cars were originally built from 1964 to 1974. Each has 12 compartments with their own washbasins, usable as single, double or triple berths. Basic couchette cars with four and six berths are also available.
  • Getting aroundVaporetto The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around the city and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are €7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop. Traghetto – If this ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents.
  • Staying – There is an over-abundance of short-term lodging options throughout Venice, ranging from efficiency apartments to internationally famous luxury hotels. Prices soar during the tourist season, but return down to earth in winter. For years, my personal favorite place to stay has been La Calcina, Dorsoduro 780, Fondamenta della Zattere, 30123 Venice. While this property, family-run for generations, had long since been fully modernized, it had retained the unpretentious feel of a genteel pensione reminiscent of the days when the famous 19th century British author and art critic John Ruskin  was a long time resident there. However, on this last stay, the property had recently changed ownership. While sweeping view of the Giuadecca Canal, attentive service and realistic prices remained, the public areas had experienced a complete “update” to the stage-set style that is the norm in many Venice hotels. Our room was still unchanged but there was considerable work in progress on the upper floors of the hotel. and it’s anybody’s guess what may become of La Calcina in the near future. Contact: tel + 39 (0) 41 52 06 466, email: info@lacalcina.com.

Location, location, location!

Venice

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