Sightseeing Recommendations in Venice, Italy

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The great sights of Venice are often severely overcrowded. In July and August, the only place in the city where I am likely to be found is beside the magnificent swimming pool at the Hotel Cipriani. The Doge’s Palace should ideally be explored on a really bleak February day, when the mega cruise ships are safely back in Nassau or St. Thomas. But although Venice invites easy cynicism — and it has since at least the time of Byron — it is still the most magical place on earth, a floating world of incomparable beauty freighted with history and crammed with treasures, scarcely a moss-draped stone lacking a significant story.

Venice Sightseeing Suggestions

Arguably the best place to start is 150 feet up, atop the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore, a church designed by Andrea Palladio and constructed in 1566 on an island of the same name — accessible by vaporetto Linea 2 — in St. Mark’s Basin. The elevator costs five euros, and from this perch you can gaze across to the mouth of the Grand Canal or south to the Lido, the lagoon and the distant Adriatic. It is a view that may possibly change your life, undeniably worth the $6.

Venice was a maritime republic that made its fortune by controlling the Mediterranean and resisting the encroaching naval power of the Ottoman Turks. Its ships were constructed in the Arsenale, today an atmospheric and relatively calm enclave at the eastern end of the Riva degli Schiavoni. There, you can still see the slipways where the fleets were launched. This is also where the famous Bucentaur, the state barge, was constructed. (Once a year, on Ascension Day, the Doge would sail out into the lagoon to perform the Marriage of the Sea, a ceremony that began in A.D. 1000 intended to demonstrate Venetian maritime supremacy.) The principal attraction in the Arsenale now is the wonderful Museo Storico Navale (Naval History Museum).

Students of Venetian history may also wish to visit the Correr Museum on the western side of St. Mark’s Square. It contains maps, topographical instruments, navigational instruments, 16th-century firearms, an Ottoman tent and paintings of celebrated Venetian naval battles.

Of course, much of the art and architecture of Venice is of religious, specifically Christian, inspiration. There are no Classical remains here to provide a cultural counterpoint. Rather than trudging from church to church, I often prefer to follow in the footsteps of a particular painter. For example, the Venetian master Tintoretto, nicknamed “Il Furioso” for his energetic and dramatic style, is renowned for his extraordinary cycle of works in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. (All of the paintings in the building are by Tintoretto, his assistants or his son, Domenico.) From the Scuola, it is a 20-minute walk to Tintoretto’s house on the Fondamenta dei Mori in the northern district (sestiere) of Cannaregio. Nearby, in the church of Madonna dell’Orto, you will find five of his paintings and his tomb.

It is my custom to pay my respects at the tombs of the other great Venetian painters of the High Renaissance. Titian was interred in the basilica of I Frari, (along with Monteverdi and Canova), where his majestic “Assumption” hangs above the high altar. Paolo Veronese lies in the church of San Sebastiano in the sestiere of Dorsoduro, which he decorated with paintings, frescoes and ceiling canvases between 1555 and 1570. And Giovanni Bellini is buried — along with no fewer than 25 doges — in the glorious Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, (popularly known in the Venetian dialect as San Zanipolo). For those intrigued by such things, the basilica also contains an allegedly miraculous Byzantine icon, the Madonna della Pace, brought to Venice from Constantinople in 1349.

I find it difficult to decide which are my favorite paintings in Venice — there are so many — but Bellini’s serene and spiritually luminous sacra conversazione, the altarpiece of the church of San Zaccaria, is certainly among them. So is Veronese’s “Feast at the House of Levi,” which hangs in the Accademia, the city’s principal art gallery. Although the walls of the Accademia are adorned with masterpieces, it is particularly notable for two works by Giorgione, the enigmatic Venetian painter thought to have died of the plague in 1510 at the age of just 30. Despite the fact that only six paintings are definitely attributable to him, Giorgione is regarded as the founder, along with Titian, of the specifically Venetian Renaissance style. “The Tempest,” in the Accademia, is considered to be the first landscape painting in Western art, though its subject matter and meaning are still the topics of endless (and heated) scholarly debate.

For a change of era and style, I head to the museum of the 18th century in the Palazzo Ca’ Razzonico on the Grand Canal, which contains some of the finest of Giambattista Tiepolo’s frescoes. (I also derive some amusement from the fact that in the 1920s, at the height of his fame, Cole Porter rented the palazzo for the then-astronomical sum of $4,000 a month and hired 50 gondoliers to serve as footmen!) Alas, the palazzo most associated with American life in Venice, the Palazzo Barbaro, is open to the public only on rare occasions. This is a pity, as at various times it was the temporary home of John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, William Merritt Chase, Charles Eliot Norton, Edith Wharton and Henry James (who completed his novel “The Aspern Papers” while in residence). Isabella Stewart Gardner was also a frequent guest, and her house — now a museum — in Boston is modeled on the architecture of the palazzo.

No visit to Venice is complete without a brief visit to the baroque jewel box of Teatro La Fenice (“Theater of the Phoenix”), which has seen the premieres of operas by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. The theater has burned down three times — in 1774, 1836 and 1996 — but it has always been lovingly restored and remains an apparently indestructible part of Venetian life.

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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