Natale Italiano | Venice – Day 2: All that glitters is Venetian gold
A London tourist knows when he is abroad when he awakes, not to the ear-splitting wail of a police siren, but to the tolling bells ringing out from old renaissance bell towers, their calming peal harmonious to the ears, especially when, in Venice, there is no nearby traffic to otherwise preclude the passage of that early-morning melody. And perhaps it is also because we are so used to the animated streets of London that the comparative silence of Venice’s tranquil canals struck such a chord on this misty bright first morning, when the only sounds were the gentle lapping of waters when a lonely gondola passed by.
Now that’s a view to wake up to…
That we should rise, with some degree of Casanovian elegance, in our sumptuous hotel room lined with fabric wall coverings of golden thread, under a bed spread which reflected this glory with its own ample gold thread-count kick-started what was to become something of a theme to the day, if not to the whole Venice trip: Glorious and Golden. For all its decay, the neglected paint work, the stagnant waters, and the dirt-ridden façade of the Piazza San Marco’s colonnaded palazzos, Venice is, at its heart, a city of insuperable decadence, glamour and sophistication. And just in case the point could not be made obvious from the lavish boutiques, the jewel-covered masks and the elaborate architecture, one building more than any other shouts out glamour more than any other: from its richly coloured marble façade right up to its astonishing golden cupolas. The Basilica San Marco. And it was to this beating heart of Venice’s identity that we headed first, as we set out on a new day ambling amongst the jewels of the Queen of the Adriatic.
The Basilica’s marble-clad exterior
Ever since its first construction in the 9th century to commemorate the arrival in Venice of the (allegedly) stolen remains of St Mark, this magnificent cathedral, prime example of the Byzantine style of architecture, has been at the heart of the city. Adorned with 8000m squared of golden mosaics, and jewels and treasures aplenty collected from across the world in the aftermath of Venice’s many historical conquests, the Basilica is not just a symbol of religious devotion, but also historical prowess. Above all things, it is a temple of the utmost opulence. When visitors first enter, you can literally hear the little eruptions of “wow” escaping from tourists’ mouths as their astonishment is articulated at a first glimpse of this heavenly space.
For me, with its expanse of paradisal golden cupolas glimmering and sparkling across every curve and corner of the cathedral’s vast ceiling, Saint Mark’s is without a doubt the most stunning church in all the world. And while photo taking was banned, Dominik and I naturally ignored this, surreptitiously taking photos, largely from cameras wrapped up in our scarves (before we became a bit more brazen in our approach). So while gazing at the incredible majesty of the Basilica as represented in these photos, don’t forget the extra effort we had to go to in order to bring them to you!
…but the real treasure is inside
Having become almost tongue-twisted with awe in the Basilica, we spent the rest of the morning largely ambling around Venice’s superfluity of canals and side streets, shop-lined passages and piazzas – for what greater joy is there than to get lost in Venice. And while it would be difficult to beat the splendour of St Mark’s, even in that pursuit we could not help but be wowed by the opulence which scatters its luxurious bounty all over the city: Gondolas with their highly ornamented damask seating fringed with golden unicorns and lions glided elegantly down canals and under bridges; in the shops, windows came alive with glinting gold masks and sparkling glass Christmas trees; and lining canals and cobbled streets, Venice’s palazzos and houses, while often tired and ageing, retain the unique grace and characteristic elegance which has made them famous throughout the world.
All that glitters is Venetian gold…
Much humbled by the tireless beauty of the city, we headed over the Accademia bridge, moving from a golden age of art and religion, to a more contemporary period of excess: to the canal side mansion of one Peggy Guggenheim, whose perfectly formed and very accessible collection of modern art is housed alongside the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro region of Venice (the arty quarter which was where I stayed when I studied art history in the city some 12 years earlier). The collection still holds an important place in my heart, having single handedly opened my eyes to the joys of 20th century art when I first mused over the collection in 2001. For such a small collection, it is fantastically overloaded with masterpieces from an era: works by Picasso, Braque, Magritte, Tanguay, Pollock, Miro, Gris, Leger and Dali to name but a few don the walls of this palace of modern art, and asides from the main collection, a temporary exhibition of works from Signac’s Paris provided further opportunity to reflect on just how expansive a collection the Guggenheim dynasty can lay its hands on, and how lucky we are to be able to benefit from it in Venice of all places. And as strange as it may have been to be reflecting on Paris while in Venice, the temporary show provided yet further opportunity to see the wonderful woodcut works of one Felix Vallaton who had so enthralled me at the Grand Palais in Paris last November – so I wasn’t complaining.
Santa Maria della Salute, from the Accademia Bridge and up close
But our feet were, so moving swiftly onwards, we headed along to Santa Maria della Salute, the iconic domed church at the point of the Grand Canal, and back along to the Piazza Magherita, affording me the opportunity to reflect upon my student days when, in this square and the canals which surround it, I would drink sparkling strawberry wine (fragalino) with chums and with the extravagant world of Venice becoming increasingly blurry around me.
Ambling around Venice…
My reflections upon student days did nothing to dispel the continuing influence of Venice’s lavish surrounds however, and as day turned into night, our day ended, as all days must, indulging the further pleasures of Venetian cuisine. And to this evening’s bottle of Valpolicella, we added a delicious accompaniment of fine dining served up by one Taberna La Fenice, whose hit of the night had to be a potato mousse served, in a martini glass (as you do) with miniature meatballs in tomato sauce. Oh if I could have recreated the sensations which embraced my tongue during the all too short consumption of that exquisite dish. But instead I had to satisfy myself with the dreamy live jazz with which the restaurant wooed us as evening turned to night, and another day in the dream land of Venice came to a misty, magical end.
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