We have Attila the Hun to thank for Venice. When his rampaging hordes entered Italy in the 5th century AD upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, the good citizens of the northeast plain took refuge on a hundred or so flat, marshy islands out in the lagoon at the edge of the Adriatic Sea.
A network of bridges and causeways gradually linked many of the islands and, to ensure a quick getaway by water, the inhabitants built a honeycomb of canals instead of streets. The unique city of Venice grew up and became a maritime and trading powerhouse, lavishing its mercantile wealth on fabulous art and architecture.
If, like most visitors, your time is limited to a few days and you want to pack in as much art as possible, what better way than to make your way down (or up) one of the world’s most famous waterways, the Grand Canal, where you will find half a dozen world class public and private art museums with collections covering a wide spectrum of art genres and eras. Some are literally lapped by waves from passing ‘vaporettos’, ‘motoscafos’ and, yes, gondolas, with – added bonus – among the best canal-side cafe locations in all of Venice.
Towards the north end of the Grand Canal, the Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art contains the municipal collection, which was started in 1897, the yar of the second Biennale. Better known as Ca’ Pesaro after the family which built the 17th century palace which houses it (‘ca’ means ‘house of’), the museum’s collection was enriched over the years by further donations and acquisitions, often acquired at the Biennale.
Works by many household names are included, such as De Chirico, Calder, Klee, Miro, Ernst and Kandinsky. Particularly moving is Angelo Morbelli’s sombre and sobering The Christmas of Those Left Behind (1903), while Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida’s magnificent ‘Sewing the Sail’ (1986) is a masterclass in capturing light. capesaro.visitmuve.it/en/home
Next stop down the canal is Ca’ Rezzonico, with its sumptuous entrance hall to rival Versailles and a ceremonial staircase connecting the display floors. Upon its completion in 1756, the most important painters in Venice were called upon to decorate it with frescoes and trompe l’oeil works.
The collection of ceramics, tapestries, furniture, objets d’art, mirrors and statuary give a peek into an aristocratic, 18th century Venetian lifestyle. Look out for a massive, 20-candle Murano glass chandelier decorated with delicate glass flowers.
In contrast to the rest of the building, the top floor has a more contemporary feel, with polished floors and soft, modern lighting falling on a superb collection of 16th and 17th century paintings. carezzonico.visitmuve.it/en/home
Directly opposite Ca’ Rezzonico on the other side of the Grand Canal is Palazzo Grassi. Owned by the billionaire French collector Francois Pinault (owner of Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christie’s et al), the Palazzo Grassi presents major contemporary exhibitions in its 40 rooms. Featured artists have included Picasso, Irving Penn, Martial Raysse, Luc Tuymans and Damien Hirst, whose Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was the talk of the 2017 Biennale. Other shows are drawn from the Pinault Collection. www.palazzograssi.it
The Gallerie dell’Accademia is a temple to some of the greats of pre-19th century art, many of whom influenced the whole history of European painting. The rich collection ranges from Byzantine and Gothic 14th century paintings to artists of the Renaissance to 18th century masters. Highlights include triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch, religious studies by Bellini and Tintoretto, iconic scenes of Venice by Canaletto and allegorical and mythological works by Titian.
Add to the sombre subject matter of many of the works (crucifixions, martyrs of saints and various other violent deaths) the low level lighting and heavily wood-panelled walls, and it all makes for a rather oppressive, even sinister atmosphere. However, it would take a hard heart not to be impressed by the stupendous ceilings in the upper floors. www.gallerieaccademia.it
After showing her collection of Cubist, Abstract, Surrealist and Expressionist work at the Venice Biennale in 1948, the American collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th century palace still to be completed (which explains its rather stunted appearance) and developed it into the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Entered through a charming sculpture garden, it is one of the finest small art museums in the world and one of the most visited attractions in Venice.
A list of artists represented in the permanent collection reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century greats. Ernst (phantasmagorical figures in The Antipope and Attirement of the Bride), Magritte (Empire of Light), Miro (Seated Woman II), Motherwell, Stella, de Kooning, Chagall, Rothko, Dubuffet, Warhol (Flowers), Calder (an intricate bedhead made for Guggenheim’s four-poster bed, complete with a photo of Peggy lying on it), Picasso, Dali, Pollock –they’re all here in a stand-out collection in any city. www.guggenheim-venice.it
Also run by the Pinault Foundation and a sister museum to the Palazzo Grassi, the Punta della Dogana is named after the tip of the Dorsoduro district and the building which once served as Venice’s customs building. (‘Dogana’ is Italian for customs.)
A major refurb in the early 2000s retained the soaring, bare brick interior walls around cavernous halls, while adding polished concrete floors, making for the feeling of a modern ‘art warehouse’. The windows on either side of the pointed end of the structure offer some of the best views from an art gallery anywhere in the world – on one side, up the Grand Canal and across to Saint Mark’s and on the other side over to the neighbouring island of Giudecca. www.palazzograssi.it/en/about/sites/punta-della-dogana
Just around the corner on the long quayside called Fondamenta delle Zattere (named after the rafts which used to unload their timber there), the Vedova Foundation is named after the Venetian painter Emilio Vedova (1919-2006) and promotes both his work and that of other artists which might be seen to have a ‘dialogue’ with Vedova’s work. The exhibition space is in a former warehouse beautifully restored by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, who retained its bare brick walls and amazing, beamed ceiling. www.fondazionevedova.org
Church art and music
Venice’s biggest church, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church, or simply the Frari, houses paintings and sculptures by a host of Italian masters, notably Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (the church is dedicated to Mary), the largest panel painting in the world. The artist himself lies in his also Carrara marble tomb. Nearby the interior of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is decorated by Tintoretto and his Annunciation and Flight into Egypt are both there. ‘Scuole’ (schools) are artistic brotherhoods which have preserved a treasure-trove of work over the centuries.
The Frari is also a superb place to hear an orchestral or choral performance. Over the centuries, Venice has drawn composers like a magnet, and many churches, ‘palazzi’ and other venues host music recitals (often of works which received their premieres in the very same places), with the performers wearing the historical costumes of the day. The Church of Santa Maria della Pieta, also known as “Vivaldi’s church”, frequently presents the maestro’s music.
The Venice Biennale
Established in 1895 to promote Italian art and interrupted only for six years during WWII, the Venice Biennale is the greatest show on earth for art-lovers.
Over the years many major names have appeared, such as Gustav Klimt (1905), Henri Matisse (1950), Cy Twombly (2001), Ed Ruscha (2005), Tracey Emin (2007) and Damien Hirst (whose Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was a huge draw in 2017).
The festival is spread over two locations: the Giardini (Gardens), the original, picturesque site resembling an Olympic Park for art with permanent national pavilions designed by the likes of Gerrit Rietveld (Netherlands) and Alvar Aalto (Finland), with a huge mixed exhibition in the Central Pavilion; and the Arsenale, the great 16th century shipyard where the Venetian empire built and launched its fleet. Normally closed to the public, the Biennale offers a rare chance to see inside the sprawling site so big that golf carts are available for the footsore. In addition, dozens of ‘collateral’ events from museum quality exhibitions to pop-up shows are dotted around the city in palaces, deconsecrated churches and other buildings.
First-time visitors to the Biennale will be struck at how the lines between art, music, poetry, film, literature, performance, installation, soundscape, text, video, politics and social commentary have been blurred.
Inevitably, a visit to the Biennale becomes an endurance test. Good intentions to give every contribution a fair look eventually disappear under the sheer scale of it all and making it to the finishing line becomes the main aim. After a while one sign finally causes the heart to soar. It says ‘Cafe’.Conclusion: Great art? Very little. Bad art? Plenty. Non-art? Tons of it. Unmissable? Absolutely. www.labiennale.org