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 art museums literally lapped by waves from passing ‘vaporettos’, ‘motoscafos’ and, yes, gondolas.
Together these museums cover a wide spectrum of art genres and eras held in private and public collections. Added bonus: Some of them have some of the best canal-side cafe locations in all of Venice.
Towards the north end of the Grand Canal, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna – better known as Ca’ Pesaro after the family which built the 17th century palace which houses it (‘ca’ means ‘house of’) – contains the municipal collection of modern art, which was started in 1897, when the second Biennale was held. The collection was enriched over the years by further acquisitions (often at the Biennale) and donations.
Works by many household names are included, such as De Chirico, Calder, Klee, Miro, Ernst and Kandinsky. We were particularly moved by Angelo Morbelli’s sombre and sobering ‘The Christmas of Those Left Behind’ (1903) and Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida’s magnificent ‘Sewing the Sail’ (1986), a masterclass in painting light and colour. https://capesaro.visitmuve.it/en/home
Next stop down the canal is Ca’ Rezzonico, a museum of 18th century Venice with a 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 how the great and the good lived in mid-18th century Venice. A centrepiece is a massive, eye-popping, 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. https://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 and Christie’s, the Palazzo Grassi presents major contemporary exhibitions, some of which are based on the Pinault Collection. The Grassi’s sister museum is the Punta della Dogano, the last stop on our tour. A reduced price ticket gets you into both.
Until Nov 30: Martial Raysse. Born in1936, the French artist’s gloriously wacky oeuvre encompasses sculpture, drawings, films, found objects, figurines, mises en scene and paintings shot through with insight and humour as he draws on influences ranging from the Renaissance and classic mythology to consumer society and pop art. 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 spans Byzantine and Gothic 14th century paintings to artists of the Renaissance (Bellini, Carpaccio, Veronese, Tintoretto) to 18th century masters such as Canaletto ad Longhi. Highlights include triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch, religious studies by Bellini and Tintoretto, 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.org
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 unfinished 18th century palace (which explains its rather stunted appearance), and developed into the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, 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, Magritte, Miro, Motherwell, Stella, de Kooning, Chagall, Rothko, Dubuffet, Warhol, Calder, Picasso, Pollock –they’re all here.
My Guggenheim moment came when admiring one of Magritte’s great works, ‘Empire of Light’, which hangs next to a window overlooking the Grand Canal. A sideways glance took in a gondola drifting by. Surreal indeed.
Until Sep 14: After more than a year’s absence, Jackson Pollock’s ‘Alchemy’, a masterpiece of American Abstract Expressionism, has returned to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection after restoration and conservation work. Jackson’s elder brother and abstract painter Charles Pollock is profiled in a simultaneous retrospective. www.guggenheim-venice.it
Also run by the Pinault foundation (see Palazzo Grassi), the Punta della Dogana is named after the point at 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 kept 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 St Mark’s and on the other side over to the neighbouring island of Giudecca.
Until Dec 31: Slip of the Tongue. Vietnamese-born Danh Vo (pron. ‘yon voh’) has collaborated with the Pinault Collection as artist and curator, working in conjunction with a number of invited artists. It is the first time that the foundation has invited an artist to curate at Punta della Dogana. The result is an extraordinary show of around 120 works by 35 artists pushing the boundaries. www.palazzograssi.it
Scotland + Venice
Scotland is represented by Graham Fagen with a show in four rooms of the 16th century Palazzo Fontana on the Grand Canal, the first time it has been used as an art venue. Curated by Hospitalfield in Angus, the four-part exhibition features a beautiful bronze tree sculpture, a series of watercolour self-portraits made with eyes shut ‘as a response to feeling rather than looking’, a display of ceramic partial face masks and forms shaped by the artist’s grasping hands, then covered with white glaze or gold lustre and The Slave’s Lament, based on a Roberts Burns poem of the same name. A collaboration between Fagen, composer Sally Beamish, members of the Scottish Ensemble, reggae artist Ghetto Priest and music producer Adrian Sherwood, it is about the pain of the displaced and enslaved. Burns wrote The Slave’s Lament a few years after he had booked his passage to the West Indies to work as a slave overseer, changing his mind at the last moment on hearing that his first published book has been well received. Essentially a music video with multiple edits across four screens, it is one of the few genuinely moving things in the Biennale. www.scotlandandvenice.com
How to get there
British Airways flies from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Newcastle to Venice via Heathrow, Gatwick and London City airports. Return fares incl. taxes/fees/carrier charges from £183.32. www.ba.com
Where to stay
Live like a local by renting from a wide range of properties from Venetian Apartments, from studios flats with rooftop terraces to designer apartments in modern developments to elegant palazzos on the Grand Canal. www.venice-rentals.com