Venice is a city unlike any other. No matter how often you’ve seen it in photos and films, the real thing is more dreamlike than you could imagine. With canals where streets should be, water shimmers everywhere. The fabulous palaces and churches reflect centuries of history in what was a wealthy trading center between Europe and the Orient. Getting lost in the narrow alleyways is a quintessential part of exploring Venice, but at some point you’ll almost surely end up in Piazza San Marco, where tourists and locals congregate for a coffee or an aperitif.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Cheerfully painted houses in a riot of colors—blue, yellow, pink, ocher, and dark red—line the canals of this quiet village where lace making rescued a faltering fishing-based economy centuries ago. Visitors still love to shop here for “Venetian” lace, even though the vast majority of it is machine-made in Asia; visit the island’s Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum) to discover the undeniable difference between the two. As you walk the 100 yards from the dock to Piazza Galuppi, the main square, you pass stall after stall of lace vendors. These good-natured ladies won’t press you with a hard sell, but don’t expect precise product information or great bargains—authentic, handmade Burano lace costs $1,000 to $2,000 for a 10-inch doily.
MUSEO DEL MERLETTO
Here’s the place to marvel at the intricacies of Burano’s lace-making. The lace-making museum will likely continue to host a “sewing circle” of sorts, where on most weekdays you can watch local women carrying on the tradition. They may have authentic pieces for sale privately.
Settled primarily in the 15th century, at a time when Renaissance ideas of town planning had some effect, Cannaregio differs from medieval Venice, where the shape of the islands usually defines the course of the canals. The daylight reflected off the bright-green canals (cut through a vast bed of reeds; hence the name Cannaregio, which may mean “Reed Place”) and the big sky visible from the fondamente (pedestrian walkways) make this a particularly luminous area of town. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Titian and Tintoretto had houses in the sestiere.
The Strada Nova (literally, “New Street,” as it was opened in 1871) is Cannaregio’s main thoroughfare and the longest street in Venice. Lined with fruit and vegetable stalls, quiet shops, gelaterias, and bakeries, it serves as a pedestrian passage from the train station to the Campo Sant’ Apostoli, just a few steps from the Rialto. The Jewish Ghetto, with five historically and artistically important synagogues, is in this quarter, and the churches of Madonna dell’Orto and the Miracoli are among the most beautiful and interesting buildings in the city. Once you leave the Strada Nuova, you’ll find the sestiere blessedly free of tourists.
The small but well-arranged museum highlights centuries of Venetian Jewish culture with splendid silver Hanukkah lamps and Torahs, and handwritten, beautifully decorated wedding contracts in Hebrew. Hourly tours in Italian and English (on the half-hour) of the ghetto and its five synagogues leave from the museum.
The interior walls of this early-18th-century church (1715–30) resemble brocade drapery, and only touching them will convince skeptics that rather than embroidered cloth, the green-and-white walls are inlaid marble. This trompe-l’oeil decor is typical of the late Baroque’s fascination with optical illusion. Toward the end of his life, Titian tended to paint scenes of suffering and sorrow in a nocturnal ambience. A dramatic example of this is on display above the first altar to the left: Titian’s daring Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1578), taken from an earlier church that stood on this site. To the left of the church is the Oratory of the Crociferi, which features some of Palma Giovane’s best work, painted between 1583 and 1591.
Hallowed as the place of Richard Wagner’s death and today’s Venice’s most glamorous casino, this magnificent edifice found its fame centuries before: Venetian star architect Mauro Codussi (1440–1504) essentially invented Venetian Renaissance architecture with this design. Built for the Loredan family around 1500, Codussi’s palace married the fortress-like design of the Florentine Alberti’s Palazzo Ruccelai with the lightness and delicacy of Venetian Gothic. Note how Codussi beautifully exploits the flickering light of Venetian waterways to play across the building’s facade and to pour in through the generous windows.
Venice has always prized the beauty of this palace. In 1652 its owners were convicted of a rather gruesome murder, and the punishment would have involved, as was customary, the demolition of their palace. The murderers were banned from the Republic, but the palace, in view of its beauty and historical importance, was spared. Only the newly added wing was torn down.
One of the postcard sights of Venice, this exquisite Venetian Gothic palace was once literally a “Golden House,” when its marble traceries and ornaments were embellished with gold. It was created by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon between 1428 and 1430 for the patrician Marino Contarini, who had read about the Roman emperor Nero’s golden house in Rome, and wished to imitate it as a present to his wife. Her family owned the land and the Byzantine fondaco (palace-trading house) previously standing on it; you can still see the round Byzantine arches on the entry porch incorporated into the Gothic building. The last proprietor, Baron Giorgio Franchetti, left Ca’ d’Oro to the city, after having had it carefully restored and furnished with antiquities, sculptures, and paintings that today make up the Galleria Franchetti. Besides Andrea Mantegna’s St. Sebastian and other Venetian works, the Galleria Franchetti contains the type of fresco that once adorned the exteriors of Venetian buildings (commissioned by those who could not afford a marble facade). One such detached fresco displayed here was made by the young Titian for the façade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi near the Rialto.
SANTA MARIA DEI MIRACOLI
Tiny yet harmoniously proportioned, this Renaissance gem, built between 1481 and 1489, is sheathed in marble and decorated inside with exquisite marble reliefs. Architect Pietro Lombardo (circa 1435–1515) miraculously compressed the building into its confined space, then created the illusion of greater size by varying the color of the exterior, adding extra pilasters on the building’s canal-side and offsetting the arcade windows to make the arches appear deeper. The church was built to house I Miracoli, an image of the Virgin Mary by Niccolò di Pietro (1394–1440) that is said to have performed miracles—look for it on the high altar.
CHIESA DELLA PIETÀ
Unwanted babies were left on the steps of this religious institute, founded by a Franciscan friar in 1346. The girls were immediately taken in at the adjoining orphanage, which provided the children with a musical education. The quality of the performances here reached Continental fame—the in-house conductor was none other than Antonio Vivaldi (1675–1745), who wrote some of his best compositions here for the hospice. The present church was designed in the 18th century by Giorgio Massari, but the facade was completed only in the early 20th century. The main reason for a visit is to view the magnificent ceiling fresco by Gianbattista Tiepolo. In a room to the left of the entrance is a tiny collection of baroque instruments, including the violin played by Vivaldi.
CHIOSTRO DI SANT’APOLLONIA
Behind the basilica and over a bridge, a short fondamenta leads right toward the unassuming entrance of the Museo Diocesano (upstairs), housed in a former Benedictine monastery. Its peacefully shady 12th-century cloister has been modified over the centuries, but it remains the only surviving example of a Romanesque cloister in Venice. The brick pavement is original, and the many inscriptions and fragments on display (some from the 9th century) are all that remain of the first Basilica di San Marco. The museum contains an array of sacred vestments, reliquaries, crucifixes, ex-votos, and paintings from various Venetian churches.
CAMPO SANTI GIOVANNI E PAOLO
This large, attractive square is the site of two city landmarks: the imposing namesake Gothic church and the Scuola Grande di San Marco, with one of the loveliest Renaissance facades in Italy. The scoula’s exterior is the combined work of Venice’s most prominent renaissance architects. The facade was begun by Pietro Lombardo in the 1480s, then in 1490 the work was given over to Mauro Codussi, who also added a grand stairway in the interior. In the 16th century, Sansovino designed the facade facing the Rio dei Mendicanti. The campo also contains the only equestrian monument ever erected by La Serenissima. The rider, Bartolomeo Colleoni, served Venice well as a condottiere, or mercenary commander—the Venetians preferred to pay others to fight for them on land. When he died in 1475, he left his fortune to the city on the condition that a statue be erected in his honor “in the piazza before San Marco.” The Republic’s shrewd administrators coveted Colleoni’s ducats but had no intention of honoring anyone, no matter how valorous, with a statue in Piazza San Marco. So they collected the money, commissioned a statue by Florentine sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–88), and put it up before the Scuola Grande di San Marco.
Visible from the street, the impressive Renaissance gateway, the Porta Magna (1460), designed by Antonio Gambello, was the first classical structure to be built in Venice. It is guarded by four lions—war booty of Francesco Morosini, who took the Peloponnese from the Turks in 1687. The 10-foot-tall lion on the left stood sentinel more than 2,000 years ago near Athens, and experts say its mysterious inscription is runic “graffiti” left by Viking mercenaries hired to suppress 11th-century revolts in Piraeus. If you look at the winged lion above the doorway, you’ll notice that the Gospel at his paws is open, but lacks the customary Pax inscription; praying for peace perhaps seemed inappropriate above a factory that manufactured weapons. The interior is not regularly open to the public, since it belongs to the Italian Navy, but it opens for the Biennale di Arte and for Venice’s festival of traditional boats, Mare Maggio (www.maremaggio.it), held every May. If you’re here during those times, don’t miss the chance for a look inside; you can enter from the back via a northern-side walkway leading from the Ospedale vaporetto stop.
The Arsenale is said to have been founded in 1104 on twin islands. The immense facility that evolved—it was the largest industrial complex in Europe built prior to the Industrial Revolution—was given the old Venetian dialect name arzanà, borrowed from the Arabic darsina’a, meaning “workshop.” At the height of its activity, in the early 16th century, it employed as many as 16,000 arsenalotti, workers who were among the most respected shipbuilders in the world. The Arsenale developed a type of pre-Industrial Revolution assembly line, which allowed it to build ships with astounding speed and efficiency. (This innovation existed even in Dante’s time, and he immortalized these toiling workers armed with boiling tar in his Inferno, canto 21.) The Arsenale’s efficiency was confirmed time and again—whether building 100 ships in 60 days to battle the Turks in Cyprus (1597) or completing one perfectly armed warship, start to finish, while King Henry III of France attended a banquet.
SAN FRANCESCO DELLA VIGNA
Although this church contains some interesting and beautiful paintings and sculptures, it’s the architecture that makes it worth the hike through a lively, middle-class, residential neighborhood. The Franciscan church was enlarged and rebuilt by Jacopo Sansovino in 1534, giving it the first Renaissance interior in Venice; its proportions are said to reflect the mystic significance of the numbers three and seven dictated by Renaissance neo-Platonic numerology. The soaring but harmonious facade was added in 1562 by Palladio. The church represents a unique combination of the work of the two great stars of Veneto 16th-century architecture. As you enter, a late Giovanni Bellini Madonna with Saints is down some steps to the left, inside the Cappella Santa. In the Giustinian chapel to the left is Veronese’s first work in Venice, an altarpiece depicting the Virgin and child with saints. In another, larger chapel, on the left, are bas-reliefs by Pietro and his son Tullio Lombardo. Be sure to ask to see the attached cloisters, which are usually open to visitors and quite lovely.
A connoisseur’s delight, this art collection at this late-16th-century palace includes Giovanni Bellini’s Presentation in the Temple and Sebastiano Ricci’s triptych Dawn, Afternoon, and Evening. Portraits of newlyweds Francesco Querini and Paola Priuli were left unfinished on the death of Giacomo Palma il Vecchio (1480–1528); note the groom’s hand and the bride’s dress. Original 18th-century furniture and stuccowork are a fitting background for Pietro Longhi’s portraits. Nearly 70 works by Gabriele Bella (1730–99) capture scenes of Venetian street life; downstairs is a café. The entrance hall and the small, charming rear garden were designed by famous Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa during the 1950s.
SANTI GIOVANNI E PAOLO
A venerated jewel, this gorgeous church looms over one of the most picturesque squares in Venice: the Campo Giovanni e Paolo, centered on the magnificent 15th-century equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by the Florentine Andrea Verrocchio. Also note the beautiful façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco (now the municipal hospital), begun by Pietro Lombardo and completed after the turn of the 16th century by Mauro Codussi. The massive Italian Gothic church itself is of the Dominican order and was consecrated in 1430. Bartolomeo Bon’s portal, combining Gothic and classical elements, was added between 1458 and 1462, using columns salvaged from Torcello. The 15th-century stained-glass window near the side entrance is breathtaking for its brilliant colors and beautiful figures; it was made in Murano from drawings by Bartolomeo Vivarini and Gerolamo Mocetto (circa 1458–1531). The second official church of the Republic after San Marco, San Zanipolo is the Venetian equivalent of London’s Westminster Abbey, with a great number of important people, including 25 doges, buried here. Artistic highlights include an early (1465) polyptych by Giovanni Bellini (right aisle, second altar) where the influence of Mantegna is still very evident, Alvise Vivarini’s Christ Carrying the Cross (sacristy), and Lorenzo Lotto’s Charity of St. Antonino (right transept). Don’t miss the Cappella del Rosario (Rosary Chapel), off the left transept, built in the 16th century to commemorate the 1571 victory of Lepanto, in western Greece, when Venice led a combined European fleet to defeat the Turkish Navy. The chapel was devastated by a fire in 1867 and restored in the early years of the 20th century with works from other churches, among them the sumptuous Veronese ceiling paintings. However quick your visit, don’t miss the Pietro Mocenigo tomb to the right of the main entrance, by Pietro Lombardo and his sons. Note also Tullio Lombardo’s tomb of Andrea Vendramin, the original home of Tullio’s Adam, which has recently been restored in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum.
SANTA MARIA FORMOSA
Guided by his vision of a beautiful Madonna, 7th-century Saint Magno is said to have followed a small white cloud and built a church where it settled. Gracefully white, the marble building you see today dates from 1492, built by Mauro Codussi on an older foundation. Codussi’s harmonious Renaissance design is best understood by visiting the interior; the Renaissance facade facing the canal was added later, in 1542, and the baroque facade facing the campo was added in 1604. Of interest are three fine paintings: Our Lady of Mercy by Bartolomeo Vivarini, Santa Barbara by Palma il Vecchio, and Madonna with St. Domenic by Gianbattista Tiepolo. The surrounding square bustles with sidewalk cafés and a produce market on weekday mornings.
Practically more a museum than a church, San Zaccaria bears a striking Renaissance facade, with central and upper portions representing some of Mauro Codussi’s best work. The lower portion of the facade and the interior were designed by Antonio Gambello. The original structure of the church was 14th-century Gothic, with its facade completed in 1515, some years after Codussi’s death in 1504, and it retains the proportions of the rest of the essentially Gothic structure. Inside is one of the great treasures of Venice, Giovanni Bellini’s celebrated altarpiece, La Sacra Conversazione, easily recognizable in the left nave. Completed in 1505, when the artist was 75, it shows Bellini’s ability to incorporate the aesthetics of the High Renaissance into his work. It bears a closer resemblance to the contemporary works of Leonardo (it dates from approximately the same time as the Mona Lisa) than it does to much of Bellini’s early work. The Cappella di San Tarasio displays frescoes by Tuscan Renaissance artists Andrea del Castagno (1423–57) and Francesco da Faenza (circa 1400–51). Castagno’s frescoes (1442) are considered the earliest examples of Renaissance painting in Venice. The three outstanding Gothic polyptychs attributed to Antonio Vivarini earned it the nickname “Golden Chapel.”
When the Dominicans took over the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione from the suppressed order of Gesuati laymen in 1668, Giorgio Massari, the last of the great Venetian Baroque architects, was commissioned to build this structure between 1726 and 1735. It has an important Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) illusionistic ceiling and several other of his works, plus those of his contemporaries, Giambattista Piazzetta (1683–1754) and Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734).
SCUOLA GRANDE DEI CARMINI
When the order of Santa Maria del Carmelo commissioned Baldassare Longhena to finish the work on the Scuola Grande dei Carmini in the 1670s, their brotherhood of 75,000 members was the largest in Venice and one of the wealthiest. Little expense was spared in the decorating of stuccoed ceilings and carved ebony paneling, and the artwork was choice, even before 1739, when Giovanni Battista Tiepolo began painting the Sala Capitolare. In what many consider his best work, Tiepolo’s nine great canvases vividly transform some rather conventional religious themes into dynamic displays of color and movement.
Paolo Veronese (1528–88), although still in his twenties, was already the official painter of the Republic when he began the oil panels and frescoes at San Sebastiano, his parish church, in 1555. For decades he continued to embellish the church with very beautiful illusionistic scenes. The cycles of panels in San Sebastiano are considered to be his supreme accomplishment. Veronese is buried beneath his bust near the organ. The church itself, remodeled by Antonio Scarpagnino and finished in 1548, offers a rare opportunity to see a monument in Venice where both the architecture and the pictorial decoration all date from the same period. Be sure to check out the portal of the ex-convent, now part of the University of Venice, to the left of the church; it was designed in 1976–78 by Carlo Scarpa, one of the most important Italian architects of the 20th century.
CAMPO SANTA MARGHERITA
Lined with cafés and restaurants generally filled with students from the nearby university, Campo Santa Margherita also has produce vendors and benches where you can sit and take in the bustling local life of the campo. Also close to the Ca’ Rezzonico and the Scuola dei Carmini, and only a 10-minute walk from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the square is the center of Dorsoduro social life. It takes its name from the church to one side, closed since the early 19th century and now used as an auditorium. On weekend evenings it sometimes attracts hordes of high school students from the mainland.
Designed by Baldassare Longhena in the 17th century, this gigantic palace was completed nearly 100 years later by Giorgio Massari and became the last home of English poet Robert Browning (1812–89). Stand on the bridge by the Grand Canal entrance to spot the plaque with Browning’s poetic excerpt, “Open my heart and you will see graved inside of it, Italy…” on the left side of the palace. The spectacular centerpiece is the eye-popping Grand Ballroom, which has hosted some of the grandest parties in the city’s history, from its 18th-century heyday to the 1969 Bal Fantastica (a Save Venice charity event that attracted every notable of the day, from Elizabeth Taylor to Aristotle Onassis). Today the upper floors of the Ca’ Rezzonico are home to the especially delightful Museo del Settecento (Museum of Venice in the 1700s). Its main floor successfully retains the appearance of a magnificent Venetian palazzo, decorated with period furniture and tapestries in gilded salons, as well as Gianbattista Tiepolo ceiling frescoes and oil paintings. Upper floors contain a fine collection of paintings by 18th-century Venetian artists, including the famous genre and Pucinella frescoes by Tiepolo’s son, Giandomenico, moved here from the Villa di Zianigo. There’s even a restored apothecary, complete with powders and potions.
SANTA MARIA DELLA SALUTE
The most iconic landmark of the Grand Canal, La Salute (as this church is commonly called) is most unforgettably viewed from the Riva degli Schiavoni at sunset, or from the Accademia Bridge by moonlight. En route to becoming Venice’s most important Baroque architect, 32-year-old Baldassare Longhena won a competition in 1631 to design a shrine honoring the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from a plague that in the space of two years (1629–30) killed 47,000 residents, or one-third of the city’s population. It was not completed, however, until 1687—five years after Longhena’s death. Outside, this ornate, white Istrian stone octagon is topped by a colossal cupola with snail-like ornamental buttresses—in truth, piers encircled by finely carved “ropes,” an allusion to the sail-making industry of the city (or so say today’s art historians). Inside, a white-and-gray color scheme is complemented by a polychrome marble floor and the six chapels. The Byzantine icon above the main altar has been venerated as the Madonna della Salute (Madonna of Health) since 1670, when Francesco Morosini brought it here from Crete. Above it is a sculpture showing Venice on her knees before the Madonna as she drives the wretched plague from the city.
Do not leave the church without visiting the Sacrestia Maggiore, which contains a dozen works by Titian, including his San Marco Enthroned with Saints altarpiece. You’ll also see Tintoretto’s The Wedding at Cana. For the Festa della Salute, held November 21, a votive bridge is constructed across the Grand Canal, and Venetians pilgrimage here to light candles in prayer for another year’s health.
PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION
Housed in the incomplete but nevertheless charming Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, this choice selection of 20th-century painting and sculpture represents the taste and extraordinary style of the late heiress Peggy Guggenheim. Through wealth, social connections, and a sharp eye for artististic trends, Guggenheim (1898–1979) became an important art dealer and collector from the 1930s through the 1950s, and her personal collection here includes works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock, Motherwell, and Ernst (her onetime husband). The museum serves beverages, snacks, and light meals in its refreshingly shady and artistically sophisticated garden. On Sundays at 3 pm (except in August) the museum offers a free tour and art workshop for children (ages 4–10); it’s conducted in Italian, but anglophone interns are generally on hand to help those who don’t parla italiano.
The greatest collection of Venetian paintings in the world hangs in these galleries founded by Napoléon back in 1807 on the site of a religious complex he had suppressed. They were carefully and subtly restructured between 1945 and 1959 by the renowned architect Carlo Scarpa.
Jacopo Bellini is considered the father of the Venetian Renaissance, and in Room 2 you can compare his Madonna and Child with Saints with such later works as Madonna of the Orange Tree by Cima da Conegliano (circa 1459–1517) and Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mt. Ararat by Vittore Carpaccio (circa 1455–1525). Jacopo’s more accomplished son Giovanni (circa 1430–1516) attracts your eye not only with his subject matter but also with his rich color. Rooms 4 and 5 have a good selection of his madonnas. Room 5 contains Tempest by Giorgione (1477–1510), a revolutionary work that has intrigued viewers and critics for centuries. It is unified not only by physical design elements, as was usual, but more importantly by a mysterious, somewhat threatening atmosphere. In Room 10, Feast in the House of Levi, commissioned as a Last Supper, got Veronese summoned to the Inquisition over its depiction of dogs, jesters, and other extraneous figures. The artist responded with the famous retort, “Noi pittori ci prendiamo le stesse libertà dei poeti e dei pazzi” (We painters permit ourselves the same liberties that poets and madmen do). He resolved the problem by simply changing the title, so that the painting represented a different, less solemn biblical feast. Don’t miss the views of 15th- and 16th-century Venice by Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini, Giovanni’s brother—you’ll see how little the city has changed.
Booking tickets in advance isn’t essential but helps during busy seasons and costs only an additional €1.50. A free map notes art and artists, and the bookshop sells a more informative English-language booklet. In the main galleries a €4 audio guide saves reading but adds little to each room’s excellent annotation.
PUNTA DELLA DOGANA
Funded by the billionaire who owns a major share in Christie’s Auction House, the François Pinault Foundation had Japanese architect Tadao Ando redesign this fabled customs house—sitting at the punta, or very head, of the Grand Canal—and now home to a changing roster of works from Pinault’s collection of contemporary art. The streaming light, polished surfaces, and clean lines of Ando’s design contrast beautifully with the brick, massive columns, and sturdy beams of the original Dogana. Even if you aren’t into contemporary art, a visit is worthwhile just to see Ando’s amazing architectural transformation. Be sure to walk down to the punta for a magnificent view of the Venetian basin. Check online for a schedule of temporary exhibitions.
After a plague in 1576 claimed some 50,000 people—nearly one-third of the city’s population (including Titian)—Andrea Palladio was asked to design a commemorative church. Giudecca’s Capuchin friars offered land and their services, provided the building was in keeping with the simplicity of their hermitage. Consecrated in 1592, after Palladio’s death, the Redentore (considered Palladio’s supreme achievement in ecclesiastical design) is dominated by a dome and a pair of slim, almost minaretlike bell towers. Its deceptively simple, stately facade leads to a bright, airy interior. There aren’t any paintings or sculptures of note, but the harmony and elegance of the interior makes a visit worthwhile.
For hundreds of years, on the third weekend in July the doge would make a pilgrimage here to give thanks to the Redeemer for ending the 16th-century plague. The event has become the Festa del Redentore, a favorite Venetian festival featuring boats, fireworks, and outdoor feasting. It’s the one time of year you can walk to Giudecca—across a temporary pontoon bridge connecting Redentore with the Zattere.
BASILICA DEI SANTI MARIA E DONATO
Just past the glass museum, this is among the first churches founded by the lagoon’s original inhabitants. The elaborate mosaic pavement includes the date 1140; its ship’s-keel roof and Veneto-Byzantine columns add to the semblance of an ancient temple.
MUSEO DEL VETRO
Although the collection leaves out some important periods, glassmakers, and styles, it is still the best way to get an overview of Venetian glassmaking through the ages. You can see an exhibition on the history of glass, along with a chance to review authentic Venetian styles, patterns, and works by some famous glassmakers. Don’t miss the famous Barovier wedding cup from around 1470.
CHIESA DI SAN PIETRO MARTIRE
You’ll pass this church just before you reach Murano’s Grand Canal (a little more than 800 feet from the landing). Reconstructed in 1511, it houses Giovanni Bellini’s very beautiful and spectacular Madonna and Child with Doge Augostino Barbarigo and Veronese’s St. Jerome.
SAN GIORGIO MAGGIORE
There’s been a church on this island since the 8th century, with a Benedictine monastery added in the 10th century. Today’s refreshingly airy and simply decorated church of brick and white marble was begun in 1566 by Palladio and displays his architectural hallmarks of mathematical harmony and classical influence. The Last Supper and the Gathering of Manna, two of Tintoretto’s later works, line the chancel. To the right of the entrance hangs The Adoration of the Shepherds by Jacopo Bassano (1517–92); his affection for his home in the foothills, Bassano del Grappa, is evident in the bucolic subjects and terra-firma colors he chooses. The monks are happy to show Carpaccio’s St. George and the Dragon, hanging in a private room, if they have time. The campanile dates from 1791, the previous structures having collapsed twice.
Adjacent to the church is the complex now housing the Cini Foundation, containing a very beautiful cloister designed by Palladio in 1560, his refectory, and a library designed by Longhena. Guided tours are given on weekends 10–5, April through September; reservations are not required.
Venice is the only major Italian city without an ancient past, yet it hosts a collection of ancient art second in Italy only to those in Rome and Naples. This museum housing this collection was first established in 1596, when the heirs of Cardinal Domenico Grimani, a noted humanist, who had left his collection of original Greek (5th–1st centuries BC) and Roman marbles to the Republic, inaugurated the Public Statuary in Sansovino’s then-recently completed library in Piazza San Marco. You can see part of the collection, displayed just as Grimani, or at least his immediate heirs, had conceived it, in the vestibule of the Libreria Sansoviniana, which the museum shares with the Biblioteca Marciana. Highlights in the rest of the museum include the statue of Kore (420 BC), an Attic original known as Abbondanza Grimani; the 1st-century BC Ara Grimani, an elaborate Hellenistic altar stone with a bacchanalian scene; and a tiny but refined 1st-century BC crystal woman’s head, which some say depicts Cleopatra. The very beautiful original venue of the collection, the family palazzo built and designed by Domenico Grimani’s nephew, Giovanni, near Campo Santa Maria Formosa, is open to the public (call 0415200345). Even though it no longer contains the collection, it is still well worth a visit.
This enameled clock, completed in 1499, was most likely designed by Venetian Renaissance architect Mauro Codussi. Twin giant figures (now called Moors because of their tarnished bronze bodies) would strike the hour, and three wise men with an angel would walk out and bow to the Virgin Mary on Epiphany (January 6) and during Ascension Week (40 days after Easter). An inscription on the tower reads “Horas non numero nisi serenas” (“I only count happy hours”). Originally, the clock tower had a much lighter, more graceful appearance, and was free-standing. The four lateral bays were added in the early 16th century, while the upper stories and balustrades were completed in 1755. The clock itself was neglected until the 19th century, but now, after years of painstaking labor, the clockwork has been reassembled and is fully operational.
CAMPO SANTO STEFANO
In Venice’s most prestigious residential neighborhood, you’ll find one of the city’s busiest crossroads just over the Accademia Bridge; it’s hard to believe this square once hosted bullfights, with bulls or oxen tied to a stake and baited by dogs. For centuries the campo was all grass except for a stone avenue called the liston. It was so popular for strolling that in Venetian dialect “andare al liston” still means “to go for a walk.” A sunny meeting spot popular with Venetians and visitors alike, the campo also hosts outdoor fairs during Christmas and Carnevale seasons. Check out the 14th-century Chiesa di Santo Stefano. The pride of the church is its very fine Gothic portal, created in 1442 by Bartomomeo Bon. Inside, you’ll see works by Tintoretto.
Built between 1748 and 1772 by Giorgio Massari for a Bolognese family, this palace is one of the last of the great noble residences on the Grand Canal. Once owned by auto magnate Giovanni Agnelli, it was bought by French businessman François Pinaut in 2005 to showcase his highly important collection of modern and contemporary art (which has now grown so large that Pinaut rented the Punta della Dogana, at the entryway to the Grand Canal, for his newest acquisitions). Pinaut brought in Japanese architect Tadao Ando to remodel the Grassi’s interior. Check online for a schedule of temporary art exhibitions.
This museum of Venetian art and history contains an important sculpture collection by Antonio Canova and important paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio (Carpaccio’s famous painting of the Venetian courtesans is here), and other major local painters. It’s the main repository of Venetian drawings and prints, which, unfortunately, can be seen only by special arrangement, or during special exhibitions. It also houses curiosities such as the absurdly high-soled shoes worn by 16th-century Venetian ladies (who walked with the aid of a servant). The city’s proud naval history is evoked in several rooms through highly descriptive paintings and numerous maritime objects, including ships’ cannons and some surprisingly large iron mast-top navigation lights. The museum also has a significant collection of antique gems. The Correr exhibition rooms lead directly into the Museo Archeologico, which houses the Grimani collection—an important 16th- and 17th-century collection of Greek and Roman art, still impressive even after the transfer of many objects to Paris and Vienna during the Napoleonic and Austrian occupations—and the Stanza del Sansovino, the only part of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana open to visitors.
Rising grandly above the Piazzetta San Marco, this Gothic fantasia of pink-and-white marble is a majestic expression of Venetian prosperity and power. Although the site was the doges’ residence from the 10th century, the building began to take its present form around 1340; what you seen now is essentially a product of the first half of the 15th century. It served not only as a residence, but also as the central administrative center of the Venetian Republic.
Unlike other medieval seats of authority, the Palazzo Ducale is free of any military defenses—a sign of the Republic’s self-confidence. The position of the loggias below instead of above the retaining wall, and the use of pink marble to emphasize the decorative function of that wall, gave the palazzo a light and airy aspect, one that could impress visitors—and even intimidate them, though through opulence and grace rather than fortresslike bulk. You’ll find yourself in an immense courtyard that holds some of the first evidence of Renaissance architecture in Venice, such as Antonio Rizzo’s Scala dei Giganti (Stairway of the Giants), erected between 1483 and 1491, directly ahead, guarded by Sansovino’s huge statues of Mars and Neptune, added in 1567. Though ordinary mortals must use the central interior staircase, its upper flight is the lavishly gilded Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase), also designed by Sansovino in 1555. The palace’s sumptuous chambers have walls and ceilings covered with works by Venice’s greatest artists. Visit the Anticollegio, a waiting room outside the Collegio’s chamber, where you can see the Rape of Europa by Veronese and Tintoretto’s Bacchus and Ariadne Crowned by Venus. The ceiling of the Sala del Senato (Senate Chamber), featuring The Triumph of Venice by Tintoretto, is magnificent, but it’s dwarfed by his masterpiece Paradise in the Sala del Maggiore Consiglio (Great Council Hall). A vast work commissioned for a vast hall, this dark, dynamic piece is the world’s largest oil painting (23 by 75 feet). The room’s carved gilt ceiling is breathtaking, especially with Veronese’s majestic Apotheosis of Venice filling one of the center panels.
A narrow canal separates the palace’s east side from the cramped cell blocks of the Prigioni Nuove (New Prisons). High above the water arches the enclosed marble Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), which earned its name in the 19th century, from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Reserve your spot for the palazzo’s popular Secret Itineraries tour well in advance. You’ll visit the doge’s private apartments, through hidden passageways to the interrogation (torture) chambers, and into the rooftop piombi (lead) prison, named for its lead roofing. Venetian-born writer and libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725–98), along with an accomplice, managed to escape from the piombi in 1756; they were the only men ever to do so.
PONTE DI RIALTO
The competition to design a stone bridge across the Grand Canal attracted the best architects of the late 16th century, including Michelangelo, Palladio, and Sansovino, but the job went to the less famous (but appropriately named) Antonio da Ponte (1512–95). His pragmatic design, completed in 1591, featured shop space and was high enough for galleys to pass beneath. Putting practicality and economy over aesthetic considerations—and unlike the classical plans proposed by his more famous contemporaries—Da Ponte’s bridge essentially followed the design of its wooden predecessor; it kept decoration and cost to a minimum at a time when the Republic’s coffers were low, due to continual wars against the Turks and the competition brought about by the Spanish and Portuguese opening of oceanic trade routes. Along the railing you’ll enjoy one of the city’s most famous views: the Grand Canal vibrant with boat traffic.
BASILICA DI SAN MARCO
The Basilica di San Marco is not only the religious center of a great city, but also an expression of the political, intellectual, and economic aspiration and accomplishments of a city that for centuries was at the forefront of European culture. It is a monument not just to the glory of God, but also to the glory of Venice. The basilica was the doges’ personal chapel, linking its religious function to the political life of the city and was endowed with all the riches the Republic’s admirals and merchants could carry off from the Orient (as the Byzantine Empire was then known), earning it the nickname Chiesa D’Oro, or Golden Church. When the present church was begun in the 11th century, rare colored marbles and gold leaf mosaics were used in its decoration. The 12th and 13th centuries were a period of intense military expansion, and by the early 13th century, the facades began to bear testimony to Venice’s conquests, including gilt-bronze ancient Roman horses taken from Constantinople in 1204.
The dim light, the galleries high above the naves—they served as the matroneum, the women’s gallery—the massive altar screen, or iconostasis, the single massive Byzantine chandelier, even the Greek cross ground-plan give San Marco an exotic aspect quite unlike that of most Western Christian churches. The effect is remarkable. Here the pomp and mystery of Oriental magnificence are wedded to Christian belief, creating an intensely awesome impression.
The glory of the basilica is, of course, its medieval mosaic work; about 30% of the mosaics survive in something close to their original form. The earliest date from the late 12th century, but the great majority date from the 13th century. The taking of Constantinople in 1204 was a deciding moment for the mosaic decoration of the basilica. Large amounts of mosaic material were brought in, and a Venetian school of mosaic decoration began to develop. Moreover, a 4th- or 5th-century treasure—the Cotton Genesis, the earliest illustrated Bible—was brought from Constantinople and supplied the designs for the exquisite mosaics of the Creation and the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses that adorn the narthex (entrance hall). They are among the most beautiful and best-preserved in all the basilica.
In the Sanctuary, the main altar is built over the tomb of St. Mark, its green marble canopy lifted high on 6th-century carved alabaster columns—again, pillaged art. The Pala D’Oro, a dazzling gilt-silver, a gem-encrusted screen containing 255 enameled panels, was commissioned in 976 in Constantinople by the Venetian Doge Orseolo I and enlarged over the subsequent four centuries.
To skip the line at the basilica entrance, reserve your arrival—at no extra cost—on the website. If you check a bag at the nearby checkroom, you can show your check stub to the guard, who will wave you in. Remember that this is a sacred place: guards will deny admission to people in shorts, sleeveless dresses, and tank tops.
Construction of Venice’s famous brick bell tower (325 feet tall, plus the angel) began in the 9th century; it took on its present form in 1514. During the 15th century, the tower was used as a place of punishment: immoral clerics were suspended in wooden cages from the tower, some forced to subsist on bread and water for as long as a year; others were left to starve. In 1902, the tower unexpectedly collapsed, taking with it Jacopo Sansovino’s marble loggia (1537–49) at its base. The largest original bell, called the marangona, survived. The crushed loggia was promptly reconstructed, and the new tower, rebuilt to the old plan, reopened in 1912. Today, on a clear day the stunning view includes the Lido, the lagoon, and the mainland as far as the Alps, but, strangely enough, none of the myriad canals that snake through the city. Currently, the Campanile is undergoing foundation restoration due to deterioration caused by flooding (acqua alta); however, this hasn’t affected the visiting hours.
PIAZZA SAN MARCO
One of the world’s most beautiful squares, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) is spiritual and artistic heart of Venice, a vast open space bordered by an orderly procession of arcades marching toward the fairy-tale cupolas and marble lacework of the Basilica di San Marco. From midmorning on, it is generally packed with tourists. (If Venetians have business in the piazza, they try to conduct it in the early morning, before the crowds swell.) At night the piazza can be magical, especially in winter, when mists swirl around the lampposts and the campanile.
Facing the basilica, on your left, the long, arcaded building is the Procuratie Vecchie, renovated to its present form in 1514 as offices and residences for the powerful procurators (magistrates).
On your right is the Procuratie Nuove, built half a century later in a more imposing, classical style. It was originally planned by Venice’s great Renaissance architect Jacopo Sansovino (1486–1570), to carry on the look of his Libreria Sansoviniana (Sansovinian Library), but he died before construction on the Nuove had begun. Vincenzo Scamozzi (circa 1552–1616), a pupil of Andrea Palladio (1508–80), completed the design and construction. Still later, the Procuratie Nuove was modified by architect Baldassare Longhena (1598–1682), one of Venice’s Baroque masters.
When Napoléon (1769–1821) entered Venice with his troops in 1797, he expressed his admiration for the piazza and promptly gave orders to alter it. His architects demolished a church with a Sansovino facade in order to build the Ala Napoleonica (Napoleonic Wing), or Fabbrica Nuova (New Building), which linked the two 16th-century procuratie (procurators’ offices) and effectively enclosed the piazza.
Piazzetta San Marco is the “little square” leading from Piazza San Marco to the waters of Bacino San Marco (St. Mark’s Basin); its molo (landing) once served as the grand entrance to the Republic. Two imposing columns tower above the waterfront. One is topped by the winged lion, a traditional emblem of St. Mark that became the symbol of Venice itself; the other supports St. Theodore, the city’s first patron, along with his dragon. (A third column fell off its barge and ended up in the bacino before it could be placed alongside the others.) Although the columns are a glorious vision today, the Republic traditionally executed convicts between them. Even today, some superstitious Venetians avoid walking between the two.
There’s a wondrous collection of centuries-old books and illuminated manuscripts at this library, located across the piazzetta from Palazzo Ducale in two buildings designed by Renaissance architect Sansovino, Libreria Sansoviniana and the adjacent Zecca (mint). The complex was begun in 1537, and the Zecca was finished in 1545. Facing the Bacino, the Zecca forms, along with the Palazzo Ducale, across the piazzetta, Venice’s front door. It differs from its earlier Gothic pendent not only in style, but also in effect. The Palazzo Ducale, built during a period of Venetian ascendance and self-confident power, is light and decidedly unmenacing. The Zecca, built in a time when the Republic had received some serious defeats and was economically strapped, is purposefully heavy and stresses a fictitious connection with the classical world. The library is, again, much more graceful and was finished according to his design only after Sansovino’s death. Palladio was so impressed by the Biblioteca that he called it “beyond envy.” The books can only be viewed by written request and are primarily the domain of scholars. But the Gilded Hall in the Sansoviniana is worth visiting for the works of Veronese, Tintoretto, and Titian that decorate its walls. You reach the Gilded Hall, which often hosts special exhibits relating to Venetian history, through Museo Correr.
PALAZZO CONTARINI DEL BOVOLO
Easy to miss despite its vicinity to Piazza San Marco, this Renaissance-Gothic palace is accessible only through a narrow backstreet that connects Campo Manin with Calle dei Fuseri. Built around 1500 for the renowned Contarini family, it is indefinitely closed for repairs, but its striking six-floor spiral staircase (bovolo means “snail” in Venetian dialect), the most interesting aspect of the palazzo, can be seen from the street.
SAN MICHELE IN ISOLA
Tiny, cypress-lined San Michele is home to the first church designed by Mauro Codussi and the first example of Renaissance architecture in Venice; the gracefully elegant structure shows the profound influence of Florentine architects Alberti and Rossellino that would come to full fruition in Codussi’s palaces on the Canale Grande. The church’s dedication to Saint Michael is singularly appropriate, since traditionally he holds the scales of the Last Judgement. Next to the church is the somewhat later hexagonal Capella Emiliani (1528–1543), whose strangely shaped dome recalls those of Etruscan tombs.
SCUOLA GRANDE DI SAN GIOVANNI EVANGELISTA
This scuola was founded in the 13th century, but the actual building is the work of various Venetian Renaissance architects and dates from the 15th century. In the 1480s the architect Pietro Lombardo finished the school’s most beautiful and important architectural feature, the outdoor atrium and gateway that separate the complex from the campo adjoining it. Shortly after, in 1498, the architect Mauro Codussi finished work on a double staircase connecting the upper and lower halls. It is illuminated by a mullioned window on the landing between the two flights of stairs, an architectural device much used by Codussi. Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini painted their cycle of the miracle of the holy cross, now in the Accademia museum, originally for the Scuola di San Giovanni.
CAMPO SAN POLO
Only Piazza San Marco is larger than this square, and the echo of children’s voices bouncing off the surrounding palaces makes the space seem even bigger. Campo San Polo once hosted bull races, fairs, military parades, and packed markets, and now comes especially alive on summer nights, when it’s home to the city’s outdoor cinema. The Chiesa di San Polo has been restored so many times that little remains of the original 9th-century church, and sadly, 19th-century alterations were so costly that the friars sold off many great paintings to pay bills. Although Giambattista Tiepolo is represented here, his work is outdone by 16 paintings by his son Giandomenico (1727–1804), including the Stations of the Cross in the oratory to the left of the entrance. The younger Tiepolo also created a series of expressive and theatrical renderings of the saints. Look for altarpieces by Tintoretto and Veronese that managed to escape auction. San Polo’s bell tower (begun 1362) remained unchanged through the centuries—don’t miss the two lions playing with a disembodied human head and a serpent that guard it. Tradition has it that the head refers to that of Martin Falier, the doge executed for treason in 1355.
SANTA MARIA GLORIOSA DEI FRARI
Completed in 1442, this immense Gothic church of russet-color brick—known locally as I Frari—is famous worldwide for its array of spectacular Venetian paintings. Visit the sacristy first, to see Giovanni Bellini’s 1488 triptych Madonna and Child with Saints in all its mellow luminosity, painted for precisely this spot. The Corner Chapel on the other side of the chancel is graced by Bartolomeo Vivarini’s (1415–84) 1474 altarpiece St. Mark Enthroned and Saints John the Baptist, Jerome, Peter, and Nicholas, which is much more conservative, displaying attention to detail generally associated with late medieval painting. In the first south chapel of the chorus, there is a fine sculpture of St. John the Baptist by Donatello, dated 1438 (perhaps created before the artist came to Venice), which displays a psychological intensity rare for early Renaissance sculpture. You can see the rapid development of Venetian Renaissance painting by contrasting Bellini with the heroic energy of Titian’s Assumption, over the main altar, painted only 30 years later. Unveiled in 1518, it was the artist’s first public commission and, after causing a bit of controversy, did much to establish his reputation. Upon viewing this painting at the far end of the nave you’ll first think it has been specially spotlit: upclose, however, you’ll discover this impression is due to the painter’s unrivaled use of light and color.
Titian’s beautiful Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro is in the left aisle. The painting took seven years to complete (finished in 1526), and in it Titian disregarded the conventions of his time by moving the Virgin out of center and making the saints active participants. The composition, built on diagonals, anticipates structural principals of Baroque painting in the following century. The Frari also holds a Sansovino sculpture of St. John the Baptist, and Longhena’s impressive baroque tomb designed for Doge Giovanni Pesaro.
SCUOLA GRANDE DI SAN ROCCO
This elegant example of Venetian Renaissance architecture, built between 1517 and 1560, was built for the essentially secular charitable confraternity bearing the saint’s name. The Venetian “scuole” were organizations that sometimes had loose religious affiliations, through which the artisan class could exercise some influence upon civic life. Although San Rocco is bold and dramatic outside, its contents are even more stunning—a series of more than 60 paintings by Tintoretto. In 1564 Tintoretto edged out competition for a commission to decorate a ceiling by submitting not a sketch, but a finished work, which he moreover offered free of charge. Moses Striking Water from the Rock, The Brazen Serpent, and The Fall of Manna represent three afflictions—thirst, disease, and hunger—that San Rocco and later his brotherhood sought to relieve.
ANTICO CIMITERO EBRAICO
You might complete your circuit of Jewish Venice with a visit to the Antico Cimitero Ebraico, full of fascinating old tombstones half-hidden by ivy and grass. The earliest grave dates from 1389; the cemetery remained in use until the late 18th century.
SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA
The hallowed centerpiece of Torcello, Santa Maria Assunta was built in the 11th century, and the island’s wealth at the time is evident in the church’s high-quality mosaics. The mosaics show the gradually increasing cultural independence of Venice from Byzantium. The magnificent late-12th-century mosaic of the Last Judgment shows the transition from the stiffer Byzantine style on the left to the more-fluid Venetian style on the right. The virgin in the main apse dates possibly from about 1185, and is of a distinctly Byzantine type, with her right hand pointing to the Christ child held with her left arm. The depictions of the 12 apostles below her are possibly the oldest mosaics in the church and date from the early 12th century. The adjacent Santa Fosca church, built when the body of the saint arrived in 1011, is still used for religious services.