Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 13th to 15th – 3 Days in Venice

After a week of excellent weather, I guess that we were due some rain, so down it fell in Venice. Fortunately, most of the time, the heavens opened just as soon as we had stepped inside a museum or restaurant, so we managed to avoid the worst of it.

We met my sister Nicola in Florian's on St Mark's Square – the most exclusive and most expensive café on one of the most exclusive and most expensive squares in the world, so we were glad she was paying! We then went to the Correr Museum, which was almost worth the admission fee for the building alone; but if anything, the enormous and incredibly varied collection of sculptures by Canova, paintings by the Venetian masters, and the array of Roman archaeology, was even more impressive, not to say overwhelming.

After eating way too much pasta for lunch, we went to see the Doge's Palace, passing through a succession of grand rooms all declaring the glory of the Venetian Republic, when this was then the most important maritime superpower in the Mediterranean. When you see the enormous wealth of medieval Venice, its fall from grace is even more remarkable. You wonder how a city that was once the richest and most sophisticated city in the world, that was the trading capital of the world, and that was the absolute centre of the art world, can then become so sidelined, that it would scarcely exist at all nowadays if it weren't for all the tourists.

In fact, Venice seems to be sinking under the weight of all the tourists – all its major sights were jam-packed, while prices for food, transport and accommodation have all been ratcheted up to the maximum; yet somehow still the place is just about clinging onto its traditional historical charm.

We took Nicola onto our ship for a couple of glasses of champagne, which was docked conveniently on the Giudecca Canal, rather than out of the way in Venice's inaccessible port, and then we caught the vaporetto up the Grand Canal to find an out of the way restaurant. No matter how many times you've travelled up the canal, and no matter how uncomfortably packed the vaporetto is, there's still something magical about the journey up the Canal.

The next day, we shook off our hangovers and went to soak up yet more art, by visiting the Modern Art Museum in Ca' Pesaro, a huge renaissance mansion on the Grand Canal. The collection of eclectic Kandinskys, Chagalls and Klimts made a nice contrast to the classical Titians, Tintorettos and Veroneses that you see everywhere else in town.

After a pizza lunch, we caught the ferry to Isola San Giorgio Maggiore, to have a look around a church that Tracy had been studying as part of her History of Art course. On getting to the island, it turned out that she had in fact been studying a totally different church on a different island further down the canal. Nevertheless, the trip was well worth it to get the fantastic views across the city and the lagoon from the 60 metre high campanile.

In the evening, we went for a visit to St Mark's Square, supposedly to see the place free of tourists, at a time when all the day-trippers should have gone home. Amazingly enough, even at 11pm, the place was still busy with tourists – a sensation not helped by the fact that the tourists were being squeezed into smaller and smaller sections of the square, by the growing puddles engulfing St Mark's. Disconcertingly, water was bubbling up from all the drains on the square, and every time you stepped on a flagstone, water would seep up from the ground around its edges. I've never been to Venice when it was flooded before, and it was worrying to see just how close it is to a watery disaster.

Speaking of watery disasters, the next day it poured down consistently, which made us glad that we'd saved our visit to the Galleria Accademia until today. This is a fantastic gallery, but the enormous collection of Venetian masters was pretty overwhelming – by the end of it, we'd seen so much art that we could scarcely remember a single individual piece of it – anyway, the overall impression was that Venice must have been a fantastically inspiring place to any aspiring artist.

Overall, Venice was as inspiring for us as it's ever been – there was just one spectacular vista after another – but I got a greater impression of just how delicately balanced it is these days. The balance between the need for the tourist Euros to keep the place afloat and to help restore its crumbling buildings, and between the need to limit the overwhelming number of tourists who are in danger of overrunning the place, is in danger of tipping over. It also seemed like the balance with nature is getting increasingly unstable these days, as rising sea levels are in danger of swamping this architectural and historical jewel. But, Venice has survived so many things over the centuries, and still retained its graceful serenity, I'm sure it will continue to at least survive, if not thrive.