St Mark and Dorsoduro
A stroll through St Mark’s Square and a trip along the Grand Canal are for most the first priorities in the Venice experience. Rightly so. Our walk covers much of that ground – you can combine it with the vaporetto schedules at various points. Art enthusiasts will not get very far: there are multitudes of famous paintings strewn along the route. Try at least to get to the Dorsoduro, the area between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca. There is much life and colour here, hidden from those who pass by in the vaporetti. You can see the boatyard where gondolas are made.
Start: St Mark’s Square – see map. From the west side of St Mark’s Square, behind the Correr museum, turn right into the Frezzeria. This street, and Calle Larga 22 Marzo at right-angles to it, have Venice’s most exclusive shops and galleries (glass, jewellery, fashion, toys, carnival masks, lace and furnishing fabrics). Calle dei Fabbri and Mercerie, streets immediately north, dog-legged links between St Mark’s and the Rialto bridge, are the tourists’ shopping mecca: narrow, crowded, loaded with souvenir items and tripe à la mode.
At the head of Frezzeria bear left for Campo San Fantin and the ruins of the Fenice opera theatre, burnt down, not for the first time, in 1996.
Continue past San Fantin’s scuola grande into Campo Sant’ Angelo, where open-air movies draw big crowds on summer evenings. Bearing left again into the broad Campo Santo Stefano you could sit for a while admiring the intricate stonework of the old palazzi which enclose the square. Have a look, too, for the canal which goes under the church – visible from the bridge on the south side – and observe the listing church tower.
Walk south and cross the Accademia Bridge on the Grand Canal. From its apex look east towards St Mark’s. The array of canalside palazzi reinforces the tourist board’s claim that 19 in every 20 Venetian buildings are national monuments. Many that you see here are associated with those 19thC travellers and expatriates who launched the city’s tourist industry: Byron, Shelley, Ruskin, Browning, Dickens, Henry James, Wagner, Hans Andersen and the rest.
This is also the vantage point for days of pomp and celebration: Carnival (week before Lent); Feast of the Redeemer (July); historical regatta (September); and procession and bridge of boats (November). Venice enthusiastically exploits the Grand Canal’s unique potential for pageantry.
The important building facing you across the bridge is the Accademia (www.gallerieaccademia.org), the principal art gallery and a showcase of the High Renaissance – ambitious themes, strong tones, brilliant colour combinations and an amplitude of feminine voluptuousness – by Giorgione, Bellini, Carpaccio, Titian, Veronese, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Guardi and others. The Peggy Guggenheim Modern Art Museum (www.guggenheim-venice.it) ½ km east in the Nonfinito (‘never finished’) palace is the antithesis of all that – Picasso, Mondrian, Dali, de Chirico around the walls, Brancusi and Henry Moore in the garden. Mrs Guggenheim’s admission charges are high, but entrance is free on Saturday evenings.
This southern promontory, between Grand Canal and Giudecca strait, is called Dorsoduro (‘Hard Shoulder’) and west from the Accademia along the Calle di Toletta native Venetians outnumber tourists. You cross Rio di San Trovaso near the boatyard where gondolas are made – a declining trade, kept alive chiefly with orders from fun parks in America.
The Calle now leads into Campo San Barnaba and its rio with a picturesque floating fruit and vegetable market; and to the long rectangle of Campo Santa Margherita, chief market centre of the district. Seafood and lagoon fish predominate. Complain about prices, here or anywhere else, and shopkeepers put the blame squarely on Venice’s peculiar transport difficulties. There are grand churches and scuole to be admired in this quarter, and do not overlook the characteristic medieval cottages between the Campo and Rio Santa Margherita.
If this is enough for one day, the vaporetto will take you from Rio di Ca’ Foscari to stations on the Grand Canal. If you care instead to walk down Rio di Santa Margherita to Campo San Basegio near the Stazione Marittima (about .75 km) you may end the day with a cruise on the vaporetto to the Giudecca and San Giorgio (a cultural enclave under Cini Foundation patronage – music, drama and architectural studies, crafts workshops, open-air theatre) before returning to the Venice ‘mainland’ on Riva degli Schiavoni, close to St Mark’s.
St Mark’s Square
It is the only piazza in Venice, not a square but a distorted rectangle with a piazzetta debouching on the south entrance to the Grand Canal. It is thronged with tourists and pigeons. Even when a spring tide floods the pavement, people splash about in rubber boots and the pigeons forage on flotsam.
Five mandatory sights are grouped around it. First, St Mark’s Basilica – crazy, incredible, dazzling, an Arabian Nights fantasy with six domes over the facade and five huge ones farther back. The door and stairs on the right at the entrance take you to a gallery, level with the four famous bronze horses, copies of which step out proudly on the facade. Here, under the main domes, are acres of 12th-15thC mosaics and, in the Marciana Museum, eight centuries of ecclesiastical loot including the real bronze horses.
Second, the 90-m campanile. Take the lift/elevator for a fabulous view of Venice and the lagoon, the Alps too on a clear day.
Third, the Correr Museum (www.correr.visitmuve.it). It contains engraved maps and views of old Venice (you can buy copies), a room devoted to the sculptor Canova (1757-1822), a room commemorating the city’s bid for freedom from Austrian rule in 1848 and a popular Carpaccio painting, Two Venetian Ladies.
Fourth, the public library (1545-1582), named Libreria Sansoviniana for the architect who did much to revive the glory of Venice. Palladio pronounced it the best work of the Christian era.
Fifth, the Doge’s Palace, the epitome of boastful splendour (www.palazzoducale.visitmuve.it). Sansovino’s Scala dei Giganti ascends from the courtyard, flanked by enormous statues of Mars and Neptune, war and the sea, the guiding elements in the Republic’s prosperity. The Great Council chamber, which seated 3,000 at a banquet, is adorned with the biggest painting in art history, Tintoretto’s Paradiso, 25 m by 10 m. Guided tours visit the secret apartments and, across the marbled box-bridge of Sighs, the noxious dungeons reserved for enemies of the state. The Doges (duces, leaders) were prisoners too. They ruled Venice and her empire for 1,000 years and we remember the names of none of them. This palace was their golden cage, from which they exercised purely ceremonial power. They merely rubber-stamped the diktats of a ruthless, all-powerful Council.
Round the piazza, cafés occupy the ground floors of old departmental palaces. Florian and Quadri, more than 250 years in business, maintain the caffè (coffee-house) tradition of old Italy. You pay about eight times the going rate for coffee or an aperitivo, but you have formal service and music.
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