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Once Upon a Time in Venice

I was in Venice recently to check out the Art Biennale exhibition. The low and heavy clouds gave the city a fog that was both otherworldly and romantic. Even when cold and grey, Venice has an allure; a faded elegance that gives the city a slightly unreal quality.  Like it is a beautifully art-directed film set. It’s the perfect setting to be inspired by art.

Water has shaped Venice. It has given it its unique personality and shaped the Venetian way of life. The city’s wealth came from travelling the world’s oceans, trading in rare and precious goods. That wealth has now gone, leaving behind slowly decaying reminders of centuries of power and influence. The water remains but now seems more threat than opportunity. Rising sea levels due to climate change put the city in jeopardy. Many older people who live in Venice remember The Great Flood of 1966 that caused such damage. They know this can easily happen again.

There are no cars in Venice so, when not on foot, you are travelling on water: water-buses, water-taxis and, of course, gondolas. It gives everything a slower pace, adding to the city’s charms – and frustrations. Because it is surrounded by water, Venice cannot grow any larger. Most people who work in Venice come across the water from the mainland every day. And then there are the tourists: hundreds of thousands of visitors every day. Many are day-trippers from the massive cruise ships that sail right up the mouth of the Grand Canal. These ships are incongruous, not just because of their size. They seem like they are from another time. Their presence seems somehow disrespectful. But the city trades on tourism now.

The heritage of Venice is the usual Italian offering: impressive palazzos, medieval churches and ornate basilicas. Much of it was designed by the biggest names in classical architecture, like the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore designed by the influential Andrea Palladio in 1610. You can see that church, which is on an island of the same name across the water from St. Mark’s Square, behind me in the photo below. It’s a view that has inspired many painters, including Claude Monet. Painters love Italy.

San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk by Claude Monet.  National Museum Cardiff.

But there are uniquely Venetian inspirations too, such as The Doge’s Palace, with its obvious Middle Eastern influences, and the bridges… Bridges are everywhere. Painters love the busy grandeur of the Rialto bridge or the mystique of the legendary Bridge of Sighs but Venetian bridges come in all shapes and sizes. Every lane in Venice leads to a bridge. And back to the water.

See photographs here.


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