I’m not sure that I would choose to visit Venice in June again – though I can imagine a few compelling reasons, such as a once-in-a-generation exhibition of all the known Carpaccios in the world (she said hopefully). The main reason is that it is (or was last week) too bloomin’ hot for me, though it wasn’t in fact as super-crowded as I had feared (or not in the bits I tend to go to, anyway).
There were some compensations, one of which was floral. The main spectacle of the wisteria was long gone – indeed, it was well into its second, much diminished flush – but there were masses of roses and strongly scented jasmine (the predominant smell in Mantua the previous few days had been lime tree flowers), while the pomegranates on Torcello were in full flower, and the oleanders and hydrangeas were especially gorgeous.
Another was the presence of an eighteen-month-old in our party, which meant that we had to take things at an even slower place than the temperature dictated, with lots of breaks for play, rests, and/or gelato. This was in fact very good for me, as I was in a somewhat bruised and battered state after an unfortunate accident in Mantua (it could have been much worse, and it was much less bad than it looked, not that I’m showing the photographs …), so it was quite restful not to be charging around trying to cram in everything possible. Less restful was trying to stop the Grand-daughter from charging at random into shops, churches or canals …
Walking round and round well-heads was a source of endless entertainment (especially if an adult would obligingly crouch down on the far side and jump up at the appropriate moment), as was following pigeons.
I noticed with interest that although the feeding of the poor, ratty-looking birds in St Mark’s Square is still strictly prohibited, some vendors appeared to be slipping grain to family parties anxious to take a classic Venice photo. And although I was aware that large numbers of the permanent inhabitants of Venice own dogs, I wasn’t really conscious of how many there are until we had to stop and make approving noises at every one we passed. And on the wildlife front, a highlight of the stay was the unexpected arrival of Bruce the seagull on our balcony.
We visited the Biennale Gardens for the swings and slides (the Giardini Reali are STILL closed for renovation, and heaven knows what is intended for the delightful little pavilion next to them which used to be the tourist office), and had the thrill of seeing a turtle make a break for freedom from the pond at the base of Garibaldi’s statue. (Poor thing, I hope it had the sense to go back before anything unfortunate happened to it on the desiccated gravel.)
Our most ambitious outing was to Torcello. The boat trip was passed in happy absorption with moving our small and large bottles of water from a ledge to the floor of the boat and back again, over and over.
The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was rather less of a draw, though she was intrigued by the cavernous acoustic and wanted to experiment with it, in spite of the ‘Silenzio e preghiera’ notices (though, as I have remarked before, nobody else, least of all tour guides, takes any notice of these either). The most interesting things were the lacy marbles screens in front of the sanctuary, one depicting peacocks and the other lions. ‘Lions’ is a word she knows, and she’s also very good at roaring.
Another interesting acoustic was provided by the (now just finished) exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale: ‘John Ruskin: Le Pietre di Venezia‘. We had taken the precaution of booking tickets in advance, but in fact had the place virtually to ourselves, so were not too concerned as she pottered back and forth over the smooth terrazzo in bare feet (nothing on display was at a reachable/dangerous level), testing the echo, until one of the front-of-house people kindly warned us that she ought to have shoes on because the floor surface was crumbling in places and the fragments were often sharp…
This was a wonderful exhibition – much of it on loan from the Ashmolean and the British Museum, but of course not regularly on display in either place because of the constraints involved in exposing watercolours and drawings to light. There were also Turners, including the wonderful view of the Dogana and Salute now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and several watercolours of Alpine scenes juxtaposed, which (in my view) showed the difference between Ruskin’s extraordinary talent and diligence and Turner’s unambiguous genius.
The thrust or narrative of the exhibition was to explore the many facets of Ruskin’s involvement with and vital help in the preservation of Venice, and it succeeded wonderfully well. I was delighted to see some works by John Wharlton Bunney (1828–82), from whom Ruskin commissioned many detailed architectural paintings of buildings which were in danger of damage from ‘restoration’. His most famous work is probably the west façade of San Marco itself, where the mosaics (except the one furthest left) had replaced by technically excellent but visually horrible and historically inappropriate new ones in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
(My devoted followers (ahem) may possibly recognise Bunney’s work from my Twitter account …) Bunney is buried in the Protestant section of the cemetery island of San Michele, where some years ago we visited his grave.
Another belated discovery was made while we were pushing the sleeping infant round in front of the Salute so that her parents could go inside the Dogana (wonderful building, pity about the art, in my view …). There is an inlaid pattern of white marble among the grey flagstones of the pavement before the church (a bit like the Nazca lines, better viewed from above),
but I had never noticed before that at some stage some of these had been engraved to indicate a line of demarcation between the territory of the Dogana and that of the church. What is particularly interesting (I think) about this is that the Dogana didn’t, until its recent reincarnation as a gallery, have doors or windows in the façade facing the church. Yet another example, I assume, of the constant tussle over perceived rights between the Serene Republic and the Pope.
After we had said a fond farewell to the descendants (who, we discovered later, had left behind Ritchie (who plays an important role at bedtime), tucked into bed all too invisibly), we had a day and a half to ourselves, in which we zoomed around slightly more vigorously.
There is an exhibition at the moment in the Istituto Veneto of South American artefacts, which left me feeling both ignorant and also rather gloomy – there is something grim about this art which (coupled with the well documented habit of human sacrifice) makes me not particularly keen to learn more. We also dropped in on a couple of Architectural Biennale pavilions. Estonia was small, actually rather funny (deliberately so, I mean), and located in the tiny eleventh-century church of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice in Castello, which was founded as a chapel for the next-door pilgrims’ hospital but was suppressed in 1807 (the hospital is now student accommodation). Not far away, in what must formerly have been a shop and is now an ‘art space’, Lithuania had set up a swamp. (This was not, I think, meant to be funny.)
We also had a wander round the Frari, and I noticed for the first time an intriguing inscription on (apparently) somebody else’s grave slab, which certainly warrants further investigation.
We dropped into San Salvador to see Titian’s matchless ‘Annunciation’, and discovered that a canopy has been placed over the grave-stone of Caterina Corner.
And, by way of historic irony, major works are taking place at the Accademia Bridge (it seems like no time at all since the last time?), and Canaletto’s stone-mason’s yard is – once again – a stone-mason’s yard.