Venice: A Visual Symphony
Venice, Italy: a visual symphony that dances through the ages like the waves of water in the Grand Canal. Great art can inspire us and even change the way we see the world. Venice, she is a great work of art that has transformed how I view the world and inspired countless other artists, writers, poets, and musicians to rethink what we call life.
My first trip to Venice took place in Dec. 2004, and I have made eight trips since then, experiencing all four seasons, each with its own beauty and personality.
Venice is made up of 118 islands that are connected by bridges in a shallow lagoon. There are no cars, so people either walk or take the water bus (vaporetto) to get around. Off of the main canal there are countless smaller canals that wind in and around the island like a maze, creating the sensation of a living entity.
Since walking is the main mode of transportation in Venice, people are constantly interacting with each other, unlike those of us who live in a culture of automobiles. This face-to-face interaction makes Venetians truly the friendliest people I have ever encountered. They love to say hello, or ‘ciao,’ to everyone they know, and they don’t just say ‘ciao’ once; they repeat it, almost like a song, to emphasize how happy they are to see that person.
The population of Venice is around 55,000, but the number of tourist that visit each year is somewhere around 50 million. Needless to say, tourism is one of the main industries of Venice. The up-side to this is that it is tourist-friendly and most Venetians speak English to cater to their worldly guests. The bad news is, however, if you go during the summer, which is the height of its tourist season, Venice is tightly packed with people from all over the world. But even during the height of the tourist season, there are areas that are quiet, once you get away from San Marco square.
Venice is cold in the winter, sometimes dipping into the 20s and freezing the water in the canals. Fog often rolls in, but the stillness creates a silence like time has stopped, with the sun becoming a mere speck of light in the sky that filters through like a pinhole camera, illuminating a timeless wonder. I have also visited Venice in the fall and spring, and each season has a unique quality to it, making it—in my opinion—the most beautiful city in the world.
The history of Venice goes back to the 10th century, but the 14th to 18th centuries are most evident in the architecture, when Venice was the center of the world for trade, spices, and banking. With four story palazzos (palaces) lining the Grand Canal, the architecture is a feast for the eyes. The lancet arched windows create beautiful patterns that perfectly encapsulate Moorish architecture. The Venetian reds and yellows of the buildings reflect off of the water and become punctuated with green or blue from the doors, creating a musical arrangement of infinite color everywhere you look.
Around virtually every corner is a new architectural wonder, often a church dedicated to a saint or pope, facing an open public square where people walk and children play, each with its own distinct identity. The interior of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, for example, is made completely out of different types of marble from around the world. Even the curtains are made of marble, emphasizing in stone the idea of timeless beauty. Other churches house great works of art by Venetian masters like Titian, which were commissioned by the churches for the purpose of visually educating the congregation.
When I think of Italy, I think pasta and pizza, but in Venice, I think seafood. To me there is nothing like fresh clam linguine or muscles, caught in the lagoon, with a cantor of red Italian table wine. Prosciutto is another staple food, and in just about any little cafe you can get prosciutto on a muffin to go with your morning coffee.
For visitors interested in exploring art, the Gallerie dell’Accademia is a must-see. This museum is the keeper of four amazing paintings by Heironymus Bosch, the Northern European 14th century master. They were recently restored and are now on view, perfectly lit, creating an even higher sensation of how important these tiny, but powerful, paintings are. Venice is also the home of the Venice Biennale, which is an international art competition that takes place every two years. Countries from around the world have their own pavilion and choose an artist to represent them, culminating in a jury giving an award to the best one. When the exhibitions open in May, the entire art world figuratively descends on Venice.
Venice is also known for its glass, which is actually made on the neighboring island of Murano. The glass masters of Murano date back to the 7th century; they set up the glass making shops on Murano in case of a fire, since their glass furnaces stay at a constant temperature of 2,550 degrees. I have been fortunate enough to work with a glass master, Fabiano, for the past five years. Fabiano and his team recreate my sculptural concepts in glass, and it is truly an art. It takes three to six people, depending on the size of the glass, to work in unison like a well-choreographed performance. Once the piece has been blown, it is taken to a cooling oven where the temperature is slowly brought down, allowing the glass to harden and retain its shape. If it is cooled too quickly, it will crack and in some cases shatter. But the glass masters, who each serve a long apprenticeship, know exactly how much time is needed and understand the fine details that go into this art.
On my last trip to Venice, I had the great fortune of seeing Giotto’s Chapel—known as The Scrovegni Chapel—in the town of Padua. Giotto began work on his chapel in year 1300 and finished it in 1302. The walls are bathed in a cerulean blue and punctuated with gold that frames a storyboard of events and ideas. The chapel was built by the son of a banker who commissioned Giotto to paint a message to God that he hoped would allow his deceased father to enter heaven. It appears that his father loaned money at high interest rates and took advantage of people, which was indeed a sin of the highest order that needed redemption. What better way than through the eyes of Giotto!
Every person who visits Venice goes to San Marco Square, an iconic declaration of strength and beauty that is steeped in history. The construction of St. Mark’s Basilica began in the 800s, but it was rebuilt in 932 after a fire, with artists and artisans adding mosaics, sculptures, and architectural details for the next 600 years. This incredible building sits at one end of the piazza, facing the lagoon. In front of it stands the clock tower that was built in 1499 with rows of shops that are tucked away under the Romanesque arches lining both sides of the giant public square. In one of shops is a very old bar that dates back a couple of centuries. At 5:30 p.m., the local Venetians go there for a spritzer, which is made of Campari, white wine, and club soda. It is a great social gathering that feels like a scene from an Italian movie, with people dressed in the most stylish Italian suits and dresses.
The Doge’s Palace is also not to be missed. It was built in the 900s as a home for the Doge—the elected ruler of the Republic of Venice. The architecture is Gothic with eastern influence, creating exquisite symmetry that speaks of order and power. The grand halls are filled with the greatest examples of Venetian artists, all framed in gold. Standing in the Great Hall is overwhelming, with its majesty, history, and beauty. I can’t help but imagine what life was like in Venice 500 years ago, which adds another dimension of thought to my 21st century life.