Venice, Italy — On a recent spring evening as I waited for the 4.1 vaporetto line — part of Venice’s system of floating buses — passing boats generated waves that caused the dock on which I was standing to rock slightly.
My right side rose a few centimeters and then fell, followed moments later by my left side. That’s when I finally identified the sensation I’d been experiencing since I arrived:
I could feel Venice shifting beneath my feet.
This ancient city consists of 118 islands, each linked by man-made bridges that creak and sway in response to footsteps from above and currents from below. As a city that makes a set of constant, subtle adjustments, Venice is well-suited to serve as the center of the international art world, itself in a state of perpetual flux.
Venice is perhaps at its most influential during the six months of every two years when it hosts the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious international art festival. The Biennale (running through Nov. 26) often is described as “the Olympics of the Art World,” and the honor of putting together the U.S. entry for the 57th exhibition went to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which presented the works of the Los Angeles-based painter Mark Bradford.
What happens in Venice during this period determines the direction of the world’s art market in the near future. During the weeks before the opening, the international press gossips about the contestants with the same avidity that film critics devote to the Academy Awards.
But even when the Biennale is closed, there’s no denying that the arts are the main force driving Venice. I can think of no other city where the act of looking is so physical and full-bodied an experience. Most people think of looking as a primarily mental activity. But in Venice, you’re bombarded by views that are forever making you crane your neck or balance on tiptoe or suck in your breath.
Since the city was founded around 400 A.D. (eventually becoming a thriving maritime and banking center) no surface has been left sans ornament.
In the tourist area, San Marco, baroque excess piles sublimely atop baroque excess, starting with the domed, gabled, crenellated and turreted St. Mark’s Basilica. Seeking to rest their eyes for a moment, visitors might turn their heads — only to be confronted with the Doge’s Palace, which resembles a really big lace handkerchief made from pink and white marble.
But to its credit, the city doesn’t reserve its loveliness for only the rich and privileged. Venice is democratic in its charms. Even the relatively modest outlying neighborhoods where shopkeepers live and students hang out are crammed with captivating views.
A stone lion’s head (the symbol of Venice) peers down on visitors walking down a crooked medieval street near the Fundamenta Nova that’s almost too narrow for two people to walk abreast. An “ordinary” little canal backs up to a middle-class home adorned with windows featuring Byzantine-style inflected arches, painted white to contrast with the red brick. The decorative spires rising above the roof bring to mind a chessboard set with rooks and pawns.
Visitors whose taste runs to Renaissance art won’t want to miss the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in the San Polo district, where the painter Titian (born Tiziano Vecelli) is buried. The basilica is crammed with artworks by Giovanni Bellini, the sculptor nicknamed “Donatello” (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) and of course, Titian, whose monumental “The Assumption of the Virgin” hangs over the altar.
After leaving the Frari, walk around the corner to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Renaissance painter Jacopo Comin (better known as Tintoretto) spent 23 years creating more than 50 works — the largest collection of his paintings in the world — that cover this 15th-century building. The walls and ceiling are so thick with gold leaf they glow even without supplemental light.
From the Scuola, take the vaporetto to the Dorsoduro district and tour the church of San Sebastiano. Its plain facade belies the dazzling art within, most notably a cycle of sumptuous paintings by Veronese (born Paolo Caliari) of scenes from the Book of Esther.
But vacationers who prefer contemporary art will want to start their visit at the Biennale. The mammoth festival is held in the eastern part of the city at two sites (the Giardini and the Arsenale) that are a 10-minute walk apart and separated by one vaporetto stop.
The Giardini is where most of the 86 national pavilions are located, and in concept and tone, it’s not unlike the U.S. Senate, where every entity gets equal representation regardless of size. The exhibit’s setting in a grove of trees (“giardini” is the Italian word for “gardens”) creates a contemplative mood. As guests stroll from pavilion to pavilion, the pace is leisurely.
Actually, it’s maybe just a bit too leisurely. Long lines, with wait times of an hour or more, can form outside popular pavilions, so some strategic planning is advisable. Buy tickets online in advance (labiennale.org/en/art/tickets) and plan on hitting the busiest pavilions each day at around 10 a.m., when the show opens, or after Labor Day, when the city starts to empty out.
A must-visit stop for Marylanders is the U.S. pavilion where Bradford is presenting “Tomorrow is Another Day” under the auspices of the BMA. The show will travel here in 2018.
My favorite artwork in the pavilion is “Medusa,” a ravishingly beautiful black-and-gold floor-to-ceiling sculpture with autobiographical overtones. Bradford began his career working in his mother’s salon, and the installation incorporates the small rectangular papers used by hair stylists. “Medusa” is made from papier-mache chains looped and intertwined to create odd little nooks and crevasses, encouraging visitors to step closer and peer inside.
Fans of cutting-edge art should visit the German pavilion, which won the Golden Lion (the Biennale’s equivalent of best in show) and the Brazilian pavilion, which picked up an honorable mention.
Germany’s Anne Imhof is staging “Faust,” a five-hour performance piece that includes barbed wire, barking Dobermans and black-clad dancers writhing beneath a glass stage.
Brazil’s pavilion features artist Cinthia Marcelle’s unsettling installation. A welded floor interspersed with stones is pitched at an angle to keep visitors off-balance. That surface is punctuated by several poles draped with fabric paintings. A video (made with the filmmaker Tiago Mata Machado) shows men dismantling a roof.
The Arsenale site, in contrast, feels more like the House of Representatives — a cacophony of voices and opinions, impolite and vital.
Most of the international group show that forms the Biennale’s centerpiece is housed in a vast 12th-century former shipyard. Even with a map, fighting your way through that building to find a particular exhibit is no easy task; the Arsenale is jam-packed with artworks that seem to be almost aggressively elbowing one another aside:
Leonor Antunes’ shimmering gold mesh scrims dangle from the ceiling in the dead center of the hall; visitors can circle around them, zigzag through the layers or power through the chains, but they can’t avoid them. Nearby is Michel Blazy’s floor-to-ceiling shelving unit displaying plants growing out of athletic shoes. Venture further into the hall and you’ll find a wall of giant, vibrantly colored balls of fluff created by the artist Sheila Hicks.
(John Waters fans should note that the Baltimore filmmaker’s cheeky “Study Art” signs aren’t in the Arsenale at all, but in a portion of the group show housed in the Giardini.)
Crowd-averse visitors can forgo the Biennale altogether and still see plenty of contemporary art. Venice museums time their splashiest exhibits to coincide with the international art show and its roughly 500,000 visitors.
One of the most praised sideshows this year is “Philip Guston and the Poets” (through Sept. 3) in Venice’s pre-eminent art museum, Gallerie dell'Accademia (gallerieaccademia.org). The 50-year retrospective traces the relationship of the American painter to such literary figures as W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. If you’re already at the Academy, retreat into the past long enough to check out the museum’s renowned collection, which is studded with such Old Masters as Bellini and Hieronymus Bosch.
Also well-received is “Mark Tobey: Threading Light” (through Sept. 10) at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (guggenheim.org). The Guggenheim has a dizzying collection of modern art by such seminal figures as Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst; Tobey was an American abstract expressionist painter whose compositions were inspired by Asian calligraphy.
Art world cognoscenti also are visiting “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” (through Dec. 3 at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana) if only so they can express their outrage at the English artist Damien Hirst’s (palazzograssi.it) over-the-top extravaganza. Hirst has filled two museums with gem-encrusted ancient artifacts purportedly lost 2,000 years ago in a shipwreck and recently resurrected from the Indian Ocean. Some critics (including the group that in March dumped 88 pounds of animal dung outside the Palazzo) view the show as an exercise in megalomania. But many are charmed by Hirst’s humor and unabashed show-business vibe.
Even tourists in Venice for other reasons — to shop on the glass-blowing island of Murano, to participate in the masked Carnivale, to take a wine tour — will find that art comes to them. It’s impossible to not notice James Lee Byars’ 65-foot-tall “Golden Tower” just outside the Guggenheim museum, or Lorenzo Quinn’s “Support,” a pair of 30-foot hands that appear to rise out of the canal and climb the wall of a 15th-century hotel, clearly visible from several vaporetto routes.
In addition, Venice abounds with impossible-to-plan encounters with street art. Just outside the Arsenale, for instance, a beautiful woman in a long white gown sat on a white sheet, smiling enigmatically as she pulled apart a watermelon with her bare hands and deposited chunks of red pulp on the snowy fabric.
Perhaps it was the small orchestra playing in the background. But as I stared and wondered at the woman and her watermelon, the air itself seemed to vibrate.
Once again I could feel Venice shifting beneath my feet.
Visiting Venice presents travelers with a series of small challenges, from attempting to locate your baggage at Marco Polo Airport, to spending your last remaining euros before boarding the plane home. Below are a few tips to help you enjoy every moment of this magical city:
- Street addresses in Venice are seldom used and of are very little help when it comes to finding your way around. This is how Venetians give directions, instead: “Cross two bridges, go through the big square and turn left. Cross three more bridges, turn right, and go through two squares, and the restaurant is on your right. Five minutes.”
- Don’t assume that your cellphone will work in Venice, regardless of what assurances you have received from your carrier. I thought I’d obtained sufficient coverage in advance, but when I got to Venice, my phone would connect to exactly three local phone numbers. Fellow travelers reported similar frustrations. Easiest solution: Buy a cheap cell phone with an Italian number, and have calls on your U.S. mobile forwarded to it.
- Most vaporetto lines shut down at night, though the painfully slow-moving N (night) line still operates. If you’ll be out late, map out your route back to the hotel in advance, or be prepared to shell out (as I did) 75 euro — more than it costs to ride the vaporetto for a week — for a private boat ride.
- Hotel prices in Venice can be astronomical, with a standard double room along the Grand Canal easily costing $450 a night or more during the high season. But accommodations through vacation rental sites like Airbnb are plentiful, often thoroughly charming and a fraction of the cost. I found a bedroom with a water view in a former palazzo in the Cannaregio district outside the tourist area for $190 a night. It dated from 1380, was filled with antiques and was fronted by a private garden.
- Most Venice restaurants will quote two costs for each meal: a higher price for sitting at a table and a lower price for carryout. If you’re on a budget, do as real Venetians do and get your speck panini or arancini ball to go. Dine outside while sitting on the steps of a bridge, perhaps watching a group of local kids play soccer in the street.
- Finding a toilet isn’t usually a problem in Venice. Finding toilet paper can be. Small establishments often expect customers to provide their own wipes. Before leaving home, stock up on tissue pocket packs.