Venice

July 1, 2005

For three days in summer, every other year, an unruly crowd of artists, critics, curators, dealers and collectors descends on Venice for the opening of the Biennale – the world’s premier contemporary art event. The networking and partying goes on at a furious pace, as the art luminaries separate the stars from the also-rans, deciding which artists will appear on their shopping lists in the new financial year. For three days every hotel is booked solid, every café is abuzz with gossip and art politics. Cameras are clicking, stories are being filed to all corners of the world. Celebrities such as Cate Blanchette, Dennis Hopper and Ronnie Wood are spotted hanging out with the artists. And then… it all stops.

When the official vernissage is over, the art crowd stages a mass migration to Basel, for the Art Fair, leaving Venice to a less exotic breed of tourist.

As art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, I’ve attended seven of these openings since 1988, but I know – most emphatically – this is not the way to see Venice. The great novelist, Henry James, believed that “the only way to care for Venice as she deserves it is to give her a chance to touch you often – to linger and remain and return.”

James followed his own advice, spending months at a time in the city, making it the setting for one of his finest short stories, The Aspern Papers, and for the novel, The Wings of a Dove. Although he was impervious to Venice’s charms on his first visit, in 1869, when he was only 26 years old, he kept returning to pursue a love-hate relationship. By 1881 he was telling friends that he had “fallen deeply and desperately in love” with the city, and wrote much of The Portrait of a Lady in rented rooms on the Riva degli Schiavoni, at what is now the Pensione Wildner. But his feelings remained ambiguous, partly through contact with fellow Americans, whom he once accused of turning Venice into “the mere vomitorium of Boston.”

Perhaps James’s most definitive statement comes in 1882, when he imagines a visitor complaining that “the Venice of today is a vast museum… in which there is nothing left to describe or discover.” It is only as this hypothetical visitor prepares to depart, that he finds he has become deeply attached to the place.

If Venice appeared as a vast museum in 1882, when the tourist industry was in its infancy, today it can resemble a theme park – a stage set from Universal Studios equipped with gondoliers and crumbling palazzi. But it is the tourists, and perhaps the universities, that keep Venice alive. Today the city has only 63,000 inhabitants, down from a high of 160,000 in the sixteenth century. The young people are trickling away to the mainland, but the tourists keep coming, serviced by a never-ending round of festivals and Biennales.

Venice was a tourist destination even before tourism was invented. For hundreds of years, every writer who visited the city felt obliged to leave an account. No self-respecting artist believed that their education was complete without a thorough inspection of the great Venetian masterpieces by Titian, Tintoretto, Carpaccio, Veronese, Giorgione, the Bellinis and Tiepolos. If Venice had a visitor’s book, it would be a Who’s-Who of the arts, including writers such as Goethe, Byron, George Eliot, Balzac, Dickens, Proust, James, Thomas Mann and Hemingway; artists such as Monet, Turner, Whistler and Sargent; composers such as Wagner and Tchaikovsky. It would almost be easier to make a list of major figures who did not go to Venice.

D.H.Lawrence thoroughly hated the city, although he reserved his greatest scorn for the “acres of sun-pinked or pyjamaed bodies” on the nearby Lido, which reminded him of “an endless heap of seals come up for mating.” Sounding exactly like James’s imaginary complaining tourist, Lawrence is the exception to the general rule. Most of the great writers who have described their experience of Venice, have been seduced, and sometimes intoxicated, by this mysterious island.

Because Venice seems so well-preserved, so museum-like, it is tempting to try and see the city through the eyes of the artists and writers who made it a site of pilgrimages. Yet this is not a simple matter of roaming the streets, map in hand – it is more like an archaeological dig, an attempt to strip back the layers of the past to find where someone slept or ate, where they admired the view or entertained guests.

Most of Venice’s great hotels were once the private palaces of noble families and wealthy merchants. The Gritti Palace was the residence and showpiece of the Gritti family. The Danieli, the first of Venice’s grand hotels, was built at the end of the fourteenth century for the Doge, Enrico Dandolo.

A century ago, every writer remarked on how inexpensive it was to stay in Venice. Gondolas were plentiful and cheap, and formed the standard mode of transportation. Nowadays, only those who can afford the best hotels could ever contemplate hiring a gondola on a daily or weekly basis. But since these travelers are usually in a hurry, they prefer a motor launch.

As buildings of great historical value, there are strict limits on the degree to which the grand hotels may be renovated or modernized. One sacrifices the luxury of a state-of-the-art bathroom, for the pleasures of ornate wallpaper, antique furniture and original works of art. The necessary innovations are handled with discretion: a painted Rococo cabinet may open up to reveal the latest Bang & Olufsen television screen. Close the cabinet and one is left, like Monet or Whistler, to contemplate the view from the window.

The Danieli took its name from Guiseppe Dal Niel, an entrepreneur who took over part of the building in 1822, when the city was still in a depressed state falling the fall of the republic, and occupations by Napoleon’s troops, then the Austrians. By 1840, Dal Niel had control of the entire building and, to emphasize its splendours, titled it ‘The Royal Danieli’. In this guise, the hotel played host to the aristocracy of Europe, to leading statesmen and artists. It still plays the part today, with portraits of the doges and Old Master paintings, antique furniture, and even a modern suite of stained glass windows depicting episodes of Venetian history.

One may stay in rooms that were once occupied by Wagner, Proust, Balzac or Dickens, but it is hard to identify them because the hotel registers have been lost during the wars or other upheavals. Proust famously wrote “When I went to Venice I found that my dream had become my address,” in reference to the city, but perhaps also to the Danieli. On his first visit in 1858, Wagner found the Danieli to be “only a gloomy lodging”, but he was to return on two future occasions.

In one of the grandest suites, Gabriele d’Annunzio gave banquets for his friends and pursued his romance with the actress, Eleonora Duse, fictionalized in his novel Il Fuoco (“The Flame”). If you are asking “Who was d’Annunzio?”, Hemingway provides a succinct portrait in his novel Across the River and into the Trees –  itself written in the Gritti Palace: “writer, poet, national hero, phraser of the dialectic of Fascism, macabre egoist, aviator, commander, or rider, in the first of the fast torpedo attack boats, Lieutenant-Colonel of Infantry without knowing how to command a company, nor a platoon properly, the great, lovely writer of Notturno whom we respect, and jerk.”

The most famous room in the Danieli is by no means the largest or most splendid. It was in chamber number ten that the French writers, George Sand (Amandine Aurore Dudevant) and Alfred de Musset played out the last rites of their tempestuous love affair from 1833 to 1834. The finale arrived with Pietro Pagello, a young Venetian doctor who had been called to tend to the ailing and drunken de Musset. Sand’s Italian was poor, and the doctor spoke no French, but impulse won out over conversation, and she quickly dumped poetry in favour of medical science.

The Danieli has always been famous for its terrace, with its unparalleled view of the lagoon, the church of San Giorgio Maggiore and the entrance to the Grand Canal. This was the view that greeted J.M.W.Turner when he checked into the Danieli in 1832; and his young disciple, John Ruskin, who arrived with his parents in 1835, when he was only sixteen.

Ruskin would make a total of eleven trips to Venice, the last coming in 1888, shortly before the final breakdown that put an end to his literary labours. During those years he would write a succession of ground-breaking works, including The Stones of Venice, his rambling, brilliant, frustrating masterpiece. The historian, John Julius Norwich, captured the essence of the project, when he noted that of all the great works of English literature, The Stones of Venice “is surely the most unreadable from end to end.”

No English writer has been more closely associated with Venice than Ruskin. He visited the city with friends and family, with students and colleagues; and with Effie Grey, on the honeymoon of a marriage that would never be consummated. On that visit in 1851-52, the couple succeeded where Byron had failed in 1818, in renting rooms in the Gritti Palace, which was not yet a hotel, but the private residence of the elderly Hungarian aristocrat, Baroness Wetzlar. This drew a rebuke from Ruskin’s father, who felt that the whole business of taking apartments in a palazzo was far too “Byronish” for his respectable son.

Ruskin was insane for the last decade of his life, but his behaviour had always been eccentric. His judgements are absolute: Turner and Tintoretto are artists of genius, but Canaletto is the worst sort of hack. Effie described him running foot races with an Austrian army officer, around the cathedral in Torcello. While working on the Stones in 1876, he moved from the grand apartments he had been renting, and relocated to La Calcina, a charming small hotel and restaurant on the Zattere. This allowed him to indulge in one of his favourite forms of exercise – chopping wood.

Ruskin’s stay at La Calcina is commemorated with a plaque, and the hotel continues to receive a steady stream of his disciples. The comfortable room in which he stayed seems largely unchanged today. Indeed, much of the furniture remains intact.

Of all the great Venetian hotels, the most confusing genealogy belongs to the Europa e Regina, which was two separate hotels until 1976. These hotels were themselves divided during the nineteenth century into the Europa and Britannia on one side, the Rome and Swiss on the other. To make matters even more confusing, part of the former hotel complex, known by its original name of the Palazzo Giustinian, now provides office space for the Venice Biennale. We know, however, that Turner, Ruskin, Proust, Wagner, Sigmund Freud, and Monet stayed there at various times. George Eliot’s husband fell into the canal from their balcony in the Europa in 1880.

From his room at the Britannia, Monet had a commanding view of the Grand Canal and San Giorgio Maggiore, which he was able to paint without leaving the hotel.

Such scenes have been captured, so many times by so many artists, that the French writer and revolutionary, Regis Debray, was once moved to say:  “Anyone who sets his little concoction in the triangle between the Florian, San Giorgio and the Zattere is playing on velvet.” This is, quite possibly, the most absurdly picturesque subject for any artist to tackle, no matter how celebrated or accomplished. It did not, however, discourage Turner or Monet, or even Arthur Streeton, from having a go.

Streeton made two visits in Venice in 1908, the first on honeymoon with his bride, Nora, the second a few months later. They stayed “in a charming place in (sic) the Zattere”, although it does not seem to have been La Calcina. Streeton set up his easel smack in the middle of Piazza San Marco, surrounded by tourists, and got to work with his usual energy. His final tally was some eighty oil paintings and watercolours, which found positive reviews in London and purchasers in Australia.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, who strove mightily for originality in life and art, made a point of avoiding all the most obvious locations when he prepared a series of Venetian works in 1879. Whistler sought out obscure alleyways, the smallest canals, the poorest and most neglected districts, in putting together an intimate portrait of a city unknown to the tourist guides and the Sunday painters. His titles were kept deliberately vague – The Doorway, for instance, or The Balcony. Even today scholars have not been able to identify all of his subjects.

Whistler spent much of his time painting in a makeshift studio on a floor of the dilapidated Ca’ Rezzonico, and living in rented rooms with his mistress, Maude Franklin. In summer, 1880, he and Maude moved in with a group of young American painters and Bohemians in the Casa Jankowitz – now known as the Pensione Bucintoro. He was attracted by a magnificent view that took in both San Giorgio and the Ducal Palace, but the chief attraction of his new lodgings seems to have been the opportunity to be hero-worshipped by a group of eager young admirers.

The opposite applied to Thomas Mann, who spent May 1911 at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, quietly admiring a ten-year-old Polish boy, who possessed a kind of ideal beauty. This perverse fascination inspired his novella, Death in Venice, in which an aging writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, conceives a fatal passion for a Polish boy named Tadzio. Mann was travelling with his wife, Katia and brother, Heinrich, but Aschenbach is a lonely voyeur. Apart from that, Mann confessed that “nothing is invented.” Every detail, every character in the story, was based on his own experiences and observations.

This extends to the Hotel des Bains itself, which opened in 1900, to cater for the increasing popularity of the Lido as a resort. This was a relatively recent development – for travellers such as Goethe, Byron and Shelley, the Lido had been a desolate strip of sand. The bathing craze got underway in the 1880s, and the hotel had a readymade clientele for the summer. The Hotel des Bains has survived several renovations, and a serious fire in 1916, but it remains an elegant period piece, with an imposing classical facade, and art nouveau interiors. The centerpiece is the ‘Visconti room’, an octagonal room of wood panelling and mirrors, named informally after Luchino Visconti, whose 1971 film of Death in Venice was set in the hotel.

In the novel, Mann described Aschenbach’s room as “a pleasant chamber, furnished in cherry wood, with lofty windows looking out to sea.” Visitors today can stay in similar ‘sea-view’ rooms. Thomas Mann’s actual room is not identified, but since the writer stayed at the hotel in 1896, 1901, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1925 and 1934, there would be a fair chance of securing at least one of his rooms. Few hotels have been so well described in a work of literature, and as early as 1916 the Hotel  des Bains named a hall after the novelist. That hall is now the Thomas Mann Restaurant. On wonders if any Australian hotel would consider opening a Patrick White bistro and salad bar.

Nowadays, only the most prosperous artists and writers can afford to stay at hotels such as the Gritti Palace, the Danieli, the Europe e Regina, and the Hotel des Bains. In the recent past, those of more modest incomes, visiting Venice for the Biennale, might have stayed and dined at small inns such as the Hotel la Gorizia a la Valigia, which still has many original works of modern art on the walls of its dining room – works that once paid for an artist’s accommodation.

The same artists would have dined at a restaurant such as All’Angelo, in which the walls are coated with works of art given in payment for meals. Most of these artists are minor figures, but there are works by Miro, Braque, Vedova and Sironi to be found. In the Hotel All’ Angelo, Matisse, Braque and Arp were among the guests.

It must be stressed that the Gorizia and All’Angelo are both three-star hotels, which makes them recommendable only to dedicated Bohemians. The dining too has seen better days, although it may be worthwhile having a bowl of pasta at All’Angelo for the pleasure of sampling the art collection.

A more up-to-date experience is to be found at The Charming Hose DD728, a dazzling small boutique hotel that has attracted a lot of attention in the two years since it was opened. DD728 has only seven rooms, but – as befits a hotel situated next to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – the design is clean and modern. The owner, Chiara Bocchini, felt that even in a ‘vast museum’ like Venice, visitors might crave a room without the ornate chandeliers and wallpaper, but with all mod cons. She has also chosen original works of art by contemporary Italian painters, sculptors and photographers such as Paolo Tosti, Armando Morricone, Gianni Tarti, Raimondo Galeano and Stefania Orru. These are not the cutting-edge types one finds in the Biennale, but artists that are collected by individuals rather than institutions. The effect is stylish, elegant, and utterly unlike any other hotel in Venice.

When it comes to searching out the restaurants frequented by well-known artists and writers, the archaeological traces become almost invisible. Multitudes of small inns, hostelries and bars have come and gone in the past two hundred years; they have changed hands and changed names on numerous occasions. It would be futile to recommend a bad restaurant, simply because some celebrated artist had once been a guest, and Venice – to put it mildly – is not renowned for its culinary skills. The most reliable is probably the Locanda Montin, which was a favourite haunt of everyone from Ezra Pound to Amadeo Modigliani. The Montin has a timeless, slightly shabby feel, but it remains a popular eatery. The food is good, if nothing special, and by Venetian standards the prices are reasonable.

Beyond this, it is difficult to proceed. Famous artists, like everybody else, are looking for good food and good value, and Venice is full of unhappy, overpriced tourist traps. According to Roberta Curiel and Sara Cossiga from the private tour group, Walks Inside Venice, one should avoid the restaurants in hotels, where the food tends to be uninspired. Neither should the visitor ever take pot luck. There are some 600 restaurants in the city, and the signorine from Walks Inside Venice have put together a list of the very best, which they periodically revise.

We met to discuss restaurants and hotels at the Ostaria Al Garanghelo, near Rialto, which they name as one of the best places for a drink and a quick meal. Like many of their recommendations, the place has an authentic Venetian atmosphere, with lots of heavy dark wood, and dim lighting. In recent years many of the osterias have become fully-fledged restaurants, providing some of the most innovative cooking in the city. I was able to visit two of the recommended restaurants, the Osteria di Santa Marina and the Osteria Oliva Nera, and enjoyed the two best meals I have ever had in Venice. Like almost all Venetian restaurants, it is seafood that provides the trademark dishes in these osterias, but seafood cooked with real flair and imagination. For instance, my entrée at the Osteria di Santa Marina, was a carpaccio of swordfish, salmon, turbot and tuna, in a delicate, fine herb dressing that would be envied by many of Sydney’s best chefs.

Had I been able to linger and remain, as Henry James advises, I would have loved to sample some of the other restaurants on the Walks Inside Venice list, but there is never enough time to do everything and see everything in this slow-paced city. It is essential to keep returning, seeking out the many different aspects of an island that turns a smiling face to the tourist industry, but keeps the best for itself. Most of the artists and writers who visited Venice – from Henry James to Richard Wagner, from Mark Twain to Claude Monet – seem to have felt overwhelmed by their first contact. The atmosphere of the place is best sampled by means of small inoculations, fleeting exposures to masterpieces of art and architecture that mix western and eastern styles in the most promiscuous fashion. It’s a place that reveals little at first glance. Even Byron and Whistler found it hard to be original in a city in which the wearing of masks is a long-established tradition.

Travel & Leisure, July 2005