Venice is a city that exists in a world of ephemeral contrasts. You only need to look at the glistening reflections of the palazzos in the canals to understand how the city’s appearance isn’t all that it seems. Built on wooden piles driven in to a marshland by refugees during the Middle Ages, Venice rose to become at one point the most powerful city in Europe.
And if history has taught us one thing, it is that with great power and wealth, comes great art. During its height from the Late Byzantine period, throughout the Renaissance and in to the Baroque, the city attracted great artists and gave birth to many of its own including Titian, Canaletto, Tiepolo and of course the anonymous mosiacists of the Basilica San Marco. In more recent times, it has gained a reputation for great contemporary art, hosting the most important event of the art calendar – the Venice Biennale every other May. As a city, its art credentials (especially for having a population of just 50,000) are top notch. As a run up to this year’s Venice Biennale, Candid Magazine provides an art lover’s guide to what to see in the rest of the City of Canals during this years festival, and how to do it in style.
Where to visit for the new stuff
Housed in a striking 18th century Palazzo that was home for the eponymous heiress Peggy Guggenheim for three decades, the Guggenheim Collection is today the focal point of the city’s contemporary art scene. Spanning the major Modernist movements of the 20th century, including Abstract Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism, the museum features seminal works by artists including Duchamp, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Giacometti. Its a must for any modern art lover. Opening this May is a show of the works of Mark Tobey, a 20th century Abstract Expressionist painter who founded the Northwest School in America.
Although still relatively unknown in Europe, Tobey’s powerful works are both colossal in ambition and minutely detailed in execution. Spanning more then forty years of Tobey’s career, the show will coincide with this year’s Biennial, where the Guggenheim Collection will also host the American Pavilion. Showing the work of Los Angeles based Mark Bradford, who also happens to be a contemporary Abstract Expressionist painter, the Pavilion will highlight the country’s fondness for the discipline in what is set to be one of the highlights of the 57th Venice Biennial.
Opening in April at both the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta Della Dogana (two buildings owned the French businessman and Christie's auction house owner François Pinault) is a new show by the infamous Damien Hirst – his first in Italy since 2004. Taking a break from curating exhibitions in his new South London space Newport Street Gallery, Hirst is trying to regain the love of his fans and critics with a show called ‘Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable” that has been ten years in the making.
Every one of the 250 new works is for sale with prices ranging from £400,000 to £4 million. The show is very much still under wraps – only two photos and two videos of scuba divers searching underwater shipwrecks have been tantalisingly released so far, but the show and whether it’s Hirst’s triumphant return or the final nail in his coffin will no doubt be the talking point of the Biennale. Regardless of the opus, it is one not to miss, and the showman has proved yet again he is the king of self-hype already.
Ca’ Pesaro is Venice’s official gallery of modern art. Housed in a 17th century Baroque palace on the Grand Canal it is one of the eleven civic museums of the city. Containing an impressive collection of 19th and 20th century works of art, the gallery focuses on Italy’s influence on movements including Impressionism, Spatialism, Conceptualism and Futurism.
This spring they host an exhibition of the paintings of William Merritt Chase. Chase was an American painter active throughout Europe during the turn of the 20th century, and a contemporary and friend of John Singer Sargent. The show, which has already toured the States, charts Chase’s relationship between New York and Venice while aiming to boost his European profile to that of Sargent’s. Chase himself was selected to represent the USA at the 1901 Biennial, so there is a charming narrative woven in to the show and his works have once more returned to the city.
The Venice Biennale itself, which was inaugurated in 1895 and is held only on odd numbered years, focuses on global visual arts with this year’s number of countries represented totalling 85. Each country choses to exhibit one, or several, national artists in their own national pavilion, which are spread throughout the city’s 16th century ship building warehouses and gardens.
Open from May 10th through to 26th November, the Biennial this year sees Candid favourite Rachel Maclean represent Scotland with her weirdly wonderful video art, while the installation artist Phyllidia Barlow represents England and Turner Prize nominee James Richards represents Wales. The Biennial can take many if you want to see it all, so research, sturdy shoes and a map are a must.
Where to visit for the old stuff
The Galleria dell’Academia on the south bank of the Grand Canal houses one of the finest collections of pre-19th century Italian art in the world, with of course, a focus on the Venetian Masters. Originating as the Venetian Art School, of which Tiepolo was the initial president, it claims to be the first institution to teach art restoration, since 1777.
The gallery houses some of the finest works by Bassano, Bosch, Canaletto, Lotto, Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian – the list goes on. If old masters are your thing, this is where to start. An exhibition running until the 17 April re-examines the use of gold in the religious works of the 15th century Venetian painter Michele Giambono. Giambono's adoption of the early International Gothic Style helped spread the look throughout Europe and his sumptuous wood panel paintings and geometry exploring mosaics elucidate Venice's rich historical association with art, power, religion, and the colour gold.
The Palazzo Ducale (or Doge’s Palace) is the grandest of all residences in Venice. Originally home to the city rulers, the building exemplifies the Venetian Late Byzantine Neo-Gothic style of architecture. Taking up a whole corner of the Piazza San Marco, the building was opened as a museum in 1923 and is today Venice’s most visited attraction. With frescos by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto and sculptures by Sansovino, combined with the stunning architecture and furnishings, the building highlights Venice’s historical power and wealth.
During the Biennial, the Palazzo Ducale is hosting an exhibition of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Netherlandish painter known for his fantastically weird images of religious scenes. Obscure half man half beast creatures revel in depictions of hell on earth in macabre and disturbing visions. The exhibition which is open until June 4 and was first shown at the Prado in Madrid celebrates the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death and centres around three recently restored works that have been housed in the Academia in Venice, which have been returned to their former glory. A scholarly important show, it is the first time so many of Bosch’s works have been shown side by side and is cleverly curated with artefacts from the artist’s world that enigmatically elucidate how the artist came to paint with such religious imagination.
The Museo Correr just across Piazza San Marco from the Doge’s Palace covers the art and history of the city through various works of art, sculptures, fabrics, books, furniture and ethnographic objects. Housed in lavish 17th century state apartments, the museum is a welcome break from the crowds of some of the more popular museums in the city, but not deservedly so. It contains stunning works of art by the city’s resident artists including sculptures by Antonio Canova – one of the best sculptors to ever live.
The museum takes it in turn with the Doge’s Palace to host exhibtions, so while Bosch is on across the road, the Museo Correr is taking a break. They haven’t announced their next show that will coincide with the middle of the Biennale yet, but previous exhibitions have re-examined the life and works of Renaissance masters such as Caffi and Bellini, through to contemporary American Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Every show has been well received by the public and critics so there is little doubt this summer’s show won't disappoint, whatever it is.
Where to brunch
Caffe Florian is the oldest (and probably most famous) café in Europe. It tells an interesting narrative of Venice’s history of trade from which the city grew rich, along with its love for opulence and self-indulgence. Situated on the east side of the Piazza San Marco, the interior of the building oozes history, with hand-painted frescos by Cadorin and Casa, waiters in white dinner jackets, and a list of celebrity clientele that includes Casanova, Hemingway, Chaplin, Goldoni and Dickens.
The interior tables are hinged to accompany the grandest of outfits squeezing in. In the springtime, the tables spill in to the Piazza where you can sip your coffee (or spritz) in the same manner artists have since 1720. Don’t leave without inspecting the paintings or trying the macaroons.
Where to dine
Situated only five minutes walk from the bustle of Piazza San Marco, but in an area that feels like a million miles away, Ristorante Locale is, as the name suggests, a secret the Venetians keep closely guarded. Opened in 2015 by the brother and sister team Benedetta and Luca Fullin, who grew up in Venice but learned their craft in London, the restaurant brings a contemporary twist to traditional Venetian cuisine with mouth-watering results. All the 250 wines are natural and carefully curated and the seasonal local food is a pure form of art.
Each plate comes with sauces spread across the crockery like a painting. Some dishes see flavours are flicked in lines like an abstract canvas, while others are delicately constructed to glisten like Byzantine mosaics. The head chef Matteo Tagliapietra has worked at Cipriani, Locanda Locatelli, Nobu and Noma – so it is safe to say he knows his way around a kitchen. Dishes such as Risotto with Black Goby and Mackerel, parsnip, pain d'epices and passion fruit illustrate the lagoon’s seafaring history while the presentation highlight’s the Venetian historical love of colour, texture and innovation when it comes to both art and food. It’s a blessing this restaurant still maintains a slight air of anonymity.
Where to drink
Harry’s Bar is more of an institution than a bar. Legend has it, Giuseppe Cipriani was a barman at the hotel Monaco in Venice when he lent a young American, Harry Pickering, 10,000 lira. Pickering returned two years later to repay the loan, and did so fivefold, with the instruction Cipriani was to open his own bar and name it ‘Harry’s’. In 1931 the bar opened in an old rope warehouse facing the Grand Canal near Piazza San Marco and soon welcomed various European kings and queens, aristocracy and celebrities including Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Aristotle Onassis and Ernest Hemingway – who had his own table.
The interior is stripped back Art Deco, and surprisingly small and bare for the birthplace of both the Bellini and the family of Cipriani restaurants. But its simplicity is the home of its charm, as it hasn’t changed an inch in 86 years. It is wonderfully evocative of Venice during the Golden Age of Travel and the place to drink and be seen drinking if you’re well healed. And if you fancy carrying on the night away with more cocktails (of a less decedent style), the Hard Rock Café is at the other end of the same street.
Where to stay
Opened in 1880 and located a stone’s throw from the Piazza San Marco and surrounded by luxury boutiques, the Bauer Hotel offers the perfect location from which to explore the art of Venice. Half of the building is an elegant 1930’s Art Deco extension, while the other half, which features the best river-facing terrace in Venice, is a refurbished Neo-Gothic Palazzo.
The hotel marries classic Venetian architecture from the two centuries in a building rich with architectural wonder. Rooms are elegant and sumptuous while the public areas are adorned with some of the largest Murano Glass chandeliers you’ll ever see. It offers an ideal spot from which to explore the bustle of he historical centre of the city, but also enables you to quickly and effectively slip away from it all when you want some down time. The Maison Assouline bookshop in the foyer sells some of the best coffee table art books around for those who want to take a weighty art souvenir away with them.
How to travel
There are a few tried and tested essentials that will help you blend in with the Venice crowd seamlessly. American brand Away provides sleek fashion conscious luggage that is also rugged, comes with built in compartments for crushables, electricals and laundry, and best of all has a built in battery to charge your phone on the go. Having a Priority Pass allows you to beat the airport queues and hobnob in over 1,000 first class lounges world wide. And before you set off, Gentleman's Tonic barbershops will keep you looking clean and fresh with a range of treatments available in their shops placed in all the most art-happening cities world wide.
As the build up to the 2017 Venice Biennale gets underway, the city of Venice is gearing itself up for more visitors than ever before. Expect lots of posing, air kissing, and as much talk of money as there is about the art. But it's one of the best times of year to visit, as the City of Canals comes to life in a way that is has for centuries with the elite of the art world descending on the waterways, filling the Palazzos and sipping their cocktails.
Words by Harry Seymour.
The Venezia Unica City Pass offers an all in one pass for museums, events, churches, restaurants and transport. Rooms at The Bauer Hotel start from 250 euros a night including breakfast, including VAT excluding city tax. Ristorante Locale is open Wednesday – Monday, with a tasting menu from 75 euros.