the intellectual

“Venice is the most romantic place in the world but it’s even better when there is no-one around”. The words of the great Woody Allen, describing his relationship with the capital of the Veneto region in an interview with the Italian newspaper “Il Corriere”. The here-today-gone-tomorrow of tourism is taking over the lagoon, relegating Venetians to a diaspora pushed towards the more inhabitable mainland. A city not at all suited to those who are afraid of big crowds, like me, yet it remains unique and inimitable. An amphibian floating midway between reality and dreams.

The illusory, almost dream-like nature of Venice bestows upon it the persona of a timeless temptress, whose wonders are irrevocably linked to another: that of the cinema. “An invention with no future” is how Antoine Lumière described the cinema just a few months before a screen would light up the Minerva theatre behind St Mark’s Square, projecting glimpses of Venetian life.

This was the start of a long love story between the Lagoon City and the cinema, destined to evolve forever more, from the first version of Shakespeare’s Othello shot in 1906, to the present-day Venice International Film Festivals.

Chiesa della Salute church seen from Ponte dell'Accademia bridge
Ikona Photo Gallery, Ghetto. Venezia
Giardini della Biennale gardens

It’s no coincidence that we begin our journey with Woody Allen. Our first stage is the Chiesa della Salute, star of St Mark’s Basin for over 300 years. Standing on the narrow finger of the Punta della Dogana, in 1983 the church was the setting of Susan Sontag’s surreal interview with the chameleon-like personality of Leonard Zelig in the film of the same name, written and directed by the New York master. The success of that film was such that it convinced some of the great directors, such as Spielberg and Minghella, to film scenes for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” outside the same church.

But if you want a taste of the real relationship between Venice and the cinema, then don’t miss out on buying a Venezia Unica pass (veneziaunica.it, valid for museums and transport). Armed with your pass, hop on any boat in the direction of the Lido and disembark at the terminus. The Lido is a sandbar at the edge of the Venetian archipelago and for five hundred years it was the gulf of the doges.

Among its Art Nouveau villas, the Hotel des Bains stands out; a large hotel which closed in 2008, but which still stands before you in all its grandeur. The same grandeur that enraptured German writer Thomas Mann, who often stayed there, choosing it as the setting of his famous novel “Death in Venice”.

The story was brought to the big screen in 1971 by Italian director Luchino Visconti, who filmed at the hotel. Sadly, you can no longer visit the art deco lounges admired in the film, but you can enjoy the beach with its characteristic beach huts dressed with white curtains. If the Lido is synonymous with cinema, however, it owes it above all to the Palazzo del Cinema, the conference centre which has hosted Italy’s most famous cinematic art festival since 1938. A short stroll along the promenade is enough to catch sight of this imposing structure, which looks like a spaceship landed on the beach and stayed, just like a surrealist painting.

Bask in the warm silence of the Lido a little longer while you wait for your boat to take you back across the lagoon to the sweet tuna-fishing nets of Rialto. There, beneath the Baretteri bridge, behind a half-hidden door, you’ll be able to make out Casino Venier. Wondering what a casino is? In the Venetian Republic, casini were by far the most popular places for nobles, like the literary lounges of the eighteenth century. Here, a wealthy person would spend a large part of their time enjoying the pleasures of life as they hid their face behind a baùta, the typical Venetian mask used during carnival. Today Casino Venier is run by the Alliance Française and remains one of Venice’s hidden gems.

Inside is a maze of peep-holes, secret passages, mirrors, musical parlours and rooms finely decorated with marble and stucco. All these elements combine to make this insight into the Lagoon’s great and decadent past yet more magical.

Five minutes’ gentle stroll through this infinite floating labyrinth takes you to one of the most striking churches in Venice, the Church of Santa Maria Formosa, a short distance from the Acqua Alta bookshop. “The most beautiful bookshop in the world” read the bookmarks and leaflets that advertise this little treasure trove, passionately run by Luigi Frizzo. What makes it so unusual? Everything inside is designed to float. When the high tide hits Venice, it comes in through the door onto the canal and partially submerges the shop.

So, Luigi has equipped himself with a gondola, an old boat and even a bathtub, all full of books from every genre. The books are catalogued in a sort of stream of consciousness, where you can just about make out some logic to the order, but it’s not easy to interpret. I’m not sure if it’s the best bookshop ever designed, but it definitely deserves a place among the most original bookshops in the world.

Madonna della Salute Festival
Acqua Alta bookshop, Castello

In one of the alleys adjacent to Campo Manin, not far from Piazza San Marco, lies the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, one of the most famous places in Venice. This jewel in the form of a spiral staircase inside a cylindrical tower is a unique example of Venetian architecture from the transition period between Gothic and Renaissance. Built using brick and Istrian stone, adorned by loggias and arches, the staircase stands next to the Palazzo Contarini (from which it takes its name). At twenty-six metres high, it affords the visitor a unique opportunity to admire the entire city. The construction of the staircase, which took place between the 14th and 15th centuries, aroused such hype that the citizens coined a new nickname for the Contarini family; Contarini del Bovolo, due to the staircase’s characteristic spiral shape (“bovolo” is Venetian for snail). But the surprises don’t end there! The loggia on the second floor of the staircase leads to a rather hidden corner of lagoon paradise: the Sala del Tintoretto. The room houses a selection of paintings and sculptures by Venetian artists, with the names Tintoretto, Francesco Guardi, Niccolò Bambini, Sebastiano Ricci and Jacopo Sansovino particularly prominent among those whose works are displayed.

Tired of being on land? No problem. A short fifteen-minute trip across the water, with a stop at Burano along the way, takes you to Torcello. An almost uninhabited wonder, Torcello has a short yet great story to tell. It was here that, in the winter of 1948, Ernest Hemingway hid himself away in the Locanda Cipriani to write his romance novel about the city of Venice.

Legend has it that the American writer loved to hunt ducks along the reeds surrounding the banere, the mudflat landscape so typical for the lagoon, and that he would entertain his friends at game-based dinners washed down with Valpolicella, a wine that the writer came to fall in love with after Giuseppe Cipriani, the inn’s owner, introduced him to it.

La Biennale, Arsenale. Venezia 2017
Casino Venier, Ponte dei Bareteri

But Venice is not just lit up by memories. Return to the water and head in the direction of San Samuele, where you’ll find yourself dazzled by the art in the A plus A gallery. You can’t miss it: it stands out like a beacon in the middle of the night among the turbid quagmire of streets surrounding Calle Malipiero. A short walk from the former home of the collector Peggy Guggenheim, niece of the even more famous Solomon, this modern art gallery, promoting Slovenian and international art, rises among the most important museums in the world. Dedicating itself entirely to experimenting, the gallery promotes artists outside of mainstream circles.

Before you head home, there’s still time for one last stop-off, at Cannaregio, the lively north-western neighbourhood, especially at aperitif o’clock. Renowned for the award-winning film “Bread and Tulips” by Silvio Soldini, this district houses a small gem of photographic art: the Ikona Photo Gallery. Suffice it to say that this gallery was the first to bring Helmut Newton’s work to Italy to give an idea of its historical and artistic importance. Founded in 1979, Ikona remains a benchmark for photography lovers to this day. An intimate space with a broad international outlook.

Despite its problems and inconsistencies, leaving the Most Serene Republic of Venice to return to the mainland is still the hardest and saddest part of the whole day. Our friend Woody was right: Venice is by far the most romantic place in the world. Even if you visit alone.

di Valerio Stefanori

other itineraries

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  • the sporty type

  • the traveller

  • the storyteller