There is only one season to visit Venice, and it is now.
Why winter? Why December, or January, or February, when icy blocks of air descend from the Italian Alps and lock the Venetian lagoon in month-long fog? When darkness falls early and lifts late, when days and days can be filled with a freezing salty drizzle that penetrates all fibres? Because this is the season when the dark spirit of Venice revives. Plus, this is the only time of year (not counting the days from Christmas to New Year, which are a no-no) when Venice is relatively empty.
Actually, there is nothing inauthentic about a Venice full of tourists. Venice has been full of tourists for five centuries, and unreality is its stock-in-trade. It is one of the few places in the world you can visit – as a tourist – and not feel self-conscious about being a tourist. Everyone is a tourist, so you don’t have to work on not being a tourist. Even the Italians are tourists: the resident population of Venice is presently smaller than at any time since 1600. Even the Venetians are visitors – most of those who work the bars and hotels and gift shops come into Venice every day across the bridge, by train or bus from Mestre or Treviso, like the rest of the tourists. Venice would no longer be Venice without tourists. Venice would no longer be authentic.
And when you get there? The best things to do are the same things that everyone else does – tourist sights are what Venice is for. Don’t even think of going to Venice for any kind of work, like attending the Biennale, or the film festival, or the carnival, or writing a story – nothing could be more unnatural than visiting the city for a serious or profitable purpose. Get real. Be a tourist.
The unreal city is full of horrible hotels. There are also a couple of the swankiest hotels in the world, but don’t think of staying in them because they are just hotels, you might just as well be in Dubai or Las Vegas. My preferred small-but-civilised hotel is in the Dorsodoro neighbourhood, and Dorsodoro translates roughly as ‘hard arse’. This hotel makes a big deal of the fact that John Ruskin stayed there while writing The Stones of Venice, and a quick Google will reveal its name.
Dorsodoro is a short walk from just about everywhere in Venice. But that’s not saying much. Everywhere is a short walk from everywhere in Venice. At least, short in terms of distance: the opportunities for getting lost are still infinite. Venice is tiny, but tiny in the way a neutron star is tiny. Every alleyway looks like every other alleyway, only not quite. Is there any other city that more resembles some computer game where levels overlay more levels? Every now and then you will emerge from the clammy winter gloom into some recognisable open space – St Mark’s Square, or the railway station, or the Frari, a moment that is like returning to ‘go’ or resetting the game – only for your path to fold back into the Venetian shadows. And like a computer game, it doesn’t matter. You always find your way back home, you always live to play again. Death in Venice is all wrong.
Time to go visiting. It is a fact that the best-known attractions of Venice are also the best attractions. This is a characteristic Venetian inversion, where the usual rule (that the little-known thing you discover for yourself is better) is reversed. If you are recommended an out-of-the-way and unknown place to eat or stay or visit, don’t go there. It won’t be any good. Stay with the tourists, and start with the Frari.
The Frari (or the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari if you must) was one of the two dominant church institutions during the long ascendancy of Venice as a hemispheric political and military force. The other was Santi Giovanni e Paolo over on the north side of the Grand Canal. But Giovanni and Paolo were mere understrappers. The Frari completed in 1338 is the touchstone: it is here you can enter the psychospace of the Venice that was. From the outside it is not a beautiful building, and the oversized church crowds the square, driving out the air and the light. The building itself is packed with paintings – including by Giovanni Bellini, Donatello and Titian (who is buried here, along with Monteverdi, the sculptor Canova, and a host of doges, generals and warlords). But even the paintings aren’t the reason to come here.
The Frari is where you receive the full force of the mentality that made Venice. An impious blend of ambition, invention, paranoia, cruelty and corruption, the definitive police state. The Frari is – to adapt Philip Larkin – fabulous and mad. After the Frari, the rest of Venice makes better sense. You no longer need to ask why the melancholy, the penumbral unease? Because now you know that Venice was a world of genius run by lunatics, and the Frari was its control tower.
After the Frari you should go around the corner to the pizzeria in the Campo S Toma, where you can be guaranteed a full blast of the famously surly Venetian service to go with what by any standards is a delicious pizza. And as you sit smarting from the offhand discourtesy of the waiters (offhand but never casual – they are masters of the calculated insult, these waiters, always pitched just below confrontation level) you can plan the rest of your touristing.
That’s not going to be difficult. You might go on to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco just around the corner from the Frari. The Scuola was a typical schizophrenic Venetian institution that combined charitable operations with vicious power politics, somehow acquiring several acres of Tintoretto paintings along the way. Of course you must go to the Accademia, the matchless Italian museum of painting and sculpture of all periods except our own. Of course you must go to the Guggenheim, a collection of outstanding and slightly crazy 20th century art in Peggy Guggenheim’s old palazzo on the Grand Canal, where you can sit back on Peggy’s cubist white sofa and watch the Chinese tourists being shipped up and down the canal, where you can imagine the place is all yours and consider how you would kick out the riff-raff and rearrange the furniture. Dream on though – because you are the tourist riff-raff. Venice – aloof, cool, dissimulating Venice – it turns you into riff-raff.
You might also want to go to Torcello.
Torcello is an island, in a distant corner of the lagoon, beyond Murano where they make the glass, beyond the island of Burano and its crayon-coloured villas. Torcello was Venice before there was Venice. Once the most populous island in the lagoon it is now an almost deserted scrap of land, most of the city having long ago been dismantled and recycled, with only the small cathedral and a handful of other buildings remaining.
We only went to Torcello because it is name-checked in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. You take a vaporetto, the Venetian water bus, from the Fondamente Nuove and stopping at Murano and Burano as well as the cemetery island, and finally navigating north through shallow channels marked by posts or withies bending in the current. Once on the island there is a longish walk alongside the one remaining canal to the cathedral, which on this particular day was locked. We had left it a little late, and there was nothing to see or do. The restaurant was already closing. It would soon be dusk.
Behind the cathedral there are paths which are what remain of city gardens, so we walked the paths until the brick gave way to dust, and then gave way to mud. Most of what was Torcello is now underwater, or turning that way. We walked back to the square with wet silt on our trainers. It was now getting dark, and the last of the tourists were already far in the distance, heading back to the vaporetto stop. We followed, walking faster, then faster. We missed the vaporetto.
It was now dark. The timetable seemed to show that there was one last vaporetto we might still catch, in two hours’ time. Ominously this last timing was printed in italics – what did that mean? Perhaps this vaporetto did not run on certain days – Sundays perhaps? This was a Sunday. So we had two hours to kill, or maybe all night, or eternity. The temperature was somewhere around freezing, the lagoon stretched away in a feeble milky moonlight, and it appeared that every other human had left Torcello.
We walked back to the restaurant – famous for having once been visited by Princess Diana. It was dark inside, the outer gates padlocked. It was as if it had been shut for years, although only an hour earlier there had been customers sitting on the terrace. We walked to the unlit square, which was empty. There was one other house on the canalside, by the looks of it a cafe that had been shut up for the winter season. This place too was dark, and silent. We stood outside and listened in that silence. There was an aura of presence. We could hear nothing, yet it seemed as if the darkened house was not empty. And then we moved away, as quietly as we could.
At the vaporetto stop lights were moving in the fog, far away, the Venice traffic, not coming closer. What would we do if nothing turned up? It had happened so quickly, one minute we were ordinary Sunday tourists, and now … A light moved on the lagoon, came closer and then moved away, calling at another port. The light moved again, coming closer. It was the vaporetto. Never was the smell of marine diesel so welcome.
A true member of the tourist horde cannot leave Venice without buying a mask. There is a stall or a shop selling masks within thirty feet of wherever you stand. Like most other things in Venice the masks are fake and they are real. Real, because they speak of a secretive, grievous nature. Fake, because they are kitsch commercial fantasies manufactured in their thousands in distant Asian factories – why else would they have been used in Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut, as false a cinematic note as has ever been struck?
So I hesitate to say that it is possible to find an authentic theatrical mask in Venice. I hesitate to say anything entirely real can exist in Venice … but here are the directions. Start in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa on the north side of the Grand Canal. Follow the Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, then turn left on Tetta Calle Ospedale, and then again turn right on Barbaria della Tolle. You will now feel that you are lost. The shop is on your left. It will probably be closed, it usually is, and if it is open don’t be surprised to find the man is not at all keen on selling his masks.
On the way home you might want to drop in at the Palazzo Querini, in a corner of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. On an upper floor there is a preserved C18th palazzo complete with the kind of grotesque fixtures and fittings that were popular in upper middle class Venice three hundred years ago. And then you turn a corner, and there, sitting intimately on a plain wooden easel, is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the Venetian renaissance, Giovanni Bellini’s Presentation at the Temple.
There is small Madonna nearby, also by Giovanni Bellini. It is small enough to slip into your bag, you might be tempted to think. If you are so tempted that is because you are now fully tuned in to Venice, where fraud and theft and worse have been practiced at a high level of accomplishment for many centuries. It is probably time to go home, before the winter city freezes your soul.
One last detour before you go. To the north, near the hospital which has featured in a thousand films and which looks across to the cemetery island, is the church of Madonna dell’Orto – the Madonna of the Garden. Above the side altar to the left as you enter the church there is a space reserved for Bellini’s Madonna and Child, a painting that hung here until it was stolen (for the third time) one winter night twenty years ago. Today the empty frame remains. In this city of fictions and forgeries, it is weirdly real.