Continuous movement doesn’t pay off in Venice. How else can you see plaques of hirsute men, St. Mark lion’s heads lopped off every building or the holes in the walls used to pass water to the tired and dirty delivery men, but for stopping frequently, looking up and smell the proverbial roses? Venice is a city of intricate details and unexpected oasis.
Ca’ Rezzonico, on the Grand Canal, is a mecca of 17th century art, one that I visited on a rainy day two years ago. Some of the paintings and artifacts are jaw dropping but how many visitors find the small gardens at the back, sit on one of the many benches under a wisteria pergola and read a book (that’s where I am writing this post from)? Hidden behind the manicured hedges are a couple of rocking horses and the only people here are a handful of moms with strollers and kids in tow. Once again, I am in the heart of Venice with no tourists around.
The Biennale is another unexpected treasure trove of the unexpected. If you happen to be visiting Santa Maria della Salute, a wonderful Baroque church that has graced many a photograph (and you should see it, possibly around November 21 when Venice remembers the end of the plague by setting up makeshift bridges of boats on which to cross the canal and pay your thanks to the Virgin) keep on walking to Punta della Dogana and enjoy the view. Then loop back to the Zattere and stroll along the sunny embankment. You will come across Magazzini del Sale (the old Salt Warehouses) that have been splendidly renovated and are used as exhibition spaces. Currently they house works of art from the Arab States (really interesting) and from the Balearic Isles (less so). But, right before you reach the Magazzini, you might notice an artist’s studio, with a small handwritten note taped to the door, “Entrata Libera” (Free Entrance).
Step inside and life-size reproductions of body parts will greet you and two plaster women, one entangled in webs and the other a fat symbol of fecundity, will beg you to touch them. And if you are courteous and interested, Alessandro, the artist, will spend some time explaining his techniques that involve silicone and epoxy resin and will tell you what his next projects are (ladies, Alessandro is also cute to boot). Check his work at www.aledima.it. On your way out, pull the gum you have been chewing out of your mouth and add it to the collection stuck on a plaster head by the entrance.
Most of the historical palaces gracing the Grand Canal are privately owned and inaccessible to the public, their secrets hidden forever. Many are in a state of disrepair and others are property of the Catholic Church (which owns a third of this city). The descendants or heirs of the Serenissima noble families are finding that the upkeep is beyond their means which is why quite a few of the buildings have been sold and turned into hotels. Others barely hold on to their treasures and, for the first time ever, the Rocca family has opened their residence of Palazzo Contarini dei Scrigni to the Biennale. It hosts the “Venice in Venice” show, part of the Pacific Standard Time series organized by our very own Getty Center. Frankly, and with deep apologies to John McCracken, Ed Moses and the rest, I was more taken by the spectacular building and courtyard than by the art. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed as it must be unnerving enough to have strangers wander through your house without snapping shots of your belongings.
The concept of time, in Venice, is subjective and relative. After triumphantly finding the Legatoria by San Rocco’s Church (worth paying 3 euros for checking out some amazing Titians) I was greeted by a ubiquitous “Torno subito” (Be right back) sign on the door. This 75-year-old book binding institution owned by father and son yielded some lovely journals on my last visit and I coveted them again. I was so determined that I wandered into the Church, sat at a cafe for a cappuccino, admired some Murano eggs in an antique store and, one hour and 15 minutes later, the owner of the Torno subit sign came back, allowing me to browse through the journals stacked haphazardly among the tomes awaiting binding.
Time ebbs and flows here, like the tide, in a seemingly self-contained universe where the outside world intrudes only when you let it.