x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A work of art

The birthplace of Canaletto is now home to some of the world's finest contemporary art galleries. A Venice resident shares his favourite sights in the run up to the 53rd Biennale.

The view of the Piazza San Marco in Venice from the Grand Canal.
The view of the Piazza San Marco in Venice from the Grand Canal.

I decided to take a flat in Venice nearly 20 years ago, and people never tire of asking how I can actually live here, what with thousands of tourists pouring in every single day of the year and regular reports that the city is slowly sinking into oblivion. The biggest criticism levelled at La Serenissima, meaning the most serene, as Venice is sometimes known, is that it has been turned into a sort of cultural theme park where day trippers breeze in each morning, with just enough time to marvel at the Basilica di San Marco, the treasures of the Doges Palace, cross the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal and then head home. This could not be further from the truth and in its own eccentric way that is part medieval and part 21st century, La Serenissima manages to survive the rising waters of the Adriatic as well as the tourist hordes. An ancient gondola squero, a workshop that has been in the hands of the same family for centuries, continues to painstakingly construct the city's most enduring symbol; while out on the congested Grand Canal, you can spot a bright orange speedboat whizzing by to deliver DHL parcels. Such contrasts are never more evident than when Venice hosts its prestigious Biennale of Art. The moment the president of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napoletano, solemnly inaugurates the 53rd edition of the Venice Biennale of Art on June 6, the city of Canaletto and Titian, Tintoretto, and Tiepolo, Bellini and Guardi will find itself invaded by daring modern creations made by some of the world's most acclaimed and often controversial artists. For art lovers, there can be no better time to plan a visit - suddenly the traveller can choose to seek out an exquisite 400-year-old Veronese fresco hidden away in an ancient church, or wander into a sumptuous palazzo and watch a cutting-edge art video or surreal sculpture installation. Until recently, the Biennale was restricted to the Giardini, a secluded park opposite the Lido, where a select and elite group of nations own their own pavilions, incredibly, with the same diplomatic status as an embassy. Today, the exhibition has mushroomed into scores of different venues across the city - palaces and mansions, monasteries and convents that are often closed off to the public the rest of the year - allowing more than 77 countries to send their artists to take part. Rather than joining the crowds in the Giardini, I prefer to track down these many fascinating alternative venues, where the location itself is just as stunning as the art on display. The theme of the Biennale this year is "Making Worlds", and the UAE is among the first-time participants. It's pavilion, entitled "It's Not You, It's Me", showcases the work of several UAE artists including the photographer and filmmaker Lamya Hussain Gargash.

Thus far, no other Gulf state has exhibited in the Venice Biennale, which is the world's oldest and most prestigious international contemporary art event. The UAE pavilion will be inside one of the largest and most impressive venues outside the Giardini, the colossal artiglerie of what was once the Serene Republic's military Arsenal, still a semi-militarised zone. When it comes to getting a first impression of Venice's centuries of artistic heritage, I hesitate between two possibilities. Everyone is drawn to the Piazza San Marco, perhaps the most beautiful square in the world, or at least the most romantic. But rather than join the long queues waiting to go to the top of the Campanile, the Piazza's landmark belltower, I prefer to make an appointment at the Correr Museum to join one of the small groups allowed to visit the Torre dell'Orologio, San Marco's exquisite 15th-century clocktower. Climbing up to the roof, you find yourself next to two giant statues, the Moors, who swing their hammers back and forth to chime bells on the hour. It might not be as high up as the Campanile, but somehow there is a more privileged feeling here of an intimate, private panorama over Venice. The scenes down in the Piazza have barely changed over the centuries. My next stop is the small, little-visited Querini Stampalia Museum, a few minutes' walk away by the tranquil Campo Santa Maria Formosa. The Quirini boasts a wonderful selection of Pietro Longhi paintings, including a series of vivid scenes he painted of daily life in the Piazza San Marco over two centuries ago, which are scarcely different from what I have just seen from the Torre.

Another perfect introduction is simply to hop onto a Vaporetto Numero Uno (Line One of the city's public water bus) at Piazzale Roma - the first of 15 stops. Then take the 45 minute-long, meandering ride down from one end of the Canal Grande to the other. When Venice was first settled, more than 1,500 years ago, it began as a colony of wooden houses built on a cluster of mudflats in the centre of a vast lagoon, eventually growing into a city covering 188 tiny islands, linked by over 400 bridges. The main artery, if not the heart itself, of this aquatic metropolis, is the canal which literally scythes the city in two. Both sides are lined with opulent baroque, Renaissance and Gothic palaces. I have a friend, Renato de Momi, the owner of Al Mascaron, one of Venice's best trattorias, who commutes to work everyday on the vaporetto and claims that after 20 years he still has his breath taken away each time. The water bus stops outside two of the city's greatest museums, Ca' Rezzonico and the Accademia. The first is dedicated to Venice's golden era of the settecento, with a particularly wonderful collection of Canaletto and Tiepolo paintings, while the Accademia is the one single museum no one should miss, a panoply of Venetian Old Masters, starting in the 15th century with Giorgione and Bellini, then masterpieces by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese Carpaccio and Guardi. In the Ca' Rezzonico, seek out the emotive canvas, Il Canal Grande da Ca' Foscari verso Rialto, painted by Canaletto at the beginning of the 18th century. Although the sumptuous Palazzo Ca' Foscari that dominates the painting may no longer be a private palace owned by a wealthy nobleman - it now houses part of the city's university - little else has changed. Carpaccio painted one of his greatest Venetian scenes, Miracles of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge, more than 200 years earlier than Canaletto.

Displayed in the Accademia, there is, of course, one huge difference with the present day - the Rialto Bridge itself was wooden at that time - but from the archetypal Venetian chimney stacks to delicious details like the Antica Locanda Sturion, a hotel that is still open today, the scene is very familiar, as long as you ignore the TV aerials and satellite dishes that blight the landscape in Venice here as much as any other city in the world. This is the perfect moment to sit back and forget about any notion of hectic sightseeing. Instead, think about what life must have been like in La Serenissima for these famous painters. Here was an immensely rich and powerful nation state that ruled most of the world's commerce and that also cleverly patronised a stable of artists. It is difficult to imagine now, even with the daily influx of tourists, that Venice in the 1500s was the most densely populated city in Europe - five times more people than live here today - and was inhabited by a kaleidescope of different nationalities. For aspiring artists, if you wanted glory, recognition and riches, then Venice was the place to be. There are a score of other museums testifying to the city's artistic glories, but no one wants to spend all day stuck inside. To appreciate Venice, one must not miss the artistic treasures waiting to be discovered on the street. I have a golden rule: never follow those bright yellow signs directing tourists to the main sites - Rialto, Accademia and San Marco. Forget about trying to follow the map or guidebook recommendations; it's hopeless. There is no more beautiful city in the world for walking, where you are undisturbed by noise or the danger of cars and bikes. Enjoy it.

In a minute, you'll find yourself alone, wandering down a narrow alleyway, crossing a centuries-old bridge with a dark canal running silently beneath. After passing poorly-lit artisans' workshops and tiny delicatessens, you may see the slim outline of a gondola gliding past. Finally, you will end up in an empty square or courtyard, perhaps once inhabited by Marco Polo, Vivaldi or Lord Byron, with only pigeons and a few of the city's thousands of stray cats for company.

Like all Venice residents, I have my own favourite spots, where one can usually stand in front of a masterpiece alone. In the quintessential Venetian neighbourhood of Cannaregio, the seemingly anonymous church of St Alvise boasts several works by Tiepolo, but the greatest surprise is its stunning ceiling, covered in frescoes by a lesser-known 17th century artist, Pietro Antonio Torri. A short walk away is the palazzo where Tintoretto lived and painted several pieces for his local church, the grandiose Madonna dell'Orto, later the site of his burial. Paolo Veronese lived over in the Dorsoduro quarter, and for those that stumble upon his parish church, San Sebastiano, be prepared for a riot of colour, as the artist painted virtually everything - altars, ceilings, frescoes and even his own tomb.

Not surprisingly, Venice finds itself the favourite destination for a new generation of wealthy arts patrons. Following in the footsteps of Peggy Guggenheim, the French billionaire art collector, Francois Pinault spurned an offer by the French government to house his collection in Paris, preferring to take over the sumptuous Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, filling it with dramatic works by Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, the Chapman brothers et al. The Pinault Foundation recently transformed one of the city's landmark buildings, the Punta della Dogana (the ancient Maritime Customs' Warehouse), which looks over St Mark's Basin, into a dynamic centre for contemporary art. The Dogana opens with a glamorous Hollywood-style fanfare on Wednesday this week on and on the same day, a new museum, dedicated to Emilio Vedova, one of Venice's greatest 20th-century painters, will open in the adjoining Salt Warehouses. Vedova used to live on the Zattere and - perhaps, like him - one of my favourite moments is an evening stroll along the canal promenade, reaching the Punta della Dogana as the sun sets over San Marco and the Doge's Palace. As the paintings remind you, it's a panorama that hasn't changed in 500 years. travel@thenational.ae