The Magazine

Venice Observed

Canals, commerce, and Carnival.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By SARA LODGE
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Boutiques proliferate, selling everything from Cinderella slippers made of recycled Coca-Cola bottles to Elizabethan-style lace ruffs (a steal at 160 euros, and useful for supporting your head during transatlantic flights). Masks—gold, red, black, feathered, leather, papier-mâché—stare sightlessly from infinite stalls. They reproduce traditional forms: the parti-colored “colombina” for Harlequin’s mistress, the scarily mouthless leather “bauta” (an early precursor to Darth Vader’s mask), the protuberant nose of the plague doctor, in which herbs were stuffed to prevent infection. But I also saw a massive bull’s head, inset with crystals, alongside hippos, fauns, sun-gods, Medusas, Albert Einstein, and the blue heroes of Avatar. I was surprised by the wide variation in approaches to disguise. Some carnivalgoers are accoutred as carefully as Casanova, in period costume. Others wear tired tiger suits, or merely a Zorro eye-band.

You can’t wear a mask inside Venice’s art museums, in case you stage a heist. Nothing prevents you, however, from going, clad in Renaissance doublet, to see the jaw-dropping Veronese painting “Christ in the House of Levi” at the Accademia, or from ogling the Salvador Dalís in the Guggenheim Collection while dressed as a banana. Whether or not you embrace your inner fruit, you shouldn’t miss the Guggenheim, housed in a light-filled palazzo towards the end of the Grand Canal. Its superb catalogue of cubist and surrealist masterpieces, from Picasso to Magritte, are bound to bend your mind.

I also recommend the Palazzo Grimani, a gem of menacing splendor from the 1500s whose staircase featured in the terrifying final sequence of Don’t Look Now (1973). Its ceilings, one depicting a forest of fruit and birds, one hung with a sculpture of Ganymede and the Eagle that seems about to fall on the viewer, alone are worth the price of admission. This year, the palace hosted an exhibition of three triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch whose brilliantly weird composite creatures share the energetic mutability of Carnival.

Homer Simpson would rush to Venice if he heard about the Carnival speciality: frittelle. They are spherical doughnuts, studded with raisins. The best are filled with zabaglione: egg custard spiked with Marsala. You eat them warm at a pasticceria, standing at the counter, licking the oily crystals of sugar off each contented finger. Otherwise, Venetian food can resemble an opera most memorable for its overture. Locals begin the evening in a bar with cichete (tapas) and Prosecco and, frankly, there is much to be said for staying there. Among the delicious antipasti I sampled were prosciutto with rocket, pear, and parmesan; grilled zucchini strips rolled around stracchino cheese, with capers and olive oil; crostini with truffle paste and radicchio; breaded fried anchovies and mantis shrimps on polenta.

My favorite place for lunch became the welcoming Osteria ai Artisti (Fondamente della Toletta, Dorsoduro 1169). Their tagliatelle with baby artichokes, parsley, and sweet prawns fresh from the market are so tender and comforting that you feel as if you personally have been drizzled in melted butter. Try the Amarone della Valpolicella, a deep velvet concentrated red wine, and you may never leave.

Although Venice’s alleys are labyrinthine, they are well sign-posted, so you are unlikely to get badly lost. Getting slightly lost is a pleasure. You might discover a bread shop decorated with focaccia masks. Or a clothes shop whose door bears the teasing handwritten message “Open Some Time.” Petting a wary cat in an empty back street called Calle del Fumo, I stumbled across a tiny and exquisite print shop. The proprietor, Gianni Basso, ushered me in and showed me his collection of old letterpresses, type, woodcuts, and copper engravings with which he produces, individually and by hand, beautiful visiting cards, business letterheads, and prints of Venice. I was entranced. His stamps showed a miniature bestiary of winged lions, foxes, squirrels, dragons, wolves, monkeys, and hares.

Basso told me that he had learned the art of letterpress in an Armenian monastery. When the monks got computers, he decided to leave and set up shop himself, rescuing old materials from the defunct printmakers of Venice. He still doesn’t have a computer, or a fax; but he gets orders, by post, from around the world, including among his clients the actor Hugh Grant. Explaining his passion, he chuckled, “This is the real Venice; everything south of here is Taiwan.”

He has a point. Venice has always been a tourist city, but in recent years the balance between residents and visitors, local craftsmanship and imported tat, has tipped worryingly towards the plastic gondola end of the market. In the 1950s there were 150,000 Venetians; now there are only 60,000. That means that there are three tourists for every two residents.

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