Magazine article The Spectator

Venice Is Optional

Magazine article The Spectator

Venice Is Optional

Article excerpt



IT WAS going to be the working holiday of my dreams. I'd spend mornings in the luminous, high-vaulted reading-room of the state archives, poring over ambassadors' dispatches from the imperial Spanish court. In the afternoons I'd visit churches and museums at a civilised pace, and, since it was late winter, relatively free of competition from other tourists. At night I'd prowl the fog-shrouded calli, pretending to be Casanova.

My one experience with Venice had been a sweltering week in borrowed student digs with leaky plumbing. Now, thanks to a generous American foundation, I would be lodging in a palace on the Grand Canal, just over the bridge from the Accademia. As a bonus my stay would coincide with Carnival, which I imagined to be one grand, glittering masked ball (not the unseemly crush of day-trippers which I later learnt it actually is).

`No room, all full,' said the man at the palace. `Carnival.'

A misunderstanding, surely. Wasn't I holding a fax, signed by the man himself, confirming my reservation?

`You did not confirm the confirmation. I am sorry. No room.'

I cursed the Latin fetish for paperwork, but an Italian friend had a simpler explanation: `He bumped you for a conference group.' Whatever the reason, I was now without a roof. My grant, ample by research standards, hardly sufficed for a month's stay at Venice market rates.

With sinking heart I turned to Padua, that drab-looking city half-an-hour inland, site of Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel and the Donatello statue outside St Antony's Basilica; yet for most tourists not worth an overnight stay, which at least keeps hotel tariffs relatively down to earth.

February dankness made hanging around Venice unpleasant after dark, but what was there to do at night in Padua? A friend from home gave me the number of her former flatmate there. Still dreaming of romance, if not A la Casanova then perhaps A la Petruchio and Kate, I picked up the phone.

As a consequence of that call, I spent little time in Venice that month, barely enough to justify my grant; and my art-historical tour of the Most Serene Republic was indefinitely postponed. But among the compensations was my discovery of the Venetian terraferma, and particularly of Vicenza, where my new friend was a teacher. An hour north-west of Venice by train, the city is Mecca for devotees of history's most influential architect.

I knew Palladio through 11 Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore; his Venetian legacy is almost wholly ecclesiastical. I knew him only indirectly, through pictures and widespread imitations, as a maker of houses. Yet the bulk of his achievement is domestic and stands on the mainland: palaces in Vicenza and villas in the surrounding countryside.

Vicenza boasts ten of Palladio's palaces, but, owing to the vicissitudes of the late16th-century economy, they are mostly little more than facades. This lends a stroll down the town's curving streets a fanciful quality, like walking through a stage set. The most spectacular of Palladio's works here is, fittingly, the Olympic Theatre, whose trick-perspective scenery gives the illusion of another city beyond the classical arches of the proscenium.

Palladio's largest structure in Vicenza is his stone covering for the mediaeval Basilica (not a church, but originally a hall of justice, in the older sense of 'basilica'), whose copper roof dominates the skyline like the back of a verdigrised whale. …

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