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A Weekend in Venice, With the People Working to Preserve Its Extraordinary Museums and Churches

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 11/23/2022 Arati Menon

From where I stand on the bobbing dock of the Gritti Palace—under a cloudless October sky, looking onto a sunlit Grand Canal—it’s hard to imagine a bad weather day in Venice, let alone tourists wading through its flooded squares. But high tides are no exception here, especially at this time of year: The city’s relationship with rising waters has, for more than half a century, been consistent at best, and devastating at worst. 

Venice is truly unlike any other city. Its very physical existence is an engineering marvel; its medieval street plan, still intact after all these centuries, is a remarkable feat of human creativity. It also has arguably the greatest concentration, and quality, of artistic treasures in the world. But while it draws an estimated 20 million tourists every year to its spectacular setting, a part of its watery appeal is its very fragility. 

Venice draws millions to its spectacular setting, but a part of its watery appeal is its fragility. © Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com Venice draws millions to its spectacular setting, but a part of its watery appeal is its fragility.

That fragility is also why I'm in Venice. I’m a guest at the 50th anniversary celebrations of Save Venice, an American nonprofit that was formed in response to the devastation caused by the 1966 floods, and which has since committed itself to saving the city's historic legacy. With its team of historians, conservationists, artists at hand—and its committed patron network—Save Venice has completed close to 2000 restorations, tackling about 40 to 50 projects at any given time. “We see ourselves as stewards of this incredible inheritance that belongs not just to Venice, but the entire world,” says Frederick Ilchman, the organization’s chairman. 

Over the next three days, I, along with about 200 Save Venice patrons, will crisscross the islands, from the Church of San Sebastiano in a tucked-away corner of the Dorsoduro district to the Jewish Ghetto in Cannaregio. We will visit restoration sites, go on walking tours, and—Venice being Venice—attend a ball sponsored by the Gritti Palace. The weekend is an opportunity to peer behind the scenes and understand what it actually takes to restore frescoes and save churches. And in the case of just-completed projects like the Assunta at the Basilica dei Frari—Renaissance legend Titian's first masterpiece—a chance to revel in its transformation.

Behind every grand reveal like the Assunta, however, is an enormous undertaking. Making 16th century gilding shine bright again, or having cherubs emerge from under centuries of dust, involves painstaking technical labor and structural intervention—and pivoting to meet unprecedented demands. When the high tides of 2019 brought water rushing into the 16th-century Church of San Sebastiano, Save Venice took to cleaning and repairing floors, along with weatherizing windows and installing flood barriers. 

Conservationist Giovanni Cucco re-adhering 1000-year-old mosaics in the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello © Matteo De Fina Conservationist Giovanni Cucco re-adhering 1000-year-old mosaics in the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello

Unexpected discoveries accompany these restorations. Ilchman points to the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, where the coffered wood ceiling, when freed of centuries of dust and grime, revealed painted and gilded wood. And extensive work on its marbled exteriors unearthed intricately carved cornices and several reliefs. “It was such a hidden gem, and so easy to overlook until then,” he says. 

These discoveries are often much greater than the sum of their parts. 

On a Sunday morning, a small group of us wind our way up the canal to the Jewish Ghetto. Established in 1516, the Venice Ghetto was one of the first places where Jewish people were forcibly segregated—permitted to trade during the day but confined at night, with access routes manned by Christian soldiers. 

We begin our visit in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, a quiet plaza that anchors this part of the city. Around us are fraying buildings, taller than I’d seen anywhere in Venice, and fruiting pomegranate trees. When the ghetto was at its apogee in the 17th century, Jews from all over Europe carved out spaces for themselves here, maintaining their own synagogues. When it was abolished in 1797, most residents fled—emptying out what was once a vibrant center for cultural exchange. 

Melissa Conn, director of the Venice office of Save Venice, shows a smaller group of us around the Italian synagogue where restoration is underway, pointing out details like the 16th century terrazzo floors that peek out from under hastily laid modern flooring. Conn underlines another aspect of restoration: the uncovering of what life was like at a particular period, and in the case of the Ghetto, the clues it holds for reimagining this highly symbolic space.

“It's so important to keep this part of Jewish history and prosperity alive. To hear from people invested in its future is incredibly moving,” Alexander Hankin, a patron of Save Venice who was drawn to its mission seven years ago, later said.

Elephant (1987) by Katharina Fritsch, among the many women artists at the 2022 Venice Biennale © Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com Elephant (1987) by Katharina Fritsch, among the many women artists at the 2022 Venice Biennale A visit to Venice is incomplete without cicchetti at a traditional bàcaro. © Ggutarin/Getty A visit to Venice is incomplete without cicchetti at a traditional bàcaro.

The theme of past, present, and future are inescapable all weekend. The Venice Biennale, with its ambitious showcase of contemporary art, has taken over streets and spaces from the Gallerie dell'Accademia to the Arsenale, and lines of visitors snake around palaces and museums, eager to see modern masters face off with Venetian legends. For the first time in the 127 years of the Biennale, the exhibition has a woman curator, Cecilia Alemani, and is majority female and gender non-conforming artist-led. Coincidentally, Save Venice’s new Women Artists of Venice project is uncovering the works of some 30 underexplored female artists who worked in the city between the 16th and 18th centuries. 

The past and future didn’t always sit quite so comfortably here, though, according to Ilchman. “It was thought that contemporary art would ruin Venice's legacy. Today, the two coincide,” he says.

That evening, peckish from island-hopping, I seek out a different kind of local treasure, asking the concierge at the hotel where I could find the best cicchetti, the small savory snacks served at a traditional bàcaro. “A spot that Venetians frequent,” I request. When I get to Corte dell’Orso, after weaving a labyrinthine path through deserted alleys and crowded squares, it’s a safe bet that there are more tourists here than locals. The cicchetti is abundant and excellent—twisty sea creatures on toothpicks, shrimp-topped polenta bites, and sardines on crostini—but the fact is that Venice has never had so few residents, or so many tourists.

I find a moment on the trip to ask Ilchman about the fragility of Venetian life and how organizations like Save Venice can play a part in protecting it. “Restoration isn’t just about the art,” he says. “It’s a way of restoring life—to demonstrate that extraordinary heritage can coexist with a living town.” Ilchman also hopes that in demonstrating the longevity of Venice as a dynamic city—and in a world in which remote working is more prevalent—there will be more people who will consider moving here full-time. “I mean, is there a more walkable city than Venice?”

Murano's streets have a near-reverent silence © Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com Murano's streets have a near-reverent silence The 12th-century Santa Maria degli Angeli church © Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com The 12th-century Santa Maria degli Angeli church

It is true that one of the many attractions of the Venetian islands is that they have remained blissfully vehicle-free. On a morning in Murano, we are taken on a private tour of the 12th-century church of Santa Maria degli Angeli by a young researcher on one of the many fellowships funded by the organization. As the tour ends, I slip back from the group and wind my way slowly through streets bookended with flapping clotheslines and rustic osterias, savoring the near-reverent quiet of this lagoon island.

“The pedestrian speed in Venice allows for a certain depth of relationship to form,” notes Timothy Edmond, a craft cider maker from Virginia and a fellow guest at the weekend’s celebrations. “As the pace slows, I find my senses sharpen.”

That sharpened sensory pleasure is never felt more strongly than on the final night. It took Save Venice 4 years and 9000 hours to restore Titian’s Assunta, but there it was—at 22 feet high, the world’s largest work of art on a wood panel—in like-new vibrance. “Seeing a piece of art so freshly restored really brings to life the work that Save Venice is doing,” notes Edmond.

Titian's Assunta, the world’s largest work of art on a wood panel, took conservators four years to restore. © Matteo De Fina Titian's Assunta, the world’s largest work of art on a wood panel, took conservators four years to restore.

As the night progresses, we are treated to a performance by a mezzo soprano under the freshly glowing Assunta, and dinner under a “sky” of Tintoretto paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. I marvel at it all: the ambitious art, the sheer opulence, the painted ceilings, and the grand staircases. It’s hard not to be moved by any of it—whether you're dancing the night away in a palazzo, walking the streets of Murano, or spending golden hour at one of the many bàcari by the Rialto. For all its beauty and its frailties, Venice is undoubtedly a city like no other. 

The next morning, as my water taxi to the mainland, and the airport beyond, slices through the mist, and San Marco slips back into the distance, I ask myself: Is it possible to come away from Venice feeling the same way as you did when you entered? I don’t think so. And the folks at Save Venice intend to keep it that way.

No celebration in Venice is complete without a ball—or a boogie. © Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com No celebration in Venice is complete without a ball—or a boogie.

Highlights from a weekend in Venice

The island of Torcello, dating back to the 7th century, is the oldest surviving landmark in the Venetian lagoon. Its crown jewel is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, a cathedral with beautiful mosaics that have survived almost a 1,000 years. Break for a languid lunch on the terrace at Locanda Cipriani, for traditional local fare with comfort at its heart. Bring Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees for company. (Torcello is where he wrote it.)

I unknowingly skipped past the Jewish Ghetto on previous trips to Venice, and strongly recommend that you don't. Once the epicenter for Jewish public—and private—life in Venice, it offers glimpses into a critical piece of Venetian history. Spend your time on a bench soaking up its main square; visit one of its many synagogues (of which Save Venice is restoring two); or get lost in its by-lanes in search of dolci ebraici (Jewish sweets).

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco houses some of Tintoretto’s most significant work, and every inch of this iconic 14th century landmark is decorated in peak-Renaissance lavishness. On occasion, the space hosts concerts and lectures—so check the website for upcoming shows.

A majestic Gothic church, the Basilica dei Frari was completed in the 14th century and includes Bellini's Pesaro Triptych and the tomb of Antonio Canova. But the center of attention belongs to Titian's newly restored Assunta (Assumption) altarpiece, in which a jewel red-cloaked Madonna reaches heavenward, as the Twelve Apostles look on, gesticulating wildly. Titian himself has his mausoleum here.

Fondaco Dei Tedeschi isn’t just a department store with eye-watering fashion, it also has one of Venice’s better-kept secrets—a terrace with a birds-eye view of the islands. For the best version of this privilege, go at sunset and time it to the hour—the church bells are the perfect accompaniment to the crowd's oohs and aahs.

Finally, no trip to Venice is complete without a sunset aperitivo at the Gritti Palace, that Grand Dame of Venetian high luxury hotels. Order the house favorite, the Basil-ca, find a seat at the edge of the Grand Canal, take in its extremely well-dressed clientele—and plan your next visit to this incredible city.

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