- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

The merchants of Venice are alive and thriving. A visitor isn’t required to surrender a pound of flesh, but should bring bags full of euros. Venice — “half fairy tale and half tourist trap,” as Thomas Mann described that glorious, beautiful water-bound city — remains one of the world’s magical places, whether under the golden summer sun or embraced in the cool mists rising from the lagoon in the winter. That’s when, according to Arbit Blatas, the Lithuanian-born painter and sculptor, “Venice is like an abandoned theater. The play is finished, but the echoes remain.”

Its days as La Serenissima Repubblica are over; no longer is Venice the powerful city-state of the Middle Ages, queen of the spice trade. But the Piazza San Marco is much as it was when Marco Polo set sail for China.

The Scuola San Rocco, filled with gorgeous dark-hued Tintorettos, is as imposing as ever. The narrow streets remain paved with stone, the campi (squares) have not lost their charm and many of the palazzi lining the Grand Canal have been restored to former splendor. Gondolas, vaporetti (public motor boats), water taxis and delivery boats of all kinds glide through the canals, the only means of transportation other than walking, with its ups and downs over bridges. The absence of automobiles and gasoline fumes creates a time warp.

The islands and salt marshes of the Venetian lagoon originally were a refuge for mainlanders fleeing the barbarian invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries. The first doge was elected early in the eighth century, and the city was recognized as an independent Byzantine province by the ninth century.

An outstanding relic of the Byzantine era is the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello (where Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi had their romantic picnic in the movie “Summertime”). The cathedral is famous for its unparalleled 11th-century mosaic of the Madonna.

Torcello, although sparsely inhabited, has one of Venice’s best-known restaurants, Locanda Cipriani, now under the Westin aegis, where the rich and famous have dined and sojourned since its opening in 1935. Its founder, Giuseppe Cipriani, the Venetien hotelier and restaurateur of Harry’s Bar fame, named his raw beef dish, created in 1950, the year of a Vittore Carpaccio exhibit, in honor of the painter famed for his bright red and white colors.

An essential of Cipriani’s carpaccio is the sauce, a combination of mayonnaise with mustard and other ingredients, drizzled on the meat. Two years earlier, Cipriani concocted a deliciously refreshing drink — a mixture of peach pulp, peach juice and sparkling wine (prosecco) and named it for Giovanni Bellini, the Venetian painter whose works were exhibited in Venice in 1948.

When the body of St. Mark the Evangelist was brought back (some say “stolen”) from Egypt by Venetian merchants in the ninth century, a basilica, half church and half mosque, was erected (and rebuilt in the 11th century) to enshrine the city’s new patron saint. A thousand years later, the basilica, the beautiful piazza facing it, the reconstructed campanile (its predecessor collapsed in 1912), and the palace of the doges still take a visitor’s breath away.

In 1300, Venice was one of the largest cities in Europe with a population of about 120,000, more than half of whom perished in the plague of 1347 to 1349. For several hundred years, the Republic of Venice was the unrivaled queen of trade between Europe and the Orient and in the 15th century, she was the chief bulwark of Christendom against the Ottoman Empire.

Venice’s power declined with the discovery of America and the circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope. Napoleon deposed the last of the doges; in 1797, Venice was ceded to Austria. Subsequent to a rebellion against its Austrian rulers in 1849, Venice was subject to the first air raid in history when bombs were dropped from balloons with pre-set fuses. The city was united with Italy in 1866.

The museums and churches are filled with the works of such Venetian painters as Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Tiepolo, Veronese, Canaletto and Carpaccio.

But Venice was famous for her craftsmen, and remains so. Glass, leather, paper, lace, wood, gold, jewelry, masks, dolls and fine fabrics continue to be made by hand with the skill of centuries past. And although gondola makers are becoming scarce, there are still a handful of gondola yards (squeri).

Glass blowing is perhaps the craft most widely associated with Venice. Venetian glass, made on the island of Murano, is famous for its lightness, brilliant color and elaborate designs. The oldest document relating to glass in Venice dates to 982. Until the 1400s, glass was blown in Venice proper, but because the houses and ships were made of wood, fire was a constant danger. The glass masters then moved to Murano. The craft has been passed down from generation to generation. Women never worked the glass — a tradition which continues even today. Traditionally, women did the hand painting. The colors are introduced into the molten glass with minerals — gold for red, cobalt for blue, manganese for black and copper for green.

There are dozens of glass-blowing workshops on Murano. We visited the Vetreria Artistica Vivarini, run by Michele Zampedri, who showed us not only the exquisite tableware blown in his studio and the dazzling chandeliers, but some unusual objects, such as a large deep blue and gold-flecked globe of the world (14 were made and one was given to President Jimmy Carter), a glass umbrella rack and a seven-foot tree, its branches covered with multicolored birds, the work of master glass blower Signoretto.

Murano’s Glass Museum is well worth a visit to see the collection dating from ancient Roman glass to elegant 18th-century objects.

From Murano, it’s but a short boat ride to Burano, a pretty island, originally a fishing village, where the houses are painted in bright colors, sometimes more than one to a single dwelling. This was so that the fishermen, returning late at night in the dark, would be able to recognize their homes. There’s a legend in Burano that a young crusader left his lady love a token of a beautiful seaweed. When the seaweed began to wilt, the young lady preserved her gift by reproducing the delicate pattern with her needle and thread on one of her father’s fishing nets. Thus lace making was born.

Another legend, more plausible if less romantic, attributes the art of lace making to the fishermen’s wives who mended their husbands’ nets; they used the techniques to make what became Venetian needlepoint lace. Venetian, or Burano, lace is a joint effort, characterized by seven stitches, each made by a separate woman specialized in that particular stitch.

Point lace is created with needle and thread on an oval cushion and follows the outlines of a design drawn on parchment and attached to the linen covering the cushion. Venetian point lace is always made embroidery style, with needle and thread, and never with bobbins. Venetian point lace (“merletto” in Italian) became popular in the second half of the 15th century, and reached its zenith during the 16th and 17th centuries. Catherine de Medici persuaded some of the Burano lace makers to go to France to teach the French their art and soon French lace rivaled Venetian, although the Venetians claim that French lace never equaled their own needlework.

The industry languished during the French and Austrian occupations of Venice, and was resuscitated by the Venetian aristocracy at the end of the 19th century. The Lace School of Burano was established in 1872 to revitalize the craft of needlework lace. As fashions changed and the demand lessened, the school began to suffer and was finally closed in 1970.

Today, there are about 100 lace makers left on the island. Lace makers can be seen working their craft the traditional way at La Perla and several other shops on the island, as well as in the Lace Museum. When I asked one of the women working in the museum about the relative amount of work it takes to do a design in point lace as opposed to bobbin lace, she replied with flashing eyes and her voice dripping with disdain: “It takes me a month to make this design with my needle; with bobbins, it takes a week.”

Trattoria Da Romano is a delightful place for lunch in Burano. The restaurant has been catering to artists for decades and the walls are covered with works in all styles. Risotto made with squid ink is a specialty and it’s delicious. Scropino, is a Venetian specialty, a mixture of lemon sorbet, vodka and prosecco, and it’s as smooth and cool a finale to a fine meal as anything could be.

Venetians take carnavale (Mardi Gras) seriously, a time for classless revelry. For centuries, craftsmen have been making masks which permit all manner of anonymous carryings on. Masks have become a major business and rival glass as the city’s number one attraction in the shops. Traditional masks and others adorned with lace, sequins and feathers fill shop windows and hang on door posts to gaze out at wandering tourists. Giano Lovato is one of Venice’s great mask makers.

Mr. Lovato also does scenic design and decoration. He decorated part of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. He also is restoring part of the burned La Fenice opera house which is soon to reopen.

Mondo Novo, Mr. Lovato’s mask shop and studio, is filled with masks of all kinds, all made to be worn. There are traditional carnavale masks such as the beaked “larva” (originally black and now usually made of white wax cloth) and “volto” half-masks, commedia del’arte masks, Greek deities, witches, clowns and dozens of others.

Mr. Lovato’s assistant, Eros, showed us how a mask is made, beginning with the casting of a mold to the final painting and glazing of the papier mache mask. Almost all are made to order for a theater or an individual client. Mondo Novo keeps about 800 molds. The masks are works of art — and make beautiful souvenirs.

In the 16th century, there may have been as many as 10,000 gondolas ferrying passengers along the Grand Canal or through the narrow canals of the city. Today, fewer than 500 remain.

Gondolas are long and sleek, with a faint curve to the right to compensate for the single oarsman. Since the 17th century, when the doge ordered it, gondolas have been painted black so as not to glorify wealth. The city’s bridges were constructed to a height that would permit a standing gondolier to pass beneath the center of the bridge.

Today, the gondolas are almost exclusively for the tourists (expensive at 60 euros, or about $70, per hour). A few “traghetti,” public gondolas, ferry 20 or so standing passengers across the Grand Canal for a considerably smaller tariff.

Five gondola yards are left in Venice. It takes about 500 hours of work to build a gondola and eight different kinds of wood. Traditionally, gondola makers came from the Dolomites where the best wood was found. Yet one of the most successful newcomers to the trade is a young man from North Carolina, who came to Venice on a fellowship. “I thought [of] what I could come up with [to get the fellowship]? Obviously, the more creative the better. Then, I thought of the dying craft of gondola building — and I knew I had it in the bag,” he told the New York Times. And indeed, it was in the bag for Thom Price. He arrived in Venice unable to speak a word of Italian seven years ago, but he found a master builder to teach him the craft and he now has his own yard, building expensive gondolas for clients in the United States.

Venice has long been famous for exquisite fabrics. At the Tessuti del Doge, two young women still hand block velvet in the traditional manner. Valentina Bottacin and her partner, Lisa di Maretto, have a little shop a few steps from the Piazza San Marco where they sell the beautiful velvets they have designed. Valentina showed me how she first paints a design on heavy paper and then cuts the design into a piece of linoleum with a tool call a “sgorbie.” Once the design has been cut, the linoleum is hammered onto a piece of wood. The velvet, which is first washed, is then blocked with the cut linoleum. Some of it is painted after the design has been stamped into the fabric.

The young women sell their fabric by the meter, about $225 per meter, but also design clothing, pillows, handbags and other household coverings.

Venetian goldsmiths contributed to the wealth of Venice in the heyday of La Serenissima, and today they continue the city’s tradition of the grand Venetian school. But it is not only established houses such as Nardi, world-class jewelers for three generations, that continue Venetian craft.

In humbler shops throughout the city, simpler jewelry is created with the bright, intricate Murano glass beads. Down a tiny alley in the heart of Venice, “Manu,” as she is called, makes necklaces and bracelets of a jumble of bright beads which she sells in her crowded little shop together with antique jewelry and objects from around the world.

Heyl & Gregorin have published a fine book on Venetian crafts called “Venice Master Artisans” detailing many of the old crafts you can still find in Venice. A visitor to Venice can cross the campos and bridges, look around and ask, as Shylock did, “What news on the Rialto?”

There’s the Ghetto Nuovo, where Shylock would have lived — Europe’s first ghetto (the word probably comes from “getto,” the ancient Italian word for foundry, or “to cast metals”) — and the synagogue Shylock would have attended. There are fewer than 500 Jews in Venice today and only 30 still live in the ghetto.

The Jewish Museum organizes tours of the “hidden” synagogues in the Ghetto Nuovo (older than the Ghetto Vecchio, despite the name). There are five small synagogues, one of which is now part of an apartment house and can no longer be visited. Because Jews were not allowed to engage in the building trades, the synagogues were built by Christian craftsmen and they have elements of Venetian palaces, Christian churches and theaters with beautiful wood and gilt.

Truman Capote got it right. Venice, he said, is “like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs at one go.”

Crafts, hotels and guides for visit to Venice

There are no nonstop flights from Washington to Italy. Delta and Alitalia airlines have code-sharing agreements that include a non-stop flight from New York to Venice with Boeing 767 aircraft.

From Washington Dulles International Airport, the most direct route is to fly to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London or Paris and taking a connecting flight to Venice.


San Clemente Palace, a former monastery, makes a wonderful new five-star hotel on its own island in the Venetian lagoon. The grounds are beautiful and well kept; there’s a tennis court and one of the few pools Venice has to offer. The San Clemente boat shuttles guests to and from Piazza San Marco every 20 minutes for the 15-minute ride across the lagoon. A lovely small restored chapel is also on the hotel grounds.

Rooms, with views of gardens or the lagoon., are large, have high ceilings, are decorated with elegant and subtle style, and are very comfortable with first-class service. The kitchen is run by Ivan Catenacci, who prepares meals fit for Venetian royalty. San Clemente Palace is splendidly luxurious, a perfect place to rest after a day of sightseeing and shopping.

San Clemente Palace, Isola di San Clemente, 30124 Venice, Italy; 39(the country code)/41-244-50-01; fax, 39/41-244-58-00.

A smaller hotel, located on the Grand Canal between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco is Palazzo Sant’Angelo, an option for anyone wanting to stay in Venice proper. The hotel is located in a renovated 19th century palace. Rooms and suites are attractively decorated in bright colors with silk wall coverings; bathrooms are marble and modern. The hotel does not have a restaurant but does have an attractive breakfast room and charming bar overlooking the canal.

Palazzo Sant’Angelo, San Marco 3489, 30124 Venice, Italy; 39/41-241-14-52; fax, 39/41-241-15-57

Craft Workshops

Vetreria Artistica Vivarini, Fondamenta Serenella 5, 30141 Murano, Venice, Italy; 39/41-736-077; fax, 39/41 5274275

La Perla, Via Galuppi 287, 30012 Burano, Venice, Italy; 39/41-730-009

Trattoria Da Romano, Via Galuppi 221, 30012 Burano, Venice, Italy; 39/41- 730-030; fax, 39/41-735-217

Tessuti del Doge. Piscine della Frezzeria, San Marco 1657, Venice, Italy; phone and fax 39/41-528-6747

Mondo Novo Maschere, Dorsoduro, 3063 Venice, Italy; 39/41-528-7344; fax, 39/41-521-2633

Gioielleria Nardi, San Marco 69, 30124 Venice, Italy; 39/41-522-5733; fax, 39/41-523-2150

Manu, Bacino Orseolo, San Marco, 1228 Venice, Italy; 39/41-522-9294

Thom Price, Squero Canaletto, Cannaregio 6301, 30100 Venice, Italy; 39/347- 016-3711


For anyone wishing to visit the Veneto with its elegant Palladian villas, charming hillside towns and villages and vineyards such as Villa Sandi (which produces some delicious prosecco), IDI Travel, under the direction of Filippo Curinga, is an excellent company to choose. IDI offers comfortable vans or cars with good drivers and knowledgeable, English-speaking guides. Filippo Curinga, IDI Travel, srl, Via Terraglio 6/4, Moglioano Veneto — Treviso 30121, Italy; 39/41 5936299; fax, 39/41-456-6735.

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