Separated by canals and linked by bridges, the charming 118 islands of Venice make the city one of the most unique in the world. Add to the equation the magnificent Baroque, Renaissance, and Venetian Gothic palaces and churches; unrivaled public artworks—sculptures, reliefs, and monuments—as well as innumerable galleries overflowing with masterpieces, and it’s easy to understand why Venice has inspired some of the world’s greatest artists for centuries, and why La Biennale continues to set the bar for large-scale art exhibitions.
Organized by the world-renowned La Biennale di Venezia and curated this year by Christine Macel of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, Biennale Arte 2017 will showcase the works of 120 artists over seven months. It offers visitors the perfect opportunity to explore the cultural depth of Venice old and new, and venture outside the city to discover delights beyond the lagoons.
Celebrating art and artists
This year, La Biennale—with the theme VIVA ARTE VIVA—takes place from May 13 to November 26. Of course, there will be an abundance of art on show: primarily in the Giardini gardens, where 85 nations will be represented in the Central Pavilion and across 29 pavilions designed specifically for their country, and at the Arsenale, a complex of repurposed shipyards and armories that will host exhibitions as well as live performances.
Away from the main exhibitions, the historic landmarks that distinguish Venice shouldn’t be neglected, not least because they encourage visitors to truly get under the skin of this beguiling city.
Away from the main exhibitions, the historic landmarks that distinguish Venice shouldn’t be neglected
Philip Rylands, director of the city’s Peggy Guggenheim Collection, says “one of the most astounding art secrets in Venice” is a 12th-century roundel depicting a Byzantine emperor. Above two doorways in the seemingly nondescript Campiello de Cà Angaran near the church of San Pantalon, the roundel is truly unique—thought to be stolen in 1204 from Constantinople.
Another of Rylands’s favorite finds is the “Harrowing of Hell” mosaic in the Basilica di San Marco—he describes the 12th-century work of art as “a masterpiece of medieval storytelling.” He also implores visitors to look beyond the iconic exterior of the Cà d'Oro, one of Venice’s most ornate Grand Canal palaces, and explore the gallery inside.
While the building is best known for its resplendent Venetian Gothic façade, the museum within contains the collection of nobleman Giorgio Franchetti, who bequeathed his palazzo and paintings, sculptures, and other works to the city during World War I. According to Rylands, “Far too few people visit this wonderful museum.”
Go up, look down
To see Venice in a new light, head to higher ground. The San Marco Campanile might be the best-known in the city—it is the tallest—but the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore’s church offers a less hectic alternative. From here, those with a head for heights will enjoy views of the Doge’s Palace, the Basilica di San Marco, and the dome of Santa Maria della Salute.
For lovers of the Renaissance masters, the Venetian church of San Sebastiano contains some of the most important works of Paolo Veronese; his iconographycal series in the church depicts the victory of faith over heresy. Oil paintings and frescoes by Venetian masters Titian and Tintoretto are also within.
Having indulged in Venice’s art and architecture—and possibly losing oneself among the maze of narrow streets—an aperitivo or traditional Venetian meal is likely in order. Rylands’s picks include Taverna La Fenice, a relaxing enclave near the city’s opera house, or Osteria Ai Assassini, which was formerly a wine cellar of the noble Marcello family.
At Osteria Ai Assassini, “The food is fresh and local, and the menu changes every night,” Rylands says. “The charm and wit of owner Giuseppe lends this old-fashioned osteria a festive and convivial air.” Rylands also recommends spending an evening on the terrace of the peerless Gritti Palace “sipping a prosecco and gazing out across the Grand Canal.”
More to explore
After a few days at La Biennale, you may be looking for a break from the art-hungry crowds. A bike ride on the paths along the beach of Lido di Venezia, a 7-mile-long island off the south-east coast of the city, is the perfect antidote. Home to the Venice Film Festival every September, the Lido features two large, public beaches for lounging and swimming on warm days—you'll feel a world away.
To see more of Italy, consider venturing outside Venice to Vicenza, 37 miles west. The Teatro Olimpico, designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and constructed between 1580 and 1585, it is said to be the oldest covered theater in existence. Its extraordinary elliptical-shaped, terraced interior has remained unchanged since the 16th century.
Also worth a visit in Vicenza is the gallery housed in another Palladian masterpiece: the Palazzo Chiericati. Located on Piazza Matteotti, it features works by Jacopo Bassano and his sons Francesco and Leandro, including the elder Bassano’s “The Rectors of Vicenza” and “Adoration of the Child.”
In Padua, just over 25 miles west of the city, you can soak up the sights and smells at the market inside—and outside—the medieval Palazzo della Ragione; see Galileo's lectern and visit the world's oldest anatomy theater in Palazzo Bo; and marvel at Menabuoi’s frescoes in the Padua Baptistery.
Whether you’re discovering groundbreaking art at La Biennale, peeking into hidden-away churches in search of centuries-old masterpieces, or venturing outside the city to explore more of northern Italy, you’re sure to return from Venice with a new appreciation of its enduring cultural legacy.