Imagine the audacity of building a city of marble palaces on a lagoon – and that was only the start.
Venice's best beaches: sunbathing on La Serenissima
5 min read — Published Oct 11, 2021
If the floating city has you hankering for the beach, rest easy – there are brilliant strips of sand all around Venice. Here is our pick of the best.
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Everyone wanted the commission to paint this building dedicated to St Roch, patron saint of the plague-stricken, so Tintoretto cheated: instead of producing sketches like rival Veronese, he gifted a splendid ceiling panel of the saint, knowing it couldn't be refused, or matched by other artists. This painting still crowns the Sala dell'Albergo, upstairs, and Tintoretto's work completely covers the walls and ceilings of all the main halls. When Tintoretto painted these darkly dramatic works, between 1575 and 1587, Venice's outlook was grim indeed: the plague had just claimed the lives of 50,000 Venetians. In the Ground Floor Hall, St Mary's story starts on the left wall with the Annunciation and ends on the opposite wall with an unusually dark and cataclysmic Assumption. From spring to late autumn, the artworks provide a bewitching backdrop to top-notch classical-music concerts; ask at the counter or check the website for details. Upstairs in the Chapter Room, Tintoretto's biblical scenes read like a modern graphic novel: you can almost hear the swoop overhead as an angel dives to feed the ailing prophet in Elijah Fed by an Angel. Mercy from above is a recurring theme, with Daniel’s salvation by angels, the miraculous fall of manna in the desert, and Elisha distributing bread to the hungry. The scenes from Christ’s life that fill the walls aren’t in chronological order: birth and baptism are followed by resurrection. The drama builds as background characters disappear into increasingly dark canvases, until an X-shaped black void looms at the centre of Agony in the Garden.
Life choices are presented in no uncertain terms in the dazzling mosaics of the Assumption Basilica. Look ahead to a golden afterlife amid saints and a beatific Madonna and Child, or turn your back on them and face the wrath of the devil gloating over lost souls in an extraordinary Last Judgment scene. In existence since the 7th century, this former cathedral is the lagoon's oldest Byzantine-Romanesque structure. The restrained brick exterior betrays no hint of the colourful scene that unfolds as you enter. Of the mosaics, the earliest, dating to the 12th century, is the Madonna and Child rising in the eastern apse above the Apostles, standing on a field of Torcello poppies. To the right of her is another richly decorated chapel, showing Christ flanked by two angels and Sts Augustine, Ambrose, Martin and Gregory amid richly rendered symbolic plants: lilies (representing purity), wheat and grapes (representing the bread and wine of the Eucharist) and poppies (evoking Torcello’s island setting). Saints line up atop the gilded iconostasis, their gravity foiled by a Byzantine screen teeming with peacocks, rabbits and other more fanciful beasts. Polychrome marble floors are another medieval masterpiece, with swirling designs and interlocking wheels symbolising eternal life. An audio guide (€2) is available and it's also possible to climb the campanile (€5) for the heavenly view over the swampy islands, which gives a fascinating insight into what Venice itself must once have looked like.
A soaring Gothic church, the Friary's assets include marquetry choir stalls, Canova's pyramid mausoleum, Bellini's achingly sweet Madonna with Child triptych in the sacristy, and Longhena's creepy Doge Pesaro funereal monument. Upstaging them all, however, is Titian's 1518 Assunta (Assumption) altarpiece, in which a radiant red-cloaked Madonna reaches heavenward, steps onto a cloud and escapes this mortal coil. Titian himself – lost to the plague in 1576 at the age 94 – has his memorial here. The current 14th-century brick basilica was constructed by the Franciscans to replace a smaller church, built on land donated to the order by Doge Jacopo Tiepolo in 1231. The 12 round pillars running between the nave and aisles are said to represent the apostles.
Venice’s main market has been whetting appetites for seven centuries, with fruit and vegetable stands abutting the rather more pungent Pescaria. To see it at its best, arrive in the morning along with the trolley-pushing shoppers and you’ll be rewarded with pyramids of colourful seasonal produce like Sant’Erasmo castraure (baby artichokes), radicchio trevisano (bitter red chicory) and thick, succulent white asparagus. If you’re in the market for picnic provisions, vendors may offer you samples.
Begun in 1565 and completed in 1610, this dazzling Benedictine abbey church owes more to ancient Roman temples than the bombastic baroque of Palladio's day. Inside is a generously proportioned nave, with high windows distributing filtered sunshine. Two of Tintoretto's masterworks flank the altar, and a lift whisks visitors up the 60m-high bell tower for stirring panoramas – a great alternative to queuing at San Marco's campanile.
Fire-breathing is the unifying theme of Murano’s medieval church, with its astounding 12th-century gilded-glass apse mosaic of the Madonna made in Murano’s fornaci (furnaces) and the bones of a dragon hanging behind the altar. According to tradition, this beast was slayed by St Donatus of Arezzo, whose mortal remains also rest here. The other masterpiece here is underfoot: a Byzantine-style 12th-century mosaic pavement of waving geometric patterns, griffons, eagles and peacocks rendered in porphyry, serpentine and other precious stones.
Burano, with its cheery pastel-coloured houses, is renowned for its handmade lace, which once graced the decolletage and ruffs of European aristocracy. These days, with a couple of notable exceptions, much of the lace sold in local shops is imported. Still, tourists head here in droves to snap photos of the brightly painted houses reflecting in the canals – clogging up the bridges and driving the locals to distraction in the process. It's a much more peaceful place in the evening.
Murano has been the home of Venetian glass-making since the 13th century. Today, artisans continue to ply their trade at workshops dotted around the island. To learn about local manufacturing traditions and view a collection of historic glass, visit the Museo del Vetro.
In 1951, industrialist and art patron Vittorio Cini – a survivor of Dachau – acquired the monastery of San Giorgio and restored it in memory of his son, Giorgio Cini. The rehabilitated complex is an architectural treasure incorporating designs by Andrea Palladio and Baldassare Longhena. Tours allow you to stroll through the cloisters, visit the refectory and libraries, and gaze down on the Borges Labyrinth – an intricate garden maze built to honour Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.
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