Are you spending your holiday in the romantic city of Venice this summer? We’re not, either. We have happily entertained fantasies about such a getaway, though, thanks to two recent Yale University Press books about Venetian architecture. We also recently learned that one of our summer interns spent time in Venice this past year, and we asked her to reflect a bit on the city and offer us a brief “armchair traveler” experience.
Venice from the water is a magnificent sight to behold. When people professed to me the beauty of the “floating city,” I imagined, in my pre-visit naivete, a city surrounded by harbors or beaches. On the night that I arrived in Venice, I was surprised to find neither harbors nor typical island beaches, only buildings right at the water’s edge. The doors of the beautiful Venetian palaces open right onto the lagoon, creating an island perimeter of buildings that seem without foundation—truly a floating city. The mythical, otherworldly environment described by Daniel Savoy in Venice From the Water was recognizable at once.
My place of residence was located in a deeply recessed alleyway off the Arsenale water taxi stop—a quiet and beautiful residential area on the eastern side of the city. Like many other tourists, I went straight for St. Mark’s Square. As I walked closer to the hub of tourism, I walked farther from the celestial city that had floated before me when I first arrived. The thousands of tourists, myself included, tramped along the canals and over the many Renaissance-built bridges, turning the magical city into one that seemed nearly overwhelmed by tourism. My concerns over issues of sustainability posed by so many visitors preceded thoughts of rising acqua alta levels.
In a city as touristy as Venice can seem, a proactive traveler needs to do a little extra work to experience the city’s Renaissance spirit. How could I access the majestic essence that the architects of Veniceso carefully planned? I regret that I did not visit Venice with prior knowledge of the city’s genesis and history; the floating city would have made an even deeper impression on me if I could have experienced the city with more knowledge of Venetian history. Venice and Vitruvius and Venice From the Water, or Venice Disputed, Deborah Howard’s account of the democratic debates over civic building projects in Venice, or Howard and Laura Moretti’s beautiful book Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, would have facilitated a travel back in time—a historical, intellectual departure from the often invasive buzz of tourism.
This is not to say that the modern spirit of Venice should be – or could be – ignored. Armed with bloggers’ advice and architectural guides like Richard Goy’s Venice, I was prepared to experience Venetian contemporary art and culture. From the walks in the garden made famous for hosting the Venice Biennial, to the modern art exhibitions at the Peggy Guggenheim collection, to Venetian Spritz in the afternoon and amazing food at night, there is much to explore inVenice’s vibrant culture of the present.
Caroline Hayes is a summer intern in Yale University Press’s Art Workshop and a rising senior at New York University studying Comparative Literature.