Venice, Vivaldi, and Mary McCarthy


Venice. So nice to be back, without an agenda. No “need” to see St. Marks or fight the crowds, which are fewer, in any case, this being a rainy stretch in March, a few weeks after the Carnevale revelers have packed up and gone home.

Ah, Venice. What a spell it casts.

“ ‘I envy you writing about Venice,’ says the newcomer. ‘I pity you,’ says the old hand.’ ” Mary McCarthy had it right, in fact. As the famed essayist adds (writing for the New Yorker in 1956, collected in Venice Observed), “Nothing can be said here that has not been said before.”

True, but her observations about Venetian history and character are definitely worth a read. If you come, bring the book. (Did you know, for instance, that easel painting—designed purely for pleasure; not glorification of God, the State, or a wealthy individual—was invented in Venice? Or that the blondes who populate the canvases of Titian, Giorgione, et al., weren’t a fabrication? Venetian ladies would steep their hair in a chemical solution, pull it through an open-crowned hat, and spread it on the brim to bleach in the sun as they sat on their balconies.)

My previous visits to Venice were during summer madness—months to be avoided. But academics are sounding the alarm that Venice may be too late for saving, no matter what the month, crushed beneath the weight of too many tourists, who now outnumber locals by a ratio of 140 to 1. That's largely due to the cruise ships, which pay the city hefty fees. Venice's inhabitants have plummeted from 174,808 in 1951 to 56,311 in 2014, writes author Salvatore Settis (If Venice Dies) in the New York Times. “Just along the Grand Canal, Venice’s main waterway, the last 15 years have seen the closure of state institutions, judicial offices, banks, the German Consulate, medical practices and stores to make way for 16 new hotels.”

This is alarming, to be sure. But McCarthy noted in 1956 that people have always complained about Venice’s crowds. Take Henry James: “The Venice of today is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers. This is nothing left to discover or describe, and originality of attitude is utterly impossible.”

McCarthy’s counsel is simply to give in and relish the charms of this watery city, despite the lack of novelty. And I’ve found that Venice continues to offer heart-stopping moments of sheer beauty.

Like the bobbing silhouette of gondoliers at dusk, straight out of a Whistler painting.

Or night-time glimpses into opulent palazzi on the Grand Canal, where one spies Rococo ceiling frescoes, two-tiered Venetian-glass chandeliers, and portraits of ancestors in weighty gilt frames.

Or a chance encounter with an old master like Giovanni Bellini, whose talent hits you like a lightning bolt. Seeing his Madonna with Saints in the Frari basilica immediately after a ham-fisted altarpiece by Bartolomeo Vivarini, one gets what the hoopla was all about. ‘Masters’ are masters for a reason. Bellini’s gossamer beauty and grace take your breath away.

A few more takeaways for fellow travelers to Venice:

• A number of museums are free the first Sunday of the month, including the Ca d’Oro and the Accademia, where I’m headed today. (See #Domenicaalmuseo and the local newspaper listings in

La Cantina, a wine bar I wrote about in Decanter, remains a great, convivial spot for a light bite and a glass of wine. On the blackboard, a dozen or so wines-by-the-glass are in constant rotation. Interesting stuff, not just tourist quaffers. I had a couple of glasses of garganega (‘research’ for my upcoming Soave trip), which were nutty and intense and utterly pleasing.

• I love to hear classical music in Italy, for it’s always in special settings. And the Chiesa San Vidal’s concert series filled the bill. It’s a small jewel of a church—the most antique in Venice, according to legend. Last night, the string ensemble Interpreti Veneziani played a program of Vivaldi, Corelli, and Geminiani. It’s a pleasure to hear even an old chestnut like The Four Seasons played live; this lets you see the violins’ voices intertwine and know who’s saying what, the better to grasp the polyphony. The group was great. Long live Vivaldi, another native of Venice!