For the world’s most beautiful city, Venice had an inauspicious start. The site was once merely a collection of mudbanks, and the first settlers came as refugees fleeing the barbarian destroyers of the Roman Empire. They sought to escape to terrain so inhospitable that no foe would follow.
The success of the community which arose on the site would have been beyond the wildest imaginings of the first Venetians. By the end of the Middle Ages Venice had become the leading maritime power in the Mediterranean and possibly the wealthiest city in Europe. The shallow waters of the lagoon had indeed kept her safe from malign incursions and she kept her independence until the end of the 18th century. ‘Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee, and was the safeguard of the West, Venice, eldest child of liberty.’
Trade with the East was the source of that wealth and power, and the eastern connection has left its indelible stamp upon Venetian art and architecture. Western styles are here tempered by a richness of effect and delicacy of pattern which is redolent of oriental opulence. It is above all by its colour that Venetian painting is distinguished. And whether sonorous or poetic, from Bellini through Titian to Tiepolo, there remain echoes of the transcendental splendour of the Byzantine mosaics of St Mark’s.
That Venice survives so comprehensively from the days of its greatness, so little ruffled by modern intrusions, would suffice to make it the goal of everyone who is curious about the man-made world. Thoroughfares being water and cars nonexistent, the imagination traverses the centuries with ease. And while picturesque qualities are all-pervasive – shimmering Istrian limestone, crumbling stucco, variegated brickwork, mournful vistas with exquisitely sculpted details – there are not half-a-dozen cities in the world which surpass Venice for the sheer number of major works of architecture, sculpture and painting.
Fly at c. 1pm (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Venice. Cross the lagoon by motoscafo (water-taxi) to the hotel.
The morning walk includes S. Zaccaria and S. Giovanni in Bragora, two churches with outstanding Renaissance altarpieces by Vivarini, Bellini and Cima. The Scuola di S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni has a wonderful cycle of painting by Carpaccio. In the afternoon see the incomparably beautiful Doge’s Palace with pink Gothic revetment and rich Renaissance interiors. In the evening there is a special after-hours private visit to the Basilica di S. Marco, an 11th-century Byzantine church enriched over the centuries with mosaics, sculpture and various precious objects.
Cross the Grand Canal to the San Polo district, location of the great Franciscan church of Sta. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which has outstanding artworks including Titian’s Assumption, and the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco, with dramatic paintings by Tintoretto. In the afternoon visit the church of S. Sebastiano with decoration by Veronese and the Scuola Grande dei Carmini with fine ceiling paintings by Tiepolo.
Cross the lagoon by motoscafo to the island of Torcello, once the rival of Venice but now scarcely inhabited. Virtually all that remains of the city is the magnificent Veneto-Byzantine cathedral with its 12th-century mosaics. Lunch is at the celebrated Locanda Cipriani. Continue to the pretty glass-making island of Murano.
In the morning visit the vast Gothic church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the early Renaissance Sta. Maria dei Miracoli with its multicoloured stone veneer. In the afternoon cross the bacino to Palladio’s beautiful island church of S. Giorgio Maggiore and then to the tranquil Giudecca to see his best church, Il Redentore.
Spend the morning in the Accademia, Venice’s major art gallery, where all the Venetian painters are well represented. The afternoon is free.
The Ca’ Rezzonico is a magnificent palace on the Grand Canal, now a museum of 18th-century art. Travel by motoscafo to Venice airport. Fly to London Heathrow, arriving c. 6.30pm.
Dr Susan Steer
Art historian specialising in Venice. Her MA concentrated on the city’s art and architecture and her PhD on Venetian Renaissance altarpieces. As post-doctoral researcher with the University of Glasgow and Neil MacGregor scholar at the National Gallery, she worked as a researcher and editor on the National Inventory of European Painting, the UK’s online catalogue of European paintings. She has extensive experience of teaching History of Art for university programmes in the UK and Italy.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,880 or £2,760 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,410 or £3,290 without flights.
Suggested train itinerary: London – Paris – Turin – Milan – Venice: c. 13 hours.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel between Venice Airport and hotel by water-taxi, a vaporetto pass for the duration of the tour; luggage porterage from and to the airport; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Splendid, Venice: delightful 4-star hotel situated half-way between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
The nature of Venice means that the city is more often than not traversed on foot. Although part of her charm, there is a lot of walking along the flat and up and down bridges; standing around in museums and churches is also unavoidable. The tour should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Fitness is essential.
Are you fit enough to join the tour?
Between 8 and 18 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.
'The lecturer has an amazing enthusiasm for her subject which she conveys to the tour members.'
'The visit to S. Marco after hours was absolutely stunning.'
'I have had the most glorious week. I couldn't wish for better. Something so very special.'
'The itinerary is very well shaped and covers an immense amount of ground. The private visit to San Marco was pure magic!'
'The lecturer was extremely well informed, and best of all, an enthusiast. The tour manager concealed thorough and careful planning under an outward guise of carefree humour.'
'Particularly memorable was the evening visit to San Marco and, a bit later on, a backstage tour of the Pieta.'