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 eighteenth 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.
Venice in winter has one overwhelming advantage over other seasons: fewer tourists. With most of the noisy, gaudy trappings of the tourist industry packed away, the beauties of the city are more readily appreciated, and the sense of her past greatness even more captivating.
There may be rain, there will probably be morning mists and it will be overcast for at least some of the time, but equally likely are days of unbroken sunshine and brilliant blue skies, with a wonderful clarity in the air.
Fly at c. 8.00am from London Gatwick to Venice. Cross the lagoon by motoscafo (water-taxi) to the hotel. Visit the church of Santa Maria della Salute, built 1631–1681 by way of thanks for the deliverance of Venice from the plague of 1630–1631 and considered the most important edifice built in Venice in the 17th century.
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 baptistry and cathedral with its 12th-century mosaics. Continue to the pretty glass-making island of Murano to see the churches of S. Pietro Martire and SS. Maria e Donato. In the evening there is a special after-hours private visit to the Basilica of S. Marco, an 11th-century Byzantine church enriched over the centuries with mosaics, sculpture and various precious objects.
In the morning see the incomparably beautiful Doge’s Palace with pink Gothic revetment and rich Renaissance interiors. In the afternoon, cross the Grand Canal to the San Polo district, location of the great Franciscan church of S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari which has outstanding artworks including Titian’s Assumption, and the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco, with dramatic paintings by Tintoretto.
Padua. A day trip to Padua, among the most illustrious of Italian cities, and a leading centre of painting in the 14th century. The great fresco cycle by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel is a major landmark in the history of art. Colourful and lively works by Altichieri and Giusto de’ Menabuoi are in the vast multi-domed Basilica di S. Antonio, the Oratorio di S. Giorgio and the Baptistry. See also Donatello’s equestrian statue, Gattamelata.
Visit the Ca’ Rezzonico, a magnificent palace on the Grand Canal, now a museum of 18th-century art. In the afternoon see the vast gothic church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the early Renaissance S. Maria dei Miracoli with its multicoloured stone veneer. Some free time.
Christmas Day. A free morning, opportunity perhaps to attend a service in S. Marco or the English church. Before lunch see the palaces on the Grand Canal from the most Venetian of vantage-points, a gondola.
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. Spend the afternoon in the Accademia, Venice’s major art gallery, where all the Venetian painters are well represented.
The morning is free until you leave for the airport. Travel by motoscafo to Venice airport. Fly to London Gatwick, arriving c. 1.45pm.
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.
Per person: Two sharing: £3,430 or £3,230 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,930 or £3,730 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320 and 319); travel between Venice Airport and hotel by private water-taxi, some journeys by vaporetto and one by gondola; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 4 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips for waiters, porters; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Luna Baglioni: elegant and historic 5-star hotel just off Piazza San Marco, looking out across the basin to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Rooms are elegantly furnished and decorated.
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 and crossing of bridges; standing around in museums and palaces is also unavoidable. This tour should not be undertaken by anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stairclimbing.
Not warm, snow is possible (if unlikely) and rain probable, though sunshine and blue skies are also likely. Acqua alta (high water) is possible.
Between 8 and 18 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'The highlight was sitting in St Mark's Cathedral in the dark, and then the lights slowly revealing the amazing interior – without the crowds.'
'Lovely to be there with fewer crowds. The visit to St Mark’s was such a privilege.'
'The evening visit to San Marco was unforgettable - the highlight.'
'The lecturer was extremely good. It was a delight to have such a knowledgable and likeable person on this tour.'