Monday, 29 March 2010

Venice - a Day on the Lagoon

The highlight of my March has been a trip to Venice.  In my youth I 'did' all the touristy bits but I hadn't been back for over thirty years.  This time I chose an art history tour with Art Pursuits:  It was a wonderfully stimulating week in which we visited lesser known places to study painting, sculpture and architecture mostly of the Renaissance.  We also learnt a lot about Venice more generally and walked around areas that are well off the tourist trail.  Where to start?

As a change from churches and palazzi we spent one day on the Lagoon, travelling by private motor launch.  This was not a trip to Murano and Burano but to some of the lesser known islands.  Just travelling across the lagoon was very beautiful in the soft morning light.

Here is a traditional boat, not a gondola but one where the boatman makes his way with one oar.  We passed several of these people on our way out from the city.  Often they were carrying vegetables, the weekly shopping or tools and materials for the day's work.  You have to remember that most of the lagoon is very shallow.  The navigable channels are marked by lines of  'pilones' made of tree trunks lashed together.
 This can give the impression of a motorway when you look back and see a line of motorboats racing north to the airport.

Our first stop was at the island of San Francesco del Deserto.  This is where St Francis told the birds to be quiet while the monks prayed, a story I remember being told when I first started school.  St Francis went to this island on his return from the East (the term used to describe the area of Constantinople which was under Venetian control for a long period) and set up a small monastery.  The island was later made over to the Franciscan order and there are still friars there today.  You can go on a retreat for a few days but you must be able to speak Italian and be prepared to take part in the monks' services.  The gardens are very beautiful and the whole place is very quiet after the noise and bustle of Venice city.

Most of the monastery architecture is quite new but this well in the cloister is older.  San Francesco del Deserto is near to Burano and there are some good views of the island and its crooked cathedral tower.

Next stop was Torcello which was once a populous island but is now home to fewer than fifty people.

We walked across the island alongside a canal.  This house reminded me of the bargemen's houses you see on our Grand Union canal.  Note the chimneys: all chimneys in Venice have two layers at the top so that the ashes tall down inside and then burn up.  Fire is a constant problem in Venice and this measure seems to be similar to the thatch protectors that people here fit to stop their wood burners setting fire to the house. 

On the far side of the island is the cathedral of Santa Maria Assumpta.  This was founded in 639 AD, rebuilt in 864 and again in 1008.  The oldest part is the remains of the baptistry.

There is lots to see inside the cathedral including a mosaic pavement, elaborately carved screens of Byzantine origin, and wonderful mosaics in the apse and on the west wall.  The west wall depicts The Last Judgement and includes some amazing black and white mosaics representing the dead.  We left here just in time - a huge school party of about 100 children entered the church just as we finished our detailed study.

We then went on to the island of Sant'Erasmo for a traditional Italian lunch.  There are cars on this island!  It is a market garden for Venice and our walk from the pier took us past fields of vegetables although not much was growing at this time of the year.  After lunch there was a slight delay as our boat had broken down, fortunately not while we were on it, and another one had to be sent to take us back to Venice where we fished the day by visiting an old palazzo with a garden.  (Yes, there are gardens in Venice.)

I have to admit that this holiday did not provide opportunities for drawing or painting as our programme was pretty intensive.  I took photos wherever I could but I am still learning about travelling with groups.  I kept seeing 'photo opportunities' of wonderful bits of old buildings, reflections etc. and thought I would go back on the last, free, afternoon, but it was not to be and I appear to have very few photos I would use for design.  But while we were waiting for the replacement boat, I realised there were some very good reflections, almost monochrome because the weather had gone very dull.  Here is an example.

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