People come to beguiling Venice, la Serenissima, to get lost. If you don’t get lost, you’re not a true student of its art, history, and beauty. There are people who’ve been missing for months, even years–not because they can’t be found, but because they don’t wish to be found. If you can go to Venice and not be enticed off the beaten track by the lure of a chimney pot or a canal curving provocatively under a bridge, you should go to Milwaukee, instead.
Well-meaning friends said,”You’ll be lost forever in that maze of alleys. People will ask us, ‘Where are they?’ and we’ll reply, ‘Somewhere in Venice!'”
Our friends were right, of course. We did get lost. Mind you, there are a number of ways in which to become lost. Remember that old wartime song about our troops’ reaction to the delights of Europe? “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree…”? For photographers, “losing yourself in Venice” may have a completely different connotation.
The first time you see the late afternoon light caressing the golden façade of the Basilica di San Marco, let your eye wander along the graceful lines of a gondola, or marvel at the multi-hued pastel houses of Burano, you’re lost. Photography will never be quite the same for you again. If you didn’t have an artistic eye before, Venice will bestow one upon you. It’s not coincidence that images of Venice appear so frequently in photographic magazines and travel publications. Venice is, well, Venice. A very special place.
Adventure by Street
To establish the mood of Venice, we began by getting lost immediately upon arrival. It took us an hour after leaving the train station–dragging our bags, checking our map, and pointing to the address on a brochure as we queried the locals–before we found our hotel a short walk away. In Venice, forget addresses as you know them. Buildings are not numbered by the street but by the administrative area of the city. Further, the “street” name may be labeled as “street,” “square,” “paved street,” or seven other variations on the theme–and may be written in either Italian or the Venetian dialect. None of these labels may match what you see on your map or printed itinerary. However, if you stay on the main drag, at least for the first few days, you may avoid serious disappointment. The yellow signs for major landmarks such as San Marco and the Rialto bridge are clearly displayed. If, by chance, you get lost before you’re ready to be lost, remember that Venice is small. You’re never far from a sign that points to a canal and a vaporetto (waterbus) station that will take you to your destination.
Once settled, we decided to walk to the Piazza San Marco. We had our map, and signs pointed the way. Just follow the crowds, right? Wrong. It was late afternoon on a golden day. One enticing lane led to another, and the light was fabulous. We shot a roll before dark and never found the Piazza. In the end, we ate dinner by a canal and managed to avoid sleeping in the street. Be prepared for your camera and your eye for composition to lead you off the beaten path. Don’t even think of a tight schedule.
Several facts quickly become evident in Venice. First, you haven’t brought nearly enough film. Second, when you set up your tripod in the typical Venetian lane, all traffic comes to a complete halt. Finally, you’re not going to be there for nearly enough time, the best shot of all is around the next corner, and not investing in that PC lens was a big mistake.
Adventure by Waterbus
A fascinating way to lose yourself in the city is to use the waterbus system. It’s the least expensive and most direct route to places of interest. Our Venice guidebook said, “… The vaporetto system is simple to follow, provided your map shows the routes, and you get on the right boat, going in the right direction.” There’s the catch.
We spent several hours going in the wrong direction. With each change of boat, we covered the same stretch of the Grand Canal. We had several opportunities to admire the Ponte di Rialto, and magnificent Gothic palaces such as Ca’ d’ Oro with its lace-like facade, ogee windows, carved capitals, and crowning pinnacles, all once covered in gold leaf. Several gondoliers came to recognize us and would wave at each sighting. They were a happy lot, probably due to the exorbitant prices they charged. (The best way to photograph the buildings of Venice, by the way, is from a vaporetto. However, you’ll be working from an unstable gun platform, so use fast film and be prepared to hand-hold your camera. Bracket your exposures down a half stop, and up a full stop, and you’ll come home with enviable images.)
Venice was “…founded on an island in a swampy lagoon; sustained by bribery, trickery, and political assassination; sponsor of the finest intelligence service the world has ever seen, and arguably the finest flowering of art, as well. In short, the place where heaven and earth meet.” The Grand Canal, the most fantastic, magnificent waterway in the world, is 10,400 feet long, up to 212 feet wide, and fifteen feet deep. It splits the city and is its main thoroughfare. Its banks are lined with marble palaces in varying styles, ranging from Venetian Byzantine to Gothic Romanesque and Renaissance, and from Baroque to contemporary.
The Piazza San Marco is a “must-see” for every visitor to Venice. The photographer must visit it twice. In the early morning, while the tourists are still asleep, the Piazza is empty except for pigeons and the people feeding them. Great images of people awash in pigeons abound. Later, the pigeons are awash in people–much less interesting.
Take a quick trip up the Campanile (St. Mark’s bell tower) when it opens at 10 a.m., and the terra-cotta rooftops of Venice are available to your wide-angle lens. This is a vantage point over 300 feet high, and you will love the view. Experiment with a warming filter on those soft brown colors, and fill the frame with rooftops. You are now on top of the highest building in Venice. One of the sights you can see is the island church of St. Giorgio Maggiore, only a four-minute boat ride away. If you can resist the Tintoretto masterpieces in this church, ascend the Campanile here as well for a fantastic view back across San Marco and up the Grand Canal.
You must return to the Piazza in the late afternoon. True, the crowds are impenetrable, but the late afternoon light on those buildings, with a polarized blue sky in the background, is worth the bruises. If you time it right, you can stop at the Piazza on your return from Burano. “Get away from the city heat and press of bods,” we were told. “Go to the island of Burano, where they fish and make lace” (not concurrently). It takes about fifty minutes by waterbus. The boat leaves from the Fondamenta Nuove roughly every hour.
On our way to Burano, we discovered we were, in fact, going to the island of Murano, where they make glass. There, we had to change boats. What a delight, this sun-saturated town! Brightly painted houses stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, along quiet canals which offer wonderful reflections. The streets are lined with stalls, where relaxed locals, quite happy to be photographed, are selling lace and linens. The white sunshades around these stalls provide excellent soft lighting for portraits. Small boats chug up the attractive canals, creating great leading lines to the colored houses.
The boat trip back across the lagoon is a photo opportunity in itself, with cruise boats slipping by, and great shots of the city. Parts of the lagoon are extremely shallow, so much so that whole families of Venetians will appear to be “walking on water” on a Sunday afternoon.
An Evening Farewell
For our last evening in Venice, we chose to explore the area of the city closest to the railway station. Restaurants and hotels here are more reasonably priced than those closer to the Piazza San Marco. To absorb the ambience of the city at night, we wandered along the Spanish Way. Lovely old buildings lean against each other, their rooflines presenting a ragged silhouette against the indigo sky. Make some time exposures before all the color goes out of the day. Shops and restaurants spill amber light into the darkening street. Artists paint at their easels, surrounded by admiring crowds, good subjects for your flash and reflector. Check your exposure by having a friend hold your light meter, while you fire your flash at it. Automatic flash rarely provides perfect exposures at night. Long exposures on your tripod here will yield wonderful “mood” shots.
It’s time to go. Sadly, we turn and follow a trail of bread crumbs back to our hotel. Lost in Venice? We’d go back any time, if we could find it.
by Allison and Michael Goldstein