Walking through Piazza San Marco shortly after sunrise – just you and the pigeons – reveals a completely different city than the Venice of midday. Equally unforgettable is a passeggiatta along the Riva Degli Schiavoni when it is illuminated only by elegant street lamps and the sound of the water lapping is no longer masked by the bustle of tourism. Even at midday, venturing away from the main tourist destinations can bring you to neighborhoods where the locals still outnumber visitors and it is hard to find a souvenir shop that will sell you a plastic gondola. There are no cars and no motorini; a welcome respite from the buzzing drone and bumper car dodge-em of the Italian mainland. In spite of the lack of vehicular traffic, Venice is a most confusing city for the uninitiated to navigate.
There is a concept that is taught to young visual artists as a way of helping them to understand pictorial space. When artists first begin their training in drawing they are usually so fixated on the objects that they are completely unaware it is more important for them to organize the space on the page into a cohesive design. For example, when drawing a basic still life, a novice sees only bowls and fruit. They do not understand that the space between and around a bowl or an apple plays just as important a part in their drawing’s over-all composition as the bowl or the apple does. The artist needs to be trained to see the importance of the relationship between all shapes; both those that represent objects and those that do not. Artists refer to these various shapes as being either positive or negative. These positive and negative shapes fit together to form a design. Visualizing Venice is equally challenging. One can think of Venice as a city of canals, but it is also a city of tiny islands connected by numerous bridges, but either way you look at it, it is a tangled maze.
Except for the outer islands; Murano, Burano, Torcello, and the Lido, it is possible to walk nearly everywhere in Venice, but never directly. Even with a good map it is nearly impossible for a visitor not to get lost in the furiously winding streets that cross and re-cross canals, darting left then right. There are very few places to get your bearings; few opportunities to step back and get a wider perspective. Like a hamster’s Habitrail, you are always moving forward, but cannot see your ultimate destination, and you have changed directions on your journey so frequently that it is hard to remember where you’ve been. The streets behind you have forked so many times that, even turning around and retracing your steps is exceedingly difficult. But just like the Habitrail, there are enough recreational activities and treats along the way that being lost in Venice is not such a bad thing.
Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.