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 If you go: Venice

History, art dazzle in Venice

Email|Print| Text size + By Jan Shepherd
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2006

VENICE -- After traipsing in and around Rome's monuments and churches for four days, our goal in Venice was to spend time outdoors, getting lost in the maze of streets and hopping on and off "vaporettos" or bus boats.

That plan was executed and complemented with visits to the delightful Peggy Guggenheim Museum and a crowded St. Mark's Basilica on St. Mark's Square. Two attempts over three days to view the Gallerie dell'Accademia's stellar Renaissance art collection failed because of long lines.

I almost skipped the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace), another landmark on the square and a favorite subject in paintings and photographs of Venice. The Palazzo, adjacent to the Basilica, fronts the San Marco Bay promenade that's awash with a constant flow of pedestrians -- and sometimes water during floods.

I was afraid the place would be crowded like the Basilica, where an unbroken line of tourists snaking through the ornate church made it impossible to linger over a statue or artifact.

Fortunately, curiosity triumphed over fear or I would have missed the amazing complex of art, architecture, and government that provides insight into Venice's past as a center of trade, exploration, and conquest.

One of the palazzo's masterpieces, Vittore Carpaccio's 1516 allegorical "St. Mark the Lion," in which the city's symbol stands with front paws on land and hindquarters in the water, personifies the ambitious and powerful empire that for five centuries dominated the eastern Mediterranean and lands to the west.

The first structure on this site was built in 810 for the "doge" -- or duke -- who oversaw the city, but none of that remains. The U-shaped palace today consists of three huge wings built over three centuries beginning in 1340 and ending with the Renaissance wing (1483-1585), which houses the doge's private apartment and various government divisions.

I headed to the palazzo at 10 a.m. to beat the crowds that appeared midway into my self-guided tour.

Three hours in the Palazzo ultimately weren't enough because I found each room more impressive than the last.

My level of amazement began to rise shortly after entering the courtyard and walking up Sansovino's "Scala d'Oro" (Golden Staircase), a vaulted stairwell dazzling with gold leaf, a favorite decorative accent in the elaborately appointed rooms.

Sansovino also created a fireplace in the Compass Room and the courtyard's marble Giants' Staircase topped with towering statues of Neptune and Mars.

The tour continued with an amazing array of paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Bellini, Giovane, Tiepolo, among others.

Most impressive was the Chamber of the Great Council, one of the largest rooms in Europe at about 162 feet long and 81 feet wide, where the ruling body of 1,000-2,000 noblemen met. A dozen wall paintings depicting Venetian wars sit below a frieze of portraits of the first 76 doges dating from 804-1554.

Tintoretto, his son, and followers painted "Paradiso," the world's largest canvas at 75 feet wide, 25 feet high. The ceiling's massive "Apotheosis of Venice" is by Veronese, a busy man in the Palazzo, who is also credited with "Rape of Europa" in the Anticollegio waiting room, 17 scenes and four octagonal works in the adjacent College Room, and the ceiling in the Council of Ten chamber.

My neck ached from looking up, since the ceilings had as many or more paintings than the walls -- to say nothing of the elaborately carved woodwork and gilding that "frame" the overhead art. I was struck that this work was executed by the city's most talented painters, sculptors, and craftsmen, demonstrating skills that matched and even surpassed those on display in Florence and Rome.

As I left the courtyard and walked into the masses on St. Mark's Square, I mentally replayed the experience and knew I had only skimmed the surface of this remarkable place. Just another reason to return to Venice.

Contact Jan Shepherd, a freelance writer in Boston, at jshep@earthlink.net.

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