Frederick Ilchman, the Museum of Fine Arts curator of paintings, art of Europe, talks about Venice and its allures.
Q. When we last spoke in 2009, you were traveling back and forth to Venice for your fabulous Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese show at the MFA. What do you find most enticing about Venice?
A. I love the palpable sense of the past in Venice. You can really feel the layers of history. That it’s one of the largest cities unchanged by the existence of the automobile. Particularly in the early morning or late at night, it’s as if you’re still in Renaissance times and Tintoretto could come around the corner at any minute. My own specialty is Italian Renaissance art and Venice is full of that. The tranquillity, by being in a city without automobiles, and the quantity of historic architecture are some of the great draws.
Q. Describe your perfect day in Venice.
A. Certainly a perfect day in Venice would include lots of walking. Whether I’m spending time with friends or doing art appointments, I like to dip in and out of buildings to look at a beautiful painting or sculpture, or chat with a shopkeeper I know. I try to visit a couple churches, museums, or buildings a day. This might include a stop at the Church of San Sebastiano, which is currently being restored by Save Venice, a private organization I’m very active with that preserves cultural sites around the city. A fun thing I really enjoy is that when you cross the Grand Canal in a place where there is no bridge, you can ride a little gondola ferry called a traghetto back and forth for a nominal fee.
In the evening, the great event is the ombra cicchetti ritual. “Ombra” is the Italian word for shade and it’s slang for a glass of wine. And “cicchetti” is kind of like Venetian tapas. It’s a Venetian pub crawl and the Venetians start drinking relatively early. In the afternoon, if not in the late morning. The cicchetti tends to end on the early side, say 8 p.m. Then I would enjoy a nice multicourse dinner definitely based on seafood cuisine. I think it’s an amusing paradox that Venice, which has the most colorful school of painting in the world, has the most monochrome dishes. The cuisine is white wine, white fish, and white polenta. You can go a week without seeing a tomato.
Q. Do you have a favorite place to dine?
A. I like Vini da Gigio [www.vinidagigio.com], off Campo San Felice in Cannaregio, not far from my old apartment. The seafood risotto there is just heaven, and particularly appealing is that they have wines from small Italian producers. Around the corner is the Osteria Ca’ d’Oro (“La Vedova”). “La Vedova” means “the widow” and she left us a generation ago, but the nickname stuck. Great cicchetti. Cantinone Già Schiavi, near San Trovaso, is a wine shop with counter for excellent wines by the glass and nice snacks like little salamis. Then head up to the Rialto markets, as in “The Merchant of Venice,” where there’s a whole slew of these Venetian wine bars. It’s certainly a treat to have a drink at Florian [www.caffeflorian.com], which is the cafe on the south side of Saint Mark’s Square. It’s punishably expensive when the orchestra is playing, but the view and the atmosphere are just magical.
Q. Any upcoming exhibitions you’re working on that we can look forward to?
A. My big project coming up is a large exhibition on Goya for 2014. A mix of paintings, prints, and drawings, arranged thematically. Its only venue is Boston. A great part about working on this exhibition and persuading lenders is that it requires several trips to Madrid . . . another great walking city that I plan to explore.