I first saw Venice in June 1984. It was a sewer.
I had arrived in Rome with an insane man (a misanthropic friend with all the composure of a bag of cats), his new wife, and an image of myself sitting in a white suit in the Piazza San Marco listening to violins while pigeons flew. Lord knows where this image came from—I had never read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice nor seen Katharine Hepburn in Summertime. I picked up the suit in Rome, ditched my friends, and drove to Florence and on to Venice. At a mediocre trattoria on my first evening I met a photographer, a young woman from Mexico traveling through Italy. After snapping a picture of me in the suit, standing among the pigeons in the Piazza San Marco while violins whined the Beatles, she skipped town. Following a quick tour of the Doge’s Palace, I also fled the hordes for an Orient-Express train through the quiet Tyrol. Trapped by summer and ignorance, I, like so many others, had missed the city’s blessings.
A few years later, I had the chance to return during a 10-day Christmas break from filming a movie in sub-zero Quebec. The original plan was to meet my photographer friend Brian and his fiancée in the Caribbean. One week before departure, Brian called to say that the affair was over…and so was the beach. “Bill Murray’s ‘first law of paradise,’ ” he reminded me. “ ‘Bring a date.’ ” He suggested, instead, that we visit the world’s most melancholy locale, as there would be nowhere to go but up. My response: “Well, Venice is miserable in summer, so winter should be deplorable.”
I returned, expecting gloom, but finding rapture. Venice at Christmas is the city as it exists for locals: organic, serene, beautiful. Canals twinkle with holiday sparkle; campo, calle, church, and museum are empty, save for Venetians grateful for the respite from the crowds. The enchanting and exalted Venetian light, immortalized by the paintings of Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, is even more hypnotic in winter, when moisture from the sea hits the chilled air, creating a haze off the lagoon that filters the sun into pink or gold, depending upon the hour. Approached from the airport in a water taxi, the distant skyline of Venice appears like a mirage under this pastel. One winter, with a friend from Paris, I arrived at night during a snowfall. As we stood in the boat’s open cockpit watching the city’s lights twinkle through the flurry, the boat, with its one headlamp, interrupted a flock of gulls nestling on the whitecaps. In slow motion, white birds burst forth from a white sea into the white falling snow. The dizzying image left us speechless until the boatman whispered, “Dio mio.…”
After that first winter, I revisited Venice again and again, the boatman’s whisper becoming my mantra. A Christmas ritual was born. Each year, my wife, Sheri, and I gather here with a disparate collection of friends that grows and shrinks, but always includes Brian, a Venetian sculptress, a tomato baron couple from California, a real estate duo from Miami, and others—most of whom we met here over the years and few of whom we see beyond the dream-borders of this place and time. This year we’re adding six men from the film business, and Sheri wonders if art and architecture will replace their golf, girls, and games. I tell her: If they cannot wander the city and fall under its spell, then let them repair to a disco in Madrid.
We arrive on December 22. The boat leaves us on the island of Murano to meet our core group for lunch and continues on to the Hotel Danieli to drop our bags. At the intimate trattoria Busa alla Torre da Lele, we settle in for a lunch of Venetian classics: moeche (soft-shell crab) appetizers and granseola (a local spider crab) ravioli. Afterward, a 20-yard jaunt across a bridge and through the side door of the Church of San Pietro Martire leads us to Giovanni Bellini’s 1488 Barbarigo Altarpiece, one of my two Bellini favorites, if only for the endearing humanity and beauty in the Madonna’s face. Then we walk along the Murano canals until we’re standing before the Romanesque 12th-century Basilica of Santi Maria e Donato.
Hopping another water taxi, we cross the lagoon, cruising past the cemetery island of San Michele and Mauro Codussi’s diminutively inventive church (1469–78) with its façade of white Istrian stone, the first true Renaissance building in the city. Within the cemetery walls lies the tomb of legendary ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev (whose grave is continuously adorned with dance slippers), as well as those of Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, and poet laureate Joseph Brodsky, author of Watermark, a brilliant memoir of his 17 winters in Venice and the most beautiful narrative I have yet read on the city.
Video: Christmas in Venice
Cruising past the walls of the Arsenale, where the republic’s formidable warships were constructed, our taxi descends into Byzantine shadows as we wind through canal after canal in silence. Pink light caroms off magnificent palazzi and the odd cat trots across a bridge. Aging women carrying bags of fresh fish murmur to one another as they stroll past caffès where men argue politics over grappa. A church bell chimes four o’clock. This is Venezia per i veneziani—“Venice for the Venetians.”
Back at the Hotel Danieli, our Christmas home, Sheri and I stand on our balcony and gaze over the lagoon at the island of San Giorgio with its Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1566–1610), whose classical Roman interior and façade were designed by Andrea Palladio. Up the Grand Canal to our right lies the Punta Della Dogana, once the customs house, now home to a contemporary art museum, over which looms the famous Baroque rotunda of the church of Santa Maria della Salute (1631–87).
The plans of a holiday agenda, all of the itineraries that make you feel that you are enjoying yourself—“Today, we go to the Louvre!”—went aground on my second Christmas visit. Gore Vidal, no stranger to the charms of Venice (check out his Vidal in Venice), once warned me that the city defies this sort of timetable: “Pick a church, Weller! Start out for it. If you get lost or detoured and never reach it—so what?” The point is to wander, especially at Christmas. You can happen upon a campo seen many times before in sun, fog, or rain, and, because of the void of crowds and diffusion of wintry light, feel as though you’re encountering the square for the first time.
We begin the next morning, as we usually do, with coffee at the nearby Bauer Il Palazzo hotel. Then we stroll along the San Marco Canal from the Riva dei Schiavoni to the eastern tip of the island of Sant’Elena, where an impressive rotunda palazzo sits with a laundry on the first floor. Our group (the Los Angeles contingent has yet to arrive) greets its owner, Maria, and continues along Via Giuseppe Garibaldi toward the island of San Pietro. Its church, for centuries the Cathedral of Venice, sits beside Mauro Codussi’s gleaming white campanile (1480’s), made of Istrian stone.
We walk the Fondamenta Nuova beside the lagoon to the rear entrance of the Ghetto. The term ghetto originated in the early 16th century as a reference to the foundry (geto), which was offered to the Italy’s Jewish population for “protection” from persecution on the mainland. Today, the top floors of two of the neighborhood’s unusually tall buildings house the beautiful old German and Italian synagogues (open to visitors by appointment). Nearby are the Spanish and Levantine synagogues, a yeshiva, and a handful of kosher restaurants.
After a visit with friends in the Ghetto, it is over the Grand Canal to my favorite campo, San Giacomo dall’Orio, in the heart of residential Venice. Here, you’ll see nary a tourist (even in summer), unless he is lost. The air crisp and the light turning sepia in the early afternoon, we sip espressos at an outside table in front of the diminutive Taverna Capitan Uncino where we will meet our film friends for lunch. They finally materialize, having indeed gotten lost threading their way through campi, calli, and canals. They’re wide-eyed and quiet, visually stoned. Golf, girls, and games are, it seems, a distant memory.
We spend the morning of December 24 roaming the island of Giudecca, slipping down the alleyways between private palaz-zi, visiting Palladio’s Il Redentore church (1592), and stopping into a few inviting cafés. We cross the Giudecca Canal to lunch on tagliolini con le capesante (pasta with scallops) at Ristorante Riviera on the Zattere and, afterward, sip a caffè affogato, a dollop of vanilla ice cream “drowned” in an espresso, at Gelateria Nico, the birthplace of this delight. We later indulge in a hot chocolate on the Piazza San Marco, the backdrop for my original visit in 1984. Now, however, we sit at the Caffè Quadri, where my friend Fabio, the head waiter, serves us while we admire the San Marco Basilica. Because of its dizzying mix of colored marbles, mosaics, arches, domes, and columns of Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, and Islamic derivation, the influence and origins of the cathedral are the subject of endless debate.
At night we feast—beginning with the jewel of Alba: the white truffle. We devour them on tagliarini, as we have every Christmas Eve for 20 years, at the Martin family’s convivial, warm, and elegant Ristorante Da Fiore, in the San Polo district across the Rialto Bridge. After dinner, we stroll around the corner for midnight mass (whatever our religion) at the monolithic Franciscan Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. We take in the world’s most beautiful altarpiece, Titian’s Assumption (1516–18), while a children’s choir sings Christmas carols.
Christmas morning we sleep late before enjoying Prosecco and cappuccini at the Danieli. Afterward, Sheri passes out the lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which we gaily butcher while singing, loudly, from gondolas commencing under the Bridge of Sighs. Our merry band is shipped through backwater canals—past the marble water-gates of palazzi that tourists seldom ever see—to the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo (a.k.a. San Zanipolo). Before we grab a lunch of panini from the snack bar Al Cavallo, we stop to appreciate the campo’s three precious gems. The gothic Dominican Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo houses priceless Venetian works of Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Bellini, and Paolo Veronese, among others. The late-15th-century façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco (now a hospital), by Pietro Lombardo and Codussi, is my favorite edifice in this life or the next: a High Renaissance masterwork of rounded, harmonious pediments and trompe l’oeil marble reliefs of porticoes and lions, crowned with Byzantine arches and polychrome marble. In the center of the square is the bronze statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1488), considered the ne plus ultra of equestrian statues and cast by Renaissance master Andrea del Verrocchio, the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci.
We celebrate Christmas night at the one and only Harry’s Bar, run by the gracious Arrigo Cipriani. Glutted with tourists during the day, by evening the downstairs is transformed. A fleet of nimble waiters navigate tiny, crowded tables to deliver platters of such Venetian delicacies as sarde en saor (pan-fried sardines) to mostly local diners. I prefer to gorge on baccalà and white truffles (yes, again!) the Venetian way: on eggs over-easy. Dinner is capped by a sublimely hedonistic chocolate cake. Come midnight, we step into the cool night air and make our way to San Marco, where we duck inside the basilica’s gold mosaic domes—the fitting finale to Christmas day.
There are more days ahead to fill as we please: perhaps we’ll make a pilgrimage to Torcello, the original settlement of Venice, to see one of the oldest depictions of the Last Judgment in the Western world—in mosaic, adorning the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. Afterward we might lunch on goh (Venetian lagoon fish) risotto on the island of Burano, and then spend the afternoon wandering among the neighborhood’s colorful gingerbread houses and lace-making studios. Or we could take a stroll through the art galleries of Dorsoduro and northward into the local markets of Canareggio, where the lack of tourists is marked by the absence of the International Herald Tribune. We don’t know. Neither do our film friends. The last we saw of them, they were in San Marco, joyfully considering their options. Like facets in a diamond, Venice in winter seems to offer a thousand of them.
One Christmas morning, years ago, a friend suggested that winter’s Venice would be the perfect city into which you could simply disappear—an absorbing fantasy, like the city itself in this season. So Sheri and I will be here—watching the morning’s boats unload for the market at the Rialto, taking an afternoon to stare at the richly muted hues of Tintoretto in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, or even gazing up at the resplendent colors of Veronese’s recently restored paintings in the Church of San Sebastiano—until someone says of us, “They were last seen on Christmas day…in Venice.” In the meantime, you can catch us at Harry’s Bar.