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Off the Beaten Track in Venice

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Photo: Simon Watson

On a particularly pellucid afternoon last June, at the tail end of the opening of the 55th Venice Biennale, I am chatting with Bianca Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga in her garden by the Grand Canal. We sit in the shadow of the Palazzo Papadopoli, the beautiful 16th-century palace that is the ancestral home of her husband, Giberto; shards of light glint off the gently ruffled water and reflect on its newly plastered façade. Carefully tended gravel borders a preternaturally perfect lawn at the garden’s center. Sleek, bleached-oak tables and steel-wire chairs line its perimeter; mirrors in dark wood frames are leaned, one precisely equidistant from the other, against an immaculate brick wall. In a city whose reputation was built on extravagant displays of wealth—not least among them the palazzo towering next to us, still one of the largest privately owned ones on the Grand Canal—and whose beauty today is more of a crumbling, decadent sort, this is a curiously austere space. But then, the garden isn’t precisely Arrivabene’s anymore. It is now under the management of the Singapore-based Amanresorts, and her husband’s ancestral home goes by a new name: Aman Canal Grande.

Not long ago, Arrivabene recalls, things here skewed decidedly more toward the shabby chic end of the maintenance spectrum, with wisteria growing in unchecked profusion. No longer: shabby chic—an aesthetic with which Amanresorts, as anyone who has visited one will know, has exactly zero truck—has left the building. In its place has come an unassailably tasteful merger of 21st-century design and neo-Renaissance and Rococo splendor. Layered in ornate cornices and original Murano chandeliers, Aman Canal Grande’s public salons and 24 suites were painstakingly refurbished in an 18-month renovation requiring an average of 100 artisans on site daily. Elaborate plasterwork and freshly abluted gilt contrast with angular, contemporary furniture in gunite gray, studio white, and other shades on the not-quite-color wheel. In my suite, chubby putti gambol across frescoes attributed to the school of Tiepolo; on the piano nobile they are the work of the master himself, crowning a dining room covered in vermilion damask and hung with portraits of Arrivabene ancestors.

For anyone who’s been paying even perfunctory attention to Venice’s evolution over the past several years, a slick, Asian-based hotel group taking over the Palazzo Papadopoli makes perfect sense. It’s a pivotal moment here right now: at one end of the tourist profile are the rarefied spectacles of the Biennale and the Venice Film Festival, which see the Guidecca Canal grow thicker every year with super-yachts, and certain quarters of the city teeming with VIP’s from Beverly Hills and Basel, Kazakhstan and Kuala Lumpur. This year’s Biennale is the biggest to date, with 88 countries exhibiting. Luxury hoteliers have responded, establishing presences (as in Aman’s case); debuting new properties (like Francesca Bortolotto Possati, the Venetian-born owner of the venerated Bauers hotels, with the exclusive Villa F); or upping their game with ambitious multimillion-dollar renovations (among them the venerated Gritti Palace and the Hotel Danieli, both flying Starwood’s Luxury Collection flag).

At the other end is a less glamorous, more worrisome phenomenon: the thousands in the Piazza San Marco and on the Riva dei Schiavoni jostling for their photo of the Bridge of Sighs to post to Pinterest (or, increasingly, Weibo). Most are day-tripping cruise passengers and tour groups, and their numbers increase by an alarming amount each year. Fears that this demographic doesn’t spend enough to compensate for the damage their aggregate droves are doing to historic Venice—flood-prone; weak of foundation; as physically vulnerable as a metropolis can be—are growing.

This is why the future, here, is as much in the hands of those who visit as of those who call it home. Between the art diva and the day-tripper, there is room—indeed, there’s the need—for the tourist who partakes of another Venice: the living city that hums with modern culture, local artisanal cuisine, craftspeople keeping traditions alive, and authentic neighborhoods.

For though its geographic nature is finite, Venice still allows for felicitous accidents of discovery—and even, surprisingly, of solitude, despite a daily tourist influx in the Centro Storico that outnumbers the actual population. You can, for instance, carve a route through the labyrinth of calli radiating east from the Doge’s Palace, and within 15 minutes be in Castello, the once mariner-class sestiere that surrounds the Arsenale. Its low-rise houses and tiny squares are humbly pretty, strung with laundry pirouetting in the Adriatic breeze. Masterworks by the schools of Tintoretto, Bellini, and Veronese are casually sequestered in churches and chapels like multi-carat gemstones scattered across garden soil. In the Via Garibaldi, you can stop for a tiny tramezzino of baccalà and artichoke purée at Bar Mio, or stroll down to Serra dei Giardini, a hybrid café-nursery-event space, for a glass of Ribolla Gialla or a freshly blended vegetable juice.

Similarly, over by the Rialto Bridge and market—brimming sometimes joyfully, sometimes claustrophobically, with life—a handful of strategic turns will take you deep into the quietude of San Polo. Here, if your map (and/or the directions from your hotel’s concierge) has served you well, you’ll reach Antiche Carampane, where diners convene under rustic beams and lighting that’s just a shade too bright, tucking in to soft-shell crabs (sublime, when in season, in late spring and early fall) and a signature berry pavlova (deadly delicious, year-round). Antiche Carampane shares an ethos of local products and traditional preparation with a handful of other restaurants, recently gathered into a loose official alliance known as La Buona Accoglienza (“the warm welcome”). They include some of the city’s all-stars, such as tiny Alle Testiere, with its fish dressed with tender violet Sant’Erasmo artichokes or tart radicchio from organic allotments on the island of Vignole. And also Al Covo, whose Italo-American owners, Diane Rankin and Cesare Benelli, have just opened a new bacaro, CoVino, where you can sample what they call terroir dining: small courses from all small-scale producers, served from an open kitchen in an informal atmosphere, with wine pairings and tastings.

Which is not to say la cucina veneziana isn’t being contemporized in adventurous new ways. At Il Ridotto, 39-year-old chef Ivano Mestriner—who left the Michelin-starred Dal Vero, in Treviso, in 2011—does a spaghetti neri—squid-ink pasta remixed with sea urchin, vivid green monk’s beard, and minced pepper—that is as vibrant and sophisticated as the setting: warm brick walls; sleek leather chairs; glass-topped tables with sculptural Murano highballs and vintage porcelain teacups.

Venice has been contemporizing culturally for some time, too. The Biennale’s breadth emphasizes this, of course. Martin Bethenod, who since 2010 has been director of the François Pinault Foundation, the public art collection established by the luxury-goods magnate, notes the number of Biennale events that are showcased in the city’s prominent historic buildings, like a delightful aesthetic treasure hunt that marries the (occasional) shock of the new to the venerable old in a way only Venice could achieve. We’re talking over a pair of Spritzes—what else?—on the terrace of the Bar Longhi, at the Gritti Palace. In February, the Gritti emerged like an exceptionally ornate chrysalis from its own 15-month, $55 million renovation—one that, as with the Aman Canal Grande, was overseen by municipal bodies. There, however, the similarity ends. Its designers enlisted the 155-year-old Rubelli textiles firm to reproduce fabrics from its archives expressly for the hotel; the new Gritti hews entirely, and elegantly, to historical context, down to the last bit of silk passementerie. Not surprisingly, it also has VIP cred in spades: few views in town can rival the one from the 2,690-square-foot terrace of its three-room Redentore Terrazza Suite.

But contemporary culture now extends far beyond Venice’s social-calendar highlights. Palazzo Grassi, as well as the newer Fondazione Prada—established in the 18th-century Palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina in 2011—are cornerstones in a robust year-round offering. Bethenod and I bond over our admiration of the new Stanze del Vetro at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, on the Isola San Giorgio Maggiore—a space for exhibiting Venetian glass and glassmaking techniques of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that was designed by Annabelle Selldorf; and the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, a house-museum that’s a four-story, five-century palimpsest of the city’s history: “You have one of the most beautiful Bellinis in the world there,” Bethenod says, “but also Carlo Scarpa,” the 20th-century architect who redesigned the palazzo’s garden and ground floor to Modernist, symmetrical perfection.

Earlier in the day, Bethenod had shown me the just-opened Teatrino Grassi. Restored, like the Palazzo Grassi itself, by Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando, it will bring conferences, performances, lectures, and cinema series to the city on an ongoing basis. En route to the Gritti, we stopped in at the tiny art gallery of Giorgio Mastinu. Its vitrines hold prints and posters, small paintings, rare monographs, and objects—beautiful installations in and of themselves. (“Giorgio is outside of the market,” noted Bethenod, a definitive art insider, approvingly. “He’s not about making a big show. He’s about the right archive, the right photograph.”) Farther down, at the Campiello della Feltrina, we came upon the Store—a Biennale-timed pop-up shop which sold, among other things, exquisite textiles by Chiarastella Cattana, whose name is a byword for distinctive modern Venetian design. Her fabrics, table linens, and accessories can be had at her namesake atelier in the Salizada San Samuele. She is one of a handful of local designers who honor the essential heritage of Venetian craft through contemporary forms that play perfectly in 21st-century settings.

The next day I visit another local craftsperson, the jeweler Alberto Nardi, whose family’s showroom has been a cornerstone of the Piazza San Marco since the 1920’s. Nardi’s formal, erudite demeanor softens markedly when the city he loves is the topic of conversation. “My advice is always to get out of this area,” he says, smiling slightly, presumably at the irony of sending potential clients away from his place of business. “Walk; get out with a guide; or get lost. In the ephemeral zones”—Castello; Canareggio; Giudecca—“you see Gothic and Renaissance palaces, important frescoes. But you also see the living city.” For decades, Nardi adorned royalty—both the genuine crowned sort and its Hollywood and Park Avenue correlates—in custom jewels fabricated by hand. Today, tastes have changed; Nardi, like so many others, has evolved his business apace. I admire a line he is preparing to launch called Mosaico. Rough stones—brown diamonds; blue topaz; citrine; peridot—are set in abstract patterns on chunky cocktail rings and wide cuffs. Though their designs are an homage to the traditional terrazzo flooring found in six- and seven-hundred-year-old palaces around the city, they are utterly contemporary.

An hour later, I am standing on the Fondamenta delle Zitelle on Giudecca island. Behind me is Villa F, which opened in mid 2011. It’s the latest project from Francesca Bortolotto Possati; Il Palladio Hotel and Spa, which she opened in 2007 in a former convent, is a few doors down the quay. Villa F’s rambling one- and two-bedroom apartments are set around a 1 1/2-acre walled garden, lush with climbing vines and hydrangeas. Their interiors are subdued, some nearly Flemish in their spare sobriety, with wide-plank floors and rough beams overhead. Though there is a jewel-box bar on the ground floor, and a restaurant at nearby Il Palladio, the flats are self-catering, with slick steel kitchens hidden behind thick linen draperies or fitted into elegant armoires. For the repeat visitors among her guests, they provide an ideal redoubt from the press of humanity across the canal.

Bortolotto Possati is deeply involved in the well-being of her city (she and Alberto Nardi are two of only three Venetians on the board of the Save Venice organization). She rattles off lists of Venice’s impressive endowments: 33 museums, over 150 churches (“and because of the humidity here, the churches aren’t frescoed but hung with paintings—so basically half the time you are in a pinacoteca,” or gallery). She details future plans to host symposia and visiting-artist programs for guests—bringing, say, the Chinese or Azerbaijani representing his or her country back to the city for lectures and private visits, to diffuse the Biennale’s appeal throughout the year. Without storytelling, she says, contemporary art is useless. “This is true of everything, though. The day-tripper may not even know why he is here; all he knows is he is hot, bored of crowds, disappointed by what he sees. Without background and context, Venice may well not make sense to you, either.”

Two-hundred-odd yards east on the quay, the flicker of candlelight on a tented overwater platform signals your arrival at Cip’s Club, the canal-side restaurant of the Hotel Cipriani. This, of course, is Venice’s most storied hotel (The pool! The Bellinis! The garden, where Casanova reputedly deployed his irresistible charms!), and is its only genuine resort. Half the staff would seem, by the way they discuss the upcoming film festival, to be on a first-name basis with George Clooney; but then they are all so competent, so energetic, so very simpatici, that you have no trouble believing it.

Over the past three-odd years, the hotel has quietly remade almost all its rooms and suites. Beyond a particularly bold Murano-glass design here, a swath of extra-rich embroidered silk or delicately veined marble there, everything is much as it has always been. All is elegant, light-suffused, eminently private, though nothing is slick or chic.

There can, however, be few more perennially stylish places to enjoy an aperitivo than over the water at Cip’s—an experience open to non-guests as well. Across the Giudecca Canal, the voluptuous domes of St. Mark’s Basilica are rosy in the evening light. Crossing the square earlier in the day, I’d watched volunteers clad in orange jerseys politely instructing backpackers not to nap on the stairs; reminding foreign tour groups to bin their garbage. In the throng of thousands, the basilica had looked unreal—like the past seen in horizontal split screen, irreconcilable with the cacophony of the present below it. From here, the view is gentler, the only sounds the lapping of water on the quay and the low chug of a vaporetto motor as it passes. The basilica, the light, the square: all exist in balance. A well-judged change of perspective has, for a moment, rescued Venice.

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