Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Why I love traveling solo: Disarmed by art in Venice

From the Bridge of Sighs to Peggy Guggenheim's palazzo—check out this city’s magnificent treasures

The glorious view from the central nave of the Basilica of St. Mark, featuring gold mosaics

MANY years ago, my very first psychiatrist told me that it would be healthy to do things alone. It was good to affirm yourself, he said. Appreciate experiences through your own eyes, and realize that you seeing, hearing, or feeling something was enough; no need to turn to a companion to ask, “It’s great, isn’t it?”

I have learned to do this—quite well, in fact—over the years, which is why solo travel has become my favored mode. It was highlighted even further when I recently made a third trip to Venice, Italy, to cover an art event, in a city absolutely dripping with art.

The funny part was, I wasn’t previously crazy about Venice; my last two visits had been with groups, on tours, and almost always rushed, so the once-powerful “Serenissima” republic was a blur. They also happened during what was apparently the height of the tourist season, when you literally had to jostle your way to walk through Piazza di San Marco, or to cross the Rialto Bridge.

Well, the Rialto, the 16th century bridge that’s the oldest among the four crossing Venice’s Grand Canal, still looks like it could collapse any minute from the human load, and a fairly recent phenomenon (I was last in Venice in the early 2000s, I think) made things even more irritating: the blasted selfie stick, which can be a genuine hazard.

Scrooge aside, Venice disarmed me this time. It was exciting enough that I was covering the architectural exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia 2023, which closed last Nov. 26 and where the Philippines had an ingenious, idyllic installation, a bamboo structure, a gathering place that some young architects want to build on Manila’s much-maligned esteros. It was a bonus that the architecture exhibition curator, renowned Ghanaian-Scottish architect and educator Lesley Lokko, had created a special exhibit focusing on African architects that totally broke down the walls between architectural set-up and installation art.

The best part, though, was that I had time enough on my own to explore Venice, on foot (no traffic and vehicle fumes), to fill my eyes and soul. Let’s start with the more famous destinations.

It boggles the mind that the Basilica of San Marco still stands so beautifully; construction started in 828 to house the remains of the apostle St. Mark, but it burned down, and was reconstructed in its present grand form after 1000 AD. The inside absolutely glitters with gold, including an altarpiece that incorporates precious stones and enamels. You really don’t need to book a tour to the Basilica, though; attend the solemn Sunday mass, complete with choir and the smell of incense, and the exquisite, mosaic-filled Byzantine-style building will have served its true purpose.

I booked a skip-the-line ticket (not necessary in the low season, I learned) to the Doge’s Palace beside the basilica, residence of Venice’s leader during the time of the powerful Venetian Republic, where all matters of state were decided. What strikes one, however, is the fact that this palace chock-full of treasures—including a dizzying succession of portraits of doges (pronounces “dhoshe”)—was also clearly ground zero for politicking, intrigue, and powerplay. A grand painting circa 1658 by German artist Joseph Heintz Il Giovane (the Younger), Reception of An Ambassador in the Sala del Collegio in the Presence of the Doge, illustrates this political pomp very vividly.

Mercury on the Grand Staircase leading to the Doge’s Palace

What strikes one is that the Doge’s Palace, chock-full of treasures, was also clearly ground zero for politicking, intrigue, and powerplay

The viewer would do well to pick and choose what to focus on, or you will get a sublime headache. There’s the fabulous Golden Staircase, literally decorated with golden stucco work; an inner courtyard with a clock and arches that give one a good perspective of the scale; and a giant outdoor staircase flanked by Neptune and Mercury. The high-level self-aggrandizement would be cloying, if the works weren’t so stunning; there are several Veroneses and Tintorettos with actual doges painted into the scene, such as Tintoretto’s 1590 oil on canvas The Dead Christ adored by the Doges Pietro Lando and Marcantonio Trevisan (allies, we presume?) on the ceiling of the Senate Chamber.

Tintoretto’s 1590 oil on canvas ‘The Dead Christ adored by the Doges Pietro Lando and Marcantonio Trevisan’ (lower painting) in the Senate Chamber, Doge’s Palace

Truly breathtaking in both scale and artistry is Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso (oil on canvas, 1588–1594), adorning the Great Council Chamber. It’s so large, it had to be painted in sections, with much help from Tintoretto’s son Domenico, who may have departed quite a bit from Dad’s original design. Still, the work, with its well-lit central focus of Jesus Christ surrounded by a formidable pantheon of saints and angels, is as divine as it can get.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy,’ circa 1620–1625, Doge’s Palace

More paintings by “guest” artists, on long-term loan from other collections, provide welcome variation. There’s a 16th-century Apocalyptic Vision by Dutch artist Hieronymous (written as Jheronimus) Bosch, a gorgeous Tiepolo work depicting Venus and Neptune, and my personal favorite from Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the very few female Renaissance artists who made a mark (and one with a very colorful life story we’ll tell another time): Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, circa 1620–1625.

Crossing inside the Bridge of Sighs to the prisons under the Doge’s Palace

A highlight for me, however, was crossing the famous Ponte de Suspiros or Bridge of Sighs, which connected the wealth and excess of the palace with the misery of the prisons, where criminals (or alleged ones, often depending on which side of the bed the sitting doge woke up on) were banished after their fates were decided. It’s a very sad stretch of stone that separates two worlds; bars on windows on either side of the bridge underscore the realization that the view of the canals and people would be among the last the prisoner would ever have of the outside world, thus the bridge’s name. Stone steps lead deeper and deeper into the ground, and you walk through a maze of prison cells with low doors, metal bars, rough stone floors, and hard wooden beds.

The prisons under the Doge’s Palace

If this proves depressing, then your spirits will most certainly lift with a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the heiress’ former home at the Palazzo Venier de Leoni, right on Venice’s Grand Canal. Peggy was the ultimate bohemian rich lady and art patron; “I am not an art collector. I am a museum,” she once said famously. Born in New York, she was moneyed on both sides of her family, the Guggenheims and the Seligmans. She first thought of opening a museum in London, then opened instead the famed contemporary art haven and party place Art in this Century in Manhattan. Fun fact: She gave Jackson Pollock his first exhibit; not-so-fun fact: Her father Benjamin died on the Titanic.

Fun fact: Peggy Guggenheim gave Jackson Pollock his first exhibit; not-so-fun fact: Her father Benjamin died on the ‘Titanic’

She returned to Europe in 1947 and actually showed her collection at the 1948 Venice Biennale before she acquired the Palazzo. “I decided Venice would be my future home,” she said. “I had always loved it more than any place on earth and felt I would be happy alone there.” She was also believed to have beefed up her collection by buying “a picture a day.”

Peggy Guggenheim’s grave in a corner of her museum’s sculpture garden

Today, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is considered one of the finest of modern and contemporary art, and the Palazzo is quite the happy place, filled with light and exquisite artworks that Peggy evidently handpicked. It’s fitting that after her death in 1979, she was buried in a corner of the garden, beside a number of her beloved dogs (with their own tombstone) and close to sculptures by Henry Moore (Three Standing Figures, 1953) and Alexander Calder (the huge red painted steel The Cow, 1970). When I visited, there was an exhibit on the ever sardonic Dadaist and Cubist maverick Marcel Duchamp (fun fact: He had an alter ego who dressed in drag and was often photographed by Man Ray), including an “authentic original copy” of his monumental 1912 work Nude Descending A Staircase that outraged salon artists. There, too, was his Mona Lisa with the moustache. One can’t miss a gem of a vintage photograph proving Peggy’s power as a patroness, gathering the likes of Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, and more in her New York townhouse.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘On the Beach,’ oil, crayon, and chalk on canvas, 1937, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Vasily Kandinsky, ‘Landscape with Red Spots No. 2,’ oil on cloth, 1913, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

One could spend the whole day here gazing at the well-chosen pieces. There is a mesmerizing 1953-54 René Magritte oil on canvas called Empire of Light, capturing night and day in one frame; a large, delightful Pablo Picasso oil, crayon, and chalk on canvas work called On The Beach that flouted artistic convention in 1937, while still managing to capture the innocence of the absurdly round figures; and a gorgeous silver headboard by Alexander Calder commissioned by Peggy for, well, her bed. A favorite of mine was well-represented, as well, the deeply intelligent Vasily Kandinsky, with a 1913 oil on cloth, Landscape with Red Spots No. 2, that you could certainly stare at and get lost in.

Children on a field trip check out Jackson Pollock’s mixed-media ‘Alchemy,’ 1947, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

A heartening sight: Some lucky elementary school children were led on a field trip by a young teacher, and they sat in front of Jackson Pollocks 1947 Alchemy, made of oil, aluminum, enamel paint with sand, pebbles, fibers, wooden sticks, and whatever else Pollock must have gotten his hands on. Alchemy is touted to be the first the artist ever made using his famous technique of pouring and dripping paint on a canvas on the floor—ironically, a style that would make many conventional schools question how much “art” (referring to so-called “painterly” qualities, perhaps?) goes into modern art.

Marino Marini’s 1948 bronze cast ‘The Angel of the City,’ Peggy Guggenheim’s ‘f—k you’ to convention

And there, occupying pride of place on the veranda facing the Grand Canal, Marino Marini’s 1948 bronze cast The Angel of the City—a child-like representation of a rider sitting on a rather pushy horse, his arms spread, and his erect penis pointing to the passing boats for all with sharp eyes to see. That penis, the audio tour told me, had to be replaced a number of times because people would, uhm, manhandle it. I felt the work epitomized everything the lady of the house represented—a big, simple “f—k you” to convention that allowed her to become much more than just a rich girl who liked art.

About author


She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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