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5 literary landmarks you must visit in Venice


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14th June 2014

Author Michelle Lovric takes you to some of the lesser-known corners of Venice that have inspired writers over the centuries

1. Palazzo Soranzo Cappello - the Aspern Papers garden

It takes a deep breath, a fleet foot and certain nonchalance to visit one of the loveliest wild gardens in Venice. It used to be a sure thing to stroll through the hall of the Palazzo Soranzo Cappello on Rio Manin. But these days you may be accosted by a humourless official, talking severely of the danger of falling trees. Even while he lectures you, it’s possible to take a good look at the classical garden with a neoclassical loggia and the statues of eleven pudgy Roman emperors.

In Henry James’s 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, the morally-compromised hero pretends an interest in the 'garden in the middle of the sea' to gain access to a secretive and shrivelled lady, said to have a trove of letters belonging to a literary lion.

Like all formal gardens, the Soranzo Cappello’s is a mixture of nature and culture, sensual pleasure and geometry, birdsong and silence, light and shade, rampant life and memorials of the dead. There’s a small orchard and an intoxicating wall of wisteria, if you happen to visit in the spring.

The site adjoins the great palace of the Gradenigo family, and the gardens of the two have blurred historical borders. The Bragadin family owned the site originally; a Lorenzo Soranzo bought it in 1612. After the family died out in 1788, the palazzo was bought by Antonio Cappello. Like Venice herself, both house and garden underwent periods of fierce prosperity and desperation. By 1989, it was disintegrating and bought by the Italian state. A restoration in 2004 has been followed by a new period of picturesque abandonment.

Where: Santa Croce 770, now offices of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Architettonici e Paesaggistici

2. Rialto Market

Pietro Aretino was born in Arezzo, the illegitimate son of a nobleman. His vibrant literary talents led him to Rome. His Sonetti Lussuriosi Salacious Sonnets – describing sixteen sexual positions, lovingly illustrated by Giulio Romano, was a great favourite with Venice’s Giacomo Casanova, who never went anywhere without it.

Unfortunately the sonnets and other controversial and caustic writings led Aretino into trouble with Pope Leo X.

In 1527, he fled to Venice, where papal devotion was never top of the list. (The Venetian proverb says, first Venetians, then Christians).

The Rialto market is the best place to remember Pietro Aretino. From it you can see one of the houses he occupied in Venice – the Palazzo Bolani Erizzo, from which he observed the skirmishes of the fishwives with enormous gusto while maintaining his own luxurious and uproarious harem.

No one loved Venice more than Pietro Aretino. In a memorable letter, he opined, ‘If Eden, where Adam dwelt with Eve, had resembled Venice she would have had a hard time trying to tempt him out of that earthly paradise with her fruit.’

There are other places in Venice that record the genial Aretino. His spirit hovers around the House of the Spirits in the Misericordia, where he used to meet with his great friends Titian and Jacopo Sansovino, who sculpted the writer’s tawny head for the entrance to the sacristy of San Marco.

Aretino died in Venice in 1556, allegedly from apoplexy brought on by laughing at a filthy joke.

Where: 42 San Polo, 30125 Venice, Italy

3. Aldus Manutius in Campos Manin and Sant'Agostin

This is one for the font fanatics. And who among you has not heard of the Aldine Press or lusted after its famous ‘round letter’?

Aldus Manutius (1449 – 1515) is frequently cited as the father of publishing in Venice. In fact, he was more like the great nephew, once removed. Johannes and Windelin von Speyer made their way over the Alps to Venice and set up a printing press there in 1468, at a time when it was quite dangerous to do so, as printers were associated with the trade in counterfeit coins, the tools of the trade being remarkably similar. Yet by 1473 there were already too many printers in Venice – the market was overcrowded. It was a question of survival of the fittest.

The von Speyers may have been there first, but Manutius is undoubtedly the man who raised Venetian printing to the highest art. A pedantic and somewhat irascible man, this passionate scholar of ancient Greek invented the small format, the semi-colon and italic script, which usefully occupies less space per word on the page. He was also responsible for the advent of the best-seller, and for the success of both Dante and Petrarch. Print historian Alessandro Marzo Magno claims that Aldus was behind whole concept of reading for pleasure.

Manutius came from the south of Rome and arrived in Venice around 1489. Three years later he was launching his printing press, which specialised in reviving the great works of the classical world. But its most famous production was the beautiful, pagan and erotic Hypnoteromachia Poliphili by the monk Francesco Colonna.

There are two places of Aldine pilgrimage. The first, in Sant’Agostin, consists of two memorial plaques, and the second will take you to the brutalized square of San Paterniano, now known as Campo Manin, after the leader of Venice’s brief revolt against the Austrians in 1848/9, Daniele Manin, whose memorial it now holds.

Aldus moved his activities there in around 1506. A small plaque shows the site of his Aldine Academy, where the members were permitted to speak only in Greek. Fines for mistakes paid for all liquid conviviality.

4. Medical Museum

I write medical historical novels – about quack medicine, human skin and now hair, the subject of my latest, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters.

The good news for me and all of Venetian visitors with a taste for gore is that the Scuola Grande di San Marco has finally reopened its medical museum to the public after many years of painstaking restoration. Appropriately, it is part of the site of the Ospedale Civile, one of the hidden wonders of Venice, with its cloisters full of birdsong and flowers, and the church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti embedded in the middle of it like a jewel.

I first talked my way into the medical museum many years ago when the light switches were dusty, and recently found my ecstatic notes about a 1605 volume of Giovanni Andrea dalla Croce’s Cirurgia Universale, (Universal Surgery), whose frontispiece shows rats dining on the unwanted flesh being tossed under the operating table by a couple of industrious surgeons.

You enter from the square outside the main entrance to the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo. Tall windows in the beautiful marble facade illuminate a gilded 1519 ceiling that hangs over a series of glass cases full of fearsome medical instruments and textbooks in the Chapter Hall. There’s a mummified body in a glass case. The walls are vibrant with paintings by Palma il Giovane, Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto and Alessandro Varotari.

A smaller room, the Sala dell’Albergo, is lined with perfect digital copies of episodes in the life of Saint Mark painted by the Bellini brothers, Mansueti and Palma il Vecchio.

The museum is open 9.30-1pm and 2-5pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

Where: Scuola Grande di San Marco at San Giovanni e Paolo.

5. The Palazzo Contarini Fasan

Gondoliers and water taxi drivers will always tell you that this pretty Gothic palace was the home of Desdemona. So does the name of the boat usually moored outside.

Othello is so embedded in the Anglo-Saxon consciousness as Shakespeare’s great play about Venice that it seems a tangible site is needed for its tragic events.

Shakespeare upcycled the tale from 'Un Capitano Moro' in Gli Hecatommithi (1565) by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio, who may himself have embroidered on an incident that took place in in 1508.

One of the main differences between Cinthio’s and Shakespeare’s tales is the manner of Desdemona’s death. The earlier story has the Moor commissioning his ensign to bludgeon her. After her skull is smashed, the two men bring down the ceiling on her head so that her death looks like an accident. The Cassio character, meanwhile, has suffered one leg cut off in a previous encounter with the Moor.

Ruskin thought this palace the most beautiful in Venice. Rumours fly around the Contarini Fasan constantly. Naomi Campbell’s Russian lover was said to be buying it last year. A company has recently been marketing stays in a luxury apartment in the palace, but perhaps, given its literary associations, it’s not to be recommended for honeymooners.

Where: Known as the House of Desdemona – Grand Canal, between Santa Maria del Giglio and San Marco.

The True and Splendid history of the Harristown SistersMichelle Lovric's latest novel, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters can be ordered on Amazon now.

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