The azure lagoons and golden light of Italy’s floating city have charmed visitors for centuries. Louise Long looks beyond the touristic sites and bustle of the Biennale to uncover Venice’s photographic highlights
Venice is – to borrow a phrase from writer Patrick Leigh Fermor – where I first encountered “rafts of colour”. The peach sky on a dawn lagoon, the slate grey of winter fog, the carmine red of Titian satin, and the rainbow treasure of Murano’s workshops. As a child, my first visit coincided with the tail end of the Biennale; at a time before I fully understood its significance.
The place exuded a gentle glow, and I immediately fell under its spell. Standing beneath Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece, I awoke to the transportive power of images. I was struck by the trompe l’oeil of the Venice architecture, the warmth of its light and the poetry of its details. “Immersed between sky and water,” is how artist Lorenzo Vitturi [below] describes the city.
As for photography’s story, it is a tale of fantasy and riches. Venice is where, in 1845, writer John Ruskin discovered the miracle of the daguerreotype. Four years later, he returned with his own camera, producing his three-volume study of Venetian architecture, The Stones of Venice. As the decades turned, photographers continued to visualise the city – from Tomaso Filippi’s late-19th century pictures of Venice to Fulvio Roiter’s best-selling photobook Essere Venezia, published in 1978. In the 1980s, the city inspired the salient work of the Viaggio in Italia collective, led by Luigi Ghirri.
Today the city accommodates a select but active community of practitioners. You need only to turn to contemporary artists Lucia Veronesi or Kensuke Koike, both of whom experiment with found and collaged imagery to navigate their experience of the city, to witness its diverse and timeless influence.
Venice’s greatest magic is in the everyday and the unexpected: pausing for espresso and sfogliatelle from Pasticceria Chiusso; stumbling across perfect herringbone brickwork in the almost-secret Campo de l’Abazio; or an aperitif at dusk among artists and writers in the courtyard of Hotel Aquarius.
In his book 435 Ponti e Qualche Scorciatoia (33 Postcards), photographer David Horvitz asks: “Does a visitor with only one day in Venice have the time to wander the city?” I would venture, yes: for at the very first step, you are enveloped in the enigma of its light and colour.