After Bologna we headed eastwards again towards Padua and then on to Mestre on the mainland near to Venice. Since arriving in Italy we have become accustomed to being surrounded by mountains and so it was a change to find ourselves driving across the plain of Po (through which the Po River runs), which was flat as a pancake for as far as you could see in every direction. Most of the land was given over to arable farming, particularly of wheat and fruit trees. The straight road across the country, the A12, was very fast and very busy, with lots and lots of trucks, who were keen to get past us but couldn’t: there were restrictions on them overtaking during certain daytime hours. At least the tolls were cheaper on this journey – only €15.50!
I felt a thrill of excitement as our bus hurtled over the Ponte della Libertà bridge into Venice. (And it wasn’t just because bus drivers here are complete lunatics, throwing their metal charges around corners like they were Ferraris and screeching to a halt at traffic lights, causing their passengers to hold on for dear life.) This was my fifth time visiting this incredible city and every time it has held the same fascination for me: it feels as though you are entering another world as it is so different to anywhere else on the planet. And there is something about the combination of the crumbling grandeur and the sparkling water that is endlessly appealing.
So, anyway, we arrived in Venice with no plans for the day. There were a couple of places that I had read about that I thought we could visit, but if we didn’t it was no big deal and from where the bus dropped us at Piazzale Roma, we just set off walking through the Dorsoduro district with the vague idea of exploring one of the quieter and less well known areas of the city. I should say that we have been to Venice as a family before. In 2014 we were lucky enough to spend a month travelling around Italy and we made Venice our home for 5 days on that trip, so we had already seen most of the major sites, done the gondola ride, been in a water taxi and on a vaporetto (water bus) and had walked endlessly around the more central districts of the city. Today we were looking for something different. And in any case, Venice is one of those places where you don’t really need to ‘do’ anything – you can while away hours just wandering around the narrow streets and watching the traffic on the canals.
After eating our picnic lunch in a little park near the university (Ca’ Foscari), we passed a little shop/studio where it looked like you could paint your own Venetian masks. There was no shop name above the door, but there were details in the window and you could see tables laid out with blank white masks and walls adorned with beautifully painted versions of the same. We stood looking through the window for a few minutes and the girls asked, “Can we do one, pleeaassseeee?” And, having no fixed itinerary or rigid plans, we were able to say “yes”. It turned out to be their favourite activity during our time in Venice.
Paint Your Own Venetian Mask at Ca’ Macana
I cannot recommend Ca’ Macana highly enough: the staff were so friendly and helpful and the girls both came away with a professional looking mask that they had painted themselves.
The first step was to choose a mask, and they had lots of different kinds available, including full masks, cat masks, half masks etc. Then Tiziana got the girls set up with aprons and brushes and explained the first stage: to choose the background colour. They could choose a single colour or two colours blended across the mask and Tiziana showed them how to do this.
Next they applied the decoration and were free to make up their own design or could copy one of the many examples on the walls around the studio. Tiziana started by demonstrating some simple techniques and how to achieve them, then she was on hand to help if they needed it, but she never took over or did it for them. If they were really struggling, she would hold her hand around theirs, guiding them to help achieve what they wanted. And if they weren’t happy with a particular section they had just painted, she was magically able to remove it for them without damaging the rest of the mask. A hairdryer was used to speed up the drying after each stage of applying the paint and when they were finished, they added a coat of clear varnish to complete their masks. The final step was to choose two satin ribbons from a tray with dozens of colours so that they could tie their masks on and model them for us.
Both girls were delighted with what they had produced and they really enjoyed the experience. The whole process took just over an hour. We were lucky in that for most of the time we were the only people there and so we had Tiziana’s undivided attention. In between each stage she changed the newspaper under where the girls were painting so that excess paint didn’t transfer onto their masks. She also kept them supplied with whatever colours of paint they needed and there was a constant supply of clean brushes of every different size.
Mask painting at Ca’ Macana was a fun activity and a great experience. And having their hand painted masks will be a fabulous way for the girls to remember this beautiful city. As part of the package of painting the masks, we also came away with a book all about the history of masks, why they were used and how they were made, which has been very interesting reading.
At €44 per person, the ABC of decoration course isn’t cheap, but it was an amazing experience and one I don’t think the girls will ever forget. And of course you have a souvenir of Venice to take home too. Note: for one person, the course is €49 and the price goes down to €39 if 3 or more people do it at the same time.
Booking is not required and you get to take your mask home with you straight away.
Ca’ Macana also run 2 hour courses where you get to decorate two masks and learn something about the history and how typical Venetian masks are made. The 2 hour course is a private course and booking is required.
You can get more information from their website at www.camacana.com
Ca’ Macana, Calle del Cappeller, Dorsoduro 3215, Venice, Italy
A little further along from the mask painting, also in the Dorsoduro district, we came to Ca’ Rezzonico, which was one of the places I had flagged up for a possible visit. It is a sumptuous palace set on the Grand Canal and it houses the Museum of 18th Century Venice. To be honest, we weren’t that interested in the artwork and frescoes contained within it, although these were undoubtedly impressive. What appealed to us a lot more was the opportunity to go inside one of Venice’s extravagant homes and get an idea what it must’ve been like to live in Venice in the 18th century. And it didn’t disappoint.
Today you enter via the canal-side path at the rear of the property, but in its heyday you would’ve arrived via its impressive landing stage right on the Grand Canal. From here you get a wonderful view up and down the canal.
The palace was originally designed for the wealthy and aristocratic Bon family, by Baldassare Longhena, one of Venice’s greatest baroque architects, who also designed the magnificent Santa Maria della Salute church at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Work started in 1649 but Longhena died in 1682 with the palace unfinished. At the same time the Bon family ran into financial problems and work was brought abruptly to a halt. It stayed this way until 1751 when the unfinished palace was bought by Giambattista Rezzonico, a wealthy merchant and banker. He appointed architect Giorgio Massari to complete the works and in 1756 it was finished.
The main steps up into the museum lead straight into one of its most imposing rooms: the ballroom. Even by Venetian standards, this was an extravagant room. Massari decided to do away with the second floor entirely in this section of the building, thus making the ceiling of this room a lot higher and giving the room a truly regal feel. I think the girls were ready to don their newly painted masks and reenact a Venetian ball there and then.
Once the palace was complete, the Rezzonico family commissioned some of the best artists of the time (including Crosato, Tiepolo and Diziani) to decorate it with frescoes and trompe l’oeil. Many of these are still in place today and they are among the best preserved in Venice. Frescoes are created when paint is applied directly onto the plaster of a ceiling or wall. Sometimes it was applied when the plaster was still wet, other times when it had dried or partially dried. Tromp l’oeil (which means deceive the eye) is when an artist paints a realistic object or image to give the illusion that it actually exists in three dimensions.
In the ballroom, trompe l’oeil has been used to great effect, giving the impression of huge marble columns and sculptures, which make the room look and feel much grander than it really is. Weight must’ve been an issue when building these huge mansions as the foundations are laid in the water and silt of the lagoon, so it was very clever to give the impression of these features without the added weight of the stone. Walking around Ca‘ Rezzonico, we were amazed at how much the floor moved. This was something of a surprise given that it was made of marble, but it definitely moved and flexed as people walked across it. In places it was also cracked and parts had sunken down, making it quite uneven, which also suggested movement of the building and its foundations. It was a reminder of the fragility of these incredible buildings in Venice, which somehow served to make them even more captivating.
The rest of the building treated us to more beautiful frescoes, elegant rococo furniture, ostentatious chandeliers and plenty of interesting artwork. Some of the dimly lit rooms with their glass chandeliers and gilded furniture felt so authentic to the period that I half expected masked revellers to appear through one of the doors. It was wonderfully atmospheric.
We learnt that most of the grand houses of Venice were built to the same design, having a wide atrium or portego in the centre of each floor that gave access to the rooms on either side. On the ground floor, the portego linked the canal entrance with the land entrance.
Apart from the house itself, three pieces of artwork really stood out for me. Two of these were early paintings of Venice by Canaletto that were painted in the 1720s. I loved the play of the light he had captured on the water and across the Grand Canal. Up close, the detailing was exquisite.
The other piece that I couldn’t stop looking at was a sculpture of a veiled woman by Antonio Corradini. I couldn’t quite get my head around how he had managed to make something as solid as marble appear to be transparent. You could almost feel the delicate veil covering her head and could see the details of the face beneath. It was extraordinarily beautiful.
When they lived in this palace, the Rezzonico family were at the height of their fame and fortunes. In 1758, Giambattista Rezzonico’s son, Carlo, was made Pope Clement XIII and in the same year Ludovico Rezzonico married Faustian Savorgnan, thus cementing an alliance with another of Venice’s most powerful families. Both events were celebrated in style at Ca’ Rezzonico. But by 1810, the family had completely died out. The palazzo then had several other private owners before finally passing into public ownership in 1935.
One of the things that I found so great about it was that as well as the artwork on display, the architecture and setting of the building itself also help to evoke the splendour and decadence of 18th century Venice in a way that couldn’t be achieved in a traditional gallery. Some of the frescoes are integral to the fabric of the building, other pieces have been brought in from other palaces or collections and the curators and designers have been careful to arrange them as if they were Ca’ Rezzonico’s original furnishings. The result is a striking and memorable museum.
The top floor of the palazzo is more of a traditional art gallery and also contains a reconstruction of an 18th century pharmacy, complete with wood panelling and furniture as well as China jars for herbs and medicines.
It was a fascinating place, maybe not one that would be on your essentials list for a first trip to Venice, but it was a great way of getting to know something more personal about the city and the people who lived here in days gone by.
There are information sheets in English in each room and you can download a detailed booklet from the Ca’ Rezzonico website.
We had spent a full day in the city and we were all tired but we were taking away with us some fabulous memories. We made it back to the bus station at Piazzale Roma just as the sun was setting, giving us more wonderful views along a pink-tinged Grand Canal. We hope to be back again soon.