An insider's resource for visiting the world's cultural capitals from our local experts. Go to Context Travel.

What’s your favorite place in the city? Where would you suggest I go when visiting your city?

We asked these questions to a group of docents and started gathering some really interesting answers. Here is the first batch, regarding Venice and the places recommended by Susan Steer:

San Zaccaria
Like many of the oldest churches in Venice, the former convent of San Zaccaria is a fascinating palimpsest, having been built, modified and rebuilt over successive centuries in accordance with prevailing trends and the changing needs of the building’s occupiers. In the oldest part of the church, layers of history are embedded in its fabric, the ancient origins glimpsed here and there in fragments of fresco, masonry, woodwork or mosaic tiling, and three glittering altarpieces decorate a luminous apse in a final golden flourish of the international gothic style. But it is in the gloomy, dank, subterranean crypt where the ghosts of many women are most powerfully evoked. In fact, generations of women were destined to live their lives within the convent’s walls, deprived of their freedom and the joys and sorrows of a family life. Effectively incarcerated against their will, teenage girls were sent to this institution as victims of a social and economic order which saw the costs of dowries spiraling and the desire to concentrate family wealth. The men of power wrung their hands, but as dowry costs remained high, they continued to send their distraught daughters to the convent.

Santa Maria della Salute
For many decades Andrea Palladio and his acolytes had built churches according to classical precepts; temple façades with austere lines, triangular timpani rising above solid columns imposed an ordered rhythm on the Venetian campi and waterfronts. Palladio’s mathematical, masculine precision, was the epitome of architectural good manners and set the standard for institutional architecture the world over for centuries to come.

In 1631 the young(ish) Baldessare Longhena surprisingly succeeded in a public competition to design a new church in a prominent location; the edifice was to be the city’s desperate plea to the Virgin Mary to intervene with the Almighty to put a stop to the ferocious plague that was killing tens of thousands. The conservative city might have opted for yet more classical austerity, but instead Longhena gave the Marian building voluptuous curves, great volutes to support the drum of a dome, creating an edifice to crown the Queen of Heaven. The nave’s octagonal plan, its pavement an infinity of circles with a stone rosary at its umbilicus, its frieze of cresting waves and the elaborate statuary are replete with Venetian and Marian symbolism. The church confidently floats on its plinth above the mouth of the Grand Canal, within sight of San Marco, the Doge’s precinct and the seat of power. With the swelling curves of her flanks, it seems impossible that so fecund a building could be born from the desperation of a people on its knees. This isn’t the city bowed, so much as triumphantly reasserting herself as Mary’s protegée.

Instead of Palladio’s urbane lines, Longhena gives us a blowsy, baroque dame. But for all its camp exuberance, and for all the layers of symbolism and clever architectural references, this church is more than an architect’s caprice or a theologian’s conundrum. It is a highly functional building which admirably served its purpose; and despite first appearances, Longhena had applied Palladio’s lessons in design and detail. Serving as the centerpiece for the popular festivities of the Festa della Salute, which are still celebrated every year on November 21 to mark the end of the 1630-31 plague, the edifice crowd-manages with an efficiency that Disneyland designers would dream of. The Great Unwashed are drawn through a side-door, circulate around to the high altar, get to light a candle and say a prayer at a side altar, and after slowly completing their circuit, they are efficiently ejected through another door on the other side, leaving room for the throngs behind. The Great and Good could instead proceed in pomp through the immense bronze portal, they paraded through the centre of the nave to find their exclusive seating area before the high altar. Finally, the resident monks remained aloof in the choir behind the high altar. All were therefore welcome to participate in the festivities, but the rigid social divisions and distinctions which characterized Venetian society were neatly retained.


Ca’ Rezzonico
Ca’ Rezzonico on the Grand Canal is big-bling statement architecture made for an arriviste family who wanted to show they had, well, arrived. A complicated build; first Baldessare Longhena worked on the palace for the Bon family and, almost a century later, Giorgio Massari completed the project for the Rezzonico family in the 1750s. This masterpiece of vulgar over-statement announced the wealth and the ennobled status of the Rezzonico clan who had earned their entitlement to inclusion in the Venetian golden book of nobility in the previous century through bankrolling the impecunious Venetian State when the coffers were empty. From the white façade, replete with extravagant stucco work, through the portico and spacious atrium, shadows and pools of light, framing columns and arches, the eye is led to a distant vanishing point – the family crest carved in stone.
Inside, a team of decorators, including Giambattista Tiepolo and Giambattista Crosato, was employed to celebrate the family in luxurious, luminescent frescoes with allegories announcing the manifold virtues of the Rezzonicos and featuring personifications such as Merit, Fame blowing her trumpet, Munificence with her cornucopia and, of course, Nobility. The great ballroom, where Apollo soars in his chariot over the four continents, provided a spectacular venue for the celebration of a family wedding and, in 1758, the celebrations which marked family’s greatest moment when Carlo Rezzonico, brother of the palace owner, was made Pope Clement XIII. Indeed the motto on the family crest emblazoned on the ballroom wall suggests the Rezzonico’s elevation was owed to the Almighty’s favor: “Si deus pro nobis…” who, indeed, could be against them?
Yet, despite the armorial and architectural chutzpah, the Rezzonico line was extinguished less than a century later and their grand palace would languish until it became the museum of eighteenth-century Venice in the 1930s.

What are your favorite buildings in Venice?

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