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How to have a holiday in Venice without leaving home

Bring Venice to you this spring
Bring Venice to you this spring Credit: getty
Continuing our series on vicarious travels, Chris Leadbeater explains how to bring Venice to your front room

Italy’s divine city of waterways and wow-factor has been one of the big victims of the “overtourism” phenomenon, its little lanes and alleys swamped with visitors. For the next few months at least, this will not be the case - but that does not mean Venice has to fade from view. Indeed, La Serenissima illuminates so much art, cinema, TV and music that it is almost impossible for it to stay out of sight. Even if you are only looking on virtually…

Cinema

Don’t Look Now (1973)

There is no disguising the fact that Don’t Look Now is hardly a ray of positivity. A sharp-edged thriller, it revolves around the troubled footsteps of a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) as they try to rebuild their lives following the accidental death of their young daughter - a process that partly involves them decamping to Venice. A queasy sense of anxiety drapes itself over the film - long before an ending that is among the most unsettling anywhere in the cinematic canon. And yet, the treatment of the city is fascinating; a Venice not of gelati and holidays, but of dark corners and decay - and yet still beautiful with it. Uplifting? Not really. Gripping and brilliant? Undoubtedly.

Watch: YouTube (from £2.49); Google Play (from £2.49).

Discover the city's dark side

The Tourist (2010)

With a cast list that includes Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany and Steven Berkoff, The Tourist should have ascended to a far better critical reputation than it now “enjoys”. As it is, its somewhat shaky plot about a woman trying to find her vanished tax-dodging husband - or frame someone else in his place - is perfectly watchable. Not least because it dances around Venice. There are boat chases on sunlit canals (the speed of which were carefully controlled by the Venetian authorities), and appearances for buildings such as the Palazzo Pisani Moretta (a 15th century palace on the Grand Canal) and the Hotel Danieli (a similarly aristocratic pad turned five-star jewel). Silly but lovely. 

Watch: YouTube (from £2.49); Google Play (from £2.49).

Television

Francesco’s Venice

It is now 16 years since it aired, but this four-part BBC love letter to Venice - presented by the Italian architect Francesco da Mosto - is as detailed and lingering a look at the city as you could hope to squeeze into 240 minutes. Venetian-born (in 1961), da Mosto both knows and loves his subject, charting its story from its fifth century origins through to the 21st century. En route, he looks at celebrated locations (St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge) and core figures (Vivaldi, Casanova, Byron) - and peers hopefully into its future.

Watch: On DVD via Amazon (from £3.99); extended segments on YouTube

St Mark's Square Credit: getty

Brideshead Revisited

Hailed by this very publication in 2015 as “television’s greatest literary adaptation, bar none”, this sumptuous conversion of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel still sparkles in the imagination (almost) four decades after it was first broadcast (in 1981). It helps that Jeremy Irons is so talismanic as the protagonist Charles Ryder - but the regular on-camera presence of Venice hardly does the series a disservice. True, La Serenissima is not the main setting - but it looks regal and splendid when it takes to the screen, flashing an aristocratic smile in Renaissance wonders like the Palazzo Barbaro and Palazzo Polignac.

Stream: Britbox

Julia, Sebastian and Charles in Brideshead Revisited

Music

Rigoletto

Giuseppe Verdi was not born in Venice - he breathed his first in Busseto, in Emilia-Romagna (in 1813) - but this titan of 19th century Italian opera came to be closely associated with the city. Indeed, Rigoletto, his three-act masterpiece based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi S’Amuse (The King Amuses Himself) is forever entwined with La Serenissima. It was commissioned by La Fenice, the noble Venetian opera house, in 1850 - and received its premiere in said gilded auditorium a year later. True, its tale - a criss-crossing maze of love, seduction and death involving the Duke of Mantua and his court jester (the titular Rigoletto) - takes place in Lombardy. But Venice is part of its soul.

Download/stream: Amazon; Apple Music; Spotify

La Fenice Credit: getty

Sacrae Symphoniae

Unlike Verdi, Giovanni Gabrieli was local to the city, born there (in either 1554 or 1557), and going on to become one of the leading figures in the “Venetian School” - the influential group of composers which rose to prominence in the second half of the 16th century. First heard in 1597, Sacrae Symphoniae is typical of his work - short pieces designed for choral performance. Gabrieli was devoted to Venice throughout his life, being employed, at various points in his career, as the principal organist at St Mark’s Basilica and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco - before dying “at home” in August 1612.

Download/stream: Amazon; Apple Music; Spotify

Books

One Summer in Venice (Nicky Pellegrino)

Half Italian, half Liverpudlian, novelist Nicky Pellegrino has written extensively - and with a bright-eyed happiness of touch - about her father’s country of birth. As its name suggests, her 2015 yarn pins its colours to Venice, outlining the tale of a London restaurateur who, in the grip of a crisis of confidence, flees to the city of canals and cafes.

Download: Google Play Books (£3.99); Kobo (£3.99)

Swap Britain for Venice

Death at La Fenice (Donna Leon)

American crime writer Donna Leon may have been born on the opposite side of the Atlantic, but her pen is forever poised in Veneto. Now 77, she lived in Venice for more than 30 years, using her experiences as the inspiration for a series of novels - about a detective unravelling dastardly deeds amid the medieval churches and overpriced eateries. Published in 1992, Death at La Fenice was commissario Guido Brunetti’s first case (but certainly not his last - he has now starred in 29 books). You do not need to be a super-sleuth yourself to guess that it begins with - drumroll - a murder at the opera house.

Download: Amazon (£3.99); Audible

Death In Venice (Thomas Mann)

Not, perhaps, the most optimistic of stories for troubled times, Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella is nonetheless one of the great literary works to take La Serenissima as its setting. It follows a middle-aged German author as he slides into a corrupting obsession with the teenage boy he spots on a visit to Venice - as Venice itself slips into a cholera epidemic. The 1971 film version, with Dirk Bogarde in the lead role, was largely crafted in the city.

Download: Amazon for Kindle (from 99p)

Painting

The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice

No artist is more closely associated with Venice than Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto) - whose landscape paintings of the city where he was born, lived and died have long helped to define it in the popular consciousness. This 1730 masterpiece is representative of his style. As well as the waterway in question, it shows the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute - a giant Baroque “thank you”, aimed at the heavens, that was constructed between 1631 and 1681 in gratitude for the end of the plague outbreak that swept through the city in 1630. Many of the murals inside focus on this visitation from the Black Death.

See it: The painting is part of the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (and below).

One of Canaletto's greatest hits

(Virtual) museum

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

This bastion of modern art boasts one of the most salubrious addresses in the city. It sits on the edge of the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro district - in the 18th century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (where the American heiress lived between 1949 and her death in 1979). The collection is as delightful as the location - containing jewels by the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky, Magritte and Miró. The latter’s Dutch Interior II (1928) - a Surrealist reinterpretation of The Dancing Lesson (circa 1679), by the Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Steen - can be seen below.

Miro's creation

Sport

Vogalonga

Venice is rarely seen as a sporting destination - but it has a fine tradition of taking to the water which goes far beyond the stripy-shirted gondola cliche. A case in point is the Vogalonga regatta - held in early summer. It came to life in 1974 as a protest against the growing use of motorboats (and the damaging waves they create) in the city - positioning itself in opposition as a non-competitive rowing race open to all-comers. It has evolved only slightly in the half-century since - expanding into a 30km (18.6 mile) route around the canals which begins on the edge of St Mark’s Square - in front of the Doge’s Palace.

Watch it: Footage of the 2019 regatta can be found on YouTube, and at vogalonga.com 

Drink

Bellini

As Venetian as Canaletto and soft ice-cream, the Bellini was - famously - invented amid the glamour of the feted Harry’s Bar at some point in the 1930s. The name needs a little explanation - the colour of the drink apparently reminded its creator, Giuseppe Cipriani, of a rosy-hued toga in a painting by 15th century artist Giovanni Bellini (also a Venetian).  The ingredients need no introduction - the cocktail is a mix of prosecco and peach nectar.

Make it: The Telegraph archives suggest how to give this classic a twist

A very fancy bellini Credit: getty

Food

Zuppa di pesce

For all the city’s elegance, some of the best Venetian cuisine is simple stuff. You might opt for a traditional pasta e fagioli (kidney beans) soup - or a similar fish-focused affair, stuffed with shrimp, prawns and mussels, that tips its pan lid to the city’s seafaring past.

Make it: Try this Telegraph recipe