Life inside a Canaletto

Staying at a canalside Venetian palazzo isn't a holiday - it's art. Sarah Greenberg lived the dream for a week
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Everyone goes to Venice with a fantasy. Woody Allen wanted to live like a doge in the Palazzo Dario until he was dissuaded by its prohibitive price tag (supposedly $10m) and its even more prohibitive death curse. My dream was to experience the city like a cross between Peggy Guggenheim and Henry James, art lover and aesthete: to arrive at my palazzo by the water gate and open my windows on the Grand Canal, breathe in beauty and bask in art. By day I would be a journalist covering the Venice Biennale, but by night I would live the part of a Venetian Grande Dame in all its hedonistic glory.

Such a fantasy is attainable, indeed rentable, for around pounds 6,500 per week. But in Venice, even the best-laid plans can go awry. The day I was scheduled to arrive the deliciously named Palazzo Papadopoli - in a Grand Canal apartment filled with modern art - the new owner had made a last-minute decision against renting it.

Thanks to some fast footwork from the letting agency, I was not homeless. Instead I stayed in a series of palazzi and would-be palazzi on a quest for the real thing - that is, unadulterated hedonism. After all, that is the point of living here. Nothing compares with the luxury of having time to kill gracefully in Venice, time to sip a Bellini on the balcony, to wander along the canals; time to return to the Biennale or the Accademia, to buy squid at the Rialto markets and figure out how to cook it.

The first lesson for any aspiring palazzo dweller is that palazzo, like most things in Venice, has a liquid meaning: it refers to any bourgeois house fronting a canal. A recent guide to Venice numbers 334 palazzi; many are crumbling, and quite a few once splendid residences have been split up into boxy apartments, which can be airless in the summer. But almost any dwelling with palazzo pretensions will be filled with all manner of art and antiques, from family heirlooms to flea market finds, in part because Italy has draconian laws against exporting historic works of art. Also, a note about living on canals: some are tributaries and backwaters, and others are working canals which blast a dawn chorus of motorboats and barges starting at around seven every morning. Consider this when choosing a location.

On the corner of a working canal and a sleepy fondamenta in the Cannaregio neighbourhood, my first palazzo looked semi-derelict on the outside. But after climbing the musty stairs of this 16th-century building that had once housed a confraternity, we opened our front door on to a sun-drenched salon filled with antiques and Venetian glass. The vast kitchen was designed for someone who loves to cook and, best of all, there was an altana: one of the wooden terraces which were built at the top of houses to allow ladies in pre-peroxide centuries to bleach their hair in the sun. Ours was overflowing with geraniums and had a view of the Gesuiti church. Titian built his studio nearby in order to be out of the city centre.

An old Venetian sage, Paolo Sarpi, once said: "I never tell a lie, but the truth not to everyone." And herein lies the second lesson, as this motto could apply to many Venetians, in particular the owner of my second palazzo, one Contessa Machiavelli. Thanks to her, I learned a new Italian word: impalcatura. It means scaffolding, and an enormous tower of it stood in front of her 17th-century palazzo near the Frari church, blocking any view of the canal and courtyard. She had told the letting agency that the scaffolding was to the side of the house; it was there too.

Inside, the flat, carved out of a once lavish palazzo, could have doubled as a den of iniquity. The bordello chic of the chandeliers and functioning disco ball, rococo mirrors and Jacuzzi bath made us feel like modern-day courtesans. Unfortunately, we were prevented from displaying our charms at the window by the aforementioned scaffolding. Gloriously kitsch, the flat came with a gilded theatre alcove in the main salon, where we played Punch-and-Judy games. According to the Contessa, Mozart once played here, and the ancestral faces peering out of the portraits on every wall may well have heard him. Any Mozartian traces have been lost amidst the trompe l'oeil fantasies covering every surface and the layers of oriental rugs blanketing the terrazzo floors. When the scaffolding comes down, this would be a great place for a Carnivale party, but it felt too stuffy for summer.

When informed of the impalcatura problem, the letting agency found me another palazzo across the Grand Canal near Campo Sant'Angelo. The Casa del'Albero, as this 17th-century merchant's house at the Ponte del'Albero is known, was the most comfortable palazzo I sampled. A narrow, three- storey structure on a tributary of the Grand Canal, it belongs to members of the grand English clan of the Sitwells. They moved here after selling the family's Tuscan villa at Montegufoni, and they brought some of that villa's Old Masters and heavy antiques with them.

The art, the marble floors and original wood beams dazzle, but this is a house meant for living in rather than looking at. Books are tucked under the eaves and Landseer dog prints and old fox-hunting certificates hang haphazardly. Each of the three bedrooms opens on to the quiet canal and is dominated by a bizarre but beautiful antique bed that straddles the tiny space like a behemoth, pinning the equally ornate armadio (wardrobe) against the wall.

Something about this place made us want to stay inside. The roof terrace was ideal for listening to birds at breakfast and sipping Prosecco and Fragolino (a pink sparkling wine made from berry-flavoured grapes) at twilight. Back-issues of Hello! magazine provided hours of endless fun. And it was so easy to nip out to the neighbourhood shops for fresh bread and crisp Veneto wines, hunks of summer goat's cheese, ripe peaches, polpo (marinated baby octopus) and an endless array of antipasti from the local salumeria, that we rarely made it across the bridge to the Rialto markets.

Splendid though these palazzi were, none of them lived up to my fantasy. I wanted to look out of my window at a froth of bubbling domes and gondolas on the Grand Canal. I wanted the lights, camera and action of Venice to roll before me. I wanted life to become art, if only for a week.

My attention focused on the Grand Canal Palazzo Barbaro near the Accademia Bridge, where John Singer Sargent painted and Henry James wrote

The Wings of the Dove, where his heroine Milly Theale lived and where the directors of the recent film shot some of the scenes. But it was off-limits, having just been purchased by an Italian motor scooter tycoon. But across the Grand Canal stood the arcaded facade of my dream palazzo.

As with most dreams, I could look but I could not touch. The palazzo was booked solid. But the contessa (there is always a contessa), was delighted to show us around in between guests. Her family lives in the building and lets out the sumptuous piano nobile on the second floor. Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim, rents it when he comes for the Biennale. An outdoor scene from The Wings of the Dove was shot in the byzantine archways of its water gate.

The patrician Balbi-Falier family began building this palace in the 1300s, and it was finished sometime in the 18th century. Legend has it that one Nicolo Balbi was so impatient to move into his new palazzo that he slept in a boat across from the building site, caught cold and died before moving in. How jealous he would be if he could see the palazzo now because it is the ultimate place to experience Venice's amphibious appeal - guests can arrive by gondola and then perch in the balcony over the Grand Canal, watching the world float down to San Marco.

Palazzo Accademia is one of the only privately owned palazzi I saw to retain its sala, the lofty, beamed central hall that runs along the piano nobile from the Grand Canal to the courtyard - perfect for holding a masked ball. All of the bedrooms flow like tributaries off this main room and each one has a private parlour. Family antiques too massive to move furnish every room; Murano chandeliers cast dazzling light on the ancestral paintings; more recent photographs show the family entertaining Princess Margaret. The hedonism rating for this palazzo is off the board. It costs pounds 6,500 per week, with daily maid service and sleeps eight. This works out to less (per person, per night) than a stay at a hotel such as the Cipriani or the Gritti.

Why be a guest when you can own the place, if only for a week?

Sarah Greenberg is associate editor of 'The Art Newspaper'



The author flew with Go, which flies daily from London to Venice for pounds 80 return.


The Cannaregio is pounds 1,750 per week to rent and sleeps six. Contessa Machiavelli's Palazzo is pounds 1,800 per week and Casa del'Albero pounds 1,650; both sleep six. Palazzo Accademia is pounds 6,500 per week and sleeps eight. Contact Venetian Apartments (tel: 0181-878 1130). Tuscany Now also rents flats in Venice (tel: 0171-272 5469).


The Venice Biennale international exhibition of contemporary art runs until 7 November in the Giardini Pubblici, the Arsenale and locations around Venice.

The best guide to the art and architecture of Venice is Hugh Honour's Companion Guide to Venice, published by Boydell & Brewer (pounds 16.99).

The Italian Tourist Office (tel: 0171-408 1254).