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Magical and stimulating hardly begin to describe our experience in Venice, and a large part of the credit for that goes to Venicescapes Historical Society. In fact, we would have missed the soul of Venice without the expertise and guidance of Venicescapes.
Although we read the guidebooks in advance and thought that we were prepared, we honestly would have missed seeing some of the more spectacular sights in the civilized world, and what we did see we wouldn’t have understood nearly as well. I’ve done my share of traveling, and I’ve taken numerous guided tours. I can tell you that the personnel and the itineraries of Venicescapes are far and away the best. Period.
Our group ranged in age from 16 to 50-something, had educational levels from Ph.D. to no diploma, and had no particular interests in common. Yet, the historical information engaged everyone. Even the 16-year-olds who had seldom before entered a museum or a historic building without complaining were enchanted. I was pleased that my own high-school-aged daughter was inspired enough to keep a journal detailing the places we visited and the insights learned. Not only did the Venicescapes guide possess a seemingly endless knowledge about all things Venetian, he communicated that knowledge effectively and kept the group involved.
Story of a Mercantile Empire was the perfect way to become familiar with Venice and to put everything that we explored later into a meaningful context. The visit to the Pisani Moretta house stands out in my mind because it was there that I understood how a grand mansion actually lived and worked: the business activities from finance and mercantile practices to alternative forms of investment and the family activities from the extravagant entertaining to inheritance rights and education. This helped make concrete how the Venetian nobility differed from the landed nobility elsewhere in Europe.
The Splendors of Piety let us see some spectacular paintings and artwork in situ. This alone would have been worthwhile, but even better, we developed an appreciation for how the artists worked, their stylistic differences, and the historical context that influenced their choice of subject matter. Ultimately, the itinerary allowed the artists to speak to us across the ages. Remarkable!
Don’t even begin to think that Venicescapes is a run-of-the-mill guided tour through the city. I’m not sure it can be called a guided tour at all. Venicescapes is a rolling, graduate-level lecture series delving into world history, religion, architecture, art, economics, shipbuilding, public utilities and infrastructure, and political and private culture, with the entire City of Venice as its classroom. Henry James was right when he said “[the] Venice of today is a vast museum...”. The real secret of discovering Venice is finding someone who knows and understands the myriad of historical and religious connections that created and then ultimately destroyed Venice as a world power. That secret is Venicescapes.
My wife and I signed on for two of the day-long guided itineraries offered by Venicescapes during our trip to Venice this March after several weeks of research over the internet and a lucky viewing of a CNN Travel profile of Italy that highlighted Venicescapes. We were in search of making our scheduled week in Venice a mix of “going native” (instead of staying at a hotel, we rented an apartment two blocks from Rialto Bridge) and trying to better appreciate the city and its people.
The two days we spent with Venicescapes were a back-stage look at this museum city in which we were also careful not to become over-sentimental. Make no mistake about it; Venice also takes on the airs of an amusement park as Mary McCarthy said, “living off the entrance fees of tourists.” The key for appreciation of the city, we believed, was to understand “why” Venice evolved as it did. Venicescapes took us there and back again. We were introduced to the many arriving cultures and peoples and how they lived side by side and on occasion atop of one another. We saw works of art not open to the general public as well as private residences, once great mansions.
Venice is hard. This was a city full of Greeks, Slavs, Germans, Turks, and Italians from everywhere else. Venetian architecture, religion and culture is a hotchpot of each of these groups, and for someone to be able to convey to the uninitiated the differences, is a wonder. But, that’s what Venicescapes is all about, and we are richer for it.
To anyone who desires to appreciate the inner-workings of Venice in a style of ease yet dedicated scholarship, Venicescapes comes highly recommended.
Since 1998, the members of our family have been enthusiastic members of Venicescapes, and twice we have traveled to Venice to participate in several of the society's on-site itineraries. On both occasions, I was looking not for a mere walking tour of the city but for an educational experience that would enable my children to see and appreciate Venice while gaining a better understanding of Venice's role in the development of their own culture. It was also important that the experience gain their attention and spark an interest in historical perspective.
When we took the first tours, we explored the complete historical panorama of Venice, delved into the intricacies of Venetian government, and learned about the motivation behind its famous artworks. I had been in Venice before and had taken a private guided tour, but unlike the Venicescapes' itineraries, I had not even scratched the surface of the city.
In March 2001, we were once again in Venice and took more Venicescapes' guided tours. Again, we were all fascinated to discover the importance of the city throughout the ages in all fields: economics, art, architecture, politics, justice, etc.
I have recommended that friends also join Venicescapes and take advantage of its tours as I know they would be as enthralled as we were to learn about the city, its art and architecture, and its unique historical tapestry in an in-depth way not available on other tours. Venice is unique in the world and Venicescapes, as an internationally respected historical society, continues to do much to improve a greater understanding of Venice and overturn the widespread idea that the city is merely a romantic place of water and old buildings, gondolas, and glass blowers!
Our walking tour experiences in Venice were simply awesome! The excellent organization Venicescapes made the complex and heretofore unfamiliar history of Venice engaging and clear. I encourage you to read Venicescapes' web site and believe the enthusiastic comments.
Venicescapes aims for a more thorough look at the art, architecture, and history of Venice but has several aspects which place it in a class by itself. Venicescapes has made special arrangements to gain access to private buildings which would normally be inaccessible to the public. In addition, members of the society booking the foundation tour, “Story of a Mercantile Empire,” receive a privately published reference guide with maps, timelines, and text to re-enforce the information from the tour. (We took two, whole-day guided tours: “Story of a Mercantile Empire” and “A City of Nations”.)
The one aspect of Venicescapes' tours which may not be to everyone's taste (assuming, of course, that you are interested in such an in-depth guided tour in the first place) is that the tours are thematically driven rather than sight driven. That means the stops on the tour are not necessarily the guide book “biggies”. It's no surprise that Venicescapes doesn't go into San Marco Basilica since guided explanations are not allowed inside the church. The best example of my point is that the Doge's Palace is not part of the “Story of a Mercantile Empire” tour. (A visit to this sight is offered as a separate tour.) Once, we found ourselves in front of a seemingly unremarkable corner of the street. By the time the Venicescapes guide finished talking about what the icon set in the wall above a gate represented in the history of Venice, we were thrilled he had brought us to that place and many more like it. That's not to say the guide book “biggies” are avoided in some misguided reverse snobbery; there are plenty of visits to the “must-sees”. It's just that Venicescapes organizes its walking tours by theme and goes to the best place in the city to illustrate the points of its theme. Highest praise!
What a perfectly and splendidly wonderful day! Ray and I learned so much about the history of Venice and the contributions of Venetian and, indeed, Italian adventurers, bankers, explorers, and painters, and, of course, doges to the overall development of Western culture as we know it. No amount of outside reading could ever have brought that story to life in the same way that our Venicescapes walking tour did.
Both Ray and I are experienced travellers. Ray has been literally all over the world in his work as a journalist for the BBC. Likewise, I have covered a fair bit of the globe in my work in the media. I say without exaggeration or hyperbole, however, that our day with Story of a Mercantile Empire rates among our respective top experiences. Ever!
I have recommended Venicescapes to many of my friends and colleagues. And I have done so in the strongest possible terms. I think that learning about the cultural context of a city, especially one as endlessly fascinating and beautiful as Venice, gives the traveller a level of understanding and appreciation quite unlike any other. And, just to be clear on this point: the day was a helluva lot of fun!
Although I have enjoyed week-long visits to Venice half a dozen times and consider myself a student of Venetian history and architecture, I learned more in the four and a half hours I recently spent touring the Ducal Palace with Venicescapes than I would have in a comparable number of months pouring over standard works on these topics. It was less a guided tour than a seminar, an intellectually stimulating exchange that more than matched my expectations.
I told the Venicescapes guide that I was at work on a book about Venetian architecture and needed to understand far more about the growth and elaboration of the Venetian constitution. I wanted to clarify how the building in which the Republic’s governing bodies were housed reflected its basic political principles. From this simple request, the guide crafted an incisive review of Venetian political history explained on site and with extensive references to particular locations. The result for me was a crystallization of material which, until then, had lain dormant on the page.
One of the most delightful and useful features of a tour with Venicescapes is the opportunity to ask any number of questions and to have them taken seriously and answered in depth by an expert who richly enjoys the topic he is discussing. Although the tour was scheduled to last three hours, we were still going strong four and a half hours later. Throughout, the guide was very careful to make certain that the discussion was meeting the specific needs I had announced in my first communication to the association.
Touring with Venicescapes is one of the most enjoyable things I have done in the city, and I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who wants to ensure that his or her visit to Venice is genuinely memorable.
Since moving from the United States to Italy, we have undertaken a rigorous touring schedule. We can say that Venicescapes is in a class by itself, offering the best guided tours that we have experienced. We have taken two walking tours with Venicescapes: Story of a Mercantile Empire and The Splendors of Piety. Both tours were well-orchestrated and interactive and offered an academically-oriented, comprehensive perspective on the chosen subject.
That said, we would like to try to elaborate on what we believe makes Venicescapes’ guided tours of Venice unique. Venicescapes offers the first tours we have experienced which have managed to coalesce all of the information researched from manifold sources into a coherent framework to approach and understand Venice – this framework reviews not only key historical developments, but also (1) the relevant political, economic and religious factors that contributed to their playing out that way and (2) why the way they actually played out is important. The “big picture” constructs of this underlying framework make it easy to process all of the information (names, dates) while the tour is going on and, perhaps even more important, make all of it reference-able at a future date. Another point worth mentioning: in providing the framework, Venicescapes gives a real “context” for understanding Venice’s place in world history – in addition to looking at Venice as an independent entity (the realm of most guides), Venicescapes is able to place it within the entire Italian and global historical landscape.
Some examples might help:
In discussing Saint Mark (tour: Story of a Mercantile Empire), Venicescapes covers the presence of Saint Mark in the city (again the realm of most guides), but then goes on to discuss the manifold political and religious motivations underlying the Venetian Republic’s need to capture and bring his relics into the city.
In the realm of art (tour: The Splendors of Piety), Venicescapes does not just describe the artists of the Venetian school (dates, techniques, styles) – but the historical context in which they were operating (the state of the empire, the rise of the mendicant orders, the religious confraternities, and the Renaissance in general), what they were doing that was different from each other (based on their own religious beliefs and stylistic tendencies), what they were doing differently from the rest of Italy (vis a vis the Renaissance in Florence and Rome), and what their overall contribution to the artistic movements of which they were a part was.
Although for that type of an educational experience we would be willing to endure any type of horrific personality in the guide, the added benefit is that the guide was very nice and personable – one who made us feel comfortable from the start.
It goes without saying at this point, but we believe that Venicescapes’ tours are great experiences and recommend them to every intellectually curious visitor.
This past January, my husband and I booked “The Age of Decadence” with Michael Broderick, director of Venicescapes. Michael came to our hotel to collect us and helped orient us to the significance of our neighborhood (Dorsoduro) and the themes/issues that our tour would explore. Although we picked the moment of Venice's decline, the history was not depressing. Michael is a keen historian, and he provided ample context to understand the roots of the issues that would lead to Napoleon's conquest. A highlight was the hour stay with Michael at the splendid house museum, the Ca' Rezzonico. Michael both guided us through the house and the amazing collection, and also gave us time to experience the palace on our own. Over lunch in a cozy cafe Michael indulged our questions regarding the history of Venice. My husband and I are not that familiar with 18th century European history, the period this tour investigates, and it was remarkable how Michael connected Venice to the broader philosophical, scientific and cultural trends proliferating throughout Europe. After lunch we enjoyed exploring Venice's theatrical history and saw the historic Fenice Theater, and then learned about the private casinos (and visited an historic casino), then ended up at an historic cafe in St. Mark's Square. We felt truly immersed in the city, and began to understand the shifting dynamics that turned Venice from a major metropolis controlling the Adriatic, to one that no longer held power and instead became a singular place of beauty, fixed in time.
Michael spent the entire day with us; answering our questions and helping us to not only situate what we were seeing in context, but also connecting what we were seeing with concepts/ideas we were familiar. He never minded being peppered with all of our questions, even when they strayed from topic. We were thoroughly engaged the entire tour and truly enjoyed being with Michael. I know that the next time we are in Venice we will once again turn to Michael and Venicescapes for another immersive experience.
I took “The Age of Decadence” tour in early December 2007. I was travelling on my own, and the guide offered to split the tour so that it ran over two consecutive days. This arrangement suited me ideally.
I had done some reading in preparation for the tour, and this really enhanced my enjoyment both of the tour and of Venice itself. I found the tour guide to be most considerate, gentle, and accommodating. I liked his approach to the subject. He began by putting each particular place in its historical context on the Venetian, European, and World stage, thus whetting my appetite. As he warmed to his subject, he was nevertheless easy to listen to – the seemingly unending knowledge resting very lightly on his shoulders. The experience for the listener was one of sheer pleasure. So often tour guides are unable to relate facts and figures without losing the listener in the process. Venicescapes' easy and enthralling manner is a real winner. The guide managed to convey endless wisdom in such a way that I, for one, will certainly come back for more.
The addition of the book at the end of the tour is a lovely touch. It offers insights into the social and political overtones of the writings of the era, allowing the reader to relive the delights of Venice from the comfort of home.
For further information about
Venicescapes' educational tours of Venice,