When you take the Line 1 vaporetto at night, you glimpse in wonder at the private residences along the Grand Canal. You see beguiling Murano glass chandeliers, ornate painted ceilings, and carved embellishments in stone and stucco. It is this wonderland that Servane Giol has beckoned us to explore in her new book, Venice: A Private Invitation. By delving into history, culture, and creativity Giol unwraps an intimate Venetian world of design, craftsmanship, and the gracious art of sprezzatura.
You remark about Venice that “gaining access to its private residences, a little-known and remarkable world remains difficult.” In response, you decided to generously open the doors of Palazzo Falier, and additionally share remarkable private palazzi, studios, and gardens of your fellow Venetians. Why now?
Probably because after 23 years in this amazing city I gained confidence to write about it.
I really didn’t want to do just “another book about Venice” and it takes time to understand and dig in a city and the way their habitants live.
The environments in your book span centuries. Originally, they welcomed merchants, nuns, Doges, and poets. Now, they shelter artists, collectors, curators, artisans, and designers. Is there a quintessential characteristic that epitomizes a Venetian residence? Can the characteristic be exported? I’m thinking of people who would like to create a Venetian ambience in their own homes, miles, and continents away from Venice.
A characteristic of the venetian homes for me it that they are all extraordinary, filled with extraordinary objects which are the evolution of centuries of men knowledge, artisans, artists, sculptors, painters….
Venice as you said was historically a port and its inhabitants were and are merchants. I don’t think there is in the world a city that has exported her crafts and knowledge so much. I think of glass, glass chandeliers, mirrors but as well wood furniture, painters… it is the contrary, hard to find in the world a house which has nothing venetian or invented in Venice in it!
Books! Books! Books! Books everywhere, on shelves, coffee tables, console tables, and library tables. This is to be expected. The charming surprise was the stacks of books on the floor in the most elegant homes of Roberta Rossi and Giorgio Ceccato. This juxtaposition of disarray and sophistication was delightful to see. Can you explain it? Has tsundoku joined the Venetian lexicon?
Not yet but the key word for Venetian book storage would be probably “weight”.
Those beautiful but fragile houses have a big elasticity but a limited range of weight they can endorse. This might be why we try to dispatch and divide the weight of the books a bit everywhere in the house.
I was very surprised to discover many archives are on the ground floors in Venice, even with the flood risk… but it’s all due to static stability issues.
Flaubert famously insisted that “God is in the details.” But I prefer to think that love is in the details. The book’s meticulous elements both in text and images, comprise a love letter to Venice. I’m curious about your collaboration with Mattia Aquila, the photographer. I found the images to be sumptuous. How did you set the stage for Mattia to interpret your words and design his images to illustrate your invitation so beautifully?
Mattia is a fantastic photographer and played the game perfectly. It is not easy for a photographer in Venice due to its complicated logistics and lights… some rooms he shot were in total darkness and he made magic happen using only natural light.
He of course knew the themes the book would approach… mirrors, laces, tables… but his incredible eye and precision in the details really are unique.
About the setting of the tables I gave a theme to the different friends and owners we were about to shoot, and let them be free in the making… for example Cathy Vedovi had the fish and water theme, Chahan Minassian had the glass theme… and so on … They all did a wonderful job. Luckily Venice is full of very creative people.
There is a wonderful element of comfort and familiarity in the book. Laughter, intimate family anecdotes, poignant Italian words… It feels like the stories and witticisms were born of family and friends gathering to dine on your risi e bisi over years of recounting adventures, history, and folklore. Your research and inclusion of treasures from the Arrivabene and Frigerio Archives bring the past to life, creating a cultural continuity that transcends generations. Based on your extensive research, literary observations, and conversations, what are the non-fiction books, novels, or poetry, that you would recommend to Venetophiles to gain a greater understanding of your magical city?
For poetry I love the Venise poems from Alfred de Musset.
One of my favorite books (used it a lot for my own book) was written in my palazzo. It’s
Venetian Life from W.D Howells. It gives a very accurate description of Venice in 1865.
On the art of the textile, from Doretta Davanzo Poli there is the excellent book Le stoffe dei Veneziani.
Your selection of Venetian artisan crafts was fascinating for several reasons. Weaving history with contemporary artists gave us a strong understanding of what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. It was also especially insightful to go back to study the residents and environments after reading the chapter on crafts, to observe their details with new understanding: the armature of a massive chandelier, an ornate stucco design gracing a wall, or the drape of a Burano fish net tablecloth. Venice is notable for a vast array of artisan crafts: how did you decide to focus on mirrors, glass, fabric, lace, ceramics, porcelain, and the “under-valued” stucco?
My focus was the Extraordinary and Uniqueness of Venice. To understand why it is so, we absolutely need to be taught about it. I have had the chance to meet 96-year-old lacemaker teaching me the differences between a recto and a verso of a lace fabric. I met glassmakers who patiently taught me the differences in glass process, blown, cooked, etc. This knowledge must be passed on, at least explained to understand the extraordinary Venice artefacts. And not fall into the counterfeit.
A city so tiny that has invented so many crafts and kept its excellence all those years… this already is a miracle!
The focus was to explain how many things were invented in Venice, the “war of the mirrors”, the glass challenges, the lace in Burano. I am always surprised that so few people know about it. Even the fact that Venice had ceramic production and oven till the seventies in Campo San Polo comes as a surprise to many.
And where can you find the best evidence of all those extraordinary creations? In private houses! Every cupboard in Venice is a treasure cove.
When I read that the American Elsa Maxwell, unceremoniously snatched the ducal hat of Doge Mocenigo from his shrine, to wear at a costume ball, I was reminded that tourists behaving badly in Venice is sadly nothing new. And it only seems to be getting worse with time. As a resident Venetian, how would you advise tourists on how best enjoy and respect your city?
To enjoy Venice:
My first advice is to stay more than a weekend and use the extra days to visit the islands of Burano and Murano not to forget Torcello and Lido. Venice cannot be understood only seeing the main island in the shape of a fish, but understanding its incredible link with nature, lagune, and islands.
To respect it:
Maybe remember that even if there is water and it can be extremely warm in the summer, it is not a beach and to dress appropriately and not to swim in the canal… seems common sense but you would be surprised.
© Venice: A Private Invitation by Servane Giol, Flammarion, 2022.
Images © Mattia Aquila
Available in English, Italian & French
JoAnn Locktov received a complimentary copy of the book from Rizzoli however her observations are entirely her own.
Header Photo: Carved wooden doors in the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory of Music.