So this is what lies in a calle behind the Redentore Church. A small nameplate with a big history. A locked gate, a doorbell that no one answers, a crumbling palazzo, a garden wilderness that at 6 acres is the largest private garden in Venice. And only one or two people have been in there since the owner died in 2000. All the more fascinating when you find out that that person was the internationally renowned artist Friedenreich Hundertwasser. I’ve been an admirer of his ever since I went to his 1975 exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where humus toilets were displayed alongside paintings and architectural plans for ecological buildings with turf roofs. And later I heard rumours that he had some sort of hideaway on the Guidecca island in Venice. But the details of this only surfaced when a friend who was house sitting while I was in Venice a year or so ago left me a book she thought might interest me: it was called ‘A Garden in Venice’ A disappointingly drab book, it nevertheless has a fascinating account by the editor Frances Lincoln of the history of this very garden, the links with Anthony Eden’s great uncle and Gertrude Jekyll’s sister Caroline; Jean Cocteau and a fatal shooting on the steps of Salute; a Queen of Yugoslavia, and last not least, Hundertwasser. It’s worth listening to a BBC programme made by Professor Janet Todd in 2003 called ‘Requiem for a Garden of Eden’ . The book can be perused online.

But back to the present. This is what I found when I left the Redentore crowds that beautiful Sunday in July.

I had thought I might go back there, might leave a note in the letterbox, ring the bell, talk to the neighbours (somebody is watering those geraniums on the loggia), write to the Hundertwasser foundation in Vienna. I didn’t, but I still might. For now, I am leaving this blog and this dream, and just in case you want more, I can recommend two excellent Venice blogs, written by people actually living there, full of interest and detail. Oddly enough, the daily photo for today in the Venice Daily Photo blog is Secret Garden…click on the links below

I am not making this up

Venice Daily Photo

In the Venetian sestiere of Cannaregio there is a calle, or alley, named after the noble family that lived there: the Calergi family. It is bounded on each side by a palazzo that stretches from the canal at one end to the canal at the other end, about 200 metres long. Once, and it is in the nature of this blog that my historical facts are hazy, once, a long time ago I’m told, two noble families lived on either side of the calle. And so it happened that a young woman from one family fell in love with the young man next door, or opposite. It could have turned out badly as it did for a better known pair of lovers in nearby Verona, but fortunately in this case the union was approved by all. To celebrate the bond the palazzi were united by high arch at each end and a balcony/walkway in the middle, which remain to this day, like many of the descendants of the original families who still live in the flats here.

Which all goes to illustrate how the Venetians went about building and altering their city: add a bit here, raise a ground floor there ( incidentally this still happens today: every time a renovation happens the ground floor level must be raised a foot or so if possible to counteract the rising tide levels), or chop a hole through the ground floor of a building to create a short cut – the so called sotoportego. I went to a marvellous exhibition during last’s year’s Biennale which was held in the Scuola Grande della Misericordia, not far from the Calle Calergi as it happens. A Swiss artist, Pierre Case, had spent several years making work about each of the 240 Venetian sotoporteghi: a monumental task which resulted in some wonderful work. It’s well worth following the link I provide here to a blog about his work, not only to read more about Pierre Case, but also because the blogger has written extensively about Venice.

Here are the etchings I’ve done so far – click on them to see them in a row. Each one is linked to one of the posts I’ve already made (apart from the Calle Calergi, which I haven’t written about yet). Later I may combine edited parts of the blog text with the etchings in some kind of book form. There are quite a few more stories/etchings to make: I’ll see how it goes, and if I can stay inspired.

Back in England now, and Venice variations seems a far distant land. But this video still needs posting, and as I said in my last blog, I’ve got more to record here. Next up: the etchings I made when I wasn’t blogging. I need to work on the photos, so will come back later.

I got lost on my way to La Beppa. The general advice when navigating Venice is to look up rather than down, as the signs to the major locations are rather higher than you expect. But this sign didn’t really help the situation. So round and round I went until I found the locality I was searching for in Castello, one of the largest and most local residential areas of Venice. Not many tourists find their way here, and I only just did. I was heading for La Beppa, perhaps my all time anywhere favourite ironmonger which sells pigments as well as floor cleaners, fresco brushes alongside saucepans, thread for any use in amongst the kitchen knives. The window, or part of it as you approach what looks like a row of different shops, looks like this:

I spent far too much on treasures such as true Venetian Red (glowing in the box in the same way the buildings have glowed here every day so far), a range of earth colours from the soil of Italy, and a fantastically expensive (I bought 50 grammes only) purple fit for an Emperor, which didn’t photograph very well, so I’ll show you the Umber – Terra Ombra Cipro Bruciata to be precise – with its label detailing all ingredients:

Fitting, really, because I am off to Umbria on Sunday, where I shall be out of internet and mobile range for a week, leaving this extraordinary city far too early: I came for 3 weeks and could easily stay 50 times that and still find things to write about. In fact, I’ve got a few more posts in the offing as work here has rather taken over from blogging and I’m behind with my Variations, so if I don’t get the blogs  in before I go, I’ll post them from England….

Across the lagoon from where I live is the island of Giudecca. Normally cut off from the main island by the sea and only reachable by boat, there is nevertheless one day in the year when you can walk across a pontoon bridge which ends at the steps of the Redentore Church. That day was last Sunday, and I joined Venetians and visitors to walk across the water. My goal was not only the church, but

what lay behind it. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to share the secret of the place I sought: it’s a place of my dreams and maybe a whole new set of variations…one day I’ll divulge more maybe, but there are actions to be taken. Stay tuned.

The Festival: Historical Notes

‘The Festa del Redentore, Festival of the Redeemer, is an annual celebration of the end of the plague that struck a large part of Europe in the 16th century, causing more than 50,000 deaths in Venice. In 1576, Doge Alvise Mocenigo invoked the end of the epidemic and the salvation of the city by constructing a votive temple ‘which our successors will go and visit, in perpetual memory of the grace received’.’

So Palladio was called in to design the church on the island of Guidecca, which was completed in 1592.  More about that later. The annual celebration of Redentore takes place over one weekend in July, and the first thing one notices here is the the rise in river traffic and everyone rowing, walking, travelling in the same direction: to the lagoon. We took the vaporetto to the Giardini, and as soon as we emerged from the Grand Canal it was party time. Boats of all shapes and ages were piling in, disco music was blaring from just about every vessel, and our water bus rocked in the swell.At the Giardini we were away from the crowds of San Marco, and instead surrounded by locals from the sestiere of Castello, who had come out with their chairs, children and grandmothers to sit on the edge of the lagoon, waiting for the firework display. Local lads dived recklessly into the water in the spaces between the boats.

Finally the fireworks began and for half an hour we were treated to an extraordinary display with the crowds cooing in admiration ‘bello, bello’ and sometimes applauding. This was fortunate for the organisers: some displays in the past have been greeted with boos. And as an Italian remarked today: it used to be bread and circuses, now, it seems, it’s just circuses. A beautiful circus nonetheless whose theme this year appeared to be flowers: exploding petals with a clear centre. Reminded me of the glass made in Murano. My camera battery ran out, but I managed this rather smudged one. It shows the shapes of San Marco and Campaniella centre left, and the reflections in the water.At midnight the fireworks ended, and a cacophony of sirens erupted from the boats. Plague is over. Now off to the Lido till dawn.

The Campo di San Maurizio, where I live, has old palazzos on three sides and these buildings on the fourth. I haven’t counted how many churches there are in the immediately vicinity, but let’s say lots, or so it seems from the number of different bells that ring extremely loudly from 7 am onwards. In the spaces inbetween I hear the soft sound of the square being swept after the seagulls have completed their daily dawn raid of the rubbish bags left out for collection. Sometimes I open the shutters to be confronted by a group of bleary-eyed tourists dragged out too early by remorseless tour operators. They do a lot of gazing at the church on the left of this picture. Last time I stayed here this church was a lot tattier, and had crumbling angels on each corner of the roof. I’m not sure whether it was one of these that fell to the ground, as in John Berendt’s book: City of Falling Angels, but in any case, they were removed for safety’s sake, and the church now looks rather dull and proper. Not so the bell tower behind, which really does lean as it appears to in the photo. Last night there was a continuous electric storm going on, which never amounted to any rain, nor it seems, came anywhere near us, but was spectacular nonetheless. Another variation for me.

Yesterday I was going home on the vaporetto, about to alight, when the unmistakable figure of a well known rock star passed us in a motor launch. Unmissable too, because he was standing bolt upright, only too well aware of the ultimate stage that is the Grand Canal in Venice. The entire boat spotted him and the unfamiliar word sting sting sting sting sting ran around the deck. At the very same moment the rope that the boat conductor uses to fasten the boat to the landing stage broke (this never happens, said my local companion) and a woman and child narrowly missed falling in the water. No one seemed to notice that. Two very rare events, simultaneously. How strange, I thought, and how dangerous celebrity is.


I was inadvertently locked into a Venetian church today. Luckily for me, it was my favourite church: Madonna dell’Orto, or Madonna of the Allotments. The allotments allude to the space in front of the church, which used to be vegetable gardens but now are paved over, but with a kind of a nod to the old gardens, with a patterned pavement showing a herringbone pattern where the plots used to be.

I’m on the trail of gardens here, having read a year or two ago that Venice is one third gardens two thirds buildings. (Can this be true? They must be very well hidden if so). Anyway, back to the story. I was walking along the Fondamenta towards my favourite church, photographing enticing glimpses of hidden gardens as I went. I was also on the trail of Tintoretto, a marvellous Venetian painter, who is

buried at this church, having been born 76 years earlier in 1518  in a house just round the corner in the Fondamenta dei Mori.

I went to see his paintings in the Scuola di San Rocco a day or so ago,  and wanted to pay homage to this extraordinary painter, who would have been a movie director I’m sure if he had lived today.

Sorry, I’ve digressed a lot. Anyway, the church was shut until 10 am, 20 minutes later. I decided to wait, then out came a cleric and I asked him if I could go in and he said yes, so in I went. Had a marvellous time communing with Tintoretto at his tomb and the Madonna of the Allotments, a

statue by Antonio Rizzo (allegedly miraculous says Wikipedia). Went to leave, and found someone had locked the doors again. So I stayed in, happily, as there is so much to see in this wonderful church, and when the seller of tickets at the entrance turned up at 10 am, she behaved as if I were not there at all. Maybe I had become miraculously invisible.

(By the way, Wikipedia says Orto is the nearby orchard. I was told it was the gardens in front. Who knows, it’s a good story anyway)