Hortus Conclusus. The Humane City. Midnight Blue, a color with a special meaning here in Venice! Dream of Venice Architecture introduces a different way of thinking and presenting our city: How and why Venice was built along concentric circles. Each of them takes us deeper into the Venetian labyrinth and its ancient soul, a city that keeps enticing her guests – and inhabitants! – to explore and sometimes, to get lost.
This city has shown incredible resilience and a strong will to live for almost 1600 years. Just imagine, Venice was founded in 421 AD according to legend, while her origins go back to at least 250 BC. It’s not just the beauty of Venice and the unknown story of her urban structure that this book is telling us: It also hints at what we can learn from this historical city for life in our times!
Essay after essay, illustrated by lush and subdued, midnight-hued images, this book reveals the secrets of “living Venetian”. As Richard Goy writes in the introductory chapter, “Venice’s urban form can be considered as a series of roughly concentric layers, each one concealing the next one as we progress further and further inwards”.
So true – there’s an inner core and soul in this city, where Venetianness lives on. In Dream of Venice Architecture you receive access to this inner core, in a virtual and very beautiful way.
I first published this book review and interview with its editor, JoAnn Locktov (Bella Figura Publications) and photographer, Riccardo de Cal, in September 2016. Going through the book now, in December 2019, while Venice is struggling to get back to life after the severe floodings a few weeks ago, this book seems even more valuable and insightful to me, but also very comforting: It unveils all those puzzle stones making up the urban setting of Venice that will ultimately help the city get back on her feet.
The inner circle: Soul gardening, Venetian style. What is “home” for a Venetian? The first thing that comes to our mind is the secret spaces, our private gardens: Here’s where we return to gain strength and calmness, and even more so during difficult times.
To this day, Venice consists of a myriad of garden sanctuaries (horti conclusi), oases of calm, shade and privacy. These gardens are invisible to visitors but they are the backbone of life in Venice and take up almost half of our city.
Call it a “second, secret city” or the “inner circle hiding behind reddish brickwalls”: Its existence is no co-incidence but goes back to the foresight of the Venetian architects and town planners of the past. They knew how to create a city promoting both creativity and strength.
Dream of Venice Architecture explains the unknown characteristics of these private Venetian spaces, from which other cities in our times could learn so much: Concentric circles providing consistency, comfort and privacy but at the same time, communicating with public space.
From gardens and private homes, you step out onto semi-private campi structuring life and beauty. Outwardly as third concentric circle, the islands of the Lagoon act as both protection and door to the world. You can sense this approach of seeing Venice as conglomerate of concentric circles in the video below by film director Riccardo De Cal who took the images for the book.
To be classified as resilient, sustainable and humane, urban structures must have certain traits: Building in concentric circles that communicate with each other is one of them, offering freedom and privacy at the same time.
With insightful texts and captivating images reflecting the shades of midnight blue, Dream of Venice Architecture reveals surprising insights into the art of building a humane city on unstable ground.
Building in a liquid environment means taking care of details, which architects on terra firma would never have considered: For example, the particular structure of Venetian buildings must be able to absorb the strong light caused by the reflections of the sun on water. An interesting fact and just one example of so many surprising insights I haven’t found in any other book.
Of course we were curious about the Editor’s and Photographer’s own experience with Venice. How they came to love this city, and why they keep returning, and where they love to spend their time in Venice. What a perfect day in town looks like for them, what they love to eat and which is their favorite season!
You are both special friends of Venice and return whenever you can: In your opinion, what is it that turns a casual and even sceptic tourist into a frequent visitor, “addicted” to the city?
JoAnn: I believe Venice is a difficult place to know. Physically, it is a labyrinth of narrow calli and distorted perspectives. Venice is a small, urban, dense environment that constantly confuses. She is antithetical to our conscious understanding of how a city should logically behave. If you are a romantic, Venice contains layers of poetry, which take a lifetime to decipher. And so insatiable for clarity, we return. We hope for recognition. But we settle for sustained reflection.
Riccardo: Perhaps it’s her special role of a city suspended in time. A place that like no other will rouse romantic visions in any visitor which they try to persue, and sometimes, forever.
Does Venice have certain characteristics that draw in so many visitors? In other words, why can Venice become such a constant in our lives?
JoAnn: My sense from reading literature that spans several centuries, from speaking with smitten visitors and from own personal experience is that Venice has the capacity to creep into our DNA. It is a cellular level beyond the rational. So, if the city has permeated that layer she becomes an intimate appendage of our being. To the more cerebral, Venice simply defies logic.
Riccardo: I think it’s the morbid fascination Venice exercises as an enigmatic city, a fact that every visitor will perceive on an unconscious and sublime level.
Like your first book in the Dream of Venice family, Dream of Venice Architecture contains images of winter. Why do you choose this season in particular for your books?
JoAnn: Winter is the time when Venice can breathe. She is not besieged by cruise ships and smothered by tourists. In winter, the fog softens her angles, the shadows lengthen, and she is pretty much left up to her own devices.
Riccardo: Winter is the only season to take pictures of Venice without having to fight with tourists elbow against elbow. But then it’s also the Venice I love most, the one shrouded in fog, acqua alta and rain: A city that makes herself rare and in which the atmospherical elements intervene so strongly with one’s own sensations.
Venice is more authentic (also because she’s less crowded) in winter. As a student, I used to walk along the Zattere or to the Giudecca with el caìgo (thick fog), listen to the sirens of the boats reverberating in the fog. Unforgettable, so emotional moments.
I can recognize that your book contains many images taken in a particular sestiere (district). Is there a special place in the city that represents home to you, where you love to spend as much time as possible when you are in Venice?
JoAnn: I never feel I’ve actually returned to Venice until I go to the Accademia Bridge and stand at the crown and gaze towards the domes of Santa Maria della Salute. If a point on a bridge can qualify as home, then this would be it.
Riccardo: Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio! There are children playing hide and seek and in the summer, they love bathing in the fountain. People rest on the wooden benches, it’s a campo populated by Venetians. The church dominates this campo which is one of the oldest in town, and its poor Franciscan church was loved by both Ruskin and D’Annunzio.
Your book takes up the specific characteristics of a humane city, one that we all search for, and constantly. Can you describe what makes Venice so humane as city? Is it because she’s always been a melting pot and mixture of styles, also with regard to architecture?
JoAnn: Venice was built as an extension of the Lagoon. She is a city completely integrated with her landscape. As Massimiliano Fuksas writes in our book, “It is rare that landscape is used as the substantial element of a city, its GEOGRAPHY. But Venice is the exception.” Without cars or any land vehicles, there is a peaceful sound quality; footsteps are recognized, the ringing of bells mark time. Her elegant structures are not constricted by massive fortified walls. Venetians felt confident in their ability to protect themselves, and the city, though noble, also feels communal. In Venice, the rhythm feels organic. To paraphrase Peggy Guggenheim, even when you walk, you float. Neighbors know each other, family histories go back centuries. This collective memory adds to the humanity of the city because it is written in the stones.
Riccardo: Venice has always had a tradition of hospitality, despite her being rather tested today. She’s always exported culture, art and beauty, and these are the subconscious needs people look for in Venice. That makes them return and gather energy in their favorite places in town.
For Venice to survive, we need to look at her roots and her characteristics, so beautifully described in your book. Is there something that visitors can take away from their stay, and that „modern“ cities can learn from a historical city like Venice?
JoAnn: Salvatore Settis points out in his critical anthem IF VENICE DIES, that Venice was the “first global city of the modern world.” It was through diversity and tolerance that Venice built her strength. Cultural distinctions were integrated into the texture of the city, not excluded. Venice prospered because the idea of the “common good” was elevated beyond individual gain. In our book, TA Massociati reminds us that the “glory of La Serenissima” was a result of her collective efforts; the metaphor they use is prophetic—acting as if the entire city were “members of a crew.” Venice with her melange of influences and resplendent setting is unlike any other city on earth. But this remarkable treasure has also bred corruption, greed, mismanagement, and an administration negligent in their responsibility to protect and strengthen the city they were elected to serve. Venice is on the cusp of being included on the World Heritage Danger list. She is also fair warning that if you do not invest in your citizens, or your infrastructure, or housing, or a sustainable local economy, or ecology, and you allow despotic interests to reign — your modern city — just like Venice, may not survive.
Riccardo: Venice has the potential to teach modern cities, but also countries – Italy, in particular – the principle of preserving historically valid treasures: Why substitute, for example, an old wooden sign with a plastic one? An old lamppost of the 18th century with a “modern” ugly and short-lived one? Preserving objects of historical value should be guaranteed by law. In that manner, much of the historical heritage, lost to us forever , would have been salvaged.
What does a perfect day in Venice look like for you?
JoAnn: Any day in Venice filled with walking, art, delicious food, and friendship is a perfect day.
Riccardo: On a foggy morning, I love taking a walk along the Zattere or the Giardini. From there, I might take the vaporetto to the Lido and walk along the beach. I treat myself to this walk, even though I’m no longer a university student.
I’ve seen that your book is resplendent in midnight blue, the color of comfort, courage, hope and special feasts in Venice. Which time of the day does your book show most often, and which do you prefer to go about exploring Venice?
JoAnn: I love dusk when the light turns blue and the temperature drops by several degrees. It is when Venice is the quintessential liminal space, when air, stone and water merge into one. A time of transition and anticipation. Maybe it is because of my fascination with mosaics but I’ve always been drawn to the interstices, the places in-between.
Riccardo: I love the winter mornings between November and January, shrouded in fog and greyish blue.
I’ve go two more questions for you, not related to your book about architecture, but to Venetian lifestyle and cuisine in general. Is there a favorite dish you cannot resist when you are in Venice?
JoAnn: This question is almost impossible to answer because there is so much Venetian cuisine I love. But if I absolutely had to choose one dish, it would be cape lunghe. Of course eaten with my fingers, as Victor Hazan taught me to do.
Riccardo: Baccalà mantecato and obviously fritole (frittelles) when they are in season.
… and do you have a favorite breakfast treat you love to eat in Venice?·
JoAnn: Black coffee, made in a moka and lots of it! The studio that I rent is in Castello, four steps away from Pasticceria Chiusso. Need I say more?
Riccardo: I ate breakfast so many times in Venice, always in a hurry. Cornetti caldi (hot croissants) and coffee at pastry stores, Tonolo, Rosa Salva or in Rio Marin.
We think that JoAnn’s first book is the most luminous book on Venice we’ve ever seen (just look at the turquoise lights on the cover page!), but we were also struck by the sparkling hues of gold and velvety midnight blue in which Dream of Venice Architecture is clad – you can see it in the image above. This is not just any combination of colors but reflects those that historians associate with defining moments in Venetian history. For example, the golden-blue flag is still used to celebrate La Festa di San Marco, every year on 25 April.
Find out more about Dream of Venice Architecture and where to buy it on the Website of Bella Figura Publications. And click below to participate in our give-away!
We would like to thank JoAnn and Riccardo for sending us a copy to review the book, the interview and for sharing the images for this post!