My weekend exploring the historic artisan workshops of Venice


Venice in winter: the sky dissolves into the lagoon and the waters rise to merge with the heavens in a seamless monochrome backdrop. Along the Grand Canal, the glittering façade of Ca’ d’Oro is muted, and a black shadow recedes into the mist — a “lugubrious gondola”, to which Liszt composed his musical ode La lugubre gondola.

Nowhere on earth are the ghosts of the past so present as in this city of melancholy beauty. As my water taxi glides along the Grand Canal, the buildings evoke romance: I imagine Wagner rising at the Palazzo Vendramin, where he died; the prose of Henry James echoes past the Palazzo Barbaro; strains of Ravel and Debussy are brought to mind at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac; Turner emanates from the pink geometrical walls of the Doge’s Palace.

Not to mention Byron, who, fittingly enough, wrote the first section of Don Juan in Venice while seducing his landlord’s wife. Plus the vast roll call of native artists, from Vivaldi to Titian, whose presence soars in every church to make La Serenissima one gigantic temple of music and art.

St Mark’s Square and the church of San Giorgio Maggiore

St Mark’s Square and the church of San Giorgio Maggiore

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Today only half a dozen palaces remain occupied by descendants of Venice’s aristocracy. Many have been turned into boutique hotels — few as magnificent as Aman, which occupies Palazzo Papadopoli — and each new opening is trumpeted as offering “a luxurious stay in your own personal palace”. Those familiar with the Gritti, Cipriani or Danieli (in its heyday) might question the new parameters of luxury. But the emphasis is on intimacy and, every now and then, something interesting comes along.

One such place is Violino d’Oro, which opened its doors last November after extensive restoration to three connected 17th-century buildings, between which you can meander with the aid of Ariadne’s thread (or the guidance of the ever-helpful staff). This is the latest project of the Maestrelli family — the owners of the Collezione Em luxury Italian hotels, which will grow to four next year — on the San Moise canal, three minutes from Piazza San Marco. It is a painstaking tribute to Italian artisans, past and present. Even the general manager, the elegant Annabella Cariello, looks as though she might have emerged from a canvas by Modigliani.

Violino d’Oro is, I discovered when I stayed for three days in December, a perfumed world of antique Murano chandeliers hanging from lofty ceilings and contemporary lamps that are crafted from Murano “offcuts” to ensure pieces cannot be reproduced. One where traditional Rubelli silk brocades and velvets vie with quirky designs by Luke Edward Hall; where 18th-century paintings sit alongside a conceptual work by Emilio Isgro, with a smattering of chinoiserie for good measure — a reflection of the eclectic taste of Sara Maestrelli and her aunt, Elena.

The hotel is decorated with immaculate attention to detail

The hotel is decorated with immaculate attention to detail

COLLEZIONE EM

It works. All 32 bedrooms, from the smallest to the most opulent, are decorated with the same attention to detail: those ubiquitous Rubelli fabrics, bespoke furniture and carpets, individual artworks and fabulous bathrooms with crystal taps and waterfall showers, kitted out with Florentine amenity boxes and Ortigia products. It is a very small hotel — no spa, gym or pool.

Above all, I was wowed by the Venetian seminato flooring, composed of tiny pieces of dark green and white Carrara marble. “It was handmade by one of the oldest artisan families still operating today,” Sara Maestrelli tells me. “Erminio Asin spent weeks on his knees, on leather pads, placing each individual piece in cement.”

Craftsmanship like this requires long apprenticeships, and projects such as Violino d’Oro help to keep the unique but embattled artisans of Venice in work. Rumour has it that the workshop of Mario Berta, the last artisanal goldbeater in Europe, based in Titian’s former studio, is about to close for lack of new blood — a huge loss to clients from Versailles to St Petersburg who purchase his gold leaf. Elsewhere, traditional techniques limp on. At the historic textile producer Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua — where, for the most complex designs, it can take six months just to set up a jacquard loom with a cat’s cradle of 15,000 threads — the clickety-clack of the 19th-century apparatus can still be heard as one person throws the shuttle and another plucks at the vertical strings to produce a mere 30cm a day of the finest silk velvet in the world.

Deluxe room moisè

Deluxe room moisè

COLLEZIONE EM

“The problem is finding apprentices with the necessary dedication to learn a skill,” says another artisan, Manuel Tarla, owner of the OroVetro glass atelier, when — inspired by all the wonderful glass at the hotel — I visit his store in Murano.

He has launched a project called Good Vibes, engaging artists from different disciplines to breathe new life into a metier that was first mentioned in 982.

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At OroVetro’s warehouses — adorned with chandeliers and tableaux vivants — I attended an event with live music and cocktails, where guests gathered to watch the intricate choreography of the glass makers. In a scene out of Bosch, armed with primitive tools, they danced around furnaces breathing fire at 1,200C, rolled and sculpted molten glass under blowtorches, coaxed it into shape and sprinkled it with pigments and gold dust before finally polishing the still lambent artwork with … newspaper! Sparks and ashes flew, no one was hurt; it’s all in a day’s work. An experience like no other, it will be bookable from March, including dinner and decadence, for a princely €300 (£260) a head. Like most glassworks in Murano it has a store you can visit too, as well as its own small museum of Murano glass (store.orovetro.it).

If you are inspired by the hotel to visit some of Venice’s other artisans, then Matteo Flumian, the hotel’s head concierge, will be able to set you up — as he did for me the next day.

Il Piccolo restaurant

Less known, perhaps, than Venice’s more tangible assets is its role in the development of perfume. Spearheaded by Marco Vidal, CEO of luxury perfumier The Merchant of Venice, the spectacular Perfume Museum at Palazzo Mocenigo allows you to sniff your way along the trade routes that converged in Venice and learn about its perfume-making families through interactive displays. Exhibits range from arcane instruments of enfleurageand distillation to one of the largest collections of perfume bottles in the world: some 3,000 items spanning 6,000 years in the Storp collection (£9; themerchantofvenice.com). It was the perfect prelude to a two-hour private session (£130) with Joan Giacomin, an ambassador for the company and an alchemist in all but name, at the Olfactory Composition Laboratory above a bookshop near San Marco. Hugely informative and enormous fun, it is de rigueur for any devotee of perfume. I emerged light-headed, clutching a bottle of my own bespoke fragrance, magically concocted by Giacomin.

17 of the best affordable hotels in Venice under £150 a night

I returned to Violino d’Oro via Piazza San Marco, now doubly beautiful, mirrored in the acqua altaamid twinkling lights. Time for a negroni, expertly prepared by the award-winning barman Francesco Adragna and followed by dinner at the hotel’s nine-table restaurant, Il Piccolo (mains from £26). From a menu composed of fresh Venetian ingredients sourced by the chef Stefano Santo I chose risotto of lagoon prawns with tarragon and butter, and sea bass with turnip greens and aubergine, served on Ginori plates and accompanied by an excellent Terlano wine. But now it wasn’t just the contents I enjoyed, I also appreciated the craftsmanship of the Murano glasses in a wholly different way.

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Teresa Levonian Cole was a guest of Violino d’Oro, which has B&B doubles from £549 (violinodoro.com). Fly or take the train to Venice

Our insider guide to what’s on in Venice this winter

By Julia Buckley

Celebrate Carnevale

A woman dressed up for the Venice Carnival

A woman dressed up for the Venice Carnival

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Carnevale is an acquired taste, and arguably only worth doing if you have the money to live it up at one of the fancy balls. This year’s dates are February 3-13 and the theme for the 2024 edition is a celebration of Marco Polo. If you want to go to a ball, Il Ballo del Doge — held on February 10 in the Scuola Grande della Misericordia — is the most exclusive. Ticket prices are either high or obscene, depending on your point of view: from £2,150 for dinner and a show or £688 to attend the after party (ilballodeldoge.com). The council holds a similar event at the Casino on February weekend nights from £516. Costumes are obligatory for balls but not for the free (but packed) public events, like Il Volo dell’Angelo, where a woman “flies” on a zipline across Piazza San Marco, from the campanile to the Doge’s Palace, to mark the start of carnival (carnevale.venezia.it).

New ghetto tour

The Campo de Ghetto Novo

The Campo de Ghetto Novo

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The ancient Jewish Quarter in Cannaregio is the oldest ghetto in the world, founded in 1516 when the Jews were forcibly relocated to a tiny island that had previously been a foundry. There have long been guided tours, though in the past those delivered in English weren’t always the most enthusiastic. This year they’ve added an audioguide option so you can move around at your own pace, and pause a while to absorb the atmosphere in the three synagogues open to the public (you see two on each tour, £12; ghettovenezia.com).

New lagoon eats

Fish, fish and more fish is on the menu at Venetika, a new restaurant in Cannaregio owned by two longtime Venetian restaurateurs. Named after the Greek name for Venice during the Byzantine period, the restaurant is fully rooted in the lagoon and the wider coastal area that was once part of the Venetian Republic. Think lagoon-netted seafood, organic vegetables, pasta made from ancient grains, and Slow Food-approved ingredients. The restaurant also has a vintage wooden boat, which they can take out on evening tours, or made-to-measure itineraries (mains from £14; ostariavenetika.it). Nearby is Ba’Ghetto, which opened last year in the Jewish Quarter, bringing Roman-Jewish recipes to a historic building and pretty canalside garden off the main square (mains from £13; baghetto.com).

Carnival treats

Frittelle are Venice’s answer to doughnuts

Frittelle are Venice’s answer to doughnuts

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The real reason to visit during the carnival period is for frittelle — Venice’s answer to doughnuts, but so much more refined. The deep-fried balls of dough, stuffed with raisins and pine nuts, are sold all around town, but make sure you get yours from an artisan bakery to truly appreciate the art. Everyone has their favourites; my vote goes to Rizzardini in San Polo, where the Garlato family stuff them with zabaglione or fluffy cream too. Frittelle have always been a staple of carnival — there’s even a painting of an 18th-century seller frying them on the street by Pietro Longhi in Ca’ Rezzonico — but these days the season is eked out a bit, roughly from the start of January to the end of February.

Winter wandering

Winter is the most atmospheric time to enjoy the lagoon and its islands. With its cheek-by-jowl private beaches, the coast of the Lido (the beach island) is all but off-limits in summer, but in winter it’s a beautiful place for bracing walks, the Adriatic thrashing at the sugary sand, while the north lagoon, Burano — sinking in summer with tourists — empties out. A watery nativity scene floats on stilts just offshore, and the fisherman Andrea Rossi can take you out in his boat to enjoy the misty lagoon (venicebirdwatching.com). This is also the time to visit a glass factory on Murano, which can be stultifyingly hot in summer. Wave Murano Glass offer tours and classes in glassblowing (tours £22, classes £194; wavemuranoglass.com).

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