There is no city in the world like Venice. Built over many centuries on a hundred tiny islands in the middle of a lagoon in northeast Italy, the cultural heritage and beauty of this historic city are universally renowned.
It is Venice’s location that makes it unique both in form and function: instead of roads and cars there are canals and boats, instead of black cabs there are gondolas. A stay is not to be rushed: there are no peak hour traffic jams, and with a residential population of just 270,000, Venice is not a big metropolis like London, New York or Tokyo. The city can therefore be easily explored on foot.
It is this pedestrian pace that makes Venice such a wonderful location for photography – on foot, it becomes easier to discover lesser-known corners of the city away from the main tourist hubs of Piazza San Marco, Accademia and Rialto. By making spontaneous detours over small bridges and down tiny alleys, it is easy to discover vignettes of Venetian life that many other visitors pass by.
EUROPE’S DRAWING ROOM
Of course, everyone at some point beats a path to Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), the main public square of the city. This is an enormous open space steeped in history, and the political and cultural heart of Venice. Once described by Napoleon as ‘the drawing room of Europe’, a more impressive public square anywhere in the Western world is hard to find. Long arcades of Renaissance arches flank the north and south sides, creating leading lines to the lavish marbled opulence of the Basilica di San Marco.
While the 900-year-old Basilica is a major attraction for visitors, it is the simple yet majestic red brick tower of the nearby Campanile di San Marco that most visitors immediately recognise. Rising above the Piazza like a sentinel watching over the flurry of life on the pavement below, it is Venice’s most conspicuous landmark, visible from long distances across the Grand Canal.
The looming presence of the Campanile means it features in nearly every picture you will see of the Piazza. Indeed, excluding the Campanile would be like photographing Trafalgar Square without Nelson’s Column. In the case of the Piazza San Marco, the towering vertical lines of the Campanile provide a perpendicular relief to a scene that is otherwise a study in layered horizontal lines and vanishing points. In this respect, the Campanile is an essential addition to the overall aesthetic of the square, a vital inclusion for a balanced composition.
There is another good reason for including the Campanile: the red brick adds colour to a scene that is predominantly white due to the creamy marble exteriors of the Basilica and arcades. On a bright summer’s day, another colour can be added to the photographer’s palette when taking a picture of the Piazza and Campanile – a clean blue sky with a wisp of white cloud.
During the summer months, the best time to shoot is from mid-afternoon, when the sun lights up the west face of the Campanile and the Procuratie Nuove, the 16th century arcade that runs down the south side of the Piazza. Looking up at the warm red of the Campanile rising above the arcade’s white marble columns and piercing the brilliant blue sky, the photographer has all the ingredients for a colourful and graphic composition.
By using a wide-angle lens and shooting from ground level, most of the key elements of the scene can be included, although the ornate façade of the Basilica will become reduced in scale in the background. Also worth bearing in mind is the optical distortion, particularly converging verticals, that become unavoidable when using wide-angle lenses – a characteristic that many people seek to avoid when photographing architecture. However, by deliberately exaggerating this effect, the Campanile can be turned into the leaning tower of Venice! That said, it becomes a more abstract composition as a result which may not be to everyone’s liking.
Choosing the best time to visit is not easy for a city that attracts 70 times more visitors than its population. July and August are the busiest and hottest months, but May, June and September are the best for the photographer with long days and pleasant temperatures. Venice is also famous for its annual Carnival in February, which adds another dimension to the life and atmosphere of the city, but the winter days are cold and damp.
Winter is also the season of the acqua alta, which means ‘high water’, and particularly during November and December a combination of high tides, strong southerly winds and the current of the Adriatic Sea, results in a rising water level in the Venetian lagoon, in turn leading to parts of city being flooded. Unfortunately, Piazza San Marco is the lowest point in Venice, which means it is always the first to become submerged.
The frequency and severity of acqua altas have been getting worse in recent decades due to Venice’s sensitivity to climate change. In fact, in 2012 scientists discovered that the island was sinking five times faster than previously thought, at a rate of two millimetres per year. That may not sound much, but in a city as old as Venice the change is stark when looking back at historic water levels. For example, the iconic Rialto Bridge, has sunk 1.7 metres since it was first built.
A combination of factors, including rising sea levels caused by climate change and subsidence due to pumping of underground water and gas is causing Venice to sink. As a result, recent acqua altas have covered more of the city than usual. Statistically, exceptional high tides – when the water level of the lagoon is 140cm or more above the standard sea level, the point at which more than half of the island of Venice is flooded – only happen every four years. Minor flooding occurs much more often, around four times a year, when lagoon water levels reach 110cm, at which point flooding covers 14 per cent of Venice. In short, if you’re visiting Venice during the winter, be prepared for the possibility of an acqua alta and pack Wellington boots!
SQUARE OF WONDERS
While the Piazza San Marco is Venice’s largest and most photographed public square, there is another open space that Venetians rank higher. When they talk of the ‘square of wonders’ (Campo de le Meravegie), it is not Piazza San Marco they refer to, but the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Situated in the Castello sestiere, this modest square is home to several open-air bars and cafés overlooked by the brick-clad Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Built in the early 15th century in the Italian Gothic style, it is one of the largest churches in Venice and the burial place of 25 doges, the powerful dukes of Venice who served as the city’s chief magistrates. Early evening is the time to visit, with the sun slanting across the square, a gentle light playing across the dome of the basilica.
Venice is renowned for its opulence and in every direction there are spectacular examples of sculpture and architecture demanding viewers to lift their heads and gaze to the heavens. Within the ‘square of wonders’ rises the bronze equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a famous 15th century condottiere (defender of the republic). From a seat at an outdoor table one can frame this impressive sculpture, as well as the dome of the basilica and its distinctive bell tower, each lit by the last light of the day. These three points of interest, against a backdrop of light blue sky and soft cloud make a most pleasing composition for the camera.
In truth, Venice is filled with such riches and architectural squares of wonder at almost every turn. It is near impossible to avoid slipping into clichés when describing the city because, to the first-time visitor especially, it is utterly unique and defies comparison. The American author Truman Capote put it best: ‘Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.’
That said, a detour down any one of the numerous small alleys can lead you over tiny bridges and narrow canals that are Venice’s equivalent of any other city’s back streets. Here, the gilded Renaissance architecture of polished marble and smooth limestone of its great public squares is replaced by walls of brick and crumbling plaster, peeling painted shutters and posters scrawled with graffiti.
For the photographer, this provides a fascinating contrast to the perceived, postcard picture of Venice, and an alternative source of images that will be far less familiar, but possibly more fascinating for a finished portfolio.
Get out early. Venice is one of the world’s most visited cities, so beat the tourist hordes – and get the best of the morning light – by getting out at sunrise. It may be cold first thing, but it will be worth it.
Wear comfortable shoes or boots. This is a city for walking around and exploring, so you will be on your feet most of the day. Plus, every time you sit down somewhere – be it in a café or on a vaporetto (the water taxis) or gondola – it will cost you money. Keep walking!
Look at the details. Most photographers are seduced by the wide views of Venice – it’s impossible not to be – but also zoom in closer and focus on the architectural details that many people miss.
Carry too much gear. Venice is a photographer’s paradise. There is something to photograph at every turn, not just the main tourist sights, so don’t waste time changing lenses or setting up tripods. Try to make do with one camera and a good quality zoom – or two.
Walk too close to the canal edges. This applies particularly during the acqua alta when walking on flooded sidewalks next to canals, as it becomes harder to see the edge of the canals.
Do too much planning. Venice is full of distractions and can be a maze of alleys and canals off the main squares, so getting lost is easy – and a pleasure. This is the best way to discover the life and sights of the city that many guidebooks leave out.
Impressions of Venice, by Bernd Ruecker, Vagabond Books, £35, hardback
Venice: The Golden Centuries, by Giandomenico Romanelli, Ullmann Publishing, £24.95, hardback
Venice: An Architectural Guide, by Richard Goy, Yale University Press, £14.99, softback
Accessory option: Walking shoes
Hard-wearing footwear can have a big say in how much you enjoy exploring a city maze like Venice. The Keen Utility work shoe (£60) is made of waterproof nubuck leather with a non-marking, oil-resistant rubber sole. This is a lace-up work shoe with a low-cut steel toe and breathable mesh inserts for enhanced airflow. A very comfortable and robust shoe.
Lens option: Super zoom
Look for a high quality super zoom lens that gives you all the viewing options. Tamron has a long history of super zoom lenses and the Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 VC PZD (£550) is well built, compact and features a vibration control (VC) facility. There is also an ultrasonic motor to ensure silent autofocus use. The lens is compatible for full-frame and APS-C format cameras and available in mounts for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony SLRs.
Camera option: High resolution DSLR
The D810 (£1,700 – body only) has the most powerful image sensor of any Nikon DSLR, perfect for showing up every intricate detail. It also gives more cropping options after image capture, while still producing a good sized image file. The D810 has 51 AF-points and a 5fps maximum drive burst, while an ISO range of 64-12,800 improves the camera’s imaging capability in low light – great for dusk shots or misty winter mornings.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.