sense and serenissima

Fondamenta del Piovan Venice sm

I wonder what my Venice ‘limit’ is? How long could I be in Venice before I got bored by the bridges, confounded by the canals, tired of the tourists, frustrated by the flooding, and hounded by the humidity? Maybe never, and maybe always? Maybe all of that is the charm of Venice, and maybe it is something I don’t notice when by myself but becomes more prominent when with others? It’s hard to tell. I’ll always love Venice, always be amazed by its very existence and history, that is is an eternally crumbling yet living and breathing beauty? I could spend a long time there wandering and sketching, but even Venice would end up feeling small and familiar. Other cities may not be as pound-for-pound beautiful, but may have a more lasting attraction – Paris, for example. Over the course of three days however Venice is magnificent and divine, and every scene is a potential watercolour. The morning light in Venice beats everywhere I have ever been. The sketch above was done on my second morning in Venice, while wandering about the narrow paths of the sestiere of Cannaregio, looking for a specific spot which I knew to be nearby the place we stayed in 2003. I found it – the shiny marble church known as Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which I remembered to be surrounded by cats the first time I saw it. There were no cats this time. I sat on the steps of a bridge on the Fondamenta del Piovan and sketched the above scene, painting the colourful reflection in the soft morning light, before wandering back to the apartment, Venetian breakfast pastries in hand.

Grand Canal Venice sm

Later that day, we had a morning and afternoon of slow wandering around the two sestieri on the other side of the Grand Canal, San Polo and Santa Croce. We took a traghetto over, looking for the natural history museum, but spent ages getting lost among the alleys and courtyards. This was a much more residential area than I had expected, and while we were lost (because we were a bit lost, we never found that museum) my son watched local kids playing football in the small squares (though he was a bit shy to join in). I did get one sketch done, looking for a route to the Grand Canal, sketching the magnificently domed Chiesa di San Geremia across the wide turquoise canal. Scenes like this make Venice feel like a made-up city, a pretend place, but it’s very real, and boatmen moored up bringing their goods onto the fondamenta. This was actually my last sketch in Venice and tired feet were not looking forward to the journey back to England, but we were all ready to come back by that point. Venice is beautiful and fun, as is Rome, but there is a lot of walking. Our next vacation will involve a little more beach and pool.  Rio de S Fosca Venice sm

One last sketch though, a quick pencil sketch of the Rio de S. Fosca, in Cannaregio, drawn quickly the evening before, after dinner. I didn’t want to be out sketching after dark so drew this as the sun set and went back to settle into the apartment with thoughts of future Italian trips in my head. Next time, Florence, Tuscany, and maybe the Italian Lakes. I’d like to visit the Ligurian coast, all the way down to the Cinqueterre. Genoa has always sounded interesting to me, and Bologna. Naples scares me a bit, but I had a pen-pal from Naples when I was about 13 (we never met, but she would write to me all about the south of Italy, and I’d write back all about London). Similarly, Sicily always seemed wild and distant, but I would love to explore its villages and coastal towns. I don’t know; I want to go everywhere, I guess. At least we were able to go to Rome and Venice, and that was worth it. Arrivederci Italia. Ciao!

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canalside in cannaregio

Fondamenta Moro Venice sm
We stayed in Cannaregio, the northern quarter of Venice, a neighbourhood of canals north of the Grand Canal and east of the train station. I kept spelling it Canareggio, which is wrong. I also spelled it Cannareggio, which is also wrong. I never spelled it Canaregio because that just seemed obviously wrong. We arrived on our train from Rome in good time, that trip across the lagoon making the old heart thump around with excitement. We were staying in an apartment we had booked online, and we had the address, and we had even looked for it on maps online, and here is the thing – Venice makes no sense to anyone except Venetians. They don’t have streets, you see. That might seem obviosu, because they have canals, but they literally don’t have streets – what they have are Calles and Fondamenti and Campi, but if you have an address it’s not like, 52 Gondola Road, Venice. Instead each address is a number, followed by the name of the area. For example, the address of the church Madonna dell’Orto is Cannaregio 3512. It’s a bit like saying you live in “Willesden 4586” without giving any street name or other distinguishing feature – people just know where it is, and to locals it makes a lot of sense. To the outsider however, it can be very confusing, and Venice is like a labyrinth anyway. In fact, while all those Calles and Fondamenti have big signs letting you know at least vaguely where you are, it turns out those were added by the Austrians years ago to stop themselves getting lost, Venetians had never needed them.

Fondamenta Misericordia Venice sm

What I am saying is, yes we totally got lost trying to find the place. ‘Fondamenta Moro’ is also very similar sounding to ‘Fondamenta dei Mori’, two canals over. We hadn’t been to Venice in 14 years and I think had forgotten how much it can turn you around. We got there in the end, and it was a nice neighbourhood not too far from Strada Nuova, which actually is more of a street and has a good supermarket for stocking up on supplies (dio mio, I love Italian food!). It was an apartment we reached through a dark and slightly slanted covered alleyway, and the narrow canals were right outside our windows, boats and gondolas drifting by quietly. It was a world away from the Rome apartment with its spectacular view and exhausting staircase, but peaceful and homely, with a row of canalside restaurants and gelaterias nearby. The top sketch was done out the front of the building, stood by the bridge in the early evening, Venice at its most serene. The sketch in color above was done at dinner, and you can see the back of our apartment on the corner of the building’s ground floor. That’s my son, sketching a boat. We ate at the Trattoria Misericordia, and the food was decent (not as good as Rome but pretty good), but the waiter fancied himself as some sort of comedian, but came across as, well, not a comedian anyway. We ate while the sun cast long yellow streaks in the sky and then walked home across the bridge.

Hydrant in Venice

Cannaregio means ‘Royal Canal’, as it was the main route into the city before the railways were built across the lagoon. These days it is the northernmost of the ‘Sestieri’, the six areas of Venice. Above, a Venetian fire hydrant, covered up like those ones I drew in Lisbon years ago, remember? Now it isn’t the exact same one as below, which was nearby on the Campiello Diedo, but I thought you might like to see it because it is quite similar in many respects.

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veni vidi venezia

Rialto Venice
It was a trip to Venice at the end of my undergraduate degree in 2001 that got me into what we now call ‘urban sketching’. I had always drawn stuff, but drawing the world around me just wasn’t something I did. Oh except those few times in my teens, usually for art homework, plus a poorly scribbled panorama of Prague that I did sitting on a hill during my 1998 European railway adventure. I planned a few days in Venice after finishing my final exams – my degree was in French and Drama – and at the end of year party in the Modern Languages department at Queen Mary University of London one of my French professors (Marian Hobson) talked to me about how much she liked exploring Venice, and she recommended that rather than take a load of photos I should consider drawing while I travelled, because I would really see with my own eyes. I am paraphrasing a bit but I remember that conversation, and when I flew out to Italy I took extra pens and some coloured pencils (no sketchbook, didn’t bring one of those) and drew a few pictures on location in the white pages at the end of my Lonely Planet guidebook. Venice was too amazing not to draw, and too different from Mile End not to savour every moment. I explored early in the morning, getting up as the sun rose, before the tourists, before even the pigeons, while tradesmen moored their boats on jetties delivering to the local shops. Venice really was an impenetrable labyrinth, like nowhere I had ever been. I don’t even have that guidebook now and the sketches were small and not hugely detailed but I never forgot that feeling, and carry that sentiment with me whenever I sketch, even Davis, that I am using my own eyes to see things as they are.

I went back to Venice a year later, but did no sketching as it was February which meant thick dense freezing fog, thick dense Carnevale crowds, and more thick dense freezing fog. I went back a year after that, with my future wife, and we got engaged in the middle of Piazza San Marco. That was an amazing and memorable trip, in the sticky depths of August. I would also get up early and wander Venice with a sketchbook, free of the crowds, drawing what I could. Venice is an unusual city, but I always loved it and thought that we would be back sooner – if not every year, then maybe every couple of years. Then we moved to America, and so it was that we didn’t return for 14 years. Venice is still there, it hasn’t sunk yet (“oh you’d better go now,” people say, “I heard it’s sinking and it’ll be too late!” Venice has been sinking, or rather flooding, forever. Venice is still here.) When the chance came this year to finally return we jumped at it. We were going to Rome, so why not get a train up north back to old Venice?

And of course, I could get back to the early morning wandering and sketching. After 14 years away my sketching had improved somewhat so I was eager to try out my more developed sketching skills on Venice. Before the family were awake, I would get up and wander the labyrinthine calles and alleys looking for a place to sketch, returning to our Cannaregio apartment with Venetian pastries for breakfast. The sketch at the top of the famous Rialto bridge was done at about 7am, when the canalsides were calmer and the local traders carted goods ashore, and postmen wheeled little carts up and down the stepped bridges. You can see the golden light peering onto the water beneath the Rialto bridge; I can tell you that the view from the bridge itself of that other side at 7 in the morning is one of the truly magnificent sights to behold. I’ll draw that on the next trip, if I dare, when I’m a bit better at it. There is nothing like standing by the Grand Canal listening to the Venetian morning sounds and drawing in a sketchbook.

I have a good few sketches to show you and I’ll try to keep the storytelling concise but here is one more, of that very Piazza San Marco. It was pretty incredible to be back here in the spot where we got engaged, but this time as a family. I did a quick sketch of the Campanile and the Basilica San Marco while my son rested his tired legs (Venice equals a lot of walking). It wasn’t yet too crowded, but it was getting busier, so we got a Vaporetto back to Cannaregio and had a rest. And, of course, a gelato.
Piazza San Marco sm

we need to talk about camden

Camden Lock
Camden Town, ladies and gentleman. There’s no way to properly describe Camden, it’s just Camden. It’s grimy and tacky and great, and vibrant and awful and touristy and local and rough and everything, it is Camden and can be everything at once. Everyone in north London has their own Camden I think. I for one have a lot of personal history around here, nights out, days about, the odd gig, too many night buses, a good few birthdays, and of course my stag party. I haven’t sketched much around here, so I wanted to do a bit while I was back. I chose the Regents Canal, specifically Camden Lock, well Hampstead Road Lock. I stood, with the sun shining, and sketched the lock, as far as I could. I didn’t do any colour except the red cross of the flag. The clouds were rolling in, oh big black clouds, scary looking but not enough to stop me. And then, whoah, massive thunderstorm, super heavy rain – good job I got the ink done, because this rain was stupendous. People dashing about like mad things, and I took shelter in a doorway. When I added the colour later I left it as the luscious N1 summer blue sky, pre-tempest.
Dublin Castle pub, Camden
This is the Dublin Castle pub on Parkway, Camden Town. It is approximately 1994. No no, wait, it’s 2014, I got confused there. It’s easy to get confused, it hasn’t changed in the slightest. Well, maybe the price of beer. Anyway, I arrived soaking wet, having run through the rainstorm from Camden Lock (see the handy map below to figure out my route), to see if this old haunt had gone the way of the so many London pubs – gentrified, sanitized, or worse, closed. Thankfully it was still the same, though being the daytime it was practically empty. I got a beer (actually wasn’t expensive, for London) and sat and sketched the red interior. As I was sketching the big ‘Madness’ poster, I heard a guy talking to a woman at the bar whose voice was familiar, and it was in fact Suggs himself, the Madness singer. Now he does have a long association with this pub and this area (here’s his ode to the area) but still it was fun seeing him in there, briefly, especially as I was drawing his poster (he’s on the tube-sign one next to it too). Oh, this old place, many evenings were spent in here, back in the 90s and early 00s. Playing the Who on the jukebox. Talking Serbian poetry with students from Belgrade. Watching very serious unheard-of bands while surrounded by record company band-scouts. Getting my drink knocked vertically across the bar by bouncers steaming past quickly to conclude a fight. Dancing to Anarchy in the UK while my friend Tel threw up in the toilets. Yep, there’s a lot of social history in a place like this. I sketched here until the sun came out, before heading back to Burnt Oak for dinner.

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And here’s the map…

camden map sm

even better than the real thing…

rialto bridge

I have been to Venice three times – 2001, 2002 and 2003. On that last occasion, I got engaged to my wife. I think back then I had hoped to go to Venice once a year, but in 2004 I didnt make it – so we went instead to the venetian detailVenetian, Las Vegas, on the night after our wedding. I love the Venetian – as a ‘Venetophile’ (I just created that word, but I bet it already exists) I was always absolutely amazed at the incredible level of detail the designers went to to produce this amazing tribute to La Serenissima. It’s utterly unbelievable – this is not some disney-like mockery, this is some serious, serious cash.

We went there again recently on our Vegas weekend, and I still absolutely love it. I had to sketch there. I sat outside and drew the Rialto bridge – an improvement on the original, as it has a moving walkway for those who simply cannot bear the thought of using their feet for walking – beside the canal while gondoliers sang below the bridges. The sketch on the left is a detail of the Doge’s Palace, which provides the main entrance to the casino, complete with a Bridge of Sighs (which I didn’t draw, sigh).  

Inside, there is an immensely grand entranceway complete with richly decorated painted ceiling. We’ve stayed in the hotel suites and they are wonderful. We had dinner at Canaletto in St Mark’s Square (which unlike the reall Piazza San Marco was largely pigeon-free, except for one which had found its way up from the blackjack tables and was scrounging breadcrumbs).  The main attraction though are the Grande Canal Shops (it might be ‘Shoppes’ – Vegas apparently believes that spelling adds authenticity…), with the Canal running through it. There’s a sketch of it below. As with most Vegas hotel shopping, the boutiques are high-end and a little out of my spending range. This is however the home to that shop from that Michael Jackson / Martin Bashir program, Regis Galerie. You know, the one with all the gaudy nonsense, where he was wandering about the store pointing at this painting or that ugly sculpture, saying “woohoo! woohoo! do i have that one? I’ll take that one, yeah, and that one. Ohh, I saw a ghost, I’m scared now, woohoo…”  You do see a lot more Jackos in Vegas now, by the way. They are catching up with the Elvises.

venetian grand canal

The Venetian isn’t Venice itself, of course not. Venice is unique. But for sheer effort and faithfulness of detail, it’s quite a remarkable place.

venetian sunday

venice canals

Have you ever been to the Venice canals? I don’t mean the ones in the actual Venice in Italy, I mean the ones in Venice in California, that you sometimes see in the movies (soppy movies, admittedly). We were there on our weekend in LA (it was our anniversary; appropriate, since we got engaged in the actual Venice) (and honeymooned at the Venetian), strolling about the narrow sidewalks along the water, admiring the houses, wondering which ones we would live in if we suddenly became very rich (I’d have to sell a lot of drawings I think). It was calm, there was no noise of cars, just the tweeting of birds. If we lived there I’d want a little boat.

Speaking of waterways, we stayed just around the corner in Marina del Rey, where our hotel was a block away from the Cheesecake Factory, and our room had an amazing view over the marina itself. I sketched it quickly just before we checked out.

marina del rey hotel view