By Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times
VENICE, Italy ~ Pianissimo, pianissimo. That’s how morning comes on Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Pigeons dawdle around a trash can. The woman who tends the newsstand gives her dog a bowl of water. Then the grate at the Bar all’Orologio clangs open, a sure sign that another summer day has begun in Venice.
The paved square – or “campo” – around the Church of Santa Maria Formosa, affectionately known as La Serenissima, the serene one, is one of dozens hidden among the tangled streets of Venice. Each campo is a hub, where a church, bank, bar, tobacco shop, ancient well head and long shopping street supply all the necessities of life.
I’d been to Venice before, gawked at San Marco – St. Mark’s – seen the Veroneses at the Accademia, ridden the water buses, or “vaporetti.” When I returned in June, I settled into three little campi not nearly as famous as St. Mark’s, but full of wonders to explore.
Leave St. Mark’s, cross Campo San Zulian, and if you’re lucky you’ll end up on Campo Santa Maria Formosa.
The church that gives the campo its name is thought to have been founded in the seventh century but was rebuilt in the Renaissance by architect Mauro Coducci. It has an exceptional setting within the square, and a campanile that seems to have been decorated with frosting.
The campo is a large rectangle bounded on two sides by canals where gondoliers wait for the next romantic couple. The other two sides are lined by “palazzi” with peaked Venetian Byzantine windows. Some are small businesses, but others, like the Palazzo Querini-Stampaglia, have grander purposes. Reached by its own bridge, this palazzo is a library and gallery. Across the campo is the imposing Ruzzini Palace Hotel recently opened as a luxury hotel.
Like many small Venetian hotels, Hotel Casa Santa Maria Formosa has no sign or elevator. The reception desk is minuscule, and the air conditioner in the breakfast room couldn’t cope with the heat. But my room was cool enough, decorated with warring fabrics, patterns, decoupage and gilding.
I liked going out in the cool of the early morning and watching one of the last authentic neighborhoods in Venice come to life. In the last decades, rising real-estate prices have driven residents out; the population dropped from 171,000 in 1951 to fewer than 62,000 in 2006, leaving the city a tourist ghetto.
But you wouldn’t know it in this campo. Men with briefcases hurried to work. Women pushing shopping carts quarreled at the vegetable stand. Finally, the tourists came out, studying maps and looking up at the church.
It is one of the most companionable in Venice, with two main facades, one facing the canal, the other overlooking the campo. As interior restoration proceeds, tourists can watch workers on ladders scour stone moldings and chip away old paint.
Reconstructed many times over the last millennium, the church now takes the form of a Latin cross superimposed on a Greek cross, paved with smooth stones set in diamond-shaped patterns. Side chapels were endowed by the guild of cofferers, who made dowry chests for Venetian brides, and the guild of fruit sellers, who dedicated a shrine to their patron, St. Jehosophat.
Among the church’s treasures is Bartolomeo Vivarini’s Our Lady of Mercy triptych (1473), the wood-backed Holy Father With Angels (l15th century, Lazzaro Bastiani) and an altar relief (1719) by Giuseppe Torretti showing a decapitated St. Barbara, her head rolling on the ground.
Back outside, I browsed the shops along Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosaand made a dinner reservation at Osteria al Mascaron after seeing the squid and sardines on the antipasto counter.
Osteria al Mascaron – from “mascherone,” a talismanic monster sculpted on many facades in Venice – is decorated with copper pots, books and a picture of Elvis Costello. The food transported me. After the olive oil-drenched antipasti, I had a perfect plate of pesto spaghetti with basil that tasted so fresh I could have sworn it was still growing.
To cut the heat of a Venetian summer, I later found a table at Zanzibar and ordered a Spritz, made of white wine, soda water and a bitter-tasting aperitivo called Aperol. It doesn’t sound good, but once you get used to it, nothing else will do.
Wise men do not come to Venice in the summer. Being neither male nor wise, here I was, sweating from every pore as I dragged my luggage from Campo Santa Maria Formosa to Campo San Zaccaria, five minutes as the crow flies or 15 through the maze of streets. If you get lost, you’ll end up back at St. Mark’s. It seems that all streets in Venice lead there.
Hotel Villa Igea was on the campo, facing the white Renaissance facade of the Church of San Zaccaria. .
This campo is smaller and more dignified than Santa Maria Formosa. On the far side, it narrows where a carabinieri barracks occupies the old Convent of San Zaccaria. The conventonce bestowed lavishly decorated ducal caps, the official headdress, to Venice’s dukes, or doges.
During the debauched 18th century, the sisters wore pearls and entertained gentlemen, as depicted in The Nuns’ Parlor at San Zaccaria (1750), by Francesco Guardi on display at the Ca’ Rezzonico Museum on the Grand Canal.
The walls of the nave and choir chapel of San Zaccaria are covered with paintings, mostly by 16th- and 17th-century masters, including Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child With Saints and Angel Musicians (1506), taken to Paris as booty during the Napoleonic wars, but returned to Venice in 1816.
Architects admire San Zaccaria for its Renaissance and Gothic features and its oldest chapels, where a fragment of 9th-century mosaic pavement can still be seen. A stone staircase leads to the crypt where some of Venice’s first doges are buried.
Outside, I went from shadow to bright light and realized I was in Piazza San Marco, along with some of the 18 million people who visit Venice every year. Even the stone faces on the capitals at the Doge’s Palace looked stultified by the heat.
I decided to retire to the roof terrace atop the fabled Hotel Danieli, occupying a 15th-century palazzo where authors George Sand and Charles Dickens stayed. But my gin and tonic cost US$30, and a pigeon stole one of my hazelnuts.
Guidebooks pay scant attention to Campo San Barnaba, on the western side of the Grand Canal, because the 18th-century church of the same name is somewhat forlorn.
Deconsecrated and emptied of art, it is currently hosting a show on the whimsical machinery designs of Leonardo da Vinci.
A 10-minute walk from Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, with its Assumption of the Virgin (1516-1518) by Titian, the small square is never crowded, which has endeared it to filmmakers. Katharine Hepburn fell into a canal here in Summertime (1955), and Harrison Ford sought the Holy Grail at San Barnaba in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
The campo has a well, two restaurants with outdoor seating and a floating greengrocery. The boat is moored by the Ponte dei Pugni, where a man with a knife extracts artichoke hearts from their thorny leaves.
I stayed at Hotel Locanda San Barnaba on Calle del Traghetto. It has big, old-fashioned rooms without too much Venetian froufrou, a decorous parlor and a terrace.
Church bells summoned me to the campo around 6pm, where people began to emerge, with shopping bags and dogs.
I had adopted the rhythm of a Venetian summer by spending the late afternoon as many of them had done – quietly in my room, with the curtains closed drawn against the heat.