Acqua Altas and Art in Venice

For the anniversary celebrations of Tintoretto, da Vinci, and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, I traveled back to my favorite city in the world, Venice, Italy. I was there during the now infamous week of November 12, 2019. An Acqua Alta (extreme flooding) traditionally occurs once, recedes and everything is back to normal, but during the course of my stay we experienced record breaking flood levels 5 days out of 7. This was to be the 2nd highest flood in 50 years.

Piazza San Marco - The Perfect Storm

The day before my travel mate Bud and I flew to Venice, the manager of the apartment I was renting from through the Red House Company, sent me a text suggesting I bring boots on the trip. He informed me that we were arriving at high tide. I was an old pro at this, having traveled to Venice previously and experiencing an Acqua Alta that would become the 6th highest flooding in recorded history. Acqua Altas tend to happen around November and the perfect recipe is a full moon, a high tide, and a storm. I guessed I could wait till I arrived at Marco Polo Airport to buy a pair of wellies if need be, I wasn’t going to use up precious room in my luggage for a pair of boots. Well, guess what? There are no shops in Venice’s airport that sells wellies or even the slip over your shoe, knee high plastic booties. I’m going to move to Venice, open up a shop at the airport, sell boots and booties during flooding seasons and make a fortune. Around 11 A.M. the morning of November 12th we landed at Marco Polo during high tide, but there was no rain, and I asked a woman at the information desk if the vaporetto (water bus) stop called Ca’Rezzonico was under water. “No, no, signore, Ca’Rezzonico is high. No problems.” Phew, that’s a relief. 

Instead of dealing with the public water bus and morning rush hour I hired a pricey private water taxi, through the Red House Company (or you can easily book your own through Venice Link) and right on cue Alberto arrived at our pier ready to whisk us off to Ca’Rezzonico. Did I say whisk? It was more like an amusement park ride. I’ve ridden some choppy water on the Venetian Lagoon before, but we seriously needed seat belts and neck braces on that day. It wasn’t vintage, but it was a beautiful wooden, covered motorboat, but the retractable roof, which allows you to stand up and take in the breathtaking views of Venice as you approach her, needed to be sealed shut. It still wasn’t raining, yet, but the waves were quite high and eager to spritz all over us. Not the kind of spritz I was looking forward to. When we’d hit a large squall and be thrown about the boat with our luggage, Alberto would periodically look back to see if we were still alive and give us the thumbs up. 



As the boat slowed down to circumnavigate the fragile canals of Venice’s inner city, finally, I recognized the Ca’ Rezzonico Palazzo that our water stop is named after and was anxious to get onto dry, solid ground. Well, it was solid and my former gymnastic days came in handy for managing to exit a small bouncing boat up onto the platform without doing a dismount into the choppy canal. Waiting at the stop for us was a young woman who works for the Red House rental company whom we had met on a previous trip. And what did she have in her hands? Slipover- your-shoe booties. I think the woman back at the information desk in the airport needs to brush up on her Venetian neighborhoods and their water levels. At the vaporetto stop the water was mid shin high. Raised wooden boardwalks had been erected by the city to help tourists as well as natives navigate the pooling of sea water. Luckily, the apartment was nearby and the platforms took us far enough down the walkway to reach our apartment—the booties were not needed…yet. The apartment was quirky, ancient, charming, had a gorgeous rooftop deck plus it was toasty warm. One odd layout was that the original beams on the floor of the dwelling were not flush with the regular floor boards. A tricky and conscious stepping over of the beams was a constant must. Rather than a negative, I saw it as…character.

The "quirky" attic apartment.

Plus, in the apartment were wellies, well, one pair. Part of this trip to Venice was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of artist Tintoretto and to discover the best of his paintings throughout the city. If Verdi is Venice’s master musician then Tintoretto is its prized local artist. Born in 1518, Jacopo Robusti was 1 of 21 children. His father was a dyer, which is tintore in Italian, and Jacopo worked with his father garnering the nickname, Tintoretto (little dyer). At the age of 12 years old, he became an apprentice in Titian’s workshop. Titian at the time was the master painter of Venice and renowned for his vivid use of color. Even though he was very young, Titian felt threatened by Tintoretto’s innate talent and fired him from his studio, creating a lifelong feud and competition between them. As much as Tintoretto was frustrated by Titian’s constant blocking him of winning competitions and earning money, Tintoretto respected his short-lived former mentor and developed this motto towards his work: “The drawing of Michelangelo, the coloring of Titian…” 


That day we aimlessly explored Venice from our neighborhood of the Dorsoduro, north towards the San Polo district and, without looking at a map, and just by chance, we ended up in front of the Church of San Rocco, also known as Church of Saint Roch. One of 4 plague churches, it was built for the Confraternity (a society of wealthy and religious Venetian men) of San Rocco between 1489 and 1508, to honor and help the victims of the plague. In fact, Saint Roch dedicated his life to helping those suffering from the Black Death. Next to the church on one side was a new da Vinci museum, and on the other is the actual Scuola Grande di San Rocco, home of the Confraternity. I knew the Scuola housed scores of Tintorettos, but when we approached the building someone inside was closing and locking the doors earlier than their website indicated. Disappointed, we stepped into the church. 

Church of Saint Roch

What an unexpected surprise. The church was a jewel box of sumptuous paintings mounted on the walls, surrounding the alter, covering the balconies and even up on the ceiling. The artists included Angeli, Ricci, and Fumiani, as well as 6 paintings created by Tintoretto. Still an active church, we were courteous of worshipers praying as we tip-toed around the church admiring the masterpieces. One that stood out for me was Tintoretto’s painting Christ Healing the Paralytic (Pool of Bethesda). 

Christ Healing the Paralytic

Here was a beautiful example of the artist honoring Michelangelo in his depiction of massive and muscular male figures as well as applying the rich and vivid colors, like Titian. Also amazing were the paintings of The Vows of the Doge and Patriarch’s Wish to St Roch, both done by Giuseppe Angeli that were up in the balcony. From below, they were hauntingly observing us. Having spent more time than expected in Saint Roch’s, we headed out and were shocked back into reality as we scurried home retracing our steps as water levels began to rise and the sun was setting. This was way too early for the tidal waters which primarily begin about 3 hours prior to high tide, which was scheduled for 11:30-ish in the evening. Plus, we noticed water bubbling up from the centuries old stone grate drains along the walkways, something I had never seen before.


After a shower, change of clothes, and with our stomachs growling, we decided not to take any chances and we ducked into a trattoria directly across the street from our ancient attic. Pane Vino San Barnaba turned out to be fantastic, not only for its food and ambience but because of the host and head waiter, Massimo. We devoured our food and drink, and then happily walked across the calle (narrow street) to our house. It was so enjoyable that we returned twice more during our visit.


Scallop Gratin and broiled Razor Clams


At 9 PM, while still exploring the workings of the apartment, we decided to sleep with a light on to navigate the treacherous floor beams in the middle of the night. While getting ready for an early sleep due to jet lag, we suddenly heard World War II type sirens begin to blow really loud. Once the sirens stopped, high pitched beeping sounds followed. There were many of them and they sounded like some sort of alien code echoing throughout the city. We slept for 3 solid hours and woke up to a freezing and pitch-black apartment. Stumbling around, I glanced out a window and noticed the city seemed awfully dark, with only a light on here or there. 


I grabbed my cell and called the landlord. We had no heat, no electricity, no hot water. The power was out. He then explained to us what those high-pitched beeps were. They alert Venetians to the possible height of the inevitable flooding, hence why there were so many this time. He said the entire city was under water.

I’m not sure where the owner of the apartment lived, but it was certainly not nearby. I think he was on the mainland. To solve the power outage problem, he asked me to check the circuit breakers for the apartment. For that, I put on my wellies and Bud and I carefully walked down the pitch-black staircases to the first-floor vestibule of our house while using our phone’s flashlights to help us navigate. Having reached the bottom floor, I saw the metal circuit breaker box but it was across the room. He instructed me to open it. Even though I was wearing rubber boots, I was standing in shin deep water and fearful he was going to ask me to flip a switch. Suddenly, I remembered that one day I had said, “I could die happy in Venice,” but I didn’t want this to be the day, or the way. He asked me if all the switches were in the ‘up’ position and I said yes. He then said, “Head back upstairs. The city has either lost its power or has purposefully shut if off for safety reasons.” I survived and we clambered back up the stairs to the freezing attic.

Wind and rain smashed against the roof and our skylights and come morning we still had no power. I called the owner again, who finally seemed as concerned as we were. I was also thinking that we were going to lose power to our phones soon. He was going to send an assistant over to the apartment to figure out what to do.

Two hours went by and I called him back to inform him that no one had arrived. He said, “She couldn’t reach you.” “Why?” I asked. “The floods are above waist deep. Six feet above sea level to be exact.


I thought that we’d wait it out and in a couple of hours the tide would recede, but it didn’t. Finally, there was a knock on the door and the assistant to the landlord appeared in hip waders. She was able to turn the power back on, but informed us that we should wait a good 3 hours before attempting to leave the house. The inside foyer of our house was still full with at least a foot of water.

That night the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Grugnaro, said in a tweet that the city was “on its knees” and he declared a “state of emergency.” I also read that one person had died…he was trying to start his water pump and got electrocuted.

After 3 P.M. we managed to crawl out of our house. We walked down our street to Campo San Barnaba. A permanent da Vinci installation was housed in the Church of San Barnaba with actual reconstructions of many of da Vinci’s inventions, but it was closed. We were to discover that many museums, churches, shops, and restaurants would be closed due to the devastating effects of the flooding. Part of this trip to Venice was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of artist Tintoretto and to discover the best of his paintings throughout the city.


St Mark Saves the Slave from Torture by Tintoretto

Overcast but not raining we decided to walk over to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum


which was in our Dorsoduro neighborhood. Her palazzo is directly on the Grand Canal and although it isn’t on higher ground, the palazzo itself is built up on several feet of stone and I suspected they were safe from the flooding. I was right , and they were open. 2019 was the 40th anniversary of her death and the museum was honoring her with a special exhibit called The Last Dogaressa. On display was an eclectic array of sculptures, paintings, and drawings that she collected during the 30 years that she lived in her Palazzo Venier dei Leon, an 18th century palace. Shown were Jean Arp, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock and two of my favorites , David Hare’s sculpture, Moon Cage 

Moon Cage

and Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Trap.


Garden Airplane Trap

The next day the sun came out and so did all the Venetians and tourists! It was a perfect Autumn day to explore that year’s Biennale. Each year, the festival alternates between art and architecture, and 2019 celebrated art. It’s like the Olympics for the art world. That year’s theme was May You Live in Interesting Times, and 90 countries participated. Each country in the festival gets their own little pavilion. A real stand out this season was Russia’s contribution by artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. 


Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai

I also really liked Ed Atkins Bloom.



Also impressive was Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Dead Eye. And although it was hard to reach, Lorenzo Quinn, son of actor Anthony Quinn, offered another version of his giant hand sculptures to the Biennale.


Quinn's giant hand sculptures.


“Venice is a World Heritage City and it is the city of bridges,” says Quinn. “It is the perfect location to spread a message of world unity and peace so that more of us around the world build bridges with others rather than walls and barriers.”


View from Rialto Bridge

Sloshing through Venice, at one point we discovered ourselves in front of the Rialto Bridge. And right beside it was the department store, T Fondaco Dei Tedeschi. Inside the breathtakingly beautiful building built in 1228, we discovered on the first floor their restaurant Amo.


Amo in T Fondaco Dei Tedeschi

 We grabbed a perfect bite to eat, had a quick glass of wine, and we were ready to go.


The following day, we noticed that the da Vinci Museum in our campo was open. 


Church of San Barnaba

2019 marked the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death and to commemorate it, the Church of San Barnaba had a permanent collection on display. After the tide receded enough, we ran over and took a look at the meticulous recreations of da Vinci’s amazing plans for flight, combat, and even whimsy. 

There were levers, pulleys, wheels, axles, wedges, inclined planes, screws, gears, ball bearings, parachutes, and floats. His plans for a bicycle were spot on, 


but I’m not so sure about wings for man to fly.



On another “dry-ish” day we headed back to the Scuola Grande di San Riocco that we had tried to enter on the first day of the trip. Doors were open and so were our eyes—wide open! In 1564 the confraternity built the Scuola Grande and wanted religious paintings displayed throughout. Like its sister Church next door, that meant massive oil on canvas paintings on all the walls and ceilings of the two floors of the building. There was a competition held to find the right artist to do the work and Tintoretto, who wanted badly to be a part of the confraternity, played a big trick on the other artists. He secretly got into the Scuola and installed his completed painting on the ceiling! 


Tintoretto's ceiling painting.

And he offered it for free, knowing the brotherhood could not refuse a charitable donation.

So, San Rocco in Glory and Tintoretto won the competition. The following year he was offered membership into the brotherhood. It took him 24 years to complete the 50 enormous paintings on display at San Riocco. There are so many magnificent creations in this building, take your time to absorb and appreciate them all. Even come back a second or third time. Note: the museum offers mirrors for you to hold out in front of you so you can view the ceiling paintings without hurting your neck.

The Accademia Gallery


The day before we left Venice, the Gallerie Accademia finally reopened its doors. Here we found many Tintorettos, including his Saint Mark Saves the Slave from Torture

Saint Mark Saves the Slave from Torture

Tintoretto was only 29 when he painted this masterpiece. Saint Mark swoops down causing the instruments of torture to break, cancelling the punishment that the provencal lord (seated top right) had sentenced his slave to because he traveled to Venice to worship the remains of Saint Mark. There’s such movement in Tintoretto’s paintings, they appear cinematic. He was the first of the renaissance painters to include the everyday man and woman as well as rich lords and politicians. If you look closely, there are knights as well as Ottomans…only a Venetian could have painted this master work. And with a nod to Titian, Tintoretto gloriously paints silks, satins, and brocades in bold luscious colors. In a sense, he’s showing off Venice’s riches.

Also, of note is Saint Mark Saving a Saracen from Ship Wreck. Saint Mark rescues a converted Saracen. Yes, I needed to look up the meaning of Saracen (an Arab or Muslim). A stormy sea with foreboding sky streaked with lightening shows amazing movement and color, as Saint Mark effortlessly lifts the Saracen to safety.

Saint Mark Saving a Saracen from Ship Wreck

What a perfect ending to a very unusual, exhilarating, and sometimes frightful trip to Venice…where it feels like Saint Mark has lifted the Venetian’s spirits up and encouraged their resilience and strength. It was devastating to walk the streets and witness shops, restaurants, museums, and hotels focusing on cleaning up the damage from the multiple floods. In fact, I have friends whose restaurants were still closed by the time I was flying back to NYC. I have such tremendous respect for Venice and its people, for their devotion to their exceptional city and their hard work ethic. My heart breaks for Venice. I don’t know what the future holds for her, but I will continue to return and rejoice in her splendor as long as I can. Ciao, Bella!

View from the Accademia Bridge