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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

03 April 2017

Italy, 22nd March to 3rd April 2017 (Venice, Padua, Vicenza, Verona and Rome)

It has been a long time since I last did a long trip to Italy, back in 2003. I've been back briefly to Verona last year for an art exhibition, but this March, it was time to explore the Veneto in greater depth.


On arrival into Marco Polo airport, you then need to cross the water to enter the fish shaped chunk land that is Venice. Head to the left, following the signs for the water transport. You'll go past some buses. Head up the stairs, across the various automated walkways, then down again to get to the docks (about 10 mins walk from luggage pickups). Be sure to get a proper ticket, which is a small bit of paper they will punch before you get on. If you have printed off a voucher, you'll need to exchange it. Boats often fill up, so it pays to be near the front of the queue. We went with Alilaguna, down the orange line.

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Last time I was in Venice, it was as a poor student. 14 years later, I'm now a slightly less poor jiu jitsu instructor, so decided I could afford the cheesiest of Venetian tourist activities: a gondola ride. As my friend is amazing, she found us a comparatively cheap option with a bunch of discounts, but it's still £21 for 25 minutes (normally it's £27). You gather in front of the church next to Hotel Bauer, where the tour operator gives everybody a sticker. She then herds everybody towards the steps down to the canal, where she divides you into groups of six. Most people are clamouring for the plush seats at the back, but I wasn't too disappointed to get a bench on the side.

After all, that meant I could look both ways, checking out the gondolier's technique with the oar. After heavy traffic, the route drifts through some quiet stretches before emerging into the Grand Canal itself. As much as I love going to art galleries, I'm not an particularly big fan of Italian art. However there are a few specific painters I find interesting, one of whom hails from Venice. Rosalba Carriera was a significant figure in the development of art, responsible for popularising pastel as a medium for portraiture.

Over her long career she produced a variety of work, some of which now lives in the Gallerie d'Accademia, the most important gallery in Venice. Although there are several major Venetian names in here (such as Bellini, Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese: my father is especially enjoyed 'The House of Levi' when he was last here), I wouldn't have set aside the time and €12 if I hadn't read they held some Carriera. They normally have three works by Bosch too, which would tempt me, but those are temporarily part of an exhibition at the Doge's palace.

The Accademia building recently underwent some expansion and renovation. Carriera has therefore moved from her usual residence off the long corridor of Room 12. Instead, you'll need to go all the way to the end of that and head down the lift/stairs. Go straight ahead, then you'll find a whole wall of her paintings at the end of a set of rooms. My favourite was a no-nonsense self-portrait presenting her face without any flattery. She does allow herself some professional pride, however, crowning herself with a laurel wreath to show she is the equal of any poet, artistically speaking. Alongside her are a couple of glamorous Venetian women, a French ambassador, the portrait of a boy and a young nobleman.

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I headed off to look round the Frari, which can boast a very impressive set of bas relief around a curio if reliquaries, plus an intricately carved wooden clock. There are major altarpieces here too, including Titian. If you've just been to see Carriera at the Accademia, be sure to look at the sculptor Canova's work (outside the rooms that lead to Carriera) before you leave for the Frari. His imposing tomb looms within that church, incorporating multiple designs that can be seen in the Accademia.

An economical method of seeing the city by boat is to catch the Line 1 vaporetto from the train station, at the Ferrovia stop. Rick Steves' handy free app has a forty minute guided tour that takes you along stop by stop until the end of the island. It's well-structured and easy to use, resulting in an informative boat trip for only the €7.50 it costs to get a vaporetto ticket (remember to validate it by touching your ticket to the machine by the dock, before you board).

There are a few outlying islands worth a trip. The two which appear on most itineraries are the similarly named Berano and Murano, each with their own cottage industry. Berano has fared worse on that front, as it's tradition of lace making has been in sharp decline for decades. It is now better known for it's other distinctive tradition, brightly coloured houses. That's become such an emblematic feature of Berano that you aren't allowed to change the hue of your home.

Murano has managed to maintain its tradition rather more successfully, as Murano glass remains a sought after commodity. There are various glass blowing demonstrations, a master glass blower showing off their skill at swiftly making a vase. They then progress to delicately pulling and twisting strands of glass from the central blob to create sculptures of horses and fish.

After returning to Venice proper, it was time for the most obvious sightseeing in the city: St Mary's Basilica. Surprising, this gloriously excessive wedding cake of mosaics is free to enter, but there are multiple sections that do require some Euros. The one I would suggest is the Loggia, up steep stairs by the entrance. For your €5, you're rewarded with an up close view of the church mosaics, originals of the famous horses, a sculpture of the Tetrarchs, various cultural artifacts (such as further, smaller mosaics in the museum), plus a magnificent view high over St Mark's Square.

For the final day in Venice, I wanted to have a look at the remarkable ceiling in the San Pantalon church, painted by Fumiani. According to my Rough Guide, this is possibly the largest oil painting in the world, stretching across sixth canvases. The church was not open in the morning, but fortunately I was able to briefly take a look later that day, on the way to our train.

We also had a wander through what used to be the Jewish ghetto, the first of its kind. The buildings here are noticeably less grand: the inhabitants were locked in at night, in exchange for religious freedom. There is a dignified Holocaust memorial as you walk down from the bridge, in several languages. A short walk away, there is a sticker on a window that says 'Refugees Welcome', made all.the more powerful by that juxtaposition.


We caught a train to Padova (or Padua in English, apparently) at 15:12 (€4.20 each), which appear to be fairly regular, taking roughly 26 minutes. It was strange to deal with cars again, that lack of traffic is an underappreciated Venetian luxury. Padova (or Padua) has far less tourists, but as a university town (founded in 1220, the second oldest in Italy after Bologna), it's still cosmopolitan. Galileo taught here and there is an impressive astronomical clock in the main square. I also enjoyed the random mosaics above shopfront: I've no idea how old they were, but togetuer with all the sculpture and bas relief, it made for an attractive walk.

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For me, there is one overriding reason to go to Padua: Giotto. He is a seminal figure in the development of art, progressing Italian art from the flat, unemotional style influenced by Byzantine icons into what would become the Italian Renaissance. Giotto Di Bondone was born in 1266. His masterpiece is the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel, a fresco series completed around 1305. You'll see it pop up on pretty much every art history course covering the development of art.

My favourite part was the sequence of vices and virtues, particularly the appropriately solid looking figure representing Fortitude (bottom left of the main picture above). She'd fit right in to one of my D&D campaigns, maybe a paladin of Tyr. As ever, the depiction of Hell was also a highlight. Devils are just more fun to look at than saints or other biblical characters, clearly. ;)

Those famous frescoes are carefully protected by a hi-tech dehumidifying airlock before you can enter. The ticket only grants you 15 minutes to enjoy the masterpieces, in order to keep them safe for posterity. Tickets have to be bought in advance, picking them up from the box office before you go in. It says to get there an hour early, which I did. Note that your ticket for the chapel also gets you into the rest of the attached museum. It's far less interesting than the chapel, but there's enough in there to hold your interest for an hour, ranging from Roman and Egyptian artefacts through to 18th century painting. The paintings are almost all Italian, with nothing especially memorable, though a handful of 'name' painters pop up.


Vicenza is best known for its architecture, responsible for raising it to the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That's all down to the 16th century architect Palladio, who designed many of the city's buildings. 2008 makes the 500th anniversary of his birth, for which the city inaugurated a well-marled architectural trail. There are around 25 different buildings to see, taking a couple of hours in total.

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Even if you only have a passing interest in architecture it's worth checking out. Palladio was enormously influential. I had heard the term 'Palladian' before, but had assumed it was a synonym for 'classical', whereas it simply refers to Palladio's style. Due to how widespread this style has become, it looks 19th or even 20th century, the clean lines and columns visible in everything from stately homes to the White House.

The Parco Querini was a pleasant surprise, as it's not like most other parks. That's because most other parks aren't crammed with ridiculously cute baby rabbits. As soon as you enter the park, you'll see them.hopping along the river, emanating out from a 'rabbit island' topped by a small Palladian temple. I don't know who came.up.with the idea to cover the park with rabbits, but they're awesome.

In terms of art, the main gallery, the Palazzo Chiericati, isn't all that exciting unless you're a big fan of local artists. I got a €15 museum card to pop in a few different locations, heading here because they have a Hans Memling in the collection. Make sure you look up as you enter the first few rooms: I had no interest in the modern sculpture, but the ceiling was both older and of greater interest.

I was much more impressed by the Palazzo Leoni Montanari. The ceilings here were spectacular, festooned with stucco and vibrant frescoes, declaration that spilled down the walls and around the doors. There are also a number of Greek vases, before a sharp shift into 700 years of Russian icons upstairs. The Canoletto and the famous tabletop sculpture were both off-limits due to preparation for an exhibition, unfortunately. Nevertheless, what remains is certainly worth the €5 entrance fee (included on the Vicenza card).

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This city was a suitably arty place to finish the majority of the book I was reading, E.H. Gombrich's classic work of art history, The Story Of Art. I've been meaning to read it for years, but it was worth waiting for this trip. As I was travelling through the Veneto, that meant I was looking at much of what Gombrich talks about (e.g., Giotto, the impact of Venetian art and indeed Palladio, as the book covers architecture to an extent as well).


I had to make a significant detour, but I decided to embark on the six hour round trip in order to see the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition. Verona Porta Nueva was easy enough to.navigate, as there was only one train going at 08:52, but Roma Termini had three returning at 18:45. It turns out the right one back was the Bergamo train, after a guard reluctantly gave me the info (in common with many big capital cities, Rome is not a particularly friendly place).

Walking to the Palazzo Braschi (which hosts the Museo do Roma) takes between 45 mins to an hour from the station, depending on the rapidity of your pace and the reliability of your map. As always, I relied on Sygic, which worked OK (though I'd strongly recommend adding start and end points as Favourites while you have access to Wi-Fi, as the GPS is not always initially responsive).There are a few major landmarks on the way, most notably the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon. Unlike me, avoid Saturdays, as that route is rammed. There were also loads of tours squeezing through the Palazzo Braschi, which intensified after around 3pm.

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Although I often say I'm not that big a fan of Italian art, there are two major exceptions. One is Artemisia, the other is Mannerist superstar Parmigianino. What I most enjoy about Artemisia's art is not just her consummate skill and tenebrist flourishes: beyond that, she is also a touchstone for feminist art theory and art criticism. That means there is a lot of interesting reading material about Artemisia that explores the status and history of women in art generally.

The best writer on Artemisia is, in my opinion, Mary D Garrard. I devoured a stack of art history books prior to and during my Italy trip, where Garrard was repeatedly a highlight. She had a particularly interesting essay in one collection all about the way Artemisia gives her female figures strong and capable hands. I therefore found myself paying special attention to that aspect of her painting at the Rome exhibition.

The exhibition has a good selection of the Gentileschi family's work, fitting in a few Orazio alongside Artemisia. It is further bulked out by contemporaries such as Baglione, with a number of useful comparisons showing potential sources and influences on Artemisia's work. Included within Artemisia's pieces are several that look to be shakier attributions, though having said that my knowledge is out of date. The most recent scholarship I've read is the essay collection edited by Mieke Bal, from 2005, with the bulk of my info coming from Mary D Garrard's 1989 book and the exhibition catalogue for the New York show from 2001 that featured both Orazio and Artemisia.

The highlight here is probably the chance to see the Naples and the Uffizi Judith Beheading Holofernes side by side. Judith and her Maidservant from the Uffizi is here too, as is the Self Portrait as a Lute Player. There are no less than three versions of both Cleopatra and The Penitent Magdalene by Artemisia's hand, although I only recognised one of them each, as those are the ones mentioned in both Garrard and the 2001 exhibition catalogue.

It was well worth the detour from Verona, on a comfortable and relatively quick (but not cheap) train down to the capital. I must remember not to go on a Saturday again though, the city is rammed. Rome is always busy, but becomes difficult to squeeze through at weekends.


This year marked my third visit to Verona, having first gone in 2003 right after uni. That fountain is one of my clearest memories from the first trip, made up from multiple statues across various periods. Just off the square is a beautiful tomb, then a further walk brings you to Giardini Giusti, an impressive garden (slightly overpriced at €7, but nice enough). With a stone face in it, randomly. Apparently the owners set it up to shoot bursts of flame a few centuries ago. If you're willing to climb a bunch of stairs, you can get on top of it and enjoy a good view back the way you came.

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