This week one of Italy’s top annual extravaganzas is underway. Carnevale in Venice is a spectacle like no other in the world, with people in elaborate masks and costumes with centuries of tradition (back to the 12th century!) roam the piazzas, embankments, and bridges – colourful, mysterious visions gliding through the winter fog. It’s like something out of a movie.
And indeed, this ancient city famously dubbed La Serenissima (the most serene) so reknowned for its canals, still offers many of the elements of the most engaging moviemaking: passion, adventure, glamour, love, fun, tension, and intrigue. And of course beauty, OMG so much beauty…
Its canal-crossed, UNESCO-World-Heritage city centre, off limits to cars and even bicycles, is made up of six sestieri (neighbourhoods). The best way to make your way along the four-kilometre ( 2 1/2-mile) Grand Canal and some of its tributary canals, is via vaporetto, motorised water taxi; almost everyone takes one upon alighting from the Santa Lucía Train Station, passing by many of the hundreds of aristrocratic palazzi that contribute so much to the unique atmosphere of Venice (one of which houses the fascinating Natural History Museum) and bridges such as the Rialto (in the sestiere of San Polo, a quarter where many of the city’s oldest and most significant Venetian Byzantine buildings are to be found).
Ground zero is of course the Piazza San Marco, with its stupendous St. Mark’s Basilica (dating in its current form from the 11th century), next door the mysthical Gothic Doge’s Palace (above), its flocks of pigeons, and its caffès, which pricey though they may be are a must, to sit a while and soak up the magic atmosphere.
It’s an atmosphere which has enchanted filmmakers for generations. I said above it’s like being in a movie, and that’s not just the amazing architecture and the canals, but the fact that you’ve likely seen it in on the screen countless times. To cite the most prominent recent example, 2010’s The Tourist, with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, in which director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck showed the old city off as never before or since, using myriad locations besides Piazza San Marco such as the 12th-century Arsenale, which produced La Serenissima’s ships for centuries and is used as a naval base today and the 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal which now houses the superb modern art of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, one of the city’s most popular attractions..
It joined a long, long list of movies with scenes filmed here, including a number of James Bond flicks like From Russia With Love, Moonraker, and the 2006 Casino Royale reboot, as well as the likes of The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Italian Job, Only You, and of course Death in Venice.
One of the movies which most shows off the city besides The Tourist was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, from . From Harrison Ford‘s arrival at the “Salute” vaporetto station, it’s a veritable parade of jawdropping landmarks. It’s at the aforementioned station we see the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute, the grandiose Baroque church built by the republic in the 17th century in thanks for surviving an outbreak of the black plague. Then comes a look at the Dorsoduro neighbourhood, with its bars and trattorie where fisherfolk down cicchetti (tapas) and Valpolicella, and the San Marco belltower on the other side of the Accademia bridge, which at 98.5 metres (323 feet) is still the city’s highest structure. Another scene takes place in what was represented as the city library but was actually the neoclassical facade of the Church of San Barnaba in the piazza of the same name. Finally, when Indy’s in the boat at the Accademia Bridge, in the background we can see the Guggenheim Collection and the 16th-century Palazzo Barbarigo, now a luxury hotel, and shortly afterward the 15th- and 17th-century Palazzi Barbaro also put in an appearance, famous not just as the home of the patrician Barbaro family but also as a centre of artistic expat life in the 19th century, with visits from the likes of Monet, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and James Whistler.
Agent 007 has also spent plenty of time making La Serenissima less serene, of course. The final scene of the Casino Royale remake, is hard to forget, when Bond in his attempt to rescue love interest Vesper brings down a palazzo. The exterior was shot on the Grand Canal in front of the Rialto Market, while the interior was all done in Pinewood Studios outside London.
With all that, Hollywood and the film world in general is far from done with Venice. You’ll be seeing plenty of it again in the screen adaptation of Dan Brown‘s latest potboiler, Inferno, scheduled for release in October 2016. But there’s nothing like coming to experience it in person – for Carnevale or any time of year – and making yourself the star on a spectacular stage like few others in the world.