“Venice, My Muse:” An Interview with Louise Pullen

The blogosphere is an engaging place. I had no idea that when I started blogging, I would meet so many fascinating people. And the way I meet them is equally fascinating. This month’s “Venice, My Muse” interview features Louise Pullen, whom I met through another WordPress blogger, Mr. Drink Wine Today. (What a great name, right?) Louise, as you’ll read, is an expert on that great Venetophile John Ruskin, so she brings a unique perspective to today’s interview. Here’s her introduction to herself:

I am Curator of the Collection of the Guild of St. George (Ruskin Collection) at Sheffield. John Ruskin was passionate about the art and architecture of gothic and early renaissance Venice, and also the preservation of its ancient buildings (you can find a monument to him at the Hotel Calcina, overlooking the Giudecca). As such I spend a lot of time looking at images of Venice at work and have over- enjoyed various research trips to the city itself and a few holidays too. My own interest in the city and the Veneto region began further back at University when I studied the architecture of Andrea Palladio. Ruskin, though, would be turning in his grave at that thought as he loathed Palladio’s work.

How has Venice seduced you?

Probably the same way as most people. Its ancient atmosphere and quaintness is utterly seducing, and its architecture is astounding. There is beauty to be found everywhere you look. I think I’m probably a bit of a trial to my husband when he comes on trips with me as I’m likely to eulogize over some brickwork rather than find the restaurant or bar we were heading for. I make no apologies though. It’s a city to be respected rather than rushed through.


One of Carpaccio’s dragons 

What do you never fail to do in Venice?

1) Say “hello” to Vittorio Carpaccio’s dogs and demon in the Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, and to a century’s-old carved rat on the Calle del Traghetto near San Felice.

2) Try some new routes. I’m lucky to have a good sense of direction so I take a different street when I can. Even if it takes a few extra minutes to get to my destination, I see something wonderful each time. And on a similar subject, I never, if I can help it, follow the ubiquitous yellow signs to “Rialto,” “San Marco,” etc. You can never really go far wrong by just heading in a similar direction.

3) If there looks like there’ll be a nice sunset, I’ll walk down the Riva degli Schiavoni towards the Arsenale to watch the sky and water turn a fiery pink over the back of the Island of San Giorgio, or better still get the water bus over to San Giorgio to watch the sunset over Santa Maria della Salute (check the bus timetable though if you are going to do that!). I wait till the city’s lights pop on before I head back to eat, or pack up a picnic to eat while I’m watching. I have a favourite bollard to sit on for this.

What is your Venice soundtrack?

You can’t escape the sound of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by ticket-sellers across the city, but for me the Four Seasons gets a bit stale if you hear it everywhere–how about something else by Vivaldi?–or branch out and listen to an adopted son of Venice–Monteverdi. Gorgeous.



Nearly lost bits of architectural beauty

Walk or take a boat?

Definitely walk. It’s nice to take a scenic trip down the canals, and that should be on everyone’s itinerary (in daytime and after dark), but for me you see so much more when you walk and take a slower pace. The water frontages may have been the focal point for the architects and owners of the buildings, but you’ll get a better sense of Venice from the backstreets and catching distant glimpses of sparkling water, someone’s laundry strung out over a small canal, or a canary in a window.

Which church or campo best epitomizes you? Please explain.

I don’t know if it epitomizes me as such, but I love the Corte Seconda del Milion. It’s small and usually quiet, and as a corte it’s more an opening from a sotoportego than somewhere to sit to while away some time, but it has some absolutely exquisite Byzantine carving at its entrance and on its buildings. There’s also a lesson in window styles to be found. It’s well worth some study.

corte milion

Which is your favorite Venetian festival and why?

I have a fondness for the Regata Storica. It coincided with arriving in Venice for my honeymoon. Despite the fact all the canals were off-limits to public transport and we had to lug our suitcases through the crowds on a very hot day, there was a passionate and excitable buzz about the city that gave it an atmosphere that I’ve not come across since. More colorful than ever, too.

Spritz or Bellini?

Depends on my mood, the quality of the peaches and the weather, so both. I wouldn’t say no to the Prosecco on its own either.

What do you always tell friends to do when they visit the city?

Firstly get off the beaten track–don’t just see the sites. Go to Cannaregio and Dorsoduro and look at architecture there. It’s far less crowded and just as beautiful.

Secondly, it sounds a bit odd for this blog, but get off the main island. Spend time on the colorful Burano and then take the boat over to Torcello. It’s so peaceful after the crowds, and its history and the Basilica is completely beguiling (look out for leopards in the mosaics and monkeys and peacocks in the carving).

Thirdly, take a bus to the mainland and visit one of Palladio’s villas–try the Malcontenta near the city, or take the train to Vicenza and visit the Villa Rotunda (and the town itself–especially the Teatro Olimpico). Plenty of other villas are open to the public too, if you are up for an adventure. Those villas are the counterpart to the grand palazzi you see on the canals, where the great and the good went to escape when the city got too much. You’ll get a real sense of Venice’s citizens during the period of the Venetian Republic’s greatest power.

If you could have dinner with any Venetian, living or dead, who would it be and why? What would dinner be?

I suppose I should say I’d like to have met Ruskin (as an adopted Venetian) on one of his study tours–it would make my job much easier–but really I would love to have met Carpaccio. His paintings, though religious in theory, are full of details and faces and are really a study of people and places. I think he must have had both a sense of humor and great empathy, too.

Dinner isn’t so much a particular dish, as a particular restaurant a few minutes’ walk from the Accademia. I’m not going to say its name because it’s tiny and it’s difficult enough to get a seat there without advertising it further.

Casanova: genius or cad?

Definitely a bit of both, but I’m no expert on him. Anyone who finds happiness as a librarian, though, has my vote.

What would you do with $30,000 U.S. to spend in Venice?

Try and get Salviati to make me some Martini glasses I saw in their showroom (and just about affordable) years back. It’s a design they’ve stopped doing, and I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t buy them. I’d also go to Signor Blum on the Campo San Barnaba and buy a whole rio of his colourful puzzle palazzi. Maybe some proper lace from Burano if I’ve got any money left. I’d just make sure I was giving money to Venice’s artisans rather than for imported tourist tat.

If money were no object, which palazzo would you buy?

The Palazzo Contarini della Porta di Ferro at Santa Giustina. It’s a bit off the beaten track and pretty unassuming on the exterior (and most of the interior these days), though it does have some nice carving over the inland door. When you go in, though, it has a gorgeous courtyard–with a carved staircase leading to the piano nobile, some old carved doorways, and a pretty little garden. It’s currently a guesthouse, but overall it’s a dilapidated but very beautiful gem and I’d love to give it a bit of glory again.

contarini ferro

The Palazzo Contarini della Porta di Ferro

Which gelato flavor are you?

Can I just say my favorite again? One thing I like to do of an evening is to go to Gelato Fantasy on Calle dei Fabbri, get a tub of chocolate and pistachio (no bright green food-colouring!) and wander back to St. Mark’s Square to listen to the bands.

How can readers learn more about you and your creative pursuits? 

Find out more about the Ruskin Collection at www.museums-sheffield.org.uk. Rather than recommending my own writing, can I suggest Lionello Puppi’s The Stones of Venice. It describes my love of Venetian architecture in photo form.

Sarah Quill’s photographs of Venetian buildings are also beautiful and are accompanied by some of Ruskin’s comments on the architecture in “Ruskin’s Venice–The Stones Revisited.”





About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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