Book Review: Dream of Venice in Black and White

When I learned about the release of Dream of Venice in Black and White (Bella Figura Publications, 2018), I had to get my hands on it. The book represents something near and dear to my travel experiences.

Any lover of travel will tell you there are a few moments you simply never forget.

As a Midwestern boy of nine, I remember the first time I saw snow-capped mountains that towered above timberline from the back seat of the family Oldsmobile on U.S. 2 in Montana. As an adult, I also recall shaking my head in awe upon my initial approach to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

But I think I let out an audible gasp when I turned a corner in Venice and walked into St. Mark’s Square for the first time. This was before billboards littered the ancient, iconic sight lines.  Pigeons might have outnumbered people that day. There was time to stop and admire the place in all its historic splendor.

You see, it was the dead of winter.

In the brief Venice stay that followed, my wife Cindy and I explored beyond the famous square, joyfully lost at times in back alleys and along dock sides the few winter tourists had not discovered. When our legs grew weary, we boarded vaporettos, soaking in the revealed sights of each new turn along the canals, hardly noticing the bracing chill of March breezes coming off the water.

A decade later, we visited Venice again. That sweltering July excursion was far inferior. I remember being pushed from behind in the square while attempting to photograph the Byzantine grandeur of St. Mark’s Basilica. It was nothing malicious. The square was just that crowded.

Ever since, I have given Venice-bound travelers I encounter two pieces of unsolicited counsel: Winter is the best time for a visit, and getting lost is a good thing. My advice prompts quizzical looks and usually goes unheeded.

Dream of Venice in Black and White is a collection of photographs from the Venetian winter depicted, as the title implies, only in black and white. More than 50 master photographers, working mostly beyond well-traveled tourist paths, contributed to the 96-page volume.

Editor and Bella Figura founder JoAnn Locktov also has produced Dream of Venice, and Dream of Venice Architecture, so this volume completes a trilogy of tributes. But this one is offered mainly as a collection of photographs.

Some might object to the absence of color and text. After all, the striking contrasts between indigo waters and ancient stone contribute greatly to Venice’s visual appeal. A few words of historical context could pave the way toward a better understanding of some pictures.

But there are plenty of other places to see that show. This book reveals a slice of everyday life in Venice that each visitor — or potential visitor — would do well to understand. It is a book built on the genuine premise that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Venetian novelist, playwright and poet Tiziano Scarpa does contribute some words of introduction. He notes a study 30 years ago concluded that 12 million tourists would be the practical maximum Venice could accommodate in a year’s time. Today’s totals approach 30 million annually.

“Venice does not have outlying neighborhoods or suburbs to decompress them and provide an outlet,” Scarpa writes. “Its borders finish brusquely on a brink beyond which there is only the water of the lagoon.”

That truly unique quality makes Venice one of the most captivating cities on the planet. Unfortunately, most tourists miss seeing the daily life of Venetians amid a frenzied obligation to check off must-see architectural sites before their next scheduled departure at the train station or cruise terminal.

This book champions a different approach to the city.

On page 34, photographer Matteo Chinellato presents a solitary pedestrian, stationary and weathering an evening snowstorm armed only with an umbrella. In Venice, snowstorms are few. Shelter for passersby can be difficult to find.

The lens of Alain Hamon reveals on page 50 a robed priest walking through an open space, greatly outnumbered by pigeons. To some detriment, pigeons are a part of daily life here.

One of my favorites: a Robert Schonfeld submission titled “After Church, Cannaregio” on page 54 that shows a bundled-up elderly couple taking careful steps, arm-in-arm, on an otherwise empty footpath.

These scenes represent a Venice the average tourist will not experience. My descriptions do them no justice.

There’s a 2016 picture from Jutta Krenzer of people protesting the presence of cruise ships. This is a city that lives with chronic concerns about its fragile lagoon and flooded future.

“So what can you do about it?” Scarpa asks in his introduction. “Perhaps a paradoxical way of helping this city would be not to come at all. Instead, stay at home and leaf through books of photos like this one, which inhabits the city delicately, making it bloom with a light caress made up of splendid images.”

As a traveler and a lover of Venice, I cannot endorse Scarpa’s “not come at all” sentiment. But I certainly understand what inspires it. My hope is that this volume will lead to a greater appreciation of fragile yet determined Venice, and a people who persevere against floods and forecasts of doom.

Sit down with Dream of Venice in Black and White and allow yourself to be transported for a few minutes to the canals and open spaces of the city. Be thankful it captures the full Venetian winter — and few tourists.

Full disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book for the purpose of offering an honest, objective review of its contents.