by Roderick Conway Morris

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Beads at Michele Paciello's Parapamiso in the Frezzeria off Piazza San Marco

A discriminating shopper's guide

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 October 2002


This city's unique attractions as a place in which to take time off en route - a recently expanded air terminal and more direct flights, several new top-grade hotels and more conference facilities, not to mention Venice's increasing popularity as a venue for company bonding sessions and other corporate junkets - have all contributed to bringing more business travelers to this part of the world.

All the main Italian fashion houses now have stores close to St. Mark's Square, but where to begin if you want to buy something distinctively Venetian for your significant other (or others, depending on how ambitious you are in this department), friends, relations and colleagues?

St. Mark's Square is sometimes full of water and, from spring to autumn, almost invariably full of tourists. After you have had your ritual coffee, or whatever, at Caffe Florian, the historic, gilded grand café (which also usefully retails some of its typical products and accessories), you will want to strike out for less crowded quarters - unless you are looking for classic Murano glass, since most of the important producers have their own outlets or are represented in the shops in and around the piazza. Shops selling that other typical 'Venetian' product, masks, also proliferate in this region, but by no means all the goods are made here.

But within a few minutes' walk is a world of shopping beyond vases and masks, where you can find less obvious gifts, both great and small. (Nothing in Venice is very far from anything else, but it is well worth picking up a 24-hour ACTV water-bus ticket, available at all the main stops for €9.30.)

Just behind the piazza on Calle Frezzeria, the street where Lord Byron took his first lodgings (and, starting out as he intended to continue, seduced his host's wife), is one of the city's real troves, Michele Paciello's Paropamiso, at 1701. The owner has spent 30 years traveling the routes along which for centuries Venetian beads were traded through Africa, Asia and the Far East, bringing them back and finding a great deal of other semi-precious and precious stones and unusual jewelry along the way. He has a huge and varied stock of ready-made pieces and will string a necklace, bracelet or earrings of any number or combination of beads. All the beads are antique and start at just €1 each.

Continuing along Frezzeria you cross a bridge, beside which stands the house where Mozart stayed during the Carnival of 1771, and come to the site of the Fenice opera house, under reconstruction since the 1996 fire and optimistically scheduled to reopen in 2003. Walk down the right side of the theater, over the bridge behind it and turn right into the street that will bring you into Campo Sant'Angelo, where at 3819, Shears and Roses has a good selection of crisply elegant, hand-sewn women's blouses, starting at about €90.

Cross the bridge next to it, and you arrive at the church of Santo Stefano. Nearly opposite, at 3471, is Alberto Valese-Ebru's delightful hand-printed paper and binding shop. Having studied and revived old techniques, the owner produces an astonishing and stylish range of marbled objects: from notebooks, albums, pencils and wastepaper baskets (that pack flat), to ties, scarves, picture frames, mirrors, spheres, obelisks, sculpted heads, table-lamp stands and doorstops. This is an excellent place to buy multiple gifts at modest prices, all of which are light to carry.

The next street on the right is Calle de le Boteghe (Boutiques Street) one of Venice's oldest artisan and shopping streets and now lined with interesting antique shops and galleries that continue along the wider street at right angles to it, Salizada San Samuele.

Gallery Holly Snapp, at 3127 and 3133 Calle de le Boteghe, specializes in contemporary Venice view paintings and permanently shows drawings, watercolors and oils by the resident English artist Geoffrey Humphries, as well as other local and visiting painters. Humphries's lively and assured watercolors of classic vistas and less frequented corners of Venice, which reflect his intimate knowledge of his adopted city, start at about €900.

Around the corner, at Salizada San Samuele 3157/A, is the workshop of Livio de Marchi, who has been described as 'the world's greatest living surrealist.' Applying ancient Venetian woodcarving techniques, beautiful materials, notably stone pine and cherry wood, de Marchi crafts ephemeral and everyday objects, such as flowers, ties, handbags, umbrellas, shoes, shirts, jackets, books and teddy bears, giving them permanent form in wooden sculptures that make amusing and pleasing objets d'art; prices range from €20 to about €1,000.

A hop across the Grand Canal from the San Samuele to the Accademia boat stop (or a stroll across the Accademia Bridge) takes you to the area of the Accademia Gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, another fruitful shopping district. The first street on the left leads to Campo San Vio where, at 699 the sisters Marina and Susanna Sent retail their inventive, reasonably priced glass jewelry and showcase work by other designers.

Calle de la Chiesa runs past the Anglican Church to the Guggenheim Collection, just before which, at 727, is Norelene, where you will find exquisite hand-dyed, printed and painted fabrics, artfully designed by Nora and Helene Ferruzzi. Material for cushions costs €25, scarves are €100 for silk and €110 for velvet, evening jackets €550, and wall hangings that would lend a sense of the exotic and sumptuous to the simplest room, are €100 to €1,000.

A few minutes' walk from the Grand Canal and the Accademia brings you to the Zattere vaporetto stop, from which it is a three-minute ride to the Giudecca. Mainly residential, the island is also the home of the Cipriani Hotel, and from the Fondamenta, or quay, that runs the length of the island, are some of the finest views of St. Mark's, the Doge's Palace and Venice's broader cityscape.

And, if you haven't found that perfect surprise present yet, you might just find it here. At the Giudecca (or Palanca) main vaporetto stop is Pierre Higonnet's Galleria del Leone (at 597). Higgonet represents an eclectic score of local and foreign figurative artists, including the outstanding Bosnian artist Safet Zec, who now has a studio in Venice. (Etchings start at €150.)

Farther along the Fondamenta, near Palladio's Redentore Church, at Giudecca 188, is El Coccio Prexioso (in Venetian dialect, 'the precious pot fragment'). This is the ceramics workshop of Sandro Donaggio and Bruna Regazzo, who draw on old Venetian, Italian and even Ottoman designs to make lovely pieces. These labors of love start at €30, but even the largest, most elaborate decorative majolica plates cost no more than €250.

Having solved your gift problems, if you're in search of an authentic Venetian gastronomic experience, you can do no better than to aim for Paolo Luzzato's trattoria, Vini da Gigio, at Fondamenta San Felice 3628/A. This is a short vaporetto cruise from St. Mark's along the Grand Canal, near the Ca' d'Oro stop. Across the canal is a new, related restaurant, Al Fontego dei Pescaori (Sottoportego del Tagiapiera 3711), which has the same high standards and outside terrace, and a menu more rigorously focused on fish. To reserve: Vini da Gigio, tel: 041-528-5140; Al Fontego dei Pescaori, tel: 041-520-0538.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023