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Looking back on the Venice Programme

In 1967, the first group of undergraduates went to Venice for a term as part of their degree studies. 40 years later, nearly 1,500 students have had this remarkable experience whilst studying History, History of Art and Renaissance Studies at the University. Four graduates write here about their memories of the Venice programme from the early years until the twenty-first century.

venice3.jpgThe Sixties

Paul Manser (History 1969-72) worked for 32 years in the City as a corporate lawyer and recently switched to an in-house position, advising on international investments.

‘The Venice term – how fortunate could we History students be? The gift of Warwick was to transport us to live amongst the history, art and culture which we were studying: the idea was both inspired and inspirational.

By day we studied at the Palazzo Brandolini overlooking the Grand Canal. By night we were dispersed in digs across the city and the Lido.

The ageing architecture, the art, the spirit and faded grandeur of Venice surrounded us: San Marco, Titian’s Assumption, the Rialto Bridge, the alleys and the squares. We felt the spirit of the Renaissance and developed our language skills. Our daily experiences included the open blue skies, the foggy nights, the acqua alta, the vaporetti, prosecco and nightly grappas with Bruno (Palazzo Brandolini’s caretaker), pizza, pasta and escalope milanese. We enjoyed la dolce vita!

But we also studied. The Venice term was a very real education in the sense that what we read and heard about in lectures, we now felt and experienced in situ and in reality. For three months we were part of the fabric of Venice, and we learnt first hand from our erudite professori, Michael Mallett and Martin Lowry, of its fascinating history and unique challenges in the future.’

The Seventies

Andrew Spence (1977-1980) worked in Italy for three years in teaching and tourism, followed by tour operating and publishing in the UK. For the past 16 years he has lived and worked in Mallorca, developing luxury property.

‘I think my term in Venice has influenced my choices ever since, culminating in the decision to finally make my career and live full time in a Mediterranean country. The things I remember most are the day-to-day experiences, such as taking a public gondola every day across the Grand Canal to the Palazzo Fortuny, where lectures were held. Stepping out of the library into St Mark’s Square after reading about Renaissance art or history was an almost surreal experience – Venice was, and is, a living museum with imposing cathedrals and buildings dating back to the very times we were studying.

I quickly got used to the absence of cars and being woken up by the church bells of the Frari. After a few days, I hardly heard them and tuned into other sounds – the arrival of the vegetable boat every morning; the distant hum of the water buses.

I am planning a trip to Venice in 2007 and look forward to stepping into the Frari to see the famous Titian, the incredible vaporetto ride from the station to St Mark’s, and a walk late at night in the silent misty streets – things that have not changed and are the same today for students in Venice as they were for me a quarter of a century ago.’

The Eighties

Jonathan Brett (History 1985-88) spent five years in the museum and higher education sectors. Since 1994 he has worked in Bristol as an archaeologist, latterly in a research role advising the planning authority.

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‘I carried away so many inspiring recollections from the weeks I spent in Venice. Some are snapshots: the view from the rooftops down into St. Mark’s Square at night; returning from the Lido by vaporetto when fog hid everything but the sounds of the lagoon; taking part in the Festival of La Salute. Others are of the lecturers who delivered some mesmerising talks, passing on knowledge of the lives of workers in the Arsenale and of Veronese’s handling of paint that I still retain.

The most significant aspect was the chance to learn so much about the extraordinary art and architecture of the Veneto. The buildings of Andrea Palladio were a revelation and I’ve never forgotten my first sight of Villa Barbaro at Maser. Having worked in collaboration with design professionals, conservationists and artists, my sense of what is possible with imagination is still influenced by the originality of his designs. Venice was also my first encounter with the practical challenges of conserving historic structures.

Looking back though, what I’m most grateful for are lasting memories of friends and acquaintances from those weeks, and an enduring enthusiasm for a most extraordinary city.’

The Nineties

Christabel Watson (MA History of Art 1995-98, History of Art 1990-93) has written three books – Mini Racing (1963), 7 Countries of South America (1965) and Crusading through Turkey (1986).

‘Forget the Bellinis, the Carpaccios, the whole host of masterpieces in the Academia. By-pass the confraternity churches with their wealth of tombs, sprinkling of Titians, painted ceilings, marble veneers reflecting in the adjacent canal or mosaics in the acqua alta. Palladio beckons from across the Giudecca, but walk to the south-east. If you are lucky you might glimpse a huge vegetable garden through a cloister with a few remaining vines. Continue under the washing stretching across the narrow streets. The houses become taller, the architecture more modern – and then: a square. But this one is dominated by three, gigantic, Ginkgo bilobas. Never have trees made such an impact: a mass of golden leaves, shining brighter than the gold leaf of the Vivarinis, more vibrant than the movement of Tintoretto’s whispy trees, more grand than the dome of San Marco. I discovered that what I missed during the term in Venice was the autumn. There had been no warning of the severe winter to come, just a colder wind whistling down the narrow streets and fog cancelling the vaporettos. Continue, as far as you can walk to the south-east. An incongruous football stadium looms behind barbed wire, but leading to a church, mentioned on the list of ones to visit, a row of chestnut trees appears. I indulged in my childhood game of ‘shuffle, shuffle in the leaves’.’

Christabel has been active in fundraising for the Venice Fund, prompted by a plea at a reunion in 1998...

‘I was planning to walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1999 and decided to use the opportunity to raise money for Venice. I left on 1 March, my 60th birthday. The distance covered was 988 miles. It took seven weeks making an average of 20.58 miles a day. Weather: rain for the first ten days, sleet over the Cairngorms, snow at Tomatin, but the sun shone too. The worst moments: blisters, pain in my leg, losing my way on a moor, bogs, sodden clothes. The best: blisters disappearing, finding my way again, the sun shining, a café producing freshly brewed coffee and scones, the kindness of strangers. I raised over £10,500 for the slide library in Venice. It meant extra work for Maureen Bourne and Alan Watson at Warwick, and for Almu Cros Gutierrez (now Brown), who was responsible for selection and then the installation of the collection in Venice.’

If you would like to support the Venice Fund, please contact Mary McGrath in the Development and Alumni Relations Office, email: mary.mcgrath@warwick.ac.uk