In Venetian art, Venetian lagoon

Winter in Venice: pros and cons for a visit

Winter in Venice is a special time for several reasons. First of all, the city is quiet(er than normally). Nowadays most tourists choose to visit the city in the spring, or in the autumn or during the summer, courageously facing heat and humidity. Except at Christmas time or New Year’s Eve or during Carnival, the city in winter time is definitely peaceful. True, your favorite restaurant may be closed, some hotels will be under maintenance, but no crowds… Not just. Venice in the winter time enjoys of a special atmosphere and its light is unique.

How cold does it get in the winter in Venice?

It may feel very cold, not so much for the degrees, but especially because of the fog and dampness. Exceptionally, the surface of the lagoon and its canal may also freeze. 

Freezing water

The formation of ice sheets in the lagoon is in fact an interesting phenomenon: crucial factors are tidal exchange and moon phases. 

When the Venetian lagoon froze in 2012, photo taken from the train reaching Venezia Santa Lucia Railway Station

In winter the Adriatic Sea is warmer than the lagoon, where on average the water level is only around 1,20 meter deep. Ice forms when the temperature of the wind sweeping the lagoon surface is lower than the temperature of the water of the lagoon. The moon, when not full or new, also helps the formation of ice as when the tidal exchange is less strong, there’s less (warm) sea water entering the lagoon. Anywhere the tidal movement is slow and water is shallow, you can then see the surface freezing and getting shiny.

In recent years, it has become quite rare to admire such a phenomenon. Not just because of climate change. Venetians diverted the few rivers emptying out in the lagoon already in the 16th century. Therefore, the amount of fresh water delivered in the lagoon has diminished with the result the water in the lagoon is more salty and freezes with more difficulty (at least -2° centigrades).

Snow in Venice

And of course, it may snow. When it happens, very soon salt grains need to be spread around the city alleyways to help the snow melt. In a city where you move around on foot only, walking is in fact quite difficult when streets get slippery! But the snow slowly covering gondolas and roofs is like magic, bringing silence and glare all over.

Gondolas covered in the snow docked by St Mark’s square (my photo)

Winter landscape in Venetian art

Winter in Venice, its frozen lagoon and snow, has fascinated some artists, even if not too often. Here are a couple of oil paintings by unknown artists, working however at the same time of the most celebrated “vedutista” Canaletto or immediately after.

Winter Venice at the Querini Stampalia Museum

The first reminds us of frosty Venice in winter 1708.

Unknown artist, The frozen Venetian Lagoon, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice, 1709

This painting can be viewed in the art gallery at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice. The location shown in the painting is on the northern side of Venice, called the Fondamente Nove. You can also see the island of San Cristoforo to the left, eventually part of the current graveyard island San Michele, and the island of Murano. The Dolomites can be viewed covered in the snow on the back. 

The inscription mentions it was January 15th in 1704 when this part of the lagoon froze so much that people would walk on top for a long distance so lasting was the ice. As a matter of fact, the painting comes from an etching by Vincenzo Coronelli where the inscription says it was the year 1708. These two etchings belong to the Correr Museum Library in Venice.

Etchings by Vincenzo Coronelli depicting Venice in 1708 [1709 CE] and its frozen lagoon. a) view towards Murano; b) view towards Mestre, Correr Museum Library, Venice

Winter in Venice at the Ca’ Rezzonico museum

A similar painting can be admired in the collection of the Fondazione Musei Civici Veneziani, usually at Ca’ Rezzonico.

Unknown artist, The frozen lagoon at the Fondamente Nove, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice, 1788

Again, the author is unknown. The scene portrays the northern part of Venice once more, but it mentions the frost in 1788. The inscription says: “In 1788 on the 28th in the month when the year ended, it started freezing and it went on till the month later on the 10th, and then a passage was broken apart from one embankment to the other and in order not to let our memory fade, here we represent what happened”. 

Winter Venice at the Correr Museum

In the Correr Museum one more painting is kept, dating back to 1789, so it must be the same year as the scene portrayed at Ca’ Rezzonico, where you can see people crossing the frozen surface of the lagoon to reach Venice from the mainland and transport goods and food supply.

Unknown artist, Painting of the frozen Lagoon in January 1789, Correr Museum, Venice

Snow scene as a genre in art

All these works remind us of the one that invented the new genre of the snow scene, Brueghel the Elder and his Hunters in the Snow, dated 1565. The atmosphere is quite the same, a beautiful composition, little vignettes, a narrative vein that covers different episodes, some fun, some ridiculous, some enhancing the work and physical efforts. In our Venetian case, it’s also the exceptionality of the event that brought the artists to become “photo reporters”.

The Grimani breviary and its representation of February

In Venice artists had certainly seen Brueghel’s work, but I wonder if they had had a chance to see the fabulous Grimani Breviary, now at the Marciana National library in St Mark’s square. The Breviary belonged to Cardinal Domenico Grimani. Here a Flemish artist depicted the month of February with its snow scene. And that’s before Brueghel the Elder as it was likely made in the Flanders in 1510-20. Enjoy!

Grimani Breviary, Month of February, 1510-20, Marciana National Library, Venice

And have you also noticed? I love the detail of the young boy peeing on the white snow…

White palette: a difficult choice for a painter

Why I love this detail? Well, it surely makes you laugh, but I also think the artist needed something which could break the monotony of the snow palette. White, white, white, not easy! Seriously. Exploring the shadows and the variations of white is technically complicated in a painting. The result could be blank, flat, not to mention that when you paint some large area in white it looks as if the painting has not been finished. So, some yellow can help and it looks like Cardinal Grimani didn’t mind 🙂

Later on, in the 19th century, two artists left important works representing Venice under the snow and facing the “whiteness” issue.

Giuseppe Borsato

Winter in Venice in the paintings by Giuseppe Borsato is quite detailed. Especially I like the height of the snow that needs to be removed, shoveling all that snow must have been hard. Some of these works are at the Museum of Santa Giulia in Brescia. One in Trieste. Sorry I could not find a colorful reproduction for one of them, but still you will agree, snow looks like fluffy sugar candy!

View of the Riva degli Schiavoni from the piazzetta towards the Arsenale, Giuseppe Borsato, 1800-1849, Brescia (BS), Musei Civici di Arte e Storia, Santa Giulia – City Museum

Giuseppe Borsato, Venice under the snow, 1833, Musei Civici, Trieste

Giuseppe Borsato, The Riva degli Schiavoni Venice under snow, 1833, Tosio Martinengo Gallery, Brescia

Ippolito Caffi

However, my favourite paintings portraying winter in Venice are the ones by Ippolito Caffi. Caffi was from Belluno, the city north of Venice surrounded by the Dolomites mountain chain. He moved to Venice when he was twenty to attend classes at the Fine Arts School. Also, he actively participated to the revolutionary uprisings for the liberation of Venice and Italy. Caffi was also put in prison, sent in exile and when in 1866 he embarked on the Italian ship “Re d’Italia” to go and fight the third Italian independence war, the ship wrecked and he lost his life.

His favorite subjects were special atmospheric events and in my opinion no one else has been so good at representing the cold, the foggy or clear sky on the Grand Canal after the first snowflakes whiten the dome of the Salute church. I love the magical atmosphere. No wind. Maybe there will be more snow later. I love the boats, with their torn colorful sails.

Ippolito Caffi, Venice under the snow, 
Civico Museo Revoltella, Trieste, ca. 1842

Snow in Venice: the Salute church and the Grand Canal, 1841, Museo Civico in Belluno

He painted several times this motif, but his paintings are never replicas.

Ippolito Caffi, Snow and fog on the Grand Canal, Fondazione Musei Civici Veneziani, Venice, 1842

You can find them in Trieste, in Belluno, in Venice. Clouds, fog and smoke melt together, sometimes in a warmer, sometimes in a cold light. But it is always winter in Venice, something you cannot see when the heat and the loud noise of the summer arrives.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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  • Jill Kerby

    Thanks this winter art tour of Venice. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the likes of Turner, Singer Sargent or Monet had painted a snowy Venice? I gather they never visited during the coldest months… I missed the last big snowfall in Venice – in late February 2018 – because the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ storm also hit Dublin and shut down the airport for a few days. By the time I arrived on March 2, the snow was gone and Venice was back to just being damp, cold and foggy…but still utterly enchanting. There are, happily, plenty of terrific photos of snow covered gondola and church roofs…☘️

    • Oh yes, Turner and Monet would have loved Venice in the snow! I am sure you will have one day the chance to see Venice in the snow, just keep on choosing the winter months as they are indeed special!!! Looking forward to meeting you again!