May 27, 2011 5:46 pm

Venice’s secret sites

 
Abbazia di San Gregorio

Abbazia di San Gregorio

As well as the chance to see modern art from around the world, the Venice Biennale (which runs from June 4 to November 27) also allows visitors to get a glimpse inside historic buildings normally closed to the public. John Brunton, a Venice-based photographer and writer, picks five of the best opening their doors this year.

Palazzo Malipiero: this palace has a 15th-century gothic façade and a splendid Italianate garden behind an ornate wall, teasingly visible to passers-by but annoyingly inaccessible. For the Biennale, it is hosting installations for Cyprus, Iran and Estonia. The interiors have been returned to the splendour of the days when a young Giacomo Casanova stayed here and got his first taste for decadent living.

3198 Campo San Samuele, San Marco

Palazzo Zorzi: this is another of those seemingly anonymous palaces tucked away alongside a narrow canal that most tourists rush past on their way to Piazza San Marco. But Palazzo Zorzi is a unique venue in the city, today used as the headquarters of Unesco and normally closed to the public. During the biennale, though, it will be transformed into the national pavilion of the Roma people.

4930 Salizada Zorzi, Castello

Casino Venier: a Venice casino was not just a place for gambling. These intimate, luxuriously decorated apartments were where the wealthy went for many sorts of amusement and pleasure. Today, the Casino Venier houses the Alliance Française, and the stunning interiors have been perfectly preserved, the walls hung with Murano mirrors and Delft tiles, the ceilings a riot of colourful pastel frescoes and ornate golden stucco. Ask to be shown the secret peephole in the intricate marble floor, which gives a bird’s-eye view of the street entrance in case of a surprise visit by the authorities.

4939 Rio dei Bareteri, San Marco

Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni: the Palace of the Treasure Chests is a sumptuous renaissance building with a remarkable tower. It was owned by one of Venice’s wealthiest families but their priceless art collection is no longer displayed here – it was donated to the city in 1831 and hangs in nearby Gallerie dell’Accademia. The interiors, though, are richly decorated with colourful frescoes, swirling stucco and glittering Murano chandeliers. It will be open until July 31 for an exhibition by artists from that other famous Venice – Venice Beach, California.

1057/c Fondamenta Priuli, Dorsoduro

Abbazia di San Gregorio: Dating from the 9th century, the abbey’s magnificent medieval cloister has been closed to the public for more than a century. The brick façade is dwarfed by a brash neogothic palace next door, built when the abbey’s vast second cloister was demolished. The palace is now an anonymous luxury hotel and the abbey is owned by the cultural foundation of the fashion brand Replay.

172 Calle de l’Abbazia, Dorsoduro

Details of all the venues, including opening times, are at www.labiennale.org.

To read the full Expert selection series, see www.ft.com/travel

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