Neighborhood Watch: Giudecca

This peaceful, Italian island to the south of Venice has become a hotbed of the arts. 

Neighborhood Watch: Giudecca

Photography: Colin Dutton

It’s mid-afternoon at La Palanca, a mom-and-pop trattoria on the promenade of Giudecca island, and owner Andrea Barina is working the outdoor tables—shaking hands, cooing over infants, stroking dogs. The pasta of the day, a linguine with pistachios and locally caught dorade, is deliciously smooth and salty. But, to be honest, I barely notice my plate.

Right in front of me is one of the loveliest views of what may be the loveliest city on Earth—a brine-misted vista of the Giudecca Canal and, beyond, the bustling 16th-century Zattere waterfront of Dorsoduro, as if painted by Canaletto. Through my breadsticks, I spy the chalky I Gesuati church, rising baroquely above a dessert trolley of pink and yellow facades. On either side of me is a gorgeous smear of shops, cafes and residences, their plaster, shutters and balconies all elegantly ravaged.

Giudecca, a three-minute vaporetto ride from the mainland’s Piazza San Marco, is having what style writers call “a moment.” This peaceful island—or, rather, eight islets connected by bridges—stretches across the southern face of Venice, and is possibly the city’s last authentic neighborhood. Only a mile and a quarter long and 330 yards wide, it has a boatyard, a school and a community hall, guarded, today, by a fierce nun. It also has two handsome churches, Le Zitelle and Il Redentore—both designed by Andrea Palladio during the last gasp of the 16th Century. But the real attraction, traditionally, has been the respite it offers from the sensory overload of the mainland.

In recent years, Giudecca has gained a reputation as a hotbed of contemporary culture. Among the shops displaying slabs of olive bread and baskets of plums and pioppini mushrooms you’ll find clusters of fashionably austere art galleries attracting clientele with look-at-me eyewear and curated facial hair. Adored mainland pasticceria Majer has opened a spot on the island to hawk their craft coffee, and relatively new property owners include Miuccia Prada and Elton John.

“Giudecca is unrecognizable from a decade ago,” says Barina, who was born here, and who, every September, helps organize a local cultural festival. “Visitors are coming here all year round. A growing number appreciate how relaxed it is compared to the mainland. The island definitely has a unique atmosphere. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fisherman or a major celebrity—everyone living here just mixes together.”

The transformation began in the mid 1990s as artists, crowded and priced out of the mainland, set up studios in Giudecca’s abandoned warehouses. A century earlier, the island was gearing up to become Venice’s industrial heartland, home to the Dreher brewery, the Junghans clock factory and the vast, neo-Gothic Molino Stucky flour mill. The mill, a short stroll from La Palanca, is now a Hilton. As I approach the hotel, crossing the narrow Rio di San Biagio canal via an iron footbridge, a seagull the size of a basset hound squawks aggressively at me, though it may just be responding to acid reflux.


Swimming pool on Hilton Molino Stucky hotel's eighth floor.

The views from the hotel’s eighth-floor swimming pool and bar are dazzling. One terrace overlooks the shimmering Giudecca Canal as far as Piazza San Marco to the east. I can also make out the overgrown industrial ruins on the island’s southern side, and  beyond that, the port of Marghera, about eight miles to the west.

Nearby is Giudecca’s last operational factory, Fortuny, which has been producing high-end fabrics since 1921. At least that is what Valentina, who works in the showroom, tells me. For all I know, there could be Oompa Loompas unloading rolls of the stuff off a ship. Apparently, no outsider has ever been allowed through the factory doors, in order to preserve the secret of the spinning techniques.

Though I’m fairly sure I could make a run for it and peek in, I settle for a tour of the showroom. Being fanned with bolts of exquisite and very expensive fabric turns out to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience—Elton must have a blast here.

Next door, the old Dreher brewery—a warren of red-brick buildings—has been transformed into an “art village,” home to ateliers and gallerists. These include the loft-like Galleria Michela Rizzo, which has handled Damien Hirst and Hamish Fulton, and the huge Spazio Punch, whose jovial curator, Augusto Maurandi, also collaborates with a local brewery to produce organic craft beer.

Today, Spazio Punch’s raw concrete interior looks like Jim Henson’s other workshop. Dominating the gloomy space are two 120-foot sculptures of trolls by Egill Sæbjörnsson, who represented Iceland at last year’s Venice Biennale. Videos are projected on each troll’s face so they snarl and mutter about which tourists look the tastiest. The Gallerie dell’Accademia this ain’t.

I meet Maurandi and his wife, the Argentine artist Carolina Antich, in their large sunny studio in an adjacent courtyard. “Don’t write that Giudecca is like SoHo,” Maurandi says. “Everyone does that.” The couple moved to Giudecca in the mid 1990s. “No respectable person wanted to live here. It had a reputation for crime. But it was perfect for artists. The rents were low and there was so much space.” Then there is the famous Venice light bouncing off the water, which has transfixed artists for centuries.

Other studio spaces, set in the cloisters of the nearby Santi Cosma e Damiano monastery, have been assigned to artists by the cultural institution Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. Craftspeople, such as decorative metalworkers and papier-mâché sculptors, have also been enticed here by subsidized rents.


Canal behind the old Dreher Brewery.

I enter the workshop of glassblower Stefano Morasso, which is crammed with colorful vases and bowls. I ask him if I can watch him make something, and he says he needs to prepare himself first. He lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. “Is that because you need to warm up your lips?” I ask. “It’s because he is an idiot,” answers his wife, Nicoletta, who is making jewelry out of beads. Morasso smiles and turns to a lump of orange glass, which he heats with a torch before blowing into it through a metal straw.

A quick stroll across a puddle-wide canal leads to the women’s prison, located in a 15th-century convent. The alluringly dilapidated facility has a walled garden where convicts grow vegetables that are sold outside the gates once a week. They also wash bed linen for the island’s hotels, which strikes me as a possible method of escape.

I have dinner at Trattoria Altanella, tucked away on a slim passage along Rio del Ponte Lungo. Opened in 1889, it has been run by the Stradella family for four generations, and it appears to have kept the original decor. In a wood-panelled room, surrounded by sepia photos and dusty bottles, I wolf down a bowl of phenomenal gnocchi, dyed black with cuttlefish ink, and a glass of local Lison wine. “The gnocchi is my grandmother Irma’s special recipe,” says Roberto, the current paterfamilias.

“This restaurant used to be the center of island life; my father used to play live music and musicians and artists would gather,” Roberto continues as I eat a slice of his mother’s famous jam tart. “Later, we had the island’s only television set, and everyone came here to watch movies.” Sometimes, the stars of these movies would drop in, too. “De Niro once came in alone, wearing his hat pulled down,” Roberto says. “He loved it here. Not a single person bothered him. Giudecca is that kind of place.”

If a shot of grappa at Trattoria Altanella is a good way to end an evening on Giudecca, the island’s best breakfast spot has to be the sunny terrace of the Belmond Hotel Cipriani, the legendary property that straddles its eastern tip. The shimmering lagoon is so mesmerizing, I don’t even notice how many baby pastries I’m shovelling into my mouth. I eventually stand up in a cloud of powdered sugar.


Libreria Marco Polo.

When hotel guests stir from their pool loungers, they generally head for the jetty to take a private launch to Piazza San Marco. Instead, I cut through the hotel’s Casanova Gardens, named after the legendary lover, who lurked here to tempt women into the adjacent vineyards. I pop out at the hotel’s lagoon-facing gate; to my left is the broad eastern stretch of the promenade.

Here stands the Zuecca Project Space, an exhibition venue attached to the Bauer Palladio Hotel & Spa. The cavernous interior was the ground floor of a convent that once provided shelter to impoverished girls—its windows placed especially high to discourage girls from gazing over the Giudecca Canal, and to prevent local boys from peering in.

Outside, I meet Zuecca Project coordinator Marica Denora, who wants to show me her favorite part of Giudecca: the old industrial area on the island’s south side, now a residential neighborhood. Standing amid the district’s flat-faced concrete houses is the 150-seat Junghans Theater, a curved modernist building that was once a warehouse for bomb parts. “This is more real to me,” she says. “It is not tourist Venice at all.” 

Even the churches here have boarded the culture bandwagon. Passing Le Zitelle, I see the door is open and decide to have a look. Along with the usual ecclesiastical trappings, the interior contains a small fishing boat. As I contemplate this fact, a spiky-blonde woman practically drags me inside. This turns out to be the L.A.-based German artist Lilli Muller, and the boat is hers. Shortly, it will have dozens of limbs stretching out of it, as part of an installation. Muller wonders if she could take a plaster cast of my arm. I explain that I am leaving the island shortly. Also, ripping off the cast sounds like it could be painful. I’m not sure I want to suffer for her art.

On my way to the Palanca vaporetto stop, I am distracted by a bright showroom visible beyond the gates of a boatyard. According to Pier Paolo Scelsi, the young man hanging up posters inside, this will become a new permanent gallery—One Contemporary Art—in about six hours’ time. The vast upstairs space contains banners and flags, a 40-foot statue of a police officer and a riot shield painted in swirling colors. “Tonight’s opening party will rock,” says Scelsi, the new gallery’s director.

Outside, men in overalls are planing and sanding the bones of what will become a gondola—one of the 100 or so that will leave the workshop here this year. The curved frame, held in place by sets of supporting trestles, is beautiful. A work of art.

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Linguine with dorado and pistachio at La Palanca.

Eat + Drink: Five Fantastic Hot Spots

Harry’s Dolci

The Ciprianis may have sold the hotel bearing their name, but they still own Harry’s Dolci, an elegant lagoon-side restaurant and bar that serves an array of ultra-fresh antipasti.

Trattoria Altanella

Specializing in pasta and fish prepared with love by the Stradella family, this spot has served generations of artists, politicians and celebrities.

Trattoria Ai Cacciatori

Not far from Altanella is Trattoria Ai Cacciatori, a wood-beamed eatery that serves hearty local fare such as fettuccine with rabbit.

La Palanca

Andrea Barina’s lunchtime trattoria La Palanca is undoubtedly the island’s best place to people-watch, or to gaze at the extraordinary view across the lagoon. 

Generator Hostel

No one comes to Giudecca for the nightlife, but the bar at the Generator Hostel, set in a 19th-century warehouse that has had a hipster makeover, ably delivers a moody late-night Aperol spritz.

Island Isolation
For centuries, Giudecca really was a place to get away from it all.

It’s a little odd that Giudecca should be drawing so many visitors, given that, for a large part of its history, people weren’t allowed to leave.

In the 9th century, parts of the island were set aside for exiled nobles who were returning to Venice but weren’t quite welcome on the mainland. Santa Maria Maddalena was part of a 16th-century religious complex, which included a hospice for “fallen women.” It later became a military hospital and, in 1857, the women’s prison that stands there today.

The Santi Cosma e Damiano convent was established in 1481. When the nuns moved out in 1806, the building was stripped and became a warehouse, then barracks and, in 1887, a hospice for cholera victims.

The convent at Le Zitelle ran a shelter for “beautiful girls” from poor families, who were thought to be at risk of falling into sin.

Today, the shabby houses that once lined the promenade have been lavishly restored, their inhabitants sharing the same views of Venice as those kept here against their will centuries ago. Only now it’s by choice.

The stay 
Belmond Hotel Cipriani celebrates 60 years of luxury.

Giampaolo Ottazzi, general manager of Giudecca’s Belmond Hotel Cipriani, has a dilemma: how to mark the property’s 60th birthday this month. “We could display photos of famous guests,” he says. “But we’d soon run out of space.” A big problem is that many Cipriani guests—from industry titans to movie stars—dislike change of any sort. “Some have been returning for 60 years. They notice everything,” Ottazzi says with a sigh.

The Cipriani was opened in 1958 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar across the lagoon, and immediately established itself as a paradisiacal retreat. Its lush gardens now envelop Palazzo Vendramin, a 15th-century palace, reached via a flower-lined passage. It has added the Michelin-starred Oro Restaurant, alongside the more informal Cip’s Club. Be sure to try the beef carpaccio, invented in the 1950s by Giuseppe. His other famous creation, the Bellini—a cocktail of prosecco and white peach juice—is best enjoyed overlooking the lagoon at sundown.