Venice & the Adriatic Sketchbook

Ink and watercolor sketches from Venice, the Venetian Lagoon, Istrian Croatia and Slovenia.

These are my companion sketches and illustrations to my article on architecture in the Venetian Adriatic.

Tomos 4L Moped

Marco Polo Building, Hafen, Hamburg Sketch

I found this refurbished Tomos 4L Moped in Piran, Slovenia. I had been drawn by these sturdy mopeds by Slovenian company Tomos, especially since I was thinking about vehicles that matched an age and the architecture of the place they are found. The 4L a small, lightweight motorized bicycle that gained popularity in Europe. Our friends from Croatia grew up on the model.

The history of Tomos traces back to 1954 when the company was founded in the former Yugoslavia. In the early days, Tomos produced engines for other manufacturers before expanding into the production of complete mopeds and motorcycles. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tomos became one of the largest moped manufacturers in Europe, but after their marketshare diminished, they went belly up, and went bankrupt in 2019.

Port of Piran and Tartini Square

Watercolor sketch of the Piran harbor in Slovenia.

The Port of Piran preserves its Venetian Republic architecture. Piran was part of the ‘Venetian Adriatic’ for over 500 years, from 1283 to 1797. The Venetians fortified Piran, building defensive walls and towers to protect it from invaders. Everything about its layout, with its narrow streets and compact houses, is essential Venetian urban design.

The port butts up against Tartini Square in the background; the very center of this compact city. In the background on a hilltop is St. George’s Parish Church, whose bell tower is designed as a duplicate of St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice.

I originally sketched this with liner pens, and later added watercolor.


Island of San Giorgio Maggiore

Garden Door in Scopello, Sicily

The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore is probably the most visible small lagoon island from Venice. Like other islands in the lagoon, it was inhabited early, but its prominence grew during the Middle Ages when a Benedictine monastery was established on its grounds around the 10th century.

That monastery shares the most striking features of the tiny island with the island's architectural centerpiece, the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by the esteemed Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in the 16th century.

Seeing this island was one of the first points that I started to realize that there was more to Venetian architecture than Venice itself.

Adriatic Prawns

Garden Door in Scopello, Sicily

A sketch of my dinner at Puntulina, a restaurant in Rovinj that hangs over the cliffs, looking out over the Rovinj islands. While this simple dish, which is basically fresh Adriatic prawns sourced locally from nearby waters, was my best while in Croatia, every meal in Istria was spectactular - and fresh. Why, now that we are back in Venice, is the difference so stark?

Throughout our stay in Venice, we have trouble finding good food. I can’t help but to think with each meal that we are being duped somehow. The gelato tastes like ice cream, the shellfish tastes like it was microwaved, and the pasta feels like it had just dethawed from a freezer bag. Bad food alone doesn't solely prove that there is something bad happening in a place, and it is true that Venice never had the same reputation for food that many other Italian regions are famous for, but, there is definitely something very off about the food here.

Later, a friend will explain, “During the pandemic, the little shops that were owned by Venetians were closed, and the government created incentives for people who were not Venetian to open up bigger mass market places, serving day-trippers who don’t know the difference. This basically killed off the local restaurant scene.”

The famous St. Mark’s Square now houses a huge stage and seating area, with electrical wires everywhere. The shops lining the square are almost all foreign brands, and restaurant chair sections extend out in almost every direction. I’m all for live outdoor music, but what use is St. Mark’s Square when St. Mark’s Basilica is literally blocked off by a massive stage? When you can’t even walk in the middle of the square?

As a child, I ran through this square, terrorizing thousands of pigeons, unimpeded. Historical paintings of the piazza show a similar scene: a walkable square with the world’s grandest architectural views.

Some in Venice believe the answer to overtourism is to separate the locals from the tourists; blocking off parts of the city and creating a system of segregation. What a fool’s errand!

Is it possible that the tourists aren’t ruining Venice? Venetians are treating their city as a cash grab, disrespecting the monumental legacy of its past for cheap bucks. They may be making a killing selling fake gelato and foreign purses, but at what cost?

Venetians would need to turn to their ancestors for inspiration, and make the choice that respects their city’s future. Start by banning cruise ships entirely - not just from the city, but from the entire lagoon. While cruise ship tourists represent only ten-percent of tourists in the lagoon, they create a pattern of daily throngs that spread out like ants. They come around noon, spend almost no money, and then leave by six PM. Unlike the visitors who saved for a trip to see a magical historic city, this is just another place for cruise-ship passengers to buy cardboard pizza. The cruise ship passengers, who eat breakfast at their Cruise ship buffet and will have their dinner at their cruise ship buffet, spend almost no money in the city; they add little but congestion, and they propel the restaurant culture in the worst direction.

While cruise ships are now barred from docking directly at the two-square mile Venice proper, they still enter the lagoon. There are significant environmental consequences to the lagoon itself from the entry of these oversized ships - which are eroding the already fragile canals and natural estuary zones. And while barring them directly from docking in the city seems like a step in the right direction, there is no actual intention to lower the total amount of cruise ship tourists in the city, just to find a new port.

Next, bar non-Venetian restaurants from the city entirely, and create a grading system, similar to Los Angeles’ health grades and Italy’s own DOP labels, that certify restaurants with fresh and regional food.

Lastly, create disincentives for day-time travelers in peak months by taxing them at entry, creating incentives for regional travelers to visit Venice in the quieter winter months. Here in the western United States, we’re able to successfully control the flow of hikers and backpackers into pristine environments through strict permitting efforts. These permits disperse the flow of travelers away from peak months.

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute Sketch

Garden Door in Scopello, Sicily

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, often simply referred to as La Salute, is one of Venice's most iconic churches and architectural masterpieces. Its history is closely intertwined with the city's struggle against the plague and its enduring gratitude for deliverance.

Construction of the basilica began in 1631 following a devastating outbreak of the the Black Death, which ravaged Venice in 1630. The Senate of the Republic of Venice vowed to build a magnificent church dedicated to the Virgin Mary as a token of gratitude if the city was spared further devastation. This was a common practice during times of epidemic, where cities would promise to build churches or monuments in exchange for divine intervention.

This church is also the centerpiece of Venice's most famous view from the Ponte dell'Accademia bridge. I remembered that view my entire life as the most stunning and opulent architectural landscape in the world. That memory was always with me as I imagined if the future will ever produce another Venice.

My illustration was first drawn in black ink, using a tilt-shift camera photo which I took from a ferry, as a reference. I scanned that outline to a digital print, printed back to paper, and then finished with Copic Sketch markers and watercolor.

Motovun, Istria, Croatia

Motovun, Istria, Croatia

When I first saw Motovun, the Istrian town in the clouds, I had my first glimpse of the Venice of the future. Here was another impossible architecture, built in an impossible place. But unlike Venice, there were trees, forests and rural farms. This was the moment I first imagined how architects and builders in the future may build the next city or town as elegant and majestic as these Venetian masterpieces.

I applied a mix of walnut ink and Ecoline liquid watercolor to my outline over several weeks to try my own take on the inkwash sketch.

Venice Canal

Venice Canal Sketch

Gondolas aren't the only watercraft that ply the small waterways of Venice, in fact, there are only about 400 sanctioned gondolas. There are motorboats, barges and sandoli, a simple flat-bottomed variant of the gondola. The more you stray from the well-trodden sections of Venice, the more of these homestyle rowing boats you see.

As I wrote my notes about future Venice's, I tried to imagine what transportation would look like in walkable cities with only human-powered vehicles.

Explore more in Europa

In Venice, Istrian Croatia and Slovenia, I explore whether another Venice can be built in the future.

On the Island of Paros, I explore whether a musical improvisation master could have thrived in the ancient Mediterranean.

On a road trip to Iceland's remote Westfjords, I explore the decline of the iconic Atlantic Puffin.

In a road trip to Spain's Mediterranean coast, I ponder the value of itinerary-free travel.

Exploring Sicily's Tyrhennian Sea coast, with notes on the effect of climate and migration.

The Alfama district of Lisbon hints at the global influence of colonial Portugal.

Celebrating a family feast in the strange, modern setting of Pomerania, land of my ancestors.

Exploring small towns of Iberia, where some of Europe's most fabled cheeses were born.

Exploring the Bavarian and Swiss alps in search of the region's famous handmade cheeses.

Sketches, illustrations and notes on improvisation and worldbuilding in the Germany's second largest city.

Notes, drawings, sketches and illustrations in different mediums from Paris.

Drawings, notes and Moleskine journal sketches from my travels on the island of Sicily.

Notes on Gibraltar and its famous macaques, plus an interview with one of their protectors.

Drawings, sketches, Moleskine journal notes and illustrations from Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Midnight tapas in Madrid, the plains of La Mancha and ancient alleys in Cuenca.

My companion notes, sketches and illustrations to my story on the Venetian Adriatic.