An Exploration of Venice Through Photographs

Sam Chapin


The streets of Paris are lined with cafes and museums. In Rome, you’ll find roads that predate Julius Caesar.


But only Venice has streets of water.


In his new photography collection, Monumental Venice, Jacques Boulay aims to capture the essence of a city that’s unlike any other. Through huge, panoramic landscapes and intimate, contained portraits, Boulay seeks out (and finds) what makes Venice Venice.


The book’s introduction, written by Alexis Gregory, serves to contextualize the photos that follow by likening them to pieces by artists like Guardi and Titian, among others, who spent a great deal of time in the city of water. The comparison is apt, as many of the photos from the oversized book are so vibrant and full of detail that they seem fabricated, unreal. Hidden within the two-page introduction is a foldout, four-page landscape of the San Marco waterfront, covering miles of riverside buildings, and offers a taste of what’s to come.


Turning the pages of Monumental Venice is a delight. Free of any captions or text, each photo tells a different story, its contents full of history and romance. From the expansive, four-page spreads of the Grand Canal and Giudecca, to the single-page portraits of side river-streets and bridges, there seems to be no end to what lies within this strange and beautiful city.


One thing that you won’t find? Photographs of people. In his collection, Boulay seems to have done the impossible: make Venice appear uninhabited. Nearly every bridge, square, church, and façade is left empty and untouched, making the city appear more like a museum than an actual city. It’s quite a feat, considering Venice welcomes 14 million tourists each year. Boulay presents Venice as a city out of time, including practically nothing that would link it to modernity. The book is, in effect, a time machine that allows its readers to explore the city without being interrupted by the 21st century.


Boulay offers a wide variety of images, exposing every side of Venice. Through his photographs, he shows that there is much more to the city than its distinctive waterways. He reveals secret courtyards nestled between ancient buildings, regal theaters that have stood for hundreds of years, sculptures that have endured countless floods, and tiny details that could easily go unnoticed. He presents Venice as a three-dimensional city—one that is alive today but has kept the same shell for centuries.


By no means should Boulay’s work be misconstrued as travel photography. Although he does paint a complete portrait of Venice as a whole, each photograph has a life of its own and exists separately from the rest. Much like the paintings of Francesco Guardi from the 18th century, each photo that Boulay takes encapsulates a different element, mood and aspect of Venice. Whether it’s a nighttime shot of the romantic Rialto Bridge, a bright sunset over Santa Maria della Salute, or a flooded Piazza San Marco, Boulay never says the same thing twice through his photographs.


After the 217 photographs that comprise Monumental Venice, there is a much-needed caption section, written by Jean Philippe-Follet. In it, Follet identifies what was featured in each photograph and supplies various facts about the city’s historic and contemporary culture. Fortunately, he includes stamp-sized versions of all the images to make it easier for review. His captions are informative and lively, offering insight on both the photographs and Venice at large.


Monumental Venice is, above all else, a beautiful book. Each photograph offers a unique and tranquil scene that, when compiled, create a blueprint for a truly mesmerizing city. The shear scope of the book is extraordinary—turning and unfolding the oversized pages is exhausting but well worth the effort. It succeeds both as a collection of photography and as a photographic journal of Venice. It’s the ideal coffee book, assuming that you have a large enough coffee table.


Author Bio:

Sam Chapin is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Jacques Boulay
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