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Viva Las Venice

Only Las Vegas, the city of impersonators, would be bold enough to re-create the jewel of the Adriatic in the middle of the desert. Absurd? Of course. Realistic? Read on.

Photo caption
Take a ride in a gondola at the Venetian under an air-brushed sky.

"And so he saw it once again, that most amazing of landing places, the dazzling composition of fantastic architecture that the Republic presented to the worshipful gazes of approaching mariners; the airy magnificence of the Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, the columns depicting lions and saints on the shore, the splendid and projecting flank of the fairy-tale temple, the view of the gateway and the gigantic clock." From Death in Venice.

Perhaps things would’ve worked out better for Gustav von Aschenbach, the tragic protagonist of Thomas Mann’s 1911 masterpiece, had he been able to vacation in the Las Vegas of today instead of the Venice of the early 19th century. Old Gustav could’ve still taken in many of those unforgettable Venice landmarks while avoiding the seductive presence of the Polish lad who spelled his ultimate doom. True, Vegas has its own myriad temptations, but it was neither the roulette wheel nor the leggy showgirl nor the 24-hour, $10.99 prime rib buffet that brought down Aschenbach in what Mann’s narrator called "the most improbable of cities."

With the recent opening of The Venetian along The Strip, the modern-day American traveler who longs to experience a slice of Venice without winging over the Atlantic now has that Vegas option. Only the city of Frank and Dean would be presumptuous enough to re-create, smack in the middle of the desert, a one-time nautical empire whose main thoroughfare is a 2-and-1/2-mile-long waterway. Only the city of Siegfried and Roy would be presumptuous enough to re-create, in the center of Velvet Elvis country, a treasure chest of Renaissance art that attracts serious aesthetes and scholars from all over the world.

But why not? Vegas is in the midst of what seems to be a class transplant. Upscale, all-suite hotels that don’t have hourly rates or mirrors on the ceilings; restaurants that don’t have buffet tables the length of football fields. Then, too, $1.5 billion will buy you a lot of realism, even at millennium prices, and that’s what Boston impresario Sheldon G. Adelson poured into The Venetian, making it Vegas’s priciest piece of real estate next to Liberace’s wardrobe closet.

There is, believe it or not, some organic connection between Venice and Vegas. Both have been tainted by bad associations: early Venice because its people dared trade with pirates, Vegas because it was once known as a Mob town. And both have drawn the wrath of God-fearing folk because of gambling and other assorted vices. Three centuries before Vegas began lightening the wallets of Americans, Venice was doing the same to Europeans at the Ridotto, which opened its doors as Europe’s first gambling house in 1638.

But what you, gentle traveler, want to know is: How much of Venice can I get at The Venetian? To answer that, I paid brief visits, first to The Venetian, then to the real deal.

Perhaps it is difficult to replicate one of the most identifiable and romantic cities in the world when hard by your entrance stands a giant bandana-wearing skeleton that signals the entrance to the Treasure Island hotel-casino. But, alas, we are all prisoners of our environment, and The Venetian, after all, primarily a place to roll the dice, is located near the heart of The Strip. Once inside The Venetian’s doors, though, that $1.5 billion worth of Venice becomes apparent. Nay, it does more than that. It overwhelms you. Some 150 murals faithfully reproduced from Renaissance Venice cover the ceiling of the lobby. There, near the entrance to the casino, is Nicolo Bambini’s Triumph of Venice.There, near the entrance to a shopping area, is Paolo Veronese’s The Apotheosis of Venice. There, in the Renaissance Room, where high rollers get pampered, are cocktail waitresses in sequined, butt-hugging costumes. (All right, this is Vegas.) The works of Tiepolo, Titian, and Tintoretto, who constitute a Hall of Fame of Venetian art, are represented, too. The overall effect—dare we say this about the interior of a casino?—is celestial. Winged cherubs rest on clouds, warriors look to the heavens. The paintings reflect Renaissance themes of heaven and earth in collision, of man yearning to ascend, of man turning to God and asking, in an anguished cry, "Why in Thy name did I continue to double down at the hundred-dollar table?"

And—wait a minute—what’s that noise? Opera? At 2 in the afternoon? In Las Vegas? Yes, Frank and Dino are probably rolling over in their graves, but throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, The Venetian stages minipageants with a company of actors, musicians, and singers. And this isn’t Waiting for Guffmanstyle community theater. These are serious performers who seem not at all affected by the reality that they are belting it out, not at The Met, but within a few dozen feet of the cling-clanging of the slot machines. "Working here presents certain unique challenges, but even when you’re on a regular stage a certain percentage of the audience is getting it and a certain percentage is not," says Suzanne Feruce, who portrays, with fetching realism, a Venetian courtesan. "It’s the same here. And maybe here they appreciate it a little more."

That seems to be the case. Casino-goers who don’t know Pavarotti from Pagliacci do know that at The Venetian they’re getting something extra, which is what everyone wants when coming to Vegas, considering that so much will likely be left behind. Between the art and the pageants, The Venetian must already lead all other Vegas hotel-casinos in inches of space video-recorded. One man was so engaged in swinging his video camera between the art on the ceiling and the Renaissance jester perched on a pillar—I am not making this up—that he slammed straight into a stationary luggage rack. "This is where the guy was playing Vivaldi. This is where they have all the Renaissance sculpture. This is where I obliterated my septum."

The idea of replicating the exterior of Venice is a little less ridiculous than it sounds. More than most cities, Venice’s identifiable heart is in one place—St. Mark’s Square—and Adelson, who was captivated by it during a vacation several years ago, made sure the builders were faithful to that most famous of Italian piazzas. "Our buildings are constructed almost exactly to scale," says Brad Packer, one of The Venetian’s public relations people. "We had architects and artists go to Venice. We had two historians on retainer. This isSt. Mark’s Square." Well, I would see about that, but the exterior does suggest the Venice I had seen in postcards. And at The Venetian, you can get something you can’t get in Venice: a gondola ride that sweeps by high-end stores like Mikimoto and Donna Karan, under an eerily realistic 70-foot ceiling that depicts the sky in Venice in early evening.

You can also get this: In The Venetian’s Library Building, another St. Mark’s landmark faithfully reproduced from the original, Vegas tourists can patronize Madame Tussaud’s Celebrity Encounter, which includes a wax exhibit of a hypothetical "Fight of the Century" between Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield. Around the ring are Vegas immortals such as Don King, Elvis, and, of course, the Rat Pack.

And this has what, exactly, to do with Venice?

"Nothing really," Packer says. "What we’re giving you is Venice with a Vegas twist."

St. Mark’s square—Piazza San Marco as the Venetians know it—probably stands second to Trafalgar Square in London for number of pigeons per square inch. They have been here in droves for quite a while. Mann makes reference to them in Death in Venice, as does Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). My fondest wish for The Venetian was that it not import pigeons for authenticity—after all, it has pigeons aplenty inside. Alas, trained pigeons are now unleashed over the hotel six times a day.

Their Italian cousins—filthy, rapacious, and mindless as they may be—are a small price to pay for sitting, standing, gazing, just being in perhaps the grandest gathering spot in the world, a place that Napoleon called "the drawing room of Europe." The square, which is actually gloriously asymmetrical, is probably 175 yards long and maybe half as wide. Not to belabor the obvious, but what The Venetian cannot hope to capture is the grand scope of an architectural wonder that has been attracting tourists for almost 10 centuries. The St. Mark’s in front of The Venetian is primarily a photo op; the real Piazza San Marco is the heart and soul of a legendary city.

The Venetian, however, did an unquestionably faithful job of reconstructing the wonders of the piazza. Standing in the center of the real St. Mark’s, you can see, as in the Vegas version, the Doge’s Palace, the Campanile (legend has it that Galileo took the Doge to the top to demonstrate his new telescope), the Clock Tower (which has been telling time for almost 500 years), and the Library Building (sans Madame Tussaud). The reproduction is incredible, allowing for the fact that what renders the originals glorious is their very wear and tear, their centuries of historical seasoning.

Then, too, The Venetian did not attempt to recreate the dominant feature of St. Mark’s—the basilica dedicated to the patron saint who gave the piazza its name and the city its celestial protection. One is overwhelmed even before entering the church. The 13th-century mosaics that hang in the atrium serve as a mood-changer—from the bright gaiety of the piazza outside to the pious play of light and shadow that goes on inside. The whole dizzying effect of the place is that it seems, as poet Théophile Gautier wrote, "as if it belonged to a pre-Christian Christianity, to a Church founded before religion existed." The omission was a wise bit of restraint on the part of The Venetian. The Venetian’s version of St. Mark’s also had to take some liberties with geography. Neither the Rialto Bridge, dominant in The Venetian landscape, nor the Ca’ d’Oro ("house of gold") is near the square in the real Venice. The real Ca’ d’Oro, however, does not include the famed restaurant Lutece as The Venetian’s does. Advantage, Vegas.

Though probably 90 percent of Venice tourists avail themselves of the servize gondole,it is fashionable to complain about the smell of the water in the world’s most waterlogged city, something that, barring an unforeseen plumbing problem, will not affect gondola-riders in Vegas. If you go to Venice, you must take a gondola ride. Take two, in fact, one during the day, one at night. Look, you’re not being paddled around in a fresh mountain stream, but the smell is not that bad and is part of the charm. My gondolier, a pleasant young man named Matteo, was more than willing to discourse on any subject, including, as it turns out, The Venetian.

"Yes, we have heard about this casino that tries to be Venice," said Matteo as he negotiated his way around other gondolas in the crowded side canals, "and we in Venice believe—how you say it?—it is not for us. We are not happy about this Venetian. We will not go there." (Nor is the mayor of Venice captivated by Adelson’s new playland; he reportedly requested that Adelson give his city $300,000 for the right to replicate Venice’s features.) The best thing about the Venice gondoliers, of course, is that they are genuine gondoliers. They do not sing, as The Venetian’s do ("I sometimes sing," said Matteo, "but only after three bottles of wine"); they do not always dress in official gondolier costume, as The Venetian’s do; and they receive calls on cell phones, which is verboten at The Venetian.

"Was that your girlfriend, Matteo?" I asked.

"No," he said with a smile. "It was my mother. She is always calling me."

The only way to complete a night in Venice is at a coffeehouse in the piazza. The oldest is the Florian, whose clients have included Byron, Goethe, and Rousseau. Across the square are Lavena and Quadri, which stage a battle of the chamber-music groups in the evening. If you can sit under the stars on a warm Venice night, sipping red wine, listening to the music of Venice native Vivaldi, and not feel that the world is a wonderful place, then your heart has hardened, my friend, and you are as doomed as Mann’s Aschenbach.

Here’s my advice. First visit The Venetian. Eat at the wonderful restaurants. (You can’t sample the fare of Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck in Venice.) Rumble around a suite that’s four times larger than any hotel room in Venice and sleep in a bed that’s twice as big as any in Europe. Drink all the iced drinks you want. Hey, you’re an American! Try to learn something about Venetian art and sculpture. Go shopping by gondola. Hang out in the square and, for at least an hour, gaze at the Doge’s Palace instead of the slot machines just inside.

And then visit the actual Venice. You’ll discover that there’s no substitute for the real thing. Venice is a city for the wanderer, a city of hidden treasures and small discoveries, shops and churches and galleries and wonderful trattorias in seemingly deserted alleys. The city is so gloriously unreal that sometimes you feel like you’re in your own private Truman Show,as if the old Venetian lady suddenly dumped her wash water out of the window on cue just to please you. Vegas, in its own way, is unreal, of course, but it’s a city that screams its virtues in neon (ONE NIGHT ONLY! TONY BENNETT!) and keeps nothing hidden. Then, too, it’s one thing to sit in Piazza San Marco and ponder the fact that Marco Polo might’ve sat there; quite another to sit in the St. Mark’s of The Venetian and think, Wow, Don Rickles might’ve sat here.

But if you go to Venice, you’ll also discover the lengths to which the Venetian went to replicate the real deal. And if Europe isn’t for you, well, then be content with the Venetian. Crank up that camcorder and for heaven’s sake watch out for the luggage racks.

Photography by Richard Barnes

This article was first published in September 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.