Venetian Art and Social history with Context Travel's Susan Steer

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Aug 04, 2008 / 0 comments

One of our very favorite organizations in the world of travel is Context Travel. We've interviewed them before, and I am always impressed by the scholarly tone that they bring to travel. I recently asked Paul Bennett, founder of Context Travel, to let us interview some of his docents.  Luckily for us, we have been able to do just that. Here's the first of several excellent interviews with a docent of Context Travel, Susan Steer

Susan teaches for the University of Warwick’s undergraduate and MA Venice programmes. After graduating in the history of art and Italian in 1998, she took an MA concentrating on Venetian art and architecture, and in 2004 she completed her specialisation in Venetian renaissance painting with a PhD on the altarpieces of Bartolomeo Vivarini. Susan has taught undergraduate and life-long learning courses on subjects such as the altarpiece, Titian, and Venetian renaissance painting for the University of Bristol (UK). For the University of Glasgow, she has worked extensively as a researcher for the National Inventory of European Painting 1200 – 1900, the catalogue of European paintings in museums in the UK which will be published on-line in 2008. Susan has also contributed articles to the Burlington Magazine and Artibus et Historiae. Susan met her Venetian fiancé Paolo in 1997 and they have since divided their time between homes in Venice and the UK.

WE: Please tell us about your walking tours with Context Travel...

SS: The walks I lead with Context Travel reflect my specialist interests in Venetian art and social history – this is great for me, and I think it works well for the clients too. One of two walks I lead on Venetian Renaissance painting includes a visit to the Frari church; amazingly, the Frari is crowd-free and lines are short or non-existent, yet its contents encapsulate the history of Venetian painting with artworks of world-class distinction set in their original physical context. The Renaissance walks also take in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, confraternity meeting rooms which retain their stunning narrative decorations by leading Renaissance artists Carpaccio and Tintoretto respectively. Another walk I lead concentrates on the collections of the Venice Accademia, certainly the best collection of Venetian painting in the world. I have recently designed a couple of walks with social history themes, such as the Plague in Venice, where we explore some of the dramatic images and monuments which were engendered by outbreaks of plague which devastated the city’s inhabitants on a number of occasions through the centuries.


Susan Steer, Context Travel


WE:  What is your background; what led you to be interested in this city and subject matter?

SS:  My early career was in management accountancy – a sensible option which offered material prospects, but which left me frustrated in other ways. So in my late twenties I returned to university to study for a BA in art history and Italian. I specialised in Venetian art for my masters degree and PhD. Since completing my studies I have designed and taught undergraduate and continuing education courses in art history for British universities and also worked as a researcher and editor for the UK’s national inventory of European paintings. I have published in specialist art history journals such as The Burlington Magazine.

There are several reasons for my particular interest in Venice and Venetian art. Originally from the UK, I first came to Venice in 1996 to improve my spoken Italian and take up an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim museum (a great opportunity to work in a prestigious museum, though involving very humble tasks – including literally picking up cigarette butts and cleaning bird droppings from exterior sculptures!). Like many people, I was overwhelmed by my first glimpses of the extraordinary beauty of the fragile city. The more I learned about Venice, its art and social history, the more interested I became, and I particularly grew to enjoy the challenge of working with original documents at the State Archive. But I also had personal reasons for specialising in Venetian painting– in 1997 I met Paolo, who is Venetian, and who would later become my husband. It made sense to specialise in an area which gave me an excuse to return to Venice as often as possible!

WE:  What things do you love to share on your walking tours?

SS: Through my work with Context Travel I aim to not only share the greatest examples of Venetian visual culture, but also to bring the Venetian past to life. I hope to present paintings and other artefacts as windows onto the lives of women and men of the middle ages and Renaissance. It is great to see the expressions on people’s faces when they first encounter impressive monuments, such as St Mark’s basilica or Titian’s superlative Assunta. Many of our clients, often experienced travellers and very discerning, are already familiar with these, so I enjoy putting the artworks into a broader context for my clients and interpreting the iconographies, considering what political, social and cultural factors may have helped shape the monument or artwork. In the Renaissance, the subjects of paintings were rarely chosen by the artist, but were instead selected by the artist’s patron and informed by his or her religious beliefs, political concerns and so on. For example, it is not immediately apparently to the casual viewer that Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece, an image of the Virgin and Child painted almost 500 years ago, reflects the bitter strife between the Christian and Muslim worlds which has persisted into modern times and continues to threaten our peaceful existence.

It is also rewarding to point out those traces of the past which can easily be missed or which would be difficult to interpret without in-depth historical knowledge; for instance, most visitors to Venice walk straight past the half-obliterated inscriptions which detail the rules of appropriate behaviour (no games, no obscene language, no shouting etc) and the huge gate hinges which demarcate the precinct of the former convent of San Zaccaria – but, examined for a moment, these serve as vivid reminders of the restricted lives led by the girls and women who were virtually incarcerated in these environs.

When I visit the Accademia with my clients, I love to introduce them to Lorenzo Lotto’s enigmatic portrait of a young man. The idiosyncratic Lotto is an artist most clients have never heard of, but most find this image highly intriguing: What is this man’s mood? What is the meaning of the lizard and the scattered rose petals? What are the contents of the volume he fingers or the letters on the table? The Pietà which Titian painted for his own tomb is another work often missed by the casual visitor – but this large, dark, smudgy canvas, painted with a proto-modernist abstraction, is the personal epitaph of one of the greatest painters in the history of western art. It is the most moving, emotive artwork I know.


Susan Steer, Context Travel


WE:  What is unique about your Context Tour?

SS:  Much of the material I use in my walks is drawn from my own PhD research as well as my broad background knowledge in the field. When I prepare for a new walking tour, I consult specialist literature and articles in historical journals to ensure that I am informed by the most recent scholarly research on the given subject; as a scholar I am always aware that the interpretation of material can be tricky and the sources can be ambiguous and I believe that ambiguities and nuances should be explored rather than glossed over. I aim to interpret the visual heritage of Venice in a way which is lively and engaging. We discuss the historical evidence – the walk isn’t intended to be a monologue on my part and, at the very most, I have just eight clients with me. Context clients are invariably thoughtful, interested and interesting people and they bring with them a wealth of experience, knowledge and fresh insights. The shared experience we aim for is more like a university seminar class than a traditional guided tour.

WE: Thanks so much, Susan! It sounds incredibly fascinating, what you're studying and teaching. We can't wait to get there and learn with you!


For more information on Context Travel, and to book a tour with Susan, please see: