Filmed in Italy: Venice, Summertime and a Last Crusade

In the months leading up to our recent trip to Italy, which included Bologna, Verona, Milan and Lake Como, I couldn’t stop thinking of our upcoming visit to the jewel in Italy’s crown: Venice.

This was my first trip back to Venice since 1979.  I was seven and it was only a day trip, but the city made such an impression on me that even the smallest details of that summer day stayed with me throughout my life.  I had dreamed of going back ever since and I finally had the opportunity this past September.  My faithful sidekick and I took the morning train from Bologna, and the moment we stepped out of the stazione onto the Grand Canal I was struck by the timeless beauty of this city and knew this trip would be worth the wait.

Venice Grand Canal
Copyright Fabrizio Fante

We had a long list of things to see in Venice, including the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s and the islands of Murano and Burano, but our favorite moments involved getting lost in the twists and turns of the beautiful cacophony of Venice’s streets and stopping in the cafes for espressos and pastries, armed with my trusty Pentax K-1000 35mm camera.

We packed a lot into our three days there, but on this leg of our Italy trip I had two places on my own personal list to visit.  I’ve seen many films shot in Venice, including The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bread and TulipsEveryone Says I Love You and The Tourist (please don’t judge me).  But David Lean’s Summertime (starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi) and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are the first two films that come to mind when I think of Venice and for good reason.  Each movie makes full use of the city, bringing out its beauty, mystery and architecture to the point where Venice is a character in each film.  My cinematic mission on this trip was to find two specific movie locations: Rossano Brazzi’s little antique shop in Summertime and the library from Last Crusade.

David Lean’s Summertime was based on Arthur Laurents’ play The Time of the Cuckoo and starred Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, a lonely American secretary from Ohio on her dream vacation to Venice.  Jane explores the streets and canals with her 16mm movie camera and no one to share the moment with except for ten year old local boy Mauro (played by Gaetano Auterio) until she is charmed and seduced by local antique dealer Renato de Rossi, played by the cooler than cool Rossano Brazzi.

Venice Grand Canal
Copyright Fabrizio Fante

Lean shot Summertime in glorious Technicolor on location in Venice in 1954.  There are many memorable shots in the film: Hepburn’s first glimpse of St. Mark’s Square and her first view of the Grand Canal as she walked out of the train station are two  that come to mind.  I always thought the line “Don’t change a thing” by the character Edith McIlhenny as she saw the canal for the first time was a bit hokey, but having seen this view myself (picture above) I can now empathize.  Every alley, bridge, and canal was used to the fullest on the screen, but the location I had to find on the island of Venice was Renato’s antique shop.

Renato’s shop was one of the central locations in the story and the location of the most memorable scene in the film: Jane’s mortifying, accidental plunge into the canal outside of Renato’s shop.  As much as that scene was written for a laugh, the audience can’t help but cringe for Joan as she steps out of the filthy water of the canal, completely soaked and with all eyes on her by the locals and tourists.  Her already fragile self esteem has taken a hit.  One of the stories around this scene was that Hepburn’s lifelong eye problem was caused by this plunge into the canal, but Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean: A Biography points out that the crew set up safeguards for Hepburn to have limited contact with the filth at the bottom of the canal, and that Hepburn had numerous swims in the Grand Canal during the nights they weren’t shooting.

It had been awhile since I’d seen Summertime and I couldn’t remember if there was a specific reference to the neighborhood where the antique shop was located.  We had one morning left in Venice and I wanted to avoid a needle in a haystack situation considering how easy it is to get lost in the side streets.  So we decided to forsake our search for the shop and instead visit Last Crusade’s library location at the church of San Barnaba di Venezia.

As a kid I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, and after watching this film Indiana Jones quickly became one of my all time favorite film characters (up there coincidentally with Han Solo).  But there’s something about Last Crusade that gets me to watch it more frequently than Raiders.  Part of it is the Grail quest, an even bigger part of it is Harrison Ford’s incredible dynamic with Sean Connery, but the last piece of the puzzle is…you guessed it…Venice.

All of the exterior scenes shot on location in Venice were filmed in one day on August 8, 1988.  Spielberg and the crew had full use of the Grand Canal for six straight hours.  It’s amazing to think of how much they were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.  The exterior of San Barnaba was featured in the scene in which Indy, Marcus, and Elsa discover the entrance to an underground passage leading to the tomb of one of the knights sworn to protect the secret of the Holy Grail.  It was one of many great sequences in the film, leading to a great chase scene on boat through the Grand Canal, but in that library scene only the exterior of San Barnaba was used.  The rest of the scene taking place in the interior of the library was shot on a soundstage.  Nevertheless, it was a location in one of my favorite films and I wanted a picture of it.

And so on our last morning in Venice as my faithful sidekick and I sipped our morning cappuccinos, we located the church of San Barnaba on our city map and set out to see it firsthand.  Funny enough, once I saw the white exterior I instantly recognized it as a church we had passed by at least twice before when we were lost.  So I found a nice angle for a picture and snapped a couple of shots with my Pentax.  But something to the side of the frame caught my eye in the viewfinder…

As I faced San Barnaba, I noticed a small bridge to the left.  Nothing too ornate, but what caught my eye about it was the steps leading to the church side of the small canal had descended in front of a small, inconspicuous shop.  It reminded me of something.

I remembered how in one scene in Summertime Katharine Hepburn had descended the steps of a small bridge as she walked to the door of Renato’s antique shop.  And outside of the shop, on the edge of a canal was a set of steps leading down into the water, or in the case of Joan coming up from her plunge in the canal, out of the water.  The proximity of the bridge, shop and steps got me wondering, so I walked in.

To the right: St. Barnaba from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
To the left: The shop from David Lean’s Summertime
Copyright Fabrizio Fante

There were no antiques, it was a children’s shop, but on the counter was a picture of Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi in the shop window with the same exact view looking out toward the canal.  I asked the shop owner in my rusty Italian if this was indeed the shop in Summertime.  She smiled, said it was the shop from the film, and offered to take a picture of us in the window like Hepburn and Brazzi (I was Brazzi).

“Do many people ask you to take this picture?”  I asked.

She rolled her eyes with a smile and answered, “You have no idea how many times a day I take this picture for the visitors.”

And so my cinematic mission was complete.  Grazie Venezia!

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