Friday, January 19, 2018

History Underfoot, or, Something About Living Amidst the Past

A detail of pattern in the terrazzo floor of our rented apartment

My strongest sense of being immersed in the long history of Venice, and of the particular sense of time and its movement available in such old places as this, comes when I'm on my hands and knees cleaning our rented apartment's 18th-century terrazzo floor.

Otherwise, despite all the signs of history surrounding me, the signs that people flock here to see, the signs that people who dream of living in Venice tend to imagine will endow their every footstep and movement here with a constant and unique sense of wonder and beauty, I'm usually absorbed in or distracted by the same kinds of personal concerns that absorb and distract people everywhere else: present, past and anticipated. Locked in a personal narrative, a private history, to which the broader remnants of history all around me, no matter how imposing, serve only as background or local color--just as, to cite a more charged but common case, the most salient feature of the long dramatic history of Piazza San Marco for two lovers is merely what a marvelous setting it provides for their kisses, or selfies.

As I scrub our living room floor, however, it seems that the relationship between myself and the vast historical sweep of this city assumes if not the proper proportion--which even the immense space of the Palazzo Ducale's Great Council Room could only hint at, as, after all, we're talking about well over 1,000 years of history here--then at least the proper perspective. As I scrub with my sponge, creeping inch by inch over the terrazzo, my eyes no more than a couple of feet above it, it's as if I find myself physically engaged with some measureless part of the city's history in all its suggestive materiality: each old smooth polished stone with something about it to catch your eye, but the vast sea of them all together--even if that sea stretches no further than the horizon of the nearest baseboard--presenting a vista of such infinite detail as to drown all possibility of comprehension. Your vision blurs at the abundance, you can't help but go under. Yellow-ochre, liver-red, black, white, gray or green; mottled, veined, smoky, fractured, marmoreal, or almost crystalline: any one of the stones in this floor, it sometimes seems to me to as my eyes pass over them, worthy of being pocketed during a walk on the beach.

These polished stones are markers not just of geological time, though, but of epochal time; vestiges of a process which, if nowhere near as lengthy as the natural one by which such stones themselves came into being, yet still so prolonged as to seem alien to the contemporary sense of time that now governs our daily lives, our very consciousness.

According to a man who came to look at repairing a part of our apartment's terrazzo which is sunken and crumbled, the floor was likely put in around 1750. In her book The Architectural History of Venice, Deborah Howard describes the traditional method of installing such floors:
From the fifteenth century onwards, pastellon* was largely superceded by a more decorative version called terrazzo. In living apartments this surface, like pastellon, was laid on top of the boards covering the ceiling of the floor below. It was made up to two layers of crushed brick and stone set in lime mortar, each layer well beaten down with battering rams for several days. Several months had to elapse between the laying of the two layers. The top layer also contained ships of coloured marble, so that when it was smoothed off with millstones and oiled with linseed oil the effect was like a random mosaic. As in the case of pastellon, the lime base and tiny stones gave a certain elasticity to the floor surface, so that it could resist minor stresses and strains without cracking. If cracks did appear, it was a fairly simple matter to lay another thin layer of terrazzo on top. According to Francesco Sansovino, terrazzo floors were so highly polished that one could see one's own reflection in them, and carpets were even put down to prevent footprints marking the floors. (pp 61-62, italics added). 
I think of those several days spent pulverizing each layer of the terrazzo with battering rams more than 250 years ago as I clean it with my sponge. I wonder who made up the crew that did the work. Were they from long-time Venetian families? From the more recent (at least "recent" in the context of Venice's long history) influx of immigrants from the eastern shore of the Adriatic which the city recruited after devastating periods of plague? Or were they more freshly arrived in the city? Did they tend to be young or old? Are any of their descendants still living in this area, if not the city itself (as so few people live in the city itself nowadays)? Do they have any living descendants anywhere at all?

You might ask yourself such questions while regarding any of those old works of which Venice is composed, whether you're looking at some celebrated monument or the most obscure pile of bricks. But the questions seem a little different when inspired not by those elements of the city you regard from a certain observational distance, but by those that quite literally make up the foundation upon which your private daily life unfolds. Our apartment's terrazzo is the literal ground of my family's domestic, most intimate life, and for that very reason I'm usually inclined to notice it far less than, say, the Basilica of San Marco, or even the bells of the nearby campanile not 100 yards from our apartment, which burst like a flock of pigeons through our open windows in the summer, and wash like heavy surf against them when they're closed in winter.

It's slow going on your hands and knees with the sponge, especially compared to the disembodied immediacy of so much of what now occupies our days, to that immaterial net on which we're both strung up and strung out; wired as we are into a demanding ever- and everywhere present tense, to which any sense of the past is often little more than the particular look of a preset filter--grainy, faded, vignetted--applied with one click to a fresh digital image, and usually monetized. You inch along the terrazzo as a gardener weeds her way through a plot of land, your labor linking you not to the cultivated natural world, but to the built world which in the historic center of Venice replaced the natural world long ago. Long enough ago as to now seem "natural."

From the detached and haughty summit of our technological present, the ubiquitous and omnipotent right this second promised to us/demanded of us by our various electronic devices, where we are everywhere and hence nowhere at once, and from which even the recent past looks quaint at best (if not just plain ass-backwards), you're brought back to a particular place in the act of cleaning the floor, lodged within a particular sweep of history, and you realize that you're just the latest--but not the last--in a long stretch of occupants engaged with what's been left by prior generations of anonymous others and their anonymous labors. Not the master of this house, nor the star within the picturesque stage set of Venice, but the latest caretaker in a long line of them, destined to disappear in your own turn without a trace, having done your part to tend to this evocative if ultimately unreadable script of polished stones. 

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NOTE:

*A flooring described by Howard as being "composed of ground tiles and bricks set in lime mortar and polished to bring out the red terracotta colour, which was intensified by the addition of the pigment of cinnabar in the top layer." 



Friday, January 12, 2018

On Edge on the Grand Canal

Sometimes even a large mototopo is hardly large enough for everything that needs to be shipped into Venice

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Rainy Day Ca' d'Oro # 1, and The Extraordinary Ordinary

Ca' d'Oro, at right, saturated by yesterday's rainfall

All of Venice's most iconic buildings, the Palazzo Ducale, the basilica of San Marco, and Ca' d'Oro (above, at right), become different buildings after a good soaking, the colors of their precious stone facades and marble columns brought out by the rain--and sometimes, to a slightly lesser degree, by heavy fog. The change in them is dramatic enough to make even the most devoted sun-worshipper hope for at least a passing shower during their stay in the city.

At the beginning of December it seemed that the city authorities had decided to give admirers of Ca' d'Oro an early holiday gift by removing the vaporetto stop located just to one side of it (just beyond the right edge of the image above).

Initially, as the work slowly unfolded on the Grand Canal, my wife, our son and I surmised that a decision had been made to add a second pontile (or floating dock) to the stop, as there are at other stops along the Grand Canal: with one pontile to be used for those going toward Lido, and the other for those headed to the train station. For quite a lot of days were spent constructing a pretty substantial new dock at the end of Calle Traghetto Vecchio on the Grand Canal, and when it was finally finished a new pontile was situated before it.

This made a certain sense, we thought. It would certainly reduce crowding while people waited for the vaporetti.

But then one day, to our surprise, we found that the long-time pontile in front of Ca' d'Oro had been removed, leaving only the new one.

Okay, we thought, this makes even more sense. The new dock and pontile weren't a response to crowded waiting areas after all, but a realization--long overdue, really--that it made no sense to situate a vaporetto stop in front of one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.  For one thing, its presence interferes with one's appreciation of the palazzo. For another, the diesel exhaust from each vaporetto is thickest as it pulls into or departs from a stop. Better to situate the stop further from the famous facade of Ca' d'Oro in order to protect its pale stones.

Or, given the sway of the tourist industry in Venice, perhaps the hotel flanking Ca' d'Oro (and even closer to the pontile) finally secured the attention of a sympathetic city official or two and convinced them to re-situate the stop away from their pricey rooms.

Either way, there was a logic to all this, and it explained why so much time and labor had been put into constructing a sizeable new dock to which to attach a new pontile such a short distance from the old one.

We rested content in this sense of comprehension--which can be a rare commodity here.

We waited days and days while a barge remained tied to the old dock in front of Ca' d'Oro (where the pontile had once been), for the dock itself to be dismantled, or at least reduced in size, and the job to be completed.

And then one day we noticed that a pontile had been re-situated in the old place in front of Ca' d'Oro.

And then we further noticed that the new pontile was festooned off with plastic tape, and taken out of service. And then taken away completely. And then that the large new dock upon which so much time and work had been expended was dismantled. It had only been temporary after all.

It turned out that none of our explanations for the many weeks of labor had been valid. The work had not been intended to reduce crowding while waiting for a vaporetto, nor improve views of Ca' d'Oro, nor protect its facade from being blackened and corroded by vaporetto exhaust, nor the clientele of the hotel next door from the loud gnashing of vaporetto gears.

No, it seems that all that time and effort had been simply the extraordinary labor required for what in Venice qualifies as the ordinary maintenance of a relatively simple and in no-way-historical water bus stop. Just another extended reminder of how complicated the quotidian can be in this most improbable and--by contemporary standards--impractical of cities.

 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Witches on the Grand Canal Today: The Regata delle Befane


The 40th edition of the Regata delle Befane was run on the Grand Canal today in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany. Five competitors--dressed in the garb of of the ancient witch who fills the stockings of good children with candy, and those of bad ones with coal, in the early hours of this holiday--set off from beneath a Rialto Bridge packed with observers to the vaporetto stop of Sant'Angelo, before turning back to finish where they'd begun.

Above and below: the rowers didn't lack for company as they raced





Witches, witches everywhere! Local rowing clubs transformed themselves into covens to participate in the pre- and post-regata festivities


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The New Year Rolls In, This Morning

Campo Erberia is covered in water, adorned with architecture and sky

During acqua alta the Grand Canal extends itself along Fondamenta Vin Castello (seen above) to the church of San Giacomo di Rialto


Sunday, December 31, 2017

On Practical Beauty and Christmas Trees, Revisited


I hope you'll forgive me for raiding the blog's archives a second time this month to link to a piece I first posted in December 2013 which remains, I think, perhaps the best post I've put up about the particularities, or peculiarities, of raising a child in Venice--or at least of raising a certain child here--and how they play out during the holiday season, as well as more generally:

http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2013/12/of-practical-beauty-in-venice-and.html

Four years since this original post went up, our son's enthusiasm for the world of deliveries and logistics has only expanded and deepened. Though now, at age 10, he's a good deal taller (and heavier) than his red delivery trolley you can see in the image above.

Happy New Year!