Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Clooney Wedding Seen Through the Eyes of Tiepolo

I hope you'll forgive me for using one of the most over-hyped and over-publicized events in recent Venetian history--would that the world press gave a 1/100th of such attention to the present controversy over a new canal that might profoundly impact the city's well-being!--in order to call attention to a marvelous Venetian-themed book that's been largely forgotten.

Published in 1986 by the excellent New York press George Braziller, Domenico Tiepolo: The Punchinello Drawings accomplished the remarkable feat of re-collecting in one volume the series of 104 drawings by Tiepolo that were last seen together in 1921 at a small gallery exhibition in Paris, before being sold piecemeal by an art dealer whose greed exceeded all art-historical or cultural scruples.

The large heavy Braziller volume (measuring nearly 40cm x 30cm, or 15.5 in x 11.5 in) with an introduction and notes by Adelheid Gealt, offers color reproductions of 77 of the drawings in full-page plates measuring 4/5 of their original size. Another 27 reproductions, derived from the black-and-white photographs shot of the series before it was broken up and scattered around the world, appear in smaller format at the back of the volume.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo was the son of Giambattista, one of the art stars of 18th-century Europe, and the artist whose swirling gold and blue and pink ceiling paintings still wow visitors to Venice and to museums around the world. Domenico spent much of his life as his father's right-hand man, helping out on those grand commissions from the rich and royal with which Giambattista was constantly occupied. But Domenico's own talents found their greatest expression in more intimate and/or comic scenes.

I was happy to find a copy of the Braziller publication for just $75 (its original cover price in 1986 was $80, and used copies typically start at $110 and quickly jump to over $400) in New York's Strand Bookstore, as I've been fascinated for the last couple of years by the Pulcinella frescoes with which Domenico decorated his villa in Zianigo (now displayed in Ca' Rezzonico).

The series of drawings, like those frescoes, are from the last years of Domenico's life, starting around 1797. A period in which the entire world he'd lived in was coming to an end. Not only did the Venetian Republic give up its ghost with nothing more than a sad sigh in 1797 to Napoleon; not only was the aesthetic tradition in which his father had flourished being rejected and his father's once brilliant reputation cast into shadow; but, incapable of fathering any surviving children after a late May-December marriage, he knew the Tiepolo line itself was approaching its end. 

In the context of these endings, Domenico's Pulcinelli (the plural of Pulcinella)--characters from a theatrical form, the Commedia dell'Arte, which itself had been in serious decline since at least the 1750s--pursue headlong their high-spirited, often buffoonish and typically excessive pleasures.

I'll have more to write about Domenico's Pulcinella drawings and the Braziller book in an upcoming post, but for now (after writing more than I'd planned already), I'll simply say that somehow I've found that the Domenico frescoes (and now drawings) provide an interesting perspective on public spectacles in our own times. For the Pulcinelli, those awkward clowns tumbling heedlessly and at all costs after pleasure, were all about spectacle--if lacking in much sense.

The famously high-spirited bachelor was his usual boisterous self during his triumphal procession to the ceremony...
...but was the picture of earnest sobriety during the wedding beside his beautiful bride in her handmade gown.
The uninvited surrounded the route and settings of the gala festivities, hoping to catch a glimpse of high-octane glamor
And glamorous it was at the head table where...
...the groom, in spite of his A-lists guests all around him, only had eyes for his charming new wife
The wedding festivities went on for days, in the marmoreal splendor of palaces and in the open air
Until finally it was time for the groom to take leave of his most intimate guests and "the most romantic city in the world" and start his new married life with his lovely wife, dressed fashionably in bold vertical stripes

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fishing Nets in the North Lagoon, This Evening

                                         A fisherman transports a boatload of the stakes used to position the nets                  photo credit: Jen

Friday, September 26, 2014

Le Nozze di Clooney & the Isole in Rete Festival

One good celebrity snap could be worth more than a boatload of fish to this photographer idling near the Hotel Ciprianni
photo credit: Jen
Yesterday a local paper's headline announced that Venice was being invaded (invadano) by the guests for the George Clooney wedding this weekend, but I get the impression that the number of paparazzi, press and bodyguards (of which one paper claims no less than 400 were hired) outnumber the invitees.

The four days of private festivities begin this evening, according to reports, and continue through Monday. You need only google "George Clooney wedding" to have your choice of numerous accounts in every tongue so I won't repeat any details here. Venetians themselves seem amused by the elaborateness of the celebration. Jen told me that our husband and wife pair of butchers around the corner talked of nothing else this evening when she stopped in to pick up dinner, finding the subject so diverting that they even slipped into Venetian, so that their jokes were lost on her.

I saw one newspaper claim that there would be fireworks tomorrow night, as if it were a public festival (though it most certainly is not). You'd almost think Catherine Cornaro was about to hand over her queenship of Cyprus to the old 15th-century Venetian Republic. Or that the the bride and groom are scheduled to be carried on high around the Piazza after their nuptials, as the newly-elected doges once were, tossing gold coins to the clamoring masses.

Yet for all the publicity, and the procession of some sort on Monday that will close part of the Grand Canal for two hours at mid-day, this is supposed to be a very private affair. Images of the newlyweds and their guests are at a premium. As the couple has sold exclusive rights to photograph the celebration to one magazine, both guests and hired help will be forbidden to snap away with cell phones.

But that doesn't mean that photographers won't be lurking--and floating--in wait, as we discovered today just after noon in the course of taking a long way home from Sandro's school in our boat. From a distance the few small open boats appeared to be simply the usual fishermen you see around the lagoon on pretty much any afternoon. But these boats idled a short distance from the Hotel Ciprianni, where George Clooney and his more celebrated friends are said to be lodging, and the men in the fishing boats had telephoto lenses almost as long as their arms (as you can see in the top image) rather than poles.

The Clooney wedding isn't the only thing going on in Venice this weekend, though, and for those not invited to it (and even for those who are and who might find themselves with a bit of free time) the Isole in Rete festival, celebrating the culture, history and food of the various lagoon communities (from Altino and Mestre on the mainland to such islands as Burano, Certosa, San Giacomo in Paludo and more) is worth checking out. Information can be found here: 

photo credit: Jen

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

60 Big Celebs Speak Out Against Big Ships, Yet the Waters of the Controversy Remain Muddy

Sir Michael Caine was one of more than 60 celebrities who signed an open letter against big ships in Venice, but their letter leaves open the question of whether he, any more than many others, actually knows what's it all about (photo credit:
After receiving a fairly good amount of coverage toward the end of July for their open letter to Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi calling upon him to put an end to the "senseless devastation" of Venice by cruise ships I wonder what the 63 or so celebrity signatories are thinking about the latest plans for the lagoon.

What do Sir Michael Caine or Julie Christie or Nobel Prize-winning author VS Naipaul or Susan Sarandon or Michael Douglas and Edward Norton (both of whom have been designated "Messengers of Peace" by the UN) think about the plan to dredge a new deep water channel in the lagoon to accommodate the most monstrous of cruise ships (those over 96,000 tons)?

There's been no reaction by them to this potentially devastating plan. (About which I've recently written here:

And, in fact, no matter how often I reread the open letter itself I still can't make out the signers' position on two central issues about previous regulations on big ships that, after having been struck down by a regional court last spring, are being proposed once again.

1) Would the signers be content that there be no limit on ships under 40,000 tons passing by the Doges' Palace and through the Giudecca Canal?

2) Would they be satisfied that the number of cruise ships weighing between 40,000 and 96,000 tons that take that same route through the city should simply be reduced by 20%? So, for example, four rather than five huge ships would make that trip each day?

Here is the letter itself in full, as reported by England's Daily Mail (
 Dear Prime Minister, dear Minister,

Having prevailed against flood, pestilence, and war for more than thirteen centuries, Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, and unparalleled UNESCO Word Heritage site, now, in a moment of relative tranquility, finds herself mortally threatened by the daily transit of gargantuan ocean liners, indifferent to the probable risk of catastrophe.

Since the flood of 1966, Italy and countless Italian and international supporters have contributed to the defense of the world's most fragile city, eternally subject to destruction.

The absolute lack of respect presented by the outlandish spectacle of the ongoing obstruction and potentially destruction, of one of humanity’s pre-eminent monuments is not only dumbfounding but both morally and culturally unacceptable.
We urgently request an immediate and irrevocable halt to the traffic of the Big Ships in front of San Marco and along the Giudecca Canal putting an end to this senseless devastation.
As I've mentioned before, the reporting on this controversy in the English language press has been remarkably sloppy if not downright misleading. VENICE BANS BIG SHIPS more than one paper has blared, when, in fact, Venice (or Rome) has never done, nor even proposed, any such thing.

Those who read such headlines and happily imagine that never again will their sunset view of San Giorgio Maggiore from the molo near Piazza San Marco be obliterated by a parade of 4 huge cruise ships heading back out toward the Adriatic after 8 hours in Venice have it completely wrong.

As do those cruise lovers who panic at the thought that they've missed their chance to watch the legendary seat of a once-mighty Republic slide past beyond the bunions of their own outstretched feet as they lounge in a deck chair.

As I strain to discern the intent of the celebrity letter signers--certain only that VS Naipaul was definitely not the author of the missive, as he's never been known to be vague about his own opinions--I fix on the adjective "gargantuan". And yet it finally gets me nowhere.

How big is that "gargantuan"? Over 96,000 tons? Over 40,000 tons?

For all the letter's outrage about the threat to the great city of Venice, I really have no idea just what exactly the signers of the letter aimed to accomplish with it. And I wonder how many of the the 63 signatories actually did.

Are they on the side of those who want all cruise ships out of the lagoon?

Or are they essentially on the side of cruise industry?

The same industry that, contrary to what might have been expected, welcomed restrictions on the size of ships barging past the Doges' Palace--why, they'd volunteered to impose just such restrictions upon themselves! As long as a new route was dredged for the even bigger ships they planned on bringing into the lagoon. (

But I write this post less as a criticism of the celebrities' letter and subsequent absence of response to new developments in the controversy, than to express my ongoing astonishment at how masterfully and completely Paolo Costa's Venice Port Authority and the cruise industry have managed to set the very terms of the entire debate.

Newspapers everywhere have published images of protesters waving "No Grandi Navi" banners in pretty much every article about the banning of big ships in Venice, but the "ban" on "big ships"--whether the report is that is has been instituted, or struck down by a regional court, or re-proposed by Rome--has almost nothing to do with the intent of such banners. As much as one might either like to think so or hate to think so, such protesters have not gotten anything like their way. Their voice, in fact, can hardly even be discerned in the actual terms in which the debate has been framed and discussed. And continues to framed and discussed.

Indeed, part of me suspects that those of us who don't like the sight or idea of 33,000 ton, 60,000 ton or 90,000 ton (much less 124,000 ton) cruise ships barreling through the basin of San Marco (where two billboard ads on buildings under renovation look aptly like those those alongside a US freeway) have some reason to feel we've been played. That the slight reduction of traffic on that highway was always intended only as a concession to clear the way for a greater power play: the dredging of the deep water channel.

Or to put it another way: If the Port Authority and cruise ship industry have made a big show of letting a concession or two drop from one of their hands, have they done so only with the assurance that they'll be able to gouge out much more power and money with their other?

An environmental impact assessment of the proposed deep water channel is currently underway, but I'm not sure how much doubt there is about its likely findings. Or at least that, whatever the assessment concludes, the odds of the deep water channel being dredged anyway are fairly good. Indeed, Paolo Costa, President of the Venice Port Authority, former mayor of the city, and all-around power player, was recently quoted in a local paper as saying the dredging of the Contorta Canale was "the only solution."

This of course is blatantly untrue. In fact, a proposal for a new cruise ship terminal situated at the mouth of the Lido to the Adriatic--which would eliminate both the need for big ships to pass through the basin of San Marco and the dredging of a new deep water canal--was recently submitted to the Ministry of the Environment ( But given the Orwellian ingenuity with which Costa and those who share his interests have set and controlled the terms of the discussion, you can see why he and they might be feeling rather cocky these days about having their way with the issue.

For those who oppose the vision that Costa has for Venice, whether they're celebrities or not, it's important that they make some effort to be heard. There's a petition against the dredging of the canal here:

And if those 63 celebs really want to eliminate cruise ships from Venice they might seriously think about drafting another letter before the environmental assessment report on the Contorta Canale is due in early November.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Venetian Glass

It recently occurred to me that some of the most beautiful glass in the lagoon is the lagoon itself as it appears along the edge of Lido south of the Armenian monastery island. It's the calmest area of the lagoon I've seen so far; even the wake of a speeding water taxi there appears in evening light not as rough broken water but as a smooth molten swell and roll.

The surface of the water can be so mesmerizing, in fact, that while keeping a constant lookout for other boats as you steer your own it's quite easy to forget all about the long long peninsula of land to one side of you. This lapse of land awareness is a mistake, however, as I learned from the angry shouts and gestures of an elderly fisherman seated on the bank after I'd inadvertently driven over--literally above, really--his line.

Of course if you simply take a walk along the lagoon edge of the Lido, as you easily can, this hazard is nothing you need worry about. Though I could imagine stumbling into a fisherman seated low in his canvas sling chair while walking with my eyes fixed on the water. But the view is worth that risk.

                                                                                                                                                                     photo credit: Jen
                                                                                                                                                                     photo credit: Jen

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sanpierota Sunday

Yesterday afternoon, east of San Giorgio Maggiore: scenes of the Regata Coppa del Presidente della Repubblicca.

While I took photos, this was my driver