Monday, October 31, 2011

Dolcetto o Scherzetto! (Treat or Trick!)

Halloween is not an Italian holiday but it has been adopted to a limited extent in Venice and, because it involves a lot of elements that Italians like--ie, costumes, sweets, and kids on the loose--I suppose throughout most of the country. But here, trick-or-treaters don't go from house to house or apartment to apartment, but from shop to shop, as the kids will soon do for the upcoming Festa di San Martino on November 10.

Of course not everyone here is happy about Halloween's growing prominence. The Church of San Martino near the Arsenale posted a very stern notice--two actually, side by side--on the bulletin board in front of their door stating that they would have nothing at all to do with the holiday and its costumes and jack-o-lanterns and candy and other impious nonsense. On the evening of October 31 they would be saying a rosary for the souls of all the departed.

And so they were, murmuring their way from bead to bead, when our sugared-up son and his school friend, fully-costumed and toting maniacally-grinning pumpkin bags filled with their hauls of candy, decided that the best place to stop and goof off and break into ear-splitting banshee screams was directly in front of the open church door.

It's almost as if they took the church notices as a challenge. But as neither of them is yet four years old, and neither can read, it must have just been instinctive primal hooliganism.

Of course we told them to keep it down and hurried them along, but I did so with a very rare sense that at least for a couple of minutes all was right in the world. The Church had done its part and announced what it considered appropriate activity on such a significant night and the pre-schoolers had done theirs and spontaneously flouted that same activity con gusto.

For piety needs impiety to feel itself to the fullest, just as impiety needs piety to really have any fun.

Now in this sense the ostensibly pious have it better these days than ever: they need only turn the computer or television or radio to buck themselves up. Their ancestors might have had to leave their house, or at least look out the window.

While the poor would-be impious of the Western world...! Their case is almost hopeless. When everything and everyone is relentlessly telling you to indulge your appetites and cravings it becomes hard to even recognize those appetites as your own, or as yourself. The only truly transgressive act is to become an ascetic.

But last night at San Martino with the barbarians--or pagans--running wild at the door of the church it all balanced out perfectly, as it so rarely does anymore. I hope at least one cranky churchgoer, or maybe the priest, caught sight of the costumed racket at the door and benefitted from its contrast to his or her own focus. And though neither my unlettered son nor his friend could appreciate the dynamic, I could and did. I considered it my very own Halloween treat.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chapel of Sant' Atanasio in Church of San Zaccaria, Today 11:30 am

Among the paintings: an altarpiece of Mary enthroned by Palma il Vecchio that stood in for Gio Bellini's masterpiece in the main church while it was detained for 20 years in Paris, and a crucifixion by Anthony van Dyck above the exit

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Venice Biennale: The Future of a Promise, Pan-Arab Exhibition

At a certain point in the 20th Century it seems it became fashionable for certain cognoscenti to announce: Painting Is Dead. Then in the 1980s it was "miraculously reborn" as an obscenely lucrative medium, complete with its own latter-day de Koonings and Pollocks self-consciously mimicking the heroic days of those masters, and it was no longer so important--or even advisable--to assert its passing. Some people still do, of course, but as long as there's an international market for it it's not imperative to do so.

I was never qualified to make such a pronouncement and no one, not even myself, cared what I thought about Painting's viability. And, besides, as I have a sister who's a painter how could I take pleasure in the thought of its passing? But I must confess that recently during one or two of my grumpier days as I walked through this or that Biennale pavilion I was surprised to find myself sympathizing--and completely!--with those who talked of its demise. In our media-saturated age how could ancient old toothless Painting, depending entirely on so many now-familiar motifs and strategies, possibly still reach us?

Then I saw the work Al Maw3oud by the Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki and was reminded how.

Painting could still be monumental and striking, complex and suggestive of any number of contradictory ideas all at once. Instead of seeming like the oldest medium on display it could seem like the freshest and most immediate. At least to me.

detail of Al Maw3oud
But, then, there are a number of striking pieces, in different media, on display in The Future of a Promise. Another, by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, struck me as having far more to suggest about one of the defining myths of America--and its reality--than any of the momentarily eye-catching and costly pieces in the American pavilion which, finally, I can only describe as high concept, low impact.

At first sight, I thought Mater's The Cowboy Code was nothing more than a homey American needlepoint sampler recreated on an absurdly massive scale.

But then I stepped up close to the piece and discovered the entire thing was composed of the plastic ammunition discs for a toy cap gun, as you can see below.

It's a dark witty piece that, unlike a number of other works in the Biennale, does not stop at wit, at a knowing punch line. I find myself thinking of the piece still, days later.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Last Look at Summer: Fisherman

My friend and neighbor, who has lived here all of his nearly 70 years, remembers swimming right off of Sant' Elena (where this fisherman is set up) when he was a boy. He also remembers, as an adult, when dead fish started showing up in great numbers on the surface of the very same water. The quality of the water is somewhere between those two states now and you can eat the fish you catch in the lagoon. Though I doubt it's a great idea for children or pregnant women to do so, or for anyone else to do so too often. But you'll need to get a fishing license before you cast your line (or lines), and these days you'll need a lot more clothing; this pic is from late August.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Rowing in the Venetian Style

 The calm before the struggle: the caorlina of my first rowing experience
photo credit: Nicola Capuzzo

Yesterday morning I made my second try at rowing Venetian style, standing up, facing forward, with an oar that's longer than the average New York City studio apartment is wide.

After the first attempt, made one week before yesterday, I was convinced I would have made a terrible galley slave. It's not a position one associates with a lot of job-training, but rowing in time with others is much harder than it looks in those old Hollywood biblical epics.

The first challenge a novice faces is getting the hang of the particular wrist movement needed to position the oar correctly: that is, horizontal to (and out of) the water as you move it into the forward position, then vertical to (and in) the water as you push into the stroke.

Well, actually, let me back up. The first challenge a novice faces is stepping into--and staying inside--the boat. The first boat I went out in was a caorlina (a rather large and heavy boat with places for six rowers, as used in the regatta storica) and I was told to step only on the thin ribs that spanned its bottom, not on the broad inviting and much more stable open spaces between the ribs. I didn't ask why, I was too busy trying not to fall out. But it's a comfort to the novice to see that even expert rowers move quite gingerly aboard the boats. In fact, even the two cats belonging to the remiera, or rowing club, moved very carefully around the neighboring boat they were exploring.

In any case, once you're in the boat, and have properly positioned your very own forcola (or carved oarlock) in its designated opening in the side of the boat by hammering little wedges of wood around it, you must concern yourself with that wrist rolling I mentioned. Just before pushing forward with the roughly 12-foot-long oar into each stroke you must roll both wrists back as you would roll just your right wrist if you were riding a motorcycle and wanted to increase its speed. You must also dip the oar into the water. The latter action is of course obvious. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Especially when the lagoon is wavy in the wake of one infernal vaporetto after another and the surface of the water, or the boat's position on it, is no longer where it's supposed to be.

The Remiera Francescana is located near the Celestia vaporetto stop within the Arsenale, and after a bit of warming up in one of that massive old structure's placid basins, we headed out into the lagoon in the direction of Murano. I recalled noticing on my way to the remiera what a beautiful early morning it was, with the Dolomiti clear and brilliant beyond the western edge of the lagoon, but once I was in the boat I might as well have been rowing inside a small dark barn. My eyes were fixed on the end of my oar, to be certain it was how and where it was supposed to be at every moment. In fact I was supposed to be watching my friend just ahead of me, at the front of the boat, and rowing in time with her. Almost impossible, no matter how I tried to utilize peripheral vision. I considered it a great triumph to be rowing at all.

Something like a pupparino
I had the distinct suspicion by the time we reached Murano that I had contributed very little in the way of actually propelling us toward that destination, but that didn't stop me from feeling a certain pride when we tied up the craft beneath curious tourists' eyes and popped into a cafe for a quick espresso. Once on land no one can tell what a drag you may have been in the water, and my co-rowers were much too encouraging and polite to mention it.

Yesterday, however, I was much better. And the conditions were much worse. Initially, my improvement seemed to make up for the high winds and rough water, but as I tired Nature (as it or she always will) got the upper hand.

Yesterday I went out with just three others--two experienced rowers and one novice like myself--in a pupparino. "Pupparino!" my fellow (but more knowledgeable) novice rather anxiously exclaimed when our instructor told us what boat we'd be on. A pupparino, I learned, is a smaller, lighter, shallow-hulled boat, in which the possibility of capsizing seems to come into play much more than it does in a caorlina. Imagine a dry leaf tossed upon a rough-running river and that was a little like our pupparino yesterday. 

Rowing into a strong head-wind, on a lagoon just barely lacking whitecaps, we got nowhere near Murano yesterday. But the issues with hand and oar position that obsessed me my first time out vanished--to be replaced by others involving leg position. Yet it was, nevertheless, infinitely easier. I was at the very front of the boat and was able to get into what seemed to be a regular rhythm. And when I switched positions with the woman behind, I was even able to follow her movements rather than being obsessed with the end of my oar.

And there, all around us, was the Venetian lagoon! There, beside us, was the cemetery island! And then, thankfully, there, right there, at last, after our strenuous jaunt, a venerable archway of the once mighty Arsenale welcoming us back! Which, I must admit--the water all wild with wind and waves and the wake of a water taxi--we actually crashed into just a bit before passing safely inside.

But neither boat nor arch were damaged, everyone remained standing and dry, and it was probably the first assault upon those old walls in many years. Sore as my muscles are today, I can't wait to get out on the water for a third time. After two outings as a guest, I've decided to sign up as a member of the remiera and, amazingly enough, I think they'll actually let me.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Venice Biennale: Ukraine Pavilion Part 2 (San Fantin)

A dark rainy day like today was the perfect time to see Oksana Mas's work in the beautiful (and usually closed) church of San Fantin.

You can read about and see images of other parts of Mas's massive work (including close-ups of the 1,000s of wood eggs that make up the works), as displayed at San Stae, here:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chiesa San Martino Tonight, 8:45 pm

In the course of trying to take this picture I realized how oppressively well-lit parts of Venice are: high-powered floods, even a surveillance camera or two. Perhaps it's just because this area is around the Arsenale with its active military presence, but it's no longer the gloomy Venice of Donald Sutherland's and Julie Christie's Don't Look Now. At least not in this campiello.