Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Afterlife of a Murano Glass Chandelier


A good friend who visited us in August asked me more than once for suggestions about what one should buy in Venice. He had to ask more than once because I never managed to answer him, though I knew very well what he meant.

He was asking about the distinctive Venetian product--the thing made only, or most famously in Venice. Of course he already knew what those were: glass and lace and masks, but he was thinking I might have some inside information to give him on where deals might be found on these items.

I didn't. I could refer him to a lace shop I knew whose owners were knowledgeable and honest, for example, but there are no deals on well-made lace or well-made glass or well-made anything actually made in Venice. 

So then he got desperate: How about ties? he asked me one day as we passed a shop displaying them in its window. I shook my head. They might be nice ties, but they'd likely be the same ones he'd find in Florence or Rome at a better price. I couldn't help him. I told him there really were no bargains left.

However, a couple of weeks ago I wondered if perhaps I found one: a particular one to be sure, a niche item, and not for everyone, but something.

About mid-way between the churches of San Francesco della Vigna and SS Giovanni e Paolo is a single antique shop with two storefronts on two perpendicular calle. One of its storefronts is near the end of the Calle Barbaria de le Tole; the other is about 10 meters around the corner on Calle delle Cappuccine. A small garden court leads from the backdoor of one to the the backdoor of the other. I'm not in Venice at the moment and remember nothing about the name of the place except the proprietor's first name, Valter. [Note added 13 December 2011: the name of the shop is: Valter Ballarin, Rigattiere in Venezia]

In any case, it was there that I bought the fondo of an old Murano glass chandelier. The fondo is the base of the chandlier, its bottom-most central element from which all its various parts branch up and out as the leaves of an artichoke emanate from its own fondo. There were all kinds of parts from old dismembered chandeliers for sale in the shop: sinuous floral pieces of various pale colors that some creative person could probably put to good use, for example. But the pink hand-blown element I bought, pictured twice above, had found second life as a tea light holder. 

It was not the only piece born again to such a use. But the other tea light holders were slightly smaller in diameter and had previously adorned the base of one or another chandelier's candles. Called coppetta, they also were beautiful: fairly shallow little cups, petaled like flowers, with a little hole at the center. 

Here was hand-blown glass at an affordable price: 15 euro is what mine cost me. 

I don't think it would have worked for my friend, who doesn't seem like a guy who has much time for candles of any sort, but we've really enjoyed our fondo. In a dark room a tea light at the center of this very slightly asymmetrical piece of blown glass transports one back to its creation 80 years ago or more. The glass takes on an almost molten appearance--which it never had when it was part of a chandelier--and it's easy to imagine that it's fresh out of the forno. One can imagine the artist spinning it into a bowl-like shape at the end of his or her long pipe, then pulling and crimping into existence its two rows of angled leaves. The glass is returned to the fire, at least on a small scale, and the viewer is returned to an ancient process carried out on a specific day by an anonymous artisan otherwise long forgotten. 

A coppetta that I later bought: made at least a century ago, the particular yellow of this piece was made with uranium--once a common ingredient in the glass factories of Murano. I was assured it was not radioactive.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

'Tis the Season: Acqua Alta


If I remember correctly, some of the worst acqua alta of last year occurred during December, so I know what's waiting for us when we return home from our two week visit to the States. But far away from Venice, one can find oneself missing even acqua alta. The above photo was taken after my son's pre-school's Christmas pageant, last December. As fun as the pageant was, I think he enjoyed splashing home just as much.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Update: Hello, Bridge of Sighs!


Two weeks ago I posted about the removal of the scaffolding from the Palazzo Ducale and noted that, however, the Bridge of Sighs had been newly covered. Well, the Bridge of Sighs has also been completely uncovered, all the scaffolding around it removed, and the view from the Ponte della Paglia is, once again (after three years), the famous one that even people who have never set foot in Venice (or cruised past it in one of those horrendous cruise ships) know so well.

One can get used to even the worst kinds of things, and so I guess I got used to all that scaffolding and the damned clouds and the wretched billboards and now that they are finally gone the bridge looks almost vulnerable, a little delicate. This is not a bad thing. I'd like to stand before it a long time and try to get a handle on how it looks to me now, in its natural state, so to speak, but I write this post from Chicago, Illinois and the photo above was taken Sunday, November 20, the afternoon before we left Venezia for a two-week visit to the States.  So any further consideration of the bridge will have to wait.

More generally, nearly every time I pass over or by the Ponte della Paglia, packed with tourists, I wonder what it is that everyone is seeing when they behold the famous Bridge of Sighs. I wondered this most of all when the bridge was just a bit of architecture visible amid all those clouds and billboards: looking rather like a fingernail clipping nearly lost upon a gaudy bedspread. But I found myself wondering the same thing when all that extra stuff was taken away as well.

Do people find the bridge beautiful in itself? Or is it the pathetic narrative evoked by Byron's designation of it that makes it such a must-see? Every guidebook tells us we should be haunted by thoughts of those pitiful wretches glimpsing freedom for the last time through its constricted windows on their way to their fate. Are we? Do we even pretend to be? Or by this time is the bridge--for most or many of us--simply a celebrated sight: famous for being famous? Can we even really see it anymore?

I wish I could ask all those people crowded on the Ponte della Paglia, snapping away, but it's not the kind of thing most people would want to be bothered with. And even if I did ask, could they really answer, just like that--put on the spot? I don't think I could. I can't even now.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Foggy Morning in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, Today

Condottiere in a blanket
Early morning appointment at Ospedale Civile and too much fog for the vaporetti to run, even with their radars. But it wasn't so bad, as Venezia in the fog is a lovely place.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Evening Market on Via Garibaldi, Tonight


A new green grocer recently opened on Via Garibaldi in a spot that had been vacant for a little less than a year and it's quickly become a favorite of ours and many other folks. I've found myself referring to it as "The Five Guys," as that is about the number of men who seem to run the place, but there may actually be one or two more.

I had started to believe (sadly) that soft persimmons (or cachi) were done for the year, as even the grocers at the Rialto had only mushy blotchy ones on offer today, but somehow the Five Guys still had a good stock of them tonight. (I have resisted the urge to devote an entire post to that most sensual of fruit, the persimmon, as I feared I might inadvertently veer into R-rated territory and I'm trying to keep this blog decent.) In any case, this fruit and vegetable market is a great addition to Via Garibaldi, worth checking out if you're in the neighborhood, and, as you can see above, has a pretty good view of Santa Maria della Salute as well.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Boy Wonder on the Grand Canal


Sandro's skills with a 35 mm camera are rapidly improving. Today he managed to take a picture of Jen and me that was well-framed and pretty much in focus--at least as well as I usually manage. But just as we were congratulating him on this--the three of us enjoying the perfect quiet beside the Palazzo Loredan dell'Ambasciatore--along comes the young marvel in the photos above and below (taken by me, not Sandro). And suddenly, much as I appreciated Sandro's developing ability with the camera, I found myself fantasizing about one day just a few years off when he'd be able to row his lucky parents (and no more than a few friends--we wouldn't want to overburden him) around in a gondola!


But it turned out that even gondoliere prodigies have their limitations. When it was time to turn off the Grand Canal into one of the side canals an adult took over. Gondolas really are quite huge--a gondola's oar is really quite huge in itself--and I was impressed the kid could maneuver one down Venice's own Broadway. But narrow side canals are even more of a challenge.

So much for my vision of Sandro rowing us around at the age of nine or ten... I'll have to keep working on my own rowing skills.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hello, Good-bye: Palazzo Ducale, Bridge of Sighs


Here's something that hasn't been seen for nearly 3 years: the southeast corner of the Palazzo Ducale. Finally, the famous early 15th-century sculpture of the drunkenness of Noah above the corner capital beside the Ponte della Paglia is once again visible to us all as a warning of the kind of embarrassment too much celebration can lead to. (Not that it's ever been heeded.) Also thankfully visible again: the second of the two older gothic windows with tracery that predate the 1574 fire--like an eye finally uncovered after a three-year-long eye-chart exam.

Gone, finally, are all those awful clouds--and all those even more awful ads, paid for by those awful advertisers who deserve only scorn and a lasting boycott for their participation in the defacement of what Ruskin called "the central building of the world."

Why can't more advertisers do this?
In fact, though the Venetian civic group 40xVenezia approached numerous advertisers about designing billboards more respectful of the buildings on which they are placed, only one company has responded to date: the kitchen design firm Scavolini.

You can see Scavolini's sensible effort to the left. It manages to suggest that the advertiser is a partner in the renovation of a valuable piece of history, instead of a vile cold-hearted opportunist preying upon La Serenissima's poverty to thrust himself upon her. If only more advertisers would follow the example of Scavolini...

In any case, that's the good news. The bad news, as you can see above, is that scaffolding has now gone up in front of the Bridge of Sighs. The fabric covering the scaffolding is transparent, instead of the usual opaque--and without ads! (at present)--but I imagine some visitors may be disappointed with this compromised view for the next, oh, 2 or 3 years. Though I'm not. I'd trade an obscured Bridge of Sighs for the departure of that gargantuan storm of ads any day.

Alas, when it comes to the Libreria Sansoviniana--praised by Palladio as the finest building since antiquity--there appears to be no similar trade-off in the works. The south face of that marvelous facade, the narrow side that so beautifully frames the Piazzetta as you cross the basin of San Marco in a vaporetto, is being covered with scaffolding. Okay, I thought, that must mean the billboard abomination right around the corner, on the library's long side, will be coming down.

Nope.

It appears that the south-eastern corner of the library will likely be subjected to the kind of wrap-around advertising that polluted the southeast corner of the Palazzo Ducale for so long. It's a shame, as it means that even from the Punta della Dogana the view of the Piazzetta is likely to be splatted with ads. 

And people used to think those filthy mobs of pigeons were bad! When it comes to defacement, man (especially in pursuit of profit) always and easily trumps beast.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Some Greetings in Italian & Venetian Best Avoided

A view from more linguistically innocent times: Sandro swinging off jet lag after our arrival last November
As was the case almost a year ago, when one of the first posts I wrote was about parolaccie, our son Sandro still seems to learn most of his Italian "bad words" from a certain classmate, the son of a gondoliere. This boy has something of a school-wide reputation--one mother we know has referred to him as maleducato (rude, ill-mannered), which I think is a little severe, as he only just turned 4. I tend to think of him as a little like Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio: that is, the original rambunctious head-strong wooden scamp, not the watered-down blandly-innocent Disney version.

Not all of this kid's words are actually bad, though, some of what Sandro picks up is just a bad idea, socially-speaking. For example, before the weather here turned cold we were eating on the upper deck of a double-decker restaurant/bus parked near the beach on Lido when a pair of young brothers familiar from the playground came up and greeted Sandro.

Sandro replied glibly with: "Ciao, puzzolenti!"

The boys, so sweet to begin with, turned away, looking troubled, and walked off. My wife and I, not recognizing the word Sandro used, had no idea what happened. Sandro, quite pleased with the exchange, offered no explanation.

When we got home and looked in the dictionary, we discovered the two brothers hadn't appreciated being addressed as "stinkies" or "smellies."

Nor, as Sandro would soon realize (after ignoring our warnings), do new acquaintances take warmly to being called "brutto" (ugly) or "cattivo" (bad). Though, as I noticed the other day, Sandro's friend still addresses other kids as all of the above and--for all his boisterous charm--only really manages to pull it off with his close friends, such as Sandro, who understand him.

But by far the worst form of address Sandro has employed was entirely of his own devising. One day as we walked into the city center Sandro was in a particularly gregarious mood. We'd pass this or that woman, or pair or trio of women, and he'd happily address some greeting to her or them that we didn't catch at first. We noticed it was only women he was addressing for some reason, but didn't know why until we finally understood what he was saying:

"Ciao, cocona!" Or "Ciao, cocone!"

This was actually rather shocking.

It's a Venetian word he learned during an August of swimming and bathing and running around naked with a female Venetian friend and classmate. It's the term Venetians use with children to refer to the vagina.

It, along with its male complement, pipoto, were, along with their referents, sources of great interest and amusement to a pair of skinny-dipping three-year-olds. No surprise in that. But that Sandro should, by a curious and cunning process of induction, decide to apply (and address!) the term to women he passed on the street...!

And thus began a new discussion whose underlying theme was that as great and exciting as it is to learn and use new words, it's also important to learn the proper context in which they might be employed--productively and without offense. 

It's such an interesting phase of language acquisition, contextual ramifications such as these, for anyone--not just kids--learning a new language. Such subtleties--each word's place within a social-cultural-historical web--are reminders of why the most truly poetic works of poetry can't really be translated.  

That's one way of looking at it. Another is simply that Sandro has, in just a year, become more crudely Venetian than we ever could have expected. After all, these are the extremely blunt people who still call the little area beside one end of the Rialto Bridge where prostitutes used to congregate "Fondamenta Traghetto del Buso"--or "of the hole".

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Postcard from Piemonte: Autumn

photo credit: Dario Cavallotto
For today only we will stray from Venice across Italy to the beautiful region of Piemonte, famous for its wine, truffles and hazelnuts. My cousin sent me this photo that he took yesterday morning and though autumn appears in Venice in its own distinct way--with some of the most beautiful sunsets of the year, for example--I couldn't resist posting it.

The photo was taken in the Quartino di Loazzolo, between the small villages of Cessole and Bubbio, not too far from the hometown of the great writer Cesare Pavese. We made our first extended stay in Italy, from March through May 2010, in Cessole, working for our room and board on an organic vineyard/farm/agriturismo B&B, while our son spent part of the day at a pre-school (which he loved) in the neighboring village of Monastero Bormida.

The slender trees with the white trunks in the background are young pioppi (poplars) that are planted around the Bormida River and harvested (I believe after about 10 years) to make paper. Another horizon line of mature pioppi with their green-yellow leaves are arrayed a little further back, before the view hazes off into the distant trees on the justifiably famous colline (hills).

The field in the foreground, plowed so clean, I'd find austerely beautiful in itself if it didn't remind me of a few particularly arduous days of labor: one interminable day we spent planting 200 young hazelnut trees, and two others on which we, blinded by sweat, buried legions of ocular potato bits beneath earth’s heavy lid in record April heat.

Yet even such trying days as those, as the poet Leopardi pointed out, ultimately become achingly sweet in retrospect, the vista soft and appealing as the photo above.