Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dangerous Elegance at La Fenice, Tonight

It's generally agreed that the most elegant way of arriving for a performance at La Fenice is by the water entrance at the back. But with tonight's extremely low tide--that left the theater's wood pier beyond the reach of any boat and the slimiest and most slippery of its steps exposed--it became easily the most hazardous.

Which I suspect makes La Fenice the only opera house in the world where a familiarity with the evening's tidal chart is at least as important as a familiarity with the night's libretto.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Pagans, Paduans, Soviets & "The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice"

"The Abduction of Persephone," Roman sarcophagus, 1st Century: Museo Correr
As we approach the year's end I hope I'll be forgiven for returning to a post I originally intended to put up at the beginning of November, shortly after my 31 October post on "The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice" (

The painting I referred to in the title of that post was done by the obscure Antonio da Negroponte in the middle of the 15th Century and hangs in the shadows near a side door of the church of San Francesco della Vigna in Castello.

It's the only known painting by Antonio da Negroponte, but as a loyal reader of this blog, Sasha, very helpfully shows, it's not the only known painting of what is called the Paduan school. He provides a number of other striking examples of this same theme as painted by others (such as Carlo Crivelli) associated with this school here:

Images of fruitfulness (and literal fruit) appear in virtually all of the examples Sasha presents, but none in such abundance as in Antonio da Negroponte's. The fecundity of da Negroponte's painting is one of the things I like most about it: that orchard in the background, the flowers all around, the wreath of fruit arching over Mary's throne. It's the most bountiful setting for the Virgin and Child enthroned of any I can recall seeing in Venice.

I think it was this abundance that inspired my wife Jen to remark in passing that there was something a little pagan about the work, and that the hovering presence of The Big Guy and the Holy Spirit added later and by other hands to the original work by Antonio da Negroponte was an attempt to bring this particular Mary back to her proper place within Catholic doctrine. To keep her from tilting a bit too much toward Demeter, the Greek goddess of (among other things) the harvest, whose presence one senses beneath the cult of Mary in Sicily, for example. 

Perhaps because I like thinking about Antonio da Negroponte's painting in these terms--and because what we find in art is often what we're looking for--it's probably no surprise that a couple of days later I came upon a similar depiction of fruitfulness in the Museo Correr (pictured at top). The fruit in this case, spilling from a two horns o' plenty, festoon the side of a 1st-century Roman sarcophagus. And depicted above the fruit is the abduction of Demeter's daughter, Persephone, by the god of the underworld, Hades.

This abduction of her beloved daughter sent Demeter into such a funk that the crops over which she had control withered and died. Demeter would eventually get her daughter back, but only for part of the year. And those months of each year that Demeter's daughter was condemned to spend with the god of the underworld were the unfruitful seasons of the ancient Greek (then Roman) calendar, while her daughter's return from the underworld coincided with spring.

In other words, like the story of Mary and her son, the story of Demeter and her daughter is one of death and the promise of rebirth--of a heavenly sort, in the former case, of a cyclical natural order in the latter.

Which made me think of another work in the church of San Francesco della Vigna, and another work I posted a photo of in early November. Not the Antonio da Negroponte altar piece, but the Sagredo family chapel, which, as you can see in the detail at right, is adorned with monochromatic wreaths of plaster fruit, much like the grapes, apples or pears that appear in marble upon the Roman sarcophagus. But in the Sagredo family Chapel, which is also, after all, the family mausoleum, the wreaths also contain pomegranates, bursting open in their ripeness to show the seeds eaten by Perspehone; each one of which (six in all) would doom her to another month spent each year in the underworld.

So there you have how The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice is linked forever in my mind with both Paduans and pagans--as well as how the Sagredo family chapel is linked to a Roman sarcophagus in the Correr.

But where, you may ask, do the Soviets come in? The answer to that takes us back to the always informative Sasha, who noted in a comment when I first posted the above photo of the Sagredo family chapel (6 November) that:
Such pieces were an inspiration for the masters of Stalin's Barocco - in the years of scarcity they molded plaster very skillfully into cornucopie overflowing with fruit, a lot of public spaces of the period were - and some still are - decorated with the images of excess.

Totalitarian art is supposed to be more restrained and heroic, mounds of Earth's bounty gave the Stalin's Barocco a feel of a more epicurean Utopia.
 Alas, Stalin's Baroque ultimately had more to do with doom than with bounty.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Buying a Christmas Tree in Venice

The boy rode the scooter to school, the Christmas tree rode it home
"We need a mototopo," was the first thing Sandro said after agreeing that we should buy a Christmas tree on our way home from his school last week. A mototopo is one of the very long work boats you see carrying pallets of groceries, or a mountain of bulging hotel laundry bags, or wheel barrows, cement and other construction materials around the city.

Sandro has become very Venetian in that he truly, fervently believes that everything one needs to do should be done in one's own boat, and that for every job or even errand there is an appropriate boat.

I told him that a small outboard motor boat would be plenty big enough for the size of tree we could fit into our living room, but he brushed this off. I was missing the point. He announced: "Nonno Pietro (the grandfather of his friend) would use a mototopo."

"But he has a trasporti business," I replied. "We don't even have a small boat of our own."

Which, blatantly true though it is, was still the wrong thing to say.

"Ahhhh," he began, slipping into the whiney pleading reserved by other kids in other locales for kittens or puppies or bunnies, "when are we going to get a boat? We need a boat..."

I assured him the vaporetto would work perfectly well for the tree we were going to buy. Again he looked at me like I was clearly, stupidly missing the point, but I cut him off before he could get started again: "Talk to your mother about it," I told him, "okay? We just need to get a tree today."

There aren't really many places to buy a Christmas tree in Venice. Florist shops often stock a couple, and that's where we bought a tree--actually, a prickly little evergreen bush--the first Christmas we were here.

There's a large tree lot set up for the season on the edge of a park on Via Sandro Gallo on Lido--and that's where we bought our tree last year.

And there's the well-known seasonal lot beside the Church of San Felice on Strada Nova where we bought our tree this year.

Coming from New York, where fresh tree lots crowd the sidewalks all over the city, I was initially surprised that there were so few places to buy trees here. But the fact is, while practically every Venetian we know has a tree (some have two), they are all artificial. There's probably some cultural significance in the contrasting preferences of Venetians for artificial trees and most New Yorkers for real ones, but I'll leave that as a subject of rumination for someone else. It's the holiday season, there's too much else to be done.

I wonder if at some point Sandro himself, influenced by the traditions of his classmates and friends, will himself suggest that we buy an artificial tree.

In any case, lacking not only a mototopo but even the humblest of personal boats, we transported our tree con radici (with roots; that is, potted) on Sandro's scooter to the vaporetto stop at Ca' d'Oro, and on the vaporetto home.

To my great relief, we were early enough in the afternoon that the vaporetto was not crowded, and Sandro was so excited to have the tree--though it may not have been exactly the right type by most Venetians' standards--that he didn't complain about the totally inappropriate manner in which we were transporting it home.

I considered this an early gift.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Fog City: 2 Photos Just Taken (1:30 pm) off the S. Zaccaria Stop

In case you're wondering what it's like in Venice this afternoon, my answer would be sublimely foggy. And here are two photos fresh off the memory card as evidence.

La Dogana is barely there, but Giudecca has disappeared completely

Monday, December 17, 2012

Ponte Rielo, This Evening

In contrast to Campiello de la Cason, which I posted about last week, Ponte Rielo can be fairly said to lie "off the beaten track", located as it is far from the popular routes between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, and tucked away among the more inconspicuous and enclosed pockets of calli (and locals) in Castello. 

Of course to many of the Venice lovers who visit websites devoted to the city the bridge is likely to be well-known--I have no hope of surprising the cognoscenti!--but it's easy enough to never pass this way even if you live in Castello. Though not far off one end of a major thoroughfare, it still requires a conscious effort to be found--I lived here a year before I happened upon it--which I leave to those with the time and inclination to do so. I think it's worth it.

A view from the other side of the bridge

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Campiello de la Cason, This Afternoon

Campiello de la Cason is not really off the beaten track--as it's just a short way from the bustling start of the Strada Nuova in Campo dei Santi Apostoli--yet every time I happen through it I'm struck once more by its air of being a singular place apart from the rest of the city.

Today, as we walked home from his school, Sandro and I found that repair work on a nearby bridge has turned the campiello into a cul de sac rather than the through-way it usually is. Which seemed to give me license to linger, while Sandro attentively watched two men repairing the low roof on the yellow building at the left of the above photo.

But as Yoga Berra used to say, it gets late early around here these days, and as the sun meekly retired and a cold harsh wind punched in not even the campiello's charm or any work left to do on the roof could keep us or the workman around. 

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, as the song says--at least in the upper windows of this palazzo

Friday, December 7, 2012

Faith, Motorboats and T-shirts

If you pay much attention to the smaller private motorboats of Venice--or if, like me, you have your attention directed toward such motor boats on a regular basis by a very interested family member (my son, in my case)--you can't help but notice that a lot of the outboard motors go about casually clothed. In ill-fitting T-shirts, usually, as for example, in the photo above. Though I've also seen one in the Canareggio canal wearing a Lazio soccer jersey.

About a year ago I read an explanation of this phenomenon on a blog, but it wasn't very convincing. In fact, even the author of the blog seemed skeptical of his source, who told him that boat owners dressed up their motors in this way to deter theft. If I remember correctly, the blogger wondered understandably enough how much obstacle a thin T-shirt would present to someone who, according to his source, was intent on opening up the outer shell of a motor to remove some valuable part from inside.

Recently, in the course of a jouncing heaving ride home from my son's school, I asked the Venetian father of one of Sandro's classmates about the T-shirt worn by the outboard motor on his own small craft. He offered three explanations:

1. Its purpose is to protect the motor from scratches and the elements.

He offered this explanation as we were just getting underway on our trip homeward, with the kind of vaguely embarrassed smile that suggested to me that he himself seriously doubted its validity. He explained it as an agnostic might explain a minor act of faith in which he essentially had no belief but continued to perform out of habit--just in case it might somehow, magically, offer some benefit.

Perhaps because I looked as unconvinced as he himself, he offered a second:

2. It is to deter theft.

But not in the sense of acting as an obstacle to anyone wishing to open the casing of the motor, but in the simpler sense of concealing the make and size of the motor. Thieves, he said, had particular types of motors they were looking for. They also, understandably enough, did not have the luxury of perusing their potential targets at leisure. The T-shirt prevented the thieves from seeing at a glance--as, for example, they cruised past in their own boat--if the motor on this or that moored boat was what they were looking for.

Now we were well underway on our trip, in the broad busy canal running alongside the Fondamente Nove and my interlocutor could really open it up here, in spite of the traffic and its countless wakes, and he did--much to the delight of our sons, who roared and guffawed as spray flew and so did we.

He then offered a third explanation, entirely in keeping with the piratical spirit of the moment:

3. It is to prevent police from identifying the boat.

The T-shirt conceals all identifying marks on the motor--model, horsepower and anything else printed by the manufacturer--and this, he said, makes it harder for the authorities responsible for enforcing speed limits in the the lagoon to ticket you for exceeding them.

He immediately added, as if to forestall any possible disapproval,"And it's not even legal the way they catch you!"

They use radar guns, he explained, which are forbidden to be used outside of zones where their use is clearly posted. But they break the law and use them everywhere in the lagoon, wherever they want. They take a photo of the speeding boat and then one day its owner, with no warning, finds a ticket and a fine waiting for him in his mailbox at home.

But obviously, I objected, they're identifying the boat by the license number each boat is required to wear on its side, not by the type of motor.

Yes, yes, he conceded, but sometimes that license number doesn't show up so clearly in the photo, and if that's the only thing they have to go on (because you've concealed all identifying marks on your motor), you can argue that the boat is not yours at all, that they've made a mistake, and get out of the ticket.

I found it hard to believe you'd get very far with what seemed to me like a pretty lame argument, but he looked so pleased with the idea of its success that I said nothing. After all, what do I know about the Italian legal system, aside from the highest profile cases in which people clearly convicted of the most serious crimes--for example, former Social Democrat Prime Minister Andreotti--escape their penalty because the statute of limitations has conveniently expired?

Besides, he added, if the cops are breaking the law, using radar when they're not supposed to, then we have to do whatever we can to try to get an even break.

And my source--who was no sly pompous gondolier or taxi driver (professions notorious in Venice for skirting the law), but a slender soft-spoken 30-something Venetian who'd spent years in India studying Tantra--smiled with a certain boyish air of helpless innocence, and I found it impossible to offer another objection or say anything else that might undermine his tenuous, perhaps far-fetched, but persistent faith in his own ingenuity, which in the tricky seas of Italy (and elsewhere) is sometimes the only thing that keeps any of us afloat.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

2 Snaps from the Trip to School This Morning

Babbo Natale leads the way
When the cold clear days of winter reveal the snow-covered Dolomiti, Venice seems to become another city than the one you thought you knew, and the lagoon itself seems altered

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Another World

Sandro pauses to check out the bassa marea (low tide) on his way home from school recently. A way home from school that bears no resemblance to the one I took growing up in California, that his mother took in Iowa, or that he would have taken in his birthplace of Asheville, NC or in our previous home in Brooklyn, NY.

The fact that after two years here such surroundings as these have all become so natural and normal to him only serves to make them even stranger to me.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Art and Truth on Canale Scomenzera

The first time I noticed the life-size tank and giant pair of hands on the side of Canale Scomenzera, on the busy fondamenta at the western end of the Santa Marta section of Venice, I was disappointed not to have a camera with me and was sure it would be loaded onto a barge and hauled off any day. From what I could see it didn't appear to be an especially interesting piece of art, really, but the novelty of seeing it in the middle of a dock usually given over to construction materials and gravel and garbage barges endowed it with a certain interest.

That was over a year ago.

Soon after I first saw it, I'd periodically think that I really should make a point of going to take a photo of it before it disappeared--but I never did. And when I happened past it on a vaporetto, on the way to Piazzale Roma, say, I either never had a camera with me or, if I did, the tank and giant hands were entirely hidden by a load of grocery crates or something.

And the longer it remained in the same place, amid all the practical or industrial and non-aesthetic stuff of the fondamenta, the more my interest in it faded.

Only last week, as we returned home on a vaporetto from a trip to the Dolomites, did I finally happen to get a photo. And only today did I finally find out what the work is--or was.

It's by the artist Lorenzo Quinn (son of the actor Anthony), and was featured in the 2011 Biennale in two places: first, floating upon a raft moored off the island of San Servolo and, then, on the dry land within the Italian Pavillion.

There were originally five life-sized toy army figurines that went with it, but they appear to be MIA from the work's present site on the fondamenta of Canale Scomenzera. You can read all about the work, and see it in its original and complete form, here:

The illustration of the article above shows that the giant hands used to have the coloring of caucasian skin, but that pigmentation seems to have been washed away over the course of the work's extended exposure to the elements.

I wonder what the story is behind the work's apparent abandonment on the docks of Santa Marta. It couldn't have been cheap to fabricate it, and contemporary art of that size generally has a pretty hefty price tag. 

And what about that green garbage barge with the provocative name of Veritas (in the photo at top) that happened to be moored near the work on the day I took the photo? 

What kind of irreverent philosopher, or iconoclast, or perhaps even misanthrope, gives the name of Truth to the waste management department for the Veneto?

If one of the defining aims of much contemporary art after Marcel Duchamp was to show that in the context of a gallery or museum even the most ordinary objects can become aesthetic objects of contemplation or "art", perhaps the inverse is also obviously true.

That outside of the curated venues of the Biennale, abandoned to the elements of the workaday world, the Truth is that even the most technologically-advanced of fabricated aesthetic objects becomes merely--well, becomes merely garbage. Just another thing taking up space on a dock with too little of it anyway. Of interest, finally, only in its minimal usefulness as a surface to lean the broken rudder of a boat against.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In a Fog, Last Night

Palazzo Pisani-Moretta was lit up red last night for some kind of private festivity
All was quiet at the land entrance to Ca' Barbaro, though far too brightly lit for the ghost of Henry James I was hoping to find
At 11 pm the fog really began to take over

Friday, November 23, 2012

Festa della Salute, Part 2: Keepers of the Flames

The thing about the Festa della Santa Maria della Salute is that no matter how tall the candle you buy it's unlikely to have a chance to burn for more than half an hour.

The size of the crowds simply make a longer life and what might be called a natural demise (or self-extinguishing) impossible.

For a great crush of people presses into the church at the peak periods of the festa, each clutching at least one candle, and there are only so many candle holders available. Basic math dictates the turnover will be great.

And this is where the youths depicted in the photos of this post come in. With infinite patience, in the narrow space between the agitation of the suppliants and the heat of the flames, they take and light each proffered candle. And when every holder is filled, they snuff them just as deftly, remove them, scrape the accumulated wax off the surface of the large table beneath the holders, and start the process all over again.

I found myself watching them for a long time, fascinated by both the intensity of the candle light and of their focus; marveling at these servants within the sanctuary, reminiscent partly of fast-food employees, partly of saints.    

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Festa della Santa Maria della Salute, This Evening

Almost as important as the vendors of candles at this festa are those of balloons; no Venetian child goes home without one.

The crowds and traffic on Rio Terrà ai Saloni extended to Fondamenta Zattere

The view down Rio Terrà dei Catecumeni

If the Venetian Republic could be said to have had a "state religion", this was its primary sacrament: a profitable transaction.

In the background is Titian's painting of the Pentecost, with each disciple being lit like a candle by the Holy Spirit

The day after tomorrow (Friday) I'll post more photos of the all-important candles inside the church--and those seemingly indefatigable youths who tend to them.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Greetings from...

We've been here in Cortina D'Ampezzo since Thursday with almost no internet connection--which is rather nice--so please excuse the absence of posts. We return to Venice tomorrow or Monday. But lest anyone think I've abandoned the theme of this blog check out the picture below. It's not your typical depiction of the lion of San Marco: in fact, I've never seen the beast bear such a striking resemblance to William Shakespeare. But it is another reminder of how very diverse were the holdings of the old Republic.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Festa di San Martino Nocturne & 3 Songs

At my son's small Waldorf pre-school (or asilo steineriana, as it is called here) the Festa di San Martino is a nocturnal one and lanterns made by the students in class replace the clanging pots and pans of the usual daytime celebrations in Venice--an example of which you can see here:

The use of lanterns is typical of German celebrations of the holiday, but the plan this year at my son's school was to incorporate a distinctly Venetian element into the procession with the use of boats. I was going to be one of a few parents who would row the students--who'd be singing the songs you see below and shining their lanterns--in three traditional wood boats (specifically mascarete) along the canals of Canareggio.

The weather, however, did not cooperate. There were high winds and rain throughout most of the day and, though both had diminished somewhat by the later afternoon, the weather as evening approached was still too wet and windy to make the prospect of a boat ride very appealing (or safe).

So I didn't end up with any photos of the boats as I'd hoped, and the large enclosed garden in which the kids walked and sang was so dark as to make picture-taking almost impossible--as you can see above.

But, well, I can offer you the songs below, so that any of you who may be in Venice for next year's Festa di San Martino can be fully prepared to join the singing--as, incidentally, my son almost never does.

Alas, aside from Lucio Battisti's "La canzone del sole", Sandro's favorite song to belt out is one he learned from a friend whose family has lived in the lagoon for nearly 1,000 years--about a grandfather with uncontrollable flatulence.

Nella nebbia fitta fitta, ogni bimbo ha paura
Anche il cielo si oscura e la notte presto vien
Se mi trovo per la strada, io accendo il lumicino
Che il prode San Martino ha donato ogni bambino
San Martino, cavaliere, ti ringrazio per la luce
Che per strada mi conduce e mi illumina il cammin

Nell’ampio cielo le stelle brillan come fiammelle;
io, piccolo bambino quaggiù,
rivolgo gli occhi al ciel lassù.

Io porto la mia lanterna, la porto sempre con me
In cielo brillano le stelle e qui Lei arde per me
Col lumicin io vo’ in cammin, rabimmel rabammel rabum
Ad uno ad uno ce ne andiamo piano piano
Su bimbi a casa torniam, su bimbi a casa torniam.

Lanterna che brilli nella notte scura
Dimmi dove andare, dimmi dove andar
Senza luce nel buio, non posso restar
Lanterna, lanterna.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

After the Storm, San Marco

photo credit: Joe Lay
As I post this we are actually right in the middle of a storm, so the title is wishful thinking at this point.

Two weeks ago we had the highest acqua alta in two years (140 cm above sea level). This morning it has been even higher: 150 cm, for those of you keeping score at home (as they used to say on radio broadcasts of American baseball games).

Not knowing the state of things this morning, Jen and Sandro went to Via Garibaldi to find that their normal rain boots were not high enough for the waters there--which had, in any case, closed all of the stores that are usually open for a few hours on Sunday morning. In Piazza San Marco a little flat-bottomed sandolo would be the only good way to get around. Though, actually, the water is so deep a motor boat would also work.

The photos above and below were taken by a visiting friend near the end of September, after one of those sudden late afternoon storms that can seem so refreshing in late summer and early fall. Today's storm is a low gray one, and gives little hope of concluding with such dramatic lighting. I think we'll be looking at a dim early sunset today, when the sun, who really hasn't bothered to get out of bed today anyway, simply burrows deeper under the cover of clouds and calls it an early night.

But we're going to a San Martino Festa this evening, so perhaps something will come of that. We'll see--and hopefully I'll get some photos so that you will, too.

photo credit: Joe Lay