Saturday, March 30, 2013

Peeking In (and Back Out) at the Punta Della Dogana

The Grand Canal you probably recognize, but the strands of light bulbs are from the artist Sturtevant's work Felix Gonzalez-Torres, AMERICA AMERICA; part of the long-running exhibition In Praise of Doubt

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Visit to Ca' Barbaro

Fans of the 1981 BBC mini-series Brideshead Revisited will no doubt recognize this courtyard
This past weekend Fondo Ambiente Italiano sponsored a nation-wide series of open houses to call attention to the work they do preserving the cultural and natural heritage of Italy. In every region, from top to toe, and in Sicily and Sardegna, too, you could visit palazzi, churches, parks, that are typically not open to the public. Among the places opened up in Venice was Ca' Barbaro on the Grand Canal: once the home (or one of them) of the illustrious Barbaro family; then, from 1885 until the recent past, the abode of the American Curtis family, whose illustrious guests included Monet, Whistler, Sargent, Browning, and Henry James.

FAI was offering guided tours to Ca' Barbaro (in Italian), but in order to enter one had to sign up for a year's membership in the organization (39 euro for one person). I didn't think twice about doing it: it was a good cause and, after all, we are talking about Henry James here and the palazzo in which he finished writing The Aspern Papers, and which he used as the central setting in The Wings of the Dove. 

Some front doors are worth climbing any number of stairs to reach
No photography was allowed inside of the house, but I did happen upon three excellent photos of the interior on the following website, which I'd highly recommend taking a look at:

The top photo on the above page of the Slow Tours of Venice blog shows what was, first, the Barbaro ballroom, then, the famous salone of the Curtis family, depicted by John Singer Sargent in oil (at right) and by James in words.

The third photo from the top of the Slow Tours page is of the entrance hall of Ca' Barbaro. The entrance hall you enter after reaching the top of the external staircase in my photo above.
The view from just outside the entrance hall
The bottom photo of the Slow Tours of Venice blog page is of the red room in which Browning read from his last collection of poems shortly before his death just down the canal in Ca' Rezzonico.

The tour guide provided by FAI was excellent and enthusiastic about her subject (though she perpetuated the myth that James actually wrote The Wings of the Dove in Ca' Barbaro, which sounds good but isn't actually true), and the house was wonderful to see. My only disappointment was that the tour did not include the little library in which James once slept, and which he celebrated in one of the many letters he wrote from the palazzo (collected in a nice little volume, Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro, by Pushkin Press in 1998). This room is located directly above the salone, but was not included in the tour because it belongs to a separate apartment (and separate owner) from the piano nobile.

That owner, Patricia Curtis, is the great-granddaughter of the original American owners of the palazzo. John Berendt's book, The City of Falling Angels, devotes a chapter to her painful decision to sell the piano nobile of the palazzo. It also describes the library in which James slept, and concludes with a scene in which Ms Curtis's half-Venetian son, Daniel Pelligrini Curtis, speaks of his desire to reacquire the entire palazzo at some point in the future.

Sadly, Mr Curtis did not have the chance to do so. He died suddenly, in his 40s, of an aneurysm just a year after Berendt's book was published.

Which is perhaps why, while looking for images of Ca' Barbaro on the web, I found one of that library directly above the salone. It was, as you can see for yourself by clicking on the following link, on a real estate website: (link updated 13 June 2015).

There's a full gallery of images of the top-floor apartment of Ca' Barbaro, but just one of the library. And the real estate site makes no mention that Henry James slept there or sang its praises, or that it once--before the Barbaro line died out in the 1850s and the cultural treasures of the palazzo (including various Tiepolo paintings) were sold off by speculators--housed one of the great private libraries of the city.

It does, however, speak of its "enviable" location and the nearby "galleries and antique shops" in this "very select part of the city." Perhaps these are the only kinds of facts that will matter to its new buyers. But I hope not.

Looking toward the water gate on the Grand Canal
The door out to Campo Santo Stefano

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Venetian Faces 1

There are afternoons when I get on a vaporetto and feel like I've stepped onto a ride at Disneyland--the old Monorail, perhaps, or the Jungle Boat. Every single seat is occupied by a tourist, and while an individual tourist is an interesting as any other individual, an uninterrupted boatload of them is generally quite suffocatingly dull.

It's not really their fault. We must travel light as tourists; no matter how many bags we may bring along we leave behind our ordinary life: all those weighty things and daily demands we typically labor beneath. This is one of the great things about going on vacation--but it can make a mass of tourists feel, well, lighter than a mass of other folks going about their daily "real" lives, less individuated, less differentiated, less detailed.

Of course it doesn't help that in Venice a boatload of tourists is often a boatload of people poring hopelessly over maps, whose conversation is often necessarily limited to some version of the following: "Where are we now?" "We might be here." "No, I don't think so." "Wait, I'm pretty sure we just passed that place--whatever that was." "What do you think they did there?" "I don't really know."

In any case, when one steps onto a vaporetto full of Venetians, as one usually does in the early morning, it feels and looks quite different. It's a wonderful experience and one, I fear, that is becoming harder to come by with each passing year of declining and aging population.

But that's not something I want to think about right now... Better to post the above image taken this morning while Sandro and I were on his way to school, and marvel at what a wonderfully expressive instrument the human face can be. Why anyone would want to botox its capacities into paralysis is beyond me.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Love For Sale, Part 2: Crime & Self-recrimination

Someone should really stop them
I headed back to the Accademia Bridge late yesterday afternoon, still not quite believing--in spite of ample ugly evidence to the contrary--that the lock-selling business could be lucrative enough to support the three vendors I saw doing it on Wednesday.

I arrived to find no fewer than six of them plying the trade yesterday, and I'd barely began to absorb that number--an even half dozen!--when one of them actually made a sale.

What would vandals be without their indelible markers?
"Ten?" I heard a man respond incredulously to one of the salesmen's approach and I expected that he and his sweetheart would continue on their way. But whatever the salesman countered--which I didn't hear--stopped the two lovebirds in their tracks.

Now I was incredulous: How could they? Why would they? And while the business transaction moved quickly and furtively along I shot photos (also furtively), still not believing for some reason that those two tourists who, after all, looked sensible enough, would go through with something so-- Well, you fill in the blank. 

They took the marker, they stepped to the rail a few feet from me; I held the camera at arms length out over the canal and blindly snapped another pic, still not really believing that they'd actually attach that large lock to the bridge--and now also beginning to wonder vaguely, Should I stop them?

If I tried to intervene should I be indignant, should I step in as a representative of The Law and tell them it was illegal? Was it illegal, the lock-attaching part? I wasn't actually sure. Should I speak in Italian? English? I thought they were now speaking French but I couldn't hear them well enough to really know. Should I explain how ugly the damn things were? Wasn't that obvious?

Should I ask them if Venice was their only stop on this vacation or, like the Huns before them, were they planning to vandalize other cities as well?

No, I could simply talk to them as one rational person to two other rational people... unless, really, it was none of my business.

Perhaps it was none of my business... I did nothing, believing up to and even beyond the moment they attached the lock that they wouldn't attach the lock.

And, yes, as Susie remarked in her comment on the original post, they then threw the keys into the canal. I should at least have stopped that.  

I left the bridge after that and walked around, took some more photos, and grew more convinced that I really should have said something to them. I could have been polite about it. I didn't need to address them as gli asinini (to use that favorite term of the original Pinocchio) which part of me believed them to be acting like.

And so I learned that there were six men selling locks on that bridge for a reason, and that business, obviously, is not bad at all. And that, yes, it's disappointing sometimes the dumb things that people will do. But more troubling to me, finally, was what I didn't do.

For Part 1 on this topic:

And for other posts on the same subject:

And for the eventual solution to this problem:

The hard sell--but it didn't work
Hard bargainers: the boy didn't get the deal he wanted and walked off empty-handed

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Love For Sale: Accademia Bridge, This Afternoon

Lock seller on the Accademia Bridge

Perhaps the title of this post gives the wrong impression and I should say "symbols of love for sale," as actual prostitution would, in the long run, be less unsightly than what I saw being sold on the Accademia Bridge this afternoon.

Where and when did this fad of sweethearts scribbling their name on a lock and then defacing a bridge with it began? I know that it's certainly not an old Venetian tradition, as I don't recall a single lock on a bridge when I visited as a teen in the 1980s, nor do I recall a single lock on the Accademia Bridge when I used to cross it nearly every day for a month at the beginning of the '90s. Did it come from some Hollywood movie? A pop song?

locks on accademia bridge venice Whatever its origins, it no longer symbolizes anything to me besides petty vandalism. And of the least original sort, too.

Now, I understand that when we are in love we do stupid things and ridiculous things and even clichèd tacky things. I have perhaps done some of them myself (I'm not admitting anything here). And when we are in love we are also capable of the most obnoxious and narcissistic behavior, believing as we do at such times that--as the old Smiths' song memorably puts it--"the sun shines out of our behinds."

And perhaps if there was ever a time when only 10 or 20 locks adorned the Accademia Bridge they may even have been a bit "cute" and had the air of spontaneity about them. 

But now that there are 10- or 20,000 of them on the bridge and sunshiney-butted couples buy them from some guy with a magic marker whose night job is selling those glowing whirly-gig thingies in Piazza San Marco, it really is no longer even vaguely cute. It is stale and, yes, a stupid act of vandalism.

For please remember that Venice is a city groaning beneath such budget problems that students have to supply their own toilet paper in some schools. The city really doesn't need to direct funds to cutting off the thousands of locks that at some point really should come off. Unless the city--heeding the advice of an Italian politician who once said, "If you ignore a problem long enough it tends to resolve itself"--is simply to going wait for them to rust away.

I feel for the guy whose job it is to sell them, and who's just trying to scrape together a euro or two, but if the local authorities are going to allow this to go on, then perhaps we'll see the day when some clever entrepreneur sells small cans of spray paint to sweeties wanting to really leave their mark on the city. Actually, judging by the city's quantity of graffiti, perhaps some entrepreneur already does.

If lovers visiting Venice really feel the need to follow a path already laid out for them in expressing their love, may I suggest something taken from a movie I have actually never seen? The film is called A Little Romance, and though for all these years I believed Brooke Shields to be its ingenue star, a quick Google search just revealed to me that it was Dianne Lane. Laurence Olivier was also in it, and I believe it was he who advised the young lovers that if they were to kiss in a gondola beneath the Bridge of Sighs at sunset their love would last forever.

Now doesn't that sound more romantic than buying a cheap lock from some guy with a magic marker? Sure, a gondola ride may be insanely expensive, but lovers, after all, are supposed to be out of their minds.

For more on this topic: 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Arrivals, Santa Lucia Station

While many other parts of Venice have often been compared to stage sets, the railway station of Santa Lucia has a distinctly cinematic air. Having served as the setting for so many famous comings and goings in movies of all eras, maybe it's impossible for a railway station anywhere in the world to strike us in any other way. Whatever the reason, Santa Lucia is a good place to people-watch on a cold winter Saturday afternoon: the traditional setting for the start of so many new dramatic episodes, acts, adventures.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Blue Beacon, This Evening

A full day of rain and, as I type this, it hasn't stopped (or even slowed) yet. In fact, the forecast shows rain for the next week.

"Marzo pazzo," they say here, meaning the weather of this month is crazily unpredictable, mercurial. But in fact there are long stretches when it's madly consistent, monomaniacal even, and rain is simply what it's all about.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Grand Shuttered Ruin: Inside Palazzo Trevisan Cappello

With its richly-decorated facade of polychrome marble and porphyry, the late 15th-century Palazzo Trevisan Cappello is one of those rare private residences whose facade can almost compete with the surface grandeur of the nearby Basilica San Marco. Believed to have been designed by Bartolomeo Bon the younger, who was the initial architect of the Scuola di San Rocco, as well as of the Procuratie Vecchie in Piazza San Marco, the palazzo is also one of those buildings which nearly every visitor to Venice has seen, if not consciously noted. For located just a short way behind the basilica, and just down the canal spanned by the Bridge of Sighs, its ground floor has long been occupied by a glass showroom on one side, and a lace showroom on the other, both of which are reached by the same rather wide bridge.

There are occupied apartments on the topmost floors of the palazzo, but the piano nobile has been empty for quite some time. A friend told me that a little less than 10 years ago the latest owner of the palazzo had some elaborate plans to develop the property into extremely high end apartments, complete with the use of a private plane for intra-European jaunts. But those plans seem never to have gotten off the ground.

So the grandest floor of the building is still vacant of all but workmen--and, for a short time yesterday morning, of all but me. I had the unexpected chance to wander alone through the completely empty place, which seemed even larger than one might expect looking at it from the outside. Like many old Venetian residences that haven't been divided up into modern apartments, the dimensions of the space--the way one room leads to another, that one to another, that one to some dark narrow hall, that dark narrow hall to a tiny room situated at a slightly lower level--seem at a certain point to become fantastical, dream-like.

With almost all of the shutters closed up tight, and not a sound to be heard, you can almost start to believe that a particularly dark crooked blind hallway might, if followed, lead you into the depths of a maze from which there will be no easy or obvious or perhaps logical escape. Which is of course entirely irrational, for even in this infamously maze-like city buildings are limited in physical space; they don't just branch off from one dark shuttered room to another, to another, to another...

Do they?

Even if they give every indication of doing just that?

Alas, I didn't have all the time needed to find out. There were dark rooms and dark reaches I had to leave unexplored, and some I did see that were too dark to be photographed.

When I returned outside to the light of day and tourist bustle my shoes were coated with a soft fine powdery pale dust, like no other I'd ever encountered at a work-site, nor in our normal world of sunlight and open windows and comings and goings. Dust like that which must have settled upon Dickens's old Miss Havisham, I imagined, the almost immaterial residue of long idle empty decades.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Thinking of Spring on the First Day of March

The pensive-looking fellow above in bronze is Riccardo Selvatico (1849-1901): a Venetian-language comedic playwright and poet, the city's (Progressive Party) mayor from 1890-1895, and the original formulator of what would become the Venice Biennale. This sculpture by Pietro Canonica overlooks the entrance to the public gardens that leads directly to the main pavilions of his brainchild.

The pink-orange light of sunset two days ago gave the small clusters of tiny red buds behind him the appearance of flowers when, in fact, on closer inspection they look to be weeks away from flowering. Nevertheless I've been thinking of spring ever since--and now imagine that against such a backdrop, Mayor Selvatico, chin in hand, must have the same thing on his mind.