Monday, March 31, 2014

Ruskin's Irregularities

One of the defining features and great virtues of Gothic architecture, according to John Ruskin, that champion of Venetian Gothic, was its irregularity. I find myself thinking of this when I see the work being done in the lagoon to the west and a bit north of Venice, pictured above. They are creating a vast new barena, one of those islands submerged during the highest tides, exposed during low ones, that were once a common feature throughout the lagoon.

In their succinct and immensely informative book The Science of Saving Venice, Caroline Fletcher and Jane Da Mosto talk more precisely about mud flats and salt marshes (rather than my more general term barena) and note that they "are down to a third of their extent since the end of the 19th century," while approximately "20 percent of the lagoon's plant and 50 percent of its bird species have disappeared since 1930."

"So what?" I can imagine some people responding, "we've lost a few plants and birds...."

But more than being just a vital part of the lagoon ecosystem, the "irregular forms" of mudflats and saltmarshes--with their shallow textured depths, their underwater grasses, their "intricate sub-structure of winding creeks and meandering canals"--served to "moderate wave energy" coming in from the Adriatic Sea, according to Fletcher and Da Mosto, and "used to help to dampen the intensity of acqua alta."

Man-made changes in the 20th century to the dimensions of the lagoon (land reclamation projects for the airport, for example), to the shape of the lagoon's inlets from the Adriatic, and to the number and (much greater) depth of canals, have transformed this once shallow marshy mucky mixed ecosystem of salt and fresh water into an ever deeper and ever-more-scoured salt water bay. The lagoon now holds twice the volume of water it once contained within its formerly larger dimensions and salt marshes and mud flats have disappeared from the central lagoon around the city, leaving the tide and wind-pushed waves to enter the city with unprecedented force.

And so the barges and heavy machinery and laborers head out with their gabions (wire cages containing rock or other material), sacks of organic matter and other supplies to try to reintroduce into the Venetian lagoon the "Savageness" the "Changefulness", the "Naturalism," and the "Redundance" that Ruskin celebrated as the essential qualities of the Gothic, and by which he meant variety, spontaneity, roughness of surface, imperfection, accumulation of diverse forms--as opposed to the smooth scrubbed abstracted symmetry and simplicity and uniformity for which he condemned Classicism and the Renaissance, and which now might be used to describe the state of the lagoon bed.

Indeed, Ruskin argued that the moral health of the Venetian Republic was directly embodied in the noble vivacious irregularity and spontaneity of its Gothic constructions; in their rough imperfect surfaces bearing the imprint of un-oppressed laborers, of their detailed abundance of leaves and vines and natural forms untamed by tyrannical ideals of form. It's actually quite a dubious reading of Venetian history: part myth-making, part fond fantasy, and largely (like much of history) having more to do with the challenges and context of his own time, and his didactic response to them, than with any doge or council or citizenry of Venice.

Yet if his principles of gothic had little to do with the actual moral state of the lagoon society in which they were employed, they seem now, over 150 years from when he first put them forth, to have a good deal to do with present attempts to try to restore the ecological health of the lagoon. And so you (or at least I) can still find Ruskin all around Venice, even in the lagoon itself amid heavy machinery, even when you (or I) aren't looking for him.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

There used to be at least one company in the area of New York City from which you could order a mattress by telephone and have it delivered to your residence in two hours.

Sleep doesn't come so easily, or so cheaply, in Venice. Or at least mattresses don't, as I was reminded this morning by the sight of the man above using his own boat to avoid the substantial delivery fees charged by commercial services.

Assuming he picked up his mattress from a truck at Tronchetto, at the westernmost edge of the city, he had quite a way to go down the Grand Canal with his rather precariously-attached load to what seemed to be some destination in Castello in the vicinity of the Arsenale. (Hence the title of this post borrowed from Robert Frost, who was not thinking of Venice or boats when he wrote it.)

No doubt he saved a good deal of money doing it himself, but I like to imagine there might be an additional benefit. Having transported his bed himself, it will be forever associated in his mind with the movement of a boat upon the water: the rocking, the surges, the rolling that I've noticed hardly ever fails to put children to sleep in the course of an evening boat ride, and that, recollected while lying upon the very bed he thus transported, might do wonders for even an adult insomniac. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Festa di Primavera in Campo Bragora, Last Night

The multi-talented Gigi Miracol lights up in a big way
The regular quarterly events in Campo Bragora have become great ways to mark the changing seasons, with music, dance, activities for kids, food, wine, ritual--and, inevitably, fire. The next one, marking the summer solstice, will be in June, amid the other activities of the roughly week-long Festa di San Giovanni in Bragora. 

Agnese Ferro and Enrico Bertolotti in the midst of their Omaggio a Vivaldi, performed in the church of S. Giovanni in which the composer was baptized (and featuring his small image in background at right)
The Cannaregio-situated restaurant, Orient Experience, provided a middle eastern buffet (above), while La Laguna nel Bicchiere (featured just a couple of posts ago) provided the wines
The various pyrotechnics were popular with even the smallest of children
Gigi Miracol, poet, musician, juggler, winemaker, bon vivant, and a recurrent subject of this blog, plays with fire

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Drinking In Good Literature and Fine Wine at the Mercato di Rialto

A good crowd turns out for the opening night of the RialtoLibri reading series at the Rialto fish market, hosted by Libreria Marco Polo owner Claudio Moretti (right) and featuring Nicola Manuppelli (left)
Last Sunday night marked the opening of the RialtoLibri reading series, the brainchild of Claudio Moretti of Libreria Marco Polo and Marco Montaldo and Giovanni Mattana of Bar Pescaria, which brings authors and fans of both books and fine wines together in the Pescheria (or fish market) of the Rialto market.

It kicked off with Nicola Manuppelli reading from and talking about his imminently-forthcoming book Bowling (due for release at the end of this month by Barney Edizioni, while a large crowd enjoyed Rosso Veronese Corvina and Bianco Veronese Garganega: two organic wines produced by Fasoli Gino (  

A complete list of the remaining five events of the reading series--with both the books and the wines to be featured--appears below. Any one of the evenings, or all of them, would be well worth checking out.

Sunday, 23 March

Guida all città ribelli: Parigi, Roma, Barcelona. E Venezia? (Voland)

Extremo Merlot del Monferrato--Torelli

 Sunday, 30 March

Almanacco del giorno prima, by Chiara Valerio (Einaudi)
Franciacorta Brut e Saten--Clarabella

Sunday, 6 April

Piccola osteria senza nome, by Massimo Cuomo (e/o)

Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso e Tocai Friulano--Castello di Arcano

Sunday, 13 April

Gli eroi imperfetti, by Stefano Sgambati (minimum fax)

Lambrusco Nero Maestri--Quarticello

Sunday, 20 April

Si fa presto a dire Adriatico, by Fulvio Ervas (marcos y marcos)

Prosecco col fondo Era e Brut DOCG Nature--Renzo Rebuli

For more information on the series, its hosts, the books, the readers, and the wines, please visit:  

Bookseller and writer
Writer and his text

Monday, March 17, 2014

Right to the Point: 37th Coppa Città di Venezia

I really didn't think I'd be photographing people in masks again so soon again after the end of Carnevale, but I'd forgotten about this past weekend's 37th Coppa Città di Venezia, an international meet featuring the best male fencers in the world, including all four members of Italy's 2012 Olympic gold-medal-winning team foil crew. 

It's a two-day event at Venice's Palasport G. Gianquinto, a short distance from the main Arsenale entrance to the Biennale, and entrance is free to spectators. I fenced a little in college, to satisfy a physical education requirement placed upon first year students, but my knowledge of and ability in the sport can be summed up by the fact that my usual opponent came to class sloppily stoned and I still struggled to beat him. But even if you know even less about it than I do, it's still a great sport to watch in person.

Could I always see the touches? Absolutely not. Were many of the exchanges too fast for me to follow. For sure. And yet the more one watches the better sense one gets of the action, and even with hardly any sense of it at all the drama is unmistakable. At this level of competition the fencers are intensely competitive--as are their coaches. And is there any other sport in the world in which athletes contest judges' or referees' decisions more vehemently or frequently? I can, perhaps, imagine another sport that might be its equal in this regard, but not one that could surpass it. Soccer/football/calcio players seem almost like shrinking violets by comparison, tennis players infinitely agreeable.

After a squeaking out a 15/14 win over Italy's Andrea Cassarà in the final eight stage, China's Jianfei Ma swept to convincing victories against his next two opponents to take first place.

When it comes to photographing masked performers in Venice, I'll take this competition over Carnevale any day.

Winner of the Coppa Città di Venezia, Jianfei Ma (at center) awaits his next match

There was no stopping the disputing of judges' decisions by fencers of all nations

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Vinicultural Rite of Spring on Isola San Michele

Pruning a vine just behind Mauro Codussi's church of San Michele in Isola
Of all the natural indicators of the changing seasons lately, I find the most dramatic of them to be vineyards. An odd thing, really, not only because I rarely drink wine, but because there are so few of them in Venice while there were so many of them where I grew up in California--to which I paid little attention unless a friend and I were sneaking into one to filch a bunch of grapes.

But it's pruning season now and last week I was reminded of just how severely the vines are cut back. I was helping out at a potatura (pruning) of Laguna nel Bicchiere, a group I wrote about last fall, at a place I also wrote about last fall ( within the old garden walls of the former monastery on the island of San Michele, which is now known more for the cemetery beside it than the famous library it once housed or the remarkable 15th-century mapmaking monk who made his home there. (You can read about both the library and mapmaker, Fra Mauro, in Alessandro Marzo Magno's recently-published Bound in Venice, or about the latter in James Cowan's novel A Mapmaker's Dream).

After spending an entire day under the vineyard's overgrown trellises at the end of last September it was odd to step outside the monastery's confines and find that filtered green light wasn't the norm everywhere. But there wasn't a bit of green to the vines last week: last fall's dappled symphony in that color had been entirely reduced to bare staves.

I first worked in a vineyard in Piemonte four years ago, among the Langhe Astigiane, during a four-month trial run we made of living in Italy, and I was amazed by the growth rate of mature vines and the tenacity with which they clung to the wires from which it was my job to strip them after they'd been pruned. It was late February and still very much winter; there were two days that I worked while snow was falling.

The great American poet Wallace Stevens liked to figure forth the imagination and its efforts in seasonal terms. One had to have "a mind of winter," for example, to behold a snowy winter landscape for what it was in itself and not impose any human sentiments upon it. But I think those winter vineyards in Piemonte embodied an even more extremely stripped down state, with every last trace of the previous season's growth and exuberance quite literally torn away.

Last week on San Michele we worked in sunny early spring weather so the bareness wasn't quite so dramatic. With snow falling it takes a leap of faith to imagine the meager stick of a pruned vine will ever become anything more than a meager stick. With sun shining and other plants beginning to bloom, it's easier to believe the pruned stick you leave behind after stripping off the clipped length of last year's cordons might grow into something else--but still a surprise to me, at least, that it would grow to be long and leafy and heavy with grapes in six months.

The head of Laguna nel Bicchiere, Prof Flavio Franceschet, consults with one of the expert pruners
Of course we, the members of Laguna nel Bicchiere, weren't actually doing any of the pruning at this potatura. As had been the case in Piemonte, that part of the job was left to experts. I was a little disappointed, as the pruners in Piemonte--who were hired by one vineyard after another to ply their specialized skill--were spoken of as if they were adepts in some esoteric cult and I arrived last week on San Michele with the hope that the veil of the temple might finally be drawn aside. And I wasn't the only one who showed up with such hope.

But as many times as someone asked the two pruners if they might show us how it was done--and they were asked this, it seems, by every new late-arriving member--their answer was always the same:

A young vine, ready for transplanting
It is impossible to explain how to prune a vine. It is a matter of experience, of feeling, of insight and intuition. Where to cut the vine is not something one thinks about, it is something one sees and senses and simply does.

But here we are, one woman objected, with vines and clippers and eyes, ready to watch.... But the two pruners shook their heads. It was impossible they said, and retreated into their labor, their gift, with the kind of look the Oracle of Delphi would probably have worn if anyone had visited her cave and asked for a little on-the-job training.

This was a frustrating response, but it was also, ultimately, rather stirring. There's something quite appealing in this persistent mystery at the root of the wine-making process. The most dramatic celebrations of seasonal change in the ancient world revolved around mysterious rites, after all, and those select few who performed them. In a world of overwhelming information, more than one can possibly take in, much of it unwanted, even more of it worthless, hammering at your senses from media all around you, such strange stubborn silence seemed to suggest something from some distant past, from another way of living in the world.

Ultimately I found it to be a welcome bit of mystery and incommunicability--two foundations of reverence, perhaps--in a world constantly selling its knowingness.

Above: the monastery garden as it looked last week and, below, as it looked on 22 September 2103

At right, the cask of wine made from the grapes we picked last September on San Michele, and that Sandro and friends stomped (wine stomping video). At left, the phase of the moon, waning, at harvest ("luna calante") is duly noted along with types of grape, vineyard (from Giudecca), and date.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dora Maar, and Much More, at Palazzo Fortuny

Prominent among the other works of Mariano Fortuny in this image is one of his famous classically-inspired gowns, while two glass pieces by contemporary artist Ritsue Mishima are visible on the large table at left
Yesterday, March 8, marked the public opening of the spring exhibitions in Palazzo Fortuny: chief among them an extensive show of photographs by Dora Maar, an artist in her own right, though, as the title of the exhibition--Nanostante Picasso or In Spite of Picasso--suggests, still often better known as a model and muse for others. (One of Picasso's famous portraits of her is among the many pieces on display, and another by Man Ray). Also newly on view is Le ammazzoni della fotografia: a selection of photographs from the collection of Mario Trevisan, ranging from the 19th-century work of Juliet Margaret Cameron, through Dianne Arbus, to the unsettling child portraiture of contemporary German artist Loretta Lux; and other exhibitions of works by Ritsue Mishima, Anna-Karin Furunes, and Barbara Paganin. A complete description of the currents shows, which run until the middle of July, may be seen (in English or Italian) at:

I had the good fortune to attend the preview of the spring shows on Friday, the first time, I'm rather embarrassed to say, I've actually visited Palazzo Fortuny--a couple of previous intended visits went awry. I did so in spite of a bit of a fever and some kind of virus that still hasn't gone away, and that has for the most part deprived me of the ability to put one sentence after another in any coherent fashion. So I'll leave this post mostly to some dozen photos, some captions, and the encouragement not to wait so long to visit Palazzo Fortuny as I did. It's one of the truly singular interiors of Venice, and still infused with the spirit of the painter, sculptor, photographer, designer of textiles, stage sets, fashion, and lighting who created it all.  

In the foreground is Sante Benato's and/or Giovanni Gloria's immense model of Villa Pisani in Stra, constructed around 1716
Léonor Fini allongée sur un planché jonché vetements by Dora Maar, from 1936
Portrait de Dora Maar de trois quarts ou fume-cigarette by Izis (Israel Bidermanas) from 1946
Some contemporary women take in the images of anonymous women of the past that make up the exhibition Shadows by artist Anne-Karin Furunes
Another work in glass by Ritsue Mishima amid various works by Fortuny
Fortuny's large model of the Bayreuth Theater, constructed in 1903
Another of Fortuny's stage designs, from 1908
Above and below: the frescoed walls of the room which now holds Fortuny's theatrical models and scenic studies

An anonymous death mask of Beethoven

Monday, March 3, 2014

2 Views of Carnevale in Piazza San Marco This Afternoon

In an otherwise overly-scripted and static Carnevale, this stilt-walker stands out
Confetti, costumes, cameras--and peacock feathers!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Carnevale Unmasked

Excitement. Enthusiasm. Determination. Doubt. Disappointment. You'll see none of these emotions on the static porcelain-like masks of those elaborately gowned and be-flounced mimes that have become synonymous with contemporary Carnevale in Venice, but you will see them on the faces of the scores and scores of people who photograph them. And for this reason--for the human drama of it all, and the pleasure of seeing the diverse beauty and expressiveness of the human face--it's the unmasked and mostly plain-clothed people with cameras I find myself fascinated by during Carnevale instead of those concealed in full costumes whose whole reason for being there is to be looked at. Perhaps I'm simply being contrary, but I hope these pictures will provide at least a hint of what I mean.  

An angry mime abruptly storms off after a long day of posing: I'm not sure what happened, but it made for a dramatic scene.