Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Prayers, Answered and Pending

Ex voto offerings inside a glass case in the church of San Zaccaria provide a static (and perhaps encouraging) backdrop for the flickering tokens of prayers more recently offered up

More tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones.

--St Teresa of Avila

The way through the world
Is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.

--Wallace Stevens

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Second Libreria Marco Polo Sets Sail in Campo Santa Margherita

A view of the store, with the Scuola Grande dei Carmini at right
After 13 years of doing business just behind the pretty little church of San Giovanni Grisostomo, a short distance from the Rialto Bridge, Libreria Marco Polo inaugurated a second store last night, just opposite the Scuola Grande dei Carmini, and the turnout of supporters (as you can see in the images above and below) was impressive.

While the store behind San Giovanni has a large selection of used books in English, the new store looks to focus more on new books in Italian, including a good selection of children's books. The new space is beautiful, with mullioned windows, brick walls, a beam ceiling, and a raised floor that will keep the shelves well above the aqua alta that sometimes enters into the other location and necessitates the use of a pump.

Formerly an antique shop, and before that, a small neighborhood grocery, the space was in such good shape, according to Claudio Moretti, its proprietor, that he was able to sign a lease on the space on 4 September and have it ready to open last night, the 26th.

With its series of author appearances and discussions, various courses, and community-oriented events, Libreria Marco Polo plays an important role in the cultural, grassroots life of Venice and, as the turnout last night indicated, residents are enthused about the possibility of that role expanding. For anyone interested in a glimpse into local life, beyond the tourist trade--and in concretely supporting that life--either of the two stores is a good place to start.

For information on the two stores and upcoming events, visit their website: http://www.libreriamarcopolo.com or Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/libreria.marcopolo.bookstore?fref=ts.

For a previous post on the original Libreria Marco Polo and its importance in the community, as well as a number of photos of its interior, see: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2013/11/evviva-libreria-marco-polo.html

One of the store's three rooms
The crowd overflowed onto either side of the corner store

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Summer's End, and "Free-Range" Venetian Kids

photo credit: Jen

Most Venetians believe in clear demarcations, even if nature (and her weather patterns) don't, and so summer officially ended here on September 13: the day on which everything had to be cleared out of the rented capanne on the the beach at Lido and the season came to a close with all the finality of a screeching metal grate being pulled down before a toy shop window.

If there was any doubt that it was all over--at least among those younger children not yet completely inculcated with an Italian adult's sense of regimentation--school started just a few days later.

Our son, Sandro, however--American as he remains, despite spending the majority of his life here--didn't really cop to this fact until his "bike club" came to an end.

The bike club in its most gratifying form was one of those fortuitous creations of the long lingering light of hot summer days and the spontaneity of childhood; one of those things which adults know can't last for long, but which children are convinced--and happily so--will last forever.

It first took shape in late spring, when the various kids or pairs of friends who rode their bikes around our neighborhood after school began to establish connections with each other, overcoming the boundaries that are a fundamental part of local life. Differences in schools, differences in family backgrounds, parenting methods (slaps upside the head and public humiliation being favorite approaches here), national origin, length of residence--not to mention outright feuds and vendettas--keep both adults and kids from even acknowledging the existence of some neighbors whom they quite literally see every day.

Jen and I know that such factors almost guarantee that no matter how long we may live in this neighborhood (it's been 5 years already) not a word will ever be exchanged between ourselves and certain people--not even if we greet them first. This is not so in the case of kids, though. So that even the local boy who upon first encountering Sandro in the company of a mutual native Venetian friend two years ago, immediately referred to him as "merda"--and whom Sandro thereafter exclusively referred to as "the fat-headed boy"--became part of the bike club.

There was little structure to the first incarnation of the "bike club". Nothing more than a vague agreement among its "members" that they would meet on their bikes after school and tear around our neighborhood's long broad viale and equally broad calli in a pack. To the consternation of various elderly folks, who feared for the safety of themselves and their dogs.

They had, in fact, little to worry about, though, as the grandfather of one of the club's central members was always outside to keep an eye on the club. For his grandson is rarely allowed to venture out of the house without him.

But the appearance of what strikes them as kids enjoying excessive freedom disturbs more than a few of the pensioners here; one of whom, for instance, has been known to appear in her front door and demand from a group of kids drawing flowers and houses and happy scenes on paving stones with colored chalk some 30 meters away: Just who exactly is going to clean up that mess after you're done? 

The children answer, The rain! It will disappear with the next rain.

The old lady shakes her head at such brazen impudence and retreats to the security of her own home, turning the various locks inside her door "at least 16 times!" (Sandro reported), causing general mirth among the chalksters and adding the thrill of rebellion to an activity that was already fun.

And so our neighborhood bike gang rolled into the early summer, their unscheduled meetings getting later in the afternoon, on account of the fact that so many of them spent the day on Lido. One of them would ring our apartment buzzer or shout up at our windows to see if Sandro was available--as kids, it seems (at least from old movies I've seen), were once in the habit of doing everywhere--then they'd peddle around the neighborhood taking on more mass.  

From what I've seen, and read, and heard, this is not the kind of thing kids do in America anymore. Certainly not in Park Slope, Brooklyn, though it has a giant park at one edge and is practically zoned for child-rearing. Not in Asheville, North Carolina, where its own beautiful little hilly park in the center of a historic neighborhood is always empty, though surrounded by houses occupied by families. Not in my hometown of Modesto, California, where the public park I thought was an elegant paradise as a child is also always empty. Nor in Santa Monica, where a friend has resorted to the internet to try to locate like-minded parents interested in establishing a "free-range kids's club"--though any kids' club organized by parents to promote the spontaneity of their kids immediately contradicts itself. Nor in Des Moines, Iowa, nor Oak Park, Illinois, nor even, as a traveling couple recently related to us on a train headed to Liguria, in an affluent family neighborhood in Orange County, California, where a door-to-door salesmen of high-tech home security systems bizarrely referred to the fact that he'd just seen a couple of young kids playing in the front yard of their own house as a sign of just how out-of-control and dangerous their neighborhood was. As if children playing by themselves outside have become, in America, the mark of a slum.

The children of the privileged in America (and not only in America), or of the aspiring (and this includes nearly everyone), are not left to their own devices anymore. There's far too much at stake, the environment far too brutally dog-eat-dog in an all-or-nothing culture to allow kids to have any of those things once synonymous with a fortunate childhood: spontaneity, unstructured play, the chance to test, little by little, a sense of freedom and independence. Kids have lessons, or are scheduled for beneficial activities, or are left to the company of their screens, which in addition to keeping them sedated and out of the way, serve equally well to prepare them for a docile adulthood spent in thrall to yet more screens.

Childhood, in other words, has become a lot like adult work: scheduled, institutionalized, goal-driven. Indeed, what strikes me again and again is how much even our most popular diversions bear all the traits of contemporary labor: an obsession with quantification, with progress (narrowly defined), with goals and money and market values. When we go on Facebook, for example, (as billions of people in the world do) we ourselves engage in all the techniques of consumer analysis (quantifying responses, etc) and calculated marketing that in, say, films of the 1960s and '70s were portrayed as the appalling extreme of industrial dehumanization. Sports fans now accept it as natural that how much players make and the financial standing of their favorite team should be on their minds as much as their team's won-loss record. Film buffs have been trained to worry about opening weekend receipts. Super Bowl viewers about the cost and production values and efficacy of commercials. Though none of these fans or viewers reap any financial gain from such things.         

In short, when it comes to obstacles to a child's play and enjoyment, the cranky senior citizens on our little island here come off as marvelous throwbacks to what is generally (and generously) termed a "more innocent time." Like the various obstacles between young lovers in a traditional romance, or the harrowing adult figures in Roald Dahl, they ultimately contribute as much to the intensity of gratification as they initially impede it.

And, moreover--and, alas, this has become truly rare--such local cranks make no effort to appropriate such childhood gratification as their own, or turn the delay of it (and the promise of its delivery) to their own profit. As, for example, narcissistic overbearing parents do in the first case, and video games do in the second.

(In fact, I'm also tempted to suggest that the phenomenon of "free-range" kids in our neighborhood goes hand-in-hand with the equally unheard-of-in-America phenomenon of "free-range" senior citizens. In most places in America, retirees--by choice, or due to economic or health considerations--are segregated from the general population. They rarely seem to stay in the places they spent their earlier decades of life, and certainly aren't as prominent in the daily life of neighborhoods filled with young families, where they can act as the community's abiding eyes and ears as others troop off to work or school. There's no need here for signs of the sort common in the US announcing "This Is A Neighborhood Watch Community"--meaning the residents have committed themselves to surveilling the area. Rather, for better and worse, you can pretty much always assume there's an eye on you around here.)    

But I've strayed far from Sandro's bike club which, about the middle of July, happened upon its own most enjoyable and exciting form. For it was around then that the kids agreed among themselves that they would have a standing appointment to meet every night at 9 pm.

For Sandro, who'd slowly been becoming more adventurous about going out by himself after dinner, this was a big step. He went from asking us to go out with him after dinner (to the playground outside our window or the local bar down the way on those Friday nights it hosted outdoor tango), to checking his watch while we ate, then announcing it was time for him to go meet his friends outside. We'd tell him he had to be back home by 10:30 pm--and so he would be, flushed and damp with perspiration from his bike riding, and expansive with his new sense of independence. Which grew throughout the summer, though never so much as to make him hesitate to ring our apartment buzzer to tell us through the intercom that he needed a sweatshirt or to change his shoes or whatever else it might be--even if it was, we sometimes suspected, simply to re-establish contact with his home base.

Or with the mother ship, as the case may be. For near the end of August he buzzed to say that a boy was threatening to pop the wheels of the bike club with some sharp object. Jen had answered the buzzer and talked to him and as she walked out onto the balcony to see what was going on right below we could hear Sandro crowing proudly to the threatening boy in Italian: "My mama's coming out right now! Here she comes, my mama!"

At the age of 7 1/2, in other words, he was still young enough to be not in the least embarrassed that when the going got tough he turned to his mother for help. And, as much as we were happy to see how independent he was becoming, we were happy about this, too. Parents, no less than children, need time to adjust to the new parameters of independence.

The summer days were already getting shorter when the bike club first began to officially meet at 9 pm, but, still, at that time, they seemed to linger: darkness sidling up with so little purpose and momentum that it wouldn't have been unimaginable for it simply to stop right where it was for awhile, just to take in everything that was happening in the last soft light, to let everything play itself out at leisure. A hitch in the last long exhalation of the day.

That never happened, of course, and summer kept right on keeping on, too. By early September the bike club was meeting in the dark. Which was exciting in itself, and another nice addition to the adventure of it all for Sandro, it seemed, who didn't take it as the sign that it clearly was of summer's end.

So he was shocked--even though he and Jen had just cleared out the capanna we shared with other families on Lido and turned in its keys, even though he'd been warned that school would begin in three days--when no one showed up at 9 pm for the bike club on September 13. Or on September 14. Or the 15th.

"Summer is over," we told him each night. He refused to believe us. "School is starting," we reminded him. Everyone, including him, had to start going to bed earlier in preparation for the beginning of classes. He simply shook his head. He looked at his watch. He listened at the window for the sound of kids outside.

"I heard someone out there!" he announced.

At 9 pm each night he insisted on at least being allowed to go outside to look if anyone was around.

It was easier, I think, for him to believe that it was something we were keeping him from than to admit that due to the passage of time, the changing of seasons, his 9 pm bike club meetings had simply and naturally reached their end, as naturally and spontaneously as they'd come into being.

We told him that his bike club could go back to meeting after school. He said it wouldn't be the same. And he was right.

He'd had his summer, and it was only natural that he be disappointed at its passing. But we knew, even if he didn't, that his neighborhood play would surely take new shapes in the fall. And we knew, too, how lucky he was that those shapes weren't preordained, that none of us could be sure about what exactly they'd turn out to become.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Devil Moon" on the Grand Canal: Lisa E. Harris Takes a Break from "Work Songs" at the Biennale

Devil Moon on the Grand Canal from Lisa Harris on Vimeo.

Quite literally at the center of the Central Pavilion of this year's Biennale is a large beautifully-designed performance space by David Adjaye where a series of live performances, films and discussions have been held throughout the run of the exhibition.

The most interesting of all these I've found to be the long-running musical piece "Work Songs", created by the jazz pianist, composer, and Blue Note recording artist Jason Moran, and the singer, artist and actress, Alicia Hall Moran. Taking traditional work songs as their starting point, they've created a 40-minute piece within which a changing cast of truly excellent American singers (sometimes singing as duos, sometimes solo) have the opportunity to improvise, as much or as little as they choose. It's a piece that changes not only from singer to singer, but from day to day with the same singer.

I actually have quite a lot to write about this piece, but for now I wanted to use the above video recorded in a little sandolo sanpierota on a recent trip across the bacino of San Marco and down the Grand Canal to introduce readers to the current star of the piece, Lisa E. Harris: a classically-trained singer, artist, and filmmaker. You can check out her website for more information on what she's been up to: http://www.lisaeharris.com/

And you can catch her live (as part of your entrance ticket into the Venice Biennale) performing "Work Songs" every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 4:40 in the Arena performance space of the Central Pavilion until the end of October.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Venice's "Baby Berlusconi" Puts His Foot Down in Defense of Cruise Ships & the Local Partito Democratico Comes to Heel

In protest of Mayor Brugnaro's de facto cancellation of Gianni Berengo Gardin's photos of cruise ships at Palazzo Ducale, a group of residents displays their own images of them in front of the same location, Saturday morning, September 5. (Though the above image appeared without photo credit on various websites last week--RAI, ANSA, Nuova Venezia, etc--I did actually take it.)
For a candidate who ran against the benighted "Party of Those Who Say NO", Venice's new mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, has been nixing a lot of things in his first month of office. Not only the contracts of 18 city library employees and the presence of books on tolerance in city preschools (as recounted in a recent post), but an exhibition of photos of cruise ships scheduled to open on September 18 in the Palazzo Ducale by one of Italy's most venerated photographers, Gianni Berengo Gardin.

Contrary to some reports, Brugnaro did not cancel the exhibition outright. No, he demanded that the group of city museums (Musei Civici) that organized it postpone it until the photos could be displayed in tandem with his and Paolo Costa's (the Head of the Port Authority) cherished plans to "resolve" the cruise ship problem once and for all by dredging the old polluted Vittorio Emanuele canal that runs from the industrial wastes of Marghera to Venice's cruise ship terminal (http://nuovavenezia.gelocal.it//2015/08/09/grandi-navi-brugnaro-blocca-la-mostra).

Indeed, big-hearted and community-minded as he is, Brugnaro simply proposed to Berengo Gardin that if he wanted to display his photos he do so in the broader context of a "series of meetings and seminars" in which the photographs of cruise ships dwarfing Venice's famous architecture would serve to document the issue whose only solution was--ta-daa!--that proposed by Brugnaro and Costa themselves!

In other words, the images could be displayed here in Venice only as advertising for Brugnaro's own plans.

But, of course, the choice was entirely up to Berengo Gardin. He could choose to allow his images to be exploited in this way, or he could choose not to have them shown at all.

In these first months of Brugnaro's rule it's hard not to get the impression that the blustery new mayor believes himself to be re-enacting, again and again, the heroic old story of David and Goliath. Unfortunately, Brugnaro seems to believe the hero of that tale is Goliath.

And perhaps this should come as no surprise from a man who made his fortune from a temporary employment agency: that is, by catering to the demands of entrenched business interests. Indeed, it struck me as some kind of perverse joke that at this troubled time in its history a city which exists today only because of the most ambitious long-range, civic-minded planning (eg, rerouting mainland rivers over 500 years ago) should elect an impresario of the impermanent, a doge of the disposable, a priest of the provisional, a flunky of the fleeting, a slave of the status quo.   

That at a time when any slim hope of Venice's survival as a city (or small town) rather than a mere theme park depends upon innovative and sustainable approaches to job creation, Venetians elected a man whose self-trumpeted business acumen seems distinctly more parasitical in nature than creative. After all, his great fortune comes not from creating jobs, but from just the opposite: from saving businesses from the need to actually add employees.

A rich industrialist, whatever his sins, might point to his wealth as evidence that he knows how to put people to work. Brugnaro's wealth, on the other hand, simply suggests a man who knows how to exploit Italy's troubled labor market by providing cheap, disposable, short-term functionaries to business--at the expense of the country's legions of workers seeking regular employment, as well as of any broader social good. 

And, thus, if Brugnaro is himself in the pocket of the cruise ship industry--and he's made no secret of this--then why shouldn't the photographer Berengo Gardin be happy to join him? Sure, one's vision is severely limited inside there, but it's quite cozy, and oh-so-profitable.

Berengo Gardin has refused to this point to do so but, surprisingly enough, both the regional and local leaders of the Partito Democratico, the center-left party, have recently jumped right in. Local papers announced a couple of days ago that, in spite of concerns about the serious environmental effects of Brugnaro's and Costa's plan, Alessandro Moretti (regional head) and Andrea Ferrazzi (city head) are now in favor of the dredging (http://www.veneziatoday/cronaca/moretti-si-canale-vittorio-emauele). Even though Fabio Casson, who ran on the Partito Democratico ticket against Brugnaro in June (and is now in the Italian senate), remains firmly opposed to it.

As reported in last Friday's Il Gazzattino, Casson reminded Moretti and Ferrazzi that the leader of the the party in the senate (Luigi Zanda) had recently sent a letter to three parliamentary ministers (of Culture, Environment, and Public Works) laying out the party's strong opposition to the dredging of the Vittorio Emanuele. Then, incapable of coming up with any other explanation of Moretti's and Ferrazzi's defection from the party line, Casson wondered if they'd "smoked something strong" ("hanno fumato qualcosa di forte") before declaring themselves in favor of Brugnaro's and Costa's pet project.

And so the circus rolls on, while the clown at the wheel of Venice tweets triumphantly "that good sense has finally started to prevail" ("Finalmente il buon senso comincia a prevalere"). Meaning, of course, that he feels confident that the wishes of big business will prevail. And what could possibly be wrong with that? He's made a personal fortune serving its interests.

For more information about this group and to find out how you can also participate in its program, no matter where you live, please visit its Facebook page: Vogliamo Venezia (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1488759288100937/)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Looking at Bill Viola's Artwork, Thinking of Giovanni Bellini

An image of Bill Viola's plasma screen video Water Martyr

This is the last weekend to catch an exhibition of 15 contemporary artworks on the riva of the Giudecca beside the church of the Zitelle called, Heartbreak Hotel. Among the artists represented by a single work are Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, and Joana Vasconcelos, whom visitors to the 2013 Venice Biennale will no doubt remember as the creator of Portugal's "floating pavilion" (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/portugal-pavilion.html).

It's an interesting show that allows each work enough space to be pondered on its own terms; it's admirably restrained, you might say. Well, except for the show's handout on the works which has the unfortunate tendency to collapse each work into a tidily packaged message we can easily deposit in our shopping cart of experiences. A tendency perhaps in keeping with what the show's brochure describes as the "entrepreneurial spirit" of the artworks' collector and curator: one definition of entrepreneur being, I suppose, one inclined to impose a definite value on everything. 

In any case, one of the most captivating of the pieces on display is video artist Bill Viola's Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr, Water Martyr (2104), which consists of four tall narrow high-definition plasma screens: one on each of the four walls surrounding a central seating area in its own darkened room, and each one showing a different solitary figure undergoing an ordeal with one of the four elements (though it might be argued that the "air" is actually more "high wind").

Each figure begins (simultaneously) in a subdued state, then is subjected to an encounter with his or her designated element that gradually builds to a peak of intensity. The water martryr, for example, lies curled up sleeping in the bottom of the small screen, before being hauled up by his feet in a deluge. The fire martyr dozes in his chair before the first flames drop quite beautifully from above like burning wax and little by little start to accumulate around his chair. The air martyr, a woman in white, is suspended with thick rope by her wrists mid-screen, her ankles bound by the same kind of rope and tethered to the floor. The earth martyr is huddled at the bottom of the screen among a mound of dirt.

The action in each case is tumultuous, dramatic, yet unfolds in complete silence and somehow, paradoxically, maintains a persistent sense of precisely-rendered tranquility. It was the persistent tranquility rendered with a preternatural clarity that, in spite, of all the movement probably made me think of two of Giovanni Bellini's altarpieces here in Venice: the large one in the church of San Zaccaria and smaller one in the side chapel of I Frari.

Though working in a radically different medium and 500 years later, Viola manages, like Bellini, to create a work that is both beautiful, "a feast for the eyes" as they say, and yet otherworldly, transcendent. Viola may, at least in the fire video, be using a "palette" more evocative of Caravaggio than Bellini, but he manages to distance his figures from the physical, bodily world in a way in which Caravaggio had no interest.

In his great San Zaccaria altarpiece, Bellini is careful to situate his "sacred conversation" between the enthroned Mary and the saints in what appears to be an extension of the church itself: the columns and their gilded capitals in the painting famously reproduce the columns that frame the painting in the church itself. The picture space, in other words, pretends to be an actual side chapel of San Zaccaria.

Yet this illusion of immediacy is broken by how Bellini portrays the figures themselves, whose arrangement, expressions, postures, all serve to remove them from any human world we know. For all the beauty of their brocade and silks, their sphere of existence--unlike that of, say, Veronese's religious figures--is not one we dare think of sullying with our human touch. The richness of Veronese's colors and surfaces is alluring: even his religious paintings are filled with objects of desire.

There's a hieratic quality to Bellini's altarpiece. It may possess a softly glowing precision, like an eerily-clear early morning in Venice after a night of gale-force storminess--but it has little to do with any world we can experience. Its tranquility is transcendent, otherworldly, airless--or at least filled with an atmosphere too refined for human survival.

And that is what I was reminded of while looking at Viola's videos. His four martyrs' apotheoses are highly aestheticized and occur, I'm almost tempted to say, at that contemporary point (common in marketing today) at which the aesthetic becomes conflated with the ascetic.

Viola may have been looking to allude to the religious iconography of Old Masters such as Bellini, but the look of the piece also evokes, at least for me, our own age's high-end commercial class-porn cult of transcendence and spirituality.

It's shiny, to use the title of a piece by Douglas Coupland published this summer as part of e-flux journal's Venice Biennale "Super Community" project (http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/douglas-coupland/), very shiny. Coupland writes (channeling Andy Warhol via David Lynch): "I love shiny, because the moment you see something shiny, you know there's going to be something rotten or scary nearby..."

But if this has any general validity--and I kind of doubt that it does--it has little to do with Viola's piece in which the "scary" part of martyrdom, the human part, is mostly left out. Just as it is entirely left out of any high-end advertisements for, say, organic cotton yoga clothing or exclusive spiritual retreat travel packages.

Of course martyrdom by fire was certainly not unknown in Venice. Indeed, during Giovanni Bellini's own lifetime he would have possibly seen or certainly heard of those "sodomites" burned alive between the twin columns of the Piazzetta "so that if the body is burned up by fire the flight of their souls is not damned" (from the Archivio Stato di Venezia, quoted in Guido Ruggiero's excellent book, The Boundaries of Eros). And the American Viola himself would probably have had a hard time not hearing of the CIA's extensive program of waterboarding--a kind of water martyrdom, in which death is approached but never achieved, over and over again--during George W. Bush's presidency.

These thoughts, too, occurred to me while watching Viola's piece--though I suspect they aren't "supposed to." They aren't Viola's intention (not that an artist's intention should matter to a viewer), nor are they--I've just found out by doing a web search on the work--the response of most reviewers to the piece. Indeed, thanks to the web search, I've just learned that this particular piece was created specifically for St Paul's Cathedral in London, where it was permanently installed last year. And in at least one other case, I've just discovered, a critic also found himself thinking of torture and advertising (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art//Bill-Viola-St-Pauls-Cathedral.html)--then feeling bad for doing so.

It is not Viola's fault. We are all of us drowning under a deluge of images more overwhelming than the torrent that batters his water martyr.

Bellini depicted the Virgin Mary and saints; Viola is depicting human beings. I guess part of me wonders if the tranquil air that was appropriate in 1500 for the former may, by 2014, be ill-suited and ineluctably corrupted.

In any case, if you are in Venice this weekend--or London at any time--it's worth a look, to see how it strikes you. 

An image of Bill Viola's plasma-screen video Fire Martyr
Diane by Joana Vasconcelos, foreground, with Katharina Frisch's Händler (Dealer) in background
Nick van Woert's Damnatio memoriae
Detail of Damnatio memoriae

Monday, September 7, 2015

Street Serenade, This Evening

The owner of Trattoria Giorgione sings to his outdoor diners, and any number of passersby, on Via Garibaldi.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Venice's Own "Baby Berlusconi" Takes His First Steps--and They're Backwards

Always dignified, never "kitschy", Venice's new mayor does the city proud by tweeting an image of himself with Michelle Obama (photo credit: http://www.blitzquotidiano.it/foto-notizie/michelle-obama-brugnaro/)

The owner of a prominent professional sports team, this politician asserts that his vast personal wealth elevates him far above the petty and venal political bog in which all hope of progress in Italy has been mired for decades, to a lordly height of clear vision. His status as a "self-made" entrepreneur, he tells us, is proof that he knows how to get things done. He is a vital man of action, a force of nature, a knight, taking up arms against the benighted legions of the "Party of No", that is, against those whose only goal is to impede progress and growth. And yet for all of his great wealth and success--you haven't forgotten his enviable wealth and success, have you?--he is also a man of the people. Not some dry-as-dust technocrat, some impotent intellectual, some mealy-mouthed wind-sniffer, strait-jacketed by politically-correctness... No, he's the embodiment of the assertive Italian spirit, forging ever forward, glad-handing, backslapping, grandstanding.  

I could be recounting the self-presentation of Silvio Berlusconi above. But, actually, it's Venice's new mayor I have in mind: 53-year-old Luigi Brugnaro, born and raised on the mainland (in Spinea); son of an elementary school teacher and a union leader in Marghera; founder of Umana Holding, a temporary employment agency which, after just a decade of operations, was doing about 300 million euros' worth of business; and owner of Reyer Venezia Mestre, which fields both a mens and womens team in Italy's top professional basketball league.

He took office in June and if--based upon his bold promises that he was "neither Left nor Right" and would tolerate neither the waste nor corruption that was killing Venice--you thought he might first turn his keen, fearless, all-seeing businessman's eyes upon MOSE, the forever-inoperable mobile flood gates project which has sucked up 5 billion euros over the years (a full 1 billion of which it's estimated has been siphoned off by corruption), you'd be wrong.

It turned out, instead, that the first great battle against budgetary waste that Venice's righteous defender chose to wage--the one with which, it's assumed, he intended to set the tenor of his mayoral term--was against 18 of the city's librarians.  (http://mestre.veneziatoday.it/proteste-licenziamenti-cooperative-biblioteche.html)

In ringing tones (Agamemnon at the gates of Troy), he announced their contracts would not be renewed. For he was outraged to discover that each of them was making 7.50 euro per hour. This, he declared, is exactly the kind of absurd expenditure that is draining the city coffers dry. (His actual metaphor involved "eating the soup of the city", but I can't locate the exact quotation at the moment.)

Having thus with one heroic stroke set the city's account books in order, Mayor Brugnaro then turned his attention to school books and, fulfilling a campaign promise, ordered 49 titles removed from the shelves of preschools. The books had been purchased by the previous administration to expose young children to simple tales designed to counteract discrimination against people based on race, culture, disability, sexual orientation, family configuration (eg, a single mother or same-sex parenting), or gender identification.

It was not, Brugnaro explained, that he personally had anything against tolerance, but that he feared that children might be confused by a depiction of, say, a family with two parents of the same sex.

Or, in other words, as much as the city's 28 preschools may be actively engaged in transmitting cultural norms (and I speak here from personal experience, as the father of a child who attended one), they should do absolutely nothing that could in any way interfere with parents' inalienable right to raise little bigots.

Besides, Brugnaro noted--clad, I like to imagine, in gleaming Crusader's armor, with the beaver of his helmet up and accountant's half-spectacles perched on the end of his nose--10,000 euro were spent on those books! (http://www.huffingtonpost.it/2015/06/24/brugnaro-ordina-di-ritirare-libri-gender-da-scuole_n_7653794.html)

(Or .00001 of a percent of that money lost to MOSE corruption alone. But who's counting?)

Well, at this point the new mayor would have liked to focus all his attention on arming the city's vigili urbani (the metropolitan police force) and creating the occupying-army-style police force now in vogue in cities around the world (http://nuovavenezia.gelocal.it/venezia/cronaca/2015/07/22/news/gia-armati-i-primi-quaranta-vigili-urbani-1.11817063).

Or in inviting the Mayor of Barcelona to Venice to show her how extremely well-founded--oops--foolishly ill-founded were her fears that residential life in her city might become "like Venice" and be utterly destroyed by mass tourism (http://www.travelnostop.com/veneto/cronaca/venezia-e-viva-brugnaro-invita-il-sindaco-di-barcellona_125889).

Or simply in taking and posting "selfies" of himself with Michelle Obama on his Twitter account. (http://www.blitzquotidiano.it/foto-notizie/michelle-obama-a-venezia-selfie-con-il-neo-sindaco-brugnaro-foto-2214861/).

But his removal of those books from preschools angered a lot of people. And the next step he took of returning all but two of the titles to the schools did not mollify them, as the two titles he continued to deem inappropriate for young children were both devoted to showing that a same sex couple could, in fact, make very good parents.

Amnesty International protested this decision; as did PEN Italia, Venice residents, people around the world, and Elton John (who has a house in Venice) (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/19/world/europe/venice-childrens-books-ban.html?_r=1: this NY Times piece does the best job of discussing this conflict within the larger context of contemporary Italian politics). And the Pope even sent a supportive letter to the writer of one of the two books (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/28/pope-francis-sends-letter-praising-gay-childrens-book).

Brugnaro had nothing to say to the Pope on the matter. But the possibility of making headlines by mixing it up with a world-famous celebrity seemed too much for him to resist and--as has become his wont--the new mayor took to his Twitter account to respond to John.

There, Brugnaro dismissed John's criticism as "represent[ing] the arrogance of someone who is rich and can do whatever they want" (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33978500, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/18/elton-john-protests-venice-ban-on-gay-childrens-books).

For a politician who flaunted his own personal wealth during his campaign (which included a firework display), this was an odd strategy of attack. Indeed, Brugnaro's own campaign slogan of  being "Neither Left nor Right" rested upon the notion that his own personal wealth freed him from all obligations and debts to parties or interests. Like Berlusconi, Brugnaro presents himself as one of those towering figures whose success has liberated him "to do whatever they want." But, like Berlusconi, Brugnaro assures us, of course, that his decisions (issued from on high) would be for our own good. Even if we don't realize it--or aren't included in the decision-making process.

After all, though Brugnaro criticized the previous city administration for being so arrogant as to place such titles in schools without first consulting the parents of students, his removal of them was also done with even less consultation (as not even the city council was involved in it). But (again like Berlusconi) as rich as he may be--you do remember his wealth, yes?--he has an intimate connection with the will of the people and voices their unspoken desires, even as he seems only to be doing whatever he wants. Or, as the case may be, catering to the wants of one extreme of the Italian political spectrum.

In any case, to show that he was unbowed by the book battle, he more recently announced that, though he "has friends who are homosexual", he will never allow Venice to be the site of a Gay Pride Parade. They are, he declared, "a buffoonery, as kitschy as it gets" (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/08/27/the-mayor-of-venice-wants-to-ban-gay-pride-maybe-he-needs-to-get-to-know-his-city-better/).

A comment which has made more than a few people wonder if the new mayor of Venice, the boy from the mainland, has actually spent much time in the city during Carnevale or, really, at any other time.

But this is just the beginning of Brugnaro's term (or is it, "rule"?) and this post touches upon only a few of his many questionable steps so far. Other ones, like his canceling of an exhibition of photos of big ships by the famed photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin (http://www.theguardian.com/2014/apr/03/gianni-berengo-gardin-best-shot-venice) scheduled for the Palazzo Ducale, will no doubt feature in future posts. Though you can read one account of that particular controversy here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/j-michael-welton/in-venice-politics-vs-photos.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Tall--Rather Than a Big--Ship, This Evening

If all big ships passing through Venice were limited to this size and this style perhaps there would be less complaints about them.