Saturday, August 12, 2017

An Outsider's Guide to Secret Venice, Part 3: The Emergency Lagoon Drainage System

A large floating buoy attached to one of the Emergency Lagoon Drainage Plugs in the basin of San Marco

The most visible element of the 45-year-old Emergency Lagoon Drainage System floats for all to see in the middle of the Bacino di San Marco, its primary function unknown to and even unsuspected by tourists and most Venetians alike. 

If anyone, besides my son Sandro and me, gives it much thought at all, they do so only when it's being utilized in its secondary function as a mooring place for a large, important ship, such as the Italian destroyer the Luigi Durand de la Penne.

But the primary purpose of this large floating buoy (at least as far as Sandro and I are concerned), and the others like it in the waters around the city,* has to do with an elaborate anti-flood system designed and implemented in the first years after the catastrophic deluge that struck Venice in 1966. It was this "perfect storm" that called international attention to Venice's susceptibility to being abruptly submerged by the sea--rather than merely subsiding into it--and which led 10 years later to the plan for a system of flood gates situated at the three mouths of the lagoons.

As noted by Salvatore Settis in his book If Venice Dies, in 1986 then-Prime Minister Bettino Craxi announced that these submerged flood gates (known by the acronym MOSE) "will definitely be operational by 1995." Instead, 22 years after this promised date, MOSE shows no signs of being operational any time soon--if ever--and has functioned only to transfer over 6.2 billion euros of public funding into the hands of private construction companies and corrupt politicians. Of course, in Italy, as in America, this is considered a laudable achievement in itself.

But for all its fame and infamy, MOSE was the second engineering solution devised to protect the city against catastrophic flooding. The first was the now-forgotten, though still partly visible, Emergency Lagoon Drainage System.

In contrast to the no-bid contract that was gifted to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova to construct MOSE, in the immediate aftermath of the great flood of 1966 an international engineering competition was held. The winner of that competition was, to hardly anyone's surprise, considering the country's long history of hydraulic engineering, a Dutch firm.

This firm's solution to catastrophic flooding was both simpler and far more radical than the later MOSE proposal. It called for a vast drainage system to be installed beneath the lagoon, with a series of "plugs" located at the periphery of the city. The plugs themselves, situated snugly in massive drainage ports at the bottom of the lagoon, are invisible; we see only the large buoys attached to each of them and floating above them.

Each buoy, as you can see in the image at top, has a large steel ring in the center of its circular platform. In the event of extreme flooding, a fleet of massive helicopters known as "sky cranes" (with which Sandro was familiar from his then-favorite educational video series Mighty Machines), and currently stationed nearby on the mainland, would lower a hook into these rings, then haul them and their attached plugs into the sky.

A floating drainage buoy used for its secondary function by the Italian Navy
That is, just as we're in the habit of pulling a plug out of a sink or bathtub to let the water drain from it, so a fleet of massive helicopters would de-cork the lagoon.

By 1972 this Emergency Drainage System had been completed and was, according to computer analysis and a series of tests (extensive in number but necessarily limited in scope), fully functional.

Venice was saved.

Or was it?

For even as the system was being installed a multitude of scientific studies were arguing that even a single use of the system would cause massive and irreversible damage to the lagoon itself. The rapid and violent emptying of water from the lagoon would result not only in a staggering loss of animal, plant, and probably even human life, but widespread destruction of the lagoon's ecosystem.

The shallow, rough, irregular terrain of the lagoon bed itself, with all its sedimentation, sub-acquatic plant life and mudflats (barene), would be sucked down with the swirling mass of water rushing into the drains installed in the lagoon.

To save the built structures of the city, in other words, the lagoon itself would be sacrificed.

Indeed, a heated debate over the ethics of what critics described as the sacrifice of Nature for the sake of Culture appeared across a number of issues of the obscure but influential International Journal of Hydraulics in the first years of the 1970s, reaching such a pitched state of contention that a fear that the hitherto scholarly debate might break out into the broader public consciousness caused it to be purchased by an unknown buyer and promptly shut down.

Some have identified the Italian government itself as the buyer; others, the Dutch engineering firm responsible for the drainage system. Whoever it was, they did an admirable job of suppressing the content of the debate and purging all traces of the journal from libraries. To this day, single issues from this contentious period have fetched bids in the low six figures, and a multi-copy set said to contain the complete series of exchanges garnered a million dollar bid from the famous Ransom Rare Book Collection at the University of Texas Austin. But in every case the proffered publications have turned out to be fraudulent. 

Equally troubling, though, was the fact that a single use of the system would, by scouring the lagoon clean of its wave-buffering natural features, leave the city significantly more susceptible to disastrous flooding than ever before. A single use of the system was likely to turn what had long been a lagoon into what was effectively a shallow bay, through which water from the Adriatic would rush in with unimpeded force.

According to some it was this realization that ultimately led to the decision in 1976 to go ahead with the mobile flood gates.

While others more simply, and cynically, say that the decision to go forward with the MOSE project was less about impeding the flow of dangerous tides than about diverting a massive flow of public money into the "right" (ie, well-connected) private bank accounts.

Whatever the reason, Venice now has one almost 50-year-old system of flood prevention that is theoretically still functional but that it dare not use, and one "new" one (originating just 10 years after the former) which it's supposedly clamoring to use but seems unlikely to ever be functional.

And, alas, because some municipalities, like some people, never seem to learn from their mistakes, the use of the MOSE system--if ever it does function--raises as many questions about its own disastrous effects on the lagoon as the old Emergency Lagoon Drainage System.

In truth, considering the long, ineffectual history and deleterious consequences of each system side-by-side, the real MOSE one and the one imagined by Sandro and me, I can't quite ultimately decide which of them stretches credulity more.


*There are a few such floating buoys and Sandro and I were inspired to look into the mystery of them after repeatedly passing a particular one of them that lay--like the subject of Part 2 of this series of posts--on the vaporetto path between his pre-school and our home (specifically, between the San Pietro di Castello stop and that of Bacini).

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An Outsider's Guide to Secret Venice, Part 2: The Regional Weather Control Center

The aggressively unassuming Regional Weather Control Center

As is the case for any number of our society's most venerated Truths, the origins of the Regional Weather Control Center in Venice, or RWCC, are shrouded in mystery, and are admittedly rather dubious.

Located in the waters just a short distance off Fondamenta Nove, the discovery of the top-secret site by my son Sandro and I was spurred by a long unbroken string of oppressively gray days during the second winter we lived in here.

We usually have no problem with sunless days during the winter; we expect them. But this particular stretch had gone on for far too long, without even a brief tease of sunlight, and with no hint of ever ending. So long, in fact, that Sandro and I couldn't help but start to wonder if something had jammed up the gears that usually kept our weather systems moving through at a slower or swifter pace, and if the person responsible for minding them had fallen asleep at--or even vacated--his or her post.

For elsewhere, as we could see on national news reports, meteorological conditions varied at least a little from day to day as usual. Only here in the lagoon had everything seemed to stall.

We pondered the question of why.

But we didn't hit upon any kind of satisfying answer until we stumbled into thinking about it in terms of where. Where did weather patterns originate?

Well, as it turned out, from a shabby little structure we passed nearly every day on the number 4.1 or 4.2 vaporetto line, while going to or coming from Sandro's kindergarten.

Indeed, one might take it as concrete evidence of the sheer brilliance of the RWCC creator (or creators) that it is essentially hidden in plain sight.

Like the earliest dwellings in the lagoon, as described in a letter to Theodoric the Ostrogoth by his prefect Cassiodorus in the year 523, the RWCC is stilted just above the surface of the water. Though it, in contrast to those sea bird-like homes of the earliest inhabitants, is constructed not of "osier and wattle" but bricks and cement. While the earliest lagoon structures must have been quite susceptible to drafts, the windowless RWCC appears impervious even to light.

No image of the interior has ever been disseminated, but according to those who have studied, or at least speculated on the matter (my then 5-year-old son and myself), the RWCC is manned by a solitary occupant who tracks national and regional weather conditions on a bank of computer monitors--many of them displaying a live feed from a far-flung battery of surveillance cameras--that nearly fills the small space.*

Based upon these regionally-oriented screens, along with a constant stream of information on broader weather conditions (both in Italy and internationally), the indefatigable controller adjusts meteorological conditions in the lagoon (temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, wind, etc) with an extensive array of levers--rather like those used backstage to raise the curtain or dim the lights for live theatrical performances. For finer adjustments there is also a selection of precisely-calibrated dials.

The fact that the RWCC bears a very general resemblance to the larger, windowed, wooden tidal monitoring (or hydrographic) station you can see near the Punta della Dogana has led to speculation that it was built around the same time. But there is no other evidence to support such a conjecture and, indeed, such a notion raises more questions than it resolves. Chief among them: Where was the RWCC previously located?

Moreover, the differences between the two structures are far more striking than any vague similarity. Unlike the tidal monitoring post, the RWCC is aggressively plain, even downright forbidding: it is both inscrutable and impregnable.

Which, of course, makes perfect sense. For while nobody ever complains about the tides, everyone--as the old saying goes--complains about the weather, though no ever does anything about it.

The appearance of the RWCC--at once inconspicuous and off-putting--seems specifically designed to forestall the possibility that anyone might even be tempted to try.

Not that Sandro and I haven't once or twice over the last few years been driven by a particularly nasty stretch of weather to talk about taking our little boat to the RWCC and pounding on its door to complain. But the consequences of such a rash and unprecedented action are unknown, and, moreover, the power of certain mysterious truths depends upon them never being put to the test.


*Though interior space is limited, it is not so cramped as a purely external perusal of the structure suggest: the shape, proportions, and materials of the structure's exterior being cleverly designed to appear substantially diminished in the particular lighting conditions of the lagoon.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

An Outsiders' Guide to Secret Venice, Part 1: The Cannaregio Gondola Factory

The Cannaregio Gondola Factory (aka the Associazione Remiere di Punta di San Giobbe)

There are countless "insider's" guides to Venice available, with new ones appearing regularly, but sometimes the perspectives on the city I find most interesting come from those who appear to have little if any familiarity with it.

In fact, seemingly unencumbered by any knowledge of Venice whatsoever, the minds of the best of what might be called Outsider Guides to the City are free to drift up to dizzying altitudes, where oxygen is scarce and falsehoods abundant.

I suppose there's an invigorating sense of freedom to be found in not knowing the first thing about the subject on which you're pontificating. And if stated with enough force--or vulgarity, or shamelessness, in the case of major politicians in the US and UK--these utterly false assertions can end up being more compelling to a surprising number of people than statements of easily verified or even readily observable fact.

The other day, while riding in an Alilaguna water bus from the airport into Venice, I heard a particularly inspired one of these Outsider Guides announce the following to his wife and teen-aged daughter: "Hey, hey, look there," he said, pointing out the window to a building on the western end of Fondamenta Nove, "there's a factory where they make gondolas! Wow, look at 'em! They've made a bunch of green ones that they've got stacked up in the yard."

Now, you don't have to be a native Venetian to know that gondolas aren't green, or that their shape bears little resemblance to the shape of the much smaller boats to which he pointed. And, more simply, there was even a large sign posted in the center of the facade stating (in Italian) exactly what the building was.

But his wife and daughter nodded and looked suitably edified and I--as this particular lie was not uttered in the service of more tax cuts for the rich and poverty, gratuitous hardship, and early death for everyone else--was thoroughly entertained, even charmed.

I would have thought that the fact that what this Outsider Guide was pointing to was actually a traditional Venetian-style rowing club association (remiere) would have been exotic enough to satisfy most visitors from afar. But I admired the leap his imagination had made, and I wished I could tag along with him for the rest of the morning to see what other misbegotten nonsense the sights of the city in combination with his ignorance might inspire him to spout.

But we were on the Alilaguna boat from the airport with family arriving from out of town and, instead, I turned my attention elsewhere.

It occurs to me now that there might be some value--if only of the entertainment sort--in compiling an Outsiders' Guide to Venice, and I wish I remembered more of the falsehoods I've overheard in my 6 1/2 years of living here: such as the three tourists on a vaporetto one time who speculated that the church of San Giorgio Maggiore was a hotel (and not even in the French sense of hôtel, or city hall).

After all, one way to make a famous city so heavily visited (and over-visited), and so much remarked upon as Venice, into one's "very own" is simply to get as many things wrong about it as you possibly can.

For the old Mary McCarthy and Henry James observation that "nothing original can be said about Venice" doesn't quite apply to those whose remarks upon Palladio's famous church across the Bacino di San Marco are based upon their mistaken belief that it's a hotel--or that, say, the Palazzo Ducale is a basketball arena.*

In this spirit, in parts 2 and 3 of this post I'll finally share a couple of (alternative) facts about the city that you won't read in even the most authoritative guidebook or hear from the most knowledgeable personal tour guide. "Facts" that my son and I happened upon while still getting acquainted with the city and which I hope will merit a place in any Outsiders' Guide to Venice: secrets of this famous city that are so secret I think it's safe to say that we two are the only ones who know anything about them. 

* As, incredibly enough, the Scuola Grande della Misericordia actually was for a time:

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Little Night Music, With Oars

The scene at last night's live musical event Serata a Remi: Musica dal Palazzo Papafava, hosted by Row Venice and Viva Voga Veneta.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Disneyland on the Adriatic

Disneyland on parade, yesterday

Okay, I might as well admit it up front: in my opinion there's nothing more unsightly to be seen floating on the small canals (or rii) of the historic center of Venice than some moron on a standup paddle board.

I'm sure that on some beautiful Hawaiian beach at the right time of day a paddle board can appear picturesque, that in some upscale Caribbean resort they're absolutely adorable as a vehicle for family frolics on pricey private waters, and that they're just the thing for drunken sunburned Spring Break celebrants in Fort Lauderdale or Lake Havasu. 

But in Venice they strike me as just plain ugly. An impression not helped by the fact that any adult atop them is almost invariably dressed as if he's a young child outfitted by his mother for an afternoon at some water park just off the interstate in Orlando, Florida. Not that there's anything wrong with such water parks, but Venice--as a fairly surprising number of visitors seem hardly to notice--ain't merely a water park.

Moreover, if the paddle boarder in Venice is unprepossessing at rest, he or she becomes even more so in action. At his or her most adept a paddling paddle boarder appears to be sweeping out a kitchen. But more typically the best that many of them can do is to hack at the water as they struggle to keep their footing--a series of short, clumsy, seemingly random strokes, like an ungainly gardener taxed with hoeing an impossibly overgrown plot.

Even on a Sunday there's no shortage of water traffic on the Grand Canal, its usual path narrowed by the paddlers

In a city whose lissome rowing style has been quite literally admired for centuries, paddle boarders appear especially out of place. It's not just that the paddle board itself is foreign to the culture of the lagoon, even the movement needed to propel it appears distinctly alien in this context.

Aside from how it looks, though, the paddle board is ill-suited to what are still the working--as opposed to leisure or theme park--canals of Venice.

Paddlers drop to their knees to deal with the wake of a slowly passing taxi
Unwieldy, unresponsive, and slow moving, it's far more likely to create dangerous situations both for its paddler and others than it is able to avoid or elude them. In contrast to the long stroke of a skilled Venetian rower which shoots his or her boat out of harm's way, or to such a rower's ability to pivot his or her boat almost in place, the paddle boarder can only hack and splash.

Even the growing numbers of inept, vacationing kayakers in Venice's waterways can do more than that.

So, given all of the above, what do the venerable leaders of Venice do? Why, they sanction the private event you see pictured above. As I've no interest in publicizing this event, I won't name it, but I can tell you that yesterday's mass outing was, according to its organizer's Facebook page, it's 7th edition, in which 100 lucky registrants were able--for the price of 50 euro (60 for later entrants)--to participate in "a unique experience, a huge media happening, [and] the most popular SUP [standup paddle board] event ever."

I suppose it's the second phrase within that last quotation that bothers me. Should the city be encouraging more standup paddle boarders to come and flounder in its canals?

But who can object to a local club putting on a big event? you might ask.

Smile and say "Marketing!"

The aim of this event, however, is not local. Its goal is to draw more paddle boarders to Venice, to publicize paddle boarding here to a world-wide audience, so that you needn't do much searching on the web to find devoted standup paddle boarders from all over already enthusing about what a great personal experience it will be (or already has been) to paddle in Venice--where, invariably, they haven't the least knowledge of the rules governing water traffic.

But, like the kayakers before them, why should standup paddle boarders worry about that?

The commonly-held opinion--rarely undercut by the actions of the city's venerable leaders--is that Venice is not a real city, so its canals aren't real functioning arteries of commerce and transportation. It's a theme park, a setting for one's own personal "peak experiences", a great backdrop for selfies, and a stellar addition to one's personal "bucket list" (ie, shopping list of experiences to be consumed).

And it's the job of a theme park's personnel--in this case, the residents of Venice--to watch out for the well-being of its customers (though the city's venerable policy-makers rarely seem to do this themselves: witness the wretched overcrowding of vaporetti). If a standup paddle boarder doesn't know the rules of the waterways, work boat drivers, vaporetto drivers, taxi drivers, all the people who depend on the waterways for their living will simply adapt to them.

What could go possibly go wrong?

But of course it's always the newcomers to a place that are most protective of its "traditions" or "traditional culture." And by Venetian standards, even after 6 1/2 years here, I'm well aware that I'm still very much a newcomer. After all, it took at least 10 years of residence to be eligible for citizenship in the old Republic, and I think it's safe to say that to be considered a Venetian by the dwindling number of native Venetians today takes far longer than that (if ever). 

I'm also aware that with my whole "get off my lawn" stick-in-the-mud attitude I may, as they say, be missing the boat.

Which is why, after careful consideration, I've decided to start my own new water-going venture in Venice. Like kayaks and standup paddle boards my enterprise will devote itself to a
"green" environmentally-friendly mode of getting around, which uses no fossil fuels and creates no pollution, nor any damaging moto ondoso.
I'm still working out the details, but I think I've already found my supplier for my fleet of craft, one of which you can see in the image below:

With these inflatable human hamster wheels Venice's ancient tradition of rowing will be updated for the ultimate 21st-century tourist experience of this magical city! No skill or knowledge required!

Just imagine scores of these on the Grand Canal!

What a unique and beautiful experience that will be!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Navigating the Festa del Redentore 2017

When the unregulated crowds of the city become all too much there's still some relief to be found on the water. Even, or especially, during the Festa del Redentore.

We didn't eat dinner on our boat, as many people do for the Festa, but puttered up and down the Grand Canal and a rii or two, taking in the sights, our son blasting (in a very small way) his favorite dance tunes from a little battery-powered wi-fi speaker, smaller than a soda can. It wasn't the booming stereophonic splash he fantasizes about making in his teen years--no more than our boat was the fast, stylish, red cofano he imagines piloting during that glorious period of life--but it was the closest he'd ever yet come to realizing such things and he was thrilled. We idled all around the mass of larger boats--pretty much every boat is larger than ours--anchored in the basin of San Marco. As I was driving our boat I took no photos.

To get the best vantage point in the bacino for the fireworks we should have settled ourselves into a spot there at least an hour before the 11:30 pm start time. But after heading back down the Grand Canal for a while we returned at 11 to find a lot of other boats jostling in the dark to find places within the designated zone delimited by police boats, their blue lights flashing, their officers filling the air with referee's whistles and shouts, directing traffic.

You'd have been excused for expecting chaos at this point, this being Italy, but it all went surprisingly smoothly. Next year I'll know to motor into the first open spot we see and ask to tie ourselves up to a boat already anchored there--or, as the case may be, itself tethered side-by-side to a series of boats roped together in place. But I dillied, then I dallied, and by the time I worked up the nerve to venture indecisively into a smallish open space it had become smaller still and I found myself on the verge of nosing or backing into any number of already anchored boats--each of whose occupants, fortunately, responded to the imminent prospect of my broadsiding their own craft with quick hands and good-natured forbearance.

I retreated back into the mouth of the Grand Canal in the screech-filled darkness. We saw a broad opening in the water alongside three boats tied together neat the Punta della Dogana. We approached--they said they were waiting for another friend's boat to arrive. We retreated.

Well, why even bother to tie ourselves to another boat, when we could simply drop anchor where we were?

This we did. Then we set about taking down the tall poles and festoons with which we'd decorated our boat, as they'd block our view of the fireworks. Then we settled in to wait excitedly for the first explosion of light.

But, wait a minute, were we moving? The wind was blowing hard out of the east, the current was strong, but maybe it was just an illusion created by the movement of another boat nearby motoring to a new spot.

No, we were definitely moving.

We were no longer near the tip of the Punta della Dogana as we had been. Those anchored boats that had once been our near neighbors were growing distant as memories. Our anchor, not exactly massive, must have been dragging, if not skipping, over the bottom of the Grand Canal. At this rate we'd end up foundered on the dock of Ca' Barbaro by the time the 45-minute firework extravaganza was done.

I tugged our engine to life again and we motored alongside a boat solidly in place near the spot from which we'd just drifted. We asked its occupants to tie up to them, they kindly agreed.

We settled ourselves in again inside our boat, finally secure in our spot amid a little flotilla. Another boat arrived and asked to tie itself to ours, to which we of course agreed. A short stone's throw away, from the fondamenta of the Punta della Dogana, a couple of guys shouted out the offer of a jug of sangria to anyone who'd motor over and take them on board for the pyrotechnics, but it was too late for that, and no one really had room anyway (or if they did it was "solo per le donne," as one boatload of young men replied), and in a minute the fireworks began.

Our view was partially obscured by the Punta della Dogana, but it didn't matter. At that point there was no place else we'd rather have been.


For an account of what it's like to watch the fireworks explode directly above your head from a friend's boat in the center of the bacino di San Marco see this post: Festa del Redentore 2014: Seeing, Feeling, Breathing Fireworks. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Spectacle Piled On Spectacle: Festa del Redentore, Early This Morning

My son watches fireworks explode above the Punta della Dogana and a sculpture by Damien Hirst in the first minutes of today.

More on the festivities tomorrow.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Boat's-Eye Peek at Tonights's Festa del Redentore

Foreground, our festooned boat; background, the Giudecca, festooned with lights
For the first time we've taken our own small, decorated-for-the-occasion boat out and about before tonight's fireworks. More images tomorrow--unless I'm too busy driving to take them.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Summer Sunday in Piazza San Marco, 4 Views



During the Venetian Republic the arcade pictured above running along the Piazzatta side of the Palazzo Ducale was known as the Broglio, "where", according to Robert C. Davis and Garry R. Marvin's book Venice: The Tourist Maze, "the Republic's patriciate gathered to promenade, make legislative deals, and sell their votes to the highest bidder." By the 1950s and 1960s, the same authors note, it had become a primary setting for the traditional Venetian evening stroll (called the listòn in Venetian, the passegiatta in Italian). For the last half century, though, it, like the rest of the Piazza San Marco area, has belonged to tourists, offering some all-too-rare public seating for the footsore, weary, or heat-stricken.  

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Contemporary Song About Living in Venice

As the crowd of more than 2,000 of Venetian residents was departing from the Arsenale last Sunday (as recounted in my last post) this group of performers was seeing them off. I'm afraid that I missed the opening of the performance, and though I've been meaning to find out more information about the performers and their song, I'm in the Dolomites right now and happy to have a short break from Venice and its challenges. If anyone would like to provide such information (and maybe the lyrics to the song) in the comments section below, I'll incorporate them into this post. 

The song is about the frustrations of living in Venice, and is a lively and darkly comic account of the heartbreak felt by Venetians as they watch their city destroyed by the short-sighted and cynical pursuit of--as is repeated at one point--"schei, schei, schei!"  Or "money", in Venetian.

I think it's a marvelous performance, and more than just a litany of complaints, it, too, like last Sunday's march, embodies a determination to make themselves heard and seen, even by a city administration which is stubbornly and self-interestedly deaf and blind.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Venetians Take to the Streets to Declare "Voglio Vivere a Venezia"

Marchers set off from their meeting place in front of the Arsenale

Today, on the same day that UNESCO holds its annual meeting in Krakow, and on the second anniversary of Luigi Brugnaro's taking power as mayor of Venice, thousands of Venetian residents gathered in front of the Arsenale and marched up the Riva degli Schiavoni to remind the former organization that the city from which it recently delayed (for another two years) its threat to place it on its List of Endangered World Heritage sites is still under siege from uncontrolled tourism and reckless development, and to remind the latter politician merely that they continue to exist.

That thousands of Venetian residents periodically feel compelled to take to the streets in order to remind what is called the city's "first citizen" of their existence gives you a fairly good idea of how little attention they feel the mayor pays to the city's inhabitants.

After a previous such march the mayor declared that he himself would be "at the head of the next one," thereby overlooking the rather significant point that he'd have no place in a march of the city's residents as he is not, in fact, a resident of the city, nor even the province.

In any case, in spite of his prior vow, he was nowhere to be seen at today's manifestazione, entitled "Voglio vivere a Venezia". The city's actual residents seem to hold very little interest for him; it's the commercial possibilities of the city's "brand" (a word he's fond of using) that he focuses on and, contrary to what he sometimes suggests, the latter rarely seem to benefit the latter. 

A succinct overview of the concerns that motivated the march is provided in today's edition of La Stampa.     

What struck me most about the march was how odd it is to see residents outnumbering tourists in the streets.

And those tourists lucky enough to be in town today truly had a rare experience here--the kind of rare Venetian experience so many tourists hope for, and are promised by various travel agencies or guides or publicity materials.

In a small zone of city, for a short time, these tourists weren't just surrounded exclusively by other tourists. There was local life, loud and boisterous, right before their eyes, filling the riva! This kind of ratio of residents to tourists in the streets is almost never encountered in most places in the city.

But based upon the remarks I overheard, most of these visiting fortunate few were nonplussed, at best.

"Oh, no, no, that's not possible," one young man said to his his two companions, as they walked up beside me and he saw the crowd spread across the riva and filling the bridge (and beyond) ahead of him. He put his hand to his head, as if a headache was coming on, and said, "Great! Now where do we go?"

This is the kind of question, and sight, and headache, that every resident of Venice knows all too well.

Except in the case of residents, the path ahead of us is always blocked by a truly astonishing number of tourists, marching (or, more often, trudging) behind their own upraised standard (usually a small flag or umbrella held by a tour guide).

How pleasant it was, just for a short hour or so, to witness the situation reversed.

But of course it couldn't last. As the marchers got nearer to Piazza San Marco, the crowds of tourists disgorged onto the riva by the large launches that ferry them from various places around the lagoon to the historic center began to rival the number of residents.

And had the march continued into Piazza San Marco itself, residents might very well have found themselves surrounded by an occupying force of equal or greater number.

But the march stopped a couple of bridges short of the Piazza--which hasn't been a place for residents for about half a century.  

A mass of tourists waiting on the riva to board their launch considers the mass of residents filling a nearby bridge

It's not unusual for the Riva degli Schiavonni to be crowded like this at noon on any given day; but it's usually crowded with tourists, not residents

These two lucky tourists have the rarest of Venetian experiences: finding their planned route through the city thwarted by a mass of residents (they soon resorted to GPS to try to figure out another)

This crowd is not part of the march; just the usual army of tourists walking down Riva degli Schiavoni toward Piazza San Marco

Friday, June 30, 2017

Season of Sudden Storms

The most dramatic storms of the year blow into town during the summer: dark, thunderous, torrential, turbulent, and typically over in far less time than it takes to play one half of a soccer game. They sweep in all biblical and apocalyptic, forcing you to take shelter wherever you can and wondering if you'll ever see your home again, but tend to pass so swiftly as to end up seeming almost theatrical--a masterfully produced stage set squall for the stage set city so many people take Venice to be.

Of course it's a different matter if you're out in a boat in the lagoon, and the first thing I was warned about by locals when I started to row out into the lagoon by myself--though I never went out far--was to watch for such storms. If caught in one I was told to stake my boat on a barena (mudflat): one oar lodged in the mud at the boat's prow, a second at its stern on the opposite side. (I had two oars as I was rowing ala Valesana.)

The kayaker pictured above was, fortunately, on the Grand Canal when a recent thunderstorm hit. Still, it's not a place I'd much like to be at such a time.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Headless Summer, Certosa

With apologies to the Beach Boys and their bestselling album of a similar title.

For some reason this image also makes me think of the famous passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun:
...the years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment, when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by, there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries, we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones. It is wise, therefore, to come back betimes, or never.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

What Does the Real Venice Look Like?

A central paradox of Venice is that the very sights and places universally considered to be the most representative of the city, the most quintessentially Venetian, often have the least actual Venetian life left in them. There are times, for example, when I've walked out of our apartment near the Rialto fish market and encountered anywhere from 30 to 50 camera-toting or luggage-pulling tourists before spotting the first resident--even as I make my way down calli that epitomize what people think of when they think of Venice.

How long has it been since any Venetians took their evening stroll (or passeggiata) through Piazza San Marco? It was the place to be seen even during Austrian occupation, as William Dean Howells recounted in the early 1860s, and I think it remained so to a lesser extent even into the days of Jan (then James) Morris at the end of the 1950s. But the Piazza and the area all around it are now occupied more absolutely by tourists (in their hotels and B&Bs, both legal and illegal) than the mighty Austrians ever imagined possible.

A friend once told me about the year he spent living just off beautiful Campiello San Vidal at one end of the Accademia Bridge. What could be more picturesquely Venetian, he thought--before he moved in.

But he said the only neighbor he had during his dispiriting time there was an accountant whose office was just down the calle from his apartment. Otherwise, he lived in a ghost town, except for the occasional tourist drifting through, or some second- or third-home owners who'd show up for the Feast of Redentore or some other weekend now and again. He was happy to move to a less picturesque but more populated area of Venice when his lease was up.

Of course the absence of local life has spawned its own commercial opportunities and sales pitches beyond merely the tourist-rentals that contribute to the emptiness. Guidebooks, guides, tours, and, yes, blogs like this one promise to lead you to the dwindling number of sites where Venetians can still be observed in their native habitat. Everyone is looking for leads to unknown or hidden Venice, a Venice off the beaten path, or the real Venice.

Then there are others of us who pride ourselves in being to sniff out on our own local enclaves in even the most over-run of tourist destinations.

What do we look for? Well, language, is an obvious sign, and we'd listen for the sound of Venetian. Activities are another. But not the picture postcard activities of gondoliere or fishmonger or glass blower, but the everyday ones of parents or grandparents taking their children to school or picking them up.

At other times, dress can serve as clues.

Though this method can lead to some questionable conclusions.

For example, I usually motor our little boat down the Grand Canal without attracting any notice. But the other day when the sun was especially brutal I resorted to wearing a rather rustic straw hat and found I'd suddenly become picturesque in the eyes of any number of visitors. I couldn't pass a crowded vaporetto without finding a couple of cameras aimed at me.

Here was a real Venetian sight!

Though the lone element that qualified me as such--the only difference from how I usually puttered down the Grand Canal in our 6 hp outboard--was a hat I'd bought from a cheap tourist stall in Croatia while on vacation there, which had been made in China. 

Perhaps what I'm ultimately thinking about here is the way in which we travel in order to see things--but rarely think much about how we are actually and actively looking for certain things.

Or, to put it another way, is it possible to see what we're not looking for?

If I remember correctly this is a central theme in Proust's In Search of Lost Time--a novel all about memory that I can only remember, as it's been in storage in Brooklyn for the past 6 years. According to that book a certain place--and sometimes only the name of a certain place--has magical associations for us and we go there looking to find, or re-find them.

We may not even feel that we've really been in Venice till we capture (and post on social media!) our own image of, say, that much-seen view of gondolas moored along the molo near the Palazzo Ducale, with the church of San Giorgio Maggiore all majestic in the background.

A bored gondolier leaning his stripe-shirted torso against the parapet of a bridge is the very image of Venice.

However, a Bangladeshi hawking splat toys in front of that very same parapet is not.

In the terms of my last post such a street vendor may be one of the elements we leave out of the picture of Venice we're constantly composing in our minds--and composing far less consciously than any painter composes the views he or she is painting of the city.

Insofar as such a vendor suggests intractable questions about, say, immigration and acculturation at play both in Venice and beyond, he is rather too real.

The real Venice we're looking for wears an instantly recognizable costume--each element of which we can now buy from stores in the historic center and is emblazoned with the new logo of the gondolier's association, attesting to its authenticity.

An elaborate taxonomy of touristic discernment could probably be plotted out according to the type of subjects considered photo-worthy by visitors. Some people might focus on the most famous sights (Piazza San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, the Rialto Bridge); a tendency probably more common in the era of film cameras. Others might limit themselves to what strikes them as the obscure and little seen. Some might shoot, say, gondoliers and glass blowers but not work boat drivers and taxi drivers; while others, reasoning that the latter two groups play a larger part in the actual economic life of the city, would do the inverse. Some people might focus on the colors and textures of the city, abstracted from any larger sense of the whole. Others might become "meta-tourists" and take as their subject other tourists and the tourism industry itself.  

Some people might do a little of all of the above, and more. And some, myself among them, might take an image like the one at the top of the page and not be quite sure what they're doing.

Has the depopulation of the historic center reached such a point that the "realest" Venice are those areas of town where the population is densest, regardless of whether they look much like Venice or not?

Or is isolation or boredom or fatigue without a recognizably Venetian backdrop too much like the isolation or boredom or fatigue we've left our own home town in order to escape to be worth a picture?

Is the above image one of real Venice or too real Venice?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pretty As a Picture--But Not Quite

Passing through Campo Santa Maria Formosa the other day I was reminded of how painters make the scenes they depict at least as much as they find them. The English painter Ian Layton, whose work you see above (and which you can also see more of on Facebook), was kind enough to talk to me about his process, the differences between working in oil versus working in water colors, and everything else I could throw at him.

Of course some people are still rather scandalized to find that Canaletto made substantial alterations in the scenes of Venice he was supposedly only reproducing, but his departures from things as they strictly were to things as he thought they looked best on his canvases are a matter of course for painters to a greater or lesser degree--as you can see above by comparing Layton's work-in-progress to the scene beyond it.

That people might value an image of the thing more than they valued the thing itself, might confuse an image (or even words!) with reality, dismayed Plato no end, and has continued to drive people and some religions to distraction ever since.

But living in Venice one is reminded that if reality (however you define that) ever had even the slimmest chance of holding its own against images our digital age has finished it off for good. Capturing an image now precedes--if not entirely supersedes--seeing the thing itself, as one can observe most dramatically in Giotto's great Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Aware that they're allowed only 15 minutes inside the small precious space, smart phones are set to snapping before their owners' eyes can possibly take in any of the scene.

But even without a smart phone or camera or paint brush in hand, I think we tend to constantly construct or compose the scenes before us. Indeed, in a city of such overwhelmingly abundant and artful details we have no choice. On any given day I suspect that that tourist souvenir cart to the right of the photo above is almost as entirely absent from my perception of Campo Santa Maria Formosa as it is from Layton's canvas. We all have a certain Venice in mind, a Venice we'd like to see, a pleasing or maybe just tolerable Venice, and we frame our vision of it, with or without a camera, accordingly.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Look, Ma, No Hands!" Or, Getting Cheeky on the Grand Canal

I've written before on this blog that it seems to me that Venetians never look so pleased as when they're piloting their own boats. The images that accompany today's post do nothing to change my mind about this, but they do suggest, perhaps, a type of pleasure I hadn't even considered when I typed my initial remark.

As you can see, it's common for the drivers of mototopi, or large work boats, to steer them with--well, with what you can see for yourself. And even after living here for 6 years, and in spite of its indisputable practicality, it still surprises me.

Of course my 9-year-old son, who aspires to be a mototopo driver himself--and studies and mimics their every move as other kids around the world study and mimic the moves of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi--finds nothing at all curious about this way of steering. Rather, the only question in his mind is whether he'd prefer the smaller type of handle you see above or the type with the long upright extension, as below, against which you can lean back for maximum comfort while driving (note the black padding taped around the upright in the image below).  

At the end of a work day I've seen drivers reclining against (and upon) this latter type of tiller looking quite contented indeed.  

In any case, this is one of those cultural differences between us that I think best to let pass without much comment. I wonder, though, if it would considered acceptable for women mototopi drivers to steer in this way.

But as I've never seen a woman piloting a mototopo here, there's no way of knowing. 

Thunderstorm Over Grand Canal, Tonight

Monday, June 12, 2017

Local Heroes and the Question of Local Autonomy

Jane da Mosto receives the Premio Osella from the president of the Comitato Festa della Sensa, Giorgio Suppiej, as Mayor Gianluigi Brugnaro applauds at far right

Two weekends ago Venice celebrated La Festa della Sensa, or its traditional ritual of "marrying" the sea, and as part of the weekend's festivities three Venetian residents were awarded the Premio Osella d'Oro della Sensa. The award--named after the gold coin once given out to senators by the doge--was intended to recognize the contribution of either institutions or individuals which/who have enriched the city through their efforts in the spheres of culture, crafts or commerce.

The honorees were:

Jane da Mosto, co-founder of the non-profit community organization We Are Here Venice and co-author and editor, respectively, of two books to which I've frequently referred in this blog: The Science of Saving Venice and The Venice Report. (I read and recommended those books before I ever met Jane herself, but since doing so I've contributed photos to Jane and the group for use on their website and in other materials.) 

Saverio Pastor addressed the audience after receiving the Premio
Saverio Pastor, master craftsman of Venetian forcole (oarlocks) and remi (oars), long-time proponent of the culture of Venetian rowing and of Venetian artisans in general, and founder of El Felze, which his website describes as "an association of craftsmen involved in the construction of the gondola and its fittings, and articles of clothing for gondoliers."

Michele Bugliesi, Chancellor of the Università Ca' Foscari, whose most recent achievement--and I think it's a significant one--was the inauguration of the International Center for the Humanities and Social Change on May 17, an interdisciplinary research program with centers in Europe and America devoted to the effects of globalization on contemporary society.

In a city whose resident culture is literally fighting for its life in the face of mass tourism, irresponsible "development", and the ongoing, life-sucking 6 billion euro swindle that are the forever inoperable MOSE water gates, such residents and their efforts deserve not just to be celebrated but held up as examples of the kinds of things that must be done to keep the city alive. 

Ca' Foscari Chancellor Michele Bugliesi addresses the audience
Alas, on the official website of the Comune di Venezia, and in local new reports, the focus was elsewhere. In the former case, a single sentence refers to the award, without bothering even to name its recipients. Then, that perfunctory bit of information done (the use of "però" in the following sentence is interesting), it boasts of the "increasing number of people" who come to Venice to view the marriage ceremony to the sea on the following day.

Because, after all, if there's one thing Venice really needs it's more tourists.

At the award ceremony itself, held in the Palazzo Ducale, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro's focus was also elsewhere. This year's establishment of a "twin city" relationship between Venice and l'Unione Montana Agordina in the Dolomites served as an opportunity for him to lay out a far-reaching vision of a Venice whose "brand" (his word) would extend to the mountains. Of course, as he noted, there had always been an important relationship between the Venice and the mountains, from which comes the city's water and raw building materials.

But as he talked about Venice as "a great metropolitan area" stretching from the sea to the mountains, an area whose economic development should be conceived of as a unified bloc, I couldn't help remembering passages from Salvatore Settis's book If Venice Dies.

In the same chapter in which Settis refers to the "cargo cult" of those who mindlessly "venerate the absolute power of the market," he brings up the following points about those who like to envision Venice as doing little more than imparting its commodity "aura" (or Brugnaro's "brand") to a "great metropolitan area.":

1) While discussing Pierre Cardin's now scuttled plans to build a massive skyscraper on the mainland near the lagoon, Settis writes that the "real issue facing all Venetians, the regeneration of the the former industrial zone of Marghera, has been hijacked to justify real estate speculation. As part of the bargain [of Cardin's proposed residential/commercial high-rise], a new highway planned in the vicinity would modernize Venice by making it look like a Chinese or American metropolis."

Cardin's skyscraper plans may have collapsed beneath widespread public outrage, but similar developments on the mainland are still very much in the works. And perhaps it might be worth noting here that Brugnaro himself is said to own a great deal of property in Marghera.

2) Settis also notes that "Rethinking transit connections in order to save Venice from isolation"--a key point of Brugnaro's at the awards ceremony--"is yet another favorite theme of the high priests of the cargo cult. The Futurists thought they could fill the Grand Canal and pave it over, while their heirs today are planning a huge metropolitan area that would turn the cities of Venice, Padua, and Treviso into a single megapolis."

The "cargo cultists" singled out by Settis like to depict their projects as "sustainable", "green" and the foundations of a "new community"--notions you'll also find in the account of Brugnaro's speech linked to above. And both Settis's "cargo cultists" and Brugnaro inevitably present their favored projects as the inevitable, absolutely necessary, and only possible alternative.  (Brugnaro says: "Solo così possiamo costruire una comunità, progetto che richiede un tempo lungo superando i campanilismi e guardando alle capitali del mondo, perché questo è il senso della nostra città, senza piangersi addosso.")

To entertain any ideas other than those put forth by Venice's non-resident, mainland mayor is to be nothing but a weak-minded, sentimental crybaby (that "senza piangersi addosso" phrase above). 

But of course there are other ideas out there, put forth by people like Settis himself, and community groups such as Jane da Mosto's We Are Here Venice and Generazione 90, which are committed to maintaining Venice as something more than merely a "luxury brand." Indeed, Brugnaro's obsession with the notion of "luxury" and "luxury brands" seems to have come to its full rancid flowering in the current Biennale's embarrassing Venice Pavilion, whose very theme is "Luxus", and whose gaudy "trash" commodities on display are better suited to a suburban outlet mall or a cruise ship port than an international festival of art. 

And, in fact, an alternative vision of Venice's possible future is likely to be put to the vote this fall, in the form of a referendum proposing that Venice and Mestre be separated into two distinct cities--as they were before Mussolini bound them into a single comune

This topic merits a post of its own, which I'll soon put up. But, in short, the idea is that the issues facing Venice are quite different from those facing Mestre, and that each place would benefit from having its own mayor and administration. At present, the majority of the electorate whose votes determine the fate of Venice live on the mainland--as does Brugnaro himself (the first Venice mayor ever born and raised outside of the lagoon).

Indeed, the very stridency of Brugnaro's remarks during the awards ceremony may have been inspired by his awareness of this proposed referendum--which he adamantly opposes, and which he has attempted (and thus far failed) to prevent from taking place.

All of which background made for a rather loaded if good-natured exchange of glances between award-recipient and mayor during Jane da Mosto's short acceptance speech for the Premio Osella. "Given the complexity of the place we live in," da Mosto said (originally in Italian): 
one of my main aims is to encourage citizens to understand the factors that determine our quality of life in the city, together with the limits of what's possible--in economic, social and environmental terms. In this way we will all be able to participate more knowledgeably, and more effectively, in political choices.

We are here Venice is not a factory for trouble-makers [fabbrica di "rompiscatole": literally, "box breakers," but a common euphemism for "ball busters"--and the point at which da Mosto and Brugnaro exchanged smiles] but an incubator for citizens that adds value to their experience, understanding, and knowledge. Even if little is left of Venice (and the need to re-grow the population is urgent*), its value is still immeasurable in terms of history, culture, civilisation and, above all, its innate resilience.

Venice is often considered a mirror on the world. Many of its problems are also found on a global scale. We have the privilege of living here and seeing everything close-up. If we don't manage to save Venice, how will the world save itself?
Even as the Comitato Festa della Sensa chose to recognize three Venetian residents for their efforts on behalf of a living Venice, the attention of the mayor and comune's publicity department was, as usual, elsewhere.

The referendum to separate Venice and Mestre is the best--and perhaps last--chance for the residents of Venice to once again have a say in the future of their city. The ceremony that took place in the grand Sala dello Scrutinio of the Palazzo Ducale on 27 May during the Festa della Sensa reminded me of everything at stake in that referendum. I'll post more information on it soon.  

*While campaigning for mayor Brugnaro promised to increase the resident population of Venice by 30,000 people. During his two years in office the city has in fact lost 1,600 residents.