Saturday, February 25, 2017

Carnevale's Fancy Dress, and Stench: Tonight

A pair of fancy dress revelers in Caffe Florian

Before tonight's fancy dress balls some revelers gather at Caffè Florian, where the best-dressed of them are seated near the windows and never fail to draw crowds (myself among them)--our camera lenses, if not actual noses, pressed against the glass.

But though the finery on display among Florian's interior makes for some of the most picturesque scenes of Carnevale, it's hardly representative of the actual experience of Carnevale in Venice. Indeed, the center of the "action" tonight--and most nights of Carnevale, which, to be honest, can't end soon enough for most residents--is not at Piazza San Marco, but around the Rialto Market area.

There are no less than three different musical stages jammed into this small area; two of them quite literally side-by-side beneath the two pescheria structures.* As I type these words the ceaseless muddy beat of at least one of these stages fills the room in which I sit, easily penetrating the sound-proofing of the doubled pair of french doors, whose glass it rattles for the third straight night.

These festivities are supposed to start at 5 pm and end by 10 pm. They usually start earlier, and inevitably end later. It's nearly 11:30 pm now and there's no hint of a conclusion.

I seem to recall reading in prior years that the Arsenale was supposed to become the site of all the marvelous Carnevale events of this sort--the favorite events of what in Manhattan are called the "Bridge and Tunnel" crowd. That is, the young people who come from the mainland to get really drunk and trash the historic city.

But now that we live around the Rialto I find that this is the area which the city's authorities in all their wisdom have designated the central party zone. Perhaps because the same city authorities have so successfully pursued policies that drive residents out of the city they figure no one lives here anyway? Or is this their plan to drive out the last of us remaining residents?

In any case, as you can see below in the third image from the bottom, revelers come to the Rialto area, enjoy some "traditional dishes of the Venetian Carnevale" (french fries and hot dogs), then drink nearly to bursting in the vicinity of the Grand Canal. At which point they treat all of the area's small quaint ancient calli as toilets. Indeed, the whole area is turned into an open air outhouse.

No calle is safe from the assault, not even the narrow ones leading to our apartment, which usually seem so easily overlooked and out-of-the-way as to be safe from the worst degradations of mass tourism. But not in this case. A steady, er, stream of drunks staggers into these calli. Our nine-year-old son, Sandro, one of whose bedroom windows has a slightly distant view of one such calle, is so outraged by the behavior that he's been yelling out the window in his strongest Venetian-accented Italian at the trespassers (or trespissers, as the case may be).

And, in fact, much to his approval, an older woman who lives on the calle he can see from his window has been forced to come outside her door armed with a water hose--both to try to wash away the urine (and, alas, not only urine) already on the pavement and walls and to threaten any newly-arriving revelers looking to empty their bladder and/or bowels. 

Luckily, the courtyard of our own building is protected by a locked gate--which I had naively thought to be a completely superfluous precaution before tonight.

So, even as I post images of the more picturesque aspects of Carnevale, it seems important to insert a bit of the reality of it.** At least the reality of it for residents, for many of whom Carnevale is yet another form of invasion, in which the historical city is quite literally pissed on--after being metaphorically served thus by those city officials whose fondest wish for Venice seems to be to turn it into Fort Lauderdale, Florida during spring break. They've certainly succeeded tonight. Except that I think Fort Lauderdale at least tries to provide enough public restrooms for the partiers it courts. While Venice consistently treats both visitors and residents alike with contempt.

*There's an argument to be made that the well-being of the city depends on its officials figuring out how to get buying customers to the Rialto pescheria during the hours when it's open, instead of revelers to it after hours when it's closed. For as La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre reported at the end of September, the ongoing exodus of residents from the city and the dominance of a tourism monoculture has left the Rialto pescheria--"the heart of the city"--with an ever-diminishing customer base and resulted in a marked decrease in the number of fish stalls. 

**The reality of living in Venice might also be of interest to those out-of-towners and foreigners whom city officials are quite content to have buy second and third homes here. A real estate agent I know who works for a large international agency here tells me that the home sales market is booming in Venice, with very nearly 100% of the purchases at their agency being made by foreigners, who are likely to use the property only sparingly themselves, and even more likely to use it as a tourist rental. At what point in the transmogrification of Venice into Fort Lauderdale do the property value of such second and third homes and tourist accomodations begin to be negatively affected? At what point in the transmogrification process do the high end properties start to go unsold? The assumption among city officials seems to be that they can abuse the historic center, the lagoon, visitors, residents, and property owners forever and suffer no ill economic effects.

A big Carnevale crowd waits to buy "traditional Venetian dishes"
Fort Lauderdale? Cabo San Lucas? Venice? Carnevale? Halloween? New Year's Eve? Who can tell the difference?
"Don't touch the Rialto" says the banner--but it's okay to quite literally piss all over it

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

City of Spectacle: Some Views of Today's Carnevale

A costume's wig and hat takes it place among the city's monuments

The Marie of Carnevale brave the weather in an open boat

Though the fog makes it seem their destination must be otherworldly, they ended up heading down the Grand Canal

Spectacle upon spectacle: the costume competition on the main stage in Piazza San Marco

A group of costume competition contestants wait their turn upon the main stage

A contestant with one of the hosts of the festivities

Portrait in pink

A contingent from--as you might guess from their costumes--England

One of the inspired innovations of last year's Carnevale returns this year: artisans work at traditional Venetian crafts in workshop booths around the Piazza

Far from the crowd in the Piazza, a spritz brightens up a gloomy mid-day along the Grand Canal

Monday, February 20, 2017

Details, Details...

You must stand with your back against the wall of the neighboring building across a narrow calle  to get this view (and have a wide angle lense), but it's a reminder that in spite of the good reasons for looking down in Venice--such as not stepping into a canal at the end of a dead end alley or into something left behind by one of the city's four-legged residents everywhere else--you may, like me, be frequently surprised by how much there is to see above your head in even the narrowest passages.

I won't identify this building in case anyone wants to guess.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Nocturne: The News and the Old

If left up long enough Christmas lights become Carnevale lights

Among the nice things about Christmas in Venice is that seasonal decorations for it don't go up too early or stay up too long. Or at least they didn't use to.

Most local businesses and residents typically don't put up their Christmas lights and decorations until the Feast of the Annunciation (8 December) and they take them down after the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January).

This is a marked difference from America, where Christmas decorations seem to go up ever earlier and are prone to appear while kids are still eating their Halloween candy. Of course foreign-owned and foreign-influenced businesses tend to follow the American Christmas merchandising calendar. It seems the new duty-free mall at the foot of the Rialto in the historic Fondaco dei Tedeschi site had Christmas trees up before Venetians even had the chance to celebrate their big local holiday of the Festa della Salute on 21 November. But, then, that mall, as the CEO of DFS (the Hong Kong-based duty-free chain which occupies the Fondaco) admits, is oriented toward Asian tourists.

However, while the city's Christmas lights didn't go up any earlier than usual this year, they've been kept up far longer than before. All the way through Carnevale is the plan--in spite of questions about whether a city so lacking in funds should really be extending their big Christmas electrical bill.

As much as I may like Christmas decorations when they first start appearing in early December here, I'm happy to see them vanish after the Epiphany. For decorative traditions are one way that a community marks its shared sense of the passage of time, of seasons. One way in which a community orients itself in time. The new year--as opposed to the New Year holiday--really seems to get underway once those decorations have been taken down. After the lull of the holiday, during which activity seems to be both heightened and arrested, gives way once again to what seems more like the normal (and now newly welcome) flow of time.

At least that how it's seemed to me in previous years here. This year the city's leaders (marketers, may be a more accurate term) chose to sacrifice this traditional sense of communal time to--you guessed it--what they decided were the needs of the mass tourist spectacle that is Carnevale. So that the very same strands of public lights that may strike a visitor to Carnevale as festive and fun and spirited are, at least to me in my darker moods, yet another sign of a city whose actual (and faint) local life--like the life of its lagoon--has been abandoned by those whose primary responsibility should be to protect and strengthen it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dead End Venice: Two of My Favorites

There's so much advice available on visiting Venice that I rarely feel compelled to give any more. But I will suggest to any visitor who likes to walk that if you don't find the calle you're on abruptly ending in water at least three times a day you're probably spending too much time on the main thoroughfares.

Never mind Piazza San Marco and the Doges Palace and Salute, dead ends (as films like Don't Look Now and The Comfort of Strangers underline) are a quintessentially Venetian aesthetic experience--and those that involve a sottoportego (a passage way beneath a building), as in the images above and below, especially so.

In a city of famous views these sottoporteghi act as the perfect frames, enclosing a representative fragment of the whole: glassy green water, brick, stone architectural elements, and the effects of time, all on an intimate, domestic scale. It's close as you'll find--when the light is just right--to a bit of Vermeer in Venice.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Carnevale Is Launched in the Light of Day

Some of the color of the water parade, with the recently renovated Ca' Da Mosto in the background, second from left
After the Vegas-y spectacle of the night before staged twice on the Cannaregio Canal, oriented largely toward out-of-towners, the association of the lagoon's rowing clubs had their annual corteo acqueo down the Grand Canal on yesterday. This year the number of boats seemed less than previous years, the costumes and decorations less involved and festive. But perhaps that's only because this year I was watching from a different and perhaps wider part of the canal than in prior years; I've seen no reports on actual participation. 

For images from previous years:

The customary giant floating rat leads the parade                    photo credit: Sandro
An acquatic menagerie headed the corteo

The city's bookish Lion marked the boat carrying the mayor

Clad in a 19th-century-style black hat and cape Mayor Brugnaro looked to be reprising his role as Ebenezer "Are there no prisons for the poor?!" Scrooge, which he debuted just a few days before last Christmas with his idea of creating a "citadel" in which to sequester the destitute
Any familiarity with how Venice is run might easily have lead one to assume this Mickey Mouse crew to be the city administration but, in fact, the mayor had already passed

A bit of tango on the Grand Canal

                                          A wide view of the parade of boats as it reaches Ca' D'Oro                                   photo credit: Jen

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Death in the Grand Canal, Part 2

An image of Pateh Sabally published in Venezia Today

In 2007, when the global refugee crisis involved just a fraction of the people it does today, the British filmmaker Isaac Julien released a profoundly moving meditation on the issue entitled Western Union: Small Boats. I had the chance to see both the original 3-screen version and the single screen version, entitled The Leopard, in London last fall, and there's a particular sequence, already unforgettable, that seems particularly relevant to the death of the 22-year-old refugee Pateh Sabally in Venice's Grand Canal on 22 January.

The 18-minute film was shot on the coast of Agrigento and in the grand baroque palace in Palermo where the final scene of Visconti's The Leopard was set. There's something of an implicit narrative in it, but its power emanates from its juxtapositions of the "realistic" or literal with the lyrical, mythical and choreographed; of the perilous journey in small open boats across the sea with luxury, high culture, and artistic beauty; of the unseen and desperate with the opulent and comfortable.

In the sequence I particularly have in mind, underwater scenes of a swimmer thrashing just below the surface of the sea are intercut with--and paralleled by--a dancer's sinuous, vigorous writhing on the decorative tile floor in which Visconti's famous ballroom scene was filmed.    

In this way the unseen "other" becomes visible in the halls of high culture. The rigorously patrolled aesthetic and cultural boundaries between the rich north and the poor south are ruptured, and their interdependence (as economically lopsided as it's been) is literally embodied, acted out. 

Of course this is a work of art whose complexity is very poorly served by summary, and which gives an abiding, haunting form to human suffering.

Pateh Sabally's leap into the Grand Canal was not art.

But because of where he chose to make that leap it became, in the broadest sense, a staged act. That is, performed in front of a large audience. And the rupture it caused in our carefully tended sense of things is attested to by the vigor with which some have tried to contain its implications, to circumscribe the act--sometimes almost to define it away. 

The most obvious attempts at containment and definition are those essentially sensationalistic newspaper accounts I wrote about in Part 1 of this post. Each tends to localize the event for the sake of maximum outrage (or, in the case of the Far Right reader, malicious glee). And even the allusion to the large numbers of refugees entering Italy tacked onto the end of each piece seems less a matter of contextualization than one last spur toward the amplification of whatever emotion the reader already felt.

A more relevant bit of context for Sabally's act, though, might have been the protests that occurred less than three weeks before his death at the refugee center a short distance from Venice in the small town of Cona. There, in a refugee camp designed to hold only 15 refugees that now holds (according to some reports) almost 100 times that number (1,400), a 25-year-old woman from the Ivory Coast died and residents, believing her ailment had been ignored by camp administrators, "revolted", destroying property and causing some frightened staff to barricade themselves inside a camp structure for safety.
It was the third protest in this former missile base in the last year, though previous ones had all been peaceful. After an autopsy on the deceased, Sandrine Bakayoko, officials announced that the cause of death was pulmonary embolism and found no reason, despite residents' claims (and prior infractions at the site), to pursue charges of negligence or impropriety.

There's no knowing if Pateh Sabally, who traveled to Venice from Milan on the day of his death, was even aware of the events in Cona. Yet to us witnesses of his act, his own knowledge (or lack) of it makes no difference. What we know alters how we see it, the sense we might make of it--and perhaps the growing sense that those people we do our best to keep out of sight are becoming ever more desperate to be seen.  

But despite the public nature of Sabally's act and the fact that with so many witnesses (in person and otherwise) there would inevitably be varying interpretations--or, rather, for this very reason--the mayor of Venice was quick to assert his own definitive version of things.

1 of 2 memorial wreaths in the water near where Pateh Sabally died
Local reports that the city of Venice would pay for the funeral expenses of Pateh Sabally also included Mayor Luigi Brugnaro's official statement on the young man's death, in which he describes the feelings of "sadness and human pity" inspired in himself and everyone else by Sabally's "personal act of desperation" and declares that we must "stigmatize" those who would misappropriate this act for their own political motives.

Then, beginning with his very next sentence, Brugnaro himself politicizes this "personal act of desperation" with an extended appeal--on purely "humanitarian" grounds, of course--that migrants in no way be given any false hope that they will be accepted in or have any place in Italy.

Indeed, his heart swelling with compassion, Brugnaro goes on, first, to issue an ominous admonishment (reeking of the far Right, anti-immigration, racist Lega Nord party) that we "understand the future implications" of continuing to allow immigrants into Italy, then closes with the philanthropic suggestion that the very kindest thing we can do for immigrants is to repel them at our borders (and on the open sea?), saving them thus from the "tragedies and suffering" they'd otherwise inevitably undergo here.

This was classic Brugnaro. As is typical of him, he was defining the issue once and for all and declaring all other opinions null and void. Having reportedly paid for the funeral from city funds otherwise available only to him, our wealthy mayor seemed to believe that his munificence gave him the patriarchal right of having not just the final word, but the only one. A faulty and essentially anti-democratic belief that forms the core of his governing style.

Moreover, Brugnaro's expressed compassion for Sabally and other immigrants would certainly be less dubious if he were not also inclined to stoke Lega-Nord-like fears of an Italy overrun by Africans. For example, just two days after Sabally's death, and three before his statement about it, Brugnaro hysterically warned that limiting the flow of tourists into Venice would "probably" lead to "tourists being replaced by Nigerians, whom it would then be even harder to scare off."

I suppose what I'm generally suggesting here is that it actually takes a great deal of effort to depoliticize Pateh Sabally's leap into the Grand Canal. It requires a concerted effort to block out the contexts--in Venice and the Veneto, in Italy, in Europe, in the world at large--in which such an act, and such despair, can't help but make us think about how our local, regional, national and trans-national governments are responding--or not responding--to this global crisis. We do not know Sabally's intentions or thoughts; he drafted no manifesto before his act. But he didn't need to tell us his exact thoughts for the significance of his leap to be far greater than merely "a personal act of desperation."

Last week it was reported that the city of Venice also paid to return Sabally's body to his native land of Gambia. As a way, Brugnaro said, of "alleviating in part the family's pain." But none of the painful issues raised by his very public death in Venice can be laid to rest by his private burial in Africa. Those issues are still very much alive; the suffering continues, the crisis goes on. In this city of spectacle, which has long sold itself as a stage set for fantasy--engagements, weddings, romance, carnevale--Pateh Sabally showed us something real, too real for most of use to abide.

I have no solutions to offer to the issues. But I think it's important to pause over Pateh Sabally's last act, and important to remember that in the Grand Canal directly in front of the train station, where new arrivals first step into the fantasy world of Venice, a man was willing to die in order to finally, if only briefly, be seen. In a matter of minutes the water swallowed him up, but he is not forgotten, and there are millions of others like him, still living, struggling, suffering, who deserve our attention.

You can find Part 1 of this post here.
A view of the area of the Grand Canal in front of the train station where Pateh Sabally drown