Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Verdure Preserved: Una Gran Vittoria on Lido's Gran Viale

Protesters march on July 11 down Lido's Gran Viale between the trees they are trying to preserve
A large protest on July 11 down Lido's Gran Viale that interrupted traffic for a time seems to have made its point. Il commisario straordinario del Comune di Venezia, Vittorio Zappalorto, announced yesterday that Insula (the public/private company responsible for infrastructure projects in the city) would not be allowed to cut down very nearly all of the trees on the Gran Viale as it had originally planned. (My original post on this issue and the protest march can be found here:

Indeed, as Il Gazzettino sarcastically pointed out in today's paper (, some 150 to 200 trees have miraculously returned to good health after suffering from what the city's environmental councilor, Gianfranco Bettin, had just last April diagnosed as terminal cases of "risalita salina" (rising saltwater).

And yesterday's press release on the Comune di Venezia's official website announcing the trees' reprieve ( detailed a careful evaluation of the health of each tree that is drastically different from the wholesale hacking previously planned. The internal condition of even externally withered trees, it states, will be analyzed to determine the "real state of health" before a tree is removed. And Commissioner Zappalorto has, it continues, been assured by Insula that any trees felled will be replaced with others.

In a city in which many, if not most residents feel that their voices are typically drowned out by the insistent siren song of the tourist industry and the ever-present hum of cronyism and corruption, this is a significant achievement. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Burano from across a Barena in Bloom

Limonium vulgare--or what is known in English as Common Sea-lavender--is now in bloom on the barene in the north lagoon.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Anywhere I Lay My Head

Teatro La Fenice typically has a sign posted on their front steps asking people not to sit down on them. I'm not sure whether they've given up on this rather hopeless effort, whether they forgot to put the sign out yesterday, or had already taken it inside by 6:30 pm, when the above image was taken, but I have a feeling they never imagined that one day they might need to post a sign asking people not to nap on their steps. That day has, however, arrived.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Festa del Redentore 2014: Seeing, Feeling, Breathing Fireworks

Sandro beholds a fleeting pyrotechnical constellation
I don't think there's a bad place from which to watch the fireworks of the Festa del Redentore, so extensive is the show and so picturesque the backdrops surrounding the basin of San Marco. In fact, I suspect the only possible complaint you might have while watching the show from whichever vantage point you take up is that you can't simultaneously be watching it from at least two others.

I've been lucky enough to watch the fireworks while anchored in the middle of the broad Canale San Marco near the Arsenale (, while standing all alone near the Giglio vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal (, and while seated at the edge of Sant'Elena (

This year we had the good fortune to watch them explode almost right above our heads from a boat in the middle of the bacino di San Marco. Not our own boat, I should quickly add, for as sweet as the thought may be of toodling into the basin in one's own small sanpierota to take up one's place amid hundreds of other boats, the reality of maneuvering through such a festive bobbing armada is beyond my piloting skill after only about six weeks of boat ownership. We were lucky to be with a friend who handled his boat as deftly as if it were small shopping cart, advancing, pivoting, retreating with ease.

In the center of the bacino you not only see the show, you feel it and breathe it. In the lit smokey sky after the brightest explosions you see large ashes of the exploded rockets drift slowly down, like insubstantial maple leafs. And the smaller ashes you can't see you feel: little things barely there brushing your arms, settling in your hair, almost in your eyes.

I somehow managed to forget to bring the one lens I most needed--a wide angle--but it would hardly have mattered. When viewed from the middle of the bacino, the field of fireworks exploding overhead is so vast as to exceed the limits of one's own vision, much less the frame of a camera. The images in this post are of the lower and even lesser fireworks: the grandest most dramatic bursts occurred higher up in the sky. A reminder, I suppose, that as sophisticated as our electronics are, and as dependent as we may be upon them, our intensest lived experiences still--thankfully--resist reproduction and representation.

A local friend told me there were used to be far more decorated boats a decade ago than there are now, but as you can see, above and below, some people still keep up the tradition
Bright colored lanterns in the dark crowded waters of the bacino of San Marco

Beneath the almost mid-day brightness of the spectacular grand finale

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Red Redentore: A Glimpse of Last Night's Celebration (with More to Come Tomorrow)

And, yes, oddly enough, those are two people swimming in the Bacino di San Marco during the fireworks (one with a camera)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Redentore Preserved (Services Cut)

Tables, flags, and paper lanterns just after noon today on Riva degli Schiavoni
The threats to cancel La Festa del Redentore due to lack of city funds seem to have been political posturing after all, as the whole shebang is taking place this weekend as usual. Of course the headlines of all today's local papers are all about cuts to Venice's nursery schools, public services, and garbage collection. Is this, one wonders, where the funds needed for Redentore were "discovered"? Well, at least we Venice residents have been left (for the time being) with what my physician here likes to describe bitterly as our "half a hospital."

In any case, preparations for this evening's dinner and celebrations and fireworks began before noon today with tables being set up, or places claimed for tables yet to come, along watersides all around the city. There are new regulations this year governing which kinds of boats can anchor where around the basin of San Marco; though, of course, last July it was on land, in Piazza San Marco, not on the water, that things got out of control.

As I type this with my window open I can already hear the insistent disco thump of a party boat on the lagoon. 

Here's hoping for a safe and sane Redentore this year.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Violin Maker and Restorer in Dorsoduro

"When did you start learning how to work with wood?" I ask Francesco Trevisan as we stand in his small workshop on the ground floor of his 16th-century house just behind the Guggenheim Museum in the Dorsoduro sestiere of Venice. He points to his two-year-old son Arturo, seated on the ground between us, pounding with a large wood mallet (but no nails) on a block of wood, and says, "When I was his size. I started out just playing in my grandfather's workshop, where the tools were my toys, as they are for Arturo. My grandfather was a carpenter in the Arsenale. He worked on boats belonging to the Navy. And his brother, my great-uncle, had a business renting boats near [the church of the] Carmini. My grandfather would repair those, too. Wood boats, boats to be rowed."

I'm puzzled by the idea of someone renting out boats not far from the historic center of Venice. Overly-influenced by today's Venice, I assume the business must have been oriented toward tourists, but can't imagine either the little rowboats available for rent in someplace like Rome's Villa Boghese in Venice, nor tourists capable of rowing in the Venetian style. "This was a business for tourists?" I ask.

"No," Francesco replies, "for Venetians. My great-uncle rented traditional Venetian boats, sanpierote, tope... Through the 1970s there were not all the motorboats there are now in the city, and fiberglass boats had not yet taken over, as they have now. If a Venetian needed to transport something like a piece of furniture, for example, they would still do so by rowing. These were my great uncle's customers."

It's hard for me to believe that traditional oar-powered Venetian boats had played such a role in the city during my own lifetime, but if I'm going to manage it anywhere Francesco's workshop, where he repairs and restores violins and cellos and other wood instruments, is one of the best places to do so in Venice. Outside the walls of this little room filled with tools and pigments and instruments and craftsmanship redolent of another era, Rio Terà San Vio is so completely quiet at noon on this weekday, without even a stray sound of a vaporetto or water taxi, that it's easy to imagine that one still lives in a time when Venetians get around by oar and that it's the norm, rather than something quite old-fashioned, that the son of violin maker would naturally become a violin maker himself.

But the fact is that Francesco's own path to becoming a violin maker, in spite of his grandfather's influence, was not direct. He studied physics at Ca' Foscari, then, after a mandatory year of military service, worked in the carpentry department of Teatro La Fenice until he was 30, when he gained admittance to the International School of Violin Making in Cremona.

"What made you want to learn to make violins?" I ask him. "Do you play?"

"No, I play the flute," Francesco says. "But I loved music, I had worked with wood my whole life, the school is excellent, and is nearby..."

"So if Cremona was the birthplace of the guitar, let's say, with a long tradition and an excellent school, do you think you would have learned to make them instead?" I ask.

"No, no," Francesco immediately replies. "For me the violin has a special allure."

At the time Francesco attended the school there was a three-year and a five-year program; because of his extensive prior experience with wood, he enrolled in the shorter program. (An interesting recent article on the school in Cremona can be found here: Having completed it, he chose to spend his mandatory one-year training period not in Cremona, where the emphasis would have been on making new instruments, but in Germany, in Oldenburg (near Bremen), where he could take the first step toward becoming a restorer. He enjoyed his time there, then spent short periods gaining more experience in England and Holland, before returning to work in Cremona for two years. He then took a job in Lugano, Switzerland for a year and half, before moving back to Venice and trying to open his own shop. In a city so completely given over to tourism, it wasn't an easy task, nor was he thrilled at how much time he had to devote to matters of business rather than craft, so when a friend told him of a position available at an important shop in New York City, David Segal Violins, near Lincoln Center, he applied for it ( 

"Was it the job or the chance to live in the city of New York that appealed to you more?" I ask him.

"The job," Francesco says. "It's an excellent shop, one of the best in the world. It turned out that I liked New York very much, but if the shop had been somewhere else, I would have gone there."

He spent his hours in the shop restoring and maintaining and repairing some truly great instruments. It was there, in New York City, that he had the chance to actually work on--and not just study--instruments made by the legendary luthiers of Cremona, such as Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and Antonio Stadavari. In his spare time, after shop hours, he made violins of his own.

"For anyone who wants to make violins, it's very important to have the experience of actually handling and working with a Stradavarius or a Testore, to see first-hand how they were made," Francesco tells me. To see and hear one of the violins that Francesco himself made during his New York years, you can watch a young up-and-coming violinist, Margarita Krein, performing the Red Violin Caprices by John Corigliano with it here:

It was Krein herself who would relay to Francesco one of the most flattering estimates of his violins he's ever received: she was in a recording studio in New York recording some pieces when the sound engineer in charge asked her, after a few trial runs, for information about the Stradavarius she was playing.

Francesco's skill as both a restorer and a maker of instruments in New York led to a job offer from Robertson and Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another of America's best known shops (, but a relationship and subsequent marriage brought him back to Venice, where he now devotes himself to restoration and repairs.

He shows me a mid-19th century double bass he's currently working on. "A local baroque musician found this in a flea market," he tells me. "The sides are quite damaged, with cracks and holes--you see I must fill in places with small pieces of wood as if I'm doing a mosaic. But it is a Viennese instrument, it's top is still in good shape, and it is not easy to find an instrument like this with wood that has been seasoned for 100 or 200 years. Or, rather, you can, but it will be extremely expensive. So we take our chances with this one. The job will take me six months, but I think we will have a very beautiful sounding instrument when everything is done. It will have the kind of sound that is perfect for baroque music, instead of the kind of tones you get from new instruments."    

Internal view of the f-hole of a mid-19th-century double bass
In his spare time now, Francesco plays flute in a nearby amateur wind orchestra--the Gruppo Musicale Città di Molignano--and, like many Venetians, runs a B&B out of his house. Named Dorsoduro 461, after its address, it offers three double rooms in the apartment two floors above his ground floor workshop, and a bright book-filled lounge/breakfast room looking over the beautiful and tranquil Rio Terà San Vio ( "They are not extravagant lodgings," Francesco says, "but they are very fairly priced, I think, and comfortable, and the location can't be beat--close to everything, and very Venetian, but also very peaceful."

His ideal now, he tells me, is to integrate his work on instruments with the B&B: "I'm lucky to have had very interesting guests from all over. But when musicians come to stay, that is even more special. If a musician has an instrument to repair, or is interested in having a violin made, then the shop and B&B merge perfectly. Or if a musician comes to Venice and would like to play here, it would be fun to arrange for a performance with other musicians, in a hall. Or also as a flash mob. I have been quite taken with what musicians have done with flash mobs. You know flash mobs?"

I admit I really know only the term, so he leads me to a computer in his apartment upstairs and shows me the following video of an extraordinarily well-choreographed and striking flash mob performance by the Vienna Philharmonic in the Vienna Westbahnhof:

"Now, that is really exceptional," he says, " I don't imagine anything so grand in Venice. But I love the idea of musicians coming together to make this dramatic fleeting thing of such great beauty. What a great thing it would be for the city--so different from all the regulations and tourism and money-making--and what a great experience for the musicians who participate and the bystanders who see and hear it."

It is now time for Arturo's lunch. Arturo has kept a small hammer with him from the workshop. I think of the line of wood working descending from Francesco's grandfather, to Francesco, and possibly to Arturo, and it suddenly occurs to me to ask, "But what about your own father, Francesco, he didn't work with wood?" 

"No," Francesco says, "he sold fabrics." Which, of course, is another craft and trade at which Venetians have long excelled.

"Do you hope that Arturo will follow in your footsteps?" I finally ask. "Become an instrument maker, too?"

"I would like him to be able to do what really interests him," Francesco replies. "If that is working with wood, then, yes, I would be happy. I became accustomed to the smell of wood and the tools very very early in my life. I think that can be very beautiful, to start very young with very good memories of being with your grandfather, or father, in a good safe place, having fun, playing, not working. The memories stay with you always, when you are older, they inform your work, they remain. But if that is how he will feel about things--that is up to him. I don't worry about such things. The important thing now is to have fun." 

The entryway of Dorsoduro461 B&B, with a reflection of Francesco's workshop