Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lives Among the Leaves at Palazzo Ducale


No matter how many times I visit the Palazzo Ducale, or the basilica of San Marco, for that matter, I can't help but feel that I'm missing more than I'm taking in. Paradoxically, it seems the more I see, the more I notice what I haven't yet seen and don't have time to see during any single visit. If I then return to specifically look at the things I missed during the prior visit, I notice yet other things I'd never noticed before and that I really must return to look at more closely some time in the future.

And so with each visit, against all logical expectations, my list of things yet to see multiplies rather than diminishes.

I trust at some point this will all change: that a sense of the finite will reassert itself and I'll glimpse, however vaguely, a distant day when I might conceivably believe I've seen pretty much all there is to see at the Palazzo Ducale. At least in theory I trust in such an possibility.

In actuality, I suspect that if a place like the Palazzo Ducale can be compared to a vast novel, an edifice in which an entire world view is spelled out in painstaking detail, the best that most of us will ever be able to do is skim it, or flip quickly through its pages, or, in some cases, just glance at its cover.


I only had a little time to visit the Palazzo Ducale yesterday afternoon and I spent all of it (and more than I'd planned) absorbed in the collection of 14th-century capitals displayed just beyond the ticket booth entrance, well short of the main part of the Palazzo and the main reasons people visit it (the grand rooms of the doge's apartment, the even grander council chambers, the prison). Removed from their original places outside among the building's facade during 19th-century restoration and placed inside where their already damaged surfaces might be safe from the elements, these groupings of capitals are fairly easy to blow right past. I usually do.

Each leafy capital is inhabited by its own category of figures: there are representations of the seasons, of the Zodiac, of trades, of foreigners and so on. I'd typically get caught up in such things, but yesterday I paid almost no attention to themes and took each figure as an individual piece: noticing only the way they were carved, the marks and disfigurements of time, the charm of some, the pathos of others.

The figures on the capitals are both literally (at hardly more then 6 inches in height) and dramatically among the most insignificant characters in the grand sweeping narrative of the Republic that the building's architecture and ornamentation are designed to convey, and perhaps for that very reason, considered one-by-one, they struck me as the most absorbingly human: both vaguely familiar and undeniably other, intimate and strange, very much of the past yet somehow nevertheless--arriving after a hazardous voyage of centuries--present.





Saturday, January 25, 2014

Rowers in the Fog


Today was a sunny clear day in Venice, and much appreciated, but Thursday was whole-heartedly foggy and I still find myself thinking of the rowers in the photo above, rowing in the deep canal along the Fondamenta Nove but appearing to be in the middle of the sea somewhere. It was not the kind of day that's usually recommended for a row as visibility was so bad as to be quite dangerous, and especially for a human-powered boat (a caorlina in this case) with limited maneuverability. They made quite a spectral sight in all that fog, but I was quite glad I wasn't with them--and that they seem to have completed their outing safely.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wellington Books Wades into the Literary Waters of Venice

Wellington Books is quite literally just a few steps from the Rossini Cinema
It was less than a year ago that over 100 published authors and illustrators gathered in the Biblioteca Marciana to call attention to the dwindling number of bookstores in Venice, a city which had once been at the very center of the early book industry and home to the great (and still-influential) printer and publisher Aldus Manutius (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2013/04/standing-up-for-bookstores-city-in.html). The city has managed to keep most of its bookstores in the months since that event, and in December it celebrated the opening of a new one: Wellington Books, a predominantly English language bookstore with a small selection of titles in German, French and Spanish.

At left, the tall shelves of books on Venice
Located at the end of Calle della Mandorla just a few steps from the Rossini Cinema (or Multisala Rossini), and a short distance off the narrow calle of shops that runs between Campo Manin and Campo Sant' Angelo, Wellington Books is, for the English-language reader, the perfect complement to Libreria Marco Polo. While Marco Polo is strong in used editions of contemporary and modern fiction and non-fiction, Wellington Books offers in new mostly paperback editions an array of classic literature (Dante, Austen, Tolstoy), canonical 20th-century giants (such as Wharton, Nabokov, Borges, Yeats), major 20th-century writers sometimes prone to being overlooked (such as the great Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy and Giorgio Bassani), as well as some more recent classics (Edward Said's Orientalism, for example). It has a fine selection of books on Venice at the front of the store, and on its shelves of Penguin's pocket-sized "Great Ideas" series, you'll find seminal texts ranging from Epictetus to Leopardi to Frantz Fanon, as well as a little collection of Marcel Proust essays entitled Days of Reading.

Gaspare, the owner of Wellington Books
This last title includes a wonderfully subversive overturning of Ruskin's utilitarian notion (still popular today) that reading is a passive act by which we are inevitably improved by the lofty ideas of great authors as they are poured into us. Proust's essay, originally written as an elegantly antagonistic preface to his French translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lillies, presents the act of reading as a deliriously idiosyncratic and private act whose effects can never be predicted, and concludes with a lovely and distinctly Proustian evocation of the twin columns of Venice's molo (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2012/05/proust-on-piazzettas-two-columns.html).

A glimpse of the children's section through the door behind the desk
Also of particular note to English-language readers--or at least to this one--is the children's section of Wellington Books, which has already become a favorite haunt of Sandro's, who has a particular fondness for a kid's book entitled The Mystery in Venice recently purchased there. Part of the Geronimo Stilton series from Scholastic Books, the book actually serves as a good introduction to Venice for young readers (or young not-yet readers), offering information on the city's layout, its glass factories, and the Regatta Storica in the course of relating the comic misadventures of its earnest would-be-mouse-of-the-world protagonist.

Hefty in both pounds and price
The most substantial work in Wellington Books, however, at least in terms of sheer weight, is the boxed 4-volume Annuario della nobilità italiana. Weighing in at more than 24 kilos (53 pounds), it's a curious book you'll find for sale nowhere else in Venice. Gaspare, the charming Anglophile owner of Wellington--a native Venetian entirely fluent in English language and culture--told me that his regular delivery man exclaimed, "Amore, what have you got in this box?!" as he lugged it into the shop.

A similar question might be asked about the bookstore itself, and though I've sketched out a bit of an answer in this post, I hope you'll visit and find out for yourself.

You can also keep up with what's happening at the store--such as tomorrow night's first in a series of  in-store book club meetings--on its facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/wellingtonbooks.venice

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sunset Behind the Accademia Museum, This Evening


It's been a very long time (more years than the 3+ I've lived here) since the pleasant little Campo Carità in front of the Accademia Museum was last visible. Or, at least, visible as something other than a large walled construction site whose towering crane seemed destined to become as permanent a part of the Dorsoduro skyline as the dome of Santa Maria della Salute. And it was beginning to seem, and not only to me, that it had been very nearly as long since the sun had been visible here. For with the exception of a brilliant New Year's Day that led the more gullible of us (or maybe just me) to think the sun was already in early March form--capricious, perhaps, and elusive, but never to be gone for too long--it's been almost all fog and rain: a long drab slack string of rather temperate days, without even the invigorating crispness of freezing temperatures. It's really nothing to complain about compared to things like the polar vortex elsewhere, but I suppose one gets spoiled by the sunsets here that grow more spectacular as the autumn turns colder and one comes to expect, even in January, at least a scattering of such displays. There have been none this month, really, before tonight's, which you can see above--and which was worth the wait.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Not with a Bang but a Twitter

Five boys, three hand-held electronic diversions; with two other boys (not pictured) across the aisle, each texting
I see them all crowding around a small common point of interest, like the wise men and shepherds in countless paintings of the adoration in the manger, or the apostles transfixed by the sight of Thomas touching the wound of the risen Christ, and find myself thinking of a slightly altered version of T.S. Eliot's famous last four lines in "The Hollow Men": 

This is the way a culture ends
This is the way a culture ends
This is the way a culture ends
Not with a bang but a twitter.

A detail of Veronese's "Adoration" in SS Giovanni e Paolo
For they, the Venetian boys I'm talking about, are huddled around nothing miraculous--at least not compared to the city all around them, the fantastical product of long centuries of hard improbable labor, which they as young natives are entitled to ignore--but hand-held electronic devices. Video games, usually: and the exact same games that other boys are playing everywhere else in the world, their rapt faces softly illuminated by the glowing device like those of those painted visitors in the manger, beholding their small Savior.

I remember Tiziano Scarpa's description in Venice Is a Fish of the Venetian childhood games he played growing up in the city: massa e pìndolo, tacco, s'cioco e spana, and scainèa, to name just a few (the last of them played on pissote, the humped masses of bricks and plaster filling the obscure angles of the city's architecture, intended to prevent urination). Scarpa was born in 1963, and admits that he was of the last generation to play such games. By the time his book was published in 2000 he could describe such diversions as "ghosts," dead and gone and unknown by the young.   

(The whole idea of games specific to a region or locale is so quaint now as to seem almost far-fetched, though the 12-year-old son of my cousin in Piemonte was, until recently, playing in a  youth pallapugno league, a traditional sport played only around the provinces of Asti, Cuneo, and Savona: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pallapugno).   

A detail of Caravaggio's "The Incredulity of St Thomas"
Such Venetian games, in other words, had disappeared well before smart phones and tablets and all the rest became ubiquitous, even in Italy, and even in the hands of children. But I find myself less preoccupied with any kind of mourning for the disappearance of such traditional games as I watch Venetian kids in vaporetti and fermatte and sometimes even playgrounds(!) huddled around electronic devices, than with wondering about the future. What other cultural traditions, more essential even than childhood games, might disappear in a population raised with such devices? 

I watch a group of Venetian kids or adolescents or young adults all together but worlds apart, each lost in his or her own tiny screen, and I wonder can la passeggiata continue to exist with such technology, such habits, maybe even such addictions?

Maybe the passeggiate, those nightly strolls, those daily does of what Beppe Severgnini calls "social therapy," matter more to me as an American coming from a country of extraordinary isolation beneath a smiley-face mask of anxious, almost coercive friendliness and institutionalized get-togethers, than to Italians themselves. Maybe the loss of such an old-fashioned manner of being together is a small price to pay to be technologically of the moment and in the know.
   
And maybe in Venice, where, according to a recent local newspaper headline, senior citizens outnumber children by a 6 to 1 ratio, the city's living culture is sadly reaching its end in any case, with or without the enthralling distractions of smart phones and the like.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

10 Keys to Learning a Language?

Is sociability more ingrained in some languages than others? Sandro walks home with a friend last spring.
Soon after starting an Italian-English language exchange with a young Venetian here I made the bold assertion that there are ten essential words or phrases in every language that will unlock not just the underlying logic of the language but it's very spirit to those who fully grasp them. Actually, I have no idea if this is true, if I didn't steal it from someone else, or if it's so wrong-headed as to be an idea no one else would claim, but it sounded pretty compelling as I said it. And I can at least tell you about the one ostensibly similar and cognate phrase in Italian and English that inspired this claim, even if it may not actually corroborate it.

Over the course of our first weekly meetings, in which we'd spend one hour speaking only Italian and another speaking only English, I got the impression that my friend Francesco's "infatti" functioned differently in his Italian sentences than the "in fact" that I mentally translated it as and used in my own English speech. To check if this was true, I asked him to give me an example of its use.

He thought a bit, as it's never easy to explain something we say automatically and unconsciously in our own tongue, then pointed out the window and said, "It's raining tonight, infatti the streets are wet." He then apologized for coming up with such a silly example. But to me it was a brilliant bit of illumination upon a phrase I suddenly realized I'd been completely in the dark about.

What struck me about his example, and other ones he gave, was that infatti was used to introduce a second statement that amplified, extended or corroborated the sentence preceding the phrase. That is, the assertion was that something was "infatti" true because something else was also true.

This wasn't at all the way I typically used the phrase "in fact," I realized. On the contrary, my "in fact" almost always served to set up a distinction or contrast between the statement that preceded it and the statement that followed it. I gave Francesco--who as an Italian speaker was as thrown by the differences as I'd been as an English speaker--the example of a certain kind of long-winded person who will inevitably get around to telling you that even though he seems naturally outgoing, he is in fact really very shy. In English, in other words, our use of "in fact" often sets up a contrast between how things seem or appear to be and how things in fact really are.

I'm tempted to say (if only to be provocative) that there's an adversarial edge to "in fact" that is absent from infatti. When I use "in fact" I usually feel as if I'm in the process of clearing away (at least implicitly) a whole mess of false opinions to get at some essential, singular and almost pristine fact, which stands glowingly alone in its validity. While to use infatti correctly I feel the need to look beyond my first assertion to a second one with which to support it. "In fact" is rather anti-social; it requires other claims, but only to reject them. While infatti, like tango, take two: it needs to move in tandem with another assertion to really go anywhere.

Italians conversing near the entrance to the Arsenale
And indeed there's a strong element of sociability in the way infatti is commonly used. For example, a friend recently replied to my exclamation "Fa freddissimo oggi!" (It's so cold today!") with "Infatti!" To translate this response with the English "in fact," or even with "as a matter of fact" (as sometimes works with infatti), is to completely miss the tone of emphatic agreement present in the Italian phrase. A closer approximation in English would be something like the old-fashioned exclamations, "Ain't that the truth!" or "You said it!"

Now from what I've sketched out above it would be pretty easy to simply slide down the slick worn path of stereotypes: of gregarious Italians and fiercely individualistic Anglo-Americans, for example. Of course, Italians are no more uniformly or inherently social than Americans are uniformly or inherently individualistic. On the contrary, one need only travel 30 minutes by train, from Venice to Padova, to get an entirely different impression of how gregarious Italians may or may not be, while Americans' myth of "fierce independence" has been regularly questioned, if not flat debunked since de Tocqueville.

The differences in how each seemingly similar phrase functions in its own language interest me because of what such differences may in the broadest sense suggest about, say, what counts as compelling evidence or experience in each language, how facts might be arrived at or verified, or at least how knowledge tends to be talked about. Do we know things because we as an individual see through mere appearance or is knowledge arrived at more socially?

On a more practical level, though, the differences served as instructive reminders when it came time to help my friend edit his English language resume for Anglo-American companies. The important thing, in fact, on those resumes was for him to keep everything succinct, essential and to the point. He was not going to impress American human resource directors with the value of his Masters Degree in Business by elaborating upon his Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy. It was not a matter of one thing and then another, but of one key thing to the exclusion of others.

Incidentally, my bilingual six-year-old son Sandro uses both "in fact" and infatti in the Italian sense of the latter. "Wow," I said to him the other day in English, "that's a really big truck you have there!" And in English he replied, "In fact it is!"

While I on the other hand... Well, even my claim that there are ten key words or phrases underlying the mass of vocabulary and grammar in every language suggests how hard it is for me to leave behind certain reductive, essentialist habits of thought more in keeping with "in fact" than infatti.    

"By the way," Francesco reminded me during one of our more recent language exchange meetings, "you claimed there were ten key words or phrases in each language. We talked about one, but what," he asked "are the other nine?"

"Boh!" I replied, using the one word in either language that seemed exactly right. "I haven't the faintest idea."

[NOTE: An earlier version of this piece was published in L'Italo-Americano in December.]

Friday, January 10, 2014

Empress Sissi Slept Here: What Price History? Part 2

The Museo Correr identifies this as Sissi's bedroom; the bed now in it belonged to Napoleon's nephew (but calling it the bedroom of Eugène de Beauharnais would excite few people)
In the English-speaking world the author would probably have been labeled a "crank." But the text was in Italian, and though it was rather long (by internet standards) and I skimmed it more than read it, it has stuck with me for nearly a year while whatever it was I was actually looking for when I chanced upon that open letter about the Museo Correr is long forgotten.

What I remembered about it was the author's outrage over the fact that the route into the Museo Correr's extensive collection in the Procuratie Nuove was no longer down a corridor of work by Canova but through Napoleon's overweening ballroom, past Banti's heroic sculpture of the French Emperor as benevolent conqueror, then into an extended suite of rooms glorifying the French and Austrian occupations and celebrating the 7-month residence of the Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi" or "Sissi") of Austria and Queen of Hungary.

I remembered the piece as being a letter to the editor in some local paper and thought I'd never be able to find it again. But, after a number of unsuccessful searches, it turned up as soon as I simply googled "contra Museo Correr", beneath the rather hysterical heading of Rimossi 14 secoli di storia dal Museo Correr, principale vetrina della Civilità veneta ("14 Centuries of History Removed from the Correr Museum, Main Window onto Venetian Civilization").

It turns out that to call the writer of the open letter merely "a crank" would probably strike most people as being far too kind. The text was actually in response to a similarly outraged letter on the website of an extremely conservative and militant group of Catholics: followers of a Holocaust-denying priest with intimate ties to Lega Nord. For obvious reasons I am not about to provide a link to it.

What a frightening place the internet can be!

But if we can forget about, or at least bracket the unfortunate source of that letter, I'd like to return to what I hope is the more reasonable question of what is the appropriate way for the museum of Venice to represent the French and Austrian occupations of the city? Especially considering the large likelihood that the bulk of visitors to it know practically nothing about those decades and the conditions under which Venetians lived.

I ask this not only in the interest of historical fidelity, but because after living here for three years I've begun to think that the present day "tourist crisis" can hardly be understood without some knowledge of the city's dire (and ongoing) struggle to survive since the collapse of its Republic. That is, for well over 200 years the question has been what to do with this place that has so clearly outlived the economic, social and cultural conditions from which it sprang and in which it once thrived--especially now that its fishing, industrial, lace and glass-making sectors have also either disappeared or seem about to.

Austrians and Venetians clash in Mestre in 1848
That the vast majority of Venetians hated the French and the Austrians can be little doubted--in spite of the fact that, as an expert on Venice just informed me, it's still possible to catch a glimpse of a statue of Napoleon, commissioned by Alvise Mocenigo, standing in the depths of a androne in one of the Palazzi Mocenigo. (Though to do so one must be in a sandolo on the Grand Canal). After living in Venice for nearly four years in the 1860s as the American consul to Venice, William Dean Howells wrote:
Consigned to the Austrians by Napoleon I; confirmed in the subjection into which she fell a second time after Napoleon's ruin, by the treaties of the Holy Alliance; defeated in several attempts to throw off her yoke, and loaded with heavier servitude after the fall of the short-lived Republic of 1849--Venice has always hated her masters with an exasperation deepened by each remove from the hope of independence, and she now detests them with a rancor which no concession short of absolute relinquishment of dominion would appease. 
That the majority of Venetians lived in abject and hopeless poverty during the 19th Century is also well established. Both John and Effie Ruskin, for example, write in letters about the wretchedness they witnessed all around them during their stay in the city in 1849 (soon after the fall of Manin's Republic), and "the ubiquitous beggars" of Venice are a primary subject in Howell's work--and bear no resemblance to the images of dancing and singing Italian idlers he'd seen in a childhood book. "Indeed," Howells writes, "the indolence of Venetians is listless and silent, not playful or joyous; and as I learned to know their life more intimately, I came to understand that in many cases they are idle from despair of finding work, and that indolence is as much their fate as their fault."

But in the Museo Correr there's no hint of any such reality beyond the myth of Napoleon and outside the silk-clad walls of what the museum calls the "Rooms of the Empress Elisabeth" (Stanze dell'Imperatrice Elisabetta).

Now I'll admit that my ignorance of the Empress made me wonder why so much attention was lavished upon a person who actually spent so little time in the city. After all, while she may still be a hero to Hungarians for the love she bore that country and her efforts on its behalf, she plays no similar role in the history of Venice. Nor, really, hardly any role at all.

But then I learned that a romantic trilogy of films based upon her life and shot in the 1950s with a teenage Romy Schneider in the title role is supposedly shown every Christmas on Austrian, German, Dutch and French television.

And I learned, further, that it is now a weary commonplace to consider Empress Elisabeth the Hapsburg version of Lady Diana.

And everything fell into place.

"The Hapsburg Lady Di"
Ah, the romantic myth of the free-spirited aristocrat, the young woman of privilege bristling against the constraints of court, the beautiful plutocratic goddess with the common touch! Whatever their interest as living breathing suffering human beings, or historical figures, I can't help but notice how the romantic myth of these two womens' lives conveniently combines the contemporary ideal of individuality to whose mass-marketed forms, paradoxically, we're all supposed to conform, with the supposed apotheosis of crass materialism in extravagant luxury.  

That is, even as I marvel at the "Rooms of the Empress Elisabeth" I sometimes wonder if  I'm not really doing too much more than looking at a museum version of that vulgar old 1980's American class-porn celebrity-driven series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. One which goes pretty light on any kind of history beyond the decorative arts, and pretty heavy on lifestyle.

I understand that given the museum's prime position on the Piazza San Marco its attendance has traditionally been rather disappointing and it needs to come up with ways to make itself "sexier." But does that preclude contextualizing the "Rooms of the Empress" at least just a bit?

Must one be a nut (or worse) to wonder if there might not be some value in following up this extensive suite of imperial profligacy with at least a little room (or mere display case) devoted to documenting Venetian life during the same periods?

It need not be so simple-minded as to suggest anything like a uniform Venetian rejection of the French and Austrian occupiers. It could include Venetians like Alvise Mocenigo, who cultivated a working relationship with both the French and Austrians, as well as revolutionaries like Daniele Manin. But it would--with etchings, manuscripts, newspapers, daguerreotypes or pamphlets of the eras--present a bit of the same period from the complex perspective of Venice and Venetians, which is, after all, supposed to be the museum's focus.

Of course I'm not sure how the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de Venise would feel about this. They're the group that purchased and restored not only the Napoleon sculpture that was the focus of Part 1 of this post, but also financed much of the renovation of what they refer to as le Palais Royal de Venise (of which les petits appartements royaux du Palais Royal--Appartments de "Sissi" was "the second phase"). Bronze plaques attesting to this fact adorn each renovated room, decorously placed-- though still, to be honest, reminding me that the word chauvinism originated in the surname of a fanatical Bonapartist. 

Nor am I sure how the luxury textile house of Rubelli, which donated both their expertise and their fabrics to the restoration of the rooms would feel about it. For it's one thing to identify your brand with the "Hapsburg's Lady Di," but quite another to have it anywhere in the vicinity of daguerreotypes of hopeless poverty and filthy begging children.

And, finally, I'm not sure how many Venetians themselves would go for it; many of whom make their living from a tourism industry that celebrates their city's glamour, not its long periods of despair, or even desperate doomed rebellion. Indeed, even the extremist Veneto separatist whose open letter started me thinking about all this was not outraged by the absence of anything like I mention, but by the disappearance of display cases celebrating the legendary military prowess of Francesco Morosini. He seemed to be more interested in propaganda than history: more the pro patria mori heroic than the well-considered.

I think it might be useful to consider how the ways in which museums are funded might influence the way history is framed and presented, but I can't pretend to offer some conclusion about the Museo Correr and its French and Austrian rooms--and can only hope that by taking the time to entertain such questions I haven't myself slipped crank-ward.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Napoleon Under Glass: What Price History? Part 1


History is written by the victors, as the old saying goes, but these days it's the fingerprints of corporate sponsors or charitable (and by no means politically-innocent) foundations that can often be found all over its presentation. And because, as another old saying puts it, beggars can't be choosers, these fingerprints are particularly evident in places like Venice, where its cash-strapped museums go begging hat-in-hand for funds they have no hope of ever getting from the staggering State.

Combine the two old saws above and what you perhaps end up with is something like the following: History is written these days by those who can afford to foot the bill. And what you also end up with are, more concretely, recent alterations in the Museo Correr--and the Napoleon under glass you see above.

I'd read about such a depiction of Napoleon well before I saw the one in the Museo Correr, though in what book about Venice I can't remember. A larger-than-life-sized sculpture like this one was intended, according to that book, to be the centerpiece of the Ala Napoleonica that the French emperor built at the western end of Piazza San Marco, after tearing down what by many accounts was one of the city's most beautiful small churches (about which you can read here: http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/annienc/2012/07/san_geminiano.html). If all had gone as planned, the two series of sculpted Roman emperors extending to the left and and right of a very noticeable gap atop the center of the building's entablature would have culminated in a heroic figure of just this sort--larger than all the rest of them, naturally.

But wait, I imagine more recent visitors to Venice interrupting, what center-most gap in the Ala Napoleonica are you talking about?

For it's been years since the entire facade of the Museo Correr has been visible. First, because of necessary maintenance hidden behind a large billboard whose revenue was supposed to offset its cost. Then, because the Museo decided it could no longer get by without the revenue from the billboard, even long after the work behind it was done.

The now permanent billboard on the front of Museo Correr

It's rather a strange decision by an institution whose very mission is to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of the city. For while the Piazza in past centuries was typically filled with a much broader (and often sleazier) array of commercial activity than it is today, it was never Times Square--nor a bill-boarded American interstate highway. Whether the billboard features some diamond-bedecked soft-lit blonde sipping champagne or cut-rate blouses sold in a mainland mall, it always strikes me (and many vocal others) as out of place. (Though a 2010 designer clothing campaign encouraging consumers to "BE STUPID" did seem unintentionally apt.)

In any case, in the many years before the billboard, and before a certain purchase by the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de la Venise we'll get to just below, people would sometimes ask Venetians whatever became of the Napoleon statue sculpted for the Ala Napoleonica. And according to that writer on Venice whose name and much of whose book I've forgotten--and who may have been wrong about the intended location of such a sculpture, as the one currently in the Museo Correr was displayed from 1811 to 1814 in the the Piazzetta, not on the Ala Napoleonica--locals would shrug and say with conspicuous disingenuity that Oh, it was around someplace, safe and sound, no doubt [wink, wink], but no one could quite remember where.

In other words, wherever that old sculpture of Napoleon had once been displayed (or intended to be displayed), one could assume it had been quite thoroughly disposed of long ago.

But that doesn't seem to have been the case. In a chapter entitled "Restoration Comedies" of their very interesting book Venice, The Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World's Most Touristed City, Robert C. Davis and Garry R. Marvin examine the complicated relationship between the city and people of Venice and their numerous international benefactors (or self-proclaimed saviors). For all the good that organizations such as Venice in Peril and Save Venice and the like may do, their priorities are not always perfectly in sync with those of Venetians themselves. And sometimes, as in the case of the Napoleon sculpture behind glass in the Museo Correr, they're rather dramatically in conflict. Davis and Marvin write:
When it comes to ruffling local sensibilities, no one has yet outdone the Comité Français, which recently [the book was published in 2004] followed its francophile enthusiasms a bit too forcefully by buying (at Sotheby's) and restoring a neoclassical statue of Napoleon by nineteenth-century sculptor Domenico Banti, with the intention of donating the work to the Museo Correr. Not surprisingly, when word got out, there was a storm of protest among Venetians, who were outraged that the man who had once boasted that he would be "Attila the Hun to Venice" should be so honored by the city whose thousand years of independence he had personally extinguished. Letters and emails poured into the newspapers, and conferences were held, denouncing Napoleon as a "highwayman," a "barbarian," and a "tyrant." "It wouldn't come to anyone's mind," growled one commentator, "to present a statue of Hitler to the Ghetto," and some of the antibonapartisti darkly warned that "they can mobilize the army to bring [the statue] to Venice, but they can't garrison it night and day: we will smash it down with sledgehammers.
As it turned out, a garrison wasn't needed, just a separate niche entirely enclosed in what, given the tenor of the above threats, must be protective glass of some sort. At the very least, one would imagine it could withstand the impact of, say, the fire extinguisher situated beside it.

In any case, this is the reason why one can walk freely around the far more valuable sculptures of Canova displayed out in the open at Museo Correr, but can't get close to Banti's sycophantic piece.

Of course, Napoleon in his role of Attila played an important role in the history of Venice, but the question of how this role should be displayed and contextualized in a Venetian museum is not an easy one to answer. But I'll write a little more about it, and about the restoration of the Austrian Imperial Apartments in the Museo Correr--also "promoted and financed," according to the museum's website, by the very same Comité Francais pour la Sauvegarde de la Venise--in my next post.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Health, Wealth and a Happy New Year's Day on Lido

Boys chase giant soap bubbles made by a clown onstage: on a canvas by Chardin or 17th-century Dutch genre painters this would be an allegory of transience and folly, but on Lido it's just a good time
Yesterday was one of those bright New Year's Days that make the annual dip of the Lido Ibernisti club seem almost like a good bracing healthy idea. But only almost. It may indeed be all of those things (as the Ibernisti claim) but, like an annually-increasing number of others, I was there to enjoy the water only from the shore, and to eat the combination of lenticchie and soft moist pork musetto sausage (called cotechino in Italian) that's supposed to assure one of good fortune (in the monetary sense) in the forthcoming year.

While someone in the role of the doge still solemnly and symbolically weds the sea every spring, the annual Ibernisti encounter with her each January 1st is a festive dalliance. 

Avanti! The number of photographers now rivals the number of swimmers
Sunshine and blue skies and a refreshing dip
Some bathers were in no hurry to get out
And a Happy New Year, too, to all the ships at sea, as I believe they used to say: there were more than a half dozen massive ones waiting their turn to enter the lagoon.
A hint of endless summer at the start of January