Saturday, August 17, 2019

Another Venice By Moonlight, Tonight

Though not as well known, nor as extensive, as Southern California's Venice, the northern California town of Capitola has its own version of La Serenissima, originally called the Venetian Courts (above). Opened in 1925, some two decades after the founding of the beach community down south originally called the "Venice of America," the Venetian Courts bear, in truth, remarkably little resemblance to their supposed model in the northwestern part of the Adriatic--aside from their proximity to water (Soquel Creek, just before it empties into the Pacific Ocean) and their brightly painted facades which, at least for certain sufferers of color blindness, might conceivably evoke Burano (though neither Buranesi nor Venetians would be pleased by such a conflation of their two communities).

In fact, the lack of resemblance between the above place from its supposed inspirations has always, at least for me, been a main source of its charm. There's something to be said for getting something so wrong as to stumble upon a certain idiosyncratic rightness all its own.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A Nimble Equilibrium

Despite his abiding concerns with moral rectitude, uprightness, and social order, John Ruskin hated architectural symmetry. In this, I suppose, he was just following in the Romantic tradition of the poet William Blake, who feared that the unbounded imagination--of the sort that could see angels sitting not just in the boughs of trees, but in the lineaments of one's fellow citizens--was, in the modern world, becoming ever more oppressed by what he termed the "fearful symmetry" of scientific and mathematical ideals. Ideals embodied in new forms of industry, which reduced living Nature to mere "raw materials," and human beings to machine-like repetition in the service of this new industry.

In Ruskin's willfully-myopic myth of Venice, the Republic's Fall from god-fearing righteousness to cynical materialism is first evident in its shift from the glorious hand-crafted irregularities and surprises of its Gothic architecture to the predictable symmetry of the Renaissance style (before becoming vulgar beyond all bearing in its Baroque phase).

But what I'm repeatedly struck by as I walk around Venice is that its buildings are never quite so symmetrical as they may, at first glance, appear to be. There's not so much a "fearful symmetry" in the three facades pictured in this post, as a kind of nimble equilibrium, a subtle and unexpected play of counterbalancing well-suited to a city whose survival has always depended upon its ability to adapt to the demands of its liminal and always-changing location between sea and land.*

*An ability which its recent city administrations, with their costly failures--ranging from the MOSE watergates to the forever-dysfunctional Calatrava bridge--and short-sighted money-grabs suggest it may have lost.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

A Peripatetic Festa Del Redentore: 14 Views

Their restricted view of  the fireworks--partially blocked by buildings (though reflected, as you can see above, in the upper windows of the church of the Gesuati)--didn't dim the enthusiasm of this crowd in Campo Sant' Agnese

Boats offer some of the best views of the fireworks, but as ours is in for repairs we could only admire ones like the above from on land

Decorating boats was once a major part of the Feast of Redentore, but few seem to do it now. Which is too bad, as even a minimalist approach to ornamentation, like the boat above, adds a lot to the festivities.

Only at the last minute did I decide to set off to see the fireworks and found the Zattere to be crowded with revelers (and with a lovely orange moon in the distance)...

...entertained by the local band above, which was doing its last number as I arrived: "YMCA" by The Village People

People took up places along the Zattere, expecting to see the fireworks over the bacino of San Marco--only to find out once the program began that their experience was to be purely auditory: booms resounded, but not so much as a single far-flung spark was visible.

And thus began a mass migration north- and west-ward in search of vantage points: this partial one is from the bridge leading from Calle Magazen to Campo San Trovaso

Here, from the Fondamenta Bonlini beside the church, looking across the Rio de San Trovaso down Calle Larga Nani

Here, from the foot of the Accademia Bridge near the Campo della Carità (of which, incidentally, there was none to be found when it came to securing a space to see the fireworks from the bridge)

So many people formerly on the Zattere were hurrying along fondamente and across campi only to find one bottleneck after another awaiting them in whichever calli they chose to take in the direction of the fireworks--with hardly less urgency, though in slightly better spirits, than those who once fled from the mainland into the lagoon to escape old Attila's own brand of fireworks--that I was happy enough to happen upon picturesque, if only partial, reflections of the spectacle, as above.

Of course those people employed to manage the flow of foot traffic didn't even see so much as reflections of the fireworks: the man above holds a sign that states "Varco Chiuso" (Exit Closed)

And after the spectacle was done, the traffic on the water (above and below, on Rio San Trovaso) became as challenging as that on land...

Traditionally, revelers headed to Lido after the fireworks to continue the festivities until dawn on the beach. Some still do this, and, as might be expected, private interests have turned this tradition to their own account, creating for-profits parties to replace the communal ones of the past. But after the fireworks a lot of other boats head in the opposite direction from Lido, a steady stream of them down the Grand Canal (or, above, Rio Nuovo) westward and home.

For views of the Festa del Redentore from the water see: Navigating the Festa del Redentore 2017

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

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

Festa del Redentore 2014: Seeing, Feeling, Breathing Fireworks 

And for views of the festival from many many different vantage points, enter "festa del redentore" in the "Search This Blog" box in the right margin near the top of this page.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Funniest Art Currently On Display in Venice

A viewer contemplates one of the large sculptures currently on display in the Arsenale by the creator of the celebrated giant hands installed along the Grand Canal during the run of 2017's 57th Venice Biennale

"The worse your art is," the great American poet John Ashbery once said in an interview, "the easier it is to talk about."

I'm reminded of this remark whenever I encounter a work by a living (if not quite "contemporary") artist whose sculptures in recent years have come to be a pretty much constant presence in Venice.

The very first time I saw one of his pieces it was situated on the long stretch of loading docks that run along the Canale della Scomenzera, amid pallets of construction materials and gravel and garbage bins.

A life-sized tank, it was, held by a hand so over-sized as to make the former appear like a toy and extending upwards just beyond its wrist, where it abruptly and smoothly terminated like Thing T. Thing in The Adams Family.

I had no idea what it was the first time I passed by it on the vaporetto, nor the many times I passed by it afterwards while it sat unmoving and neglected amid the constantly changing array of trash containers and building materials for a period of many months. Could it be art? I wondered at one point. But it was such a puerile piece it seemed too great a stretch to apply the term, in any but the loosest sense, to it.

Perhaps it had once formed part of a promotional display, or an amusement park for children.

Whatever it was, or had been, no one seemed to want it. It sat there uncovered in all weather for what I seem to recall was at least a couple of years before someone, mercifully, hauled it away.

Eventually, I'd discover that, yes, indeed, it had at one time been created as a work of art and had been shown in the 2011 Biennale in the Italian Pavilion.

It was the kind of piece I was happy to forget all about. 

Until 2017, when not just one but two of the same kind of over-sized hands appeared in the Grand Canal, rising up from its water to support the facade of the Hotel Ca' Sagredo. Not to feel up the old pink facade, or to tickle it. No, neither of those things, but--and make no mistake about it!--to SUPPORT it. For that was the title of the piece, displayed in large letters on a banner hung from the hotel's main balcony, lest anyone succumb to the temptation to tease any other meaning from the spectacle.

And what a spectacle it was! Front page of the New York Times! Backdrop for innumerable selfies!

Now this was an important piece! Why, it told you so itself! Exhaustively, in an artist's statement that told you precisely the piece's significance. And that significance was huge, it was massive, it was profound and very moving, and many people were, as they should have been, very moved indeed. Why, it was all about saving the fragile city of Venice, supporting it in all its ancient beauty.

Who in the world could disagree with such a statement?

Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

After all, a whole century had passed since those trouble-making Futurists suggested just the opposite: that the old city of moldy stones, with all its oppressive history and romance and "magical moonlight" be pulled down: the canals filled in and the lagoon transformed into a mecca of modernity, with fast motorcars and trains and aeroplanes. Murder the moonlight! they cried. Put the tired old tart of a city out of its misery, worn out as it was after centuries of prostituting itself.

Well, no one says such horribly nasty things today!

Not even the very people themselves who are most avidly prostituting the city, most busy destroying quite literally its very foundations, most frantically wringing the last juice of profit from the old rind. Every single one of those people and companies, from Venice's non-resident Mayor "Cruise Ship", to all those pigs fattening themselves from the trough of the corrupt and ever-inoperable swindle known as MOSE, to all the speculators, large and small, who have turned 6 of every 10 apartments in the city into a tourist rental--every single one of these entities will, with one voice, assure you they are supporting Venice.

So what does it mean to actually "support" Venice?

Well, that's a rather complicated question: one which a simple exhortation, no matter how big the banner, no matter how selfie-worthy the spectacle, no matter how explicit and even moving the explanation of the work offered by the artist himself may be, doesn't even manage to acknowledge, much less raise. 

The popular success of those two giants hands, in fact, stemmed precisely from the fact that their ostensibly bold exhortation, for all its bullying over-determination, proclaimed quite simply nothing. 

In a culture in which everyone seems to be just waiting to take offense, it managed to offend no one at all, because, in the end, for all the artist's over-explanation, "support" is one of those words, like "freedom," which can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. (Every American, for example, enjoys total "freedom"--they just can't afford to quit their job and lose their health insurance lest an illness wipe out every cent of savings they have and drive them deep into the abyss of debt, if not death.)

But, regardless of my own opinion of that work, it was a smash. Of such magnitude, in fact, that the Hotel Ca' Sagredo parted with it reluctantly, and only after city authorities informed them that the exhibition permit needed to display the work on the Grand Canal had expired and could not be renewed.

After the hands were hauled away, the hotel soon installed another work by the same artist in the same location, and it is there still. A work which, though much smaller, exhibits what I consider an equal level of... artistry.

This smaller sculpture by the creator of the giant "supporting" hands has been situated in the same place outside Hotel Ca' Sagredo ever since the removal of the former, alongside the traghetto station Santa Sophia

Indeed, if the work of this particular artist floats your boat, you're in luck, as there's a display of his works currently running at the Arsenale that includes not just a new expanded version of those giant hands but smaller (though still monumental) works involving the entire human figure akin to that currently posted outside Hotel Ca' Sagredo.

I encountered them a couple of weeks away quite by accident, having gone to the Arsenale to see the boat show. The boat show ran for just a few days, but the art on display is slated to run, I believe, through the end of the Biennale in late November.

The newest monumental work by the artist of the giant hands "improves" upon Support by multiplying the pairs of hands from one to an even half dozen, and supplying not just, indoors, a smaller (though still large) working model of the gargantuan work situated outdoors, but extensive and detailed wall text explaining the precise meaning of each and every pair of hands.

Explanations of a current work on display at the Arsenale by an artist who seems intent on leaving nothing to the viewer's imagination

The pairs of hands, it seems, are nothing less than emblems, not just expressive of something or other, but actually educational and inspirational, according to the very specific wall text.

Again, I was reminded of a quotation. In his dialogue entitled "The Critic as Artist," Oscar Wilde has one of the participants declare: "There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally."

I'd change this slightly to: "There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it. The other, to create and post explanatory wall text beside it." (And there's no shortage of these at the actual Biennale itself, by the way.)

The problem I have with this particular artist whom, to my amusement, seems to be becoming as associated with Venice as Tintoretto, is that, ultimately, his works are just so limited, so earnestly self-defined, such dead ends, in other words.

If living in Venice teaches you anything it's that you shouldn't put too much faith in road maps-- especially those that try to tell you just which way you should go.

But mine may be a minority opinion, perhaps entirely idiosyncratic, or even idiotic--and I'm as okay with that as I am with those who enjoy the works. Indeed, they did seem to be enjoyed by people at the boat show.

And I have to admit that he's one of the few artists now on display in Venice whose works invariably make me laugh out loud upon first sight of them. Though that may not be their creator's intention, I very much appreciate the effect anyway.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde again: "One must have a heart of stone to look at this work and not laugh."

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

How Much Is That Doggy In the Window? Campo dei Gesuiti

I've seen a cat or a caged songbird perched on a window ledge in Venice--and when the city was still filled with residents these were probably fairly common sights--but never, until today, a dog

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Untimely Reflections, Last Night

Like Christmas in July, acqua alta in July upends expectations, as the latter, no less than the former, is more typically a December (and, more generally, winter) event.

But at least in the heat of July the irresistible urge that overtakes certain tourists to splash (or even swim) in the puddles of sewer water--or allow their children to do so--seems slightly more understandable, if no less foolish, than it does in the middle of winter.  

Venice Beach: local police would eventually arrive and move this trio along (as lounging about in the middle of Piazza San Marco is frowned upon as being disrespectful to the city's most famous space), but not before various children ranging from 18 months to about 10 years of age splashed and literally sprawled in the acqua alta bubbling up from the bowels of the city's sewer system as if they were at a sea shore.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Red Rooster

Okay, I know they're an over-exposed subject of tourist images, but even after 8 1/2 years of living here full-time it's still possible in the course of running an otherwise unremarkable series of errands to be struck by the flair of certain gondoliers--their ability to get a pose just right.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Narcissa on the Grand Canal

Selfies are ubiquitous in Venice: there are even three little-noticed instances of the practice in this detail from Veronese's "Martyrdom of San Sebastiano" in the church to which the saint gives his name.

It was early February during a difficult morning at the end of a bad week. But the sun was out, despite the chilly temperature, and there's usually some consolation to be found in a vaporetto ride on the Grand Canal between two points you usually traverse on foot. Well, at least in low season, and in that brief gap between the end of the commuter rush into town from the mainland and the start of the daily tourist invasion.

I boarded the number 2 vaporetto that runs between Piazzale Roma and the Rialto and found all the outdoor fantail seats empty. I chose one with my back to the cabin: protected from the wind, open to the sun.

But just as the boat pulled out of the shadow of the fermata and I felt the sun, gloriously, full on my face, she barged out onto the rear deck, her wheeled suitcase getting stuck behind her, as they always do, in the closing cabin door. A few moments later I glanced at her long enough to see the usual thing: a young tourist immediately turning her smartphone on herself, and turning the famous sights of one of the world's most beautiful cities into so many selfie backdrops. I turned away and shut my eyes against the 10,000 suns glittering off the water.

But try as I might to focus only on the warmth from all that reflected light, I couldn't help but sense her persistent presence just three feet from me, seemingly in constant motion. I reluctantly opened my eyes to a closeup of her glorious head of black corkscrew curls--there they were, springing from the crown of her head and hanging in a long dense curtain. She was in the act of shooting herself bent over at the waist, to showcase, I guess, the luxurious full length of her locks falling across her face before the backdrop of the Grand Canal.

Truly, she had an admirable head of hair. But, alas, I'd soon be seeing it, and her, from every conceivable angle--some of them almost in defiance of gravity, not to mention personal safety--as she engaged in a series of contortions just a yard from me.

Left profile, right profile, full frontal with a simper. Three-quarters from both sides; leaning well out over the deck rail, first forwards, then--arched so much as to risk spinal injury--way backwards. Her torso twisted to one extreme, then the other, hunched this way and that, tilting every which way; her face foreshortened from above, then from below.

Tintoretto had nothing on her when it came to depicting the body in space, though he studied the form of others while her attention never strayed from her own.

Insistent though her presence was, I tried to avert my eyes. I wanted simply to feel the sun on my face, to be aware of nothing else. Surely, this wasn't too much to hope for on a bad morning after a trying week.

But then she asked me, in Italian, if I would use her smart phone to film her. She thrust the thing into my face. So unprepared was I for this request, so stunned, actually, that had I taken any longer to reply I think that, in spite of her ardent self-interest, she would finally have given up on me as being deaf and mute, totally incapable of communication.

When I finally did answer I professed feebleness, saying I had no idea how to use a smartphone.

And this, as my wife can attest, was not even a lie. For the only thing you can be sure of when you hand me your smart phone is that I'll immediately touch some indiscernible part of it which will make the app you wanted to show me shut down, or the image disappear, or the video halt--or be entirely erased. Your long-neglected great aunt in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or Hong Kong, or Papua, New Guinea (whose number you don't even recall having ever punched into your phone) will suddenly get a call from you, your stock portfolio will abruptly undergo profound (and costly) transformations, and in two days time Amazon will deliver 750 pounds of dog food especially formulated for Siberian Husky sled dogs to your primary place of residence in Miami or Cairo, Buenos Aires or Accra.

But she, having no idea of the very real risks she was running, would not take no for an answer. The more I shook my head--helplessly, beseechingly, finally quite pathetically--the more insistent she became.

And so I found myself with her smart phone (already recording video) in my hands, held gingerly with the tips of my fingers, and begrudgingly trying to keep her in frame as she turned away and took two steps from me toward the fantail railing, then spun back toward the smartphone with a look of utterly delighted astonishment. As if nothing in the world could have surprised her more completely (and thrillingly) than the discovery of this smartphone on the tail end of that vaporetto recording her of all people! Why, however in the world did it get there? Like Doris Day, brighter than the day itself, turning to face an audience of millions in the opening of her own eponymous tv series.

Then she turned away from the camera again, toward the city, and threw both arms out wide, as if to open her great heart to all the splendors of the Grand Canal, to welcome them into her very soul: utterly a-swoon in this experience of ecstatic communion. Or at least at the thought of what she would look like miming this communion on video--with all the affectation and self-consciousness, I might add, of an unemployable silent film actress.

I looked at the seconds passing on the video counter: a mere 30 since this recording had begun. But it felt to me like 5 of the most uncomfortable minutes of social interaction I'd had in a very long time.

She stepped toward me and reclaimed her smartphone. No small expression of gratitude, no remark of any kind. She was too ravenous to gaze upon herself in playback to even think of such things.

Which is when I realized that the discomfort of this particular social interaction came from the fact that there was almost nothing "inter" about it. There had been nothing reciprocal about what had passed not so much "between" myself and the young woman, as beside the both of us--or at least beside one of us.

On my side, of course, I couldn't help but be aware that here was a person asking me to engage with her in a way I didn't want to (ie, record her). I was well aware that I'd been called upon by another person to recognize, if not her per se, at least what she wanted from me at that moment.

But she gave no sign at any point of having a similar basic sense of me, even merely in the way we're typically aware of strangers. That is, of me as an unknown person who might not want to do something she asked me to do for her, and who actually had the right to refuse such a request.

This common (or perhaps once-common) sense of a stranger in all their inherent if unknown person-hood seemed to her not just beside the point, as we say, but beside or beyond or beneath even consideration.

Though she called upon me (or imposed herself upon me) to do something for her, the only interaction of which she seemed truly aware was of herself with her own depicted (or soon-to-be-captured) self. I was merely the means by which she could carry on what appeared to be her obsession with a version of her self she crafted and recorded and presented on social media. To this passionate love affair between her embodied self and her screen self I was merely an anonymous bystander--a watcher of her, at best, a tool for her, at least--even as she directly addressed me.

Now, this didn't offend me. I'd never hoped for anything more from her than to be allowed to sit anonymously and unnoticed with my eyes closed and the sun on my face. And this is what I tried to return to after I returned her phone to her.

But after she'd gazed upon the freshly-captured video of herself to a point of at least temporary satiety, she resumed striking poses, in a fresh, extended paroxysm of selfie-absorption.

One magnificent palace after another slid by on the banks around us, but she had eyes only for herself.

I began to feel dismayed for her, as I might if I found myself seated on the NYC subway beside some unfortunate person locked so tightly in their own private world that they babbled incoherently to themself.

Then I started to feel embarrassed for her. As if the person beside me on that imaginary NYC subway was maniacally swept so far beyond the main current of acceptable public behavior as to have thrust both hands down the front of their trousers in pursuit of some distinctly private pleasure.

But unlike the analogous people I imagined above, readily dismissed by most people as lunatics, this young woman was, in truth, right in the swim of today's mainstream.

By today's standards, set as they are by social media, she might have been considered a little bit excessive, but not much. On the contrary, she's merely an aspiring "influencer," as other ambitious youths with narcissistic inclinations in the backward days of yore (say, a decade ago) might quaintly have aspired to become models or actors or singers or, gasp, even writers.

No pitiful minor Narcissa was she, I realized, but a goddess of the age, far far removed from actual, material, three-dimensional, sentient life. As I suppose all goddesses and gods must by definition be--and as so much of our contemporary life is, and compels us to be.

It made me wonder (much more broadly) if, rather than an aggressively narcissistic celebration of the self, this was in fact an aggressive, preemptive melancholic defense against the inevitable loss of everything humanity has labored long and hard to create: capital cities much larger than Venice submerged by rising tides, cultural treasures pillaged, social bonds devalued to utter worthlessness, always-precarious human ideals blithely destroyed by flag-waving crucifix-kissing charlatans, thieves, and hate-mongers....

If the whole world can be turned into mere simulcra, digital images, stage-sets, properties (in all senses of the word), then there are probably even some last dollars and power to be squeezed out of the performance of the world's destruction--for an audience too intoxicated by the spectacle to realize that its end is also theirs

Down this rabbit hole of despair I found myself sliding... We hadn't yet reached the line's last stop at the Rialto, but I'd seen enough. I got up and left her there on the fantail, still (always) in the throes of capturing herself, a snake with her own tail in her mouth, an unbroken loop of self-regard, and walked through the cabin to the vaporetto's foredeck, open to the chill winter wind--happy to feel it in my face, the movement of the boat beneath my feet. The world is real. 

Sunday, June 9, 2019

13 Views of Two Different Kinds of Demonstrations from Yesterday's Anti-Cruise Ship Rally

The wall of police not only meant that demonstrators couldn't enter Piazza San Marco via the Piazzetta, but that tourists couldn't get out that way either

"Venice is just a series of stage sets!" declares nearly everyone at some point during their first extended visit to Venice, either to themselves, silently, or to their co-travelers, or, often enough, in print.

Yesterday's rally calling for the end of cruise ship traffic anywhere in the already-strained ecosystem of the Venetian lagoon ultimately came down to a question of who would be allowed to act in the city's most famous, and historically significant set: Piazza San Marco.

Thousands of anti-cruise ship activists outfitted themselves for their role, with flags, banners, placards, and printed T-shirts, and Venice's law enforcement (over 200 of them, according to local reports) came dressed for theirs, with helmets, shields, and body armor. Dressed to impress, some might say--or suppress, as others might put it.

It was a lively but peaceful rally; I saw no indication in the lead-up to it that anyone was planning for it to be anything else. There were no reported conflicts or incidents, nor any hint of vandalism. City authorities were obviously determined to demonstrate a certain point by preventing the march from concluding in Piazza San Marco with such a show of force. But in their sheer numbers demonstrators made their own point by filling the space made available to them along the molo at water's edge. 

A nearly 180 degree panorama of the waterfront between the Biblioteca Marciana (at far right) and the Palazzo Ducale (far left)

"Galan, Zaia, Brugnaro: Unworthy,"