Thursday, December 12, 2019

Piazza San Marco 1972; or, Pigeons, Painters and the Question of What Constitutes a Pest?

photo credit: Larry Castek

Today we're lucky to get a striking glimpse of the Venice of 47 years ago, courtesy of Larry Castek, during the era when pigeons still ruled Piazza San Marco.

John Berendt describes the city administration's unsuccessful and often clandestine attempts to control (and sometimes poison) its pigeon population in his best-selling book The City of Falling Angels, published in 2005.  In May of 2008 a law was finally passed which banned their feeding and put the 19 licensed vendors of feed out of business.

At the left of the photo you can see one such vendor in the act of filling a small paper bag of seed from a podium-sized green stand.

And just to the left of him, further in the background, you can see what looks to be a sizable canvas on an easel, with more canvases leaning against its legs. Was this someone licensed to sell his or her works in the piazza, or someone simply painting?

The unlicensed sales of paintings in the piazza has long been banned, but in the last couple of years so, too, has the mere painting of pictures. Artists long used to working there have been chased out by the police. There is no actual law against painting in the piazza, but local authorities have adopted a "zero tolerance" policy toward even the smallest of easels set up in the city's most famously picturesque space.

But though police now keep a watchful eye out for artists, on most sunny days it's not hard to find an illegal vendor or two of pigeon food....

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Shopping in Venice, Past and Present--and A Recommendation

The front window of Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche on Barbaria de le Tole

Shortly after we moved to Venice in 2010 I was walking with a visiting American friend over the Rialto Bridge when he asked me "So what are you supposed to buy in Venice? These silk ties, maybe?" he said, gesturing toward a display of them in a shop window.

We'd been talking of something else entirely, his question came out of the blue, but I knew what he meant. For I, too, when I first visited Europe as a teenager in 1982, had been told before leaving home that certain places were famous for the particular things they produced--eg, carved wood figures in Switzerland, lace in Venice, gold and leather in Florence--and I was, it seemed, almost duty-bound to purchase accordingly and return to the US with my loot.

In fact this compulsion was rather like the one that Venetian traders must have felt many centuries before our conversation, having been ordered by their rulers to return from their own voyages abroad with valuable objects--acquired by whatever means necessary--with which the city could be decorated for its greater glory. The basilica of San Marco, of course, became (and remains) Exhibit Number 1 of the loot thus acquired (or the acquisitions thus looted, as the case often was).

In spite of how much the city had changed between 1982 (when I first saw it) and 2011 (when this conversation took place), the things one was supposed to buy in Venice hadn't changed: lace and glass. But real Burano lace, as I told my friend, is produced by quite literally just a few remaining elderly women, as a long-time retailer of lace told me soon after I moved here, and is accordingly both scarce and expensive. While real Murano glass, though less costly than lace, isn't necessarily as ubiquitous as it first appears, as the cheap stuff is either made in the Far East or is such swift, shoddy work as to have little to do with the tradition it is supposed to evoke.

My friend wasn't a lace or glass kind of guy anyway, and so I concluded simply, "Don't worry about it. There's almost nothing you'll see here that you won't see any place else you go in Italy. Or Europe. And most of it isn't even made here."

This didn't stop him from asking me the same question again the next day.... After all, old habits die hard, and the late- and short-lived modern ideal of being a citizen of the world, seeking after some idealistic and unquantifiable sense of companionship with one's fellow humans, often seems to have been displaced by that of being a consumer of the world, avid for and defined by one's acquisitions, paid for in ready cash.

I feel the effects of this emphasis on consumption in myself, and not wanting to encourage it either in myself or others, I've rarely been inclined to write about things to buy in Venice. Besides, the great bulk of articles on Venice are ultimately trying to sell you something, so my contribution was hardly needed. 

On the other hand, Venice has long been famous as a marketplace--in fact, as the great marketplace of Europe at a time long before "international emporiums" (with their batik prints and scented candles) became a mainstay in 20th-century American malls.

In the opening chapter of his book Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book, Alessandro Marzo Magno points out that the shopping streets between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge have changed less than one might imagine over the last five centuries:
[In 1520 Venice was] a city that, relatively speaking, was much more important than Italy today. Although Italy is now the world’s sixth or seventh industrial power, half a millennium ago Venice had a place on the podium. In the Europe of that time there were only three cities that we might call big; three cities with a population of more than one hundred fifty thousand: Paris, Naples, and Venice.

So, then, what would we have been able to find in the stores—which often were also workshops and homes—on the sixteenth century Mercerie? Cloth, for one thing, or rather the splendid red fabrics for which Venice was famous, dyed according to secret recipes inherited from the Byzantines. Or gilded leather; embossed leather panels decorated with gold leaf, used to embellish the interior walls of palaces, crafted using techniques imported from Moorish Spain, which in turn had inherited them from the Arabs. Or weapons, lots and lots of weapons: hankered over and vied for by plutocrats and sovereigns from all over Europe[....] The names of a couple of nearby streets, Spadaria (from spada, or sword) and Frezzaria (from freccia, or arrow) still speak to us today of that ancient vocation. 
But what struck foreign visitors most were the books: the dozens and dozens of bookmaking workshops that were gathered here in a density unequaled anywhere else in Europe. Word has come down to us of authentic book-shopping tours, like the one described by the historian Marcantonio Sabellico [...]when two friends trying go from the Fontego dei Tedeschi at the foot of the Rialto bridge, [...] to Saint Mark’s Square, [are] unable to make it to their destination, overwhelmed by their curiosity to read the lists of books appended outside the shops.
But Venice's status as the great market place of Europe goes back even further. In Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Philip Ball notes that Venice was trading with the Arabic world as early as the 9th century, and quotes Martin da Canal from his 13th century Chronique de Vénetiens (1267-1275), in which he writes that "merchandise passes through this noble city as water flows through fountains." Ball, whose eye-opening book examines the history of color in art in its material rather than theoretical or aesthetic sense--that is, as being intimately connected to trade and mining and chemistry and what might be called the proto-chemistry of the alchemists--elaborates thus on the offerings of Venetian markets:
From the Aegean Islands came sugar and wine; from the Far East, spices, porcelain, and pearls. Northen Europe supplied minerals, metal, and woolen cloth, while Egypt and Asia Minor were sources of gems, dyes, perfumes, ceramics, pigments, alum, and rich textiles.
And he suggests that this access to color exercised a profound effect on the work of the Venetian painters such as Titian, who "used an unusually large range of pigments, including orpiment and the only true orange of the Renaissance, realgar, available in Venice from around 1490."

Philip Ball writes that Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne "is a chart of nearly every known pigment at the time [of its painting]"--a benefit of having a wealthy patron who could afford (and demanded) the rarest pigments and of living in the great port city of Venice, unparalleled in Europe at the time for the array of exotic materials passing through it

Indeed, Venice, which Ball calls the "City of Color," was the major supply post for painters of the day with funds to spend on the best of materials. At a time when the contracts between patrons and painters went into great detail about both the type and quality of pigments to be used and the money allotted for their purchase he writes that:
The reputation of Venice as the best source of fine pigments is evident in the travel concession in Filippino Lippi's contract for the Strozzi Chapel; [and] Cosimo Tura came to Venice from Ferrara in 1469 to procure materials for his work on the Belriguardo Chapel.
So, in truth, Venice has always been about shopping, in some senses. The challenge these days of mass tourism and online sales is to locate something which truly is unique to this place. But it's not impossible, and for those who are interested in supporting the Venetian economy I'll put up some blog posts over the coming days (or weeks?) of places where I've purchased things myself.

Far from being definitive, this is nothing other than idiosyncratic, and I have no arrangement whereby I benefit from your patronage of any of these places. Nor have I arranged for you to receive a discount at any of them with the mention of my blog. I'll only briefly tell you what I've found and why each place has interested me, and leave the rest to you, to be taken up or not.

Which is a very long way of getting to a photography studio and archive, any one of whose photographic images is worth, as the old saying goes, much more than the thousand words written above.

Vittorio Pavan in Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche

The name of the place is the Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche, and it's located a short distance from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on Barbaria de le Tole (simply set off in the opposite direction from that which Verocchio's famous horse and rider face and in a few minutes you'll see the shop on your left, with its display window adorned by large black-and-white prints).

Its owner is Vittorio Pavan, who in addition to acting as the caretaker of more than 50 years of 20th-century Venetian history is also, as a publisher of fine arts books recently told me, the best printer of black-and-white photographic prints in the area.

His skill in this is amply evident in the fine art prints you'll find in his shop--and how nice it is to see fine art prints created in a dark room instead of by an inkjet printer! Though it's easy enough to get so swept away in the figures and scenes themselves as to lose sight of their developer's expertise.

For there's Igor Stravinsky reclining not-quite-comfortably in a gondola, or more at home conducting a rehearsal for the world premiere of his opera The Rake's Progress in La Fenice. There's a famous image of the young Sophia Loren and her impossibly tiny waistline on a balcony overlooking the Grand Canal. There's Picasso, Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Hemingway, Richard Wright (dapper in a white dinner jacket outside Hotel Excelsior), Pasolini, Bardot, Denueve, Sutherland and Christie, Mick and Bianca, Keith and Anita, and nearly any other bold name cultural figure from the second half of the 20th century at work or at play, busy promoting or protesting, in the distinctive settings of Venice.

But no less worthy of attention--some would say more--are the images of Venetian life starting from 1946: fishermen and hunters, boat builders and lace makers, families and clerics, natural and industrial calamities, feste and special events, and even images labeled "Cronaca Nera": crime scene photos, including some graphic ones of, for example, the murder of Count Filippo Giordano delle Lanze in the reputedly cursed Grand Canal palace Ca' Dario, which you'll certainly not find in the real estate brochures offering the newly-created condominium units there for sale. 

All of the scores of images you'll see on display or stacked in archival photo boxes in the studio make up just a tiny fraction of the 320,000 negatives from the Venice-based photo agency, founded in 1946, which in its last and longest incarnation went by the name of Cameraphoto, and whose photographers supplied images to major newspapers and magazines around the world. 

Vittorio Pavan started working for the photo agency in 1972 at the age of 14, and it is now Pavan who struggles with the challenge of digitally preserving what he can of an archive which is inevitably disintegrating. 

The best (and quite beautifully-produced) account of the Cameraphoto Archive and Vittorio Pavan can be found in a 4 1/2 minute documentary (with English subtitles), used as part of a crowdfunding campaign early this year (which, alas, did not meet its goal) that you can watch below:

And for an online sample of the images available visit Cameraphoto's website:

The website offers Archival Digital Fine-Art prints in various sizes and at various prices, but, in fact, you can no longer order through the website itself. 

Any online questions about images, or orders, should be emailed to

Fine art dark room prints are also available.

Cameraphoto can ship anywhere in the world, and for someone looking for a distinctively Venetian object, one made only here and at a certain moment--literally instant--in time, it is an invaluable resource. 

And if you're able to visit the studio itself the next time you're in Venice, and peruse the images in person, it's time well spent in a historical and cultural venture well worth supporting.

Monday, November 25, 2019

What Acqua Alta Leaves In Its Wake

Long after the world's media has decamped from Piazza San Marco and moved onto other spectacles the signs of the damage continue to quite literally pile up.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Vampires Descend

Sign of the times

NOTE: I wrote most of the below last week, just after the disastrous acqua alta of 187 cm.

MOSE, the acronym for the mobile flood barriers that were by now supposed to protect Venice from disastrous flooding of the sort that swept into the city Tuesday night has been on everyone’s lips these past days--almost invariably preceded or followed by a variety of imprecations, directed not just at the monstrously-expensive and still non-functioning things themselves but at the various people who have promoted them, and profited from them for the last 37 years.

After all, not long after the big project (it was literally called Il Progettone) was formally announced, the then-Prime Minister of Italy, Bettino Craxi, named the date of its completion: 1995. If by some miracle the gates had been operational by that time, Craxi himself would have had to miss their inauguration, as in 1994 he fled from Italy to escape imprisonment for corruption to Tunisia, where he'd remain a fugitive until his death in 2000. 

This would be just the first of many, many, many missed deadlines.

Sadly enough the best account I've seen on MOSE remains John Keahey's 2002 book Venice Against the Sea. "Sadly," I say, not because of any fault in the book itself--on the contrary, it's an impressive and fair depiction of the complex political and historical forces involved in the dream of saving Venice from encroaching tides--but because so little progress on the problem has been made that it remains as good a guide to the current situation today, 17 years after its publication, as it was when first printed.

"Sadly," too, because all the reservations which Keahey carefully documents various people expressing about the project from its very inception to the time of his writing--engineers, environmentalists, and the EU itself--have been shown to be not just valid, but nothing less than prophetic.

For example, consider this passage about the creation of Consorzio Venezia Nuova (or Consortium for a New Venice), a target of more than a few curses, not to mention corruption charges, in recent years:
Created by government fiat, the Consorzio is made up of about fifty of the largest public and private civil-engineering and construction firms in Italy. This [gives] a virtual monopoly for the rescue of Venice to a group of Italy's largest for-profit firms. Such a monopoly could never been created in the United States. There it would require several independent groups, all bidding for a variety of contracts. They would compete for the right to determine what solutions needed to be developed for problems within the lagoon, how those solutions should be designed, and then who should build them. [I must insert here that while this invocation of the US makes for an instructive contrast, and is along the lines of the process which Keahey later notes the EU wanted Italy to follow, America has since proved itself to be quite fond of no-bid contracts, not to mention unpunished corruption.]

The Consorzio was created in the years when Italian contracts and money were routinely funneled to "friends of friends," as one official wryly described it. And it was created before the 1990s crackdown by judicial magistrates on major business executives throughout Italy who were believed to have profited from a variety of favors and scams.

To its credit the Consorzio has weathered the wave of investigations that swept the country in the last decade of the twentieth century, a fact that have not stopped cynical Italians from continuing to believe that money is being poured into a bottomless hole, and that the Consorzio was making billion of lire from a project--the mobile gates--that would never see the light of day. Even today, in the dawn of the twenty-first century, there are those who believe that the Consorzio is content to have the gates continually delayed because it gives the organization a reason to exist--and continue to draw billions of lire annually in government funds.
Those billions of lire have swelled enormously to billions of euros--6 billion euros by latest estimates.

And deadlines continue to be missed regularly, and one news article after another recounts the latest humiliating revelation of the Consorzio's ineptness and knavishness. The latter perhaps surprises no one: as the excerpt above suggests, corruption and unaccountability were baked into the very being of the Consorzio.

But the utter incompetence is such that it alone, the sheer embarrassing stupidity, especially in the context of saving one of the world's great historical and cultural sites, merits criminal charges. They're the kinds of stupidity and irresponsibility one must laugh about so as not to cry, recounting to others in Venice, "Ah, remember when the geniuses at the Consorzio discovered--but only after installing the gates--that the sea is salty?!"

The website Campaign for a Living Venice has recently compiled a very useful list of links of the Consorzio's most recent failures under the heading "MoSE Will Not Work."  It provides a succinct and valuable context for understanding why this week's floods hit residents so very hard--the blow to local morale being no less severe than the substantial damage done to landmarks, homes, and businesses.

A group portrait of shamelesness: Silvio Berlusconi, center; Renato Brunetta, right of him; Luigi Brugnaro, at far right (Corriere del Veneto)

Indeed, given the long painful history of MOSE it requires, in truth, a rather extraordinary amount of shamelessness to arrive in the city when the water has once again filled the calli and campi to alarming heights, slip into some rubber boots, and declare with no sense of irony that the key takeaway from this ongoing disaster is that our dedication to (and, inevitably, funding of) the completion of MOSE must be intensified.

But then some politicians become legendary for their shamelessness, and one of the most infamous of this sort showed his wax-work face in Venice the day after Tuesday's near-record acqua alta of 187 cm to laud the project whose cornerstone he quite literally laid on May 13, 2003.

If, as the saying goes, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, it should come as little surprise to be reminded that, yes, indeed, it was Silvio Berlusconi (during his first term as Prime Minister) who served as the midwife of what, in terms of its non-functioning, might be called MOSE's still birth.

Though this week a good many people might describe MOSE's entrance into the lagoon as nothing less than an abortion.

But Berlusconi was not alone in this week's pitch for MOSE, nor the only person present at the inauguration of MOSE in 2003 to reappear this week in rubber boots as the image below from Dagospia shows:

Silvio Berlusconi (center) with Luca Zaia to his left, and Renata Bruneta (far right: current head of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party's group of deputies in the Chambers of Deputies, then a minister in the Berlusconi administration) at the May 14, 2003 ribbon cutting of MOSE

Though not pictured in the second image of this post taken in the high water of Piazza San Marco, the President of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, was also in town yesterday--as he was in 2003 to kick off MOSE's construction (see directly above)--and Venice's own non-resident mayor traveled all the way from his home in the Treviso region to push for MOSE's "speedy" completion.

(Soon after Venice's current mayor was elected, a native Venetian, retired after a lifetime of serving in local and regional administrative roles, characterized him to me as "ruspante." I didn't know the word, so he gestured with one hand as if scraping for something on the table top between us and explained, "Like a hen in the farmyard, you understand? Scratching at the dirt to see what she might find for herself." It has proved to be--or, rather, the mayor has proved it to be--an apt description. So much so that that's how I always think of him, and how I'll refer to him here: Mayor Ruspante.)

Climate change was to blame for the increased frequency and intensity of flooding, said Mayor Ruspante, and only MOSE could save the city.

Well, being an American citizen, I had to give the good mayor a point just for mentioning climate change, as American politicians on the Right don't dare utter that term--and even go out of their way to entirely ban its use by state and Federal government agencies.

But while climate change is a major factor, it is not the only one. Also known to be a factor in the intensity of acqua alta are the kinds of changes to the morphology of the lagoon which Mayor Ruspante himself supports: that is, the digging of deep water shipping channels, which have washed away the extensive mudflats that once filled the lagoon and tempered tidal force, and the reconfiguration of the ports into the lagoon from the Adriatic for the sake of--the construction of MOSE.

Moreover, climate change is not the reason why MOSE is way behind schedule and still not functioning--nor giving many signs that it ever will.

It's simple (and cynical) enough to use the backdrop of a flooded city to demand that the pipe line of public funding poured into the private interests profiting from MOSE be kept fully open--after all, Berlusconi has declared "it's 94% completed!"

An impressive figure, indeed.

Until you consider that for the most part it's proven itself to be pretty much 100% non-functional.

If we've learned nothing else from this great long-running swindle, surely we've learned that all the money in the Italian budget doesn't buy competence or accountability. Why should it suddenly do so now?

These are some of the reasons why all the expressions of dismay in the world by Mayor Ruspante and Zaia and Brunetta and Berlusconi (if his face were capable of forming expressions) don't go very far with most Venetians.

And why a flyer posted all around town this week (below) labels these recent visitors "Crocodiles in the Lagoon," with the tears and sharp teeth that go with such creatures.

Venice's Mayor Ruspante (left), Regional President Luca Zaia, (center), and the Patriarch of Venice (right) are pictured on a flyer posted all around the city this week
But yesterday as I walked my son home from school--my son who has lived in Venice since before he was three years old, and who never wants to leave it--I caught sight of Berlusconi himself. We were approaching a bridge near Piazzale Roma as a long row of police boats and taxis began to pass beneath it, and then suddenly there he was: standing in the open air at the back of a taxi, spray-on hairline as black and flat as Bela Lagosi's Dracula, a faint fixed smile on his fixed filler-plumped face, a toady at the front end of the taxi's roof filming the former Prime Minister's slow procession down the Rio Novo with a smart phone as "Il Cavaliere" looked to see if anyone along the fondamente was noticing him--an aborted little wave attesting to a momentary false hope that he'd spotted an admirer.

Some, like myself, had noticed him, but I saw no one give a wave, and I saw no one smile. Seeing him cross one's path less than 24 hours after the acqua alta of 187 cm seemed a particularly inauspicious sign: a primped and long-black-coated undead passing through the stricken city, looking for more blood. 

An inauspicious sight in Rio Novo