Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Snapshots

The other day my wife Jen had a long errand to run and I suggested she take along our small camera, as one of the excellent photographers (Bert) who contributes to the Venice Daily Photo blog ( has reminded me that one should never go out in this city without a camera. She seemed too focused on her particular errand to even consider the idea--but then she returned home with these. 

She, like the city, is full of pleasant surprises.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Regatta del Panettone

Yesterday morning was the 2nd annual La Regata del Panettone, a series of races among the members of la Remiera Francescana designed, according to its planners, less as a program of heated competitions than as a means of fostering group spirit and fellowship among the club's members.

I must admit that I was involved in a small incident that had exactly the opposite effect, at least for a short time, but we'll get that to a little later. For now it's enough to know that the morning was high-def clear, and frigid (0 C, 32 F) and wavy and windy, but beautiful beyond words--and photography (at least mine). But I hope the following pics will provide some idea of the scene.

The inner door of the club, within the walls of the Arsenale

The remiera, depleted of many of its boats, which were already on the water

Among the agonisti in the first race was Babbo Natale
I went out onto the lagoon with my camera in a light rather shallow-bottomed mascareta, with the club's youngest member--3-year-old Valentino (who's quite a good rower, actually)--his mother, and another man who joined the club about the same time I did. It was too windy and wavy for Valentino to do any rowing on the lagoon, though he wanted to, and I rowed very little as well, as I hadn't planned on going out in a boat at all, but just taking photos from the fondamenta. 

But there I was, sitting in the prow with a bundled-up Valentino, while the waves rocked us rather mercilessly and the wind blew, and our little boat meandered about the lagoon with no definite destination. I think all of us realized we actually needed a more experienced rower among us, but we were making the best of it when we noticed that the first race had started and the entire field of two-man teams was headed our way. 

At this point we really could have used an experienced rower among us, but she or he was on some other boat and all we could do was first strike out in one direction before realizing the field of contestants stretched even further on that side, then, disastrously, tack back another way. 

Do I need to tell you that it is an extremely unpleasant sensation to be seated in a drifting boat while an entire field of Venetian-born and bred agonisti bear down upon you?

Might I add that this sensation is even more unpleasant when you remember that exactly such a Venetian-born and bred agonisti has described such a race as nothing less than a war?

If only we could have stopped at one point right where we were, in an open expanse of water between two onrushing boats, everything would have been okay. 

We could not. Onward we drifted and onward the first place team came. There was utter helpless panic in our boat and fierce shouts from theirs as, like some diabolical geometry demonstration, our two paths approached their inevitable point of intersection.

Luckily, it was fairly tangential. They managed to swerve a bit, so the prow of our boat suffered only a blow from one of their oars--instead of a full-on collision--and young Valentino got to hear some very interesting and spirited language.

How I hoped that team would maintain their lead and come in first!

They finished second.

But when we finally returned to the club, after that race had finished, the preparations for other heats were under way and so nothing--at least as long as I was at the club--came of our little encounter.

When it's windy and wavy a mere ruin can look as welcoming as the isle of Capri
A familiar landmark seen from its other side, from the basin of the club
A welcome sight after our eventful ride, the water-side door of the club
The young members of the club receive instructions for the second race of the day--with which I, thankfully, did not interfere in any way

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Largest Church in Venice

Unione Venezia (in white) takes on Mezzocorona of Trentino, 8 December 2011
If, as many people have noted, calcio (or football or soccer) is a major religion in Italy, then the largest church in Venice is neither SS Giovanni e Paolo nor I Frari, but Stadio Pierluigi Penzo which, from what I've observed, few tourists ever enter.

As recently as 2002 the Venice team--or, at times, Venice-Mestre team--was in Italy's top league, Serie A. But since being declared bankrupt after the 2009 season (as it had been after the 2005 season as well) it has vied for top spot in Serie D as F.B.C. Unione Venezia. 

A local friend who has rarely attended a game since its demotion from Serie A said that the stadium used to have a great many more bleachers, which were removed as the team's fortunes declined. To attend a Serie A game in the old fully fitted-out stadium was, he told me, a thrilling and terrifying experience. Thrilling because the fans were rabid in their support. Terrifying because the old metal stands never seemed particularly sturdy and when the crowd got to stamping its feet in unison, as it often did, complete structural collapse seemed certain and imminent.

Venezia fans still stamp their feet, and sing, and jeer their opponents, and are still as passionate as before--but there are far fewer of them. Perhaps 3,000 per game, as compared to more than 20,000 in the Serie A days.

A sampling of the team's most boisterous supporters
Unione Venezia sat all alone at the top of the standings--undefeated in 14 matches, with only 2 draws--when I went to my first game of the season last Thursday afternoon. It was a special holiday game against a team far below them in the standings, Mezzocorona, and Venezia played as if they resented being among the relatively few folks in town who had to work that day. Or perhaps they were contemplating the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, whose feast day it was. They certainly weren't thinking about playing defense. They were behind 2-0 at the end of the first period, and 3-0 as soon as the second one began. Nor could they conceive the least bit of creativity on the attack.

But the games are worth attending if only to observe the fans. I always sit near the large group of ultras in the Distinti section--there's another isolated group of them in the Curva Sud, behind the goal. The price for a seat in either section is the same, so I'm not sure why someone would choose the latter place, as the view is much worse, but there may be some details about each group of supporters I've yet to learn.

At least two or three of the ultras who lead the songs and chants and cheering spend the entire game with their back to the action--not even American high school cheerleaders see so little of what's going on. As there is no in-stadium screen showing instant replays, nor even a scoreboard, these young men miss everything. In the church of calcio they are the most selfless of sacristans.

But try as they might, there was no helping i lagunari this day. Venezia hardly even threatened to score. In frustration, I took to wandering all over the stands, then down close to the field, then up to the very highest most distant bleachers in the place, trying out different vantage points. But there was no beauty to be found in the so-called "beautiful game" last Thursday, at least not for a Venezia fan. So I turned my back to the field and looked out over the shipyard behind the stadium, the harbor, the lagoon. I was not disappointed.

When there's no beauty to be found on the field, there's always the lagoon

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Little City at the Edge of the World

photo credit: Jen
I read somewhere that Venice is only about twice the size of New York's Central Park. After a hard day's night of travel and the sadness of having to say arrivederci to family in the States, we were happy to see it again yesterday evening--though I have no idea what day it is today.

When I sit on a certain park bench at the far eastern end of the city I often see some airliner approach Marco Polo Airport along just the route we were following when this picture was taken. If I'm not preoccupied with other thoughts I usually imagine how pleasant it is to be in a plane as it finally descends to its destination, and how excited passengers must be to find themselves arriving at such a city for the first, or fifth, or tenth time. I don't think I'd ever gotten such a clear view of the city from the air as this photo presents, so now I can imagine the experience of those on the plane much better than I ever could before. And if you are one of those on the plane arriving you can imagine at least one guy, invisible, and miles distant, watching you come in for a safe landing.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Libreria Marco Polo

Novelist Sergio Garufi is interviewed in front of the bookstore, Oct 15, 2011
Does everybody out there know about Libreria Marco Polo?

It's just a few minutes from the Coin department store, right behind the church of San Giovanni Grisostomo (with its great Giovanni Bellini), and always has an extremely interesting selection of new titles in Italian and a pretty broad selection of used books in English. It also has some titles in German and French, I believe, though I haven't gotten around to looking at those.

It's a small charming friendly place that reminds one that the quality of a bookstore is not measured by square meters (or feet) or numbers of total volumes, but by its distinctive intelligence. Librera Marco Polo is positively overflowing with that.

It also puts on excellent events, such as the one for Sergio Garufi's dark and engaging novel of bibliophilia, Il nome giusto, pictured above and below.

Check out the store's website and blog at:

And when you're in Venice, stop in and see it for yourself.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Afterlife of a Murano Glass Chandelier

A good friend who visited us in August asked me more than once for suggestions about what one should buy in Venice. He had to ask more than once because I never managed to answer him, though I knew very well what he meant.

He was asking about the distinctive Venetian product--the thing made only, or most famously in Venice. Of course he already knew what those were: glass and lace and masks, but he was thinking I might have some inside information to give him on where deals might be found on these items.

I didn't. I could refer him to a lace shop I knew whose owners were knowledgeable and honest, for example, but there are no deals on well-made lace or well-made glass or well-made anything actually made in Venice. 

So then he got desperate: How about ties? he asked me one day as we passed a shop displaying them in its window. I shook my head. They might be nice ties, but they'd likely be the same ones he'd find in Florence or Rome at a better price. I couldn't help him. I told him there really were no bargains left.

However, a couple of weeks ago I wondered if perhaps I found one: a particular one to be sure, a niche item, and not for everyone, but something.

About mid-way between the churches of San Francesco della Vigna and SS Giovanni e Paolo is a single antique shop with two storefronts on two perpendicular calle. One of its storefronts is near the end of the Calle Barbaria de le Tole; the other is about 10 meters around the corner on Calle delle Cappuccine. A small garden court leads from the backdoor of one to the the backdoor of the other. I'm not in Venice at the moment and remember nothing about the name of the place except the proprietor's first name, Valter. [Note added 13 December 2011: the name of the shop is: Valter Ballarin, Rigattiere in Venezia]

In any case, it was there that I bought the fondo of an old Murano glass chandelier. The fondo is the base of the chandlier, its bottom-most central element from which all its various parts branch up and out as the leaves of an artichoke emanate from its own fondo. There were all kinds of parts from old dismembered chandeliers for sale in the shop: sinuous floral pieces of various pale colors that some creative person could probably put to good use, for example. But the pink hand-blown element I bought, pictured twice above, had found second life as a tea light holder. 

It was not the only piece born again to such a use. But the other tea light holders were slightly smaller in diameter and had previously adorned the base of one or another chandelier's candles. Called coppetta, they also were beautiful: fairly shallow little cups, petaled like flowers, with a little hole at the center. 

Here was hand-blown glass at an affordable price: 15 euro is what mine cost me. 

I don't think it would have worked for my friend, who doesn't seem like a guy who has much time for candles of any sort, but we've really enjoyed our fondo. In a dark room a tea light at the center of this very slightly asymmetrical piece of blown glass transports one back to its creation 80 years ago or more. The glass takes on an almost molten appearance--which it never had when it was part of a chandelier--and it's easy to imagine that it's fresh out of the forno. One can imagine the artist spinning it into a bowl-like shape at the end of his or her long pipe, then pulling and crimping into existence its two rows of angled leaves. The glass is returned to the fire, at least on a small scale, and the viewer is returned to an ancient process carried out on a specific day by an anonymous artisan otherwise long forgotten. 

A coppetta that I later bought: made at least a century ago, the particular yellow of this piece was made with uranium--once a common ingredient in the glass factories of Murano. I was assured it was not radioactive.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

'Tis the Season: Acqua Alta

If I remember correctly, some of the worst acqua alta of last year occurred during December, so I know what's waiting for us when we return home from our two week visit to the States. But far away from Venice, one can find oneself missing even acqua alta. The above photo was taken after my son's pre-school's Christmas pageant, last December. As fun as the pageant was, I think he enjoyed splashing home just as much.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Update: Hello, Bridge of Sighs!

Two weeks ago I posted about the removal of the scaffolding from the Palazzo Ducale and noted that, however, the Bridge of Sighs had been newly covered. Well, the Bridge of Sighs has also been completely uncovered, all the scaffolding around it removed, and the view from the Ponte della Paglia is, once again (after three years), the famous one that even people who have never set foot in Venice (or cruised past it in one of those horrendous cruise ships) know so well.

One can get used to even the worst kinds of things, and so I guess I got used to all that scaffolding and the damned clouds and the wretched billboards and now that they are finally gone the bridge looks almost vulnerable, a little delicate. This is not a bad thing. I'd like to stand before it a long time and try to get a handle on how it looks to me now, in its natural state, so to speak, but I write this post from Chicago, Illinois and the photo above was taken Sunday, November 20, the afternoon before we left Venezia for a two-week visit to the States.  So any further consideration of the bridge will have to wait.

More generally, nearly every time I pass over or by the Ponte della Paglia, packed with tourists, I wonder what it is that everyone is seeing when they behold the famous Bridge of Sighs. I wondered this most of all when the bridge was just a bit of architecture visible amid all those clouds and billboards: looking rather like a fingernail clipping nearly lost upon a gaudy bedspread. But I found myself wondering the same thing when all that extra stuff was taken away as well.

Do people find the bridge beautiful in itself? Or is it the pathetic narrative evoked by Byron's designation of it that makes it such a must-see? Every guidebook tells us we should be haunted by thoughts of those pitiful wretches glimpsing freedom for the last time through its constricted windows on their way to their fate. Are we? Do we even pretend to be? Or by this time is the bridge--for most or many of us--simply a celebrated sight: famous for being famous? Can we even really see it anymore?

I wish I could ask all those people crowded on the Ponte della Paglia, snapping away, but it's not the kind of thing most people would want to be bothered with. And even if I did ask, could they really answer, just like that--put on the spot? I don't think I could. I can't even now.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Foggy Morning in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, Today

Condottiere in a blanket
Early morning appointment at Ospedale Civile and too much fog for the vaporetti to run, even with their radars. But it wasn't so bad, as Venezia in the fog is a lovely place.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Evening Market on Via Garibaldi, Tonight

A new green grocer recently opened on Via Garibaldi in a spot that had been vacant for a little less than a year and it's quickly become a favorite of ours and many other folks. I've found myself referring to it as "The Five Guys," as that is about the number of men who seem to run the place, but there may actually be one or two more.

I had started to believe (sadly) that soft persimmons (or cachi) were done for the year, as even the grocers at the Rialto had only mushy blotchy ones on offer today, but somehow the Five Guys still had a good stock of them tonight. (I have resisted the urge to devote an entire post to that most sensual of fruit, the persimmon, as I feared I might inadvertently veer into R-rated territory and I'm trying to keep this blog decent.) In any case, this fruit and vegetable market is a great addition to Via Garibaldi, worth checking out if you're in the neighborhood, and, as you can see above, has a pretty good view of Santa Maria della Salute as well.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Boy Wonder on the Grand Canal

Sandro's skills with a 35 mm camera are rapidly improving. Today he managed to take a picture of Jen and me that was well-framed and pretty much in focus--at least as well as I usually manage. But just as we were congratulating him on this--the three of us enjoying the perfect quiet beside the Palazzo Loredan dell'Ambasciatore--along comes the young marvel in the photos above and below (taken by me, not Sandro). And suddenly, much as I appreciated Sandro's developing ability with the camera, I found myself fantasizing about one day just a few years off when he'd be able to row his lucky parents (and no more than a few friends--we wouldn't want to overburden him) around in a gondola!

But it turned out that even gondoliere prodigies have their limitations. When it was time to turn off the Grand Canal into one of the side canals an adult took over. Gondolas really are quite huge--a gondola's oar is really quite huge in itself--and I was impressed the kid could maneuver one down Venice's own Broadway. But narrow side canals are even more of a challenge.

So much for my vision of Sandro rowing us around at the age of nine or ten... I'll have to keep working on my own rowing skills.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hello, Good-bye: Palazzo Ducale, Bridge of Sighs

Here's something that hasn't been seen for nearly 3 years: the southeast corner of the Palazzo Ducale. Finally, the famous early 15th-century sculpture of the drunkenness of Noah above the corner capital beside the Ponte della Paglia is once again visible to us all as a warning of the kind of embarrassment too much celebration can lead to. (Not that it's ever been heeded.) Also thankfully visible again: the second of the two older gothic windows with tracery that predate the 1574 fire--like an eye finally uncovered after a three-year-long eye-chart exam.

Gone, finally, are all those awful clouds--and all those even more awful ads, paid for by those awful advertisers who deserve only scorn and a lasting boycott for their participation in the defacement of what Ruskin called "the central building of the world."

Why can't more advertisers do this?
In fact, though the Venetian civic group 40xVenezia approached numerous advertisers about designing billboards more respectful of the buildings on which they are placed, only one company has responded to date: the kitchen design firm Scavolini.

You can see Scavolini's sensible effort to the left. It manages to suggest that the advertiser is a partner in the renovation of a valuable piece of history, instead of a vile cold-hearted opportunist preying upon La Serenissima's poverty to thrust himself upon her. If only more advertisers would follow the example of Scavolini...

In any case, that's the good news. The bad news, as you can see above, is that scaffolding has now gone up in front of the Bridge of Sighs. The fabric covering the scaffolding is transparent, instead of the usual opaque--and without ads! (at present)--but I imagine some visitors may be disappointed with this compromised view for the next, oh, 2 or 3 years. Though I'm not. I'd trade an obscured Bridge of Sighs for the departure of that gargantuan storm of ads any day.

Alas, when it comes to the Libreria Sansoviniana--praised by Palladio as the finest building since antiquity--there appears to be no similar trade-off in the works. The south face of that marvelous facade, the narrow side that so beautifully frames the Piazzetta as you cross the basin of San Marco in a vaporetto, is being covered with scaffolding. Okay, I thought, that must mean the billboard abomination right around the corner, on the library's long side, will be coming down.


It appears that the south-eastern corner of the library will likely be subjected to the kind of wrap-around advertising that polluted the southeast corner of the Palazzo Ducale for so long. It's a shame, as it means that even from the Punta della Dogana the view of the Piazzetta is likely to be splatted with ads. 

And people used to think those filthy mobs of pigeons were bad! When it comes to defacement, man (especially in pursuit of profit) always and easily trumps beast.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Some Greetings in Italian & Venetian Best Avoided

A view from more linguistically innocent times: Sandro swinging off jet lag after our arrival last November
As was the case almost a year ago, when one of the first posts I wrote was about parolaccie, our son Sandro still seems to learn most of his Italian "bad words" from a certain classmate, the son of a gondoliere. This boy has something of a school-wide reputation--one mother we know has referred to him as maleducato (rude, ill-mannered), which I think is a little severe, as he only just turned 4. I tend to think of him as a little like Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio: that is, the original rambunctious head-strong wooden scamp, not the watered-down blandly-innocent Disney version.

Not all of this kid's words are actually bad, though, some of what Sandro picks up is just a bad idea, socially-speaking. For example, before the weather here turned cold we were eating on the upper deck of a double-decker restaurant/bus parked near the beach on Lido when a pair of young brothers familiar from the playground came up and greeted Sandro.

Sandro replied glibly with: "Ciao, puzzolenti!"

The boys, so sweet to begin with, turned away, looking troubled, and walked off. My wife and I, not recognizing the word Sandro used, had no idea what happened. Sandro, quite pleased with the exchange, offered no explanation.

When we got home and looked in the dictionary, we discovered the two brothers hadn't appreciated being addressed as "stinkies" or "smellies."

Nor, as Sandro would soon realize (after ignoring our warnings), do new acquaintances take warmly to being called "brutto" (ugly) or "cattivo" (bad). Though, as I noticed the other day, Sandro's friend still addresses other kids as all of the above and--for all his boisterous charm--only really manages to pull it off with his close friends, such as Sandro, who understand him.

But by far the worst form of address Sandro has employed was entirely of his own devising. One day as we walked into the city center Sandro was in a particularly gregarious mood. We'd pass this or that woman, or pair or trio of women, and he'd happily address some greeting to her or them that we didn't catch at first. We noticed it was only women he was addressing for some reason, but didn't know why until we finally understood what he was saying:

"Ciao, cocona!" Or "Ciao, cocone!"

This was actually rather shocking.

It's a Venetian word he learned during an August of swimming and bathing and running around naked with a female Venetian friend and classmate. It's the term Venetians use with children to refer to the vagina.

It, along with its male complement, pipoto, were, along with their referents, sources of great interest and amusement to a pair of skinny-dipping three-year-olds. No surprise in that. But that Sandro should, by a curious and cunning process of induction, decide to apply (and address!) the term to women he passed on the street...!

And thus began a new discussion whose underlying theme was that as great and exciting as it is to learn and use new words, it's also important to learn the proper context in which they might be employed--productively and without offense. 

It's such an interesting phase of language acquisition, contextual ramifications such as these, for anyone--not just kids--learning a new language. Such subtleties--each word's place within a social-cultural-historical web--are reminders of why the most truly poetic works of poetry can't really be translated.  

That's one way of looking at it. Another is simply that Sandro has, in just a year, become more crudely Venetian than we ever could have expected. After all, these are the extremely blunt people who still call the little area beside one end of the Rialto Bridge where prostitutes used to congregate "Fondamenta Traghetto del Buso"--or "of the hole".

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Postcard from Piemonte: Autumn

photo credit: Dario Cavallotto
For today only we will stray from Venice across Italy to the beautiful region of Piemonte, famous for its wine, truffles and hazelnuts. My cousin sent me this photo that he took yesterday morning and though autumn appears in Venice in its own distinct way--with some of the most beautiful sunsets of the year, for example--I couldn't resist posting it.

The photo was taken in the Quartino di Loazzolo, between the small villages of Cessole and Bubbio, not too far from the hometown of the great writer Cesare Pavese. We made our first extended stay in Italy, from March through May 2010, in Cessole, working for our room and board on an organic vineyard/farm/agriturismo B&B, while our son spent part of the day at a pre-school (which he loved) in the neighboring village of Monastero Bormida.

The slender trees with the white trunks in the background are young pioppi (poplars) that are planted around the Bormida River and harvested (I believe after about 10 years) to make paper. Another horizon line of mature pioppi with their green-yellow leaves are arrayed a little further back, before the view hazes off into the distant trees on the justifiably famous colline (hills).

The field in the foreground, plowed so clean, I'd find austerely beautiful in itself if it didn't remind me of a few particularly arduous days of labor: one interminable day we spent planting 200 young hazelnut trees, and two others on which we, blinded by sweat, buried legions of ocular potato bits beneath earth’s heavy lid in record April heat.

Yet even such trying days as those, as the poet Leopardi pointed out, ultimately become achingly sweet in retrospect, the vista soft and appealing as the photo above.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Dolcetto o Scherzetto! (Treat or Trick!)

Halloween is not an Italian holiday but it has been adopted to a limited extent in Venice and, because it involves a lot of elements that Italians like--ie, costumes, sweets, and kids on the loose--I suppose throughout most of the country. But here, trick-or-treaters don't go from house to house or apartment to apartment, but from shop to shop, as the kids will soon do for the upcoming Festa di San Martino on November 10.

Of course not everyone here is happy about Halloween's growing prominence. The Church of San Martino near the Arsenale posted a very stern notice--two actually, side by side--on the bulletin board in front of their door stating that they would have nothing at all to do with the holiday and its costumes and jack-o-lanterns and candy and other impious nonsense. On the evening of October 31 they would be saying a rosary for the souls of all the departed.

And so they were, murmuring their way from bead to bead, when our sugared-up son and his school friend, fully-costumed and toting maniacally-grinning pumpkin bags filled with their hauls of candy, decided that the best place to stop and goof off and break into ear-splitting banshee screams was directly in front of the open church door.

It's almost as if they took the church notices as a challenge. But as neither of them is yet four years old, and neither can read, it must have just been instinctive primal hooliganism.

Of course we told them to keep it down and hurried them along, but I did so with a very rare sense that at least for a couple of minutes all was right in the world. The Church had done its part and announced what it considered appropriate activity on such a significant night and the pre-schoolers had done theirs and spontaneously flouted that same activity con gusto.

For piety needs impiety to feel itself to the fullest, just as impiety needs piety to really have any fun.

Now in this sense the ostensibly pious have it better these days than ever: they need only turn the computer or television or radio to buck themselves up. Their ancestors might have had to leave their house, or at least look out the window.

While the poor would-be impious of the Western world...! Their case is almost hopeless. When everything and everyone is relentlessly telling you to indulge your appetites and cravings it becomes hard to even recognize those appetites as your own, or as yourself. The only truly transgressive act is to become an ascetic.

But last night at San Martino with the barbarians--or pagans--running wild at the door of the church it all balanced out perfectly, as it so rarely does anymore. I hope at least one cranky churchgoer, or maybe the priest, caught sight of the costumed racket at the door and benefitted from its contrast to his or her own focus. And though neither my unlettered son nor his friend could appreciate the dynamic, I could and did. I considered it my very own Halloween treat.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chapel of Sant' Atanasio in Church of San Zaccaria, Today 11:30 am

Among the paintings: an altarpiece of Mary enthroned by Palma il Vecchio that stood in for Gio Bellini's masterpiece in the main church while it was detained for 20 years in Paris, and a crucifixion by Anthony van Dyck above the exit

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Venice Biennale: The Future of a Promise, Pan-Arab Exhibition

At a certain point in the 20th Century it seems it became fashionable for certain cognoscenti to announce: Painting Is Dead. Then in the 1980s it was "miraculously reborn" as an obscenely lucrative medium, complete with its own latter-day de Koonings and Pollocks self-consciously mimicking the heroic days of those masters, and it was no longer so important--or even advisable--to assert its passing. Some people still do, of course, but as long as there's an international market for it it's not imperative to do so.

I was never qualified to make such a pronouncement and no one, not even myself, cared what I thought about Painting's viability. And, besides, as I have a sister who's a painter how could I take pleasure in the thought of its passing? But I must confess that recently during one or two of my grumpier days as I walked through this or that Biennale pavilion I was surprised to find myself sympathizing--and completely!--with those who talked of its demise. In our media-saturated age how could ancient old toothless Painting, depending entirely on so many now-familiar motifs and strategies, possibly still reach us?

Then I saw the work Al Maw3oud by the Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki and was reminded how.

Painting could still be monumental and striking, complex and suggestive of any number of contradictory ideas all at once. Instead of seeming like the oldest medium on display it could seem like the freshest and most immediate. At least to me.

detail of Al Maw3oud
But, then, there are a number of striking pieces, in different media, on display in The Future of a Promise. Another, by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, struck me as having far more to suggest about one of the defining myths of America--and its reality--than any of the momentarily eye-catching and costly pieces in the American pavilion which, finally, I can only describe as high concept, low impact.

At first sight, I thought Mater's The Cowboy Code was nothing more than a homey American needlepoint sampler recreated on an absurdly massive scale.

But then I stepped up close to the piece and discovered the entire thing was composed of the plastic ammunition discs for a toy cap gun, as you can see below.

It's a dark witty piece that, unlike a number of other works in the Biennale, does not stop at wit, at a knowing punch line. I find myself thinking of the piece still, days later.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Last Look at Summer: Fisherman

My friend and neighbor, who has lived here all of his nearly 70 years, remembers swimming right off of Sant' Elena (where this fisherman is set up) when he was a boy. He also remembers, as an adult, when dead fish started showing up in great numbers on the surface of the very same water. The quality of the water is somewhere between those two states now and you can eat the fish you catch in the lagoon. Though I doubt it's a great idea for children or pregnant women to do so, or for anyone else to do so too often. But you'll need to get a fishing license before you cast your line (or lines), and these days you'll need a lot more clothing; this pic is from late August.