Friday, February 25, 2011


One of my favorite juxtapositions in Castello, outside the Communist Party headquarters at the corner of Corte Nuova and Fondamenta Rio Della Tana.

A peek through the windows around the corner on the fondamenta reveals the small interior of what in NYC would be a pretty cool dive bar, walls covered with framed b/w photos of Che Guevara. (Alas, none of them autographed from what I could see.) No sign, however, of the great martyred Sardinian Marxist anti-fascist Antonio Gramsci--though he represented the Veneto in the 1920s. I'll have to look more closely.

Pane e Carnevale

The window of a panetteria in Castello celebrates the beginning of Carnevale.

I have to admit that at first sight it made me think more of the old cult film The Wicker Man than Carnevale. Then I was struck by the resemblance of the center-most rear mask to James Joyce. I don't think either of these things were what the bakers intended but I admire them for these effects anyway...

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Il Sputinato di Venezia"

Laundry drying on lines between the old buildings of Venice: an irresistible subject for nearly every visitor with a camera who roams even a short way from Piazza San Marco. On some days I've seen people quite literally waiting in line on Riva dei Sette Martiri to snap the particularly picturesque vista of laden clotheslines through the large arch of Calle delle Colonne.

But I wonder: are Jen and I the only people to whom it seems a little odd when undies are hung out? I don't know about visitors from other countries, but I suspect that for at least some other Americans, and probably Brits--with whom the US shares a certain puritanical modesty--such displays reveal a bit too much of our personal life to the eyes of strangers.

Well, now I find out that at least some Venetians feel the same way about the cavalier way in which Americans leave their underwear off to be washed in a laundry. They'd never dream of it. As one Venetian friend recently said, "To leave your dirty underwear to be handled by others? Terrible!"

"They're not really handling it, piece by piece," Jen objected, defending herself and me for having--you guessed it--left our laundry off last November while we were staying in an apartment without a washing machine. 

"They have to smooth it out and fold it," our friend responded.

"After it's been washed," Jen pointed out.

But our friend was unmoved: "Beh! Che schifo!" (How disgusting!)

As it turns out, our friend's attitude stems from the professional experiences of her mother who, like many Venetians, works for one of the luxury hotels here.

The fact is this whole conversation began as a discussion of a certain recent movie starring a certain actor whom it seems everyone adores. Everyone except our friend, whose opinion rests not on his acting ability, nor his dreamy looks, but from the extent to which her mother was traumatized by a run-in with an article of his clothing.

"You can't imagine how absolutely terrible he smells!" our friend exclaimed. "My mother was supposed to mend one of his jackets but it was so torn up there was nothing to sew together--and the smell! The smell! It filled the room! It stuck to her clothes!"

In contrast, our friend's mother has a quite favorable opinion of the films of another hugely successful American leading man because all his briefs were impeccable and very expensive, made of black silk--and of a very sheer see-through material.

This last quality didn't bother our friend's mother--who's prone to wearing tight animal print clothing herself--but to our friend and us it merely confirmed the questionable personal taste that has dogged even the greatest world-wide successes of this actor.

"So I guess it's not all a nightmare for your mother," Jen teased our friend.

A bad idea. In some company the discussion of intimate apparel is best kept very brief. Especially when your interlocutor is intent on proving how appalling it is that Americans (like Jen and myself, though infinitely more famous) leave their laundry off.

Americans such as "Il Sputinato di Venezia."

This was the Rabelaisian nickname our friend's mother came up with to comically embody the horror, disgust and revulsion inspired by the underpants of an actor who, like the two others already mentioned, is one of the most successful and popular leading men of the last 20-30 years: white cotton boxers (consistent with his retro down-to-earth vibe), voluminous in cut, and, well, let's just say that you really really don't want to read any more description--as I wish I'd never heard it. For those who know Italian, the nickname will be way too suggestive. For those who don't, the mere sound of the nickname will be way too suggestive.

"But," Jen objected, after recovering her composure, "that's unusual, that's extreme. We didn't leave off anything in that condition."

It didn't matter to our friend. She is a woman of unyielding, if not always logical, principles.
"So if you're visiting Venice and you don't have a washing machine, what are you supposed to do with your dirty underwear?" Jen asked.

"Wash them in the sink!" snapped our friend.

Yes. Wash them in the sink. Then, if you happen to be staying in one of the many apartments here with laundry lines running from your window, pin them to the line and wheel them out to the center of the calle or corte or campiello to charm--or appall--countless passers-by instead of one hardworking laundress.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cole Porter at Ca' Rezzonico

If you take a vaporetto to Ca' Rezzonico, and get off at the stop just beside its imposing facade, it's hard to miss the large plaque on the side of the palazzo commemorating the death of "Roberto Browning" (sic) in the building in 1889. It's a fact that also seems to be mentioned in every guide book. It's certainly the fact that was quite heavily on my mind when I first visited the palazzo in the fall of 1991. But then I'd just dropped out of an English Lit PhD program in which my dissertation was to have been on the Victorian period and, still in my mid-twenties, I was at an age when death still seems, however dark, only exotically and poetically theoretical.

Italy was vitally important to Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett, so it's certainly fitting and not at all surprising that he should be so prominently remembered here, but it's not as if to expire in Venice was the poet's last wish. He spent only a matter of months in the palazzo, which had been bought by his son and American heiress daughter-in-law, and seems to have died there only incidentally.

What surprised me just a couple of days before I finally visited Ca' Rezzonico for the second time in my life on Friday, is that Cole Porter also lived there.

Perhaps many people know this, but I don't recall seeing it in a guidebook, it's not on the Wikipedia entry for Ca' Rezzonico, nor on the website of the museum itself. I stumbled upon it while looking up something about one of Porter's songs.

According to an online chronology of Porter's life (, he rented the palazzo each summer from 1923 through the summer of 1927. According to the Wikipedia entry on Porter, he rented it for $4,000 per month ($51,000 in current value) and expanded upon the reputation he'd already made for himself in Paris of throwing the most extravagant, and scandalous, of parties.

In fact, according to some accounts, it was a scandal involving a nephew of Venice's mayor that closed Porter's run in Venice for good.

In a city that typically celebrates those celebrities who loved her, something of this sort seems to be one of the only likely explanations for the absence of any reference to Cole Porter at Ca' Rezzonico.

Too bad.

For another huge fan of Venice, Henry James, once wrote a story inspired by his personal observations of Robert Browning. The comic and slightly spooky tale is entitled "The Private Life" and focuses upon the huge yawning gulf between the brilliance of a certain great writer's work--the creations of his private self laboring alone in his room--and the numbing dullness of that writer's ordinary social self.

In the case of Cole Porter it seems as though his social self was every bit the match of the self who, when alone, wrote his songs.

I think it is these differences between the two men that explain why, as my wife Jen and I approached Ca' Rezzonico two days ago on the vaporetto, one silly question kept running through my mind:

"Would you rather visit the palazzo where Roberto Browning died or the one where Cole Porter lived?"

I was of course about to do both at the same time, but my clear preference for the latter suggested to me how much I'd changed since the last time, nearly 20 years ago, I saw Ca' Rezzonico.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Venetian Monochrome: Fog, Lagoon & Sun

Today has been bracketed (thickly) by fog: it was here in the morning, then back again this afternoon, when I took this photo of the sun about to throw in the towel after a long hard struggle against obscurity.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Winter Evening in Burano

This photo is actually from the end of last February. I had almost made a point when I was in Venice in 1991 of not visiting Burano, fearing it would be nothing but a town fitted out for the benefit of tourists--that is, not a real town at all, but just a facsimile, stuffed with tacky lace shops, of something long gone.

Perhaps that is what some part of it might seem like during the day, during high season, but on this Saturday evening last winter I was amazed by how very few tourists we saw--almost none. We arrived during the passegiato, as the sun was setting, and on Via Baldassarre Galuppi seemed to see only local families and, of course, as this is Italy, the elderly. I was practically the only person with a camera and map, while most of the other people seemed to know each other and stopped and talked in small groups amid the lighted shops, as people do stop and talk here in a way different than any place in America I've lived.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Winter Evening

Closed for renovations at present, Trattoria Giorgione is on Via Garibaldi in the sestiere of Castello.

In Praise of the #62 Vaporetto Line

The most famous of the vaporetto routes in Venice is of course the number 1, which plies up and down the Grand Canal (and then all the way out to the Lido). If you take only one vaporetto ride--and at €6.50 a ride for visitors, one is all many people do take--you can't miss the number 1.

But today I'd like to put in a plug for the number 62, which runs with just a few stops from the Lido to Piazzale Roma via the Giudecca Canal--or any of the other lines with high numbers and, most important, low-riding sterns.

I took the 62 yesterday for the first time and sat in one of the four outside seats in the very rear of the crowded boat. It was cold, loud and smelly, but what a marvelous ride! On the 62, and any of the other lines that use this particular model of vaporetto (the number 1 never does), you ride so low in the water that you have a swell's-eye view of the city. Seated back here the lower half of your body seems to be below the water line. You can trail a hand in the water if you want (though I don't recommend it). 

The engine rattles and grinds almost beneath you, rising to such a raucous pitch during acceleration that the next sound you expect to hear is--silence, after it has seized up and cut out for good. Diesel exhaust rises behind you to the height of the roof and sometimes visits you in your seat--as does spray from the hard working rotors. The boat's wake billows to either side of you, iridescent in the late sunlight, and when another boat passes by in the opposite direction waves seem to crest as high as your chin.

I don't suppose it can be called a romantic ride--at least not in a conventional sense. But I can't imagine another form of public transportation anywhere that offers a better view of the city it serves. Dying to take the perfect picture of San Giorgio Maggiore? Don't bother with the famous vantage point on the Piazzetta or Molo, take the 62 as the sun is setting.

When you're riding this low the lagoon finally gets its full deserved due. Arrayed along a high horizon line, the city's most famous buildings become merely a spectacular backdrop to the shimmering water that kept the Republic impregnable for over 1,000 years. Before there was anything else there was the lagoon, and unless you can afford to spring for a long far-ranging gondola ride, the lagoon is most perfectly (and affordably) foregrounded when you're riding in the rear of a low-slung vaporetto like the 62. I can't wait to go on it again.