Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spring, Foregrounded

Near the center of Venice it's rare for nature, even cultivated nature, to cast the constructed marvels of the city into the background--but not impossible.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Long Time No See

Some people doubted they would ever see the Accademia again, but I'm happy to post this pic taken today to prove their fears were unfounded. (Okay, maybe well-founded, but still...) I'm sorry this photo doesn't do it justice; it really looks wonderful, even with the construction material still all around it and that crane.

And could those be solar panels on its roof--or just skylights?

The Language Teacher

About a month ago my 3-year-old son corrected my pronunciation of a simple Italian word.

"An-chee-o," he instructed--not that I'd asked. I thought I'd said it correctly.
I tried again.

Still not quite right. He demonstrated again.

He's actually a pretty good teacher. Even last year when he was two, and after only a couple of months at an asilo nido in Piemonte, my Italian cousins said his accent was very good.  And in contrast to my Italian instructor here in the state-sponsored language course for stranieri (foreigners) he doesn't yell at you if you make a mistake.

It comes as no surprise that one's child develops a life distinct from the one he or she has with you at home, but a second language only emphasizes this. To us he has always been "Sandro". At school they call him by the name on his birth certificate, "Alessandro," or, quite often, "Ale" (Ah-lay)--a common Italian nickname we'd never heard before.

This afternoon he brought home a painted bas relief figure of a person (& tree) made of dried dough on paper enclosed within a shallow cardboard box (framing it like a children's puppet theatre) labeled "Il Folletto dell' Inverno" (or "Elf of Winter"). He just made it, so my wife and I were surprised that it was not an elf of spring--but only because we have no clue yet about this elf's story. Like La Befana, the witch of the Epiphany (whose appearance on his class's Christmas-themed calendar first struck my wife and I as some mistaken leftover from Halloween), this winter elf's appearance in our home at the end of March is a small reminder that our son is being educated in a culture not our own.

We're in the fortunate, even luxurious position of being able to accept such differences as invitations for us, as much as for Sandro, to learn something new. But it's not hard to imagine that for other parents in other places--or, of course, even here in Venice--such differences in culture and language could easily take on a more worrisome aspect. And for other kids as well.

I suspect my parents' own history of being able to speak only Italian when they started first grade in two different small towns in California had a lot to do with their unwillingness to teach any of their own kids the language. But perhaps because he started at an earlier age, in an atmosphere of mostly play, Sandro hasn’t seemed bothered by the fact that he does not—or did not—speak the same language as his classmates.

He understood Italian before he could speak it much, and now as his Italian facility increases he seems quite content to combine the languages as necessary. Though he does seem to be aware that they are two different languages with different words for the same object. So when I recently referred to a tartaruga in a pond, he responded by telling me that, no, there was no tortoise there.

This past weekend my wife was on a bus on the Lido with Sandro, his 4-year-old Italian classmate (who knows very little English), and her Italian mother. Sandro has really started to use a lot of Italian lately around his Italian friends—but not only Italian. He was telling his friend things like: “Guarda that rossa macchina” (“Look at that red car”).

And “Non si gioca with the toy cosi” (“One doesn’t play with the toy like that”).

“Ah,” my wife’s Italian friend joked to her, “Sandro speaks English like you speak Italian!”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring Is Here, for Some...

Spring has arrived in Venice for some, not so much for others, and for others yet, not at all...

The way your neighbors react to the changing seasons suggests a lot about the people you're living among. When I lived in Manhattan I was struck every autumn by how prematurely people broke out their fall wardrobes. You'd have barely turned your calender page to September, the temperatures would still be very close to those of summer, and yet all around you'd see people in dark wool jackets and coats, set off by the nicest scarves in deep autumnal hues. They looked great, and seemed as pleased with their clothes and themselves as kids who'd finally grown into some long-promised outfit. It was bracing just to behold them and inspired a swell of seasonal sentiment ("Autumn in New York, why does it always seem so inviting?" as the song says). The only thing that ruined it was the 82 degree temperature (28 celsius) and my intimate knowledge that I was sweating in just a light cotton shirt and jeans.

Today in Venice the high was a brilliant 61 degrees fahrenheit (16 C). At the Midwestern college I attended not far from Chicago, this would've been bathing suit and beach towel weather. Here, most of my neighbors were not so willing to get anywhere close to jumping the gun--they kept safely in their winter coats and hats.

Partly it's a matter of age; Venice has the oldest population in Italy, which is saying a lot. It's understandable that for many older people 61 degrees might not seem all that much of an improvement over 51 degrees (10 C) or 45 degrees (7 C), no matter how bright the sun. And contrary to the United States where someone who is 75 often seems pressured to prove they are no less callow than someone of 20, older Italians seem less inclined to believe that life's greatest pleasures are available only to those in the throes of puberty.

And Italian kids... This is another post all its own, which could range from the 3 hours we've been told must pass between the last morsel of food to enter a child's mouth and that child's first step into a swimming pool, to the serious health hazards of a breeze on a child's tummy. Needless to say, those small kids in the company of their grandparents or mothers this afternoon were more often than not wearing something along the lines of a down parka and a wool hat.

But even in the case of those between one or the other extreme of age, most Italians I saw today were cautious not to get too carried away and recklessly start shedding layers. I saw no one nowhere "lying out"--regardless of how important a good tan seems to be to many Italians. A light merino wool sweater over a light cotton shirt was too hot for me this afternoon, but most other people I saw kept their jackets on--and buttoned. For well over 1,000 years Venetians have survived amid changing tides, threatening seas, and potential enemies on every side. They were not about to put too much faith in what the calender said, nor trust overly much in a single warm day. They were taking nothing for granted.

I'll be curious to see how they react to the next two days when the weather is supposed to be even warmer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sea Horses in Venice(?)

"Mind you get a fisherman to bring you two or three cavalli di mare, & put them in a basin in your room, and see them swim. But don't keep them more than a day, or they'll die, put them into the canal again."      
         --John Ruskin, in a letter of 1857 to Charles Eliot Norton
I had no idea there were ever sea horses (or cavallucci) in and around Venice until I came upon the above mention of them in a long letter quoted by John Julius Norwich in Paradise of Cities: Venice in the 19th Century.

I supposed they must have vanished from the lagoon long ago, but I asked a Venetian friend, born here in 1941, if he had ever seen any and he answered, yes, of course, when he was a boy. There were a lot of them in the lagoon then, and when the waves became rough on the Lido--agitato is the word he used, which was hard for me to imagine as I've only ever seen the Adriatic lapping calmly as a lake--they would wash up on the strand.

I asked him when they disappeared from the lagoon and he said he didn't know. Though I remembered a previous conversation with him and his wife when they'd referred to a time when the lagoon became littered with floating fish, I think in the late '60s.

Metal or brass sea horses sometimes appear on gondolas, but unlike, say, dolphins, I don't recall sea horses being a prominent decorative motif in Venice. But maybe I've been overlooking them?

A short underwater video on Youtube claims to show a sea horse off the shore of the Lido but, to be honest, it's pretty hard to make out the isolated little fellow--or to be sure he's there at all.

Are there still sea horses around Venice? Has anyone seen them?

Monday, March 21, 2011

The War of the Fists

 After spending nearly three hours watching a certain display of hyper-masculinity, King Henry III complained to those who had organized the event for his entertainment that it "was too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game."

The year was 1574 and, no, he had not just watched a game of professional American football, nor the off-field hooliganism of soccer fans, but a battagliola for control of the Ponte dei Carmini waged by 600 Venetian workers armed with helmets, shields and sticks.

This would be one of the last armed battles of this kind. By the end of the 16th century, and all through the 17th, the two rival factions of Venice, the Nicolotti and Castellani, would express their hostilities in the organized mass mayhem known as la guerra dei pugni, or war of the fists.

Of course lovers of Venice already know of these battles from the famous Ponte dei Pugni and its four marble footprints, placed upon it in the late 17th C. to mark the starting points for the two combatants and two referees involved in the mostre, or series of one-on-one combats, that made up part of a fighting day's festivities. But for those interested in learning more not only about these battles but about the 17th-century Venice in which they occupied so important a role, I strongly recommend Robert C. Davis's The War of the Fists, originally published in 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Davis provides a very readable (& thoroughly documented) account of Venetian life beyond just the doges, aristocrats, artists, courtesans and illustrious foreign visitors who form the subjects of so much writing on the city. In fact, some of the most fervent adherents of these battles were found among the upper classes. Noblemen aligned themselves with one of the two factions and acted as patrons to the best fighters. Cardinals of the Church and visiting royalty demanded battles be waged during their stay, and one, a certain Princess Colonna, enjoyed her first experience of them so much that she coerced the heads of the two factions to stage another slate of them the following week just for her.

But Davis excels at suggesting the lives of the lower classes: the hierarchies, loyalties, and values that drove them to fight on the bridges, where serious injury and death were always very real possibilities. Fighters drowned in the canals, were suffocated in the crush of a frotta--the vast riotous scrum for control of the bridge waged en masse by the two factions that many participants valued more than the single combat mostre. Daggers might be drawn, or a deadly hail of roof tiles might come from impassioned fans stationed atop the buildings all around the bridge. 

In general, the most prominent members of the Nicolotti were fishermen from the western end of Venice, while the core of the Castellani consisted of shipbuilders from the Arsenale. But within these two large factions, there were subgroups, centered around their particular campi, united by their common trade (eg, mirror makers and sellers of San Canciano, the butchers of Cannaregio), and in the course of reading Davis one gets a real sense of the vital geography of Venice, the factions within factions, like hives within hives, of a city buzzing with life. 

Since reading this book the quiet, usually vacant little campo of Sant' Agnese, for example, has been re-peopled for me, in imagination, by its former inhabitants, infamous for their terrifying ferocity on behalf of the Castellani cause.

And the city's many bridges have been reinformed with the status they held for centuries, as no-man's lands, neither of this parish nor that, neither land nor water, marginal--the traditional hangout for those small-time illicit vendors (of matches or trinkets in centuries past; of knock-off purses, sunglasses, or cheap toys today) allowed no place among the established merchants on the mercerie or rughe.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Video Postcard from Sant' Elena

It was supposed to rain here yesterday but instead was quite beautiful. By the end of the day I was convinced we really had left winter behind--as evidence of which I submit the above. I hadn't planned to shoot any video, and didn't have a tripod, but the light (not least of all on the moving water) was impossible to resist and I hope this at least hints at the look and sound of things here late yesterday afternoon.

The link below is to the same short clips as above, but with better quality:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Clueless about Carnevale

Carnevale and spontaneity.

The words, I thought, were almost synonymous. Maybe this was naive of me; maybe whatever I'd read about popular festivals of the past, those periods in so many cultures when the usual order of things was turned upside down, had given me a very wrong idea of what to expect.

I had the mistaken notion that during Carnevale I could show up practically any time at Piazza San Marco and find something going on. They'd built a giant stage in front of the Ala Napoleonica, on which was promised a daily bill of performances, but whenever I managed to get to the Piazza the only thing I ever saw were the same few commercials running in a seemingly infinite loop on the stage's massive Jumbotron tv.

Granted, the various billboards that now deface the Piazza make it seem more like Times Square than the world's grandest drawing room, but I'm not sure the introduction of a big-screen tv was the best way to reintroduce a note of domesticity into the space--regardless of how much, we are told, Italians love to watch their tvs.

So Lesson #1 (which perhaps everyone but me already knew): If you come to Carnevale be sure to get a thorough schedule of events and plan accordingly!

Otherwise on a Friday night in what you (like me) might imagine would be the very thick of Carnevale chaos you'll find yourself roaming through a scene in the Piazza and Piazzetta that resembles nothing so much as a car or boat show: one of those periodic expos held in large convention centers where milling crowds wander desultorily amid various exhibitors, snapping the occasional picture, looking for the next sight of interest.

Don't get me wrong, there are sights of interest: folks concealed in some very elaborate costumes, as well-constructed and flashy and eye-catching as some Alfa Romeo or Jaguar or Ford car-of-the-future prototype poised on its own private stage. But equally as idle.

The scheduled events I attended I did enjoy: even something as quiet as one of the guided tours of L'Archivo di Stato di Venezia near I Frari. And the Carnevale dei Ragazzi, open daily for the full run of Carnevale in the main exhibition hall of the Biennale, was really marvelous. Each room in the large hall was devoted to a different creative theme or activity, and they ranged from high-tech interactive installations to limitless supplies of paper, glue, scissors, pencils and colored markers, as well as a main stage with live performances. This was the place to go for spontaneity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Carnevale Fatalities

Front page news in the local Venice paper today: another body found floating in a canal this morning--the second of this Carnevale season.

It sounds--and the headline looked--exactly like something out of the old Donald Sutherland/Julie Christie movie Don't Look Now. But there is no murderer roaming the calli, nor is this, unfortunately, just a film adaptation of a work of fiction.

No, instead, every Carnevale it seems that at least a couple of tourists drink too much and fall into a canal on their way home at night. Even during Carnevale, Venice is hardly New York City: it's easy to find yourself walking in silent isolation at night even just a short way from Piazza San Marco. There are plenty of stretches of canal with no barrier or railing between the stones of a fondamenta and the water, and if one is bundled up in winter wear and inebriated even a decent swimmer might immediately find him- or herself in serious trouble.

There's so little crime in Venice perhaps it's easy to get lulled into a false sense of complete safety, and the environment has been so well urbanized for so long that the ever-present water of the canals probably seems too fully domesticated to feel the least bit dangerous. 

As far as I can recall, no guidebooks warn of this. Perhaps it seems obvious?

But, unfortunately, not always obvious enough...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

2 Terms of Endearment Best Avoided in English

Term 1: Vecia (Venetian)

Recently Jen and I went with a friend to the funeral of her great uncle at the church of S. Zaccaria. He was the co-founder of what she claims was the first pizzeria in Venezia in the nearby campiello of S. Provolo. This is something I'll have to verify, but that's not my concern right now. Nor do I want to tell you about the mass--during which Giovanni Bellini's sublime side altarpiece was lit throughout (as opposed to the brief intervals doled out by the coin-op boxes), and the eulogy by the brother of the deceased received a hearty round of applause--but something that happened as we made our way back toward the Riva with our friend, a woman in her 30s.

Our friend knows many people in Venice, which is, after all, quite a small town, and one of them, a man of about 40, happened to pass and greeted her with "Ciao, vecia." (Pronounced something like the way an English speaker would say "vetcha.")

Our friend said ciao in return and as we walked on told us, "That's a Venetian word."

Jen said, "It sounds kind of like the Italian word that means 'old lady."

"Well, it's the Venetian version of that word," our friend told us.

"You mean he just called you an old lady!" Jen said.

"No, no, that's not what he meant. It's vecia mia--as in 'my old friend'. But we leave off mia. It's an expression of affection."

I repeated the word.

Jen turned and warned me: "Don't even think about it."

Term 2: Ciccia (Italian)

We spent 3 months last winter in Piemonte working on an organic vineyard owned by a husband and wife with two young sons. The husband often addressed his wife as "ciccia," which was not her name. We did not know much Italian and thought nothing of it--I don't think I even caught what he was saying--until a young American woman from New Jersey came to volunteer on the farm for 2 weeks.

Her father had been born and raised in Italy and from him she had acquired something very close to fluency in the language. Very close, but not exactly. Which is why one day as we were all planting young lettuce she said, with more than a little disapproval, "Have you ever noticed how X [the husband] calls his wife 'chubby' all the time?"

We had not.

"That's what ciccia means," she explained. "Actually, it's not all that nice. My father used to tell me it means something kind of like 'fat ass'".

The things we had missed at the dinner table because of our inadequate language skills! She was able to fill us in. Her father had not neglected to educate her in the full range of the Italian language.

Yet he was from the south of Italy and perhaps the usage of the same word--or at least its over- and undertones--can change from region to region.

For when I asked my cousin, an architect who lived nearby in Piemonte, about ciccia, his sense of it was nowhere near as earthy.

"Yes, ciccia," he said, "it's used a lot. It's kind of like 'dear.' It's a term of affection."

"But doesn't the word mean that you're fat?" I asked.

He thought a few moments. "Well, yes, it can mean that," he said. He pinched the skin of his waist between two fingers and said, "It can mean fleshy, yes, and to put on weight. But that meaning never occurred to me. It's just, you know, like 'dear'. It's what you call your girlfriend or your wife."

Perhaps if both of you were raised in Piemonte, for example. But for the rest of us it's probably just asking for trouble.