Monday, April 16, 2012

Buried Treasure

In terms of world historical significance Sandro's discovery of a very small piece of painted ceramic while digging in the community garden behind the church of Le Zitelle doesn't exactly compare to, say, the two 5th-century Greek bronzes of warriors found underwater in 1972 off Riace in Calabria, but in terms of personal historical significance it's been quite a big deal.

It's only a short time since he began accurately using the term "yesterday", and there was a phase not too long ago when the visible age of Venice could just as easily strike him as yucky as interesting.

Just as we acquire a sense of Time only slowly in childhood, so we only gradually acquire a sense of, or interest in, History. Of course some people never get it: I remember hearing 20 years ago about a friend's parents (from Orange County, California) who were disgusted by how run-down Venice seemed.

And some people can't wait to get rid of it. Like an Italian I knew in New York City, born and raised in Florence and with a PhD in Renaissance painting, who'd come to loathe all the history of his hometown. History seemed to him a stultifying burden. He opened a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea and--is this related?--told me when he himself was 40 that he still only dated women in their 20s...

This little piece of painted ceramic, though, smaller than his smallest finger, has inspired in Sandro an interest in History of which he'd previously shown few signs.

When his excitement to tell someone about it gets the best of him, he simply calls it il mio vaso antico (my old/ancient vase). At calmer moments he'll specify that it's a piece (pezzo) of an old vase.

Our Venetian neighbors who saw an exhibition on Venetian ceramics of the 18th Century believe it really is from that period. Another Venetian said it's not that unusual for such fragments to turn up, for example, on Lido. Though Lido seems to me to be one of the less likely places for them to be found, considering that Byron famously went there to ride horses in the early 1800s, and as late as the 1860s Henry James was still remarking on how bucolic a place it was.

In any case, it's become an historical touchstone for Sandro. When we walked through Ca' Rezzonico the other day he had an ardent new interest in paintings of domestic or dining scenes, looking for a vase (or cup or pitcher or plate) that looked like his.

Of course even for adults, and even in a place like Venice, History can be such a difficult thing to really get a hold of. You see the remains of History literally everywhere you turn here, you read about it in guidebooks and history books, and yet to me at least it seems there's no telling what little unexpected detail, what little surprise, what perhaps relatively insignificant and completely idiosyncratic discovery will really bring the sense of the past home to you--or me.

It may be that there's just too much History here, or that some of us are too consciously aware of it, for us really to feel it, to be pierced by it, until we stumble upon our own small personal discovery: not Verrochio's grand equestrian bronze of Bartolomeo Colleoni, but the chisel-pocked white marble of a modest lintel nearby.

In any case, Sandro has announced that the next thing he expects to unearth at the community garden is un piatto d'oro (gold plate).

I hope he's right.


  1. If Sandro does find that plate of gold, it will help to pay for the Smart car he wants to own when he grows up and lives on Lido!

    It's magic that he just happened to be the one to turn that little piece of history out of the ground, to then notice it and to be struck by the understanding that this was not something of today.

    (There's a lady by the name of Francesca, at Ca D' Oro, who might help Sandro know more about his piece of history.)

    1. It was certainly very lucky that he was the one who turned it up--small as it is, I'm a little surprised he even noticed it. I think an adult wouldn't have seen it.

      The world is full of little surprises I suppose, if we have the time to be struck by them. And thank you for the lead to Francesca at Ca D'Oro, perhaps we will stop in.

    2. Ah, and if Sandro does find that plate of gold I can guarantee you he won't wait until he grows up to start badgering us about his/our need for a Smart car, even if we don't live on Lido.