Thursday, May 31, 2012

Proust on the Piazzetta's Two Columns

The columns in the last light of this evening
How often, in the Divine Comedy, in Shakespeare, I have had this impression of having in front of me, inserted into the present moment, something of the past, that dream-like impression one feels in Venice, on the Piazzetta, before its two columns of pink and grey granite which carry on their capitals, the one the lion of St Mark and the other St Theodore trampling on a crocodile--beautiful foreigners come there from the Orient across the sea they are gazing at in the distance and which comes to die at their feet, and the two of them, uncomprehending of the remarks exchanged around them in a language not of their own land, on this public square where their distracted smile still gleams, continue belatedly in our midst, interpolating their twelfth-century days into our own day.

Yes, in the heart of a public square, in the midst of a today whose dominion is fractured on this spot, something of the twelfth century, of a twelfth century so long since fled, rises up in a double thrust of slender pink granite. 

All around, the hum of the present moment, of the days we are living, crowds and circulates about the columns, but there it abruptly ceases, takes flight, like bees that have been driven off; for these tall, delicate enclaves of the past are not in the present, but in another time into which the present is forbidden to penetrate.

Around the pink columns, surging upwards towards their broad capitals, the present moment crowds and hums. But they interpose in the midst of it, pushing it aside, reserving the inviolable place of the past with all their slim thickness--of the past risen familiarly up in the midst of the present, with that rather unreal colouring of objects that a sort of illusion causes us to see a few paces away, but which are in reality situated many centuries away; their whole aspect addressing our minds rather too directly, exalting them somewhat as is scarcely surprising with a ghost returned from a buried age; yet there, in the midst of us, approached, brushed against, fingered, motionless, in the sunshine.

--This is the conclusion of the little-read essay On Reading by Marcel Proust, translated by John Sturrock.

All of the above forms a single paragraph in the original, but for ease of reading on a computer I've inserted a white space between each sentence.

The essay was originally written as a preface for a translation of John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, and the ideas Proust expresses in it about reading are, oddly enough, entirely opposed to those expressed by Ruskin in the translated work itself. (The only other time I've come across a similar disjunction of preface and work was in the liner notes to a CD of music composed, as it happened, by Proust's lover Reynaldo Hahn, which so denigrated the pieces as to make you feel foolish for even listening to them.)

In opposition to Ruskin's traditional idea of reading as a form of communication between reader and the most historically distant author, Proust insists on the reading experience as, ideally, the most personal and idiosyncratic of experiences, in which your memories of the surroundings in which you read a book are at least as important as what the book contained.

It's a great subversive essay--and a nightmare of educators everywhere.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Calm Before the Swarm: Vogalonga Eve (Tonight)

As ghosts and witches are supposed to come out on the eve of All Souls Day, so some extremely strange creatures have appeared on the shores of the lagoon this evening, in preparation for tomorrow's Vogalonga. They are definitely not native to these waters, nor very well suited to them (their long oars can't fit in most canals, the wake of vaporetti sorely try them, and rowing backward in a craft of limited maneuverability is hardly ideal for the tricky shallows of the lagoon), but they are always welcome participants in what will be Venice's 38th annual "celebration of the oar."

This year, the local papers say, a new record has been set for the number of entrants; last year there were over 6,000 rowers in 1,650 boats. You can visit the official website (in English and Italian) here:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Another Place, Another Time: North Lagoon

Setting sun seen from the north lagoon
I'm convinced you could spend your whole life in Venice and easily miss about 75% of everything there is to see. Every three paces you take overwhelm you with so much visual detail--the myriad accretions of long history, or the picturesque deterioration wrought by those same passing years--that it's impossible to take it all in.

So it's very easy to forget about the lagoon, even if you are lucky enough to be here for longer than just a few days, or a week, or even a month. I do it myself all the time, until the chance (for example) to travel about the northern lagoon with some friends reminds me of how much I've been missing, and how large and fascinating the lagoon itself is: from the barrene--those low flat stretches of land that disappear and reappear with the changing tides--to the lightly populated islands close to the city (Vignole, Certosa), to those distant islands, looking so very unpopulated and unpromising when seen from a passing vaporetto going to or from Burano, that hide unseen within their interiors, along the overgrown banks of mazey waterways often too shallow for navigation, a host of residents living in conditions very much like those of the city's first settlers.

Seemingly less like a single island (even if they're named as such) than a cluster of puzzle piece islands, the residents of such places live in small houses built of wood, not stone, their yards delimited irregularly by water and wild overgrowth. Through open gates at the water's edge you glimpse their vegetable gardens. Above the flowering bushes that enclose their yards you see the tops of fruit trees (plums, cherries, even peaches, I think). which I'm told flourish at first and grow quickly, until their roots hit the first layer of salty subsoil and their height is stunted by the limited depth of good earth. Lining either side of the narrow waterways are the large wooden crates of soft-shell crab traps, each one hoisted or submerged between a pair of tall wooden poles--slenderer versions of the bricole to which boats are tied in the city.

It's an entirely different world out there, and away from the bulk and verticality of Venice, or even Burano, hours seem to go by differently than they do in the city: passing not, as one might imagine in such a watery place (and as the ancients put it), like that of a river or even slowly running stream, but settling gently and silently all around you--on the riotous vegetation and the vast still flat vistas beyond--like a soft sifting from above, becoming darkly opalescent in the day's last light.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Racing Through Household Chores: America's Cup

If the eponymous hero of the kitschy old cartoon Speed Racer had had an official pit crew (instead of his kid brother & a chimp) there's a good chance their uniforms would have looked like those of the Luna Rossa
I didn't know how little I knew about sailboat racing until the America's Cup races came to town.

Is it possible to know less than nothing?

I think so. At least in my case. For not content to wallow idly in its ignorance like a pig in its slop while the races unfolded for the most part unintelligibly before my eyes (Is that the race or are they just warming up?), my mind insisted on conceptualizing everything in the most wrong-headed manner.
I get the sense that most other spectators in the huge crowd thrilled at the majesty and passion and glamor of a great international sporting competition. I have friends who expressed just this sense of it.

I didn't admit to any of them that I saw the whole thing mostly in terms of housekeeping.

I couldn't help it, I didn't try to get it so wrong, but in spite of challenging wind conditions and other dramatic plotlines a sense of domestic chores hung over everything I saw.

On the first day I watched, Friday, as the boats approached where I stood on the Riva near the Giardini Pubblici from around the edge of Sant' Elena, headed toward San Marco, I was surprised by just how busy the crews were. The wind was strong that day, each boat tilting up onto first one then the other of its two hulls, and each crew scrambled around the deck from side to side and bow to stern, busy with one chore after another: winching, hoisting, tightening, taking down the laundry, pulling up the ironing boards...

At least that's what it looked like to me, whose sole exposure to the America's Cup had been limited to a 1977 Sports Illustrated cover photo of Ted Turner in yachting cap and crew neck sweater at the wheel of what (based upon the headline) I took to be America's entry in the competition. I didn't read the article, but while the photo conjured up a drama of wind and waves, it gave my child's mind no hint of a frantically scurrying crew doing and undoing the same rather limited series of activities. I got the impression that sailing was all graceful privileged ease.

Once you'd plumped out the money for the yacht, the wind did all the work.

Old misapprehensions die hard. 

On Friday, no matter how I tried I couldn't entirely rid myself of the sense that any given crew was a group of teenage siblings who after a carefree week of debauch at home while their stern parents vacationed far away suddenly find out that those same parents are headed home five days earlier than expected.

With what urgency they spring into action! There's so much--too much!--to do!

It's a little like The Royal Tenenbaums meets Risky Business. The extravagant drapery in the vast high-ceilinged living room reads like a splotchy record of the kids' wild activities and must be hauled down for cleaning. (Where'd the case of champagne come from and whoever thought "gunfights" with its shaken contents were a good idea?) The second eldest brother, who's spent the last week entertaining in his mother's best gowns, quickly sets up an ironing board, then races through the house retrieving the crumpled things from everywhere he's spontaneously ditched them. The youngest sister (not yet 13), with no one to help her, resorts to the winch of the small boat trailer to frantically crank one piece of lawn furniture after another up from the bottom of the swimming pool...

Could you give me a hand with this ironing board? Or is a table leaf?
This was the drama of Friday's America's Cup races for me.

I couldn't tell you who actually came out on top that day, but those of you who are interested will have gotten the information from reporters much more knowledgeable than myself.

Yesterday, Sunday, with gray skies and only a faint slack wind, the household drama assumed an entirely different tenor.

Now the crews had time, perhaps too much of it. There was no tilting in the wind, none of the Keystone Cops hurrying and lunging and scurrying, no full crew sit-downs on the edge of a hull--all of them leaning back in unison like grade school pals goofing on a picnic bench. And the big fleet race that I watched from near the Giardini was hardly a race at all, as the lead boat took such an early insurmountable lead.  

Chores were done at a much more leisurely pace. The big linens were put up and taken down off the laundry lines with aplomb. The extra leaf in the big dining room table was lifted or dropped into place with more care. Everything was tucked in and tightened up, then untucked and untightened, then retucked and retightened, with professional diligence, and nothing like the bristling urgency of Friday.

Crew members whose paths crossed in the course of their labors sometimes had a few moments to sit together and "catch up".

But without the strong wind and with first place seemingly wrapped up--at least as far as I could tell--a certain weary inevitability settled upon many of the crews.

A few raindrops fell. I left the crews to slowly tack through the rest of their long afternoon of domestic drudgery and headed home to my own.    

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Too Close for Comfort in La Regatta della Sensa

photo credit: Valerie Cogan
The big race today on the lagoon was the America's Cup, of which there will be no lack of coverage. But before that there was the Regatta della Sensa--part of the festivities marking Venice's annual "marriage to the sea"--which (as the above photo shows) turned out to have at least as much drama as the race between those big high tech catamarans. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Monday, May 14, 2012

A House Divided: in Venice, in Palermo

Contemporary Palermo disproves the old Abe Lincoln claim that "A house divided cannot stand."
I hope I'll be excused a second post with a photo of Sicily, as in this case it was inspired by a post I'd previously seen about Venice on another blog. 

In her April 3 post, Yvonne of Hello World: Walk Along with Me had a fine photo of a large Venetian residence divided almost perfectly in half by a fresh coat of paint. That is, one half was painted, one half was not. You can see the original post (entitled "When Neighbors Can't Agree on Colors") and images here:

As is the case with so many of Yvonne's revelatory posts, this one called my attention to something I hadn't really paid attention to and I began to notice other instances of a single Venetian residential building in quite distinct states of repair. For example, after walking past a certain building in Castello at least 4 times a week I finally noticed the precise horizontal line distinguishing its upper floors from the lower: the upper floors had been rather recently plastered and painted, the ground floor was entirely old brick.

It's as if one's eye is so inevitably attracted to the picturesquely crumbling plaster of most Venetian buildings that it entirely misses everything else, even the most obvious juxtapositions of extremes.

The juxtaposition of extremes is what the picture above is all about. Of course everything in Palermo is more extreme: the street drama, the noise, even the quality of a certain kind of Palermitano's restraint is emphatic.

Emphatic restraint? A contradiction, you might say.

Until you observe up close the simple shift of the eyes in an otherwise completely immobile body that, when enacted by a certain type of Palermitano, conveys far more force than the most vigorous gesticulations of any Veneziano on Via Garibaldi.  

In any case, a careful examination of the above building shows that it is almost exactly half what it once was. But its remaining half is still in use, and is actually one of the finer buildings in its rough and tumble-down neighborhood. Unlike so many other buildings partly destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943, at least the rubble has been cleared out from around this one. Many similar sites appear to have remained completely untouched for some 69 years.

Spoiled by living among the romantically crumbling glories of the past, I guess it's easy to forget that there are others still living among its ruins.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Peek Inside La Fenice's Sale Apollinee

Your faintly intrepid reporter listens at the door to Brahms' Sonata op. 78
I'm embarrassed to admit that I showed up late for last night's inaugural performance of the concert series Scenari della Lontananza, dedicated to Ca Foscari's Giovanni Morelli and inspired by his book of the same title on 20th-century music. The ticket office at La Fenice had closed a good 20 minutes before I arrived and the only reason I managed to get in was because admission to last night's performance was free to all Veneziani and I was able to flash my resident's card in lieu of a ticket.

I arrived at the start of the second movement of Brahms' Violin Sonata no. 1, performed by the 21-year-old wunderkind Davide de Ascaniis and, on piano, Daniele Rinaldo. I'd missed the opening movement, designated Vivace, which was probably just as well as having rushed to get to La Fenice I was feeling vivace enough already.

The large double doors into the performance space of the Sale Apollinee--into which I'd never been before--were firmly closed. I ducked into a door before and off to one side of them, from which I'd clearly heard music, and found myself in a large mirrored room awash in gold flowered wallpaper, gilt trim, chandeliers, wall sconces--and music. I hadn't heard live music of any sort for months and suddenly it was like I'd dropped into an ocean of it.

And I had it entirely to myself.

For there, just a few feet from me on the other side of double doors, were the performers on stage, while on my side of the double doors there were only the most docile of quadripeds: side chairs and settees.

I knew I probably wasn't supposed to be in that room, but I reminded myself, "This is Italy. At Carnegie Hall I'd probably be arrested for wandering into someplace I didn't belong and charged with terrorist activity, but here I'm hardly worthy of my resident card if I'm too timid to regard a door ajar and the sound of so much beauty as anything less than an invitation."

But did I dare go right up close to the door to listen and watch? The musicians' backs were too me, but what if the page-turner saw me?

Well, it was during Brahms' searching Adagio that I realized fully how much one's enjoyment of classical music can benefit from a certain illicitness.

Seated in the institutionalized propriety of, say, La Fenice or Carnegie Hall, it's impossible to believe that The Rite of Spring could ever have caused anything like a riot. But up close, by yourself, lurking someplace where you're probably not supposed to be and where no one can see you, the music reaches you with a renewed immediacy.

Or at least, it did me. Perhaps the immediacy is always there for those who are knowledgeable about music as I am not. But I wonder if even folks like those wouldn't like sometimes to be free to do whatever they like while listening to a live performance: lie on their backs on the stage, pace the aisles of the auditorium...?

I didn't lie on my back in my large private listening room, but by the Allegro molto moderato I did find it quite enjoyable to be able to walk around as I liked, closer or further from the performers as I was moved to.

But at the end of the Brahms, succumbing to a sense of propriety nevertheless, I thought it best to enter the main sala and take a regular seat along with what turned out to be almost a packed house.

The works by Fano, Szymanowski, and Franck that followed, as well as two truly spirited encores by De Ascaniis and Rinaldo, were marvelous--though my experience of them, from the back of the approximately 170 seat auditorium, was not quite the same.

But it turns out I happened to leave what I'd come to think of as my own private sala at just the right time as, in reality, "my sala" turned out to actually be the backstage of the performers, who retreated to it at the end of each piece.

The schedule of the Scenari della Lontananza concert series appears below the photo.

The relatively intimate space of La Fenice's Sale Apollinee
5 May: Alessandra Ammara, piano

31 May: Roberta Canzian, soprano
               Roberto Bertuzzi, piano

10 June: Roberto Prosseda, piano

15 June: Rocco Filippini, violincello
              Andrea Bacchetti, piano

Tickets are 15 euro (10 euro reduced), and a complete program of works to be performed may be found at:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Peek Inside the Ex-Chiesa di Sant' Anna

The doors of the deconsecrated and abandoned Church of Sant' Anna in Castello are always chained closed, but the other day they were chained a bit less tightly than usual and someone had pushed them--or left them--open a couple of inches. Just enough space, I noticed, for a little camera.

The church and convent has an interesting history, a general overview of which can be found (along with a couple of more photos) at the fine Churches of Venice website at:

And a more focused and fascinating account (with photos) of some particularly notable nuns of this church--two of Tintoretto's daughters whose artistic talents were kept cloistered, and one spirited nun whose writings shed light on the real conditions in such convents (her published works include The Nun's Hell)--can be found at the wonderful Churches in Venice blog:

The present state of the church makes one wonder if its door will ever be opened again, or if it will ultimately be allowed to collapse unredeemed beneath the weight of its own sad history.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Scootering Homeward... Siracusa

I hope you'll excuse this non-Venice post. I've been posting from Sicily for the last 9 days, with no time to respond to comments or do much else besides get a post online. But we return to Venezia late tomorrow night. In the mean time here's a good way to zip around the piazze of Italy--in this case, the beautiful Piazza Duomo of Siracusa. Though certain age limits may apply.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dinner on the Canal: Town & Country

It's a marvelous magical thing to dine beside the water in Venice, either in town, in San Polo, as below, or...

in Mazzorbo, right next to Murano, as below. I've not eaten in either place, alas, but I love the look of them.