Monday, July 30, 2012

Sagra di Santa Marta

Santa Marta band Ska J entertains the crowd with its love song to the neighborhood
The Santa Marta section of Dorsoduro, just a short distance from where all the big ships dock, is both one of the most and least Venetian sections of the city. Except for the marvelous and moody and ancient church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, most famous from its appearance in the 1973 film Don't Look Now, it's not the picturesque postcard Venice tourists come to see. It's best known for its low income housing, not its palazzi, which is why it's exactly the place to go for a break from tourists.

The dinner crowd just beginning to arrive
It was once an infamously rough neighborhood, and until recently wasn't someplace Venetians liked to visit after dark. But this area, once considered strictly for i popolari (or working class), has been becoming more and more popular. Ca' Foscari has classrooms in the area now, and a great new little theater--which is a pleasure to see live performances in (my post of April 18 has images from a recent show, according to friends who live nearby, it's proximity to Piazzale Roma has made it a desirable location for white collar commuters to the mainland.
Looking toward the bandstand

In other words, I wouldn't be surprised if whatever the Italian term for "gentrification" is starts to be thrown around. But this past weekend the neighborhood held its first ever Sagra di Santa Marta, and from the panel discussion about the Big Ships that preceded dinner on Saturday night to the bands that played afterward it was a distinctly local affair. (The air pollution produced by the docked big ships is the equivalent of having a few parking lots filled with idling cars situated nearby.)
So for those of you who may be making a mental list of feste and sagre to attend on your next summer visit to Venice, this one is a worthy addition. Here's hoping this year's is the first of many.
A view from the Rio dell' Arzero of the bandstand and, in the distance, the food & drink area
More pictures of the sagra and a report in Italian may be found at the Allogia Barbaria Blog at, which notes that the festivities seemed entirely tourist-free.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Inside La Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana

After waiting far too long to do so, I finally got my Venetian library card last week and, with it, the use of the reading room above as an office away from home. It's a marvelous space, which was until 1904 the courtyard of La Zecca, or the Republic's old mint, whose construction was begun in 1536 after a design by Sansovino. In the office where I applied for--and quickly received--my card, there's an antico torchio, or coin press: massive as an old kitchen stove, its black surface is extensively ornamented in relief and bears the date of its manufacture: MDCCLVI.

To make the reading room (or, as it's officially called, la sala di lettura degli stampati), la zecca's old courtyard was covered with an opaque roof and the arcades which surround it on both the ground floor and the 1st floor enclosed with glass. The arcades were thus turned into offices and rooms for the stacks, while the courtyard, at least in the heat of late July, was left quite stuffy.  

There's only a single fan in the whole room and, as you can see in the top photo, it oscillates exclusively and in close proximity to the librarian. So for the rest of us it's rather hot--but there are certain things I'll gladly suffer for a space and a place like this. 

(A friend recently wrote to me from the United States that she drove by a golf course near Kansas City that has giant fans (about 10 feet wide by 12 feet high) positioned around its fairways to cool its golfers. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about this.) 
There's a large imposing sculpture of Petrarch in the reading room beneath and just in front of which the librarian sits. The comune commissioned it in 1904 from the sculptor Carlo Lorenzetti to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the poet's birth. It was installed in 1905 and from its central archway it commands the room with an expression not exactly pleased and a pose not exactly at ease.

Of course Petrarch lived just up the Riva degli Schiavoni from la piazzatta off which the library now stands in Palazzo Molina (aka Casa Molin delle due Torri) from 1362 until 1368. He lived there with his daughter and her family free of charge as part of an arrangement he'd made with Venetian authorities to leave his personal library--one of the truly great personal libraries of the age--to the Republic. According to this agreement, his library was to become the cornerstone of a great public collection, modeled after that of ancient Alexandria.

It didn't work out that way. After Petrarch left Venice, his priceless collection of humanist texts seemed to have been forgotten about. Venetian scholars, as practical-minded as the rest of their fellow citizens, were interested in the sciences, and Petrarch's humanist library was left to moulder away to very nearly nothing or become soggy illegible lumps of mold.

The pedestal beneath the statue of Petrarch of course makes no mention of this travesty, but everything about the sculpture itself seems--at least to me--to recall it: the way in which he holds the volume to his chest with his large hands, protectively as a mother among a barbaric crowd lacking all respect for children. The set of his mouth, the inwardness of his eyes--his attention withdrawn almost self-protectively it sometimes seems to me from the Venice of his time (and perhaps ours), in which science and its practical and money-making applications could lead to a complete neglect of human concerns, and of a priceless cultural legacy.       

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dirty Truth About Venice's Canals: A Reminder

Waiting for the vaporetto on Mazzorbo, Sunday evening, like birds on a wire
In the photo above I'd like to point out that not a single person's feet were dangling into the water. Feet in the water might not even be such a bad an idea on the lightly populated island of Mazzorbo, but I'd like to remind anyone who might be tempted to cool off by dangling his or her feet into the Grand Canal--as I often see people doing these days--that the vast majority of raw sewage produced by Venetians is flushed directly into the canals.

Last week I spoke to a Venetian architect about why the canals seemed to smell so much stronger (ie, worse) the first time I visited here in July 1982 than they do now, and he told me that at the time of my first visit the canals had not been cleaned for some 30 or 40 years. After so long a time without cleaning they were thickly coated with accumulated matter, so that even the natural flushing mechanism of the changing tides was not as effective as it is now, when the canals are cleaned at more frequent intervals.

I also asked about a city ordinance which requires that human waste from apartments no longer be routed directly into the canals but into a three-part filtration system within each building prior to entering the canals.

I know at least a couple of people who installed such systems at considerable expense There is one in our own building. My interlocutor, however, was having none of it. For one thing, the system is not only expensive to install, it is a recurrent expense, as the solid waste that accumulates in one of its three reservoirs must of course be removed periodically. And one can easily imagine what that involves in a city like Venice.

He thought it was outrageous that the city would force upon him such an ongoing expense and insisted that the pollution problem in the canals and lagoons is not because of the merda, which has always been flushed into it, but the chemicals that have been released into it during the modern era. Studies have shown that such chemicals--from industry as well as from detergents used in the home--interfere with the normal breakdown of organic waste.

But, I asked hopefully, there must be far fewer buildings now flushing their raw sewage into the canals than there used to be, right?

Oh, no, he answered, probably 90% of the raw sewage in the city still goes right into the canals. But, he repeated, la merda is not the problem!

Well, be that as it may, I'd still suggest you keep your bare feet out of the canals. And I'm sure my Venetian architect friend would too.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Baroque Music in Palazzo Da Mosto--and Elsewhere

Photo of the Belgian group Bel Ayre in Palazzo Da Mosto courtesy of Venetian Centre for Baroque Music
I'm sorry to be so late in reporting this, but two weeks ago today Jen and I found out first-hand how marvelous it can be to hear Venetian Baroque music performed not only on period instruments but in a period setting.

The setting in this case was the beautiful Palazzo Da Mosto (aka Palazzo Muti-Baglioni, after the family who built it in 1602 and the family who acquired it in 1750, respectively), which hosted two separate concerts on 7 July. We were lucky enough to go to both of them: the earlier, entitled Tanti Cuori, Tanti Dolori ("Many Hearts, Many Pains"), in the portego (pictured above), featuring the young Belgian group Bel Ayre; the later, Eri Già Tutti Mia ("You Were Already All Mine"), on the ground floor with the soprano Roberta Invernizzi and the tiorba (a sizable stringed instrument) player Craig Marchitelli (pictured below).
Photo courtesy of the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music

Both concerts featured extraordinary voices and musicianship, and some pieces by Monteverdi, of course. But the revelation for me were the pieces by other composers of the era who were active in Venice, such as, to give just one example, Benedetto Ferrari (1604-1681). Recordings of whose work, I discovered the next day with chagrin, seem quite difficult to find (except insofar as one of his duets was partly or wholly incorporated into the final duet of Monteverdi's opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea).

So impressed was I by Bel Ayre, in fact, that I was hoping to see them the very next night at Ca' Zenobio. They were playing an entirely different set of works (enticingly entitled Chi Vol Vedar Venezia Vera--"Whoever Wants to See the Real Venice"), but I didn't make it. Both concerts we attended though were so entirely captivating that we hope to see more of the Centre's series.

The last concert of the summer takes place tonight in Teatro La Fenice. But the series begins again on September 3. The link that follows will take you to ticket information and a full listing of their forthcoming concerts:

For more information on the Centre's cultural aims and much else:

You can also check them out on facebook:

Information on the Belgian trio Bel Aye may be found here: They're planning to record a CD soon, which I hope--in contrast to works by Ferrari--I'll be able to find easily.

In any case, whether you've never heard a single note of Venetian Baroque music, or whether you own a collection of every important Monteverdi recording ever made--or whether you're somewhere in-between--I suspect you'll find much to interest you in the offerings of the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music. It's an incomparable live and living introduction to an essential era of Venetian (and world) cultural history that's often experienced far too generically here(Vivaldi's Greatest Hits), if at all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Festa del Redentore 2012 Revelers

By 10 pm, the parties in Sant' Elena were in full swing: food, drink, even karaoke
Sant' Elena at around 8:30 pm in the above and the 3 photos below
photo credit: Jen
photo credit: Jen
photo credit: Jen
photo credit: Jen
By 8:45 later-arriving boats were beginning to take up their positions around the bacino
photo credit: Jen 
photo credit: Jen
photo credit: Jen
Looking up Riva degli Schiavoni just after 10 pm

At 1 am the parties were still going: the one above & just below near the Arsenale, the others below along the Riva Sette Martiri
A karaoke-like set-up but with a single headliner
Alas, the only time you see fishing boats of this size around Venice these day is when they're being used as party boats

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Festa del Redentore 2012 Fireworks

I have so many photos from this year's Festa del Redentore that I'm going to divide them into two different posts: today will be devoted to fireworks, the day after tomorrow (Tuesday, 17 July) will be devoted to revelers.

Today's post might also be called "16 Ways of Looking at Santa Maria della Salute."

A very different perspective on last year's Redentore fireworks, which I took from aboard a friend's boat near the basin of San Marco, may be seen here:



Thursday, July 12, 2012

First Views of Venice

One of the more familiar views of Venice, taken yesterday evening
A couple of days ago, 10 July, marked precisely the 30th anniversary of the day I first laid eyes on Venice. I know this because 11 July 1982 was the date of the Italian national soccer team's triumph over Germany in the 1982 World Cup Final and I was here for it, not knowing really anything about Venice or Italy or the World Cup (though I'd played soccer in high school for 2 years in California).

I was 17, had just graduated from a small accademically-suspect Catholic high school, and was traveling with a large group of other high school students from my hometown. It was either a 21- or 24-day tour of Europe: Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London, Munich, Paris, Brienz, Florence, Bruges, and Venice--not in that order (and perhaps I've missed a stop). Largely ignorant, as I've mentioned in a previous post, of both history and geography, my primary concerns on the trip were seeing places as different from my hometown as possible, alcohol and girls.

Not quite in that order. 

Though a female classmate of mine would many years later tell me that she received her first real kiss on the Rialto Bridge from an ecstatic young Italian stranger passionately celebrating Italy's World Cup victory--she'd been going out with my cousin at the time for at least a year (sorry, cuz)--nothing so dramatic happened to me.

I don't, as one might imagine, have any recollection of seeing the interior of San Marco for the first time. I don't remember something so obvious as Santa Maria della Salute. I don't even remember the Chamber of the Great Council in Palazzo Ducale.

Instead, I remember the Armory there, as I took a photo of the suit of armor that once belonged to Henri IV. (I had no idea who he was, but I liked his gear.) And I remember the view of the Riva looking east, as I also took a photo of that out of a nearby palace window. 

I remember being given the dire news while on some forgotten type of boat (not a gondola), that the city's population was steadily declining due to the lack of work for young people in the lagoon. This in 1982.

I remember how overwhelmingly fetid the canals were in the sweltering heat.

(Just the other day some older Venetians Jen was talking with on Lido complained that the canals smelled only about "one-tenth as bad" as they did a couple of decades ago--almost as if less raw sewage in the canals benefitted only those persnickety tourists.)

I remember my disbelief at the narrowness of the calli, and my unexpected pleasure at looking out the little window of my little hotel room and finding a rough sea of red tile roofs stretching out before me, scores of crooked tv antennae like the skeletal masts of ghost ships.

I remember being so impressed by a night-time ride in a gondola that I'd insist for years after that night was the only time to take a gondola ride--though I had no other time to compare it to.

I remember the faint smell of leather that came out of shops. I remember the thick plastic Cinzano and thin metal Martini plaques attached to the back of every outdoor cafe chair on the north side of the Piazza. (I was able to surreptitiously remove one of the Martini plaques--now lost--but not one of the more appealing Cinzano.)

I remember our hotel was in one of the dark calli that branch off the north side of the Piazza, but I don't remember its name, or location, or which calle. I remember that going to or coming from it I saw the red banner of the lace school on a nearby parallel bridge, and how exotic it looked to me.

I wish I could remember more about the shops I saw, what the people who worked in them were like, how many of the people around me seemed to be tourists, how many seemed to be locals.

When I stand in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini today--one of the few places I clearly remember having lingered in 30 years ago--I can't remember anything like the number of people in it back then that there are today. But perhaps I am misremembering.

In short, I remember disappointingly little about Venice from my first visit 30 years ago. I'm sure we were here for two days and I suspect two nights, but I somehow seem to have missed all of the art and pretty much all of the architecture. Unlike other cities on the tour, no adventures return to me from the dark corners of memory: no nocturnal roaming, not even any particular bars or meals or flirtations.

I did not fall in love with the city at first sight. I did not feel at home in it almost immediately, in its very oddness, as I later would during my first trip to late 1980s New York City.

There were no hints, in other words, that I would ever return. That I would ever have any particular desire to ever return.

So that there seems to be nothing for me to learn from thinking about my first experience of the city in relation to my more recent move here except a general lesson that, if we are lucky, we have no idea of how we may change over the years or the surprising turns that our lives may take.

I say "if we are lucky" because I shudder to think of what my life would be like if I had entirely remained the know-it-all/know-nothing numbskull I was at 17.

For it seems that much as we might imagine otherwise, we often have no idea of what exactly it might be good for us to wish for ourselves. Or at least I didn't. And don't. 

I wonder what other people's first views of Venice were like. Would anyone like to reveal them in the comments section? Were you well prepared? Were you surprised? Could you not wait to return?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Venetian Fisherman's Lullaby

Since the end of its Republic, Venice has been a favorite spot for Romantics (such as Byron and Shelley) and romantics (the rest of us) to contemplate in its famously crumbling palazzi and churches the transience of all glories: of empire brought low and noble families extinguished.

Or something like that.

Lately, I've been fascinated by more intimate reminders of transience and the vanished Venetian past: the numerous abandoned boats to be seen rotting into oblivion around the islands of the North Lagoon. 

Many of the less-populated islands of the North Lagoon, once the home of fishermen, have in more recent years become quietly popular spots for second homes. Thankfully, these islands have not become mini Sag Harbors: that is, they're nothing like the gaudy trendy plutocratic places that the old fishing villages of New York's Hamptons area have become. Some fishermen still remain, and the second homes of Venetian residents there, from what I've seen, range from the small and simple to the downright rustic. Considering that, to this day, neither electricity nor water are givens on such islands (even for second homes), it's a good place to think about how hard life in the lagoon really was until quite recently.

The abandoned boats, partly or wholly-submerged, quietly slowly going to pieces and being reclaimed by the lagoon, are moody reminders of this. Each one suggests a vanished owner, perhaps a small family, and, most of all, a way of life long gone.

Recently I happened to find myself looking at a number of such boats with a man in his late 60s from Burano, while standing upon a small private weather-beaten old dock that was itself headed in the same direction as the 4 or 5 boats we saw partly afloat or entirely submerged around us. I'd just met him a half hour earlier; he'd told me he was a sculptor and a church organist.

The sunken ribs of a second caorlina
Now he told me that he'd also been in his youth--like most native Buranese of his generation and earlier--a fisherman. He pointed to the rotting caorlina in the photo at top and said that he used to go out fishing on such boats.

A caorlina is a large heavy work boat that you can see being used in the six-person team races of, say, La Regatta Storica each September. I've rowed one at my remiera (rowing club) here. But they didn't use oars 40 years ago, nor motors (as I suggested), but sails, he told me.

"You went out into the Adriatic?" I asked.

"No, not in a boat like that. We stayed in the lagoon. We would stay out for 15 days at a time, going all over the lagoon. Me and one partner. In bad weather, or at night, we would use our sail as cover. We towed a little boat behind us, un battello, with supplies."

I'd recently read that the lagoon was 35 miles long and 7 miles wide at its widest, but still couldn't help but ask, "You didn't come home each night? Or every couple nights?"

"No. 15 days we would stay out at a time, like the song: par quindese giorni, magno el saor..."

In spite of my faltering Italian, he paid me the compliment of imagining that I knew the snatch of song he sang quite beautifully. Of course I didn't. Besides, I still couldn't get over the fact that he and a partner spent 15 days at a time out on the lagoon in an open boat without a motor in what must have been the 1960s.

"Quindici giorni..." I repeated, marveling.

"Yes. And while we were out fishing for 15 days, our wives were busy at home making us horns," he said, laughing and making the cornetti sign with one hand which, I'm assured, can still get you into a fight in Italy if directed at the wrong person.

"No..." I murmured.

He laughed some more, said with a shrug, "I had others myself."

Which is when I understood that those 15-day fishing excursions were probably not entirely without some visits, however brief, to land.

It wasn't until the next day that I began kicking myself for not asking to hear the rest of the song he'd sung a bit of.

I thought of going back to Burano to try to track him down again, but decided, first, to try la pescheria of the Rialto. Which is where I learned the entire thing: the filastrocca, or lullaby, that you see below:

Scarpe e calseti
Piatti e pironi
Porte e balconi
Che sá da freschin.

So nato a Venessia
So fio de pescaor
Par quindese giorni 
Se magna el saor.

Shoes and socks
Dishes and forks
Doors and balconies
They all smell of fish.

I'm a native Venetian
The son of a fisherman
For fifteen days
We eat el saor.

Freschin is a uniquely Venetian word in that while it does, as a Venetian/Italian dictionary will tell you, refer to the smell of fish (or more generally to other bad odors such as rotten eggs or mould), it more specifically refers to the particular smell of the Venetian lagoon at low tide. Not the smell of the canals at low tide, my Venetian-born neighbor emphasized, but that of the broad lagoon when the low tide leaves its alga or seaweed exposed.

El saor is a dish you can still find in some restaurants in Venice, though its original virtue seemed to be that it was a way of preparing fish so that it would keep for an extended period of time: the 15 days of those fishing voyages. It consists of sardines, onions, and vinegar, according to the fish monger I spoke to at the Rialto. Of Sardines, onions, vinegar and olive oil according to my trusted neighbor, as well as an old Venetian recipe book he showed me.

The recipe book also listed pinoli (pine kernel), uvetta sultanina (raisins) and farina bianca (white flour, for lightly dusting the sardines pre-frying) as other ingredients. My neighbor assures me this dish is marvelous as an antipasto.

That it can now be recommended as merely an antipasto, as opposed to being the primary source of nutrition for two weeks running, is--like those languishing boats--another reminder of how much life in the lagoon has changed in the last half century.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Flying the Flag Before the Big Match, This Afternoon

On this extremely hot and humid afternoon before the European Cup final here's what I saw in addition to the above display of flags in Dorsoduro: a number of kids in Mario Balotelli jerseys; a very large tour group of intrepid Spanish high school students, each with their country's flag painted on either cheek (boo!); and everyone else moving very slowly, and looking very much like they wished they were in an air conditioned room of any sort, in any place.

The place to be to watch the game tonight, according to more than one Venetian, is Campo Santa Margherita, with tv screens in each of its five bars (one bar with three screens), and plenty of beer. But I believe I'll stick closer to home.

Forza azzurri!