Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Quietest Room in Venice: at S. Francesco della Vigna

The Capella Santa of San Francesco della Vigna
I apologize for my second absolutist title in a row, but I've discovered that once you get started making absolute statements (no matter how dubious) it's hard to stop. This explains a lot about politics and religion, I think.

But cloistered as the above-pictured chapel is by, well, on one side quite literally a cloister, on another by a church, and on its two others by the structures of the monastery of San Francesco della Vigna, it's perfectly positioned at the northern edges of Castello to be among the quietest interiors in the city.

While the beautiful church of San Francesco della Vigna is often during its official visiting hours polluted with the noise of recorded classical music--since when do churches and great art require an obnoxious piped-in soundtrack?--the Capella Santa, separated from the church by a broad hallway and closed doors, is always blissfully quiet, and usually unoccupied.

I've sat there alone and literally strained to hear something. 

I've also sat looking at the late Giovanni Bellini painting in there, trying to figure out which parts of it were done by the master and which by his workshop. A full account of this painting and the church as a whole can be found on the excellent website The Churches of Venice:

Perhaps it's not among the greatest of Gio Bellini's works, and as you'll find on the above link, Giorgio Vasari claimed it was painted mostly by one of his pupils, and yet there are elements (like the gaze of San Sebastiano out upon you) that won't quite let you go, and its hushed composure makes the chapel seem all the more intensely quiet.


Monday, October 29, 2012

The Most Beautiful Painting In Venice

Okay, I know I'm pushing it in the title of this post, but what if I said the complete title is "The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice that Relatively Few Visitors Ever See?"

Or "The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice Painted by Someone No One Has Ever Heard Of?"

The artist in question is one Antonio da Negroponte, about whom very little is known, and the painting in question seems to be his only surviving work. The Save Venice Foundation, which restored the painting in 1976 and again in 2008, refers to the painter as Antonio Falier da Negroponte, and a very short piece in the Oxford Grove Art online encyclopedia describes him as "a painter of Greek origin, active in Italy" against whom another great Venetian painter, Jacopo Bellini, threatened legal proceedings in an effort to recoup money owed him.

The discussion of the painting and its restoration on the Save Venice website--which I just discovered today--notes that the painting originally may have been the central panel of a triptych, and was "enlarged and partially repainted" to fit into its present frame in the 16th century. Certainly, the uppermost half-circular panel depicting God the Father and the Holy Ghost bears little resemblance to what is painted below, but any other additions to the original narrower painting are not so easy to see. The complete account of the restoration, along with some interesting photos, may be found here:

The painting itself may be found in the church of San Francesco della Vigna--which is of course a favorite destination of the more loyal (or hopelessly enthralled) of Venice's many lovers, but rather rarely visited by many others who come to town. Indeed, it's not even mentioned by Rick Steves in his popular guidebook. But, then, he also neglects to mention SS Giovanni e Paolo--and these are oversights for which I'm grateful, not critical. It's hard to hide a church as large as Giovanni and Paolo, but anything that might lessen the swarms of tourists to certain lovely places is alright by me.

As it is, those casual visitors who do venture all the way to San Francesco della Vigna often seem to walk right past the altarpiece without a second glance. If you've come looking for the works by Veronese or Bellini or Tiepolo here, this static gothic-looking thing hidden in the shadows beside a side door probably won't arrest your gaze--though it's the painting's almost Byzantine-like hieratic quality combined with its great fecundity of detail which makes it so extraordinary. A combination, in fact, that oddly enough makes me think of certain Hindu art. It's a work that repays all of the quiet attention one can give it.

And, in truth, there are long minutes when I stand before it and have no doubt that it's the most beautiful painting in Venice--without qualifications of any sort. 

As seen under natural light

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Furious Instance of Acqua Alta

Tilting toward a bridge      photo: Larry Castek
Before anyone gets too worried by the title of this post, I should admit up front that acqua alta, for all the attention it receives, typically presents no danger to visitors.

Though, as I mentioned in a post some time ago, a fair number of visitors seem to expect something rather dramatic. Not long after the deadly tsunami in Japan, a Japanese visitor to my friend's lace shop asked about aqua alta itself as if it too were prone to crash upon the city with furious destructive force.

In fact, there's usually nothing furious about acqua alta.

The same, however, can't be said about all gondolieri--as an incident that my wife Jen witnessed last week on the season's first day of acqua alta attests.

She was walking on Fondamenta dell'Osmarin, headed in the direction of the leaning tower of San Giorgio dei Greci, when she heard, first, a loud awful scraping sound, then, an explosion of Italian curses.

She turned to find that a gondola with a load of five passengers and a young gondoliere in his twenties had gotten stuck beneath a bridge.

You see, the acqua alta had greatly reduced the clearance beneath the city's bridges and the only way a gondola--with its elevated silver ferro upfront and its elegant risso in back--could pass beneath some of them was at a tilt of 45-degrees.

Apparently, this particular gondola fell a few degrees short of the mark.

Its gleaming ferro was stuck fast against the brick underside of the bridge and its pilot was apoplectic. So much so that the only language he could muster at first was Italian. Which was certainly fortunate, as his passengers appeared to speak only English and were spared full comprehension of the curses and insults he directed toward them--though not, alas, their volume or force.

Among the kinder things he repeated was, "Cicciona! Muovati!" Now, while ciccia--as I wrote about in a post last year ( a term of endearment, roughly equivalent to "dumpling," cicciona basically means "fatso". "Move it, fatso!" is what he was saying, singling out one unfortunate woman with his extended arm as the cause of all his misery.

For the only way to get the gondola to the proper tilt to pass underneath a bridge during acqua alta is for all of its passengers to be properly arranged along one side (as in the photo at top). Perhaps the woman in question shifted her position at the last moment. Or perhaps the blame really lay with the gondoliere himself, for underestimating the limited clearance, and for not properly arranging his passengers as they approached the bridge.

Wherever the blame lay, the end result was one extremely unpleasant gondola ride for everyone involved. As well as an extended bit of spontaneous canal-based theater for the ever-growing crowd that paused upon the fondamenta to watch. At a certain point the young gondoliere gathered the tatters of his wits and English language skills about him, addressed his passengers in a more productive (if hardly more polite) manner, and after much scraping and struggling, eventually shoved his gondola free of the bridge.

The gondola's ferro was badly scraped up, its risso splintered.

The youthfulness of the gondoliere, as well as something about the nature of his reaction, made Jen think that the gondola did not even belong to him.

We can't be sure about that, but it's not hard to imagine the indignant account he gave of this disaster to his fellow gondolieri (those damn tourists!), nor is it hard to imagine the mockery he must still be receiving from his colleagues a week later.

Nor is it hard to imagine his unfortunate passengers' account of their harrowing ride. Did they pay full price? Did they file a complaint?

In any case, I present the anecdote as a warning of one particular acqua-alta-related hazard, and with the suggestion that if you're intent on taking a relaxing ride in a Venetian gondola it's probably best to avoid doing so when the water is at its height. There's nothing romantic about being herded to one side or the other of a gondola like so much high-paying ballast.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Campiello Querini Stampalia, Yesterday Evening

I was walking around Venice one day with my camera looking to photograph different colored walls to use as backgrounds for a website when I quickly discovered what I really should have already known: the owners of buildings in this city have a very limited number of colors to choose from when it comes to painting their property. Like other Italian "destinations", and like certain repressive American neighborhoods I know of that almost no one would go out of their way to visit, one's color choices are tightly controlled not merely by community sentiment but by local ordinance.

From my unofficial and far-from-systematic observation, it seems the number of color choices allowed in Venice can pretty much be counted on one hand.

Perhaps this is the main reason why my first sight of Campiello Querini Stampalia, approached as in the photo above, always strikes me as so pleasing: that worn green of the one building--set off by the red tiles and the dull yellow and white details--seems to be the least popular color choice among landlords. At this moment I can think of one other example of it: a large building on the Zattere beside L'Accademia di Belle Arti, adorned with (if I remember correctly) a relief of Saint George and the Dragon--and defaced by a lot of graffiti.

Too much of this color around town probably wouldn't be a good idea--and would probably leave me in an almost perpetual state of sugar craving, as it vaguely reminds me of the color of the cassate sweets in Sicily. But it seems to be just what's needed in Campiello Querini Stampalia.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Defending the Arsenal

Another week, another protest against what appears to many to be yet another blow to Venice's well-being and its ability to control its own future.

The expected transfer of a large part of the Arsenale from the State to the comune of Venezia--towards which the city has been working for some 30 years--has at the last minute been rerouted into the hands of (surprise, surprise) private interests: the Consorzio Venezia Nuova.

The mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, is not happy about this, nor are the many other Venetians who showed up at the Arsenale yesterday morning to register their disapproval.

And so another struggle begins...

"Viva Venezia! Viva San Marco!"

Saturday, October 13, 2012

S. Giovanni in Bragora & Venice for Insomniacs

One of the things I think about when I find myself lying awake in bed unable to sleep are topics to think about the next time I find myself lying awake in bed unable to sleep. As a couple of these topics are Venetian specific, I'll share them here--in the hope they might prove diverting to any other Venice-loving insomniacs out there.

A fairly simple obsessional-compulsive topic (which, of course, is the only kind of topic for an insomniac) was inspired by a low-budget indie movie of some years back entitled All the Vermeers in New York. It takes the form of a challenge:

Mentally catalog all the places in the lagoon with at least one work by Giovanni Bellini (I say "in the lagoon" as there's at least one excellent altarpiece of his on another island than Venice). For each place list all of the works.

Another more involved topic revolves around how challenging Venice is for those with restricted mobility. I used to think that Venice would be almost impossible to see if one couldn't get around on foot, but I then realized I was being unnecessarily defeatist. I now think, in fact, that one can see a good amount of the city with the use of the vaporetto and a wheelchair, and when I really can't sleep I sometimes set myself the challenge of imagining in detail, for one vaporetto route after another, stop by stop, how far one can roll from the water before one encounters a bridge. So, for example, in terms of the number 1 line, I was happy to realize that there is nothing to prevent a person in a wheelchair from reaching I Frari from the San Tomà vaporetto stop. They can also reach the nearby Scuola of San Rocco, but then, unfortunately, the stairs at that site's entrance, as well as the stairs within, are major obstacles.

This morning, having awakened far earlier than planned or hoped, I thought of both of the above topics (along with many other pointless things besides), then simply decided to get up and get out--though rain was falling and the sun hadn't yet risen.

I spent a lot of time watching Campo Santa Maria Formosa slowly fill, first, with weak drizzly light, then with people, and then around 9 am ended up in one of my favorite churches in the city, San Giovanni in Bragora, where I took the two photos accompanying this post and thought of another obsessional-compulsive challenge for the next time I can't fall back asleep:

Catalog all the works (along with their locations) by Cima da Conegliano in Venice.

There are of course two beautiful ones in Giovanni in Bragora (one of which is visible in the photos). And this morning I felt infinitely lucky to be able to look at them in person, instead of calling them to mind while I lay uncomfortably in a sleepless bed.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Past Brief Life in Dorsoduro

Rio delle Eremite, last night
Twenty years ago I lived in an apartment overlooking the above-pictured canal. But not for long.

It was a two-bedroom on the top floor of a building whose first two levels had been built in the 14th century and whose two uppermost levels had been added after World War II. Its rear windows overlooked a large gravel courtyard, its front windows looked out on two canals and the pediment of the church of San Barnaba.

A couple of weeks after moving in I returned home to find that all of these views were completely obscured by scaffolding and the opaque material that construction work is covered with here.

The next morning the pounding started.

On the outer walls of the apartment at first: without cease, the sound of something larger than mere hammers, but not so big as sledgehammers. I looked out the window and found them being wielded by a crew of jovial workmen, each of them wearing a little hat made of newspaper.

I could never figure out if these newspaper hats were created in jest and worn ironically or in all seriousness, but the workers created fresh ones everyday for themselves. Recently I came upon a reference to Venetian workers wearing such hats in Jan Morris, but she was writing in 1960, not the 1990s. Perhaps it was a long-standing tradition? If so, I'm sad to note that it now seems to have completely vanished. In any case, the cute little hats didn't make the pounding itself picturesque, or any less bothersome.

I'd moved to Venice with a woman I'd been at grad school with, and specifically to live in this apartment. A new grad student who'd previously lived in it for two years before returning to the States hooked us up with the landlady, who only rented to non-residents. It sounded ideal, and so easy, and friendly.

It didn't quite turn out to be any of those things. My "significant other" (as they were called back then) spoke no Italian; I spoke a little, so the task of calling our landlady about this surprise fell to me.

I didn't handle it well. She persistently refused to answer my question of how long this work was going to continue. Our conversations quickly became rather ugly.

Then the pounding above the ceiling began.

Now the racket was in Surround-Sound, years before it became commercially available.

My s.o. would leave the apartment in the morning and not come back till after working hours had concluded outside our walls and ceiling. But I stayed home and wrote. I was writing my first book and had a story to work on, and did so in spite of the pounding. And the story I wrote in those days--which involved neither Venice nor workmen--ultimately became the first one in my book.

But my s.o., also a writer, couldn't write with that noise, and as I could never get an answer from our landlady about when the work would end we started looking for another apartment.

With the help of a real estate agent we soon found a very nice one in Cannaregio (which came with a piano and an ancestral bust in the entry), but didn't end up taking it for all sorts of reasons that seem utterly foolish to me now, but at the time seemed quite compelling. We were an easily discouraged couple, unprepared for the challenges of moving abroad, and we also had this ridiculous notion that our unsettled circumstances presented a dire threat to our writing. This was my s.o.'s breathless formulation and I went along with it because it made it sound like we were engaged in vitally important though fragile work that had to be protected at any cost. Or at least that she was engaged in vitally important work, as she'd already published a novel, and I hadn't. I actually felt little threat to my writing; I could write anywhere, and I loved Venice, but I felt compelled to protect her supposedly burgeoning career.

We moved back to the States.

For a couple of years afterward there was a quiet competition between us over who would first incorporate this traumatic Venetian experience into a piece of writing, but neither of us ever did.

For in spite of the fact that I'd ultimately been forced to drag the Questura into my conflict with our landlady, and in spite of the fact that they'd taken my side and yet I still never got my security deposit returned to me, the whole experience really had almost nothing to reveal about Venice itself--but only with the problems that already simmered in our relationship. And neither of us were ever ready to seriously ponder those.

When I think of that time now what I think of most is how quiet Dorsoduro was then: what an entirely different place! There was a little art supply shop a short way from the apartment, its trays of brilliant pigment the only color on the otherwise dark still Calle Lunga San Barnaba.

Campo San Barnaba itself was also quiet and still. And even Campo Santa Margherita, with a closet-sized shop on one side where a woman sat smoking in her storefront window and making the most marvelous and useful things out of leather, seemed well and safely away from tourist hordes, and, oddly enough, even student hordes.

Even the Zattere was a peaceful stretch at this time of the year and, though it's now hard to believe, the Accademia Bridge. I remember standing at the Accademia end of it one early October afternoon and watching the most operatic and extended of arguments between what appeared to be two male Ca' Foscari professors upon the top of its hump. These days I wouldn't have been able to see them for the crowds--and they wouldn't have had room to stomp about, or even gesticulate as they did without smacking a half dozen tourists in the face.

Ah, I have to stop myself. I recall those times fondly when tourists teem like maggots not only between San Marco and the Rialto, and on every single vaporetto, but in areas I'd never have thought they'd reach 20 years ago. Teem, that is, upon what seems to me at such times like a dead (or murdered) city.

But the other day Sandro and I were in Dorsoduro and he made a point of directing our footsteps back by the apartment on Rio Delle Eremite I'd shown him once before, this time repeating to me the brief account I'd previously given him about how I'd lived there years before I knew his mother or him.

He paused in front of  the apartment, gazed up at it, then at me, and asked, "Did you like that apartment? Was it nice?" And these short questions coming from him reminded me that the passage of time brings not only convoys of cruise ships through the basin of San Marco and destructive mass tourism, but other things and other people as well. Things and people far beyond the limits of one's past imaginings.

"It was okay," I told him. "But I've never lived anyplace better than with you and Mommy."

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Quiet Night on Canale di San Pietro, 5 Views from Last Night

The weather is still warm, but a couple of days ago we had the first thick fog since last winter/spring and there are hints all around that we've begun our move into that "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" as Keats put it (about a very different place). The quiet island of San Pietro di Castello is a nice place from which to contemplate the change.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Photo taken by Wes Shealey at la Remiera Francescana
One of the most pleasant surprises of the many we've had since moving to Venice is the seeming ease with which our son has adapted to or accepted living with two languages. He appears quite content to switch between the two languages as needed, adjusting to the linguistic context in which he finds himself.

I'm impressed with this not least of all because, in contrast, if I've been spending hours reading (or thinking) in English and am suddenly called upon to speak Italian the grinding of my mental gears as I try to make the shift is, I'm pretty sure, audible--at least to any poor dogs in the vicinity. To them, and to myself, it's like the gnashing of the motoscafo gears one hears when seated outside at the rear of, say, the 4.1 line as it pulls into its next stop.

But Sandro is not only happy to speak whatever is being spoken in any room he walks into, but is equally content to, for example, alternate between speaking English to the British mother of one of his friends and Italian to the friend himself (who speaks only Italian) at her side.

I suspect it's his sensitivity to linguistic context that explains an oddity in his speech I sometimes notice when he's with his Italian friends and he pronounces English words that he knows perfectly well how to pronounce in English as an Italian would pronounce them.

Of course there are a lot of English words commonly in use in Italian--perhaps too many. They're quite literally everywhere you look--on advertisements, packaging and T-shirts--and I'll admit that when I'm speaking Italian and find myself approaching one that has been fully adopted by Italians I rush to it as a barefooted man crossing the blazing hot sand of a beach rushes to a stray beach towel: with great relief and a momentary release of all effort. I don't, for example, pronounce "email" as an Italian would pronounce it. No, I happily slip back into my native pronunciation, as, after all, it is an American English word and isn't one generally supposed to pronounce foreign words as they're pronounced in their original tongue? (I don't after all pronounce "schnitzel" as "sknitzel".)

But when he's playing with his Italian friends, Sandro pronounces even the simplest English words--ones he's used with us almost since he began to speak--as an Italian.

Thus, that good old all-American word "Okay" becomes, when he is playing with Cosimo or Iacopo or Costanza or Alvise, something that sounds like: Oh-kah-eee.

"Crackers" takes on an Italian article and become "ee crah-kairs".

The simple exclamation "Wow!"suddenly takes on a couple of extra syllables and sounds like: "Oh-wah-oh!"

"Batman" is transformed into "baht-a-mahn," and "Spiderman" slips into the guise of "spee-dehr-mahn."

Then, once he's taken leave of Cosimo or Iacopo or Costanza or Alvise, and is back among just his parents, all the above words revert back to their normal American pronunciation.

Jen and I find this charming and amusing but, actually, I realize now, it's much more than just that. If the aim of speaking is effective communication, if the goal of socializing is to connect and be understood, then it makes sense to pronounce words--regardless of either their or your origin--in a way that your listener will understand. There's certainly a good deal of pressure for any child to fit in with his or her new classmates or surroundings, and part of that is to sound like one's new classmates. But even in adulthood, there's lot to be said for making an effort to be understood, to be willing to step forward onto someone else's terrain, foreign and awkward though it may feel. It's a big part of being a good traveler, but also of being a good neighbor--a citizen of the world, as they say, whether at home or abroad.

 Sandro is picking this up at an early age. I'm still learning it.