Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Tanta Passione e Tanti Soldi": To Boat or Not to Boat

In recent weeks I find myself coming perilously close to agreeing with my wife and son that we need a boat. In spite of the fact that need actually has nothing to do with it.

One doesn't need a boat to live in Venice as, for example, one needs a car to live in Los Angeles or many other towns in the United States. The places where we buy our groceries, where we buy our fruits and vegetables, meat and cheese, they're all within walking distance of where we live (or one stop away on the vaporetto). Even Sandro's school, located as far away from our apartment as you can get without leaving the city of Venice, is reachable by foot in 50 minutes--which is not much longer than it takes to get there on the vaporetto.

And yet...

One cannot really be a Venetian--even a late-arriving non-Native Venetian--without spending a fair amount of time out on, and out in, the lagoon. The many English and American journalists who write about how "claustrophobic" Venice becomes after 24 or 48 hours inevitably have no experience of the lagoon, which remains as integral a part of life in the city as Piazza San Marco--if not more.

I thought that learning to row in the lagoon would be enough to give me a sense of Venetians' relationship with their watery world--and it certainly has gone a long way toward doing so, but it's not everything. The fact is that every native Venetian I've met without a motor boat of his or her own seems to feel the lack of it, even if--or perhaps especially if--they know they don't really need it.

If you have any doubts about the importance of a motor boat to Venetian identity, just sit on a fondamenta or riva some time and watch Venetians setting out or returning home in their motor boats on a holiday such as the recent Liberation Day. Do Venetians ever look quite so satisfied as when they're seated in a private boat, no matter how small or humble?

As one Venetian friend told me a year ago when the subject of buying a boat came up: "Ah, yes, with a boat you will really be free."

As another told me more recently in regards to a specific boat boat for sale: "It's a small boat, the perfect size to learn in. And with a motor of less than 10 horsepower you won't even need to register it. And without a registration number on the side of the boat, you don't need to worry about tickets." (On Venetians' anxiety about tickets and the one main way they try to avoid receiving them, please see

Of course, the impossibility of finding a place to moor your boat hasn't diminished a bit since I wrote about it over a year ago ( I've found out that you can rather easily apply for a place at any time--but, first, you must present proof that you already own a boat. You cannot apply in anticipation of the boat you plan to buy as soon as you are granted a place to put it.

Then, once you and your verified boat have put in your application, you must wait a couple of years to actually get a spot.

What do you do with your boat in the interim? You ask everyone you even vaguely know whether they have any leads on a spot: perhaps a friend of a friend's grandparent who's gotten too far along in age to use the mooring place that came with his or her canal-side house. Perhaps someone who's willing to rent you their empty spot on the sly. Or there are private marinas with spots available to rent, such as the one on Certosa. A mooring place there, I've heard, may run you at least 1,500 euro per year.

And yet... With a motor of less than 20 horsepower you need not even bother to get a license to operate a boat. The little boat that a friend of a friend is selling is a traditional Venetian style boat in fiberglass; only about 4 meters in length, and low-sided. It's perfect for tooling around the city; less so for wavy days or wake-y heavily-trafficked canals--though the current owner's wife and daughters regularly use the boat to go between Venice and Burano.

Some friends with boats tell me that a small used motor from a reliable repair shop--the one they take their boats to--won't cost much at all.

But what I keep coming back to is what another friend--who drives mototopi (large Venetian workboats) five days a week--recently told me. To own a boat, he said, whether of wood (with its annual maintenance requirements) or plastic, requires "Tanta passione e tanti soldi" [a lot of passion and a lot of money]."

The problem in my case is that while my amount of the former seems to be growing when it comes to boats, my amount of the latter remains quite constant.

Friday, April 19, 2013

An Artist of the Floating World

When I asked this artist in Italian yesterday evening if I could take some photos of him he answered without pausing in his sketching. What attracted my attention to him in the first place was his full engagement with what he was doing.

I saw him again this evening: not far from the same spot, but setting up an easel and paints this time, and largely obscured amid the greenery of the Giardini Pubblici, protected from the foot traffic on the riva by the park's black wrought iron fence.

I didn't bother him this evening. It was after six again, when the sun seems to pick up speed in its descent and the light changes every few seconds--and it would have been a shame for me to distract him from a moment of it all.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Seppia Mania, or The Cuttlefish Crush

'Tis the beginning of the long Spritz-drinking season but, more urgently, it's also the week of cuttlefish.

If you're a Venetian, and you have a boat, and you can steal time away from whatever usually occupies you during the afternoon hours, you are most certainly on the lagoon this week fishing.

For this is the week that the cuttlefish (or seppie) have come into the lagoon to lay their eggs and, as moralists and cynics have long warned us humans, their heedless submission to their natural reproductive drives are likely to be their undoing. For a vast Venetian armada of fishermen (and women) stalks the poor spineless creatures. Last weekend the waters between San Pietro di Castello and La Certosa were thick with small boats, ranging almost from the eastern end of the Canale delle Fondamente Nuove well toward Lido. But even on a weekday afternoon--from about 12 noon until around 6 are the best hours, according to a Venetian friend--you'll see scores of small crafts and ardent pescatori.

My friend, whom I encountered returning home Monday afternoon with a bucket of his viscous inky catch, said the fishing should be good through the upcoming weekend. He invited us to dinner that night, but we couldn't make it. Perhaps later in the week, we agreed--when the main course is sure to be the same.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Spritzing into Spring

I really know nothing about such matters, but it always seems to me that it's not quite appropriate to drink Spritzs during the winter; they just don't seem to go well with the season. I don't even think they look right in the context of winter--their colors seem all wrong for the gray skies, fog, rain and snow.

But now that sunshine and warmer temperatures have finally come to Venice, Spritzs seem to be about the only thing one should be drinking. At least that's what the people above made me think.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Standing Up for Bookstores & the City (in Biblioteca Marciana)

Yesterday at high noon over 100 published authors and illustrators who call Venice home gathered at Jacopo Sansovino's great 16th-century Biblioteca Marciana to call attention to the ever-diminishing number of bookstores in the city and present a list of requests aimed to prevent more loss.

The decision to hold the press conference--entitled "Venice, City of Readers"--at Biblioteca Marciana was of course a symbolic decision meant to evoke Venice's immense role in the history of the printed word. The Biblioteca was itself the first state library in the world and Venice the adopted home and workplace of the seminal printer and publisher Aldo Manuzio (or Aldus Manutius, as he's also known). In fact, the city's religious tolerance--inspired no doubt by its commerce with the East--enabled the city to become the center of early print culture, drawing the most talented printers in Europe to work in the lagoon, and both the first complete Talmud and the first printed Arabic Qur'an were published here (in 1520-23 and 1537-38, respectively).

But though the primary focus of yesterday's event was on bookstores and the printed word, and the panel of speakers (including two winners of Italy's most prestigious literary awards) were surrounded by philosophers painted by the likes of Tintoretto, the overarching concern was, as it always is now, whether the city and its residents can survive the onslaught of Total Tourism (or fondamentalismo turistico, as the Italian version of the program put it). It was a call not just to legislators or politicians or city administrators, but to all of us to be aware of our own capacity to help or to harm the city, and to take responsibility for the choices we make rather than indulging in the lazy and willfully mystifying fiction of some purportedly inevitable "logic of the marketplace".

The full text of the requests signed by the more than 100 published authors and illustrators can be found in English, Italian, French and German by clicking on the links below. In the interest of full-disclosure I should note that I contributed some last-minute re-writes to the English translation of the text and was also one of the signers of the document.





A video of the complete presentation in the Biblioteca Marciana can be watched by clicking on the following link (about 1 hour, in Italian):

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Hero of Lepanto, Veronese, and the Vagaries of History

Veronese chapel of the rosary 1

Though the sheer number of monuments and paintings commemorating the victory of the combined forces of Venice, Spain and the Papacy over the Turks in the famous sea battle of Lepanto might easily lead one to assume otherwise, this celebrated event of 7 October 1571 had little lasting effect on the declining fortunes of the Republic, according to the historian John Julius Norwich. It provided an immediate and immense lift to the morale of the city, whose residents were beginning to fear that
Veronese chapel of the rosary 2Turkish mastery of the sea might extend even so far as the city itself, and it provided some measure of vengeance for the Turkish massacre of Venetians and the torture and mutilation of their leader Marcantonio Bragadin following his negotiated surrender of Famagusta in Cyprus. But within two years of the battle Venice would relinquish all claims to Cyprus to the Turks, and in the following century, Norwich points out, they'd lose Crete as well. 

Sebastiano Venier, by Antonio dal Zotto
Which is not to say, however, that the victory had no long-lasting results, as one of the most beautiful of them was constructed to commemorate Lepanto and opened in 1582: the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary (beside the Church of SS Giovanni and Paolo in what was once the 14th-century Chapel of St Dominic), with its beautiful paintings by Veronese.

At least this is what I used to think. But, actually, those paintings by Veronese in that chapel--which is typically one of the most peaceful locales of great art in the city--originally had nothing to do with Lepanto, nor with the chapel they now adorn.

I only found this out the other day, after a long slanting beam of late afternoon sunlight focused my attention on a sculpture I usually overlook: Sebastiano Venier, victorious commander of Lepanto and, later, a doge. In a church containing some of the most celebrated memorial sculptures in the city, and with Andrea Verrocchio's famous equestrian bronze of Bartolomeo Colleoni commanding the campo outside, it's not uncommon for this bronze to remain both figuratively and literally in the shadows.

The statue was made by the same Venetian sculptor, Antonio dal Zotto (1852-1918), responsible for the jaunty Goldoni bronze that overlooks Campo San Bartolomeo, as well as the bronze of Titian in the painter's hometown of Pieve di Cadore. It was commissioned in 1907 to commemorate the transfer of Venier's remains from their original resting place on Murano in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli to their present resting place in Giovanni and Paolo.

But the chapel beside which the bronze figure of Venier proudly stands bears little resemblance to the one constructed in the years after his victory. That chapel, with its gilded wooden ceilings and works by Tintoretto, Palma di Giovane, and many others, outlasted the Venetian Republic's last remaining outposts in the Mediterranean by a good two centuries, but it did not last until the present day. It was destroyed by fire on the 15th and 16th of August 1867--along with one work by Giovanni Bellini and another by Titian that happened, unfortunately, to be undergoing restoration within the chapel at the time.

I found all this out in the course of looking up information about dal Zotto's bronze. Though I've never come upon any of it in a guidebook, it's all readily available--and in English, too--on the very informative website of the Basilica of SS Giovanni and Paolo:

The Veronese paintings I like to visit whenever I'm in the neighborhood (some of which are posted above and below) were painted for a church on the Zattere, the long-deconsecrated church of Umiltà. Though I always imagined them to be native to the Chapel of the Rosary, they were only installed in their present location in 1925.

Before I found out all of the above, the difference between the short-term political gains from the Battle of Lepanto and the persistence of what I imagined to be the original Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary might have called to mind that old saw of the ancients about how Life is short, but Art endures. And perhaps some would say that the lasting (if delicate) beauty of Venice itself might be considered as evidence of whatever validity this claim may still have for us. It's a nice thought, in any case... But the destruction of the original chapel and its paintings by fire--especially that Bellini and Titian!--reminds me that as much effort as humans put into both art and commemoration, it's sometimes just dumb damn luck that decides what, and who, survives.

The present carved ceiling was begun by Carlo Lorenzetti in 1932; the Veronese's within come from the deconsecrated church of Umiltà

During the Christmas season the low gate usually blocking access to the presbytery is open & one can finally get a good view of what I find to be the most striking of Veronese's 4 evangelists, this dapper St Luke
The Christmas season is also the only time one can see the ten early-18th-century low-reliefs on the walls around the chapel's altar. The above and below are by Luigi and Carlo Tagliapietra

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Greetings from...

We are in the middle of a short stay in Rome, and while there is of course a very famous building here with St Mark's lion on its facade, and a substantial Venetian history, I just can't bring myself to post a photo of any place that became so intimately associated with Mussolini.

But it seems the Colosseum itself is now facing an issue most famously associated with Venice... Perhaps everyone else already knows this, but someone told me today that the Colosseum will soon be closed to visitors for 7 years because the tunneling of a third metropolitan line in its vicinity has caused the ancient amphitheatre to begin to sink.

In other Venice-related news, I also discovered today first-hand that the row boats in the little lake in Villa Borghese can indeed be rowed all veneta: propelled and steered with a single oar, with the rower facing forward--but without the standing up.