Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tango Sant' Elena, Tonight

Tango under the stars--or trees--has become a weekly event here in Sant' Elena, and is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. I can hear the music through my open window as I type these words, vintage songs from the era of Carlos Gardel: a perfect accompaniment for a summer night.

Sights of a summer night, 9:30 pm: tango in foreground, kids playing soccer in the background; if we were in Buenos Aires, both the kids and the dancers would still be at it at 3 am

Friday, June 28, 2013

A "Gabbiotto" of Dance: Biennale Danza Opens Today

Iris Erez performs Atleta Donna on Viale Garibaldi in Castello
The "gabbiotto"--that is, the tacky ticket booth/gift shop--that was appended to the base of the campanile in Piazza San Marco has been removed, but you can't blame those Venetians who were perturbed by the sight of a few new large white-framed glass boxes being erected in various campi around town yesterday and today. These structures, however, in Campo Santo Stefano, Campo Sant'Angelo, and at one end of Viale Garibaldi (in photos), will serve as the sites of one of the pieces in this weekend's Biennale Danza.

I caught part the performance this evening on Viale Garibaldi by the dancer Iris Erez. Entitled Atleta Donna, it's a three hour piece, in which the dancer in her glass room is, paradoxically, isolated in public. The essential drama in the piece is generated by the transparent walls, and by the way apparent boundaries between the dancer and her audience--as much psychological as physical--are explored and altered, reinforced or transgressed.

If you happen to be in Venice this weekend you can see this piece, and many others; a full listing of events may be found at:

It's a fascinating piece and merits much more attention, but there's a lot going on this weekend and right now I have to head out to the Festa di San Pietro di Castello (or San Piero de Casteo, in Venetian). 

Erez leaps up to toss a marker to a toddler--her own--on the other side of the glass

As you can see above, the dancer is free to invite a volunteer from the audience to join her in her glass room

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Still Point, Piazza San Marco

As always, photo re-sized for page; please click on it for full resolution
After having avoided Piazza San Marco during busy hours for as long as we've lived here, I suddenly find myself with the perverse urge to go there at exactly those times when it will be overrun and unbearable. I don't recommend this to others, and I know this phase will pass, but in the mean time here's one more photo--the last, I promise.

I don't know how much these white-coated waiters are paid, but after watching them for a little while I suspect that they deserve more.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Height of Conspicuous Consumption: Cipriani's Dinner in the Sky

There's no shortage of cranes in Venice, but only one with a (very small) load of diners
Behold, above, the newest ride at Veniceland!

At least that's been the reaction of many Venetians to the "Dinner in the Sky" rig suspended 164 feet (50 meters) above the pool of Hotel Cipriani and promising fine dining on a rotating platform. Actually, the little promotional video on the Cipriani website promises nothing less than flight itself with the following "poetical" lines and soaring Broadway strains (in every sense of that word):

Once you have learned how to fly
You will walk on earth looking up at the sky
Because it's there you have been
And there you will wish to return to

(I find myself hoping this is a bad translation of what sounded better in the original Italian, but I doubt it.)

More mundanely, it will run you 50 euro per person to have a crane--pardon the construction worker phrasing, but it's apt--haul your ass skyward, where you'll be allowed to dangle for 30 minutes enjoying "apertifs and finger food." Which I suppose is much better than bird feed, but that "finger food" is a bit of a let-down after the celestial overtures of the promo.

Or for 250 euro per person you'll be treated to a three-course dinner, with wines, while you gaze down on the amusement park Magic Kingdom state fair legendary city below. You'll have one hour up there among the stars, beside the industrial crane, and you'll be seat-belted into your seat. You can forget about slipping away to the restroom to powder your nose or attend to any other needs. 

Like others "attractions" of this sort, Dinner in the Sky is only here temporarily (from 19-23 June) and, like any other carnival ride, has traveled widely. It's done previous stints in Paris, London, Dubai, Las Vegas, Sydney, Monaco and Brussels. None of which stops (not even London or Paris) will in any way soothe the injured pride of a Venetian worried that his city has basically been turned into Atlantic City, as a true Venetian (even 200 years after the collapse of its toothless Republic) will readily admit that he or she considers every non-Venetian un campagnolo (a peasant, rube, or hick)--including Parisians and Londoners.

What surprised me last night, when I took these photos during the 8 pm feeding (there's a second one at 9:30), was how very few people looked to be seated around the table. I don't have a zoom lens, but based upon the cropped photo above (taken from the #2 vaporetto), and the cropped photo at bottom (taken on foot some distance behind the church of Zitelle), the chef and two waiters equal or nearly equal the number of diners.

Hotel Cipriani diners at the edge of the Giudecca Canal and in the air above
Suetonius, in his biographies of the Caesars, describes how Roman emperors loved to be entertained as they ate, and as the empire became increasingly more unsustainable and the emperors more and more erratic, these entertainments became more extreme, involving live sex acts, torture, and murder. I suspect that in the infamously-decadent Venice of the 18th-century it might not have been too difficult to arrange for people to, ahem, perform while one ate. Venice these days is no longer the erotic inferno it once was: more Coney Island than Caligula. But there's little comfort in that. What many Venetians fear is that what the diners suspended above Hotel Cipriani are paying to observe while they eat is the sight of a once-great city in its death throes--the silly rotating rig they're strapped into just another of the fatal symptoms.

It's lonely at the top--and with no chance that someone interesting might slide into the empty seat beside you

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Buon Giorno BELL' Anima!: CORRECTED POST

I suppose there's a certain spiritedness to the poses Sandro and his friend are striking above, but I doubt it's in keeping with what was intended by whoever left the message on the wall behind them
CORRECTION, 23 JUNE 2013: I'm afraid I have to insert this preface to the original post that follows, as I've just discovered a major and rather embarrassing error: the scrawl on the wall in the photo above does not say, as I quoted in the original post below, "Buon giorno dell'anima!", but the much simpler and easier-to-translate: Buon giorno bell' anima!"

"Good morning, beautiful soul!" is what I saw as I passed by this wall today. How could I ever have misremembered this? The photo above was taken in mid-April, and the first letter of the penultimate word is mostly obscured, but how did I ever get it into my head that it was "dell'"?

It's a mystery to me, and another example of how little attention I can pay to something--even when I seem to believe I'm paying attention.

Of course this doesn't alter the validity of the offered translations made in the comments section below, nor the points about how different languages express affection and sincerity... It just makes them unnecessary to what's actually written on the wall!

So, for making a difficulty where there really was none, I can only offer my apologies. And, yes, I do so from my soul, or from my heart--depending on your native tongue.


I've passed by the graffiti in the photo above fairly often and never felt comfortable with my ability to put it into English. Buon giorno dell'anima is something like "Good morning of the spirit"--but does this really make much sense in English, or, more importantly, sound very good in English? When it comes to translation sometimes thinking in terms of literal word-for-word substitutions only gets one so far; so how might it be said more loosely in English, with an equivalent English-language spiritedness if not literalness?

"Dawn of the soul"? "Awakening of the spirit"?

I don't know. I was sure I was making it too hard--and I probably still am. So I asked a young Venetian friend who knows English as well as Italian, expecting him to provide a ready answer. Perhaps, after all, it was a phrase in common usage among native speakers.

But he, too, seemed puzzled by it. 

He said it seemed poetic, and not something one usually heard. He said he kind of liked it, but he didn't know how he'd say it in English, and wasn't even quite sure exactly what to do with it in Italian. But that heart at the end of it suggested to him that it was a message or greeting from whoever defaced the wall to his or her beloved, or desired.

"Good morning, sunshine"?

I don't know. Do you?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

6 Views of Sunday Afternoon in Piazza San Marco, Today

It's an open secret in Venice that no work of any kind is going on behind that large ad in the background: it is purely a billboard, a money-making venture for i musei civici under the pretense of "necessary maintenance"
Watching the afternoon pass outside Caffè Florian...
...and on the other side of the Piazza, with a lesser sense of ease, outside Gran Caffè Quadri
Feeding the multitudes (with gelato)
Three soldier boys
Cover charge includes a famous view, but no cover from this afternoon's imperious sun

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Biennale 2013: Ai Weiwei in church of Sant'Antonin

In 2011 the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a frequent critic of his country's government and human rights abuses, was arrested under only the vaguest of charges (which were belatedly "explained" as being that of tax evasion) and held in a small room in a secret location for 81 days, during which time he was subjected to the most intimate and constant surveillance. For those 81 days he was never alone--two guards always beside him, always watching him--and the lights in his room were kept burning 24/7.

Ai's new work Disposition, on view until September at the usually closed church of Sant'Antonin in Castello, is his first detailed account of his days of captivity. Seeing it just a day after a poll was released in the US showing that a majority of respondents (56%) had no problem with unfettered government surveillance (in violation of the Constitution), I found it particularly troubling. 

The six detailed less-than-life-size dioramas are contained in an equal number of large dark weathered steel boxes, sharp-angled and blank except for the same identical door (with same room number), a small viewing window on one side, and one or two small rectangular viewing skylights on top. The work requires that each of its viewers indulge in a bit of surveillance him- or herself, peering through small openings to get a glimpse of what had been, prior to this exhibit, kept entirely out of sight.

Ideally, the boxes would have been made of lead, for its sense of heavy suffocating impenetrability, but the dimensions and surface of the boxes approximate a similar sense (with the obvious added advantage of being portable). The scenes inside of how Ai spent each of his days in detention are claustrophobic, and become more so the longer you look at them--and the longer you think about them after leaving the exhibit.

The work was created specifically for this site of Sant'Antonin, which remains--though closed and almost never the site of a mass--a consecrated church. And Ai makes explicit reference to the site with the acronym with which he describes the six scenes: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt. Perhaps he means to suggest that in a Surveillance State The Lives of the Artists are prone to become too much like The Lives of the Saints, with persecution and even martyrdom the common themes. However, I didn't find myself thinking of artists in particular while I peered inside the six boxes, but of all the anonymous others--who have never lived in New York City, as Ai did for 12 years, nor even left their home countries--who have been, and are, subjected to similar treatment or worse, and who disappear without a trace.  

Of course the treatment to which Ai was subjected in his 81 days hidden away in detention was not merely surveillance, but torture.

Unfortunately, too many polls of Americans in recent years have shown a majority of respondents have no problem with that either.   

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Venetian Faces 3, or, Etruscans

25% of Venice's population is over the age of 65 years of age, making it, in terms of percentage of population, the oldest city in Italy (which, as a whole, has one of the oldest populations in Europe). Only since moving to Venice have I realized how restricted was the age-range of people I saw on a regular basis while living in Brooklyn, NY, or Asheville, NC, or while visiting anywhere else in America. In contrast, the older population of Venice is, if you'll pardon the expression, "free range." That is, not confined, either by their own or someone else's choice, to particular buildings or neighborhoods (which can sometimes give the impression that Western society has come to believe that aging is a disease against which quarantining might be required). Of course, in my experience in America it's economic necessity that dictates who lives where, and it's not much different in Venice. Except that in Venice it's the older residents, who have owned their homes for years, who have been able to afford to stay in the city, while younger residents, looking to buy, have been driven out by real estate prices inflated by absentee second home owners and the economics of tourism.

On vaporetti it's often the older residents of Venice who will make their trip without the usual form of distraction: a newspaper, a book or, often, one (or more) of the electronic gadgets to which so many of us have wedded (and practically welded) ourselves, cyborg-like. Though iPhones and other such things aren't quite as common among young Venetians and Venetian children as they are in the States (where, according to a school teacher friend who lives in Missouri, a school bus of second graders is a busload of streaming videos and video games on hand-held devices), I still marvel at those who spend their time on the vaporetto with their heads down and eyes locked on digital simulcra while one of the truly legendary cities of the world and all of history slides past unseen just outside the window.

Perhaps it's becoming rather rare to see a person who can do the most elemental of things: simply sit with themselves, as many of the older Venetians do on the vaporetto. Which far from being boring, or monotonous--as we are told it must be by all those with something to sell--may very well be to sit with a vast multitude of things: memories and plans and the bits of present experience that can squeeze their way in between them.

It's particularly the memories of these older Venetians on the vaporetti that I find myself wondering about, as they are, it seems to me, the last generation of residents who lived as adults in this city when it was truly a city: 150,000 strong. When tourism was actually seasonal, so that gondolieri, as Jan Morris wrote in 1960, actually held second jobs for much of the year. When cattle trains made regular runs into town, their doomed freight driven to the slaughterhouse nearby in the northwestern corner of Cannaregio (now, aptly enough from what I've heard about Italian education, part of the university of Ca' Foscari). When there was a cotton factory whirring away beside the church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (now part of the IUAV campus), and clothing manufacturing and shipyards on Giudecca.

Hard to imagine.

Etruscans, I sometimes find myself thinking when I look at these older Venetians, wondering about all the things they remember, and don't remember: the last living witnesses to have fully lived in a vanishing culture.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Serpentine in the Garden (Giardini Pubblici)

photo credit for all photos: Jen Varni
The artist herself played an (amplified) violin-like instrument at the center of it all 
Last weekend was a weekend of processions: the liturgical one on Friday night from San Francesco della Vigna to SS Giovanni e Paolo (of my last two posts), and this linked one in the Giardini Pubblici the next afternoon, staged as part of an artist's video project.

A couple of weeks before I'd run into a friend on Via Garibaldi who'd asked if I'd be willing to dress as a Renaissance lord and participate in this. I said, yes (as I'd also agreed a couple of years back to a similar request from the same person) for precisely the reason that this was something that for most of my life I would never ever have done. And besides, what happens in Venice stays in Venice. Or perhaps that's the motto of some other place?

I wrote quite enough about my experience in costume the first time I did this kind of thing (, so I'll only say here that on a larger barrel-chested man (or even beer-bellied man), my outfit might have bestowed a grand Henry VIII kind of majesty. On me I believe it gave the impression that I was being assailed by--and vanquished by--some of the vast rich velvet draperies with which Richard Wagner liked to decorate his lodgings. But everyone else, as you can see in the photos, looked marvelous.

We weren't expected to dance for the video, though everyone else in costume was part of a historical dance troupe. We only had to link hands with about two dozen volunteers of all ages who stepped forward to help out from the many people milling around the entrance to the Biennale on that event's opening day and follow, at a pretty brisk walking pace, the serpentine meanderings of our "lord" at the head of the line. The video artist herself, dressed as lady and playing amplified violin upon a pedestal in the center of a circular flower bed, set the pace. 

Everyone had a great time. One guy had a bit too much of a good time: letting go of the hand of the person in front of him--though we'd all been directed NOT to do that--to caper around on his own. This, I believe, ruined a bit of the second take, but not so much as to be a problem We also did a third take, during which rain--as it often does these days here--started to fall.

For the second time in as many days I was struck by how much our culture, advanced as we pride ourselves on being, has forgotten. Contrary to the disastrous assertion made by Margaret Thatcher and her ilk for the past 40 years that there is only the individual, a simple procession or a simple bit of serpentining with strangers acts as a concrete reminder of what joy people derive from being social, from participating in communal activity, of quite literally moving with others. You'd think it would be obvious, as it once used to be obvious in Western societies, but it was nothing I was raised with--and nothing one can experience via Facebook or other "social networks".

The head of the line waits to be given the signal to start

There were at least three cameras; one stationary, at right, the others roving
Being a part of this line was much more fun than being a part of those at the ticket windows for the Biennale
Children made up the line's tail
Lords, ladies, photographers
Serpentining does wonders for one's mood

NOTE: I wanted to let readers know that the excellent Baroque trio Bel Ayre will soon be performing in Ca' Corner della Regina in Venice, on June 15, 2013. 
I wrote a post (with photos) about the first time I saw this group perform, at Palazzo Da Mosto, which you can see here:
They're also just finishing a CD, which should be released in September. If you'll be in Venice soon they are really worth seeing in person. If not, there's the CD to look forward to.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Strolling with the Madonna and the Patriarch of Venice, Part 1 of 2

The head of the procession pauses outside S Francesco della Vigna before setting off; the proper sequence of photos begins below
In the days just before the Venice Biennale opens to the general public, while the $300,000 per week rental yachts bob along the Riva and beside the Punta della Dogana, and artists, curators, and media are busy indulging their bottomless thirst for--art, let's say--at two or three parties a night, Venice begins to feel like a very different place. Of course Venice is always over-run by hoards of visitors, but your average tourist drifts through town with the docility of the irretrievably lost, while the art crowd visitor, whose career depends, after all, on an air of knowingness (or even all-knowingness), can't afford to ever appear lost. For the past few days it's been an entertaining spectacle, this bi-annual convention of the international art market--as even mass tourism might be entertaining if it lasted for only a few days every couple of years--or, even, as in the old days, for just a few months of each year.

But still, against ever-greater odds, there persists (or subsists) another Venice... Friday night the Patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia, celebrated a mass at the church of San Francesco della Vigna to cap off the end of the month of Mary (May), then led a procession from that church to the grand basilica of SS Giovanni e Paolo. It's easy enough when visiting churches in Italy to believe most are filled only for Christmas and Easter, but it was a full house in San Francesco della Vigna Friday night, and it was a vocal crowd, praying and singing, that followed the Patriarch and the statue of Mary along the route between the two parishes. This particular procession was initiated just 25 years ago, though following in its wake you'd be excused for imagining it went back a good deal longer.

While I stood near the entrance of San Francesco as the service before the procession was coming to its end, a group of 7 or 8 people of various ages (obviously in Venice for the Biennale) wandered in, attracted by the open door and the light and the reasonable expectation in a town filled with various off-site art exhibitions these days that here was another one. One young woman at the rear of the group made it only to the threshold, where she groaned (in English) to a nearby friend, "I'm so drunk," then retreated into the open air. Most of the rest stayed long enough to discover that, oddly enough, there was actually a religious ceremony going on this church, then also went back outside. Not even the spectacle of it was enough to hold their attention for more than a half minute. Only one young man stayed longer, and even ventured further into the church. But only, I soon saw, to get a couple of the free candles available to those planning to participate in the procession. He exited as soon as he had them, holding them up triumphantly to show his friends, happy to have scored some freebies--like the canvas bags and other "gadgets" (as the Italians call them) given away at Biennale openings. With the cigarette lighter of his smoking friend he lit the candles, then the group began their own ragged procession to the next party or bar. 

Strolling with the Madonna and the Patriarch of Venice, Part 2 of 2

This is the second group of photos taken Friday, May 31, at the 25th-annual procession of Mary led by the Patriarch of Venice from the church of San Francesco della Vigna to the basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Some explanation of the event can be found in the prior post (Part 1). Click on each photo to see in full resolution.