Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Passion of the Long Distance Runner: Venice Marathon Today

Nearing the end of his long ordeal, a runner gives thanks
Some photos of the 28th annual Venice Marathon, in which 4,000 people participated.

I missed getting a photo of the first person to finish the marathon, but this is the 4th, which is still awfully impressive
Crossing the last bridge before the finish line
The runners weren't the only ones who prepared for the race
Sweat and blood
A supporter becomes a participant during the home stretch
The thrill of seeing a loved one approach the finish line
Approaching the finish together
Aeneas carried his father from the ruined Troy, this son pushes his own father toward the finish line
Completing the course in just a bit over 4 1/2 hours
Having completed the race, a runner passes by the crowd in his metallic mantle
This French runner was among the first wave of finishers

Friday, October 25, 2013

There's No Such Thing as "Regular Maintenance" in Venice

I walked past a renovation site yesterday on the ground floor of a large rather non-descript apartment building beside Palazzo Morosini Brandolin on the Grand Canal (near the Rialto Pescheria) and was reminded of Lidia Panzeri's observation in The Venice Report (Cambridge Univ Press, 2009) that "It is inappropriate to speak of 'regular' maintenance, as in Venice any maintenance is exceptional in character." And the same can certainly be said of renovations like the one pictured above as well.

The long oak piles (at least 3 meters long) upon which Venetian buildings were famously constructed were, as Deborah Howard writes in her Architectural History of Venice, so expensive that they were only used when absolutely necessary, and usually only beneath those structural walls of a building that had to carry the greatest load. In contrast, "interior walls," she notes, "had less substantial foundations, a fact that has led to subsidence in many cases." Looking through a window in a narrow calle at the work going on above I wondered if subsidence of the interior walls was an issue here, but not knowing when the building was even put up in the first place it was hard to guess exactly what was going on. At some point the base of the interior walls looked to have been reinforced with concrete, but how recently I don't know.

Venice was a city born of the most extraordinary engineering, and so the work goes on, out of sight, anonymously, but no less extraordinarily.

The covered exterior of the building under renovation, with Palazzo Morosini Brandolin at right

Thursday, October 24, 2013

William Tell in Venice, This Afternoon

As far as I know this is not a Venetian tradition at children's birthday parties, just a spontaneous bit of inspiration.

I'm not sure how many parents would be willing to balance a small citrus (rather than the apple of the legend) on his or her head, but it did seem to hold the attention of 4 and 5 year olds even better than pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Addio to Marc Quinn's Inflated Alison Lapper (aka "Breath")

When it first appeared beside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore last spring I was intrigued by the many questions raised by the artist Marc Quinn's large inflatable "sculpture" of Alison Lapper. It wasn't just that here was an example of the human form that would not have been treated monumentally and heroically in the past, but whether the whole sense of heroism that was present in Quinn's original Carrara marble version of this sculpture (displayed in Trafalgar Square) was lost in its translation to a material more evocative of the floating cartoon figures in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade than Michelangelo's David.

Additionally, the office of the Patriarch of Venice raised the related question of whether this inflatable version was more advertisement (for Quinn's show on San Giorgio Maggiore) than art. I wrote about all this last May, and wasn't really sure what to make of the piece, though the subject herself and importance of depicting a fuller range of the human form and manner of being inclined me to think this piece did at least potentially do one of the best things art can do by making us see and think about things we often overlook (

But after visiting the piece last week, I now think that it's time for it to go--as I suspect it soon will, as the Quinn show closed at the end of September.

Of course it's not that the subject of the piece has changed, but that the material in which it's embodied--always subject to questions about its suitability and the messages it carried--has now become so faded by exposure to the elements as to lose whatever capacity it once arguably had to convey heroic monumentality. Not only has the color of the piece changed from a vaguely marblesque mauve to a blotchy pink, but the seams in the figure have become so visible as to become themselves a primary focus of one's attention--which can't really be considered a good thing, unless somewhere in the world there's a culture whose heroic ideals are embodied by a beach ball.

A comparison of the appearance of Quinn's work at the end of May, left, and at the middle of October, right
Maybe I'm just being fussy, but if I were a visual artist I wouldn't want a work of mine to remain on display in such a compromised state.

And maybe I'm being unfair, but my visit to the inflatable piece last week reinvigorated all my doubts about an artist who bothered to produce a life-sized solid-18-carat gold sculpture of Kate Moss.

Description of Marc Quinn's large inflatable work attached to its large base
Just consider the description above now located on the base of the large inflatable figure. The idea that this depiction of Alison Lapper in Venice was in any way "held up by the breath of those talking about it" is both amusing and absurd to anyone who remembers reaction to the piece here last spring, when the only thing that both the Patriarch and the overwhelming majority of Venetian residents had to say about it was that it had no place on San Giorgio Maggiore. In fact, though I can't claim to have made a formal survey, I didn't speak to single person in Venice who liked it. I asked friends, acquaintances, and strangers: the most positive response I received was from a woman who lived on Giudecca and said that, though she was sympathetic to the subject matter, she didn't like the piece. Everyone else usually just said they hated it, it was ugly, and why did it have to be so damn purple?

The placard above states that "if people lose interest in [the work] and are unwilling to give it the attention and resources it demands the work will cease to exist in the physical world", but of course this is blatantly false. Venetians have had no more to do with the persistence of Quinn's sculpture in a place they don't want it, than they did with the long unwanted residence of Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog" at the tip of La Dogana.

In both cases I seemed to think the sculptures were of more interest and had more artistic merit than were generally accorded them by other residents of Venice, but it's the false self-congratulatory populist rhetoric by the artists of both works that finally irritates me. Neither "Boy with Frog" nor the pretentiously-entitled "Breath" depended upon the willingness of "people" to "give [them] the attention and resources [they] demand" (such as an armed guard), but on the largesse of private foundations who kept them in place in spite of Venetian response. And it's this in spite of that Venetians have gotten sick of: the billboards that remain for years on cherished monuments in spite of the fact that all work behind them is finished, the growing number of cruise ships and tourists who flood the city in spite of acknowledged dangers and damages....

Indeed, if "the collective consciousness" of the vast majority of Venetians were allowed to actually express its opinion of Quinn's work on San Giorgio Maggiore it would have done so long ago not by "holding it up" in any way, but in a simple quite literally deflating gesture. And but for the fact that the subject of the work merits thoughtful consideration, I'd almost be willing to say at this point that the artist's windy pretension might benefit from a good pricking--that would set it off on an appropriately frantic comic flatulent flight, like an overinflated untied balloon let loose over the basin of San Marco.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Autumn in the "Secret Garden", Giudecca

Some of the vineyards behind Le Zitelle, whose fruit was crushed at the cantina on San Michele I featured in 3 posts at the end of September
What I'm calling a "secret garden" isn't really a secret at all, though it is walled and well out of the way of any tourist routes. It's a large community garden behind the church of Le Zitelle that I first found out about (and posted about) last March (, when I was determined to become a regular volunteer there. It hasn't worked out that way. Jen and Sandro worked there a few times, until SpiazziVerdi--the excellent organization that runs the Giudecca garden--helped create another community garden in the large rather unkempt yard beside Sandro's pre-school near Sant' Alvise in Cannaregio, to which Jen and Sandro then devoted their energies.

I'm hoping, though, to work tomorrow in the garden behind Le Zitelle during SpiazziVerdi's "Aglio Day": a day devoted to planting that potent bulb. More information about the day can be found here:

What struck me about the Giudecca garden when I recently visited one late afternoon, was that the community that benefitted from the garden was not limited to gardeners. At the far end of the large walled lot in which the garden is located is a casa di riposo (rest home). There were no gardeners at work when I visited, but a number of residents from the rest home were walking with a family member or friend or caretaker among all the growing things. None of the residents I saw looked to be in any condition to garden themselves, but even those of diminished lucidity seemed to enjoy the plants and flowers, to enjoy being among the real tangible verdant world at a time in life when, unfortunately, it's all too easy and common for their world to shrink to the dimensions of their lodgings and a television. 

Of course at any time of one's life these days it's not uncommon for our world to shrink to the dimensions of our ubiquitous electronic devices. One's very standing in the world often seems to be reflected in the number and sophistication of the electronic devices to which one is wedded--or even welded, so to speak. It makes me appreciate organizations like SpiazziVerdi all the more, and their commitment to community which is not merely virtual.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Venice from a Different Perspective

The good ship Raptus of Sestante di Venezia
As a Venetian friend, born and bred, told me a couple of years ago, "There are two Venices: one you see on foot and with the vaporetti, another that requires your own boat." But what if you don't have your own boat, and don't have the hundreds and hundreds of euros it would cost to rent a water taxi for a few hours?

Well, one more affordable option is offered by a friend of ours, Fabio, in the form of "eco-sustainable tours" around the lagoon, either in a smaller flat-bottomed motorboat with room for 11, or a larger boat (pictured above) with room for as many as 56 people.

The name of his company is Sestante di Venezia, and you can see a complete description of the variety of tours available--not just on boats, but on foot and on bikes as well--at (in Italian and English).
Annual maintenance on a wood boat in a marina on the south side of Giudecca
This past Saturday I booked a place on a photography boat tour in the lagoon south of San Giorgio Maggiore. At present, it seems like the details of the photography excursion page are available only in Italian (, but what particularly interested me was that on each of these outings (or uscite) a professional photographer is along to answer questions and provide pointers. A list of the photographers with whom Sestante di Venezia works is available on the page above, along with links to each photographer's website (which are in English). Last Saturday the photographer was Joan Porcel Pascual.

The church of Le Zitelle seen from the south lagoon
What I didn't expect was that mounted on a table in the center of the boat was what looked to be about a 23-inch computer monitor. This meant that you could download your images onto Joan's laptop computer during the cruise itself and review them on the large screen for on-the-fly (or on-the-float) evaluations. As well allowing for a more comprehensive discussion of a variety of images taken by various members of the group on the tour--whoever was willing--when we moored along the Zattere after the sun had set. 

The lack of boat traffic and waves in the south lagoon makes it the ideal place to learn to row...
Unfortunately, I was so taken with the sights outside of the boat that I didn't end up shooting any images of the inside of the roomy open-air boat, as I'd planned to. But there are images of the inside of the boat, in which one can move around freely and shoot in any direction, on the Sestante di Venezia Facebook page. It's worth checking out, as are these photography cruises themselves. well as for more experienced rowers to train
It was the unsustainability of these unsightly--but job-producing--industries on Giudecca (foreground) and Marghera (background) that has led Venice to depend so largely on tourism in recent decades
Sunset as seen from the south lagoon

Sunday, October 13, 2013

With Venice at Their Feet

Though they appear to be relatively harmless, the World Monuments Fund considers the excessive numbers of the mammals above to pose a serious threat to the well-being of Venice
Last week the World Monuments Fund announced that Venice had made their list of Watch Sites for 2014: one of 67 such culturally-important sites in 41 countries whose survival is threatened by neglect, over-development, political economic or social forces. The non-profit preservation group singled out the rapid increase of ever-larger cruise ships over recent years as a primary danger to both the city's infrastructure and its social and cultural fabric (

Venice's inclusion on the list is no surprise, considering that in February of 2013 Ana Somers Cocks, former president of Venice in Peril and a vocal critic of the way in which Venice is being (mis)managed, delivered the Fund's annual Paul Mellon Lecture in New York City. You can view the entire lecture here:

It's a talk worth watching for anyone interested in Venice, and it appears to be the forerunner of her more extensive essay entitled "The Coming Death of Venice?" published in the June 20, 2103 issue of The New York Review of Books (

In both the essay and speech Somers Cocks lays out the major players involved in determining the fate of Venice, explains why the powerful Venice Port Authority and the consortium of private industrial companies called the Consorzio Venezia Nuova wield disproportionate influence, and marvels at the fact that when the Venice City Council finally managed to produce in 2012 the management plan required by the city's designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site way back in 1987(!) the plan essentially neglected to seriously address the 3 major threats to the city: (1) the excessive and destructive number of tourists in the city, (2) the excessive and destructive number of big ships, and (3) the global rise in sea levels for which the 5 billion euro water gates being built by the Consorzio Venezia Nuovo will serve as but a temporary stop-gap measure.

In other words, contrary to the old saying "Better late then never," the management plan finally produced by the Venice City Council is so gutless, toothless, and willfully-short-sighted (when not just fecklessly blind) that "late" in their case is really in no way better than "never."

What Ana Somers Cocks has basically been saying in every forum available to her over the last year--including, most recently, in late September at a ceremony here in which she received a prize from the Istituto Veneto per Venezia--is that the ancient world-famous city of Venice, whose history is filled with almost incomprehensibly-extensive engineering projects necessitated by self-preservation, not only has no legitimate viable plan presently in place to assure its own survival, but no apparent plans to come up with one. Unless, Dear Reader, you've drunk so much of the Kool-aid of neo-liberalism that you believe that allowing private interests to squeeze every last drop of profit from the city before its utter collapse qualifies as one.

In her speech to the World Monuments Fund, Somers Cocks quotes a senior member of the Italian government in Rome who tells her simply, "Italians don't like to plan." This is an easy cynical re-affirmation of an old cultural clichè, but having no plan, or intentionally creating gridlock (as has been evident in both the US and Italy) that prevents any plan from being drafted or implemented, is a ham-handedly effective way of maintaining a status quo in which large private interests steer the course.

The surprising thing about all this, though, is that when it comes to cruise ships even the Secretary General for Europe of the international association of cruise lines (CLIA) acknowledges the unsustainability of the way cruise ships now enter and leave Venice. Robert Ashdown is quoted in The Telegraph as saying "We have recognized the need to move away from current navigational routes for some time but there were no alternatives in place" (

This is more than the Venice City Council was willing to actually put into its planning report!

Not even Hitler could hope to watch the seat of the once great Republic, ruler of a quarter and half-quarter of the Roman Empire, slip past as he sat on a deck chair in his bath robe--but these people could
By this time, of course, Venice's tourist problems are well known, and yet the tourists keep coming. Interestingly enough, the mere (slim) possibility that one eventual day the Basin of San Marco may cease to be a cruise ship highway actually serves to inspire some people to book their room on a cruise ship ASAP.

Few things can make me despair more completely for the future of humanity than reading the Comments section of any online publication, but I was taken by the first one in response to The Telegraph article above, in which a self-described "yachtsman of 50+ years" was so intent on securing for himself "the incredible experience" of "watching Venice slip past from the top deck of a cruise ship" that he booked a cabin as soon as he heard of a possible cruise ship prohibition.

I find this to be a perversely fascinating mindset, and not at all uncommon. The possibility of imminent prohibition, the possibility that your own action may in some small way be contributing to the cultural and/or literal destruction of a 1,000-year-old city--what better recipe for an air of decadent "exclusivity", even though you pass by on a floating Holiday Inn with a Broadway show tune blaring over the ships' speakers to create just the right "ambience."

It was not the way Michelangelo saw the city, nor Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus, Galileo, Mozart, Wagner, Proust, George Eliot nor George Sand. Not even Hitler or Mussolini dreamed during their visits that the seat of the once-awesome Republic might "slip past" thusly, as that valiant "yachtsman of 50+ years" insists upon experiencing the city.

And the fact is, regardless of what the cruise lines might try to sell people, after three years of living here I can assure you, as many of you already know, that there really are better ways to experience the city.

And this is actually one of the smallest cruise ships that enters the lagoon...

Friday, October 11, 2013

One of Venice's Most Lovely Small Palazzi, but Impossible to Photograph

The title of this post should actually read "...but Impossible for Me to Photograph", as I always feel certain that given the many skilled and famous photographers who have passed through this city over the past century and more there must be in existence somewhere at least one great photo of every great building in the city. And probably even on-line.

The above is not a great photo--among other things, in the process of shooting the multiple images that went into this panorama two straight walls of the palazzo acquired a bit of a bend. But it is a palazzo, just behind La Fenice, that I can't help but linger and look at whenever I pass by, no matter how much I should be hurrying onward.

Some years ago I read of a certain American graduate fiction writing program in the 1970s whose central tenet was that truly literary fiction was defined, as least partly, by how utterly impossible it was to turn it into a film. In more recent decades, as even literary novels have adopted the plotting and characterization and pacing and scene structures of film, and writers everywhere dream of breaking into Hollywood, such talk would probably get a professor fired. But it made me wonder, half-seriously, if any analogy might be applied to Venetian palazzi beyond the Grand Canal: that perhaps one defining feature of Venetian palazzi along the most characteristically intimate of Venetian canals are their inimicality to being properly captured on film or disk. No matter how many of us try. 

I actually like this idea of impossibility. In this age of overwhelming amounts of information and images, of convenience and instant accessibility and instant gratification, this inimicality of such sights makes them seem all the more precious to me; seems to make one's experience of them truly singular, never to be captured or repeated--preserved only in one's body and mind. So the above image can at best be little more than a spur to remind you of your own view of this same palazzo or, if you're interested, to seek it out yourself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The World in a Drop of Water: Simon Ma at Palazzo Pisani

Part of the Chinese artist Simon Ma's selection of works at Palazzo Pisani--one of the "collateral events" at this year's Biennale--suffered from the success of another part of his works on display. At least for me. I found the way his six large stainless steel water drop sculptures reflected and distorted the grand (one might even say overweening) architecture of the palazzo's two large tall courtyards so compelling that I had little attention left over for his paintings displayed on the piano nobile (works on which he collaborated with Julian Lennon, whom I assume is that Julian Lennon, of the hits songs of the '80s and all the rest). Yesterday was a drizzly monochromatic kind of day whose flat light perhaps lent itself particularly well to an appreciation of the interplay between the sculptures and their architectural setting, while, inside and upstairs, the paintings seemed a bit dwarfed by their surroundings.

Of course my attention to the paintings wasn't helped by the fact that a small orchestral group of students from the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello was running through some pieces in the palazzo's androne, complete with a conductor perched on a step-stool and the brass section (as you can see in the photo below) divided quite picturesquely between two floors--the trumpets blaring bright and potent as the sun through windows above. I showed up at the palazzo intent only on looking, but was quite happy and grateful for the chance, all unexpectedly, to give myself entirely over to listening.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Passion, Burning and Burnt, at Teatro Malibran and Elsewhere

Outside Teatro Malibran after the opening performance of Aspern
I can't pretend to write a musical review of Salvatore Sciarrino's Aspern, which I was recently lucky enough to see at Teatro Malibran, because I can't pretend to know anything about music. I can't play it and I don't know how to I read it, and while the latter incapacity rarely seems to stop book reviewers that's hardy a crew I'd like to emulate. The best I can do is offer some impressions and background, in case anyone might be interested in catching the final performances of Aspern on October 6, 8 or 10 (

Set in Venice, like the long Henry James novella (The Aspern Papers) upon which it's based, the opera would seem like a natural choice for La Fenice--except that it's the type of contemporary piece that many opera goers still love to dislike. First performed in Florence in 1978, it is mostly spoken, not sung, and it's not hard for me to imagine more than a few people dismissing much of the music performed by the minimal 6-piece La Fenice Orchestra as screechy and wheezy, consisting as it does of a main theme that's sparse and not obviously melodic: with a viola and violin making sounds that fans of Bach would probably consider ill-tempered, and harsh recurrent shuddering bursts from one of the two flautists more reminiscent of a reedy shakuhachi than any soft silvery magic of Mozart.  

In other words, it strikes me as an adventurous bit of programming at a time when plenty of opera companies are quite content to play things safe. Making it even more so is the fact that it's largely a production of the Università IUAV di Venezia, the arts, architecture, urban studies and performing arts college. Five of the production's seven performers on stage are from IUAV, as are all of the staging, sets, costumes and lighting.

Like the text on which it is based, the opera is a tale of passions at cross-purposes. James based his original tale on a true story recounted to him about a fervent American scholar of the Romantic poet Percy Shelley who, after finding out that an aged mistress of Lord Byron was still living with her spinster niece in Florence, schemed his way into lodging with them. He knew that Byron's old flame had a trunk full of invaluable letters from Byron and Shelley, and as she was ailing and unlikely to live much longer, the scholar planned to be on hand at her demise to "help" her dull dour niece deal with her estate. That is, help himself to the letters.

However, after the old lady passed on the scholar discovered that the spinster niece was not as clueless as he'd supposed: she had her own ideas. The primary one was that before she'd let him get his hands on the letters, he'd have to take her hand in marriage. The scholar fled.

In Sciarrino's opera, as in James's text, the narrator/protagonist has a monopoly on passion when the story begins. Both the old woman and her middle-aged niece look on life as spectators: the former oriented toward life (and lives) now long gone, the latter toward life she's never been free to live. And the music is true to this dim, diminished and even squelched sense of things. When we first hear the only singer in the cast, a soprano (whom I was happy to be see turn up, as I was afraid the whole thing would be recited), she seems barely able to get out any notes. Dressed in full early-19th-century finery, the soprano is the ghost of a passionate romantic past which can get no foothold in the pinched gloomy present time-frame of the story, as the narrator, the old lady and her spinster niece work out the financial terms of his lodging in the rambling empty palazzo of which the two women inhabit only a fraction. The narrator offers to turn the place's overgrown garden into one big flowerbed, not--as the two women fear--because he's looking for wages as a gardener, but simply "for his own pleasure."

"There is no pleasure here," the niece bitterly replies.

That's for sure. But slowly a certain pale passion is kindled (secretly) even in that cold household, and the soprano comes into her own. She has two beautiful arias, one in Italian, one in Venetian, the words of which are both perhaps written by Lorenzo Da Ponte (Mozart's old collaborator), from which Sciarrino and his co-librettist Giogio Marini borrow. (I don't have a copy of the libretto.) An ostensibly tepid evening out in the city of Venice by the narrator and the niece unfolds in thematic counterpoint to the drifting ghost-like soprano, who sings of burning passion and drama that seem far beyond any inhabitant of that run-down palazzo.

But when the old lady dies and the niece informs the narrator that she could only imagine entrusting the trove of letters to him "if he were family", the narrator finally becomes aware of another passion to which his own for the letters has blinded him.

He immediately refuses the proposition, but then returns the next morning, chastened, willing to take the plunge, only to find that the flames of passion have become quite literal and the niece has burned all the letters ("it took quite a long time, there so many").

I think it's a beautifully constructed opera, but not the thing for someone with Puccini in mind. I look forward to hearing the Aspern Suite that Sciarrino derived from this opera, and which is available on CD and for digital download. 

This Venetian-based drama of unrequited love and of letters burnt has a second real-life counterpart, according to John Julius Norwich, in the life of Henry James himself. It was in 1887 that James began writing The Aspern Papers, while staying with the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson in Florence. Woolson was herself a published novelist and over the next few years she and James became very close. In his book, Paradise of Cities about 19th-century ex-pats in Venice,  Norwich suggests that the never-married Woolson was more than a little in love with James, and that James knew this.

In 1894 a severely-depressed Woolson committed suicide by jumping out of the top floor window of Palazzo Semitecolo. This palazzo is on the Grand Canal, across from the Giglio vaporetto stop, but she leapt not into the canal, but to the pavement in the back of the building. James was too upset by her suicide to attend her funeral, but a few months later he arranged with Woolson's sister to help her sort through the many personal articles and documents left behind by the late writer in Venice. In later life, Norwich writes, James would recount how he had himself rowed well out into the lagoon to dispose of Woolson's entire wardrobe as she requested, only to find that the clothes would not sink, no matter how he pushed at them with oars, but always rose to the surface "like vast black baloons"

The difference between James, however, and the protagonist of his Aspern Papers, is that the fiercely private James was not in Venice to salvage the many letters he'd written to Woolson during the years of their very close friendship, but to destroy them. At least according to Norwich.

The small red palazzo was once the home of Rosalba Carriera and a long-term lodging place of Henry James
After seeing Aspern, I walked to the Grand Canal to take the vaporetto home past the palazzi involved in this real-life drama of unrequited love and lost letters. The Palazzo Semitecolo, and the little red one beside the Guggenheim Museum, famous as the home of the artist Rosalba Carriera, where James stayed for the weeks he helped put "in order" the private effects of Constance Fenimore Woolson.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Loud New Low in Large Guided Tours

Because of the narrowness of most Venetian streets a good many people believe there should be a limit to the number of tourists in any single guided group, as 40 or 50 people--or even 10--plodding raggedly behind a guide's raised umbrella or flag really clogs up traffic. I understand that such mass tours are a good way to see the city for those with limited time here, but I doubt whether the passivity that such tours engender in pretty much every large tour group I've observed is actually a good way to see anything at all. It's not all that unusual to come up behind such a large group and overhear conversations more appropriate to a bored group of 10-year-old students on a forced field trip than adults who, I assume, willingly signed up for (and are paying for) their guided walk.

I thought it was bad enough that one day near the columns of the Piazzetta I overheard a guide pleading for the attention of his two dozen adult charges with, "Now I promise I'm only going to keep you a few more minutes, but I really must show you..." At this point, wouldn't it be better to simply end the tour immediately? What, I wondered, could the guide possibly be able to force-feed those followers whose attention he already knew he'd lost?

But recently I heard and saw something that struck me as worse. The sound came first, as I approached the flag poles in front of the church of San Marco: a loud insistent rapid-fire clacking like nothing I'd ever heard in the city. I stopped, looked around, and spotted a man about 20 yards from me standing and turning slowly in place, one arm above his head and feverishly working what almost appeared to be a kid's paddle ball toy, as that was the kind of short brisk motion he made. But there was no ball I could see.

About 20 yards in another direction from me a second barrage of clacking kicked up. A woman this time with what you can see in the above photo was not a paddle at all, but a plastic three-handed clapper. So now there were two of them filling one end of the piazza with their racket, each turning in his or her place, and soon what looked like nothing so much as so many stray ducklings returning from all directions in response to sharp maternal admonitions began to gather around one or the other of the clackers. And the two clackers, still wordlessly working the clappers above their heads to keep the already-returned duckings in line behind them while gathering late-comers into the brood, headed toward each other--until the entire tour group of adults (for, after all, they were indeed respectable fully-grown adults and not ducklings) and their two guides were reunited just a few feet from me and the plastic noise ceased.

Certainly, I thought, there must be a better way for a group of adults to reconvene in a certain place at a certain time. Then I imagined this group clacking its way across Italy like this, all the major stops. Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack!, this way to the Doge's Palace! Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack!, this way to Michelangelo's David! Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack!, this way through St Francis' lovely Assisi! When you returned home, would you be able to separate your guided experiences from the clacking? I don't think any tour guide should subject his or her customers to such treatment. I don't think any tourists should submit to it.