Saturday, November 30, 2013

Evviva Libreria Marco Polo! An Inspiring Tale

The proprietor of Libreria Marco Polo, Claudio, speaks with a customer
Some months ago Libreria Marco Polo was issued a multa (ticket) for posting an event flyer on a wall not far from the store. In the realm of illicit activity this hardly seems like a major offense, but the city of Venice does a brisk business in a whole array of required stamps on everything from event notices on public property to a one year lease renewal and such stamps (each of which, of course, comes at a price) are a source of revenue they're eager to protect. How eager? Well, the fine levied on Libreria Marco Polo for posting a flyer without the required city stamp was 1,000 euros.

To a bookstore--like all independent bookstores--already surviving on a narrow margin, this blow was heavy enough to almost knock it out of business. But the owners of the store decided to keep their doors open and file an appeal to the multa as unmerited and excessive.

Recently the bookstore received a response to this appeal from the city: the fine was reduced to 680 euros.

Places to sit aren't unusual in US bookstores, but this bench is the only such accommodation to readers that I've seen in a Venice bookstore; this room is almost entirely devoted to used titles in English
This was still a lot to pay for any independent bookstore, much less one whose total floor space can't run much more then 400 square feet. So last Thursday the bookstore sent out an email to its supporters asking for contributions toward the payment of the 680 euro fine.

I went to the store late the next afternoon intending to contribute and then return home to post a blog about the situation, providing the store's Paypal address to which donations could be sent anytime before December 8.

A partial view of the used and new section of Italian titles
But I was too late. When I arrived the store's owner, Claudio, told me the entire 680 euros had already been received from supporters both in person and from afar--in just a little more than 24 hours since his email had gone out.

Claudio still seemed a little surprised, maybe even a bit awed, by such a rapid and generous response, and I found myself thinking of the last scene of the Frank Capra film  It's a Wonderful Life. The last scene of that movie has often struck me as a little over the top, rather hokey--but in the bookstore, in real life, that is, the outpouring of support wasn't hokey at all, but authentically impressive.

Of course the point of that last raucous scene of communal generosity in the Capra film is to offer concrete evidence of what an important role the protagonist (portrayed by Jimmy Stewart) has played in the life of his small town, and so, too, the show of support for Libreria Marco Polo--no less marvelous, and hardly less magical (even without the films' angel character)--is a testament to the vital and inspiring role that a small independent bookstore can continue to play in the life of a city.

And I'm pleased to pass along the information that the bookstore is poised to potentially play an even bigger part in the Friday night life of this generally pretty sleepy and early-to-bed city by extending its hours on that particular evening to 11 pm. It's the only bookstore in the city to offer a late night of this sort, and it also remains the only bookstore in the city with a place for browsers to sit down and look over potential purchases or to relax and read what they've just bought. I know of no other bookstore in the city so welcoming--it even has free tea available--and if you aren't already familiar with its fine selection of used books in English, its always-interesting and provocative selection of new books in Italian, along with smaller sections of used books in Italian, French and German, I'd suggest it's worth seeking out, tucked away behind the beautiful little parish church of San Giovanni Gristostomo, a short walk from the Rialto Bridge.

Now open until 11pm every Friday night

Thursday, November 28, 2013

La Scuola Grande di San Marco Re-opens

A view of the Sala Capitolare, looking south, in the direction of the scuola's famous facade
Sandro and I happened upon the newly re-opened Scuola Grande di San Marco by accident the other day, after stopping in at the hospital to which the scuola provides the most ornamental of facades.

The ground floor grande andito, or entrance hall, of the old scuola and the present-day hospital has always been open to visitors who usually stop in for a look after visiting the nearby church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. But the space has been cleaned up, and the large wood and glass concierge's office that used to run along part of one side wall has been removed. The concierge now resides in a sleek all-glass fish-tank-like office that spans the width of the front entrance just inside the door, and leaves  the entire grande andito free of anything that might impede one's appreciation of its fine dimensions and array of lovely columns.

Of course, Sandro and I were already familiar with the ground floor; it was the upstairs that blew us away.

L'altare maggiore, designed by Sansovino, at the north end of the Sala Capitolare
Oddly enough I've yet to find out exactly how long the upstairs Sala Capitolare (aka Sala San Marco Biblioteca) had been closed. One retired Venetian I spoke to while we admired the space said it had been "years and years", even decades. Another person I spoke to later in the day, someone who's lived here for over 2 decades, said it had been just a matter of months. I know the latter claim isn't true, as I tried to see it at least a year ago and was told it was closed. But the former also seems to be off, as a 2004 guidebook I have refers to the library's beautiful carved ceiling.

In any case, its reopening was considered significant enough to merit a special civic presentation on the day of the Festa della Madonna della Salute, complete with the deputy mayor, free guided tours and live music. I missed it, but I was happy to just find complete coverage of the festivities, with photos, on the French language blog of Olia i Klod:

One thing I know is that it had to have been closed long enough, or its displays altered greatly enough, to have aroused considerable interest among Venetians, whom for the glorious present seem to be its primary visitors. "Beo!" said the retired man in Venetian while looking at the ceiling, after we'd been speaking in Italian.

The center of the Sala Capitolare's ornate ceiling
And, indeed, the ornate 1519 ceiling in the Sala Capitolare by Vettor Scienzia da Feltre and Lorenzo di Vincenzo da Trento--beautifully restored and well-lit--is stunning.

Domenico and Jacopo Tintoretto's San Marco che benedice le isole di Venezia, flanked by an annunciation by Nicolò Renieri
Alas, most of the paintings that once decorated the scuola's large Sala Capitolare and its smaller adjoining room, the Sala Dell'Albergo, were dispersed after the fall of the Republic in 1797. The walls of the latter in fact are adorned with beautiful reproductions: of at least one painting that had once certainly belonged to the scuola--of Saint Mark preaching in Alexandria, Egypt by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini that is now in the Galleria Brera in Milan--and of others on the life of Saint Mark. The Sala dell' Albergo I've left for another post, but you can see it on the link to Olia i Klod blog above.

One of the works that is known to have originally hung in the scuola is the above work San Marco che benedice le isole di Venezia by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto. This is one of three pieces by Domenico and his famous father now in the scuola in which, according to the informative nicely-produced small guide available onsite (in Italian only), the hand of the son is mostly evident. Now, while being the son of the great Tintoretto could not have been as bad as being his daughters (two of whom were cloistered, as you can read about here:, looking at the doughy modeling in the some of the three paintings here I couldn't help but feel a bit for poor Domenico who had no prayer of measuring up to his progenitor.

Domenico and Jacopo Tintoretto's Trasporto del corpo di San Marco sulla nave beside the high altar
But paintings, and copies of paintings, and architectural works by Codussi and Sansovino aren't the only things to see in la scuola. For the the space is also devoted to the history of medicine, with early printed medical texts and sometimes frightening early medical instruments, including a couple of illustrations and one unfortunate "specimen" quite likely to give an almost 6-year-old boy nightmares--if he'd seen them.

But Sandro and I kept our eyes focused on more pleasing prospects, of which there are many; some of which you can see below, more of which I'll probably inevitably post in the future, and all of which I'd suggest are worth seeing for oneself.

An anonymous life-sized 15th-century crucifixion in wood in front of the high altar
A detail from Le nozze di Cana, 1622, by Alessandro Varotari, called Padovanino
Another detail from Le nozze di Cana

An illustration from Cirurgia universale, published in Venice in 1605
A 17th-century medical text in Latin on the treatment of hemorrhoids, with some of the required instruments in foreground
Detail of an undated folio page of what appears to be a picnic gone very wrong
Among the few non-medical items on display is this 1929 model of the planned development of the island of Sacca Fisola by one U. Fantucci. Note the extensive free-standing arcades connecting the different areas.
A view of one of the three ground floor doors designed by Mauro Codussi, along with two of the 10 columns of the grande andito, or entrance hall
A view of Codussi's second entrance to his stairway up to the Sala Capitolare

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Baby, It's Cold Outside: Riva degli Schiavoni & the Dolomites This Morning

Especially for those piloting a mototopo without so much as a wind screen, much less a cabin.

I notice such things often these days, as Sandro not only persists in his plans to buy a mototopo when he turns 18 in a dozen years, but has even decided upon a name for the trasporti business he plans to start, as well as the color scheme for his fleet of boats. His play now centers around the creation of elaborate transportation networks--not only on water, but on land as well.

Well, there are certainly much worse ways to make a living than plying the lagoon like the grandfather and uncle of one of Sandro's closest friends--though, of course, such work too is largely tied into the city's tourist industry. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Festa della Madonna della Salute--and Castradina

Glancing at the Città di Venezia website just before the Festa della Madonna della Salute last Thursday I'm pretty sure my eyes swept across a phrase describing it as the least turistico of the city's holidays. This is the kind of thing I should have double-checked, but if it were there it was the last thing I wanted to know: as the most alluring marketing line one can use about anything here is that it is "the least touristic." Few phrases draw a crowd of tourists more quickly, so I'll restrain myself from mentioning any such thing about the festa and settle instead for saying that it is the only large holiday event in the city where one can conceivably hear only Italian being spoken--and that alone is worth celebrating. While it lasts.

By the time we arrived at 4 pm the church and the calle of balloons and sweets (known on every other day of the year as the Calle dei Cathecumeni) were packed. Judging by all the pushing inside the church, the Festa della Salute is not one of those holidays that puts believers into a retiring, contemplative, tread-softly-on-Mother-Earth-and-one's-neighbor's-toes kind of mood. But then again, I've been shoved much more forcefully by elderly ladies anxious to board a vaporetto so, relatively speaking, the crowd of people surging forward to have their candle(s) lit as a sign of gratitude to the Virgin for delivering the city from the plague of 1630-31, and as a little nudge for Her to keep them well for the upcoming year, wasn't so bad.

In fact, the one spot in the church where some people did turn their thoughts to Mother Earth (or at least their eyes to the ground), around a small metal disc set into the marble floor, was a small aperture of calm amid the kaleidoscopic shifting all around. There I did as Tiziano Scarpa suggests in a passage of his book Venice Is a Fish (which I've only just gotten, not yet read, and only fortuitously happened upon the morning of the feast):
On the feast of the Madonna della Salute place yourself at the exact center of the octagonal church, beneath the lead chandelier that plunges tens of meters from the dome; drag the sole of your foot across the bronze disc set into the floor, as tradition decrees, touch with the tip of your shoe the words unde origo inde salus cast into the metal: from the origin comes salvation, the origin is the earth, walking on it brings you luck, does you good; salvation rises up from the feet. 
This may be a tradition, but not one that is widely followed. There were only two or three people at a time politely awaiting their turn to stand directly upon the metal disc, upon the belly button of the church, the sacred omphalos. Everyone else had their minds on candles.

By the time I took my turn on the bronze disc, Sandro had forced Jen to take him outside to the calle of balloons and sweets--he'd had his mind on nothing else since I picked him up from school.

As 6 pm approached the wind became biting and rain began to fall, as it seems it must on this day--at least each of the three times we've celebrated it. It wasn't a bad thing, as waiting at home to warm us up this year was the castradina whose preparation I wrote about in my last post.

Some people, our neighborhood butcher revealed to Jen only yesterday, don't like the traditional dish of smoked seasoned sun-dried leg of mutton called castradina upon first bite; others come to dislike it after 2 or 3 days of its taste revisiting them due to gastric upset. According to our butcher, the shorter the preparation time, the longer (or more likely) the unpleasant after-experience. The two batches of carrots, onion and celery that one boils the meat with two different times (according to the recipe in my previous post) are present not to flavor the broth but to absorb some of the fat from the very fatty meat. That's why they're thrown out after being cooked--and why the first pot of boiled water is also thrown out--rather than kept as part of the final soup. Even if all goes well, our butcher admitted yesterday, castradina is not something you should eat more than once a year (troppo pesante, she said, too heavy). She asked Jen if she'd recommended the right amount of meat for us to buy and looked, first, happy, when Jen said it was just right, then slightly disgusted upon hearing that there was just enough of it for me to have it for lunch the day after the Festa.

Of course our butchers didn't dwell upon the digestive dangers of castradina as they told me how to prepare it, only advised me to follow the recipe carefully. And having done so, it was not at all pesante. Sandro didn't like it as soup--I think the verza (savoy cabbage) put him off--but he loved the meat once it had been removed from the broth. Jen liked the soup a lot, as did I. I'm no "foodie", nor a food writer, so I can only say I was surprised by the sweetness of the verza, like faint glimmers of Tiepolo's pale pinkish yellow in the dark smoky atmosphere of the mutton. You see, even in the finished soup I still tasted somehow the spiced smokiness of church incense I'd smelled in the castradina before cooking--something which sounds entirely unappetizing to anyone else (such as Jen), but which seems appropriately sacramental to me in a dish eaten only once a year and three days in the making.

For more on castradina and how one goes about preparing it, see:


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Ritual Dish for La Festa della Madonna della Salute, Long in the Making

Two bunches of castradine
Tomorrow night's dinner spent all of last night outside on Sandro's small balcony. That's where our butchers told us it belonged. Tonight it will probably be out on one of our window ledges.

You see I'm making castradina, the traditional Venetian dish eaten for the Festa della Madonna della Salute on November 21, and it's a three-day process to prepare it. Or I should say that it's a three-day process according to the definitive recipe dictated to me by our trustworthy neighborhood butchers who have never yet, if you'll pardon the expression, given us a bum steer (as they say in America).

Of course this being Italy, there's no lack of other equally "definitive" recipes for castradina, some suggesting you can be done with the whole thing in a single day, or even a couple of hours. According to our butchers, restaurants often use a truncated version of the preparation process with results that are schifoso--disgusting, and prone to a certain gelatinous quality. I'm doing my best to avoid producing anything schifoso.

A castradina displayed on greens in our neighborhood butcher shop
 Castradina itself, as many of you perhaps already know, is a smoked, spiced sun-dried leg of mutton. Originally a product of Dalmatia, the Balkans and Albania, the first reference to it being eaten in Venice goes back to the 11th century. It is eaten on the Festa della Salute to commemorate those "Schiavoni" who were the last people to supply Venice with food either just before the city quarantined itself because of the awful plague of 1630-31 or while the plague raged (I've read both versions). The plague, that is, from which the festa gives thanks to Mary for the city's deliverance.  

A handwritten sign alerting customers that our husband and wife pair of butchers were now accepting orders for castradina appeared in our nearby macelleria in early November, but I really thought nothing of it until last week when two castradine took up their places--looking rather like sculptural objects--in the center of the butcher case.

Actually, what they resembled were ritual objects that in recent years have been displayed in museums and gallery shows as sculptural objects: the African power objects known as a boliw (or boli, if there's only one). These abstracted buffalo-shaped figures are in the words of the Rand African Art website, "complex creations created from esoteric recipes." Rather like the castradina themselves.

The inedible ritual object known as a boli from Mali
For castradine, our butchers tell us, are cured and seasoned according to esoteric recipes that go back generations and are never shared. The particular batch of castradine from which ours came did not (as in the days of the Republic) originate across the Adriatic, but on the terra ferma of the Veneto region, yet our butchers could no more tell us what seasonings were used, which particular types of wood it was smoked with, and what the exact process of its production was than they could give us the exact details of that first dish of castradina mentioned in 11th-century Venice.

They could tell us that our castradina was produced during the month of July in the most impressive and traditional cantina they've seen, and that they think the older man who did so makes the best-tasting castradina of any they've tried.

Now, the boli are definitely not made to be eaten, built up as they are of various animal and vegetable matter, mud and clay, and coated as they are with successive layers of ritualistic materials such as animal blood, millet porridge, alcohol and chewed kola nuts. Rather it was the abstracted shape of the castradina that made me think of them, and the castradina's dense surface layer built up over time in a series of secret steps and composed of mysterious substances.

And I'd hate to think what a boli might smell like if one put one's nose up to it... Our castradina smelled to me more woodsy than simply smoky; more gamey, somehow, than meaty--redolent more of pheasant, say, than salami. It smelled kind of nice--but not necessarily like food. It reminded me, in fact, of the incense I remembered from the Catholic funeral masses I served as an altar boy, and that I sometimes still catch a fugitive drift of in churches here.

Sliced castradina ready to be put into the pot
In any case, the first day of my three-day preparation required me simply to put the cut-up pieces of castradina given to me by the butcher into a large pot with water, a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery and boil it for 2 hours. When two hours were up, I put a lid on it, secured the lid with a bungee cord, and left it out overnight on Sandro's balcony.

Can't I just put it in the fridge overnight? I asked.

No, I was told, they didn't have refrigerators when this dish was developed.

This evening I brought the pot inside, spooned the fat off the surface of the water and disposed of it, took out the pieces of meat, then threw out the water and vegetables. Then I once more put the meat into the pot, added a cut up carrot, stick of celery, and onion, covered them all with water and set it to boil for an hour.

When it's done, I'll once more close up the pot and place it outside.

Then tomorrow evening, I'll bring the pot in, and once more skim the fat off the surface of the water and throw out all vegetables. I'll take the meat out of the broth, set it aside, then filter the broth.

I'll then separate the meat from the bones using my hands--NOT a knife, they emphasized--and throw away the bones.

Then I'll slice verza--ie, savoy cabbage--very thinly, and an onion very thinly. These vegetables I'll put into the broth with the meat and cook for 30-40 minutes.

I believe olive oil also comes into play tomorrow, but I need to stop by the macelleria and ask them about it. They dictated the recipe to me in Italian, I was writing it in English--by the time we reached the final steps I figured I could come back and ask about the olive oil.

I have no idea how this will turn out; how it will work out as a recipe. But as a community-building ritual I can imagine few things more effective. When I went to buy the required vegetables yesterday, I had only to mention the verza, or cabbage, to the green grocer on Via Garibaldi for him to list the rest of the things I'd need. Beside me I heard a woman asking for the same ingredients. For a brief moment we all seemed to be on the same page in the long history of Venice.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Estate di San Martino on the Grand Canal

Catching a ride home from school during the official Estate di San Martino
In the prior two autumns we've lived here we somehow missed encountering the idea of Estate di San Martino, which is the Italian version of what Americans call "Indian summer": that evanescent span of sunny temperate weather that returns after the first signs of autumn like a soft brief reprise of summer in a minor chord--before winter blows in as the dominant theme.

The feast of San Martino is November 11, and if you're not familiar with how it's celebrated in Venice you can find some images of this year's activity here:, or, from a previous year, here:

But this year the 3-day strike of taxi and transport drivers seemed to create (at least metaphorically) a second specifically aquatic Estate di San Martino on the Grand Canal. In the absence of the usual heavy traffic, the Grand Canal seemed to be infused with a soft glowing tranquility--even in the gloom and rain of the third day of the strike last Friday. And the main reason this unusual calm resonated so much with Venetians is that they knew perfectly well that, like Estate di San Martino or Indian summer, it would not and could not last.

In fact, by Saturday morning the strike was over. No concessions were made to strikers, Mayor Orsoni proudly announced, the new rules governing traffic on the Grand Canal would be implemented in full, as planned--though the city would be open to making minor adjustments to them if needed to assure their better functioning.

So Estate di San Martino in both senses is truly over. But we can hope that a bit more calm (and safety) in the Grand Canal is here to stay.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Prayer of the Motoscafista (or Water Taxi Driver)

Striking trasportatori (transport drivers) crowd the entrance to Ca' Farsetti this morning, where they hoped to meet with the city council; beside them the waters of the Grand Canal are unusually calm in the absence of their boats
Though there are a few mototopi (or large transport boats) to be seen on the water now (for example, those bringing supplies to pharmacies), and a few taxis, the strike by most drivers of these types of boats continues. The drivers are protesting rules that restrict, among other things, their use of the Grand Canal to certain hours of the day. The restrictions (or "26 Points") are the city council's attempt to reduce the kind of excessive and dangerous traffic on the canal that led to the fatal collision of a vaporetto and a gondola last August.

But while the strike may make some people appreciate the city's dependence on the transport boats that carry goods and supplies to businesses, the strike has also clearly had what local activist Michela Scibilia called a "boomerang" effect on water taxi drivers. Most Venetians seem quite happy to be rid of them, and yesterday morning the mocking "Preghiera del motoscafista" or "Prayer of the Water Taxi Driver" (below) could be found taped up all around the long commercial thoroughfare of Strada Nuova.

Preghiera del motoscafista
Caro e dolce Gesù bambino
Che esaudisci i desideri di ogni piccino
Ascolata la nostra accorata preghiera:
Riaprici il Canal Grande de mattina a sera!
Che it limiti salgano a dieci e poi a venti
Per farci sfrecciare felici e contenti
Che Battelli e Lancioni affondino tutti:
"Il Canal xe nostro, brutti farabutti!"
Se poi ti avanza qualcosa da fare
Le carte di credito aiuta a bruciare.
Sia mai che salga il fatturato
E qualcosa finisca, Buon Dio, dichiarato.

Aiutaci infine coi veneziani
Non ci capiscono, son disumani.
I nostri prezzi non voglion pagare
Col trasporto di linea si ostinan a viaggiare.

Il gasolio costa, i nostri vizi pure
Le nostre condizioni di vita son sempre più dure.
E purtroppo accade che anche quaggiù
Ci sian motoscafisti poveri come Gesù.
My quick rough translation:
Dear sweet baby Jesus
Who grants the wishes of every little child
Hear our sorrowful prayer:
Re-open the Grand Canal from morning to night!

Raise the speed limit to ten and then to twenty,
So we can race about happy and content,
And sink every one of the vaporetti and tour boats:
"The canal is ours, you ugly soundrels!"

The next thing you could do
Is help to burn all credit cards
So receipts would never be a problem
And declared income, Good God, would be finished.

Help us finally with the Venetians,
Who don't understand us, and are cruel.
They don't want to pay our prices
And insist on taking vaporetti.

Gasoline costs a lot, as do our vices,
Our quality of life becomes ever more hard,
And unfortunately what's happening down here
Is that we taxi drivers are becoming as poor as Jesus. 
I imagine the taxi drivers were probably hoping for a little more public support, or at least less outright hostility, than the above satire evinces.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Venetians to Striking Taxi Drivers Today: "Don't Hurry Back!"

An extremely rare sight: the whole length of the Riva with not a single supply or work boat moored alongside it this morning
The typical kind of sciopero or strike in Venice--by vaporetti crews--leaves most Venetians frustrated and muttering, struggling to find ways to get where they need to go. Today's strike by taxi drivers and mototopi (the large work boats that carry supplies of every kind around the city) left most ordinary Venetians with a sense of well-being and peace that they'd forgotten was even possible.

The taxi drivers and mototopi drivers went on strike to protest the new 26-point plan of the city to increase water safety on the Grand Canal after the death of a German tourist riding in a gondola last August. The striking drivers believe that the new regulations come down particularly hard on them, reducing their freedom of movement on the Grand Canal (you can read the entire plan, in Italian, here:

Though a green garbage boat is on the job, the grocery supply boats usually occupying this stretch of the Riva are absent
Now, the prospect of a city in which no mototopi are running is not especially pleasant, as that means no grocery deliveries to stores, no laundry pick-up from the hotels, no beverages or other supplies for bars and restaurants and so on. The taxis, on the other hand... Taxi drivers don't seem to be especially popular with Venetians who don't happen to be related to them. Aside from a certain arrogance by which many of them can be identified even far from their boats, aside from their reputation for shirking taxes beyond even what the typically-tax-shirking Italian finds acceptable, they are basically of no use to the average Venetian, who never takes a taxi.

The Riva in its entirety belonged to fishermen today
In fact, to paraphrase a remark that was first said about the infamously exasperating actress Tallulah Bankhead, the "threat" of a day without taxis on the lagoon couldn't help but sound to most residents of Venice like the sweet promise of a month in the country. (And, happily for us, there was little chance of any renegade strike-breaking taxis, as the drivers had warned that any such behavior would result in the driver's boat being burned.) No, it was the specter of deprivation conjured up by the absence of supply boats that was supposed to fill us all with fear and ruin our day today.

But I have to tell you, it really didn't. On the contrary, though no one would hope that the supplies to the city might be cut off for an extended period of time, the absence of all those boats tearing or plowing though the city reminded everyone just how beautiful this place can be. It was a reminder of the Venice that existed into the 1960s, the decade during which motorized supply boats finally replaced craft that, until that time, were still rowed, as they had been for centuries. A reminder of the Venice that existed even more recently than that, before the new economy of mass tourism immensely increased not only the number of big ships coming into the lagoon, but the number of work boats required to supply and clean up after tourists, as well as the lancioni granturismi (those large boats that shuttle 50-, 100- or 150-person tourist groups from their tour buses or cruise liners into the city for a few hours then back out). And a reminder, as a Venetian (René Seindal) noted on Facebook, of the primary sources of the damaging moto ondoso: the unrelenting wakes that wear away the city's canals and foundations. (Seindal wrote: "Grazie allo sciopero dei trasportatori ed i tassisti sappiamo ora chi fa la stragrande parte del moto ondoso in canale grande.")

This afternoon Sandro and I caught a ride home from his school in a friend's motorized topa and I can tell you first-hand that the Grand Canal, as well as the small canals all over town, were calmer than I've ever seen them--even on a Sunday or holiday, when, after all, taxis still ply the waters. But you don't need to take my word for it, I attach three short clips from the online version of a local newspaper, La Nuova Venezia (the first one entitled "How Beautiful Venice Is 'Liberated' from Taxis":

So, though I'm not sure whether today's strike will make anyone think twice about the supposed hardships that the city's 26-point safety plan imposes on the drivers of taxis and mototopi, I do think it's reminded more than a few Venetians of the deleterious effects that such craft tend to have on the city itself.

The strike, alas, did not affect the lancioni granturismi, who spewed day-tripper as usual

Saturday, November 9, 2013

William Dean Howells--and Others--in Palazzo Falier on the Grand Canal

Taking the sun in one of Palazzo Falier's two projecting sun rooms
I should confess upfront that I went to Palazzo Falier yesterday with at least as much interest in the 19th-century American writer, critic and editor William Dean Howells, who once lived there, as in the installation (or "over-all intervention") by Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis that it currently houses. I also went simply to see the inside of one of the more charming facades on the Grand Canal, because, as every curious admirer of Venice knows, the various "collateral events" of the Biennale offer temporary access to buildings otherwise closed to such visits (or such snooping, as the case may be).

A view of one of Palazzo Falier's liatì (and the Grand Canal), as seen from the other
In addition to a fine location on the Grand Canal, a short distance from the Accademia Bridge, Palazzo Falier is notable for its two upper-story liatì, or what we might today call sun rooms, that project symmetrically from either side of its gothic-arched 15th-century facade to the very edge of the water. Its leaded windows (which evoke a distant century to us) are rather recent additions, but the wings themselves, which were for a time thought to have been 19th-century additions, are now believed to also date back to the 15th century.

And what marvelous spaces those two projecting windowed rooms are! I spent a long time admiring them, imagining (erroneously, as it turns out) that Howells had used one to write in. Then a white cat, whom I'd seen out in the back garden when I first arrived, sauntered in and made the more elaborate of the two liatì her own. And as I watched her arrange herself to best enjoy the sun, I realized that for the first time in my life I was seeing the grand hauteur evident in the attitudes of even the mangiest cats in the most humble contexts displayed in a room entirely appropriate to it. Forget about some old achey-backed, bleary-eyed, inky-fingered writer toiling away in a room like this--this room was made for the imperial and luxurious manner of a cat!

The interior of the second sun room
So it was just as well that Howells never actually spent a minute in this room or, as it turns out, even lived on this floor. The palazzo has gone through many renovations since the couple of years in the early 1860s that Howells spent here as US consul to Venice. The piano nobile presently serves as the headquarters of Veneto Sviluppo, and is largely devoid of charm. But Howells actually lived on the floor below, I found out when I returned home and began reading his book Venetian Life.

In this image and the one below: 2 views of Pedro Cabrita Reis's "over-all intervention" in Palazzo Falier
You see, I'd always known Howells only by reputation and association (Mark Twain was a long-time friend of his), and I found myself prodded into actually reading him only after seeing that I could visit the palazzo he'd once lived in. It turns out that, based upon the 25% or so of Venetian Life I've read so far, he's a great writer, with a gift for sharp description and a lively sense of paradox that makes him a particularly able observer not only of a Venice still in thrall to the hated Austrians--while the rest of newly-unified Italy struggles with the difficult (and, alas, ongoing) challenge of governing itself--but to the workings of his own mind as it reacts to this marvelous city. He's well aware of the seemingly irreconcilable distance between, on the one hand, the scenes of hopeless poverty he so vividly describes and, on the other, his ever-returning sense of the city as an incomparably beautiful dream realm. He's aware of his own romantic and even sentimental flights of fancy about the city (to a much greater extent than, for example, the young Jan Morris), and this self-awarereness--never obsessive, labored or indulgent (in the contemporary style)--is part of the drama in the book. And he presents the best all-around depiction of daily life in 19th-century Venice--how people shopped, how people heated (or didn't) their houses, how people dressed and worked (or didn't) and relaxed and interacted--than any I've read. Much more incisive and far-ranging, though I almost hate to admit it, than Henry James.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Venetian Life after I've read it all, but for the moment I'll just present two of his own descriptions of Palazzo Falier as he knew it:

"We were not in the appartamento signorile--that was above--but we were more snugly quartered on the first story from the ground-floor, commonly used as a winter apartment in the old times. But it had been cut up, and suites of rooms had been broken according to the caprice of successive landlords, till it was not at all palatial any more. The upper stories still retained something of former grandeur, and had acquired with time more than former discomfort. We were not envious of them, for they were humbly let at a price less than we paid: though we could not quite repress a covetous yearning for their arched and carven windows, which we saw sometimes from the canal, above the tops of the garden trees."

"As for our Dalmation friends [a Dalmatian family that lived in the appartamento signorile], we met them and bowed to them a great deal, and we heard them overhead in frequent athletic games, involving the noise as of the maneuvering of cavalry; and as they stood a good deal on their balcony, and looked down upon us on ours, we sometimes enjoyed seeing them admirably foreshortened like figures in a frescoed ceiling."

The complete text of Howell's Venetian Life (along with many other great titles) can be downloaded free-of-charge at the Project Gutenburg website:

Autumn in the little garden of Palazzo Falier, as seen from the top of the outdoor stairs leading to the first floor
But what about the art installation? you may ask. Well it made me wonder if--just as there have been times (the 1970s, for example) and circles (eg, conceptual artists) in which the practice of painting was the object of such scorn as to make its adherents quite sheepish--there will ever come a day when installations of this sort, of "artless" everyday building materials arrayed artfully around gallery spaces will also come to be considered so played out, so easy, and even so sentimental as to be beneath bothering with?

Yes, as has by now been well-documented, even the most minimal "intervention" in a certain kind of space can radically alter our perception of it. But so can the unexpected appearance of a cat from outdoors. And though it's been a long time since anyone accused me of being a "cat person," yesterday I found myself preferring the cat.

A panorama of the garden of Palazzo Falier

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Symphonic Season at La Fenice Began Tonight

Conductor Diego Matheuz and the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice take a bow after tonight's performance of works by Pärt, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. The second and last performance of this same program takes place Sunday, 11 November. For more information and tickets visit