Monday, December 30, 2013

Colors (and Tastes) of the Holiday Season

Some kids dream of sugar plum fairies, others have their minds on marzipan (or "frutta finta", as Sandro calls it).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

On the Feast of Santo Stefano, As It Was, Never Was, and Is

The Festa di Santo Stefano was, according to William Dean Howells (who takes his information from Giustina Renier-Michiel's Origine delle Feste Veneziane), "one of the rare occasions of the year when the Doge appeared officially in public after nightfall." Each year on this day, December 26, the Doge boarded a magnificent ship (though not the grand il Bucintoro) and, accompanied by a beautifully-lanterned flotilla of nobles and other citizens, made his way across the basin of San Marco to the church of San Giorgio to pay his respects to the body of the martyr buried there.

The photos of this post (and the lone image of my December 13 post) were taken exactly two weeks ago, at about 4 in the afternoon, far down the Riva from the Doge's old residence, but I was assured by one of the people filming the short ceremony that it was meant to commemorate the Doge's annual mini-pilgrimage.

Sandro and I were walking home from his school and it was the bagpiper that first got our attention. I sincerely doubt that bagpipers were involved in the traditional ceremony of December 26--though it was a nice addition to a foggy afternoon. And when the Doge, after freeing himself from what appeared to be some rather complicated state business on his cell phone, boarded the waiting ship (Il Nuovo Trionfo), it was not to be taken across the basin to San Giorgio Maggiore but to simply pay his brief respects to a living presepe, or manger scene.

At this point I asked another member of the small film crew what was going on, but he'd hardly gotten much beyond what the previous guy had told me about how the Doge used to visit San Giorgio Maggiore when Sandro started complaining quite insistently that he was cold and tired and wanted to continue on our way home.

So, really, I don't know exactly what was going on, or for what purpose, aside from that it was a St Stephen's Day rite on a day that was not St Stephen's Day and that bore almost no relation to the traditional rite.

But it did remind me that one of the still-observed traditions of this day in Venice is for Venetian families to take a walk to see some of the local presepe, and this is why I post these images today: not so much as a picturesque celebration in costume of what used to be done during the long centuries of the late great Republic, but of what remains alive today.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holiday Cheer This Evening: Buying Wine "Alla Spina" in Cannaregio

For those interested, I should note that this little wine shop (which is even smaller than it appears in these images shot with a wide angle lens) is located beside the Cinema Giorgione, a short distance from the church of Sant' Apostoli (heading in the direction of I Gesuiti). Upon the recommendation of a local friend, I ended up purchasing 4 liters of prosecco (frizzante, not firma) here, one liter of Raboso del Piave, and one liter of Pinot Nero for a Christmas day party we were going to attend. All alla spina, or "on tap". 

The total cost: 17 euro.

If you'd like to carry your wine home in glass bottles, you should be sure to bring your own clean empty ones. Otherwise wine alla spina will be dispensed into previously-used plastic water bottles, or, if you're willing to pay an additional 40 centesimi per liter, into new bottles shaped like those typically used for wine--but still made out of plastic. (I sprung for two such bottles for the red wines, mistakenly thinking they were glass.)

It's not unusual for the Italians I've met here to have very very precise notions about where and from whom to buy any and everything--from coda di rospo (tail of monkfish) to finocchio (fennel) to outboard motors. Each of the small wine shops you see around Venice get their wine alla spina from their own specific cantina (the name and location of which will be posted). When I arrived on Christmas day with the wine I asked my host, who's originally from Bologna but has lived in Venice for 5 years, why he'd specifically directed me to this wine shop. It certainly wasn't convenient to where he (or I) lived.

It turned out he'd gotten the recommendation from a mutual acquaintance of ours, a native Venetian but, even more crucially, a gondoliere. For, as my friend explained, this gondoliere lived no closer to this wine shop than either of us did, but as gondoliers famously drink dappertutto (everywhere) they can always be counted on to know the best places in the city to get whatever kind of alcohol you're thirsty for.

And though I can't pretend to know the first thing about wines, or to vouch for the taste of anyone at the party, all of the wines I brought seemed to go over quite well. For just 2.10 euro for a liter of Raboso, you may want to try it yourself.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Il Presepe che Viene dal Mare, Punta della Dogana This Evening

From tonight until January 6, Il Nuovo Trionfo, the beautifully restored trabaccolo docked beside the Punta della Dogana, will be lit up for the holidays. The trabaccolo is a traditional Venetian boat dating back to the first half of the 15th century (according to Wikipedia), which were common throughout the Adriatic into the 20th century. Il Nuovo Trionfo itself was first launched in 1926.

For much more about Il Nuovo Trionfo, including its history and its restoration, visit the website:

As far as presepi (or manger scenes) go, the one displayed aboard Il Nuovo Trionfo is quite simple--just two-dimensional silhouettes--but the lights strung around the ship make for a lovely sight when viewed, say, from the molo near the Palazzo Ducale.

Supporters of Il Nuovo Trionfo gather tonight to celebrate the initial lighting of the presepe

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Regata del Panettone of the Remiera Francescana

Races are often won or lost in the turn around the buoy, where things can get awfully crowded
The fourth annual Regata del Panettone of the Remiera Francescana in Castello took place this past Sunday morning. There were three races in all. The first race, the Donne e Campioni, paired a woman member of the club with one of the club's agoniste (or competive male rowers). The second race was between pairs of male rowers who were not agoniste but Amatori ("lovers" in the original sense of "amateur"). The third race, for Ragazzi, pitted pairs of the club's teen members against each other. Contrary to traditional regate, in which pairs of rowers are self-selected and have typically trained together for extended periods of time, the rowers in these heats were matched up by a drawing held the week before the event. The aim of the regata is to give less experienced rowers the chance to sample competition, but in a spirit of good fellowship and fun--two elements that aren't always present, or at least foremost, in some of the more venerable regate of Venice.

The course was a simple one, laid out in the lagoon north of the Arsenale and the Celestia vaporetto stop, which required rowers to go most of the way to Murano before making a turn around a yellow buoy and heading back to where they began. I missed the race of the ragazzi, but while both the eventual winners of the Donne e Campioni and the Amatori had comfortable enough leads to allow them plenty of room to make the turn homeward, those rowers behind them had to struggle with some heavy traffic, as you can see in the photo at top. And the race for third and fourth place pennants in the former heat came down to a photo finish (as you can see toward the bottom of this page).

After the races came the awards ceremony; after that, some rewards for everyone else (even non-competing members with cameras, such as myself): bigoli in salsa and, among other beverages, a cask of home-made desert wine. As the saying goes, there were no losers.   

The calm before the competition; the remiera is located within the Arsenale
Each forcola (oarlock) is wedged tightly into place with pennule (small wood splints); bad positioning of the forcola, or pennule that come loose, will also cost you a race
Rowing toward the starting line
And they're off! (above and below)

The eventual winners of each race have plenty of real estate to make their turns (above and below)

Sempre paparazzi!
Heading toward the finish, and fighting fatigue (above and below)

A photo finish
A well-deserved break after finishing second
A cup full of prizes: the smaller for i ragazzi, the triangular pennants for adults

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Handle with Care: Titian's Masterpiece Finally Returns to I Gesuiti

After an absence of two years, Titian's masterpiece The Martyrdom of St Lawrence was reinstalled in the church of Santa Maria Assunta (aka I Gesuiti) in Cannaregio yesterday morning. It underwent an extensive year-long restoration in Piemonte and then, after returning for a short stint at the Accademia here in Venice, spent last spring in Rome as part of a big Titian show at Scuderie del Quirinale.

The restoration was funded by the Bank of Alba and according to an article in last May's Telegraph, was done just in time: "saving it," according to one of the restorers, from falling into "an irretrievable state." In the course of the restoration, experts also believe they discovered a hitherto unnoticed self-portrait by the artist, long-obscured by the accumulated grime of passing time and perhaps also by a sloppy attempt at restoration by the French 200 years ago after Napoleon looted it from Venice and took it to Paris:

In other words, even if you've seen the painting before, you've probably never seen the painting as it appears now.

The restoration was performed by Nicola Restauri in Aramengo, in the province of Asti, and the workshop's website is informative, nicely put together, and worth a look if you're at all interested in restoration. It's also in both Italian and English:

I'd been waiting to see this painting, widely considered to be one of Titian's greatest, for over a year; ever since someone affiliated with the church had told me one day last fall that it was due to return in a couple of weeks. I've been checking in at the church periodically ever since. This past Monday I stopped in, with very low expectations, and found a pulley rigged up at the top of the tall niche in the first chapel on the left and a few workers cleaning up the space. "Tornerà il Tiziano?" I asked one of them, expecting to be disappointed. "," he replied, "domani mattina."

Which is how I happened to be in the church for the re-installation.

It was, at least for me, a fascinating and admirable process to watch: the care and the skill and the coordination of it all. And perhaps I admired the workers and their expertise and calmness and sure hands even more because I've had to do some fine art handling myself in the past.

For a time I worked for a magazine in New York whose quality (it published Nobel Prize winners such as Nadine Gordimer and Naguib Mahfouz, along with pieces by other folks like Michael Cunningham and photos by the likes of Nan Goldin) was equaled by its unconventionality. Its office was in an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just a short way down the hall from where its founder/publisher/art director lived. He was one of the most unique people I've ever met--while making no effort to be so--and a man of remarkable humility and kindness. But sometimes the stress of publishing a magazine could get even to him, and the more stressed he got the more anxious I (who acted as his assistant) became.

Not because he would, as was and is only too common for someone in his position, fly into rages and start abusing his staff. He never bore any resemblance to a devil in Prada (which he didn't wear).

No, when his stress had finally reached an absolutely unbearable level he--and how I dreaded this!--he started re-decorating his apartment.

It was hell.

Not because he was a bad decorator. No, he was extraordinarily, famously gifted in that regard. The problem is that he'd inherited a collection of major modern art works from his parents, who'd been collectors, and I would be called upon to help him move them about his cramped apartment.

Now, the Matisse bronze--one of only three copies in the world, if I remember correctly--he could move with no help from me, along with the small de Kooning canvas. The massive Rothko, of the type that was easily going for between 8 and 10 million dollars at that time, luckily required more wall space than the apartment offered in any place other than where it already was. But the large major canvases by Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet...!  

The last thing I wanted to do was touch them, much less have to carry one end of either of them through an obstacle course of couches, a pair of vivid blue leather club chairs from the Paris flea market, a fiendishly low amoeba-shaped one-of-a-kind artwork coffee table which seemed to be especially designed to trip people up....

There are professional art handlers in New York who do this kind of thing for a living: people with the steady nerves of surgeons and a comparable amount of insurance coverage. I had neither.

So I watched the re-installation of the great Titian yesterday with a certain amount of awe, inspired not simply by the painting itself, but by the people who handled that truly irreplaceable 15-foot-high canvas. Hugely happy to finally be seeing the painting in person for the first time--and equally happy not to be any way involved in putting it up.

Monday, December 9, 2013

On Practical Beauty in Venice and Christmas Trees

When it came time to buy our Christmas tree this past weekend we once again had to do so without the use of a boat, which Sandro, who seems to have a native Venetian's strict sense of life's essential proprieties, found to be a galling (if not downright humiliating) lack last December. You see, like many good Venetians, Sandro fervently believes that anything one needs to do should be done in one's own boat, and that for every job or errand there is an appropriate boat.

Last Christmas season he declared that nothing less than a mototopo--one of the long workboats you see transporting pallets of groceries or a mountain of hotel laundry bags or a ton of construction materials--would serve to carry home our five-foot-high tree. Of course, as we didn't (and don't) even have a small outboard motorboat, there really wasn't much chance we'd spring for a mototopo to perform this annual errand, no matter how many other tasks Sandro assured us it would be extremely useful for.

This year, however, in spite of our continuing lack of any boat at all, he didn't complain. For while we still didn't have a mototopo, we did have a brand-new bright red heavy-duty carrello, or hand truck, which is the primary accessory of every mototopo--and at least as important as a pair of shoes for anyone determined to really get things done in this car-free walkaday world of Venice.

For hardly less picturesque to most visitors than the fact that the "streets" here are canals and the "cars" and "buses" are boats, is the sight of grocery store inventory and garbage collection being delivered and picked up, respectively, with hand carts. It's something that even the hurrying hordes of day-trippers to the city can't help but notice in their few hours here, but none with the detailed observation Sandro has devoted to such human-powered trolleys for the last year. He notes (and comments on) not just general differences in size, shape and color, but variations in the circumference and number and position of wheels, between rounded tubular construction and solid steel frames, and between the different lengths and styles of nose plates and how they're mounted.

Visitors have long made pilgrimages to Venice as a realm of Art, looking to leave behind the ordinary and everyday and earth-bound, but most Venetians I've met are far more practical-minded. Sure, you can wax rhapsodic about Tintoretto or Monteverdi with them if that's what floats your own boat, but Sandro seems to have bonded far more genuinely with most Venetian men we know because of his profound interest in every single step in the process of getting real solid objects from one place to another.

I see, for example, a neighbor in the street, the grandfather of one of Sandro's closest friends and the owner of a trasporti (freight moving) company, and ask him how he's doing. "Bene," he replies, "sempre bene." I see him another time and remark upon the extreme weather of recent days. He replies simply that he takes things as they come. On yet another day I encounter him as I'm walking with Sandro and then, finally, we actually have some common interests to discuss: mototopi and carrelli and the like. Or, rather, he and Sandro do.

It's a marvelous life here for Sandro: physical and material in a way that no other city I know could, on a regular matter-of-fact un-fetishized basis, offer a child his age. At this time of year when we're supposed to reflect on our blessings, I consider this one of mine: that in this ever-more virtual and disembodied world my son has the chance to grow up in this odd car-less city, where a 5-year-old boy can make a convincing argument that a real hand-truck is exactly what he needs, not just as a toy, but as a necessity. As he did argue for the last year.

Posing with his new hand-truck in front of SS Giovanni e Paolo
True, the helpful man at the hardware store near the basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo where we bought it last week suggested a slightly lighter tubular-framed one, with a load capacity still far greater than any Sandro would be able to manage for a good dozen years. But Sandro insisted on the solid steel-framed one he'd settled upon weeks before as being solely adequate to the demands--many of them make-believe--that he'd place upon it.

Of course he struggled to pull it up the steps of the large Ponte Cavallo in front of the basilica and Ospedale Civile just after we bought it, for it weighed not much less than he did. And there were some challenges getting it down the other side as well, as the weight of it threatened to get away from him and pull him flapping behind it like a flag tied to its hand grips. But once this first substantial obstacle had been bested and we paused for a rest, he leaned against his hand truck and sighed, "This is a dream come true."

So the dreamy red heavy-duty hand truck we used to pick up our potted Christmas tree and transport it the long distance home from the seasonal tree market beside the church of San Felice in Cannaregio was the one he'd just gotten for his sixth birthday and it did, indeed, prove to be quite useful. I pulled the tree-laden hand truck up and down the bridges we crossed, but Sandro managed it the rest of the time, pulling it behind him down Strada Nova and then through Sant' Elena after we got off the vaporetto as though he were a cart horse. A very happy cart horse.

He was happy, too, to be seen laboring in this way by the guys at our neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand. Guys for whom, like him, hand trucks are a daily part of their lives. Practical hard-working Venetian guys, like him. But who, unlike him, probably don't sleep with their hand trucks standing snugly against the side of their beds.

Monday, December 2, 2013

V is for Vandal on the Accademia Bridge

A visitor to Venice stands proudly beside her own small contribution to the city's culture
Last Saturday I was walking across the Accademia Bridge when I saw a young woman squatting beside one of its stainless steel hand rails, small brass lock in hand, preparing to attach it. Two other women stood beside her, one with a dslr camera around her neck, and they were all speaking English. I hesitated, then paused beside them and said, "You know what you're about to do is illegal, and it's something that Venetians really hate."

They all looked at me, as if not quite sure I was talking to them--as I had, after all, just interrupted their conversation out of nowhere--so I basically repeated what I'd just said, with a little additional elaboration on the fact that Venetians really didn't appreciate all these locks.

The two dark-haired standing women didn't respond in any way, but the blond woman squatting beside the railing turned to look up at me and said with an expression of obvious annoyance, "You know, I'm just trying to have a nice experience here and you're really ruining it for me."

I was a bit stunned, almost pleasantly stunned, though not surprised. On the contrary, the odd sense of what I'd call something like pleasure, along with a certain disgust, came precisely because of her honesty in admitting to exactly the kind of self-absorption I always imagined motivated those who attached locks to the bridge. In that moment I was filled with a certain perverse admiration for this woman for being so forthright. In fact, I could write a post simply about the astonishing level of entitled self-absorption that characterizes the worst visitors to Venice--or any other place--but Robert C Davis and Garry R Marshall examine this tendency and its socio-historical background so well in their book The Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World's Most Touristed City that I'd only be repeating (dully) what they've already done much better and with well-documented support.

As they write on the first pages of their book:
" is enough to remember that for most of the world Venice is not a real city, with a real city's inhabitants and contraints, but a backdrop and a stage for one's gaze, emotions, and passions. Moreover, it is a place seemingly made for intrigue and romance, a labyrinth of narrow streets and waterways that positively invites transgression on the assumption that nobody is watching, or at least nobody that matters."
Indeed, whether I "mattered" or not was the next topic that came up in this little discussion between the blond woman with the lock and myself. For after I said something along the lines that while I might be "ruining her experience" she was ruining the bridge for Venetians, she asked, "Are you a Venetian?"

Now, if someone had asked me this question after I'd lived for 3 years in New York City I would have had no trouble simply replying "Yes." But it's different here, and so I said, "I'm an Italian citizen and I've lived in Venice for three years but, no, my grandparents came from other parts of Italy."

She looked like she'd just proved an important point, so I added, "But what does that matter? What you're doing is against the law, it's ugly, not to mention tacky and unoriginal, and it's something that everyone who lives here hates. It's a stupid act of vandalism. It costs money to remove all these locks, which the city doesn't have, so private individuals have to come along and cut them off. Which they will do, you know, probably in about a month. Your lock will be gone in a month."

"That's okay," she said, "I don't care if it's cut off. But I might have listened to you if you were really a Venetian, but since you're not..."

"I've lived here for three years," I replied. "What difference does that make?" But she, still squatting with the open lock in her hand, still itching to have her marvelous "Venetian experience" documented by her friend with the camera, had hit upon what she considered irrefutable justification for doing what she would have done anyway.

"Okay," I said, "next time I'll be sure to bring a Count along with me."

"Yes," she replied, "you do that."

I walked off, but I'd barely started my descent down the Campo San Vio side of the bridge when I realized I had to take photograph of this woman, if she'd allow me.

I returned and said, "Sorry to interrupt again, but I have a blog and I've done a couple of posts about the problem of all the locks on this bridge, and wondered about what kind of person does it, so I'd love to take a photo of you for my blog, as an example of a person who commits this kind of vandalism."

She agreed readily, heartily. Part of me wondered if she didn't dare do otherwise, so as not to ruin the effect she was trying to make upon her two observing and (ideally) admiring friends, who hadn't opened their mouths during the whole discussion. Perhaps it was her role to be the "wild one" of the trio, to wow her two silent dark-haired friends with her verve and brashness. But I was probably over-psychologizing, and it wasn't my business to figure her out anyway. I just wanted to be sure she knew that I would post this photo online as an illustration of someone who did something that no Venetian, nor most lovers of Venice, admired. I repeated this to her.

"Fine," she replied, "go ahead," and struck the pose you see above, making the V sign with her fingers, not as a sign of peace (certainly not that), but to signify--as she laughed with her friends--"vandal."

I took the photo, then displayed it on the camera's screen to show her. "Look at it," I told her, "make sure you like it, 'cause I really am going to use it. Is it acceptable?"

Yes, yes, it was just fine, she said, laughing, seemingly happy with the prospect of potentially broader exposure--or amused by the ridiculousness of being hassled in Venice by, as Davis and Marshall write above, "nobody that matters."

Who knows?

"Great," I said. "You should be very proud. You make a great vandal. Next time don't forget your can of spray paint."

"I won't!" she cheerily replied, that flower of tourism.

For previous posts on this same topic:

And for the solution to this problem, instituted in November 2104: