Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rowing Home from School

Having passed under the Rialto, Sandro continues his waving campaign; this time toward a crowded water taxi
The tide made it difficult, the taxis made it dangerous.

It all began quite pleasantly the Friday before last, as I set off with a friend from a back canal near San Giacomo dell'Orio in early-spring-like weather to pick up our sons from their preschool near Sant' Alvise. We were in his sanpierota, a traditional wooden boat measuring between 6 and 7 meters (or 19.5 to 23 feet) which can be rigged with one or two sails and was formerly used for fishing both within and outside the lagoon (this information is from the beautifully-produced bilingual Le barche di Venezia/The Boats of Venice, by Riccardo Pergolis & Ugo Pizzarello). Also along, and rowing in the poppa or stern, was a friend of my friend who, in spite of what his Russian first name might suggest, was born and raised in Mestre by Venetian parents. He had a good deal of rowing experience and this would prove to be important in a short time.

We entered the Grand Canal near the Scalzi Bridge, a short distance from the train station. There was plenty of boat traffic but the canal was wide and it all passed smoothly enough as to be of no special concern, much less alarm. I was rowing in the prua, at the front of the boat: my job was mostly to keep a good steady rowing pace. The steering is done by the rower in back.

Soon after we turned off the Grand Canal, just before the Casinò di Venezia (or Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, where Wagner died), things became a bit more dramatic.

I'd encountered the tidal currents of the lagoon before on my own. One afternoon after rowing Venetian-style by myself with one oar in the open lagoon I'd made the mistake of thinking that the tiniest bit of play in my forcola (oarlock) that had just developed would have no effect on my ability to pass through the arched doorway of the old Arsenale wall leading to my remiera, or rowing club. The club was just inside the archway and it made no sense to stop and hammer down the pennulle (small wood wedges) that kept the forcola locked in place when I'd be removing both forcola and pennulle in less than 200 yards. After all, I was moving fine with the tiny bit of play as it was.

But the tide was going out at that time, rushing out from the Arsenale through the archway in fierce muscular currents, and I spent five minutes rowing in place upon the threshold, straining and struggling stubbornly to achieve merely stasis--not an inch of progress--until I finally gave up, retreated, hammered in the forcola, and only then entered (and not without effort).

So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised by the force of the incoming tide in that canal on that recent Friday, but I was, as this canal was nowhere near the North Lagoon and I expected distance to dissipate the force I'd encountered in the narrow threshold between the enclosed Arsenale and the open lagoon. It didn't.

It wouldn't have been such a problem if we could have both rowed, but the side canal we were now in, lined by moored boats on either bank, wouldn't accommodate the prua oar sticking out to the left and the poppa oar extended to the right. It was entirely up to the rower in the stern, and the other two of us could only help by serving as bumpers, reaching out to divert collisions when the going got especially narrow and the current especially vehement.  

A sanpierota under sail from the website of Matteo Tamassia:
It didn't help, either, that we were in a sanpierota, whose "shape is better adapted to the open sea," according to Pergolis and Pizzarella, and "whose weight make it unsuitable for rowing with one oar." Which is exactly what our friend in the poppa was finally inspired to point out to us as he struggled with the current, along with the fact that the long mast and rolled sails stretching diagonally across the length of the boat made it imbalanced to row with one oar. (When we arrived at the school we would adjust the placement of the mast, but there'd be nothing we could do about how the boat was built.)

I also wonder now if we weren't feeling the effects of the changing underwaterscape of Venice's lagoon that Caroline Fletcher and Jane Da Mosto write so well about in their slim, succinct and remarkably informative book The Science of Saving Venice. The formerly marshy shallow state of the lagoon--still evident in the North Lagoon with its mudflats, winding streams and dense water grasses--has been lost in the central lagoon, which has become ever deeper (largely as a side-effect of the deep water shipping channels) and scoured clean of those natural elements "that dampen down the effect of waves and currents, [leaving] the tides and surges [to] have a more direct on water levels in the city." 

In any case, we did finally arrive at the boys' school, right on time, and they were as thrilled as we'd hoped. It was not the first time we'd gone home in this boat, but it was the first time we would do so powered by oars rather than a 9.9 hp outboard engine. My friend and I had been planning on rowing them home from school for months, but the recent theft of his motor from his boat where he moored it a short distance from Campo San Barnaba had made oars a necessity rather than a choice.

Now, however, with hardly any effort at all we rushed down the long canals of Cannaregio as quickly as we would have done with a motor. The boys were so enthusiastic and buoyant that it was easy to imagine those were the qualities sweeping our boat forward, but of course we were now the beneficiaries of the same strong current that had plagued us on our way to the school.

I can never enter the Grand Canal in a small open boat, either under the power of a motor or of oars, without feeling, well, in the famous words of the farewell address of one of America's most famous old baseball players, that "I'm the luckiest man on the face of this earth".

A feeling that wasn't entirely dissipated by the traffic jam we encountered as we approached the Rialto Bridge.

After the collision of a vaporetto and gondola last August that killed a German law professor who'd been riding in the gondola with his family, new rules were implemented on the Grand Canal intended to lessen such dangerous traffic patterns around the Rialto. The brunt of the new restrictions fell upon the drivers of mototopi, those large work boats that carry necessary supplies to shops, food stores, and hotels. These new restrictions, according to the owner of a trasporti (shipping) company with a number of boats--and the grandfather of one of Sandro's closest friends--make the already hard early-to-rise life of a mototopo driver even harder. And based upon our experience around the Rialto the Friday before last at between 3:30 and 4 pm, the traffic in the area still seems quite hazardous.

There were at least a good half-dozen gondolas jostling around the Rialto, there were the large Alilaguna shuttles that run back and forth to the airport, there were vaporetti, of course, but worst of all, I think, were the water taxis, often stuffed with a dozen camera-wielding tourists overflowing from beneath either end of the boats' passenger cabins and traveling in flotillas of three, four, or even five. You see, water taxi rides have now become a standard attraction on the mass tourist itinerary: so a group of 50 visitors off a bus tour, for example, will be divvied up, as per a pre-arranged contract between tour company and taxi stand, into 4 taxis and be sent on their way en masse--just as you see a large tour group packed into a little armada of gondolas (as detailed in Davis's and Marvin's fine book Venice: The Tourist Maze).

Row boats have the right of way in Venice's waters, but the better part of wisdom sometimes rests in giving up that right. We were in no hurry to get where we were going: we stopped and floated and made small adjustments as needed to avoid the various boats, most of which were attentive and careful, respectful. But there were always the taxis, quite prone to weasel into any openings that had previously been agreed upon by other boats, as certain rude folks on the floating vaporetto stops will slip through a space that others may have left open to accommodate a stroller or an infirm senior citizen. (Though sometimes it's the senior citizens themselves who shove their way through.) 

Of course our two sons, seated on the fore-deck of the boat, weren't really aware of any of this. All the wave action and rocking seemed to make Sandro's friend, who'd only just turned four, sleepy, and he stretched out on his back in the sunlight. While the thrill of the voyage made Sandro more outgoing than usual and he was busy waving to everyone in sight. Far from being a problem for him, the traffic jam around the Rialto simply increased the density of his targets: Ciao, polizia! Motoscafiste (Water taxi drivers)! Operai (laborers)! Turisti!

"I made a million new friends today!" he exclaimed to me afterwards. 

For the rest of us, the three adults, it was an educational experience.

I think both my friend and I liked to vaguely imagine that it might be possible to row to do all kinds of practical everyday errands. For there's a certain organic farm--part of what in the US is called a CSA, or a community supported agriculture project--that rows its produce into Venice in sandolos. There's a wonderful short video of them doing so here: But the Friday before last I think we learned the obvious truth that a sanpierota has little in common with a small sandolo.

We learned, too, and quite dramatically, about the intensity of the incoming tide through the canals. We learned quite intimately about the volume of Grand Canal traffic that persists in spite of the new rules governing boats implemented in November. And we learned, finally, what we probably should have known already: that a rowing trip down the Grand Canal is only really pleasant if done in the evening, on a holiday, or during the weekend. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Il Pagliaccio on the Vaporetto, This Afternoon

Anyone who writes a blog on Venice and is in town during Carnevale must decided whether they'll take photos of people in costumes. While I enjoy seeing people have a good time, especially those--adults and kids alike--who display an evident pleasure in being dressed up, I don't much like to photograph people who are posing. And posing for photos seems to be the main thing--sometimes the only thing--that the more elaborately-costumed adult do. And that's a good thing, too, as the number of people wearing cameras around their necks (pros, semi-pros, enthusiasts, and point-and-shooters) far exceeds those wearing costumes, and the latter fulfill the important function of providing the former with subject matter.

I like seeing photos of people in costumes; I admire the flair or whimsy of those both in front of and behind the lens, and am happy to leave it to others.

But this afternoon I caught sight of the thoughtful clown above as I was about to exit a vaporetto and I fumbled to get out my camera and take a shot before something, or everything, changed. It made me think that my favorite costumes are finally those that allow for unexpected glimpses of basic humanness: thoughtfulness or boredom or whatever; the ordinary, essential and sympathetic set off by the festive, the comic, even the outlandish.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Carnevale Parade of Boats

The Corteo Acqueo di Carnevale, or what I called the Carnevale Parade of Boats above, is organized each year by the Associazioni Remiere di Voga alla Veneta, the association of all the rowing clubs in Venice (including Mestre). It's the central event of the Festa Veneziana at the beginning of Carnevale: the roughly 24 hours of festivities centered in Cannaregio and oriented toward locals, not tourists. Though, of course, the official Carnevale website is sure to invite tourists to the events.

There seems to be slightly more talk this year about neighborhood-centered Venetian-only Carnevale events. Or perhaps there's the same amount of talk but, as Jen suggested when I asked her about it, it's just that there's more of a political edge to the talk: a bit more defiance in the face of all the powers in the city that seem to think only of tourists and how to shove ever more of them through the city in ever shorter amounts of time--like restaurants in New York City who devote themselves to "turning tables" (ie, hustling diners through dinner to increase the number of seatings per evening).

When the paving stones are overrun with tourists, though, there's always the water.... Venetians can get in a boat and go out into the lagoon. Or, on certain special days such as yesterday, reclaim their own "Main Street"--at least temporarily--from the dense traffic that usually makes the experience of rowing down it far from peaceful. (More on that in the next post.)

Excuse me for repeating something I've written before, but Venetians seem never so content--at least relatively speaking--as when they are on the water. It's what makes the Corteo such an enjoyable sight.

Though I was surprised to see that even for the 30 minutes or so that it took the rowers to process from the Punta della Dogana to the Cannaregio Canal the Grand Canal could not be kept free of water taxis, almost every one of them stuffed with a dozen tourists, that snaked one after another along the side of the corteo at all-too-frequent intervals for my taste--and, I imagine, for the taste of the rowers as well, who, as always, had to deal with their wakes.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning...

This, too, is Venice: waiting for a late-night vaporetto

...when not only is the whole wide world fast asleep, as the old song says, but the vaporetti are running very infrequently, is the time when you really want to be sure not to get on one going in the wrong direction, as I did early this morning while paying more attention to the book I had with me than anything else.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The 10-foot-tall Napoleon Hidden along the Grand Canal

The rough marble strut connecting the head to the outstretched hand is the only sign that Angelo Pizzi's sculpture of Napoleon was left unfinished at his death. It was commissioned by Lucia's husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who intended to make it a centerpiece of his mainland estate.  
There's a marvelous passage toward the end of Andrea di Robilant's entertaining biography Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon in which he describes a letter written by his subject (who also happened to be his great-great-great-great-grandmother) to the celebrated sculptor Antonio Canova, trying to interest him what she calls "a piece of the purest marble of Carrara." She assures him that he would not be able to find "a finer piece of marble" anywhere and that--though the "work was already begun, and rather well"--the piece "could easily take on a different profile 'than the one initially pursued.'" At the time of her letter this fine piece of marble was still housed in the studio within the Accademia delle Belle Arti of its late sculptor, from whom her late husband, Alvise Mocenigo, had commissioned the work some years before.

In fact, the "piece of the purest marble of Carrara" Lucia wrote about may be seen in the image at the top of this page, in exactly the almost-completed state it was in when she tried to soft peddle it to her old friend Canova. For by the time she wrote the letter the Austrians had taken over Venice and a heroic ten-foot-high embodiment of her late husband's admiration for the fallen Napoleon was the last thing that the widow, already facing enough personal and financial challenges, needed in her possession.

Unfortunately for her, Canova was well aware of the actual form of the "piece of marble" she was offering him at what she promised would be a "sum agreeable to (him)" and was no more keen to be stuck with the monumentally outmoded thing than she was. So she was left to have it spirited the short distance down the Grand Canal to Palazzo Mocenigo, where she tucked it away in a corner of the androne (or large ground-floor entry).   

Though this monumental sculpture's obscure place in the androne of Palazzo Mocenigo figures prominently in di Robilant's explanation of how he came to write the biography, the small image of it in the book shows it against a solid black background. The dark featureless (photoshopped) background certainly eliminates all distractions from the sculpture itself, but part of the interest in di Robilant's opening pages--for him and the reader--is that this work still stands exactly where his great-great-great-great-grandmother set it up 200 years ago, even though the palazzo itself passed out of his family's hands some 70 years ago.

In my post about the heroic sculpture of Napoleon in the Museo Correr (, I mentioned that a friend had told me that one could catch a glimpse of this work in the androne of the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal if one were rowing in a sandolo and took the little boat up close to the water gate. But thanks to the generosity of another friend, Gijs Went, who allowed me to post the above image he captured of the sculpture, we can all have a good look at it in its long-time home, with the stemma (or coat of arms) of the Mocenigos still visible behind it (though the palazzo is now an apartment house)--and without having to struggle with oars or the unsettling wakes of passing vaporetti and mototopi.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Best Photography Shop in Venice (Updated 8 June 2018)

Marco Missiaja's Pro Photo Italia shop on Calle dei Fuseri (address: San Marco 4367) (all images updated 8 June 2018)

I don't know exactly how many photography shops there are in Venice, but I have no doubt about which of them is my favorite. I first happened into Marco Missiaja's Pro Photo Italia (in its old location) on Calle dei Fuseri in need of a tripod. I later returned for a number of other little things--rechargeable batteries on one day, a memory card on another--and always enjoyed talking to him. A photographer himself, he turned out to be a great source of information (in Italian and English) not only on the subject of gear, but on the practice of taking pictures.

I also appreciated the fact that I could ask him about different lenses I was considering for my camera without ever feeling that his answers were dictated simply by his interest in making a sale. He didn't suggest equipment based upon its cost, nor his profit margin. On the contrary, I've known him to tell me flat out that something I was thinking of buying was not something I actually needed.  

I learned about the Fuji cameras I now use (initially, the Fuji X-E1, now the Fuji X-T1) from him as a result of asking about some of his own framed night shots of Venice for sale in his store. When my old Canon gave out not long after, he allowed me to try out his own X-E1 after I expressed interest in it. Though he remains a fan of Fuji, he recently (as of June 2018) started to shoot much of his own work with a Sony camera. So you can find both Sony and Fuji gear in his shop (along with Canon, Nikon, and other brands) and talk about them with someone who's used both extensively for his own work.

Marco and his partner, Grazia, behind the counter on Calle dei Fuseri 

When I originally posted this in February 2014, Pro Photo Italia actually consisted of two small shops near either end of the Calle dei Fuseri. A short time ago the contents of those two separate storefronts were combined in a single more spacious shop on the same calle, about midway between where the two small shops used to be and a few yards from the Ponte dei Fuseri.

The greater amount of space in the new location allows not only for the better display of photography supplies, equipment, and framed images, but for workshops and events to be held in-store: either in a light-filled ground floor room or a well-equipped photography studio upstairs (see images below).

I've found Marco's prices to be the best not only in Venice proper, but usually as good as any I've seen on the mainland or online. But you can check this out for yourself by visiting his website and online store at:

There's also a second Pro Photo Italia in Rome, run by Marco's brother, which I haven't visited yet, but which I look forward to checking out (its address can be found on the website link above). 

But when you're in Venice and in need of photography supplies (however small) or gear (however sophisticated) Pro Photo Italia is the place to go.

The new shop has space on the ground floor in which to hold workshops and events... well as a studio upstairs for workshops focusing on matters of lighting and studio photography

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Long Time No See: Ala Napoleonica, Piazza San Marco

I believe it was less than a month ago that I saw two headlines in a local newspaper about the large billboard covering much of the Ala Napoleonica wing at the western end of Piazza San Marco. The larger of the two announced what everyone in Venice has long known: that work behind it was completed and the scaffolding was (over)due to come down. A second slightly smaller headline a bit further down the page declared that the director of the Museo Correr had suggested that the scaffolding and billboard might remain anyway, as the museum needed the revenue it provided.

The first headline gave me a few moments of hope that after four years of being hidden behind ugly advertisements the western end of the Piazza would finally be uncovered. The second was enough to reaffirm my belief that in spite of vocal and ongoing objections to the billboard by prominent groups and individuals, it would remain forever.

So imagine my surprise when I entered Piazza San Marco this morning and saw the above sight. I imagined at first that they were simply in the process of changing the billboard from one gross garishness to another, but, no, upon closer inspection I found the scaffolding really was being taken down.

Though I've lived here since November 2010, and visited at the beginning of that same year, I hadn't seen the Piazza without the billboard since my prior visit to the city, way back in the early 1990s. Jen and Sandro, having first seen the Piazza during that February 2010 visit and having lived here for over 3 years, had never seen the Piazza without a billboard.

After so many uninterrupted days of rain, the long-awaited reappearance of the sun today seemed almost miraculous--but nothing compared to the reappearance of the western end of the Piazza San Marco from behind its massive billboard. The rain is forecast to be back tomorrow; here's hoping that all billboards in the Piazza are gone for good.

One can finally see the empty spot at the center of the Napoleon Wing where a statue of the French conqueror was supposed to go
A worker lowers a piece of the scaffolding to his colleagues below

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Water Water Everywhere, This Afternoon & All Week + Vote for Blog Awards

Piazza San Marco this afternoon after the worst of the tide had receded
The flooding of Venice is typically rivaled by the flood of photographs documenting that flooding, many of them of a high quality I'd find difficult to match, so I won't belabor what you've probably already seen elsewhere. It's basically been a week of double-dip acqua alta: that is, not just acqua alta day after day, but, for the last four days, acqua alta twice per day.

Day after day of the scirocco, of rain, of high water. Photographers and/or many tourists tend to love the last of these, but shop owners really really don't. Tomorrow we'll get a break from the acqua alta: the forecast is for a height of 105 cm, which is still high enough to flood Piazza San Marco, but not nearly so bad as the 120 to 140 cm occurrences of recent days. But there seems to be no end in sight of the rain.

Meanwhile Italy Magazine is currently giving readers the chance to vote online for their 2013 Blogger Awards in a variety of different categories, such as "Best Italian Food Blog", "Best Italian Art & Culture Blog", "Best Italian Fashion & Design" blog and so on.

Venezia Blog is one of four finalists in "Best Living in Italy (Single Post)" category for a piece I wrote on my son Sandro and the practical beauty of handtrucks in Venice. You can read each of the four posts and vote for your favorite here:

A complete list of the other categories is at the right side of the above page and will give you the chance to check out the other finalists and vote. The last day to vote is February 8.

And I'm pleased to note that the process of casting a vote requires simply a single click of the mouse, with no additional fields to fill out or information to provide or commitment.

NOTE ADDED ON FEBRUARY 4: I just found out that a Venezia Blog post on a little wine shop in Cannaregio is among the finalists in the "Best Single Post Art & Culture" category. I feel rather silly not to have known this before and to add it now, but I'm flattered to be included in the running.