Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Taste of the Festa di San Pietro di Castello, A Taste of Times Past

Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of the church festivals at which my grandmother and her sister used to cook the pasta and sauce (or sugu, as my Sicilian-born grandmother and great-aunt called it). They would do it together at the parish to which my grandmother belonged, then at the one to which my great-aunt belonged.

I don't know that such church festivals continue in America--certainly not in the places we've lived. And the single day festivals I used to attend as a child--whose highlights were the cakewalk, the dunk tank, and the booth where one fished for toys--were nowhere near as large, long, nor as amplified as the Festa di San Pietro. In fact, it occurs to me that in terms of community spirit and the range of ages participating, the closest thing I've recently experienced in America to the San Pietro festa is the summer Shindig on the Green events in Asheville, North Carolina--which I'd highly recommend, even if, like me, you think you have little or no interest in bluegrass music (

Last night here in Venice I saw the older woman (above and below) working over the steaming spaghetti cooker and tasting the pasta, saw the other woman arrive to taste it for herself, and found myself transported back to California's San Joaquin Valley in the 1970s: to an ethnic culture now completely gone, to a place now completely unrecognizable, to loved ones long dead. It's strange to sense at times like this how the only way my own son can experience anything similar to the world in which I grew up is in this place so far away from where I grew up, and so very different in most ways.   

Friday, June 27, 2014

3 Views of Festa di San Pietro di Castello (or San Piero de Casteo), This Evening

please click on this and the other images to enlarge
There were plenty of tables set up for diners on land, near the grills where the festa's food was prepared, but...
this being Venice, a number of people made the understandable (and pleasant) choice of eating their dinner on their boats

Images from last year's festa can be seen here:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On Looking for a Quiet Place to Eat in Venice, Barbarians, Gates, and the Big Beat

"Everybody dance now!": The visual distance of the above party boat belies its unfortunate auditory proximity
Another day, another outrage. We seem to live in an Age of Indignation, and yesterday many Venetians were indignant over reports in the local press that a family of six set up a campsite during the middle of the day just a few yards from the old entrance to the Museo Archeologico, in the arcade just across the Piazzeta from the Palazzo Ducale. With this picturesque view before them and shaded from the summer sun, the family heated up spaghetti on a small camp stove and enjoyed a pleasant repast while seated on the old stones of one of the busiest and most famous urban cultural sites in the world.

Where were those young people in the crimson shirts, the "Guardians of San Marco", who used to have the Sisyphean task of shooing seated tourists off the steps all around the Piazza? In a city lacking the funds to even clean its school classrooms, I suppose they've been laid off. After all, billions of euros have been needed to build the MOSE watergates--and we continue to find out just how responsibly those funds have been handled.

Though their main course was spaghetti, the family of picnickers don't appear to have been Italian, and I find myself wondering in what culture anywhere in the world is it considered appropriate to heat up lunch while sprawled about the entrance to a large imposing museum or civic building? Is there someplace where people regularly camp out at the entrance of their city hall, not as a form of protest but simply because it offers a nice view and the pavement is somehow appealing?

In any case, on the longest night of the year, last Saturday, intent on escaping the crowds of the city center, we set out in our small sanpierota for the north lagoon. Tourists may swarm over the 110 or so linked islands of the city like ants upon a neglected picnic blanket, but on the water...! The water, we thought, still belongs to locals.

We didn't head too far out. In a shallow stream between two large grassy barene (or mud flats) a short distance from the island of Sant' Erasmo we planted our two oars and tied up our boat to them. Purple wild flowers bloomed upon spindly but hardy stalks at water's edge; a heron stilt-walked fastidiously through the marsh at one barena's center; another bird, mostly white, flapped furiously in place 20 feet above the water, then folded its wings and dropped like a plumb line (splash!) after its dinner below. Leaning over the side of the boat between bites of his sandwich, Sandro caught and released a paguro (hermit crab), then two crabs. In the distance to the west, airplanes landed silently at Marco Polo Airport on terra ferma. To the north was Burano, and the dark cypresses that cloister San Francesco del Deserto.


Is there anything that sounds so moronic as the looping beat of a pop or disco song when all you really want is quiet and a peace made all the more peaceful by the hushed lapping of water and the shimmery cries of lagoon birds?


A party boat. A "booze cruise," as they're called in America, where they trawl the waters around Manhattan, for example, their music thumping off all the concrete verticality of that restless sleepless city. You hardly notice them there. Whereas music carries far over the wide open waters of the lagoon and there have been late nights at home when we've been presented with the unlikely but poundingly insistent auditory illusion that our elderly neighbors across the calle have suddenly take it into their heads to blast the Village People's "YMCA".

Yes, as we learned, you can abandon the city to tourists as the original settlers of the lagoon abandoned the mainland to invading hordes of barbarians 15 centuries ago, but these days the barbarians, piloted by money-making Venetians, follow you out into the water.

THUMP THUMP THUMPA THUMPA... Imagine being on a boat like that, with the sites of more than 15 centuries of history slipping lazily past you: over 15 centuries of poverty and plague and struggle, of hard subsistence right up through the Second World War amid one of the world's unique ecosystems, an uneasy and endangered collaboration between humans and nature--and you with an iced Moretti beer in your hand and the amplified command of "Everybody dance now!" filling your head.

Of course this is part of the great master plan for the city by the large interests (not necessarily elected) who run it. Though study after study has warned that the city has exceeded its "load capacity," that uncontrolled mass tourism is destroying the infrastructure of the city and the little that remains of its social fabric, that the 75% of the 20 million+ tourists who stay in the city only a few hours are actually costing the city more than they are spending here, the interests who control the city tell us not to fear: all that needs to be done is to encourage the ever-increasing number of tourists to spread out over the lagoon like an oil slick. With just a little encouragement, these controlling interests assure us, there will be herds of day-trippers picnicking in Sant' Elena (goody!) and vast armies of tour groups tramping through the remotest corners of Cannaregio (hurrah!). Kayakers will outnumber the lagoon's birds and booze cruisers will drink themselves dizzy circling the area in a grand armada of booming boats.

Not surprisingly, those behind such plans are those who make their money moving people in and out of the city. Those for whom the city would most profitably function as a big glittery revolving door, taking the masses they deliver to it for a quick whirl then turning them out to be transported profitably away.

As The Venice Report: Demography, Tourism, Financing and Change of Use of Buildings (Cambridge Univ Press, 2009) points out, the only sources of the influx of tourists into Venice actually controlled by the city are parking spaces for cars and scheduled bus service. All other means into and out of the city are in private hands, whose interest is in ever greater flow.

The problem with the great master plan, though--aside from the obvious destructiveness of it--is that it isn't working even on the terms promised by its proponents. A recent report showed that attendance at the 15 churches into which tourists can enter with an economical Chorus Pass (which includes I Frari and the famed "jewel box" Santa dei Miracoli)--and which were supposed to act as magnets drawing tourists away from the packed Piazza and Rialto--were down over 21% last year. Attendance at the group of Musei Civici (or city museums such as Ca' Rezzonico and the Museo Correr) was also down nearly 10%. Meanwhile the density of visitors in the packed area between the Rialto and Piazza San Marco actually increased during the same period--in some cases to disastrous and even life-threatening levels.

The vandalism and destruction perpetrated by last year's record crowd for New Year's Eve in the Piazza were well documented in local papers. Marketed as "A Midnight Kiss in Piazza San Marco", what revelers were actually up to that night was far less romantic, as were what they left behind: tons of trash, a lot of broken glass, urine and vomit (as well detailed here: While less than two months later, the Carnevale crowd that attended last year's "Flight of the Angel" from the Campanile of San Marco were crammed so tightly in and around the Piazza that there were reports of people panicking at the lack of space and utter impossibility of movement. I saw this first-hand and can attest that the density of people would be legal in no building in the world. But because the Piazza is without a roof--as if in the absence of adequate exits the crowd could simply take wing like a flock of pigeons--Venetian authorities continue to push their luck and endanger the lives of visitors. It takes very little imagination to foresee the day when their luck, and the luck of the scores of tourists who will be trampled to death, is likely to run out. 

I'm afraid this has turned into a longer post than I'd intended, ranging far beyond what was for my family and me, after all, just a minor inconvenience: a bit of encouragement to range further afield in the lagoon, seeking out someplace beyond the routes of party boats.

But a larger point is perhaps worth suggesting: that regardless of the indignation aroused by picnickers under the arcades of Piazza San Marco, Venice's problem is not that there are "barbarians" at the gate, nor (as anti-immigration sorts like to claim) even "barbarians" within the gates, but that there are barbarians who actually control the gates, both the literal water gates (as the MOSE corruption continues to prove) and the metaphorical ones that must be maintained for the well-being of the city's residents, buildings, ecosystem, and, yes, even tourists themselves. The irresponsibility of those with control over such gates is the ugly thumping sense of things that one can hardly go a day here without being assaulted by, and its beat goes on and on, increasing in decibels.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Saturday in the Park with a Bunch of Georges, Today

Stephen Sondheim's famous musical was, like the painting that inspired it (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jattee), set a day later, and featured only one artist (Georges Seurat), but there was a class of at least a dozen sketchers at work today on Sant' Elena. Though probably not a single pointillist among them.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

La Festa del Redentore May be Dead (This Year), Long Live La Festa del Redentore!

Would the cancellation of the official, pyrotechnical Festa del Redentore return the event to Venetians?
The headline on yesterday's Il Gazzettino was that Venice's severe budget crisis might cause this year's Festa del Redentore to be canceled, along with the Regata Storica. At present the city lacks some 1.2 million euros required by Vela, the group responsible for putting on these two events.

Considering that the origins of the Redentore celebration lie in the 16th century, and that the feast has long been the most important one in the city calendar--really one of the defining civic events of the year--not everyone was as upset by this possibility as one might have expected. One commenter on Facebook wrote that "after so many years of commercialization, the festa will return to being just ours, with our boats, watermelon, sarde in saor, pasta e fasioli, music and the hymn to San Marco. No more yachts and tourist boats."

Could this be true? A grand firework extravaganza at midnight has come to be considered the culmination of La Festa del Redentore--it's really the event's big selling point to visitors--but if there were no fireworks this July would that mean that there would also be none of those loud obnoxious party boats cruising the lagoon blaring "YMCA"?

I have no doubt that Venetians would celebrate the feast whether there were fireworks or not: that communal dinner tables would be set up on fondamente and in campi all over town, that residents would still take to the lagoon in their own boats festooned with lights, but would all those other elements--those of mass tourism, which aim it seems to introduce a large dose of Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, Florida into the lagoon--really disappear?

Or will the thumping boats and the out-of-town drunks still come, fireworks or not? And is the idea that Redentore might once more be returned to the Venetians themselves just a fond desperate illusion, a fantasy of a time that can never be recaptured--imagined by people who have little left to them but such memories?

A communal dinner table in Castello during Redentore 2012

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Procession of Sant'Antonio, Last Night

St Anthony of Padova was famous during his short life (he died at age 35) as a preacher, and since his canonization as the go-to spiritual guide for those looking to locate someone or something they've lost. He was also a Franciscan friar, which explains why his feast day is celebrated so elaborately at the church of San Francesco della Vigna, as well as the patron saint of fishermen and sailors (perhaps because of their risk of being lost at sea), which explains his standing in Venice.

Last night was the solemn procession of a wooden statue of the saint through the calli and campi around the church of San Francesco della Vigna, a distinctly left-leaning neighborhood in the northeast part of Castello that's one of my favorites in the city, both for its general tranquility and for the vitality of its particular meeting places. It remains, against great odds, a neighborhood, and as much as I enjoyed the singing and music and candles of the long line of participants in the procession, I also liked seeing those who watched it pass from their windows with lit candles on their sills, lending a domestic touch to the public demonstration, an intimate recognition of a ritual that belonged as much to the neighborhood as the church.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Life-changing Event

Our friend's larger heavier sanpierota tows home our own boat yesterday evening, with Sandro (barely visible behind the 9.9 hp engine) driving
Our neighbor, a native Venetian, saw me on the street last week and greeted me with a smile and a handshake and congratulations, saying "It will change your life." From his manner he could have been responding to the news that we were expecting a second child but, in fact, he'd heard that we'd agreed to buy a boat.

Jen and I had been thinking about it for at least two years, as I've written about here before, and almost exclusively in terms of what we'd been told was the most practical and inexpensive of boats to buy: a cofano. A cofano is usually about 5 meters long, usually made of fiberglass (which requires much less maintenance than wood), and there's no shortage of used ones around for sale at reasonable prices.

And yet after all those months of envisioning our practical fiberglass cofano, it is a wood sanpierota that we ended up buying yesterday and towing from a sailing club in Mestre, where its very kind owner had used it, to Venice proper. A sanpierota is also a traditional Venetian craft, but unlike the typical contemporary fiberglass cofano, it can be rowed or used with a sail--rather than just an outboard motor. Ours measures 5.8 meters in length, and is made of compensato marino (or plywood), which means it's very light. It came with a pair of forcole (oarlocks) and remi (oars), which we do know how to use, and a sail, which we do not (yet). A 6 horsepower engine will be arriving for it next week, which is plenty large for such a light boat.

Of course there is nothing very practical in general about living in Venice--not in the opinion of many visitors, at least a couple of whom have told me outright that it strikes them as simply the most impossible inconvenient place they've ever seen. Perhaps this was an argument in favor the more practical choice of a cofano, and yet it was the possibility of rowing and sailing the boat that made it impossible for Jen and I to resist, regardless of any other considerations. For the way we hope to use the boat, only a sanpierota would do.

But I'm afraid I don't even have the time to shape this post into any final form, there's still much to do with the boat--tonight--the details of which I'll spare you. Instead I'll close with something I jotted down in a notebook in April as I watched, as I like to do, boats returning from a day out on the lagoon, something I'm sure contributed largely to my sense that the sanpierota is what we wanted:

" fewer than a group of ten people, of all different ages, in a beautifully-painted (red and white) large old underpowered wooden sanpierota. Looks to be about a 6 horsepower engine on it, an ancient one that sounds like a mosquito, and the boat plows slowly, uncertainly among the waves--wavers its way through the waves, you might say, so unsteady and tentative and almost plaintive its lack of power renders it, as it leaves the calm of the Canale di San Pietro and turns into the deep busy waterway of vaporetti and car carriers and big ships leading toward Piazza San Marco.

A woman onboard looks a little sheepish at the quality of their progress and waves vaguely in my direction where I sit on the bench quayside watching, a gesture motivated it seems more by a bit of embarrassment than friendliness or recognition, as it's no one I know. As if the gesture will distract my attention from how the boat lopes and loops and sidles and almost waddles its way along. But she has nothing to be embarrassed about. I stare enviously at the beautiful boat, full of family and/or friends, with its four kids sprawled across its foredeck, blissfully at home in the late warm sun, the soft breeze, the amniotic movement."

Friday, June 6, 2014

'Tis the Season...

The sacristan of San Zaccaria is not at all pleased when the church is treated as a lecture hall, as this guide (with beard) would soon find out
Tourist season, for sure. But also, alas, a late influenza season, especially in our house. So, while there's no shortage of things to post about, such as:

*the mayor of Venice being arrested on corruption charges along with more than 30 others (

*the opening of the 14th annual International Architecture Biennale, curated by Rem Koolhaus (

*and the always enjoyable Festa di Sant' Antonio at the church of San Francesco della Vigna that begins tomorrow (

I'm afraid I'm not up to it at the moment, and offer instead 4 images of the season taken last year at this same time. I haven't included any images of the truly overwhelming swarms of people clotting up an astonishingly long stretch of the Riva degli Schiavoni or vast swaths of the Piazza San Marco these days, as they're likely to make those in even the pink of health and with the strongest of stomachs quite queasy.

An apparently benign family scene which, upon closer inspection, proves to represent the very worst nightmare of every publisher (and writer) of printed tour guides
Gondoliers are limited to repeating the same exact route as surely as any mechanical amusement park ride; here a number of them make their familiar turn off the Grand Canal just past the Giglio vaporetto stop
"We few, we happy few," is uttered not just in Shakespeare's famous St Crispin Day's Speech, but by everyone who manages to snag outside seats on the Number 1 vaporetto line