Monday, December 28, 2015

3 Views of Very Low Tide (Bassa Marea), This Evening

Acqua alta, or high tide, is what Venice is of course famous for, but extremely low tide (or bassa marea), like the ones we've been having lately, can make the canals impassable for boats--which is a real problem in a city that depends upon water transport.

Fortunately, tonight's tide (and more than a few boats along with it) bottomed out at 6:20 pm, at 50 cm below the standard tidal level, after the main business of the day was finished. By 1 am it was forecast to reach a high of 40 cam above the standard tidal level (though well below the point at which even the lowest parts of the city flood).

Any boats tied too tightly to, or otherwise snagged somehow on their pali (wood--or synthetic--stakes) may be submerged in the incoming tide.      

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Another Kind of White Christmas (Fog)--and The Waiting Room of the Dead

"All is calm, all is bright..."

After a clear day, and sunny late afternoon, fog arrived last night and blanketed the city in its own way.

Though, in truth, the small white building at right in the image above puts me more in the mood of Halloween than Christmas, as it was formerly used as a place where unidentified corpses were kept in the hope that someone might recognize them before they were finally laid to rest.

This is something I remember reading in a book about Venice, but try as I might I haven't been able to remember, or locate, exactly which one. One of the most likely sources, Jan Morris's famous book on Venice, refers to the Ponte di Paglia as the place where unidentified bodies found, say, by fishermen were laid out. (A little fact that one can be almost certain never occurs to the multitudes of folks crowded on it to gaze at, and be photographed in front of, the Bridge of Sighs.)

The little white building above (located near near the church of Santa Maria Formosa) is now a bar, and one day I briefly considered inquiring of the people working inside if they knew anything about its former use. But considering how uncomfortable such knowledge might make certain people I didn't want to risk being the one to alert a barista or proprietor about something of which they were perhaps pleasantly unaware.

In other words, the fog in the image above also reflects the state of my own memory in regards to this place--but perhaps someone who reads this will have a clearer recollection of the matter.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Venice's Greatest Living Explorer Is Four-legged

Sandro, seated, and Nicola Grossi, rowing, at work on the Grand Canal

If you've taken a gondola ride in Venice in the last few years it's quite possible that one of the city's most knowledgeable guides to its streets and canals may have been dozing, unbeknownst to you, beneath your brocaded seat. And if he happened to pass by you later in the day as you puzzled over a map of this famously maze-like city, you'd certainly never think to ask him for help. For one thing, he's easy to miss, as he stands about knee-high to the average adult and weighs hardly more than 10 pounds. And for another, he's a black mixed-breed dog named Sandro.

Nor would you ever think if you saw him on a vaporetto that he could advise you as to exactly which stop you should get off at in order to reach a particular destination. But if you were fluent in the language of dogs he most certainly could, as he is known among Venetians for taking vaporetti around town by himself.

Sandro belongs to a Venetian gondolier, Nicola Grossi, and accompanies him to work near the Rialto. But loyal as Sandro is, he was never much inclined to spend his entire day in a gondola. And Nicola, well aware of Sandro's excellent sense of direction, says he "never felt any need to insist he stay near me all the time. He's always been a free spirit."

Then Nicola recounts a telephone call he received years ago from the commandante of a vaporetto.  "Excuse me," the commandante said, "but I have a dog here on board with me. I found your number on his collar. Did you lose him?"

"No, not at all," Nicola told him. "He's not lost. He knows where he's going."

Unconvinced, the commandante continued, "Well, he got on board at the Ca' Rezzonico stop."

"Okay, that's fine," Nicola replied. "Really, you don't need to worry about him. Where are you now?"

"We're at the Accademia. We're heading toward San Marco."

"Great. He's sure to get off at the next stop, Santa Maria del Giglio."

And when the vaporetto arrived at Santa Maria del Giglio, the commandante, who'd stayed on the line, said, "Ah, yes, yes, you're right, he's getting off now."

Nicola explains to me, "You see, he was going to Campo Santo Stefano, where my mother lived at that time."

A short time later, Nicola's mother called him. "Sandro just showed up," she said. "Since it's noon, should I give him something to eat?"

"I told her, yes, of course," Nicola says. "Then, when he was done eating he went to the door of her apartment to show he was ready to leave. She let him out and he returned to the Rialto, to my gondola. I was at home for my own lunch. My colleagues called to tell me he'd just shown up there and asked what they should do with him. I told them to just let him be. And a little while after that he arrived home."

Sandro and Nicola during a break on the Grand Canal

Nicola's and Sandro's life together goes back more than a decade. Nicola adopted Sandro when he was three years old from a friend who knew very little about animals and paid minimal attention to him. Having spent his first years with neither a pack nor a master, Sandro was a rather odd dog, distrustful and unfriendly. But Nicola immediately saw how smart he was, and that he could take him out on Lido without a collar or leash, as Sandro was aware of everything around him and kept well clear of traffic.  

Nicola lived and worked on Lido at that time and rode his bike to his job in a store or to do the shopping. Sandro always followed behind him. At a certain point he began to accompany Nicola to his job, then head off on his own adventures.

"Lido isn't a small island," Nicola says, "it's 15 kilometers long. But Sandro learned his way all around it. He always had a great sense of orientation. He'd spend the day exploring and then, without fail, five or ten minutes before I was due to get off, he'd show up outside the store where I worked and wait for me."  

When Nicola changed jobs and moved to Venice proper Sandro quickly began to learn his way around the whole of the historic city. First on foot, then, after riding with Nicola in his small motor boat and gondola, from the water. "In this way," Nicola says, "he came to have a complete vision of the city."

Some time later Sandro's internal map of the world was expanded to include the island of the Giudecca, after Nicola's mother moved there. "I'd go to visit her," Nicola says, "and he'd come along. Sometimes I'd take my own boat, sometimes I'd take the vaporetto, and we'd walk all around the island. Then he began to make these trips himself while I was working, always getting off the vaporetto at the Redentore stop, as it's closest to her house. I had two jobs then, and if he got bored he'd take off."

"I used to start work very early in the morning in those days. After we arrived at the gondola together Sandro would set off on his own and in a little while I'd start to get calls from all the people I knew around town. Someone would call and say, I just saw your dog in Campo Santo Stefano. After a half hour, somebody else would call to tell me she just saw him in San Polo. An hour after that, another friend would call to say he saw him on Giudecca. Sandro took the vaporetto and went to one of the various places he knew, my mother's, my brother's, my sister's. I'm the youngest of eight kids, so he had a lot of options. When I finished work I'd find him waiting for me where we began the day, or already at home. He'd sit beneath our apartment and bark."  

There were other times that Nicola would set out in the gondola with clients, thinking that Sandro was asleep in his comfortable den beneath the main passenger seat or the gondolier's box. Sandro, however, would have actually gotten off the boat before Nicola departed. If Sandro then returned to the mooring while Nicola was still out he would set off along the route that he knew Nicola made in his gondola.

Now, it's important to know that each gondola in Venice that departs from a particular gondola station--for example, one of those near the Rialto or San Marco--follows a set route. Nicola has always rotated from one day to the next between various stations, which meant that Sandro, as well as his master, had to learn various routes. And learn them not only by water, as Nicola did, but also--and this is far more difficult--how to negotiate the same route on foot via the city's convoluted tangle of alleys.

But this is exactly what Sandro did learn, and for each different gondola station. For at some point as Nicola rowed his clients along one or the other of his routes, he would find Sandro waiting for him on a fondamenta (canal side), ready to rejoin him on the gondola.

Nicola tests whether a small video camera might comfortably be attached to Sandro's collar to film one of his walks

"I've never worried about him when he takes off," Nicola says. "He never roams for too long, and he can always find his way back home. There's been only one exception, when was gone for two days. But that was because he was in love. He'd fallen for a little dog who lived on Lido and for two days he sat in front of her door. He just couldn't tear himself away. The owners of the house noticed him sitting out there and called me. By the time I arrived to get him in Lido he'd given up and left, and I found him waiting for me back home."

Nicola chuckles at the memory of this and says with obvious admiration, "It was a great love affair, though we might say it was never concluded, as he never had any contact with her. But he courted his girl, his beloved, for two days non-stop outside her door."   

As Sandro approaches his 14th birthday on January 8, Nicola says he's not the fearless explorer, nor passionate suitor, he once was. He's started to get cataracts, and he's become Nicola's shadow as he never was before, seeming a little anxious if Nicola is not in sight. He's not so keen to roam on his own these days. But if he and Nicola are separated he will wait at some point where he knows Nicola is likely to pass by, and if he gets bored of waiting there, will simply return straight home. "He can always find his way home. And, fortunately, his sense of smell is still excellent. He depends upon it now more than ever."

"He had to have surgery on a little problem a while back," Nicola says, "and he has various little issues, but, fortunately, I know him well enough now that I can keep things under control. I massage him and I can feel what's bothering him."

Sandro now spends more time with Nicola in the gondola than he ever did before. I imagine him there tucked away beneath the seat, "an incomparable cosmographer", as was said of the famous 15th-century Venetian mapmaker Fra Mauro, who spent his own later years tucked away in the Camaldolese monastery of San Michele (on what is now the cemetery island). And it's not impossible to imagine those experiences Sandro may carry with him still of the ancient city's waterways, its towering edifices, its countless scents of both sea and land, the infinite textures of its paving stones, its shadowy crevices, its marble and moss and mold. Of the city's pigeons and rats and psychotic gulls. Of the torrents of feet, rushing and eddying, and of the rubber-wheeled delivery carts that splash suddenly through them, or the clattering suitcases impeding the flow. Of the roar of a vaporetto reversing its engines into the floating fermata (stop), then the great dangerous thump likely to jolt a small dog into the water. Of all his old regular rounds, his favorite haunts--reliable places to get a full meal, others for a quick scrap or two. And always, happily, at the end of the day, Nicola's wife Carlotta and young son Zaccaria at the home they all share.

Rocked gently through side canals, the plash of the oar to one side, the soothing gurgle of the gondola's flat bottom moving through the water just below, Nicola navigating just overhead, warm and secure on his blankets, Sandro dreams his own canine Book of the Marvels of the World.

***For a short video of Sandro and Nicola, click on this link to the following post:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Fog in Town, Fog on the Lagoon, Today

Fog makes the city more dramatic and moody than usual, it makes the lagoon simply impassable. The above photo was taken after nightfall, the below image of the cormorant stretching his wings just after 3 pm, when I was, fortunately, close to where we moor our boat. Not much more than a half hour before it had still been sunny, with a pleasant haziness and good visibility. Summer storms are the most famous examples of how quickly weather in the lagoon can turn, but fog can also sweep in with surprising swiftness (as I found out last year: 

The little martin di pescatore (or kingfisher) below is an elusive fellow who resides in the trees along  the northeastern bank of the Canale delle Vignole (running through the island of that name). He typically appears as simply a flash of electric blue alongside the canal bank, swooping not far above the water then disappearing into the trees. I've never come close to getting a photo of him--until today, when I suppose he knew the thick fog would do a pretty good job of protecting him from any paparazzi. But, in spite of the fog, and the need to crop the image, it's the best look I've got of him so far.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Venetian Sunset

A slightly different--and definitely more characteristic--view of yesterday's sunset from the one I posted yesterday of the naval ship in the bacino.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Destroyer in the Bacino of San Marco, Today

And, no, I'm not talking about a cruise ship this time, but an actual naval ship, the Luigi Durand de la Penne, from the Marina Militare (or Italian navy). It arrived yesterday and was open to visitors today--and will be again tomorrow--in commemoration of its daring namesake's successful human torpedo attack in the early morning hours of 19 December 1941 on two British battleships in the Port of Alexandria.

The destroyer is open to the public in the morning and afternoon, with free shuttles to the ship leaving from the Riva degli Schaivoni in front of the Caserma Aristide Cornoldi (which, if one if one is walking from San Marco, is not far beyond the "Vivaldi church", aka, Santa Maria della Pietà).

It's rather an odd sight in the bacino, and a rather dramatic one in this evening's sunset. 

A view of the destroyer in the less theatrical light of mid-day today.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

In and Around Ospedale SS Giovanni e Paolo, This Morning

Once a year if you are a member of a gym--or before you're allowed to join one--Italian law requires that you take an electrocardiogram test to prove you're fit to continue to exercise (or start). It's a chance for your primary care physician to pocket an easy 30 euro, for that's what they charge to sign off on a letter stating that your electrocardiogram shows you to be suitable for "non-agonistica" (non-competitive) exertion.

But even this kind of errand, with its inevitable period(s) spent in biding or killing or wasting (depending on your mood) time in one waiting room or another, isn't so bad here. Seeing the sun coming up from the vaporetto stop for the Ospedale (top image) is rather nice--though, in truth, it's probably among the less picturesque vantage points in this excessively picturesque city.

And though the over-payment I made into the bancomat-style machine you must use here to pay for hospital services rendered meant that I had to go to another part of the hospital (and another waiting room), this extra jaunt took me past the monument below, left over from a time when the old cluster of buildings beside the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo concerned itself (at least ostensibly) with the health of the spirit rather than the body.

And, finally, I stopped in at the Scuola di San Marco on my way out of the hospital complex, which has continued to improve its displays since it reopened to the public two years ago: ( The ceilings, which Jan Morris singled out for praise a half century ago, remain glorious; the display of medical instruments and classic medical texts are fascinating; and I was particularly struck by something new (though actually very old) since the last time I visited: a detail of a 13th century mosaic originally in the one of the domes of the basilica of San Marco (bottom image).

While the ospedale itself is generally off-limits to casual visits, the Scuola di San Marco is open to all for a small fee, and worth a look: it's a great Venetian interior space.        

Friday, December 11, 2015

Theatrical San Zaccaria

As many people have said--and still say--it can often seem like you're passing from one stage set to another as you make your way around Venice at any time of the day. But on a foggy night, as above, a simple street lamp or two can create the impression of lighting effects engineered by the old Venetian resident Mariano Fortuny within his celebrated cyclorama dome.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Seasonal San Marco: Tree Is Up, Crowds Are Down (Temporarily)

With today's Festa dell'Immacolata Concezione--a national holiday--the Christmas season is considered to have begun in earnest. Meanwhile I continue to celebrate the lull in tourist traffic, which is a gift in itself.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

When the "Off Season" Consists Merely of a Few Scattered Weeks...

The setting sun yesterday in a hazy sky above the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore try to appreciate each hour of them if you're a resident.

I mean, who could have imagined just 10 days ago that at, say, high noon, there would be no line to get into the basilica of San Marco? That you could take the main thoroughfare connecting Piazza San Marco to the Rialto, the Merceria, and not once find your path blocked by at least one head-phoned tour group of 75 folks lumbering along at a Zombie Apocalypse pace? That in the late afternoon you wouldn't have to thread your way through a mass of at least 1,000 day-trippers filling the Riva degli Schiavoni, all waiting for their various lancioni, or shuttle boats, to return them to their tour buses?

That, in short, you might not feel obliged to avoid the historic center at all costs?

Now that the Biennale has closed, and in these weeks before Christmas, the city is almost unrecognizable--in the best way imaginable. It feels as if the city itself has finally been freed from a very long and very intense migraine: its face no longer distorted by the usual stress, its breath finally coming easily. It's marvelous.

It won't last.

The marketers have cooked up their brand new New Year's "tradition"--it's all of about 2 years old, I believe--of "A Kiss at Midnight in Piazza San Marco" and the hoards will come and basically ransack the place, scaling the facade of the Palazzo Ducale in order to take "selfies" and leaving behind their trash and bodily waste. Perhaps our grandstanding mayor, Brugnaro (who recently offered Venice as the site of an international anti-terrorist summit between Obama and Putin--only to be completely ignored), will even extend the hours of the bars for the night as he did on Redentore.

But why get ahead of myself? Venice seems for these few weeks to belong temporarily to its residents. This is something to savor.   

These are not actual "mordi e fuggi" (or bite and run) tourists being removed from Venice yesterday, but some figures from the Chinese artist Lio Ruo Wang's Venice Biennale installation in the former convent of San Salvador 

Fewer crowds mean the chance to notice details you've missed for years--such as these seasonal ones--though they're located in obvious places

Sunday, November 29, 2015

An Elegant Native of the Lagoon, This Afternoon

An egretta garzetta, or little egret, looks for a bite this afternoon, with Murano as a distant backdrop. Hunted extensively in the 19th century for their plumes--used to adorn hats--they became extinct in several regions of Europe. But since coming under the protection of conservation laws in 1950 they have made a comeback and are no longer considered in danger of extinction.

Though the above image was taken near the island of Certosa, they can now be seen in the city of Venice proper--sometimes on Riva degli Schiavoni, for example-- which a native Venetian told me was never the case when she was growing up 30 years ago. Back then you'd have to venture out into the lagoon to see them. But, she says, decreasing numbers of fish in the lagoon at large have forced the egrets to risk coming into closer contact with humans. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Autumn Trio

Some young musicians aspire to perform before a sea of faces in a huge stadium show; these three were content with the waters of the Giudecca Canal as their audience.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

L'Inferno on the Zattere, This Afternoon

Scenes from a spirited one-man performance of an adaptation of Dante's great work. I know nothing about the performer except he's awfully good at portraying tormented souls and is worth watching if you happen upon him.

The toxic industrial hell of Marghera makes a fitting backdrop for a performance of Dante's Inferno

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Stormy Festa della Madonna della Salute This Year

The candle-lighters had nothing like the usual crowds to deal with this year, but were kept busy, instead, relighting candles repeatedly blown out by the wind

Candles and helium balloons are, respectively, the sacred and profane ritualistic elements of Venice's annual Festa della Madonna della Salute and in past years I sometimes wondered what, if anything, was the connection between the one item lit within the church and the other that bobbed in enormous masses outside it, waiting to be bought by excited kids.

This year the answer (or at least an answer) was revealed: high winds wreak havoc with both of them.

Rain isn't unusual on this feast day, celebrated on 21 November and rivaling the fireworks of the summer's Festa Del Redentore as the city's most important holiday, and I've never known it to diminish the crowds. But the gale-force winds that accompanied this past Saturday's storm were strong enough to keep a good many people from venturing out of the house, even for the purpose of petitioning St Mary for a year's worth of good health. And neither the promise of a balloon nor marzipan (frutta finta, is what Sandro calls it: "fake fruit") could get Sandro, or anyone else, to accompany me.

So it was a low-key affair this year: the balloon sellers forced to crowd their massive clouds of floating merchandise beneath a sottoportego or within the dark entrance hall of a nearby palazzo, the sweet stalls bereft of traffic, and the vast majority of candles on one side of the church blown out almost as soon as they were lit by the wind gusting through the church's open doors.

Nor did I make castradina this year: the ritual dish specific to this holiday whose preparation, like the resurrection, is a three-day process.

So for those interested in finding out just how one goes about preparing the smoked, spiced, sun-dried leg of mutton called castradina or seeing images of the feast celebrated in full force I'd refer you to the links below:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Favorite Work of Art at the 56th Venice Biennale

At times one or both of "Work Songs" co-creators also performed: in the above image, Jason Moran, on piano, with Jamet Pittman and Roosevelt André Credit

My favorite work of art in the current Venice Biennale, Jason Moran and Alica Hall Moran's "Work Songs", strikes me as the fullest realization of the two qualities that the Biennale's General Director Okwui Enwezor said he had in mind when he decided to create a performance space in the very center of the Central Pavilion: "liveness" and "epic duration."

Of course, the piece I've been participating in since the exhibition's opening in early May, an ongoing public reading of the whole of Das Kapital in English, also embodies these qualities. Marx's huge work itself is both epic and epochal, and reading a little more of it each session--typically 3 times every day--is an exercise in endurance as well as duration. But as "live" as we readers may be, we don't stray from the text, whereas the various singers (solo or in pairs) who have performed "Work Songs" can, and do, make the project into something new with each performance.

So if you're lucky (as I've been) to see a lot of the performances, you can't help but be struck by the infinite variety of approaches and moods evident in each 40 minute performance. This is "liveness" in the fullest sense of the word, and each performance is both a reiteration and a furthering of the whole project--which itself starts to seem like a nearly 7-month-long epic song, progressing as a song does, through repetition and variation.

The basis of "Work Songs"--which is performed Thursday through Sunday at 4:40 pm--is a recorded 40-minute series of tracks created with a variety of instruments, electronic beats, samples, and/or field recordings. The singers are given a track list with each track's running time and the lyrics of each song that should "go" with each track, but the tracks almost never have any obvious melodic relation to the song. This ain't karaoke; there aren't the expected, recognizable tunes to sing along with.  Instead, for example, the first song on the list, "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore", is accompanied by a rhythmic sound of chains, which returns this well-known song to its documented origins among slaves living on an island off the coast of South Carolina.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (at left) and Lisa E. Harris performed both as a pair and solo during their weeks in the piece

But the singers themselves are in no way bound to approaching the track list in a certain way. Which isn't at all surprising given the musical versatility, inventiveness, and just plain fearlessness of the project's co-creators who, three years ago, were given an entire floor of New York City's Whitney Museum of Art to do as they liked with for five days as part of that institution's own biennial (

One afternoon last summer, Alicia Hall Moran mentioned (almost in passing) in regards to "Work Songs" that they had aimed to create something that the singers could perform in front of a predominantly white audience without embarrassment--the embarrassment, I took it, of being little more than the rote representatives of a stereotypical "Black experience," doing traditional songs in crowd-pleasing ways.

As she talked a little about creating the piece I got the impression that even in the middle of doing so they had a sense of the singers they knew who would be perfect for it. But this wasn't a just job they were putting together for those singers (though singers are always happy when those come along), this was the kind of project that would, ideally, draw some of their best work out of them.

Jason Moran told me that when Okwui first contacted them about creating a live piece he warned them it would be staged in an arena area that people would pass through on their way to see other galleries. Perhaps they'd sit for a few minutes, but then they'd move on. And the piece would be, probably, 20 minutes long. Jason agreed. Then Okwui contacted him again and asked "How about making it 40 minutes long?"

"No problem," Jason replied. But then, Jason said, he set to work on it and he realized it wasn't so easy to occupy 40 minutes of empty stage time. "That's work," he said, "filling up that time. There were times I wished we'd just stuck to 20 minutes."

Indeed, filling up 40 minutes of stage time can be hard on the singers as well, regardless of the fact that almost all of them are not only classically-trained opera singers, but adept and gifted in an astonishing array of styles, with extensive and impressive resumes.

In fact, one singer told me that the classically-trained part of herself was about ready to freak out when she was first given the skeletal set list and told to have at it. She showed me the few pages inside the slim hardback book each singer brings to the podium with her or him and said, "Really, where is the rest of the material? I was like: This is it?!"

In addition to performing with Steven Herring (at left), Anthony Mills is now performing the piece solo

"Work Songs," in other words, is not only all about work, but it is itself work, and the experience of this work for the singer, the process, is foregrounded. Paradoxically, the unchanging nature of the recorded accompaniment puts more rather than less pressure upon the performer to be present for each session, to explore each piece anew each time--taking it apart or embroidering it, or both--and risking that it might just fall flat, instead of simply presenting a tidy, rehearsed, predictable performance.

I asked another singer one day if, given the challenges of the piece, there were ever sessions when she was tempted to "take it easy"? Just deliver the songs as the crowd-pleasers that someone with her voice and training and experience and charisma could make them, simply overwhelming whatever complexity or discordance the recorded tracks might present?

"No," she answered without hesitation, "that would be hard, not easy. There's work and then there's work. That would be drudgery."

In other words, among the many things going on in "Work Songs" (and I'm just scratching the surface here), one of them has to do with the dignity of work (just as Marx concerns himself with the same issue in Das Kapital, and the British artist Jeremy Deller does in his small piece not far away in the Central Pavilion displaying the electronic monitor each Amazon warehouse worker must wear on his or her wrist that constantly monitors their efficiency). The list of songs begins with purposeful, hopeful effort (even if originally sung by slaves), continues with the energy of "Rock Island Line" (originating with railway workers, then prisoners) and the mythic impulse of "John Henry," before gradually giving way to something that can be as crushing in its own way as hard labor: joblessness.

In this collection of work songs and spirituals the refrain of a panhandler on a city street--a field recording--is given its own place. "I'm looking for work," he repeats in the recording, "I'd rather work. Please help me if you can," in rhythms that are reminiscent of the songs we've heard earlier. As in them, the rhythm of these repeated lines seems to function as a defense against despair, a way to keep going, to mark time, and to assert one's humanity in the midst of conditions that would otherwise strip it away.

There's no way you can tap your foot to this, and it's often one of the most charged moments of each performance when the singers on stage take up this refrain themselves. Here, too, different singers (or the same singer on different days) handle this material in radically different ways. I've seen these lines sung with defiance and energy. I've seen them stripped of emotion and made strange like the found lyrics of some contemporary art song. I've seen them handled like lines of poetry, whose significance can only hope to be gleaned in the act of singing them: each word weighed in the uttering, each phrasing investigated for heft. I've seen them turned into the most heartbreaking or most anguished appeal you're ever likely to hear. I've seen them almost completely passed over.

Much of the time many people in the audience have no idea what to make of this part, and in certain performances the discomfort is palpable, and people simply walk out. In certain sessions it's been impossible to figure out if the singer really is asking for money--whether it's performance, in other words, or an actual request. Is it art or life we're dealing with here?

In fact, I've seen members of the audience give money to a singer--whose intention wasn't to actually receive donations, but who couldn't refuse them without destroying the performance.

I guess the question is at such times: is the singer working as an artist or working as a person in actual need? Or more generally: What kind of performance is this? Is it a performance at all?

Which, now that I think about it, are the same questions most of us ask ourselves when confronted by people in need outside the Biennale. As if the hard work that all of us find ourselves having to do involves at its most basic level simply seeing each other, recognizing what others need, and figuring out how (or if) to respond. 

In any case, where "Work Songs" goes from this point, how it moves toward its conclusion--its mood and its method--varies (like the rest of the piece) each day, even when performed by the same singer. There are performances which are pretty lighthearted, performances involving audience participation, others that are of operatic intensity, still others that are more like poetry. Some performances dive into the bleakest depths, others seem to reach some spiritual transcendence, and some few that I've seen from each performer, whether solo or in a duet, that simply blow apart the given form and take you on a ride you could never have predicted--and that can't be repeated.

It's this unpredictability, the inspired interplay between form and freedom encouraged (demanded?) by the piece, and the sheer talent of the various singers that has kept me going back to the piece throughout the summer (with the exception of its first weeks, when anxiety about doing my own job for Das Kapital Oratorio left me no room to take in anything else). I'd guess I've seen at least a third of all the performances; maybe closer to almost half.  

Those planning to attend the closing days of the Biennale still have the chance to catch one of the last three performances of "Work Songs" on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday (the 19th, 20th, or 21st of November) at 4:40, starring the immensely talented Anthony Mills.

UPDATE: 25 November: to listen to a full live performance of "Work Songs" by Anthony Mills visit:


For those interested in checking out the just-released new album by Alicia Hall Moran, Heavy Blue, visit:

For those who might want to catch Jason Moran perform live (something I'd recommend), here's a link to  his upcoming shows (both in the US and Europe): Elsewhere on the same site you can listen to his recordings, etc. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Invisible Venice

A mid-day gondola ride on the Grand Canal, two days ago

These are the days of the invisible city: the first fog of the autumn has settled in this week.

I overheard someone say, "Imagine if you were only here for a day and all you could see was this fog! What a waste."

Of course it's not like you can see absolutely nothing. Most of this week you have, most of the time, at least a range of a city block--sometimes a little less, sometimes a lot less. But what you definitely lose are the sweeping vistas, the Canaletto views, the palazzi stretching from the Accademia Bridge to Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana, the basilica of San Marco and the clock tower beyond the Palazzo Ducale as seen from the bacino, and, of course--one of the most famous views of all--San Giorgio Maggiore seen from the molo.

I like to imagine one of the big cruise ships coming into the city under such conditions (though, in reality, they don't); to imagine the crowds lining the upper railing, and the others, mostly in pairs, penned into their private balconies. All of them looking from on high out onto a blank screen of fog, instead of the views they'd been led to expect by the promotional videos and other materials.

Would the operatic Broadway tune that I've heard some of the big ships filling their decks with during such transits help the passengers fill in the vast ghostly blank? With enough saccharine soar and swoop from the loudspeakers could a mass vision of the unseen city be conjured, coerced, dictated?

(In fact, the very last thing I'd want to be subjected to--be literally unable to escape from, short of jumping overboard--as I saw Venice for the first time, would be a soundtrack. Especially one selected by someone else! To have forever after the image of the city and some prerecorded rot linked in my mind.)

In realty, there's still plenty to experience in such conditions: the city reduced to a more intimate scale: chamber music, rather than opera; sketches of graphite or muted pastels instead of canvases.

I imagine one or two people arriving in Venice for just the day from clear sunny Tuscany not to find the city they'd been expecting--the city, in a sense, that they had already seen, even if they'd never been here before--but, instead, something like a game of exquisite corpse awaiting them.

Exquisite corpse (cadavre exquis), also known as picture consequences, was a game invented by the Surrealists in which a number of people draw a single human figure. Each person draws one section of the body, but the drawing paper is folded in such a way that each participant only sees a bare minimum of what the preceding participant has drawn. In my grade school we did a simplified version of this, in which we were given a fragment of an image--say, the torso of a basketball player--and were asked to draw the rest of the body and its surroundings.

Imagine the city of Venice our visitors might piece together from the mere fragments, the patches, that the fog allows them to view.

Visiting Piazza San Marco in particularly heavy fog, when the campanile is reduced to a stump and hardly more than the ground floor of the surrounding buildings is visible, what would prevent them from imagining three or four or more stories atop what's visible of both the Procuratie Nuove and Vecchie and the Ala Napoleonica? Their Piazza would no longer be, then, the "grandest drawing room in Europe," but, rather, tiered all around to a great height: Europe's greatest jewel-box opera house.

The ground-floor columns and arches of the basilica of San Marco might culminate, for all our visitors can see, in pyramidal forms and a forest of standards representing every region ruled by the old Venetian Republic at its most powerful. The base of the the campanile might support the modernist tower that progressive factions advocated for after its complete collapse in 1902.

Indeed, as far as our visitors can see, the campanile might actually be in the Austrian Successionist style of Oscar Wagner, whose criticism of the plan to rebuild the collapsed campanile "where it was, as it was" led in 1911 to Wagner's own modern style being satirized by the illustrator F. Graetz in the image at right (from the catalog of an exhibition at the Musei Civici Veneziani:        
In the fog the skyline of Venice could be, as far as anyone knows, thick with campanili (as medieval Florence was once punctuated by towers), in the most wide-ranging and fanciful styles, built by churches, parishes, and even wealthy individual families. Each of them the product of an aesthetic competition that continued for centuries, and which Pierre Cardin--traditionalist that he is--was merely trying to revive with his overweening tower plans for the nearby mainland (

Taking a ride down the Grand Canal in the fog our two visitors could imagine the obscured roof line of each and every palazzo adorned with the pair of obelisks that signal it once housed an admiral of the mighty Venetian fleet. Venice as the city of admirals!

In other words, Venice in the fog could become for our imaginary pair of day-trippers (or any of us) as malleable an entity as it is for Italo Calvino's Marco Polo in the book Invisible Cities. It could become the starting point for any number of fictions.

Or, to put it another way, our two visitors could get the whole city completely wrong. At least objectively speaking. But in getting it wrong would they experience the city more keenly than those of us who concern ourselves (sometimes excessively) with getting the places we visit right?   

Perhaps the more blanks we have to fill in in a city, the more closely we are compelled to look in order to try to decode (or, more likely, imagine) what's going on--because of fog or for whatever reason--perhaps the more we actually notice. And it's not hard to imagine that getting it so wrong might give our two day-trippers more to talk about between themselves than getting it right would.  

I suspect that much of the time many of us travel in search of some definitive view of wherever we are visiting. I mean, that's what guided tours and travel books and the bird's-eye overview promised by the big ships bloating through the San Marco bacino promise. But I guess what I'm wondering is whether in the midst (or mist) of foggy disorientation might it be possible to experience more rather than less of Venice?

Monday, November 9, 2015

From Venice to Rome and Back

A panorama of the Forum (please click for larger view)
To travel from Venice to Rome right now is to watch the world through the train window seem to undergo a gradual metamorphosis from the immaterial to the corporeal.

On a summer trip through Italy the heat and blaze of the long days, the brevity of one's stopovers, the soreness of one's own feet, and the crush of one's fellow tourists, can all make the most diverse locales seem as much alike as different. But not now.

In these days of early November, with their mists and fog, Venice seems to become as much a figment of the clouds' imagination as of the sea's. While clear sunny Rome, on the other hand--a good 10 or 12 Fahrenheit degrees warmer--seems the creation of its hills: as prodigious and intense as the mythical wrestler Antaeus, whose strength emanated from his mother earth. Hercules was only able to get the better of him by lifting him into the air--the kind of thing a writer like Italo Calvino might manage on the page. But being neither Calvino nor Hercules, I'm content to leave the city where it sits.  

For the autumn haze persists beyond watery Venice, all the way to Ferrara and beyond, lingering in a series of flat landscapes where a few tall lone trees are scattered sparsely about like the meager figures of one of Giacometti's Piazza sculptures, or in brief lines like the vases in a Giorgio Morandi still-life, the palette just as restrained. Autumn announces itself here quietly: a light yellow wash upon the leaves and a flattening of perspective, and with all the muted existential melancholy of Giorgio Bassani's novel The Heron or some of Michelangelo Antonioni's films--to cite two famous Ferraresi.

As you approach Florence the mists vanish, the landscape cheers, the world assumes mass. But not
the mass of Rome, not the mass of the ruins in the Forum, on the Palatine Hill, or scattered all around the city. Not the immensity of St Peter's and the Vatican Museums whose very massiveness seems--in spite of the church's rejection of pagan Rome--like nothing so much as a continuation of the old Empire by other means (though for many many centuries just as inclined to use violence). Not something entirely other, the revolution promised by its founder, but just the flip-side of the same coin: the victim (its myriad martyrs encrypted around the city) become the victimizer.

In any case, how marvelous it was to be in an actual city again! With its energy and its traffic and its mobs--of residents, not just tourists! As Florence did not, as Turin did not, as Genova did not, as Catania did not--as Palermo did somewhat--Rome reminded Jen and I of what we liked about New York City, the certain feel of it, for all the differences. Just as I began to wonder about what rents were like I happened upon her looking at an online real estate site.

But we returned to Venice, making the journey yesterday afternoon back into the mists of our ordinary life. As we approached the damp air overwhelmed the heat of the train car we rode in, which had tended toward the stifling for much of the trip. I shivered and put on a sweater, thinking of the warmth of Rome. And even the sight of fishing nets staked in the lagoon to either side of the railway bridge didn't entirely clear the appealing sense of that city from my bloodstream. But then, as we pulled into Santa Lucia station, Sandro started quite literally to bounce on his seat and whoop, then to exclaim, "We're home! We're home! We're home!" and so we were. So we are.

After living in Venice for five years you find yourself irresistibly drawn to images of boats, even from among the countless scenes depicted on the gargantuan columns of the emperors (this particular one celebrating Trajan)...  
...and of all the Venuses in a place like the Borghese Gallery this one, painted by Titian and reminiscent of similar figures of his still remaining in Venice, seems almost like coming across the image of an old neighbor in a strange city (detail from Titian's Venus Blindfolding Cupid)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Peek Inside Sant' Andrea della Zirada

Sant' Andrea della Zirada is the pleasant little gothic church directly in front of the Piazzale Roma vaporetto stop for the 6 line; the one overshadowed, literally, by the elevated tram line running alongside it and, figuratively, by one's concerns about getting wherever one is going from Piazzale Roma. After being used as a private studio for some time by a sculptor, it was finally reopened to the public last spring as the site of an exhibition of refrigeration technology used for art preservation (

The sight of a man at work in the church last week (see image above) made me hope it might soon host another exhibit--though he didn't tell me anything specific when I quickly leaned in the slightly open door and asked him about it on my way somewhere else. At present I'm in Rome, but perhaps can find out more when I return next week.

For much more about this church--which, like the church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli was once situated at the western extreme of the city, with open views of the lagoon and mainland--please visit the fine Churches in Venice website ( or the equally interesting Churches of Venice website (

Added 12 November: And for a lot more images of the interior of the church, freshly posted (and taken last May), please visit the informative Hello World blog:

Friday, October 30, 2015

Autumn Colors Near the Rialto, Today

Not much in the way of actual foliage, but the selection of colors is right... You take what you can get in this intensely human-made city.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Unseen Venice

"The most memorable photos are those not taken."

Someone somewhere must have written the above. Perhaps sometime around the middle of the last century, perhaps in a language other than English. Probably more than one person in one place.

I think of it this morning because of an experience I had Monday evening. I was motoring slowly home down the Grand Canal after picking up our newly repaired cover for our little sandolo-sanpierota boat and right there, suddenly, low and large and yellow-tinted just beside the facade of the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi (aka the Casinò di Venezia)--still below it's roofline, in fact--was the full moon. Or nearly the full moon (one night short, actually). 

It was just 5:30 pm, already dark, but not yet completely: there was a silvery sheen like an evanescent after-image of daylight on everything. The repeated arches and 11 circular windows of the palazzo's facade seemed to mimic the shape of the moon right next door to them, and the palazzo's many pairs of tall electric candlesticks bordering each column of its upper two stories were, for the time being, holding their own against the lunar light.

In other words, a perfectly composed photograph presented itself to me. I could imagine the sense of proximity a telephoto lens would emphasize between the casino facade and the moon, the latter just above the line of Grand Canal palazzi sweeping left to right into the distance toward the Rialto. 

I sat on the back-end of our boat, steering the 6 horsepower outboard engine with my right hand, a small point-and-shoot in my backpack near my feet. It wouldn't be ideal, but if I set the f-stop manually and used the zoom... But there was still (as usual) plenty of traffic on the Grand Canal--the Riva de Biasio stop on one side, the Cannaregio Canal on the other--and short of simply stopping and tying up the boat somewhere with the same perspective (if I could find it), there was no way I could capture an image. 

But capture it for whom? For myself? I was already seeing it all, right there at the moment--whenever I allowed myself not to worry about taking an image. 

For this blog? Yes, of course. But what's the infinitesimally small likelihood in this most photographed of cities that someone--or many ones--haven't already captured an image very much like this one? And better? There are, as I type these words, 127,518 images posted on just the Flickr Venice group page alone--with new ones being added every hour.

These days the old idea that we preserve an experience from obliteration/obscurity/anonymity by photographing it has been turned on its head. Things are no longer, as in the old days, obliterated by the passage of time, fading slowly from sight. No, they're obliterated in the sheer overwhelming excess of the moment. 

The traditional stream or river of Time that was long described as carrying off everything we cherished has nothing on today's tumultuous torrent of the Instantaneous and Now, likely to overwhelm our dear images right before our eyes.

And for all the memory cards we're filling up these days with images and video--and nowhere more than Venice--how many of us will have any of them in two years? In five years?

Indeed, the fear among historians is that in spite of the fact that never in human history have so many people so easily recorded so much, the transient nature of the media and the rapidity of technological change will result in very little of these images surviving--or being viewable (

Whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, technology has burdened all of us with the task of acting as archivists of our own history in a far more complex manner than simply tossing some photos into a box, putting it in a closet, and forgetting about it. 

At least that's one way of looking at it. 

Another has more to do with some points that Susan Sontag made in On Photography. From my numerous but limited interactions with Sontag herself it was hard not to notice a likeness between her and Dostoevsky's character of Ivan Karamazov, who admits to both a love of humanity in the abstract and a repulsion from actual human beings: of whom he can't help but be contemptuous, and to whom he can't help but be rude. At her most provocative, Sontag accuses us shutterbugs of ethical failings. At other times (our "better" moments, I guess) we are, as she writes below, merely cowardly, infantile, and weak-minded:
The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. 
Of course, a camera is not the only way one can defend oneself from experiences, novelties, other people. Knowledge, as Sontag herself must surely have known, or even just the pretense of it, works awfully well, too--and has been doing so since long before photography came along.

Anyone who travels much, or spends much time in places visited by tourists, is likely to be familiar with the Know-It-All, who at the first sight of a palazzo, for example, will launch into a flood of information (accurate or otherwise) that one can't help but feel is a defense against some kind of actual experience itself. As if he or she must strike out at the sight or experience first, before the sight or experience has a chance to strike him or her. As if, in other words, tourism is a matter of "Kill or be killed."

All of which is a long explanation of why there is no image at the top of this post--though, inevitably, there will be plenty more to come in future posts. I see no inherent virtue in not taking photos, and no inherent vice in doing so. In fact I remember quite clearly and with much fondness one afternoon just after buying my first SLR film camera that I spent alone in Big Sur taking photos, feeling that the camera itself was what spurred me to a new appreciation and attention to a landscape I'd seen before.

Perhaps there's something to be said for someone who shoots a lot of photographs putting the camera or smart phone away for a few hours in Venice, just to see what it feels like to be in such a place without one's old friend and usual way of seeing. Perhaps it's worthwhile for those who never (or almost  never) shoot photos to go out on the hunt for images for a few hours here. Again, just for the sake of seeing what difference it makes in one's own experience of the place.

As both Kant and Freud wrote, the experiences that strike us most profoundly, that leave (as we say) the most lasting impressions upon us, are those we aren't prepared for, that we don't expect, against which we don't (or simply can't) employ our usual filters or modes of understanding. The kinds of surprises that might appear to any one of us around any one of Venice's infinite corners or bends or blind alleys--if we can allow ourselves not to be prepared for them, in whatever way that means for each of us.

UPDATE: 28 November 2015: This article about the Rijksmueum encouraging its visitors to sketch instead of take photos offers a related perspective on the above theme:

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tidying Up At Day's End--and Your Chance to Board an Italian Navy Training Ship

The Italian flag is lowered at the end of the day to the strains of the national anthem
An Italian naval ship has been moored alongside the Riva for the last couple of days during the 10th Regional Seapower Symposium of the Mediterranean and Black Sea held at the Arsenale and attended by representatives of 49 of the world's navies (

Aside from actual cruise ships, this Italian ship is the only thing that has rivaled in size the mega-yachts of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (which was moored around the same spot for over a week last month, and about which you can read more here:, and Roman Abramovich (whose own mega-yacht it's not hard to imagine may be more heavily armed than the Italian navy ship).

For the last three days the past and present of the Italian navy were represented along the Riva, as you can see in the image below. The Palinuro, the three-masted iron-hulled barquentine, launched in 1934 and still in use as a training vessel, will remain here until at least Sunday, and is open to the public according to the schedule below:

Saturday, 24 October and Sunday, October 25:

--from 10 am until noon

--from 3 pm until 6 pm,

--from 9 pm until 11 pm

Though the closer ship above has departed, the three-mast ship in the background (and below) will remain in Venice through the weekend