Thursday, January 29, 2015

In the Marketplace of Souls, Part 2

A few months ago, when the weather was warm and mercatini (or flea markets) bloomed regularly in various campi around Venice, I asked the co-proprietor of a certain antique shop I often find myself wandering into if they set up their own table at such events. She said they did, and were about to participate in another one the following weekend, but she looked far from pleased at the prospect.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece about some differences between looking to buy an apartment in Venice and in New York City: differences stemming from, and underlining, the very different relationship that many Venetians and many New Yorkers have with their objects and property ( The differences, however, show up in more than just the Venetian real estate market.

In that post I quoted Marcel Proust's description of the Celtic belief that the souls of the dying become, at death, "captive" in some object, in which each awaits the slim chance that one of us among the living who knew them in life will happen to pass the object that now imprisons them and, in the act of recognizing them, set them free to share in our own life. In Proust this possibility is presented as nothing less than a miracle, a resurrection. For those merchants displaying their wares on the tables of a mercatini it is a nightmare. 

"There!" someone in the straggling stream of passersby suddenly bursts out, "that lamp is my Uncle Alvise's!"

And before the merchant knows it, the relative has gathered up the lamp (with perhaps the soul of her uncle inside it) and is ready to walk off with it.

"Signora," the merchant interjects as politely and firmly as possible, "that lamp is for sale."

"For sale? Why would I pay you for something that belongs to my family?"

"Because it does not belong to your family anymore. It now belongs to us, and we are offering it for sale."

Nothing about this interaction has been pleasant to this point, but now it only gets worse. This is when the merchant may be accused of being a thief. "Please, Signora," the merchant assures her, "we do not deal in stolen property."

Or it is when the relative demands to know exactly from whom the lamp was purchased. "I'm sorry," our merchant says, "I don't know the answer to that. My partner, who is not here, finds all of our merchandise." 

Or, worst of all, it is when the relative embarks on a long, painful, and often quite bitter account of how she (or he), the relative, suspects the item came into the possession of the merchant. It's not unusual for an inter-generational drama to be conjured up on the spot. Like that old illustration of Charles Dickens surrounded by his characters while he sits at his writing desk, so the air of the mercatino becomes thickly peopled with aggrieved and suffering family members, some long dead, some still living, all usually quite quarrelsome. "His first wife, my mother's sister," says the relative, "was the kindest woman you could ever meet, but when she died, the second wife...  A pig! She would sell the gold fillings from his mouth while he lived"

And so it goes.

The air around a mercatino table can become as thickly-populated with characters and stories as the writing desk of Charles Dickens in this illustration by Robert William Buss (wikipedia commons)
To put an end to the exhaustive narrative, the merchant might be tempted to let her take the damn lamp. But Venice, as visitors may not fully appreciate, is a very small town, in which nearly everyone knows everyone, and as her partner obtains all of his merchandise from estate sales within the city, there could very well be no end to the relatives (near or distant) claiming the right to walk away with this or that item from the merchant's table or shop.

No less unpleasant, though, are those encounters when the merchant knows exactly how the object came into the shop's possession. Knows, in fact, much more about the relationship between the object, its former owner, and her current interlocutor, than the latter knows.

The merchant told me about one afternoon when a passerby pulled up abruptly at her mercatino table looking as if he had seen a ghost. Though in this case, alas, the former owner of the object in question was still very much alive.

It was an art object that was at issue, a very particular one, which the man now standing on the other side of her table looking utterly flummoxed, had especially commissioned to be made for a friend. Why, it was unbelievable, utterly incomprehensible, that this particular piece, this beautiful made-to-his-exact-specifications art object, should be sitting for sale on this table among all the bric-a-brac!
How could it possibly have ever ended up here? His friend had not died. Nothing had, as far as he knew, changed in their relationship.

Perhaps it had been stolen!

The merchant knew very well it had not been stolen, but this was one instance in which she didn't emphasize this point so much as usual. In which she tried, in fact, to say as little as possible, limiting herself, instead, to her maximum capacity of wordless commiseration. For she knew first-hand that the former owner herself had sold the piece to the shop, eager to be finally rid of it after holding on to it, out of friendship or pity or guilt, for as long as she could bear it.

In truth, whatever the intentions or sentiment that motivated its commissioned creation, and in spite of the abundant skill of the artisan who crafted it, it was, the merchant said, really quite a hideous piece. It had value because of its maker, but she said few people would blame the recipient of such a gift for wanting it out of sight, or to be rid of it completely. 

And yet to watch the originator of this gift agonizing on the other side of the table, struggling to avoid the implications of this chance encounter with an object he'd commissioned to embody what he  thought of as the spirit of his relationship with his friend, was, really, much worse than dealing with those relatives who simply wanted to walk away with objects that had once belonged to some dead member of their family.

In the latter case, the sight of the object reawakened in the relatives a feeling of kinship, of affiliation (with the deceased owner of the piece, if not with the despised family member(s) who had sold it off). The ugly art object, though, seemed to awaken in the man who'd stumbled upon it a dim (but growing) hint of some distance he'd never imagined before in his relationship to his friend. That she would not hold onto this piece he'd had especially made for her suggested limits to her affection that he'd never imagined before.

The way my merchant friend looked after she had recalled these experiences to me as she sat in her own shop made me say, using a word often used by Italians (which could itself be the subject of a post) and gesturing to the items around us, "All of these objects are heavy (pesante) with history, aren't they?"

"Very heavy (molto pesante)," she replied, looking weary at the thought of it all.

Just after the new year I stopped by the shop again and asked if they'd participated in any of the mercatini before Christmas.

"No," she said.

"Too cold, right?" I replied. "Better to wait for warmer weather."

But she said that she and her partner had decided not to do any more mercatini at all. Her relief in this decision was obvious. I told her I remembered what she'd told me months ago of her more difficult experiences at mercatini. She nodded, said she was happy to be escaping from that.

Of course when I then walked around the shop I felt, as I have before, that such a place is not exactly a carefree environment in which to spend one's days, dense as it is with the past, with the spirits of those whose unrecorded lives seem to be off-gassed from the last commonplace traces of their daily existence (an old iron, a set of glasses, of dishes), all clamoring for some vague acknowledgement, by anyone, before vanishing completely forever. But as abundant as such spirits may or may not be in such places, I suppose it's really the living, and their relationships with both the dead and the quick, that ultimately weigh (and wear) most heavily upon us. 

[link to Part I on this theme:]

Monday, January 26, 2015

In the Shadows of History: The Once Ferocious Campo Sant' Agnese

A group of women chats in Campo San't Agnese on a recent Sunday afternoon 
Campo Sant' Agnese is a quiet, picturesque campo in the shadow of the church of the I Gesuati, at the Zattere end of the long filled-in canal that forms the direct route between the Giudecca and the Grand canals. It seems only lightly populated by Venetians these days: sometimes a few kids will be playing in it, sometimes (as above) a group of young local mothers will come together to catch up at the end of a weekend afternoon.

I can never pass by or through it, though, without being reminded of a time when the campo and its parish was infamous for its ferociousness and hostility to outsiders.

This was during the late Renaissance, from the end of the 16th until the end of the 17th century, when the riotous and sometimes deadly Wars of the Fists (battagliole degli pugni) were staged between the city's two rival factions, the Nicolotti and the Castellani, on the various "fighting bridges" around Venice. An entertaining and well-documented (refreshingly so, after those many books on Venice that ask us to accept their claims on faith) account of these battles and their central place in Venetian culture is offered by historian Robert C. Davis in The War of the Fists: Popular Culture and Public Violence in Late Renaissance Venice, Oxford Univ Pr, 1994). I posted a brief review of this book three years ago, and it's a book I find myself returning to often (

Though officially illegal, these great battles were hugely popular both with the working class and the city's patricians (who often sponsored their favorite champions), and more than once were staged at the special request of visiting princes, lords or bishops. Consisting, first, of a series of individual brawls between a representative of each faction in which the goal was to knock one's rival from the rail-less bridge by any means possible, the culmination of each day's combat was always a violent no-holds-barred scrum for control of the bridge between as many Castellani and Nicolotti as could get within harm's range of one another. Often enough some combatants were maimed, crushed to death, or drowned. This was part of the fun.

Two of the favorite fighting bridges of the era, near Campo Santa Fosca and Campo San Barnaba, have retained the fours pairs of marble footprints--a pair in each corner of the bridge's crown--designating the place from which each combatant began the one-on-one fights, as well as the place for one representative from each faction (in lieu of an actual disinterested referee).

But another good fighting bridge, with ample space all around it for the tens of thousands of participants and viewers that attended the battles, lay steps away from Campo Sant' Agnese, on the Zattere, a short distance from where the church of I Gesuati now stands. The bridge was torn down when the canal it spanned was filled in in the 19th century.

There was, however, one serious problem with this bridge as a battleground: it required most members of the Nicolotti faction coming on foot to pass through the parish of Sant' Agnese, where they were prone to be battered before the battles even began. For, according to Davis, "the residents [of Sant' Agnese]--known as Gnesotti--were such hostile and volatile partisans for their faction that they were quite likely to throw stones and chairs or dump boiling water on any opposition squads that dared to cross their territory on the way to the battle site."

Indeed, through the long decades of violent animosity between the two factions, the Gnesotti distinguished themselves again and again, not only with some of the fighters they produced, but with their furious displays of partisanship--becoming, for example, so abusive of the effigy they created of one of the Nicolotti champions in 1667 as to earn the censure even of those within their own Castellani faction.

It's such fiery past residents of Sant' Agnese I'm sometimes reminded of by, paradoxically, the very openness and placidity and emptiness of the campo now. As tourists straggle past it, following a path that was once water; as a certain violinist scrapes away near the small church of Sant' Agnese, as if practicing daily in the open air (but without showing any signs of improvement); one would never suspect the savage passion that once filled the space long ago, making it (in)famous and feared throughout the city.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Gianni Berengo Gardin's Classic Photo Taken on a Vaporetto

This image was originally posted, along with a selection of other Gardin photos, at
I only recently came upon this image taken inside a vaporetto during the winter of 1960 by the great Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin and I wanted to post it, and a link to his brief account (in English) about how the image came to be, for anyone else who, like me, wasn't familiar with it (or hasn't seen it for a while):

Thursday, January 15, 2015

In the Marketplace of Souls

The above is grander than the properties I looked at last year but, lacking any images of those places, I post this one of a house currently for sale in Dorsoduro
I sometimes think that my most immediate sense of the Past and of Time, which many people arrive in Venice looking to experience, came last winter when, eager to see the interiors of as many Venice apartments as I could, I tagged along with a friend who was looking to find a relatively mid-priced apartment to buy here.

We didn't venture into any palazzi furnished with antiques. That is, with pieces whose value is inflated with connoisseurship and seems to glow with some illustrious past (sometimes largely fictional). The value of the old furniture in the apartments we saw lay entirely in their materials, craftsmanship and utility, and some pieces seemed to echo inaudibly with the voices and lives of those absent from any featured roles in history or romance or coffee table photo books.

All-in-all it was a far different experience from apartment-hunting in New York City, which I'd done rather extensively in the years before real estate prices there--already high--blasted beyond earth's gravitational field.

New Yorkers, like Americans in general, are mobile sorts. They move for work or due to a lack of it. If they make more money or have more children they look to "move up". If they retire they move to "simplify." Or if they simply grow bored they try to change their lives by changing addresses.

Italians, by contrast, still tend to hold onto houses and things--as my own Italian-American family did. As my Italian cousins, both in Piemonte and Sicily, still do. Those in the latter region still using on an almost daily basis to travel between their apartment in town and their organic olive ranch the 70-year-old American Army Jeep they purchased after the 1943 Battle of Troina. 

That the real estate market of the city with the oldest population in Italy (which is, in turn, the country with the oldest population in Europe) would embody a traditional impulse toward a certain rootedness is not surprising. Most of the apartments I saw last winter were put on the market after the death of an aged relative and, as Italians (at least of the oldest generations) are not the compulsive interior re-modelers that Americans tend to be, stepping into these apartments often gave me the vertiginous sense of stepping into another decade. I'd find myself standing, at the latest, in the mid-1980s, but also, sometimes, in the 1970s.

For a couple of the apartments I saw last winter in Venice were still so fully and meticulously furnished in a certain manner that it wasn't hard to imagine that their more obscure corners still contained atoms of oxygen lingering there since the days Aldo Moro last drew breath. I'm tempted to describe them as having the thick brown dormant atmosphere of reliquary cabinets. But this misses the sense I had that the apartment's last inhabitants--even if the very last of them had in fact died two years prior to my visit--had just hurried out a few minutes before I arrived, looking to buy the ingredients they'd need for that evening's dinner before all the shops closed up for the riposo, and due to return home imminently. Though the edicola they'd pass on their way back home would feature headlines on the freshly-signed Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel rather than anything to do with any "war on terror".   

There was a double pathos in such experiences: a vague but intimate sense, on the one hand, of the departed lives and times that had once passed between these walls, unknown though the inhabitants had been to me, and, on the other, of my own vanished past and previous lives.

That liquor cart in the salotto of a certain apartment in Sant' Elena, for example, the sun glinting on its vast array of bottles, none of which looked to have been purchased more recently than 1982, suggested not just another era and way of life, but seemed to re-animate some sense within myself of a time when such objects represented the as-yet-forbidden mysteries and rites and pleasures of an adulthood I both longed for and slightly feared.

In contrast, even the few old pieces of furniture in any New York apartment I ever saw seemed to hum--as the city itself constantly hums--with the most contemporary and up-to-date of calculations. That is, I knew that even that old heavy sideboard over there, now so prominent a feature of the living room, would occupy its present place only so long as current style validated its position. When a new mode of decoration came to the attention of the apartment's current owner, the piece would be put up for sale on or, at the very least, relegated to an inconspicuous corner.

Breezes of fashion and inevitable change rarely fail to waft through the apartments of even the least style-conscious of New Yorkers, seeming to lighten the mass of all the furniture in a room. Whereas in Venice furnishings can seem to loom in a middle-class apartment's umber air like geological formations: things that took shape in their present locations long ago, and whose arrangement could be altered by only the most determined efforts.   

Of course more frequently in New York apartments what blatantly appeared to be the very oldest pieces of furniture--those with a "simpler time's" style and a picturesque patina of wear--were actually the newest: freshly purchased with their marks of Time factory-made. Replica furnishings recalling some briny fictional family summer home on Martha's Vineyard (not far from the Kennedy's, of course) bought by someone whose own family still lived, as they always had, in land-locked Missouri.

Tasteful new mass-produced evocations of Time and Tradition without any of the actual encumbrances or burden or even trauma of actual lived experience continue to be all the rage in the American home furnishing market. In this way perhaps the contents of many American homes reflect those of the American mind in regards to history. While it seems to me the typical Italian relationship to history is rarely so optional, so commutable, so light.

Certainly no New York apartment I ever looked at made me think about a certain famous passage from Proust's In Search of Lost Time, as certain Venice apartments did. Just before relating his famous experience of the madeleine that will revivify his childhood for him, Proust writes:
I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those we have lost are captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate thing, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by out name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life. And so it is with our own past.
In the quiescent air of certain Venice apartments this Celtic myth attains a certain credibility. It's not hard to imagine--feel?--the souls of the dead former inhabitants dispersed among a select array of furnishings.

Which might explain the evident unease of those relatives who show the apartment to potential buyers themselves rather than leaving it to a realtor. Perhaps it comes mostly from the fact that selling off family property runs counter to their cultural tradition, and is necessitated these days by the more or less embarrassing circumstances of financial need or, just as often, conflict among the heirs. But the unease, or awkwardness, or sheepishness seems to show most when the relative of the deceased admits that, yes, the furniture of the place can also be included in the sale for a reasonable additional cost. Here a certain sacrilegious sense intrudes--as if dealing in family remains.

All of which makes me sometimes wonder if the souls of Venetians are not actually to be found on the cemetery island of San Michele--from which, after all, many of those interred there can be transferred after as little as a decade, depending upon their ability to pay and demand for spaces--but in the mercatini (or flea markets) that temporarily return various campi or squares around the city to something like the function they served long ago, early in the city's history, as burial grounds. There, arrayed upon folding tables, inhabiting various unremarkable items, are the souls of Venetians, awaiting--with ever-less-likelihood in a city of dwindling population--the arrival of someone who might recognize them.

What follows when such an instance of recognition does occur will be the subject of a future post.

[link to the subsequent post:]

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Setting Sun Between Us (Yesterday Evening on the South Lagoon)

I vowed a moratorium on sunset images and yet... I can't help myself. Perhaps it's best to break a New Year's resolution as early in the year as possible anyway, lest it get out of hand.

As Samuel Beckett wrote: "All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Giant Caterpillar and the Palazzo Ducale

In Italy the Christmas season officially ended yesterday, with the Feast of the Epiphany: another national holiday. Good kids woke to a some more small gifts, bad kids to coal, all left by La Befana, the generous witch with a real love of housekeeping. Even in the course of her far-flung gift-dispensing rounds she's been known to tidy up some of the houses she visits. Though, alas, not ours.

It was, for the most part, another bright blue day here, perfect weather for the strolling that many families did on the holiday, and for a last visit to Luna Park on the Riva dei Sette Martiri before school began again today.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Moon Among the Masts, The Sun in the Nets: Yesterday Evening

The image below was actually taken first, a few minutes before the image above, but I've posted more than enough sunsets lately so it's been relegated to the second position. It was interesting to see how many more nets have been set out in the lagoon south of Giudecca since the last time we were there just a couple of weeks ago, but I can't tell you why--or, actually, what exactly they're fishing for. I need to do a bit of research....