Monday, June 29, 2015

One Last Look at Danza Biennale 2015: Campo San Maurizio, Yesterday

Dancers perform Islands Revisited by the choreographer Salva Sanchis in front of an appreciative audience--and, behind it, the palazzo where Italy's greatest novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, lived for a time.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Dignity--and Thrill--of Gesture: The Biennale Danza This Weekend

Annamaria Ajmone turns the San Trovaso squero into her own stage
There are many reasons not to come to Venice right now--the immense herds of day-tripping tour groups seem more numerous and denser than ever--but one excellent reason to brave whatever frustrations you might encounter is the Biennale Danza, continuing through tomorrow, July 28.

Entitled La dignità del gesto (The Dignity of the Gesture), this edition of the Biennale Danza continues the tradition of transforming public spaces with extraordinary dance performances. Or, I should say, mostly public spaces, as one of the most electrifying of the three performances I saw yesterday took place in the suitably theatrical space of the famous squero (or boat yard) of San Trovaso: a solo dance piece entitled Buan by Annamaria Ajmone. We spectators crowded the fondamenta across the little canal that runs in front of the yard, while a few of the craftsmen who work in the yard watched from the rear of what Ajmone turned into a stage.

Other locations were the nearby Campo of San Trovaso--where six dancers performed a piece by choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb of tango-like passion and intensity (Nous serons tous des étrangers)--and Campo San't Agnese, where a troupe of ten dancers worked through the more restrained but no less compelling variations of Claudia Castelluci's Esercitazioni ritmiche (Rhythmic Exercises).

The complete program of events can be found here:

If you happen to be in Venice this weekend, I'd recommend adding some of the above events to your must-do list. 

Such public performances as those captured in this post's images, and free to all, are just a part of the whole program of events going on during the Biennale Danza, and evidence of the quality of work throughout. Though the various editions of Biennale Danza run for just a small fraction of the time that the Venice Biennales of Art or of Architecture occupy the city (typically just four days as compared to six or seven months), they're no less worthy of planning a visit to the city around. And they may even change the way one looks at those other much larger troupes of (tourist) bodies engaged in their own implicit and mysterious choreography within the city's venerable spaces.

There was no shortage of drama in Radhouane El Meddeb's Nous serons tous des  étrangers
The restricted movements and patterns of Claudia Castellucci's Esercitazioni ritmiche created another kind of drama

At a certain point of the performance a water taxi driver (bottom left) pulled his boat with his fares into the canal between the dancer and the audience (a perfect view!)--but, after an immediate outcry from the audience on the fondamenta, wisely retreated
While oblivious to such action as above, a man in a linen suit, entirely absorbed in texting, began to cross the stage of Campo San Trovaso during the middle of the performance. Quickly redirected by security, the man continued to furiously text, never once looking up as he went on his way--to the amusement of the dance's audience.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Shylock Project

Renaissance scholar, best-selling author, and National Book Award winner Stephen Greenblatt speaks about Shylock at Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore this afternoon
In anticipation of next year's 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare and the 500th anniversary of the founding of Venice's Jewish Ghetto, a series of performances and lectures organized under the name of The Shylock Project are currently in progress at various sites around Venice.

The ultimate aim of all of this summer's activity involving students, actors, scholars and writers is a major full-length production of The Merchant of Venice performed in the Ghetto itself in 2016. But the activities open to the public this summer are, like the entertaining lecture I attended this afternoon on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore by Stephen Greenblatt (one of the world's great Shakespeare scholars and author of the books Will in the World and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, among many others), themselves major events.

One of the highlights of this summer's activities will surely be tomorrow night's performance of select scenes from The Merchant of Venice by New York's Colombari Theatre Company on San Giorgio Maggiore at 9 pm. But the full list of events open to the public--the last of which occurs on July 10--is worthy of consideration. A link to the complete list, and more information on the project, may be found here:

Additional information on both this summer's activities, Venice's Ghetto and its history as inspiration for them, and the plans for 2016 written by the project's driving force, Ca' Foscari professor Shaul Bassi, can be found here:

For lovers of Shakespeare and of Venice, for anyone interested in the history of the Ghetto and its representation and the complex history of Jews in Venice, this is a fantastic project.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Michelle Obama Visits the Venice Biennale, Today

The Obama water taxi surrounded by just some of its security forces (which did not, however, include among them the vaporetto at right)
Michelle Obama, her two daughters, and her mother are visiting Venice this weekend and though, according to press reports, they're hitting sights like the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica of San Marco that are on the top of every visitor's itinerary, they're doing so with a lot less company and infinitely more security than the average tourist--or even Hollywood celebrity. No waiting in tickets lines or tourist crushes for America's First Family. But of course no privacy or freedom of movement either, and I don't think I'd like to give up the latter just to avoid the former (not that anyone's giving me the choice).

And unlike George Clooney and Amal who during their wedding weekend waved to crowds lining the canals as if they were heads of states (or the freshly-elected Doge and Dogaressa), the Obama women have been pretty hard to get a glimpse of, traveling in a water taxi surrounded by a small fleet of security, including a good half dozen police bouncing over the waves in advance, on the flanks, and behind on jet skis.

Today the Obamas stopped in at the Venice Biennale for just over an hour, arriving via the San Pietro Canal, visiting the American Pavilion where they met with artist Joan Jonas whose work is on display there, then visiting some of the pavilions located on the island of Sant' Elena, on the other bank of the San Pietro Canal, which include Brazil, Egypt, and Venice. The western end of the Biennale's grounds in the Giardini Pubblici were closed off to other Biennale visitors during the Obamas's visit, while, of course, the rest of the grounds were off limits to the Obamas themselves because of security concerns.

I saw the Obamas pass by on their way to the Biennale beneath what's called the "Fireman's Bridge" that connects Sant' Elena to the rest of Castello. Then a little while later, I walked to the other of Sant' Elena's two bridges to see if I might not get a photo of them leaving the Biennale. A few other photographers were already stationed there--pros with their telephoto lenses--and I sat down beside them and waited. I realized that to get from the American Pavilion to the rest of the pavilions at the western edge of the grounds they would have to cross an iron bridge clearly visible from where we all now sat. Alas, the photographers told me they'd already crossed it.

Now it was just a matter of waiting for them to get into the water taxi to leave. We all had a clear view of that, too, so the prospects for me, in my role as would-be paparazzi, seemed fairly good.

One paparazzo announced that the Obama's water taxi had started its engine and they all aimed their cameras.

Then one of the photographers, almost as if he was talking to himself, quietly identified each person who entered the water taxi leading up to the appearance of the First Lady: una figlia [a burst of shutter activity]... altra figlia [another cluster of shutter bursts]... Then Eccola! and a frenzy of shutter activity. Then la nonna...[a respectful if half-hearted bit of shutter noise]. Then un' amica... [just a click or two, out of habit]. And that was that.

I kept watching the water taxi in the distance, watched it pull away from the bank, then heard a photographer beside me curse once quietly. I wouldn't know why until I got home and looked at the photos and discovered--as you'll see below--that because Michelle Obama was wearing her shoulder-length hair down today, during every moment of her graceful descent into the waiting taxi it covered her face as completely as a curtain.

But I didn't know this at the time, didn't review the images I shot. 

Instead, the paparazzi all departed together. The Obamas, surrounded by their extensive, heavily-armed security detail, were (according to rumor) on their way to their lunch at Ciprianni on Torcello. And I went home to my own, walking in the warm sun of anonymity.  

A closer view of the taxi, with Michelle Obama in the shadows, her two daughters seated at rear
Some of the heavily armed escort
One of the Obama daughters enters the water taxi after a visit to the Biennale
Michelle Obama is helped into the water taxi

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Union of Fire and Water--and of Venice and Baku, Azerbaijan--at Ca' Barbaro

The entrance hall of Ca' Barbaro, with video by Almagul Menlibayeva on right wall
The exhibition entitled The Union of Fire and Water by the two Azerbaijani artists Almagul Menlibayeva and Rashad Alakbarov, which now fills most of Ca' Barbaro's piano nobile (and continues until November 22), manages to tell a story with the far-ranging sweep and drama and pathos of the best of historical novels.

Taking as their starting point the fact that the Venetian ambassador Giosafat Barbaro (1413-1494) "traveled to and wrote extensively on Azerbaijani cities and the court of Shah Uzun Hassan" (from exhibition's press release), the artists position Venice and the city of Baku as the two poles of an extensive series of cross-cultural exchanges, and conflicts, stretching from the 15th century to the 20th, when the oil magnate Murtuza Mukhtarov built a grand Venetian Gothic style palace in Baku for his beloved wife.

Having served various functions since its construction in 1912, the palace now houses the main marriage registry office in Baku, according to the press release, and is known as the "Palace of Happiness". Though the romantic tale of Mukhtarov and his wife did not itself have a happy ending. Just eight years after the palace's completion, Mukhtarov commited suicide after fighting against (and killing some of) the invading Bolshevik forces.

The Union of Fire and Water is an ambitious and interesting exhibition that manages to more than hold its own within storied rooms once frequented by Henry James, Robert Browning, Monet, Whistler, and John Singer Sargent. 

Much more information on the exhibition and artists can be found here:

For those interested in an intimate (and pocket-sized but very nicely produced) introduction to Ca' Barbaro itself during the years when Henry James stayed there, I'd recommend Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro (Pushkin Press), which includes not only letters written by James himself, but is rounded out with letters from members of the Curtis family that provide interesting glimpses of their celebrated guest.

A previous post on a prior visit to Ca' Barbaro--when the palace's rooms were filled not with new art, but with the furniture of the present owners, and which includes images of the palace's courtyard made famous by its appearance in the BBC Brideshead Revisited--can be found here:

A final note: The famous high-ceilinged salone depicted by John Singer Sargent in his portrait of the Curtises (an image of which is included in the earlier post above) is, unfortunately, not open to the public during the present exhibition. Though there is a link in the post above to a website with images of the salone.

The grand central hall or portego with a weathered metal house of cards sculpture by Rashad Alakbarov, Precariousness of History, that introduces a central theme of the exhibition. (Also of note, a large ceramic stove near rear windows: a heating source that WD Howells, writing in the 1860s, describes as being generally unheard of in Venice palaces.)
Stucco work above a door of the portego with satyr-cherubs
Rashad Alakbarov's stairway maze, Untitled (Omnes Viae Ducunt Venetias)
Alakbarov's installation Do Not Fear
A detail of a stucco ceiling
Stucco work above a door
A detail of a stucco ceiling
An Alakbarov installation with mirrors (with "I WAS HERE" reflected on wall at rear) in the palazzo's dining room
A detail from the dining room ceiling
An Almagul Menlibayeva video installation in which a sea appears to surge just outside the palazzo's windows (in another room, another pair of "video windows" create the illusion that the city of Baku itself lies outside the palazzo)
A detail of Menlibayeva's and Alakbarov's melancholy installation Conclusion

Monday, June 8, 2015

Images from the 60th Regata delle Antiche Repubbliche Marinare Italiane, Yesterday

Amalfi leads the procession of the four republics into Piazza San Marco
Every year since 1956 the four old seafaring republics of Italy--Venice, Genova, Pisa, and Amalfi--have been getting to together to compete with each other in wooden galleys constructed along the lines of a 12th-century model and rowed by eight men on a straight 2 kilometer course.

Typically the site of the race rotates annually among the four old republics--though nine times it has been held elsewhere (as far away as London in 1983, as you can read here: This year the race returned to Venice, where the host city--for the 33rd time overall--swept to a decisive victory. A few images of which appear at the bottom of this post.

But before the race there is always a corteo, a long procession of representatives from each old republic dressed in 15th-century garb. As it's a bit easier to take up a position in close proximity to this action than it is to that of the race--which runs from Sant' Elena to the bacino of San Marco--most of the images for this post are of regalia rather than rowing.

Four years ago, oddly enough, I myself was among the paraders, arrayed as a Venetian nobleman. By the following year (in Amalfi) the rightful possessor of the velvet doublet and mantle and hose and pointy shoes and excruciatingly ill-fitting hat I'd worn for that one day during the 56th Regata reclaimed his customary place in the procession and, usurper that I was, I found myself a commoner once more. Where I have remained ever since.

But if you'd like to read my behind-the-scenes account of my temporary elevation to Venetian patrician status and what I learned from it (such as the perhaps apocryphal old saying, "Don't worry too much about your tights 'cuz it's the hat that will kill you")  you'll find it here:

Hi-ho, hi-ho...
For those Venetians with very long memories the sight of Genovesi marching into Piazza San Marco isn't a pleasant one...
...though some members of the contingent might be rather welcome

La Dogaressa di Venezia is carried past the church of San Marco

Venice maintains its lead, with the white boat of Genova and the blue of Amalfi in third and second, respectively
Venice crosses the finish line of orange buoys
In the busy basin of San Marco, Venice's helmsman celebrates victory with some flag-waving

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 5: Flee or Die?

The apartment in question lies behind the closed 2nd-floor shutters of the yellow corner building  at center
A couple of weeks ago on the Grand Canal I had perhaps the mostly acutely--and certainly the most conspicuously--Venetian experience of the four and a half years I've lived here.

Jen, Sandro and I were motoring in our small sandolo sanpierota in the direction of the Rialto when we saw a Venetian acquaintance in his topa headed toward his home near the San Tomà traghetto. We waved to each other, then he signaled to us to pause for a talk, so that (after some maneuvering) there on one side of the Grand Canal we sat, "catching up" in our two idling boats, each holding fast to the other's gunwale to stay together, and bobbing in the wake and wash of every passing vaporetto and water taxi.

This, I found myself thinking (after my uneasiness about positioning our boat had passed), is about as Venetian as it gets: pausing nonchalantly to chat on the Grand Canal in boats as anyone might do on foot in any real or idealized Main Street of any real or idealized American town.

Or at least it was as Venetian as I was ever likely to get.

Unfortunately, the subject of our discussion was an experience common to the most clueless and uninitiated visitor to Venice: wasting money on a "dream" lodging (in this most "dreamy" of cities) that turns out to be a nightmare.

You see, our acquaintance was going to be our close neighbor in our new San Tomà apartment, and he was wondering if we were comfortably settled in now.

We gave him a much abridged version of the travails I've recounted in the first four parts of this series of posts and he, after asking some questions that allowed him to exactly pinpoint the nightmarish apartment in question, exclaimed that he knew it well. His family used to own the palazzo directly across the little canal from it; he and his wife had lived in an apartment whose own windows had a clear view into it. He described in detail the furnishings. They'd even known i francesi (the French people) who'd briefly lived in it!

Now, according to the real estate people and various employees of the apartment's owner, La Signora, the brevity of these people's stay was a real plus. They vaguely referred to it as evidence of the apartment's immaculate condition, as in: "Since La Signora herself vacated the apartment some century and a half ago (okay, they actually never specified how long ago she moved out; it was probably 30 years or so) the apartment has been lived in only briefly by dei francesi (some French people) and the Italian family that you met."

But our acquaintance who knew i francesi told us, as we idled on the Grand Canal, that their tenancy in the apartment had been so brief because they, too, had had "problems with the furniture."

They, too, it seems couldn't physically bear to live in the place!

I could have kicked myself, as they say (though had I literally tried at that moment I would certainly have fallen out of our boat). Knowing that our acquaintance still lived to this day literally only steps away from the San Tomà apartment, why hadn't I pressed him for information about it when we first thought of taking it, before we signed any lease? That is what a real Venetian would have done. What a real Italian would have done.

But especially a Venetian, especially here, in this maze of a little island town, with its long history of intrigue, where only a campagnolo (a hick, or rube) relies on strangers (such as real estate agents) to line up an apartment. A true Venetian can't help but raise an eyebrow at anyone who'd buy so much as a head of lettuce from a fruttivendolo (or greengrocer) whose products hadn't been previously vouched for a by local friend in the know. To find an apartment that way? Lunacy.

A suitably phantasmagorical panorama of the apartment in question, to right of bridge with closed green shutters
In any case, for those who might be keeping score at home (as they used to say on old baseball broadcasts), here is a summary of our knowledge about the four groups of tenants that lived in the San Tomà apartment over the last 40 years:

Premature Deaths: 2

Hasty Flights Caused by Intolerable Physical Discomfort: 2

In other words, Flee or Die seems to sum up its history.

After this, Jen called one of the friendly real estate agents at Agenzia Spazio Casa in Spinea who'd helped us find the apartment to fill her in on the unfortunate specifics of the apartment's history--about which, of course, she'd told us almost nothing--as well as our own troubles with it.

The agency charged us 10% of the sum of our first year's rent for doing us the great favor of showing us such a marvelous place. (A higher fee than those charged in New York City.) But because of the apartment's terrible state we'd only been able to actually live in it a month, Jen told her. Weren't we entitled to a bit of a refund of the large fee we'd paid the agency? she asked. Didn't the agency stand behind the apartments it showed?

Do I need to tell you their response? The agency, of course, had (according to the agent) fully completed the job for which they'd charged the (large) fee, after which point, naturally, they were no longer involved or liable for... etc etc.

La Signora's lawyer has at least committed her to refunding our security deposit--though that hasn't happened yet. But because the condition of the apartment at the start of the lease so egregiously violated its description in the contract, I'm also trying to get her to pitch in toward some of our expenses incurred in trying to make it inhabitable. I have almost no hope in this regard, but I persevere as of this writing.

La Signora's melancholy architect, who seemed, in spite of her loyalty to her employer, to have few illusions about the apartment (which may explain her sad eyes), denied any knowledge of the false wall I wrote about in my last post when I ran into her one afternoon after we'd vacated the place.

"In the master bedroom," I told her, "right where you put your head to sleep." I mentioned the smell of mold coming from behind the false wall, I mentioned the illness and death of the previous tenant, I mentioned a lot of things. She shook her head at each of them, whether in denial or helplessness--or both--I'm not exactly sure.

La Signora, she informed me, had problems of her own. She had fallen down and broken her arm. She was in great pain, and it sounded like she was relying on a good many pharmaceuticals to deal with it. She wasn't in any state to deal with the apartment, or anything else.

And what about La Signora, the mysterious and silent figure at the center of this web? you may be wondering. We met her a few times in the drawn-out process of applying for and securing a lease for the apartment. She was an elegant woman of a certain age, and though originally from the mainland, she had over the course of her long residence here perfectly acquired the look and manner of a type of older woman native to the vicinity of Campo Santo Stefano. She could be, by turns, gracious, stubborn, charming, and imperious. She struck one as very proud, and like the city of Venice itself she seemed to be--in rather reduced circumstances from her years of former glory--trying to make the most of the properties she had left to her, ignoring the ravages that Time had wrought upon them out of some combination of vanity and financial need and shortsightedness.

"What will you do with the apartment now?" I asked La Signora's architect.

She shrugged. She said some Swedes had rented it for a few days during the opening week of the Biennale. Then, in an indication that she (and perhaps even La Signora) knew that it was in no condition to rent long-term even to those Venetian residents (like myself) desperate to find a nice apartment among the greatly circumscribed options available to those of us who actually live here long-term, she said they'd probably end up trying to rent it out to vacationers. As if those problems with the apartment that made it intolerable--or deadly--to those who'd leased it long-term, would be less obtrusive--or deleterious--to those staying in it for just a week.

In fact, each day I have passed the apartment since the first week of May its shutters have been closed up tight. Perhaps it has been returned once more to the long years of slumber it passed between the time La Signora moved out and the first renters, i francesi, moved in.

Or perhaps the apartment with the address of San Polo 2808 is just waiting for its next group of ill-starred tenants. Consider yourself warned.  

Part 1 of this series of posts can be read here:

Part 2, "A Home Among the Long Gone":

Part 3, "Two Deaths & the Specter of a Curse":

Part 4, "The False Wall":