Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Mountains of Venice

Moon-rise over the Dolomites, taken last week near the village of Unterinn (aka, Auna di Sotto) above Bolzano
Venice is, as everyone has long known, such a distinctive place that I have sometimes had a hard time imagining that real Venetians can thrive outside it. They are creatures of the lagoon, and in the lagoon--or at least in the wider aquatic environment of the Adriatic and Mediterranean--they must stay. After all, they are infamously--and admittedly--awful drivers of anything other than boats.

And yet a native Venetian friend, an agonista (competitive rower) who will compete once again in next week's Regata Storica, and who's rowed since the age of five, is also an avid and excellent skier.

For as much as this surprised me, for as much as I'd assumed a Venetian with generations of saltwater coursing through his bloodlines would be as ill at ease on a ski slope as a lion in the arctic, the Dolomites and South Tyrol actually play an integral part in many if not most Venetians' lives. They ski them in the winter, they flee to them in the summer from the hot heavy air of their native city. Indeed, one of the things that stamped us most indelibly as non-Venetians is the infrequency with which we took to the hills.

Last week we tried to rectify that. The area around Cortina--just 2 hours by car from Venice or over 3 hours by a combination of train and bus--is the obvious destination. And for any visitor to Venice intent on getting a sense of what it might actually be like to live here as a Venetian I'd suggest that a short jaunt in that direction is almost as important as getting out into the lagoon in some kind of boat. 

But we went slightly further afield, taking a train one hour to Verona, then transferring there to another one for the 90 minute ride to Bolzano. From Bolzano's city center, where the station is, it's just a 10 minute ride in a cable car, or a 25 minute car or bus ride--all hairpin turns and terraced vineyards--into the mountains.

Even before we'd reached Bolzano, though, a glimpse of a young man getting into the next train car wearing mustard-colored pants and a deep cranberry shirt signaled to me we were leaving the Italian peninsula behind. German colors, I thought--which is a bit hard to explain, and probably not worth the effort, aside from noting, in general, that one of the things by which you can identify the origin of a visitor to Venice is the color palette of their clothing. In every other feature (including the cut and style of their clothing) they may look as if they could be the resident of any Western country, but the colors they're wearing can sometimes place them as clearly as their passport.

A friend recently explained why this might be the case by telling me about a designer friend of hers who says the quality of light is so different between, say, Venice and Amsterdam, that each requires a whole different range of colors. The colors she uses in designs destined for northern Europe are entirely different from those she designs for sale in the south, and to mix up the palettes and their destinations would be, for the designer (and her clients), a disaster. For the very same azure and pale rose and saffron cloths, for example, that glow beneath the Mediterranean sun with all the subtlety of Giovanni Bellini's San Zaccaria altar piece supposedly take on a garish Barnum and Bailey circus look in the light of Amsterdam or London.

(Which, parenthetically, makes me wonder if some of those foreign pilgrims traveling to, say, India or Rome or Assisi might not confuse the particular quality of light in these places with enlightenment, muddling the spiritual with the aesthetic and sensual, mistaking as otherworldly a roseate glow having more to do with physics and optics and meteorology than any sacred text.)

Another difference between the South Tyrol and Venice is that food in the former region is much better than that in the latter--though no less expensive. Sandro, who after spending the last 5 of his 7 1/2 years of life in Venice is easily the most Venetian of us--with a Venetian's appetite for Venetian dishes that I find barely edible (for example, the briny, fishy pasta dish bigoli in salsa)--loved canerdli, the speck(ham)-flecked dumplings typical of the mountains.

And then, of course, there are the mountains themselves, which in their solid imposing immanence provide, perhaps, something of an existential respite for Venetians from the flat fluid glitter of their lagoon. For as much as the water of the lagoon protected Venetians for centuries from foreign invaders, the very flatness of their surroundings left them entirely exposed, with no forests or groves or hillocks or gullies for cover, beneath the vast dome of the sky, the unblinking eye of the heavens. Their response, ultimately was to brazen it up: if they had no choice but to be seen, they would create in their exposed position one of civilization's great spectacles--determined to dazzle and overwhelm the eye that they could, in any case, not avoid. Their architectural gestures tended to the grand and defiant, the theatrical, the haughty--even as, on the simplest level, they gave them something to hide within.

What a relief, then, must the mountains be to people with such a history! A region where questions of ascendancy and dominance are, quite literally, ones of elevation and topography. Situate your castle--or, as the case may be, your vacation home--atop just this particular strategic rise, well above the marauding hordes (of barbarians or tourists), open to the southern sun, sheltered from the north wind, and, most of all, with a lordly vantage point on all that lies open before and below you.

At least this is one way of looking at the relation between Venetians and the mountains that mean so much to them. I'll spare you any others for the time being. 

In any case, Sandro was impressed. So much so that he's begun a new campaign with unsettling similarities to one he waged (successfully) a few years back. As he once bemoaned our lack of a boat, he has now, since our return to Venice, taken up the following refrain: "We really need a house in the mountains. A lot of my friends have houses in the mountains..."

To him, a house in the mountains--like the boat before it--has now become an essential requirement of Venezianità, or Venetian-ness. He can't believe we don't have one: how can we bear with the deprivation? How can we show our faces in public here?

I try to explain to him a few things about the cost of houses as compared to that of small boats, as well as about the great rise in property value since the time most of his friends' forebears bought their mountain homes. I tell him he can buy a mountain home himself after he gets old enough to earn the money he plans on making with his mototopo trasporti business (a fleet of delivery boats for which he's already decided upon a name).

He half-listens, then returns to his campaign. 

And so it goes. Foreign parents sometimes like to imagine that a child brought up amid all the celebrated art and architectural splendors of Venice is bound to be a refined creature, full of the loftiest cultural aspirations, native to rarefied air. The realities of Venetian life, however, tend to be--as they have always been--much more earth-bound and material. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Roaming Around the Old Venetian Republic: Street Life, Rovinj, Croatia

Two residents converse in the street outside their houses in Rovinj
There are any number of reasons to visit Rovinj in Istra from Venice, but doing so in order to escape from the tourist crush is not one of them. At least not in August. I don't know exactly what the tourist-to-resident ratio is in Rovinj (a town of about 15,000 residents) during its high season, but around its old town last week I found myself thinking it must be comparable to that of Venice.

There is, however, a significant difference. Whereas the most heavily touristed areas of Venice are largely ghost towns when it comes to actual residents living there (a friend who lived off Campo San Vidal for a time said that, with the exception of an accountant who kept an office on the ground floor of one building nearby, no regular tenant or resident was ever to be seen), the narrow cobbled streets of Rovinj are still inhabited by locals.

Indeed, because space within the walled confines of old Rovinj was so scarce, the town still has almost none of the hidden gardens enclosed within what most tourists in Venice understandably assume to be neighborhoods of nothing but stone and architecture. And because Rovinj has no such hidden gardens or even courtyards among its dense tall old buildings, the domestic life of its residents spills out into the streets on hot nights--or doors and windows are left so wide open to passersby that it's sometimes hard to tell whether that charming interior that beckons you is a homey restaurant or simply someone's actual home.  

I was reminded again of Rovinj today by the news that Venice's population has now dropped below 56,000 and I wondered--as I did when I was visiting Croatia--if, in spite of the masses of people crowding its waterfront ringing the old town, Rovinj could somehow hold onto its resident population, as Venice has been unable to do.

Other commitments--which, Venice-related as they are, may themselves perhaps be the subject of a future post--have kept me from this blog, and from finishing with what I wanted to post about Rovinj. But I hope to do so very soon, and then return full-time to my proper subject of Venice itself. My apologies in the mean time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Roaming Around the Old Venetian Republic, Part 1: Poreč, Croatia

Because this is a blog whose focus is Venice, the title of this post emphasizes that connection. But as the 6th-century mosaics featured today make abundantly clear, the rich history of Poreč (or Parenzo in Italian) began long before it became the first Istrian city to join the Republic of San Marco in 1267.

Indeed, the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, though it was Emperor Augustus who put the city on the map, and there are still Roman ruins to been seen around town. It was while the city was part of the Byzantine empire that the Euphrasian Basilica--the subject of all but one of the images above and below--came into being as we now know it. It was a rebuilding of a 4th century church upon a site which, to this day, also retains a floor mosaic from Roman times.
Poreč itself is actually the first stop made by the ferry from Venice that I mentioned in my previous post; the town of Rovinj (pictured in that previous post) is its second stop. There's more than one ferry company that makes these runs across the Adriatic during the warmer months of the year, but we took Venezia Lines ( and found the crew friendly and the ship comfortable. (In fact, we splurged a bit and for an extra 15 euro each sat in the large catamaran's upper salon, where the seats were more spacious and which included a few small club chairs around two tables--good for playing cards with kids--and banquette seating as well.)

The voyage from Venice (the San Basilio terminal at the end of the Zattere) to Poreč  takes less than 3 hours (arriving at 9 pm), and it's not hard to imagine spending one night in Poreč , taking in its sights the next morning, then taking the bus (which costs just 36 kuna--less than 5 euro) to Rovinj. It's a pleasant, air-conditioned trip of less than one hour. 

In sharp contrast to Venice, Poreč  is a town whose points of interest can comfortably be seen in part of a day, and I found the Euphrasian Basilica alone--a UNESCO World Heritage Site ( and considered to contain "among the finest examples of Byzantine art in the world" according to Wikipedia--to be well worth a trip. 

But our base for last week's trip was actually Rovinj, and it's to that old city of the old Venetian Republic that I'll turn my attention in the next post. 


One of the extremely rare depictions of a visibly pregnant Mary, at left (visiting with her sister Elizabeth)

A view of the basilica--whose exterior is also partly decorated with mosaics--from its lovely courtyard
A building with a pair of Venetian trefoil windows along one of the two axial roads laid out by the Romans

Monday, August 10, 2015

Heading Home This Morning, To and From Rovinj (Rovigno), Croatia

The basilica of St Euphemia and its campanile crown the old town of Rovinj
Assiduously attended by a rowdy retinue of gulls, a fishing boat (above) returns early this morning to its home port of Rovinj after a night out on the Adriatic--just as we were leaving on a large catamaran-style ferry for our own home in Venice. If the campanile in the image looks a little familiar, it's no surprise, as it was intended to the evoke the one in Piazza San Marco. In 1283 Rovinj became the Istrian jewel of the Venetian Republic and there are reminders of this long association--in the form of lions, in the Italian spoken by a good number of its residents, in its bilingual signs and its Italian alias Rovigno--all over.

Nowadays the two cities are linked by daily ferries, and a pleasant 3 to 3 1/2 hour voyage takes you from the end of Venice's Zattere to the port of Rovinj, beside its old town. The schedule of the ferries--which leave Rovinj at 7 am and leave Venice at 5:30 pm--are clearly oriented toward day-trippers from Croatia, intent on joining the 75% of visitors to Venice who stay no more than a few hours. In fact, because you arrive at Rovinj at 9 pm from Venice, and the next ferry leaves in the early morning, you might conceivably make a "night trip" and enjoy Rovinj's less expensive restaurants and bars, but a day trip proper is out of the question. In the next couple of posts though, I'll suggest that 2 nights in Rovinj (or the nearby port town of Porec, also served by ferries) for someone staying a longer time in Venice makes more sense than the more common jaunt of a few hours made by someone staying in Rovinj.

But having awakened this morning at 5 am to catch the boat back to Venice, I'll leave more on that for tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Views of a Pilfered Veronese at San Giorgio Maggiore

It's an unsettling experience to be wandering around the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and to suddenly see, through a large doorway, a work of art you know to have been removed from the place over two centuries ago. It's a bit like seeing ghost, but there's nothing spectral or wavering or diminished about this phantasm. No, it's vivid and large as life--though not the thing itself.

For those who--like me before this lucky afternoon--haven't see the reproduction of Veronese's Marriage Feast of Cana in the setting of the the San Giorgio Maggiore refectory for which it was originally created, the following link provides an interesting account of the painting's history, its theft by Napoleon, and its virtual return in this detailed full-scale reproduction by Adam Lowe's Factum Arte:

For those who--also like me--didn't have the chance to see the multimedia work that director Peter Greenaway created around and quite literally on this facsimile during the 2009 Venice Biennale, there is now an almost 4 minute clip of it here: With the use of digital projections and music Greenaway makes Veronese's famous painting his own (as, in a much older analog media, Tiepolo also made Veronese his own), and in doing so, enables us to see the painting in entirely new ways. It looks to have been a marvelous fantasia, which one can only hope might some day be staged again.