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