Thursday, December 29, 2016

Details, Details: Here Comes the Sun at Palazzo Miani Coletti Giusti

I can tell you that the Palazzo Miani Coletti Giusti, which houses part of the art collection of Baron Giorgio Franchetti (the bulk of which is more famously situated at its illustrious next-door-neighbor Ca' D'Oro), was completed in 1766 and designed by the Venice-born architect Antonio Visentini, who, three decades earlier, had gained prominence as the engraver or Canaletto's first series of Venetian views. I can't, however, tell you who these two busts high on the facade of Palazzo Miani Coletti Giusti are supposed to be--but I suspect someone might do so in the comments below.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Calm Waters of Christmas Day: 3 Views

I can't say exactly how much Peace on Earth there actually was yesterday (much less "goodwill toward men," as the carol goes), and the calli and campi in the historic center were certainly busy enough, but there was a rare calm on the waters of Venice, especially the Grand Canal, which, combined with the sunshine, made it a wonderful day to be out in a boat. I often wonder about the wisdom of taking a gondola ride down the Grand Canal on most days, as the all the typical boat traffic must make it something less than a relaxing trip. But if you're intent on doing so I don't know that you could schedule a better day for it than Christmas day, when for long stretches of time the line of palazzi reflected in the water is only pleasantly rumpled, altering like the sheen on a piece of rumpled silk or velvet, rather than obliterated by moto ondoso.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On Practical Beauty in Venice and Christmas Trees

Today I'm linking to a seasonal post I first put up on this blog three years ago, and re-posted once before (in 2014). A lot of people seemed to enjoy it, and it still seems to me to be the best job I've done of recounting some of the unique aspects of celebrating Christmas in Venice, as well as some of the unique aspects of raising a child here. Or at least of raising one particular child here with his own particular Venetian-influenced passions.

You'll find the post here: On Practical Beauty in Venice and Christmas Trees

And if you'd like to read more about the process of buying a Christmas tree in Venice and transporting it home in a small traditional-style boat, you'll find that post here: Boating Home a Christmas Tree: Tradition or Folly?

Happy holidays.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Best Place to Buy a Wearable Piece of Venice

The Barena shop on Calle Minelli, between Campo Manin and Campo San Luca

A few years ago while I was walking through the Mercerie (those crowded alleys of shops running between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge) with a visiting friend he asked me, "What are you supposed to buy in Venice? Silk neck ties? Leather belts? Leather bags?" He pointed to those things in the shop windows around us.

His question threw me back to when I was a teenager, visiting Europe for the first time and diligently buying things I'd been told before leaving the States were the specialty of each locale: a gold cameo for my grandmother on Ponte Vecchio, a leather chessboard for my brother nearby; a small hand-carved alpine hiker in Brienz, Switzerland for my sister; lace for my mother in Venice.... In an era of globalization and the homogenization of so much of Europe, it was charming to be reminded of a time when I believed wholeheartedly in regional specialities--long before I moved to Venice and discovered, for example, that most lace sold in Venice is made a great distance from the lagoon (China).

I told my friend that what Venice was famous for was lace and blown glass, though much, if not most, of what we were seeing in the windows around us wasn't made here.

He had no interest lace or glass. He changed the subject.

The next day, on another walk, he asked me the same question, as though I were keeping something from him. Or perhaps simply because he really wanted a reason to buy a silk tie (which I assured him was exactly the same tie he'd find for sale in tourist shops in Florence or Rome or anywhere else) or a leather bag (ditto).

The interior of the Barena shop

Of course there are still shops here that do sell authentic Venetian lace (rule of thumb: if it ain't expensive, it ain't real Venetian lace) and authentic Venetian glass, as well as other authentic goods created by local artisans. But in this post I wanted to tell you about a shop that sells authentic Venetian clothes inspired by the styles and fabrics of traditional lagoon clothing, which are made on the mainland just a short distance from the lagoon in Mirano, and available in only a limited number of locations outside of Venice.

The name of the shop, located in a short alley that runs alongside the large modern Intesa San Polo bank between Campo Manin and Campo San Luca, is Barena, which is also the name of the clothing line it features.

"Barena" is the Venetian word for mud flat--of the sort that used to occupy a large part of the lagoon, and which are still vital to the ecological health of it--and aptly suggests the clothing line's roots in this unique environment.

The company (as you can read on the "Brand" link of the website above) was started in 1961 by Sandro Zara, and Mr Zara still heads it, along with his long-time collaborator Massimo Pigozzo and his daughter, Francesca Zara. 

There are just two Barena stores: the one in Venice, and another in the town of Mirano where the clothes are made; and one showroom each in New York, London, Milan, and Erenbach, Switzerland. Barneys Department store in New York City also carries the menswear line, for example, but at considerably higher prices than you'll find in Venice.

In other words, while Venice's exclusive shopping street of Calle Larga Marzo XXII is lined with big-name designer boutiques selling exactly what you can buy in any one of their countless boutiques around the world, the best place to buy Barena is here in Venice.

The owner of the Barena shop, Nicola Grillo

The Barena shop here is owned by Nicola Grillo, whose knowledge of both the history of Venetian clothing and the manufacture of its typical fabrics I think must rival that of Signor Zara himself, who's considered an authority on these subjects. In the course of our recent conversation Grillo told me that the production of high quality wool cloth, of the sort we were looking at in the Barena line, has a very long tradition in Venice. The first regulations governing its manufacture here were issued in 1253, and the zone of its production used to stretch from San Giacomo dall'Orio to what is now Piazzale Roma.

He showed me promotional material for the very first Barena menswear collection from the late 1980s (the womens' line was begun only a few years ago), pointing out the features of each item--its cut, its fabric, etc--which revealed its original use by the lagoon's hunters or fisherman or marinai (something usually represented by Barena's name for the item as well).

In addition to the Barena line, Sandro Zara's company now also includes the line of Tabarrificio (which produces the traditional cloaks whose revival Zara is credited with beginning) and Cini, an old Venetian lanificio, or wool producer, started in the late 1700s, whose extensive archive of historical fabrics and production "recipes" Zara also acquired with his recent purchase of the company from the family's last surviving heir. Grillo's Barena store carries all of these lines and a few select others whose materials and style is in keeping with Barena's.

But Grillo also offers items produced by Barena specifically for his store alone. He showed me, for example, a jacket made from a particular shetland tweed he'd discovered. He'd found a 10 meter bolt of the cloth, from which five jackets were made only for his store. 

The Barena, Tabarrificio and Cini lines are not inexpensive, but in contrast to some clothing that costs even more, the pieces are made to wear well and long. Not surprisingly in a company so inspired by a love of durable high-quality cloth, and by extensive research into clothing worn by working Venetians (rather than the much better-documented styles of the nobility), the seams of these clothes (in my experience of them) don't unravel, buttons don't fall off, the wool doesn't "pill" or lose its shape. For all of their evocations of another time and all the historical study that inspired them, the clothes aren't simply "show pieces" or costumes, and they hold up well over long use--as they're intended to do.

There's a great deal of the lagoon and its history represented in Nicola Grillo's little Barena shop. And for anyone looking for something distinctly of this area I'd recommend they pay it a visit.  

A sample of some of this season's wool vests

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

For Those Who Dream of Venice, A Gift Idea

An image from Dream of Venice Architecture (used with the permission of Bella Figura Publications)

I went to a book signing last week at Libreria Studium, a very good bookstore with an interesting selection of books in English and other languages (in addition to Italian), and one that's often overlooked (not least of all by me in this blog), it seems, in spite of the fact that it's just a few hundred meters from the Basilica San Marco and just down the canal from the Bridge of Sighs.

It's an excellent centrally-located resource for those looking for books in English about Venice and Italy, as well as contemporary and classic literature by American and English writers.

The book signing was for the second in a series of books about Venice that I've also overlooked, probably due to the fact that the last thing I want to do lately is write a book review (the recent one I did on Lucy Hughes-Hallett's lively biography of D'Annunzio began as something else and only accidentally turned into a review of a book I'd read some time before).

But Dream of Venice Architecture, featuring the photography of Riccardo de Cal and a broad selection of original texts written specifically for the volume by acclaimed architects, such as Tadao Ando, Mario Botta and Louise Braverman, and acclaimed writers on architecture such as Witold Rybczynski, merits the attention of anyone interested in the both the long-enduring masterpieces of this city and the more recent ones: in Carlo Scarpa as well as Palladio.

Photographer Riccardo de Cal, left, with editor and publisher JoAnn Loktov at last week's book signing in Libreria Studium
In fact, the enthusiasm with which a number of contributors write about Scarpa and how he inspired them serves as an excellent introduction to the work of Venice's own 20th-century master for those whose attention has been, understandably enough, largely monopolized by past masters like Palladio, Longhena, Sansovino, Codussi, et al.

And the photos of Riccardo de Cal manage, without straining for effect, to present compelling perspectives on this most photographed of cities. Even his images of, say, Piazza San Marco represent that area in the way it strikes me as someone who lives here--rather than with the alienated and alienating sheen of the tourist-oriented image.  

Dream of Venice Architecture, in short, is worth a look.

You can also find out about the first book in the series, entitled simply Dream of Venice, with photos by Charles Christopher and a Foreward by Frances Mayes, here.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Venice Christmas Charity Festival at the Rialto Fish Market, This Evening

A full range of Christmas story characters arrived at the Rialto fish market from a procession of boats on the Grand Canal
As Venice does not have a civic band of its own, the one from Molignano came to provide music...
though it wasn't the only source of live music at the event

There were also displays of karate and dance by local youth groups
Egypt by way of Vegas
Santa takes a well-deserved break

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


I suppose one of the things I like most about Venice, and about most cities, really, are the infinite juxtapositions they offer. In Venice, as above, you find textures and colors and shapes, laundry and saints, roof tiles and shutters.

Nature offers its own juxtapositions, of course, as in a forest, but it's in the cramped environment of Venice (and other cities) that I'm most reminded of the essentially interdependent nature of human life--no matter how vigorously American fabulists of "rugged individualism" and latter-day Thatcherites (she who famously declared "there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families") insist otherwise.

Our process of moving in is progressing slowly but fairly steadily. The 200-year-old table contained in this apartment, which I'd looked forward to using as my desk, had to be treated for termites and will require some time to air out. In the long scale of time we've now entered into in our new-to-us but very old apartment, this delay--no matter how long it extends--will figure as but a blink of the eye.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Traversing Four Centuries in a 6 Horsepower Outboard Boat

This image from two years ago gives some idea of the limitations of our makeshift mototopo

I'm afraid I haven't been able to keep up with blogging in recent days because we've been in the process of moving, from the apartment we've lived in at the eastern edge of Venice for all of our 6 years here to a larger apartment not far from the Rialto Market. It's a move from an area of few tourists to an area of many more, yet in the minds of most people we have finally moved to the "real" Venice. The Venice people picture when they think of Venice.

Is it the "real" Venice? It certainly looks like it, and I suppose some people might claim that in Venice of all places looks are really all that matters. But just how "real" it is, and what that curious and usually unreliable (if not outright fraudulent) term might mean is something we'll have to find out.

Our move is actually ongoing, as our contract in our old apartment is also, alas, ongoing for a time, so there was no great single moving day. And as we're moving from one furnished apartment to another we haven't had to worry about all the big items often involved in a move. So we haven't rented or hired a mototopo or large work boat to make our move--as is typical here--but relied so far on our small sandolo sanpierota and its 6 horsepower outboard motor.

Our son, Sandro, needless to say, was disappointed that we didn't at least rent a patana--a medium-sized work boat almost exclusively made of fiberglass these days. But moving is moving, and as he still dreams of founding his own traslochi (moving, transportation) company one day, any disappointment was soon displaced by logistical considerations (pondered in great detail) and action. There was work to be done, and work that required the use of his own personal hand truck or trolley. His birthday present of 3 years ago that he's used so much that one of its rubber tires is disintegrating and needs replacing.

In any case, on a cold first day of December Sandro and I slowly motored a boatload of large, heavy suitcases and boxes from the edge of Venice to its historic center. A journey which, on land and in an automobile, or even in a boat with a decent-sized motor, is of truly negligible distance. But which here in Venice ended up being one of no less than 400 years: from the 20th-century apartment house we'd been living in for the last 6 years to a 16th-century palazzo, one of whose apartments we're now trying to make into our home. Suffice it to say for now that the 20th century is generally warmer....  

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Ambassadors: An Anecdotal Glimpse into MOSE and Contemporary Venetian Governance

Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, from the National Gallery, London

While writing my November 16th post about the great swindle that the MOSE water gates appear to be--since which time even more evidence has been published--I was reminded of an anecdote, which I tried to write up and attach as a short footnote to that piece. But the length of that footnote grew until it basically attained the length of a post all its own, which you can now read below.
For a short period of time three years ago I gave English conversational lessons to a man high up in the administration of one of Venice's major cultural institutions.

We'd met a few times, once a week, to practice in his office, before one day he announced he wouldn't be available for our next meeting, as he'd be in New York City. He explained, with more than his typically robust sense of pride, that he was going to be a member of a contingent of Venetian administrators traveling with then-mayor Giorgio Orsoni to the Big Apple on something of a cultural outreach mission.

We didn't talk about what he'd be doing there, but we did talk a little about New York City, and I told him I looked forward to hearing his impressions of it.

This was in October 2013. I didn't really think anymore about this administrator's trip to New York, or read anything about its main purpose, until today, while remembering this anecdote.

It turns out that various local publications, including the press office of the comune itself, trumpeted this important mission to New York City. The main point of each account was that, in the words of La Nuova di Venezia, "MOSE va a New York." (MOSE goes to New York).

For Hurricane Sandy had flooded New York City's subways in October of the previous year and had finally awakened its administration to the fact that, yes, indeed, rising sea levels--and not just more frequent "Storms of the Century"--were going to inundate major sections of the city as surely as they'd swamp Venice. Preventive measures would need to be taken.

This is where the representatives of Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the conglomerate of private construction firms gifted the no-bid contract to build MOSE and headed by its new president Mauro Fabris (who replaced the old one, Giovanni Mazzacurati, who'd been arrested for corruption in July), spied an opening to market their own "expertise" in the creation of flood prevention systems to America's largest and richest city. (As La Nuova plainly put it in the article above: "il Consorzio vola a New York per 'vendere' il progetto agli americani.") 

Indeed, you can still read a marvelously inflated account of this mission written up by Consorzio Venezia Nuova itself, in which it recounts the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the threat of rising sea levels, and Consorzio's own unchallenged position as the world's expert on flood defenses: referring to the Consorzio's "know how and highest level of experience attained over many years," and its position as the "example for other areas of the planet that must develop programs to protect their own coastlines from the sea" ("acquisendo know how e competenze di altissimo livello, rappresenta oggi un  esempio  di  riferimento  per  altre  aree  del  Pianeta  chiamate  a  programmare  azioni strutturali per la salvaguardia delle regioni costiere dal mare").

(And, here, I must admit this about Consorzio Venezia Nuova: while both their incompetence and cupidity have proven to be off the chart, they do an admirable job on their press materials--especially for a firm based in Italy, where such things are typically rudimentary compared to the flash and polish of American and British corporate publications. My son came home from school a few weeks back with a large, glossy, colorful pamphlet published by Consorzio Venezia Nuova in English [not Italian] about how MOSE works--or is supposed to--that was every bit as slick as anything put out by an admirable company such as, say, Exxon-Mobil. In cash-strapped school systems like that of Venice, such advertising materials (fictional though they may be) are "generously" distributed by corporate interests as educational materials--as, I imagine, texts about the benevolence of the Venetian Republic might have been to distributed to any residents of Constantinople still alive after their city was sacked in 1204).  

In any case, this band of august Venetian ambassadors set off on a trade mission to a powerful distant land--just as Venetians used to do all the time during the glory years of the mighty Republic--to meet with its powerful leader, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself as rich as one of the sultans of old.

But these representatives of an ancient, imperiled and ever-more-empty city of less than 60,000 residents did not go merely hat in hand to one of the world's undisputed capitals with a population of more than 8 million. No, the venerable Mayor Orsoni--still some months away from being arrested himself and forced from office for corruption--is reported to have declared to Bloomberg that Venice "is a modern city of innovation." Considering the sophistication of the MOSE project, that is, it was almost as if Orsoni and company were emissaries from the future, with a great gift to bestow (for the right price).

Well, you'd think that anyone fortunate enough to have been a member of this honorable group of statesmen (and it was all men), would have plenty to say about this historically significant trip: this moment at which Venice reasserted its trail-blazing importance on the international stage. 

But the next time I saw the administrator I tutored, a couple of weeks after his return to Venice, he morosely refused to say almost anything about it, scowling and muttering at the mere mention of it.

I persisted, and found out why.

Only after concluding their visit to New York City did this contingent of Venetian representatives discover that they had arranged to meet with an outgoing lame duck mayor in his last two months in office.

For strange as it may seem, none of these perspicacious ambassadors seemed to be aware of the fact that New York City would he holding a mayoral election less than two weeks after their visit. An election in which Michael Bloomberg, having already exceeded the term limit of his office, was never going to be on the ballot.

That is, an entirely new administration would take charge of running the city in the new year, while Venice's representatives had spent their time meeting with powerless outgoing officials. 

To make it even worse, the winner of the mayoral election by a landslide (Bill de Blasio), as expected, was not even a member of the same political party as the outgoing mayor. 

The Venetians' trip, in other words, was, in the words of the administrator I tutored, a total waste of time.

But, of course, this anecdote refers to something that took place three years ago. I have no doubt that the current administration and leadership of Venice is much more astute.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Plagues Past and Present: Festa della Salute 2016

One member of a procession of plague doctors calling attention to a list of things they believe are now killing Venice

Picturesque though it all is, I realized this year that I couldn't bear to take another photo of the large banks of lit candles, the squads of young tenders to the flames, the pressing throngs, or the decorated interior of Santa Maria della Salute at this year's festa.

The candle stalls, the long row of sweet stalls, the huge bundles of balloons: those, too, were no less colorful, but I just couldn't find it in me to shoot them yet again.

The festa commemorates St. Mary's deliverance of the city from the plague of 1630-31; an act of heavenly kindness for which the church itself was built as a little token of gratitude. And, implicitly, one suspects, as something of a bribe: a big splashy gesture to curry the kind of favor that might lead Her to protect the city from the next plague.

A crowd on the steps of the basilica and, in the distance, another on the votive bridge across the Grand Canal

But not long after vespers sounded last night, a procession of between two and three dozen figures dressed in the traditional garb and masks of the plague doctor appeared behind a slow, steady drum beat to call attention to a present-day plague upon Venice: one which shows little sign of abating or being effectively addressed.

As you can see on the tablet carried by the plague doctor in the image above, Venice, in the opinion of the marchers (and many others), is now being done in by: exodus, "bite and run" mass tourism, cruise ships, and knock-off handicrafts.

I suppose one might pray to Mary for relief from these ailments as well, but I think the many people in the city and around the world who are concerned about them might be satisfied with any signs of serious good-faith human efforts.

But when it comes to those who wield political and economic power in Venice these days it sometimes seems that nothing short of a miracle would get them to take effective action. 

For more representative images of the most famous aspects of the festa see:

For a description of how to prepare the festa's traditional dish of castradina, see:

Heading into the church to have their two candles lit
Reflections of the crowd in the large lamp hanging from the basilica's central dome

Holy fire inside the church, holy water outside: a charitable organization offering l'acqua di Lourdes for contributions

Behind a phalanx of plastic Mary figurines containing water from Lourdes 

An imperfect panorama of the view from Calle del Bastion

The lone candle stall in the campo of San Gregorio

Friday, November 18, 2016

Venetian Faces 4

Three years ago I occasionally posted portraits of people on the vaporetto (eg, But of course sometimes the most captivating of subjects riding the vaporetto go about on four legs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

One of History's Great Swindles? Venice Is Sinking, but MOSE Is Sinking Much Faster

One of the large MOSE water gates prior to its installation in the mouth of the lagoon--where it will lie inoperably until corrosion necessitates its removal for costly repair and cleaning

If Venice is widely considered in its beautiful, implausible entirety--all its art, architecture, industry and economic innovation arising in the most inhospitable and limited of spaces--to be one of civilization's greatest creations, shouldn't the scandal-ridden, defective and ever-more-obsolete MOSE water gate system (that was supposed to save it) be considered one of civilization's greatest swindles?

This is the question that's haunted me for the last couple of years as all the corruption, incompetence and ill effects--both ecological and civic--of the great work (grande opera) have come undeniably to the surface:

So, the gates have created changes in water flow that have resulted in huge deep pits in the lagoon, which actually intensify acqua alta...?

So, the Director of the project Giovanni Mazzacurati and scores of others were arrested for corruption...? (Corruption that many people saw wired into the project from its inception.)

So the €5.5 billion that have gone to the project have meant that even essential services necessary to the operation and preservation of the city (eg regularly dredging canals) have been cut, and social services necessary to the life of what's left of the living city have been wiped out (funds to schools, libraries, senior centers, tidal monitoring centers, etc)...?

So, only in the last two years have the project's crack team of engineers discovered, as the local papers put it, that there's salt in sea water--which is corroding the water gates at alarming rates and fouling their operation...?

So, the gates were designed for a rise in sea level of 20 cm and now the projection is 80 cm...?

Well, in spite of all this and much more, I told myself not to jump to any conclusions. After all, the fate of one of the world's most celebrated cities depends on this grand project, and having sucked up all the Special Funds designated for Venice, and knowing full well that the entire world is watching them, those involved in the project couldn't be so shamelessly venal and/or inept as to make a complete shambles of it all.

Don't be such a pessimist, I told myself.

Now this, published in yesterday's L'Espresso: the massive concrete caissons lodged in the lagoon bed from which the water gates are supposed to rise up are actually sinking faster than Venice itself.  
(The entire article by Fabrizio Gatti merits reading, even if you need the help of a translation program to do so.)

The project's crack team of engineers had, of course, projected a certain limited amount of subsidence--but nothing even approaching what is actually happening.

While the city sinks a few millimeters each year into the ancient sediment of the lagoon, MOSE's foundations are sinking at a rate of 4 cm per year.

In other words, not only is the expected sea level going to be higher than was planned for in the design of the gates, but the foundations of the gates are going to be sinking ever lower.

Or, in other words, it appears that €5.5 billion (and counting) have been poured into a corrupt project that not only does not function--its operational date is perennially pushed further and further back--but which is already obsolete.

Meanwhile, Giovanni Mazzacurati lives out his golden years in La Jolla, California, having been deemed too infirm to withstand punishment for his crimes; the next and perhaps last generation of Venetian children attend filthy schools to which they must bring their own toilet paper; and Venice's own non-resident "Can-Do" mayor fantasizes about hosting a Trump-Putin summit here and, in spite of the ongoing disaster that is MOSE, pushes for beginning yet another grande opera: an offshore port just outside the lagoon.

Once again: senza parole.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Grand Unseen Facades of Venice

Though they may not be as grand as the showplaces along the Grand Canal, some of my favorite palazzo facades in Venice are those along smaller, less glamorous side canals visible (such as the one above, not far from the church of San Francesco della Vigna) only from a boat, not from a nearby bridge or from a canal bank across the way. If you spring for a gondola ride such facades are something to watch for, and are perhaps the most compelling examples--in spite of all the walking we do here now--of Venice's traditional and emphatic orientation toward the water.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Senza Parole... America Elects Its Own 'Roid-Rage Version of Berlusconi

It's darkest before the dawn? Perhaps. But sometimes it's just pitch dark.

As an American of Italian descent, then as one with dual Italian citizenship, it was difficult to bear the election and re-elections of Silvio Berlusconi. To people around the world--and not least of all to people in the United States--this was often used as evidence that Italy was nothing more than a worn-out, corrupt old joke. Only a hopelessly rotten nation, such people said scornfully, a nation with neither any intelligence nor conscience, a hollow desperate nation in which puffed-up vanity had displaced any trace of dignity, could allow itself to be ruled by such a blatantly perfidious, debauched, ignorant, misogynistic, racist gas bag: a painful joke on the world stage, a disaster at home.

And now America--the self-professed "beacon" of the world--has outdone Italy....  

Senza parole.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

This Evening's Sunset from Il Fondaco dei Tedeschi--Newly Reopened as a Duty Free Shopping Mall

Is it a good thing that one of Venice's most famous buildings is now a duty free shopping mall? More on this in a couple of days. For now, we can enjoy the view--taken, alas, through a window. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Two New Exhibitions Reflect on Today's 50th Anniversary of Venice's Great Flood

The blue line on the Olivetti Showroom window indicates the height of the 1966 flood, and appears on each shop around Piazza San Marco that is participating in the exhibition Acqua in Piazza

In spite of the fact that acqua alta has become almost as synonymous with Venice as gondolas, a good many visitors to the city have mistaken ideas about the phenomenon. Understandably enough, the errors usually are inspired by what flooding means in their native lands, or by the frequently misleading images and accounts of high water disseminated by the international press.

Acqua alta, however, in spite of what the most extreme and eye-catching images may suggest, is not a "flash flood," but just part of the normal cycle of incoming and outgoing tides upon which the city's ancient sewage system depends for its effectiveness. I've always found the following saying a useful way of remembering this cycle, as it purports to tell you not only about the tides, but about the supposedly bipolar Venetian temperament: "Venetians are like their city's tides: up for six hours, down for six hours, up for six hours, down for six hours."

At least, this is almost always how acqua alta works. But the most famous and damaging modern instance of acqua alta, the one whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated around the city today, was a "perfect storm" phenomenon, whose various elements combined to overwhelm the usual tidal rhythm.

On 4 November 1966 the problem wasn't just that an extremely high tide rolled into the city. It was that extremely strong scirocco winds and barometric pressure kept it from going back out into the Adriatic (as it usually would have) before the next high tide came in. And if that wasn't bad enough, heavy rains on the mainland (where places like Florence and Siena were experiencing their own disastrous flooding) brought hugely swollen rivers into the lagoon from the west.

The result was a tide that measured 194 cm (6 feet 4 inches) above "mareographic zero", and that didn't go down for nearly 24 hours. As John Keahey describes it in his fine book Venice Against the Sea
As soon as the rising salt water hit 1.90 cm and assaulted the city's electrical transformers [which after a major flood in 1953 had been re-positioned at that height], the city went black. All power was down, and all telephone services--its equipment maintained at the same level on the ground floors of the buildings--went dead as well. Fuel tanks holding diesel, then a common fuel for heating (now replaced by natural gas), were breached, and the water became thick and oily, turning black and smelling of petroleum.
The city was without power for a full week.

Acqua alta two days after the show's opening
Food and water supplies were disrupted, people left homeless, businesses closed, and the damage to personal and public property, and to the city's architectural and artistic heritage was immense. Keahey cites older Venetians' memories of "carcasses--rats, cats, dogs--and of mattresses and other bedding and furniture floating in the [diesel-tainted] canals", along with "crates of vegetables and fruit, swept from the market near Rialto."

Even ten days after the great storm, he notes that one woman returned from Milan to her family home to find such debris still floating everywhere. 

Fortunately, in the long history of Venice, this kind of event has been rare. Keahey writes, "Historians estimate that this kind of high water--about six feet (nearly two meters) above relative sea level--has occurred only about five times in the human history of Venice."

Though that's not to say there isn't the possibility that with rising seal levels and changing weather patterns--not to mention human-made alterations in the form of the lagoon--they won't become more common. 

So this is what's being commemorated today, in various ways and various places around the city.

Two of the more interesting exhibitions inspired by this 50th anniversary--gathered together under the title L'Acqua E La Piazza and sponsored by Fondo Ambiente Italiano, Associazione Piazza San Marco, and We Are Here Venice--are taking place in and around Piazza San Marco, and run from their openings today through 8 January 2017.

Both Ritorno in Piazza and Acqua in Piazza take the anniversary of the acquagranda (great flood) as inspiration to reflect upon both the present significance of Piazza San Marco--now one of the lowest places in Venice and, hence, the first to be flooded--and its possible futures.

Photographer Anna Zemella with some of her images currently on display in the Olivetti Showroom

Ritorno in Piazza is an exhibition of black-and-white work by the Venetian photographer Anna Zemella hosted by the non-profit organization FAI in Carlo Scarpa's beautiful Olivetti Showroom beneath the northern arcade of Piazza San Marco. Half of the show, as might be expected given the occasion, is a meditation on water in the Piazza and the Piazza (as reflected) in that water.

The other half is focused upon those monumental human sculptures of the Piazza that are, paradoxically, both integral parts of the Piazza's appearance and yet rarely ever really seen. Each of Zemella's images don't so much bring each subject out of the shadows into the plain light of day, but, rather, captures in striking chiaroscuro the particular force of each subject--bound up within and struggling against their obscurity as Michelangelo's similarly muscled slaves writhe within their blocks of marble in Florence's Accademia. 

In each section, the photographer returns the viewer to an intimate relationship with Piazza San Marco: the kind of relationship usually lost because of the overwhelming presence of mass tourism there.

The exhibition Acqua in Piazza, on the other hand, literally takes us out of the Olivetti Showroom and around the Piazza itself. Created by the local non-profit group We Are Here Venice and the artist Eleonora Sovrani, it leads the viewer to 14 different nearby installation sites (12 of them within the Piazza itself, 2 more just outside it), each of them clearly marked by a blue line on the front window of participating businesses, indicating the water level reached on each facade on 4 November 1966 (and also mapped out on a postcard available in shops and hotels around Venice, in addition to the Olivetti Showroom).

Inside each different site viewers will find a framed montage of image and text offering different perspectives on and information about the complex relationship between the Piazza and the lagoon, ranging from the  most immediately practical issues--such as how businesses prepare for and deal with repeated flooding--to more far-flung, technical and scientific responses to this essential Venetian reality, such as the network of tidal gauges in the lagoon.

Though inspired by a day of commemoration, what I like about both of these projects is that in each of them history acts as a spur to think about the present situation of the Piazza and the lagoon and Venice, and about what might lie ahead--and what we might do about it. One project sends us back out in the Piazza with a new attention to detail. The other quite literally leads us into the businesses directly affected by this unique situation, makes us active participants in the project, learning more about the very space we're walking through from each successive site we visit.

Again, both exhibitions run through 8 January 2017.

And there's also a beautifully produced book for each work, published by lineadcqua press and available for purchase in the Olivetti Showroom.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Pagans at the Church Door: Halloween in Venice

Above is the 6th podcast I've done so far: this one, as you can see, is seasonal in nature.

Since this piece was written 5 years ago, Halloween has become even more popular in Venice: plastic jack o' lanterns and all the other images and costumes of the holiday typical in, say, America, can now be seen in store windows around Venice--competing with the large decorated horse-and-rider cookies synonymous with the local Festa of San Martino for window space.

Indeed, it occurs to me now that perhaps it's no coincidence that the Venetian church mentioned in the podcast as being among the most adamantly opposed to Halloween was that dedicated to San Martino himself--the saint whose feast day not only falls close to that of Halloween, but whose celebration among kids shares similar elements.

Both holidays involve costumes: in the case of the saint's feast day, a cape and sword and crown and, sometimes, a toy horse, all representing important elements of his story of charity. In the case of Halloween, well, anything goes....

Both involve sweets

And both involve groups of kids going from store to store in search of candy handouts.

At present both holidays co-exist, so it's easy to focus on the church's objection to the way in which Halloween secularizes the importance of the eve of All Saint's Day--removing the focus from remembering those who have died and from praying for their souls to a variety of cartoonish frights and, not incidentally, saleable thrills.

But it's not hard to imagine the church of San Martino having more than a little anxiety about a time when Halloween might began to overshadow and displace the feast of their patron saint, as well.

But all of this is beyond the concerns of the above podcast, which is concerned more generally with piety, impiety, and preschool pagans.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A New Marco Polo Bookshop for Kids Launches This Friday

The pleasant sight of a room full of readers in the yet-unfinished space of Marco Polo Kids during last Saturday's Open Day

In the nearly 6 years I've been writing this blog I feel lucky to have never had to worry about advertising or conflicts of interests. I've never taken ads or "monetized" the blog, nor had lodgings or guided tours or anything else to sell. There's nothing wrong with doing any of these things--and maybe I should have been doing some of them for all I know. But it seemed pleasant to do something in which financial considerations were not woven into the fabric of the project, as they are, unavoidably, in so many things we do these days.

If I recommended a store, for example, it was because I'd had good experiences in it or found its merchandise especially interesting before I ever thought of doing a blog post about it or came to know its proprietor.  

This was the case with Libreria Marco Polo, the local bookstore about which I find (after using the "Search This Blog" widget in the right hand margin of this page) that I've done five different posts: the first of them on 4 December 2011, the most recent on 27 September 2015.

The last of these posts was about the grand opening of a second Libreria Marco Polo in Campo Santa Margherita, a beautiful bookstore which seems to be thriving in its new location.

A busy bookmark workshop outside Marco Polo Kids during last Saturday's Open House
Today's post is about the transformation and grand reopening of the original Libreria Marco Polo-- located just behind Mauro Codussi's lovely little ruddy church of San Giovanni Grisostomo, not far from the Rialto--as a children's bookstore: Libreria Marco Polo Kids.

Considering how much I've enjoyed both Marco Polo bookstores over the years, and considering how important they've been as a site of community activity and spirit, I'd almost certainly be posting about this news in any case. But this time it's a little different, as my wife Jen is--along with Elisabetta Favaretti, the long-time co-proprietor of the Marco Polo bookstores, and four other women--one of the founding booksellers involved in the creation of this new store.

A reading during last Saturday's Open House
Marco Polo Kids will stock books for children and adolescents and, along with its Italian books, include a selection of titles in English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic. But in addition to its books, the store will also offer a range of activities for kids: readings, workshops, courses and special events. It aims to be a cultural center for both local kids and their parents and for visitors alike.

A young visitor helps decorate the bookshop entrance
Last Saturday's "Open Day" at Marco Polo Kids was the first chance for people to get a look at the
changes taking place in the new store and, in some cases (as at right), to quite literally leave their imprint on the space. With the store still in an unfinished state, its bookshelves not yet filled, it was a chance for people to meet the booksellers, sample some of the activities the bookstore will offer (last Saturday: a bookmark-making workshop outside, readings indoors), enjoy snacks and beverages, and offer their input on the kind of cultural and educational place they'd like it to be. There was nothing yet for sale--in spite of how many people saw things they wanted to buy. It was all about the free exchange of ideas and building a sense of community.

The official Inauguration of the store will take place this Friday, 28 October, beginning at 5 pm, with home-made cakes and beverages for kids. At 6 pm live music will be added to the mix of activities, and apertifs will be available for adults. And this Friday, in contrast to last Saturday's Open Day, the store will officially be open for business.

As important as the idea of local community building is to the bookshop is the idea that visitors to the city and their children will also be welcome to participate in a space where real Venetian life--not simulated or costumed or commodified versions of it--is taking place. A Venice of the present and the future, not just of the past; a present and future that visitors themselves can participate in.

If you're in town this Friday, stop in for the Inauguration, or, at any time thereafter, to see what you think. 

Two kids read while another draws on the bookshop's chalkboard wall

Monday, October 24, 2016

A New Doge Was Elected Saturday: Venetian Fantasy & Venetian Reality

The flags of San Marco were out on Saturday afternoon on the Riva degli Schiavoni: some being waved, some being worn as capes or kerchiefs; some with the familiar red ground, others with the largely forgotten and little-seen blue; some with bookish lions, others with belligerent sword-bearing beasts. It made for a colorful photo op, for myself and any number of tourists crowding the waterfront, though I don't think any of us knew what actually was going on.

The attention of the flag-wavers and flag-wearers was on the equestrian monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, commemorating the unification of Venice with Italy in 1866. I paused beside a young flag-caped man explaining in English to two curious tourists that he "feels Venetian, not Italian...." A minute later, a different man climbed over the wrought iron railing around the monument and covered the head of the large allegorical female figure of Italy at its western end with a flag of San Marco (see image below). Ah, yes, Venetian separatists, who pop up periodically to agitate for the rebirth of an independent Venetian Republic. I went on my way.

Little did I know that at just about the same time, according to local newspaper reports, seven separatists were busy electing a new doge in the Grand Council Chamber of the Palazzo Ducale. They'd bought tickets--a bit odd, as residents are admitted free (but perhaps they aren't residents?)--and though far fewer in number than the electors of old, and having apparently eschewed the famously byzantine electoral procedures of the old Republic, they managed to elect the new doge before being confront by local authorities, who asked to see their IDs.

At which point, according to Il Gazzettino, one of the self-styled electors presented an ID of the Venetian Republic he'd made himself...

And so, even as I type this, Venice--or at least, a Venice that exists in the minds of a few dozen separatists--is ruled over by its 121st doge, and the shackles of bondage to which Venice ostensibly submitted 150 years ago last Saturday have been broken.

Meanwhile, just as Salvatore Settis laments in his important book If Venice Dies, the cultural heritage of the Italian citizenry is put up for sale. In fact, the auctioning off of Lido's beautiful little Giovanni Nicelli Airport takes place today--with a starting bid of just 26,000 euro.

Nostalgic fantasy, in other words, even in Venice, can only take one so far; no make-believe doge is going to be of any help in the real issues confronting Venice.