Monday, February 29, 2016

Five Views Back at the Winter Now Ending

Over this past weekend we had, first, frigid bora winds from the north, then, the next day, the balmy scirocco from the south. Contrary to what one might first be inclined to think, the latter are actually more of a problem for Venice, as in the course of blowing water up the Adriatic coast they're a major factor in the worst instances of acqua alta. And we were hit with two spells of acqua alta over the weekend, but both arrived in the wee hours of the morning and turned out to be not so high as first feared (120 cm instead of 140 cm, in the latter instance).

In spite of the storms over this past weekend, though, there's a sense that winter is pretty much finished here, though February is just ending. For the second winter in a row, there was no snow in the city. There's never very much, but each of our first three years featured at least one day of it, as is (or was) typical. 

What we had instead was fog, which is not unusual. But because we went a number of weeks at one point without a drop of the usual winter rain, the fog seemed the dominant motif of this past winter, to an extent it hasn't before in the years we've lived here.

So, with signs of spring already visible, and Marzo Pazzo as it's called here (Crazy March) just hours away, here are five last looks back at the past winter.


The Canale delle Vignole

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Look Back at Carnevale's End, and Ahead to Its Rebirth

A very entertaining pair of magicians perform on one of the side stages in Piazza San Marco

Reflections in a Golden Tuba: Alberto Azzolini of the group Brass Operà, whose regular weekday performances were one of the highlights of the main stage schedule and a crowd favorite

It's a little odd to hear your second-grade son going around the house reciting "from ashes he was born and to ashes he will return." And if you're a native English-speaking American it doesn't make it any less so that he's doing it in Italian ("dalla polvere era nato e di polvere è tornato").

Nor is its oddness diminished by the fact that he's simply repeating the final lines of a poem about Carnevale that he was instructed to memorize in school, written by Gabriele D'Annunzio. The very same D'Annunzio who, as Lucy Hughes-Hallet shows in her fine biography Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, used his proto-rock-star status to urge Italy into a war (WW I) it would have been better off remaining neutral in, and who reveled almost erotically in the pointless mass slaughter of the countless young men he inspired.

But, be that as it may, this is simply a filostrocca (or lullaby) about Carnevale, and it's certainly not unusual for children's songs to have some extremely dark undercurrents (such as the origins of "Ring Around the Rosy" in the London Plague of 1665).

Nonethless, I can't quite imagine that an American second grade class these days would teach the kids anything including lines about drinking so much wine that one's face suddenly turns red, but, then, I also can't imagine an American elementary school that would (as Sandro's school did) provide Prosecco for adults at the late morning reception following the kids' Christmas pageant. Whereas images of gluttony are common in both Italian and American culture--and treated as almost something of a requirement for the proper celebration of America's Thanksgiving.

Sandro, however, when I asked him about the poem, was very clear about the fact that all the eating and drinking and, eventually, dying, was done by Carnevale itself (or himself)--that is, by the personification of Carnevale (to use a word that he did not).

I wanted to ask him what was the relationship between this figure of Carnevale and actual people, but I could tell he'd already said all he wanted to say about the poem and he'd reply to any other question with a dismissive roll of his eyes. I suppose the figure of Carnevale, in this case, embodies the spirit of excess of Carnevale, but I can't imagine what this would mean to a second grader. No more than I can guess what he makes of the Ash Wednesday with which both the poem and Carnevale ends.

And, anyway, perhaps there's really no separating the "idea" or "meaning" of a poem from the images with which it is built up. At some point in poetry, if it is poetry (rather than prose broken into lines, or mere window dressing), there is a leap from the concrete accumulation of details to some sense intimately connected to them and inseparable from them but beyond them all. This sense (or variety of senses) dwells, first, in the details of the poem, then in us. Perhaps that's really the point in memorizing poems at all: because what we "learn from" a poem is in the poem, not something we can unpack from it and carry off in some skeletal or schematic form.

A poem is not the tool or means to learn something else--to learn its "message". It is, itself, what we learn. 

In any case, the poem is below, and in keeping with its cyclical theme this post is intended not only as a look back at the festivities that ended at midnight on Tuesday, but at the planning already underway for next year's events. And it also gives any of us interested in doing so, ample time to memorize it ourselves before next year's Carnevale.       
Carnevale vecchio e pazzo
S'è venduto il materasso
Per comprare pane e vino,
Taralucci e cotechino.
E mangiando a crepapelle
La montgna di frittelle
Gli è crescituo un gran pancione
Che somiglia ad un pallone.
Beve, beve all'improvviso
Gli diventa rosso il viso
Poi gli scoppia anche la pancia
mentre ancora mangia, mangia.
Così muore il Carnevale
E gli fanno il funerale:
Dalla Polvere era nato
E di polvere è tornato.
A quick translation:
Old and crazy Carnevale
Sold his mattress
To buy bread and wine,
Taralucci and sausage.
And eating to the point of bursting
A mountain of frittelle,
He grew a huge gut
Round as a big ball.
He drinks and drinks and suddenly
His face turns red,
Then his belly explodes,
Even as he continues to eat and eat.
And so dies Carnevale,
And is laid to rest:
From dust was he born
And to dust he is returned. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Craft-y Way of Increasing Venetian Presence in Carnevale

Giovanni Giusto, president of the Consorzio del Tajapiera Restauratori Veneziani, at work in Piazza San Marco

The large temporary structures built for Carnevale--the main part of which is the stage for various performances--change each year. Each version is elaborate, some may be more appealing than others, but this year's design seems to me to be the most successful of any of the five I've seen because of the significant effect it has had on one's experience of Carnevale.

Whether you like or dislike this year's design--and I just saw an indignant Venetian on Facebook who thought the designer's construction of a main stage that evoked both the Rialto and Tre Archi bridges to be a shameful diminution of the originals and an unforgivable act of pandering to tourists--the big difference this year are the smaller pavilions extending out from the stage along both the Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove. Each of these pavilions house different artisans working away at their craft, all of which have been historically important in Venice.

The stage of this year's Carnevale, designed by La Fenice's set designer, Massimo Checchetto

There are, naturally, mask makers and glass makers, shoe makers, creators of fine textiles and of historical costumes. There are stone cutters and wood carvers, hat makers, experts in gilding and in ironworking, and, of course, makers of gondolas and forcole (oarlocks) and oars. There's a grand gondola, beautifully fitted out with elaborate carvings of scenes from the Battle of Lepanto, gilding, and luxury upholstery--showing each of these crafts at its finest, and how each separate one was (and is) involved in the creation of the iconic floating emblem of Venice (which is also the purpose of the association of Venetian artisans known as El Felze).

When I'd seen these pavilions being built before the start of Carnevale, I'll admit I'd feared the worst: that they'd serve as corporate promotional showcases or retail spaces (something along the lines of The Golden Arches "I'm Lovin' It Carnival Experience", or the Swatch "Time to Party Zone"). In at least one previous Carnevale the public space of the Piazza had been demarcated into certain areas requiring payment (for example, to enter private boxes in La Fenice-style tiered seating on either side of the stage). Such demarcations, needless to say, work against any sense of Carnevale as a communal event; a sense which is supposed to be at the festival's core, and which is already hard enough to come by in a city whose dwindling local population can be inclined at times to cede the Piazza to overwhelming crowds of tourists.

One of the indoradóri, or gold-leafers, engaged in her specialty; an excellent small guide (in English and Italian) to woodcarving and gilding in Venice was available gratis at the pavilion, produced by the artisan association El Felze 

I was relieved to hear that the small pavilions would, in fact, be used by local artisans. But then I wondered if there might be something a bit dispiriting about this: if this collection of little structures might seem rather like a zoo of vanishing species. As if the only place such rare creatures as actual Venetians and working artisans might still exist in Venice was in captivity, on display.

But it doesn't feel that way--at least not to me. It may be that the sheer amount of knowledge and artistry on display and in action could simply overwhelm even the least promising or hokey of contexts. These aren't actors in theme park dioramas, but working artists, the vitality of whose work can't be missed, even if the vast majority of Venetians themselves these days are more likely to motor around in fiberglass boats than row hand-made wooden ones.  

Moreover, the presence of these artisans in Piazza San Marco seems to ground this edition of Carnevale in the local more than any of the previous four years I've experienced. One of the most surprising and disappointing things to me about previous Carnevales was how absolutely dead the Piazza could seem for most of the days.

For as interesting and substantial as any given tourist may be as an individual, a vast piazza filled with nothing but tourists can seem dismayingly spectral. It's not really a tourist's fault. Unless we're on a guided tour, or following our own strict itinerary, we usually can't help but drift as tourists (or plod, when we reach the point of exhaustion)--nor, perhaps, should we want to help it. We slip out from beneath the weight of our normal life as tourists.

Francesco Briggi of Atelier Pietro Longhi at work on a sewing machine

But a Piazza of tourists far from home with nothing to do but, at best, photograph other tourists far from home in costume, can start to feel more like a convention, as I've said before (which, for all the beauty of the Piazza, might as well held on board a cruise ship), than a Venice Carnevale.

The presence of the artisans, aside from everything else it does, seems to anchor the proceedings in contemporary Venetian life (even if the artisans are practicing ancient crafts). And from what I've witnessed, it seems to draw more Venetians to the Piazza. Venetians, who might in other years have thought of the Piazza during this period as a tourist-only space, now have a reason to stop in and see friends who may be working in one of the pavilions.

The pavilions serve, you might say, as outposts of Venetian-ness in otherwise occupied territory, and this is important in this small walking-oriented town, where familiarity and shared history and face-to-face contact are all still important. If you happen to be in Venice for this Carnevale, see if you don't notice a small group of locals chatting on the apron of one of the pavilions: one of them is an artisan on break, perhaps they are smoking and/or enjoying a drink, perhaps they are taking some interest in what's happening on the main stage--and none of them would be in the Piazza if not for the artisans' pavilions.

A Carnevale without the participation of locals is not much of a Carnevale, just as a Venice without Venetians will be no kind of city. Whatever else may change in next year's edition of Carnevale I hope the artisan pavilions in Piazza San Marco will somehow be maintained--which seems easy enough to do. While the issue of how to keep Venetians in Venice is rather more complicated. Though perhaps not entirely unrelated.

The gondola Giulia, "Queen of Venice", on display in Piazza San Marco

Friday, February 5, 2016

The World of Carnevale, and Piazza San Marco, in a Soap Bubble

I'm not sure that the entertainers making soap bubbles this afternoon in Piazza San Marco with their long string loops thought of them as having any particular connection to Carnevale--after all, you can find people making bubbles that way year-round in Venice (and elsewhere), especially during the warm weather months. But bubbles in Western Art (as evident in paintings by artists like Jean Siméon Chardin (Soap Bubbles) and Rembrandt (Cupid Blowing Soap Bubble)) are all about the transience of human life, as Carnevale itself is.

Carnevale aims to present an iridescent pageant of pleasures, a shimmering world of surface effects and diversions: life stripped of its usual heaviness of being, its usual order turned upside down or reflected in surprising ways. It doesn't last for long, of course (though in the eighteenth-century Venice extended it as long as it could for the sake of business), and then, poof!, it's gone and Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us.

I wouldn't have thought of any of this except for the curious fact, which I'd never noticed before today, that you can see the whole of Piazza San Marco in a soap bubble (as you can see in the images above and below; none of them processed in any way other than being lightened or darkened a bit). There it all was, the whole magnificent space: the campanile, the basilica, the temporary Carnevale pavilions, the huge video screen, even the people filling it (if you enlarge the image enough). A miniature, twinned, yin-and-yang image of the whole Piazza floating through the actual Piazza itself: a flock of such images, in fact. Or rather like a cluster of clone cells cast out into circulation, carrying the exact genetic material of the Piazza. If the wind carried one such cell to an uninhabited island in the lagoon might a new Piazza be spawned there?

But of course the bubbles never even last long enough to escape the confines of the Piazza itself. Carnevale, on the other hand, will be around for another five days and I'll have more pictures of it this weekend.        

Crop of the image above

A second soap bubble, the same Piazza

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Noble Laborer of Carnevale, This Morning

Just as nobility in the old Venetian Republic had their particular dress code, so certain workmen in present-day Venice have their own. The great achievement of the woman's costume above, which I happened upon this morning after dropping off my son at school, is to ingeniously combine the two.

Her imaginatively-detailed and well-tailored 18th-century patrician suit is made of the reflective orange material worn by today's operai, and features not only small reproductions of workmen's tools (the small plier, wrench and brick decorating her sleeve below), but incorporates some of the actual equipment itself into the costume: most prominently, the orange traffic cone, complete with warning light, that tops her tri-corner hat.

But even the gray "curls" of her would-be wig turn out to be, on closer examination, simply equal-length sections of plastic foam tubing (perhaps used as insulation on pipes) glued one below the other.

From a historical perspective, part of the costume's humor comes from the fact that actual patricians in the old Republic were forbidden to do most kinds of labor, as most kinds were considered inappropriate to their class. Impoverished nobles in the later Republic, for example, who'd squandered or gambled away their wealth and its sources, could work as dealers in one of the casinos, but many depended on financial assistance provided to poor members of their class by the state, doing their best to keep up the required appearances (the right clothes in the right colors and fabrics)* on limited funds: dressing and posing as nobility, in other words, on permanent holiday. Though probably with a good deal less enjoyment than those people who now come to Venice on holiday during Carnevale to dress up and pose as nobles.    

In any case, the men on either side of the costumed woman in the image above, wearing their own contemporary standard-issue orange work coats, just happened to be unloading a work boat near the Ponte della Paglia as she passed on her way to Piazza San Marco.

They were amused by her get-up, and readily posed beside her (while a photographer with the costumed noble suggested various poses). Then, still smiling, they went back to the real work of their ordinary day, while she went off to pose in the Piazza among the other costumed celebrants of Carnevale. 

*John Julius Norwich writes: "Already in the 17th century an ominous feature of the social life of the city was the growing class of impoverished nobles who, tending as they did to live in or near the parish of San Barnabà, were popularly known as the barnabotti. As official members of the Venetian aristocracy, they were required to dress in silk and continued to  be entitled to their seats in the Great Council; many, however, were too poor or too uneducated to occupy any but the lowest administrative positions, and since they were debarred by their rank from working as craftsmen or shopkeepers, increasing numbers drifted into corrupt practices... or lived on poor relief." (A History of Venice, Chapter 45). 

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Soldier in a Silent Invasion, This Evening

In my five years of living here, and five years of Carnevale,  I've rarely taken images of the many mysterious silent masked figures who migrate to Venice at this time of year. They're the favorite subjects of the scores of photographers who also roost here at this time of year, many of them professionals, so I saw no reason to simply repeat what so many other folks were doing. And generally I find the human face more interesting than a mask when it comes to taking pictures.

But I turned the corner this evening and there was this character, cleverly alight, and there were the columns and San Giorgio di Maggiore and it was almost as though I was actually looking at one of these figures for the first time. How odd it must be to spend all day being looked at by so many people but never actually seen, to be blatantly on display while being completely concealed. In a city that offers unlimited opportunities for people-watching, how particular must be the experience when it is done from behind one of these masks, within one of these costumes--an object of the public gaze who, paradoxically, is more seeing than seen.