Thursday, June 30, 2016

The King and the Doge

The sight of the above karaoke Elvis in a parking lot in Des Moines, Iowa recently made me think that America is no less bound to (and perhaps burdened by) its past as Italy is (and by) its own past. You see folks dressed up as doges (see below) or 18th-century ladies in Venice, as Romans outside the Colosseum in Rome or the amphitheater in Verona, and in the US you happen upon Elvis, or a life-sized bronze statue of Ronald Reagan in full cowboy regalia (hat, shirt, jeans, boots, never-used work gloves hanging flaccidly from his back pocket) outside the entrance of a shopping mall and must think of how to explain to your 8-year-old son that, no, that particular US president did not live in an era when people wore such gear as part of their daily life, nor did he ever work out on the range, but was merely a hammy actor whose carefully-crafted persona involved all sorts of old-fashioned ideas, fictions and fantasies.

An Italian friend I had twenty years ago in New York City told me he couldn't wait to escape from his native Florence and the crush of all its famous old stuff to the new world of America. Borrowing Prospero's famous reply to his sheltered daughter Miranda in Shakespeare's The Tempest I suppose I could have said, "Tis new to you;" for the past (or versions of the past) hover continuously like low cloud cover over the US--it's just a much more recent past than that to which my friend was accustomed back home.

Whether the presence of the past--or of various pasts--should be considered as good or bad to a nation's well-being depends, I suppose, upon what's being made of them.

In any case, we have just returned to a city, Venice, with its past abundantly, even overwhelmingly in evidence, and to the ongoing question of whether the best that can be done with such riches is to ruthlessly, shortsightedly exploit them. We shall see...

Friday, June 24, 2016

Night Canal, Dorsoduro

The views from even the less illustrious of campielli, or little squares, are fantastic at night.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Summer Retreat, North of Burano

The unregulated growth, or encouragement, of tourism in Venice makes it harder and harder to find a place to escape from the invading masses. Even the further reaches of the lagoon are not safe from private tourist or party boats, the latter thumping with trashy dance music both day and night.

Above, a boat of locals takes refuge from tour boats in a waterway too shallow to allow for the latters' passage--though, alas, the sound from the disco boats carries loud and clear across the open lagoon.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

After the Storm, Sant'Elena

This was taken ten days ago, but it seems the rain storms have continued in Venice--good news for the city's multitude of unlicensed street vendors with their fragile umbrellas and thin plastic ponchos.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Crossing the Giudecca Canal

Rowing across the Giudecca Canal, with all of its moto ondoso (engine-caused waves), can be a harrowing experience, especially if you're doing it alone--though the members of the rowing club on the Zattere are admirably adept at it.

I've recently crossed an even larger expanse of water, the Atlantic Ocean (with much less effort, if rather more discomfort within the confines of coach class), and am in the States right now, so I'll be dipping into my stock of unused images (such as the one above) rather than shooting new ones of Venice over the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Among the Treasures of the Accademia

A detail from one of the great large works by one of the giants of Venetian painting on display in the Accademia--which I won't identify in case any one wants a bit of a challenge
I visit the Accademia far too infrequently, as I was reminded once again by a visit a few days ago. The attendance at the city's museums has come nowhere close to keeping pace with the rise in tourists to the city as so many of the tourists (a full 75%) are in town for only a few hours, and spend that time traipsing along behind the elevated little flag or closed umbrella or some other ersatz staff of office in the hand of a tour guide.

This is a shame, as my visit to the Accademia Gallery the other day made me think that to visit Venice without visiting the Accademia is to miss out on one of the most striking overviews of the history and culture of the city--and of the West.

And for another week, until June 19, this overview includes a nicely curated exhibit devoted to the great Venice-based printer Aldo Manuzio (or Aldus Manutius), whose efforts at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th Century not only exerted a profound influence upon his own era, but continue into the present day: (I've been told the available audio guide to the exhibit is quite good, too, but didn't have a chance to try it myself.)

But regardless of when you visit the Accademia Gallery, and no matter what temporary exhibit is up, there are single works among the permanent collection that in themselves are worth the price of admission.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Venice Has No Future, Says the Mayor of Venice?

Ever more tourists, ever fewer residents: the "finest drawing room in Europe" resembles a bus station during a transit strike

I don't know about you, but I find it rather dismaying when the mayor of the city in which I live says that our city has no future--which is what the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, was recently reported as having said in his remarks at the opening of the 15th International Architecture Biennale on Friday, May 27.

His exact words, as reported by local newspapers, were "il futuro di questo Comune non è Venezia, è Mestre, dove c’è la gente che vive" ("the future of this city isn't Venice, it's Mestre, where the population lives").

Now, in a historic city whose population, after decades of decline, is according to some demographers less than 15 years away from completely disappearing.* In a city that in recent years has just barely managed--thanks to local protests--to prevent its hospital from being closed and moved to terraferma (that hospital which, as it is, my own Venetian physician always sadly refers to as "only half a hospital"). In a city which has also had a good number of its administrative offices--offices that once offered that rarest of things in Venice: non-tourism-based employment--moved to the mainland. In a city whose schools are so badly maintained that parents have taken to the streets to protest the squalor (and the quality of education is usually at about the same level as the schools' physical condition). In such a city, this is not the kind of thing you want to hear from your mayor.

After a good deal of public outcry, the mayor "explained" his remarks a couple of days ago, saying that they were taken out of context. After all, his remarks were made at the opening of an exhibition which explicitly took urban peripheries, and their development, as its subject.

Indeed, as you can see in the newspaper account to which I link above, Brugnaro's Biennale remarks are very clearly oriented toward the occasion. From his pugnacious opening reminder that the Biennale facilities themselves are owned by the city of Venice and given to the Biennale for its use (ie, otherwise the Biennale on its own would not have so much as--as the saying goes--"a pot to piss in") to the no less hostile implication that what this area needs is not the high-falutin' aesthetical notions of those architects and thinkers in attendance (and on display throughout the Biennale), but simply people who know how to get things done and create jobs ("...per quanto riguarda le periferie non serve il buonismo, ma posti di lavoro. Meno riunioni, meno convegni, meno mostre e più fatti." "the peripheries don't need the best intentions, but jobs. Less meetings, less convocations, less exhibitions, more doing"), it's obvious that he assiduously tailored his remarks to insulting the specific audience he was addressing. And, not so coincidentally, to asserting his own "plain-spoken," anti-intellectual, businessman's earth-shaking ability to get things done (echoes of both Berlusconi and Trump here).

Therefore, given the context, Brugnaro insisted at the end of this past week that it was an absurd falsification cooked up by his "usual three opponents" who always attack him without reason to say that he believes Venice has no future ( 

On the contrary, Brugnaro said, he has very big plans for the future of Venice and Mestre and the way their inter-connectedness will benefit the area. And then, with his usual sophistication of argument, he declared that anyone who questions his plans for striding boldly into the future is "not a true Venetian, because Venetians are not afraid of anything" ("Venezia è una città del mondo, chi pensa che non sia più una priorità ti fa capire che livello ha. Non merita di essere considerato un veneziano, perché un veneziano non ha paura di niente.")

Given the fact that "real Venetians" (ie, people actually born and raised in the lagoon city) chauvinistically consider someone like Brugnaro--born and raised on the mainland in Spinea (or anywhere else outside the lagoon, for that matter, whether Milan, London, Tokyo or New York)--un campagnolo (a hick), his demagogic appeal to fearless Venetian authenticity is a bit comical. 

But the mayor is completely serious and, lest we harbor any doubts about his feelings for the historic city, he concludes with the assertion that "Venice is the center of the world" ("Venezia è il centro del mondo. Chi ha paura del contrario non è veneziano"
"Venezia - conclude Brugnaro - è il centro del mondo").  

Okay. The problem, however, is that there are actually more than just three people who have some serious doubts about the kind of future he envisions for the historic city of Venice, and what kind of center he is intent on turning it into.

For one thing, his remarks at the Biennale were not the first time he's emphasized the "periphery" of Venice and its population. This past March he was quoted as asserting that Marghera would become a new Manhattan, with new facilities for the port, for production, for accomodations, and residences ("A Marghera una nuova città, modello Manhattan. Con il porto, ma anche attività produttive, ricettive e residenziali.")**

The redevelopment of Marghera and the population on the mainland is, of course, of vital importance here. But it's the population of the historic city that is vanishing and our blustery "Mayor Can Do" has done very little on that issue. 

Indeed, his biggest plan to help out the disappearing population of Venice was simply the resurrection of an old idea that had failed before: starting this month, Venice residents will be allowed to board vaporetti before non-residents at a few selected stops along the Grand Canal.  

I recently asked someone in the administration of ACTV (the company that runs the vaporetti and  local bus lines) what he thought about this and he was emphatically unimpressed. His main points:

1) There was nothing in this re-hashed version of an old idea that would make it any more likely to succeed than the prior attempt.

2) The majority of locals who utilize the Grand Canal lines governed by the new rules board the vaporetti before the selected stops, and therefore won't benefit from them (eg, the locals who board the number 1 line at Lido, or Giardini, or Arsenale, or San Zaccaria, to go to someplace on the Grand Canal).

3) The new/old regulations require the already-budget strapped ACTV to employ more people to implement the rules at the selected stops.

4) Venice must be the only place in the world where those who pay top price for a ticket (7.50 euro for a single non-resident ride) are guaranteed far worse service than those pay far less (1.50 euro per ride for a resident).

5) This was a hollow bit of political grandstanding. Something Brugnaro could promise in his campaign and take credit for (eventually) implementing if he won, but which does absolutely nothing to address the real issues affecting the residents of Venice. It panders to some Venetians' resentment toward the tourist mobs, but accomplishes nothing more.   

And this gets to the real problem with Brugnaro's remarks at the Biennale: not that he is concerned (as the area must be) with developing the mainland, but that he seems perfectly content with a future Venice devoid of actual residents ("the future of this city isn't Venice, it's Mestre, where the population lives").

It is estimated that 40,000 people who live on the mainland work in the historic city of Venice. A mayor actually concerned with the future of Venice as a living city might concern himself with the question of what might be done to lure some of those people back to Venice. Berlin, Iceland, Cornwall, Barcelona***, among other places, have all taken concrete steps to try to protect or remedy the deleterious effects of tourism on the affordability of housing for residents. Though Brugnaro sells himself as someone able to cut through years of red tape with a single mighty slash, has he shown any actual leadership in this regard?  

But given the fact that the most powerful players in Venice profit from moving as many people as possible in and out of Venice--the port, the airport (which owns an interest in the port also), the trains, the buses, the lancioni (private waterbuses), the taxi drivers--it's easy to believe that for them a historic city without the expense of schools and hospitals and elderly care facilities and all the other services required by a resident population would be a true "Paradise of Cities" (to use the title of one of John Julius Norwich's books on Venice). 

The fear, in other words, is that when Brugnaro refers to Venice as the "center of the world," what he really has in mind is a shopping/convention center, devoid of all life beyond commercial activity. The fear is that his "center of the world" will turn out to be like the center of a doughnut: completely empty. 

And the good mayor, who likes to present himself as a man of action rather than mere talk, has done nothing to assuage such fears. On the contrary.



* see Newsweek, 2 November 2009 "Venice isn't sinking as much as it is shrinking—demographers predict that by 2030, there won't be a single full-time Venetian resident left."  

** It appears that if Brugnaro has ever been to Manhattan, it hasn't been lately, as Manhattan hasn't had a vital port since the 1950s, and manufacturing is also long gone. One would hope that any plan for the redevelopment of the port of Marghera would take into consideration the global forces that have contributed to such changes in Manhattan, as well as the impact that climate change (eg, the melting of the polar ice cap) will have on future shipping routes.

It might also be noted at this point that the good mayor himself owns a substantial quantity of land beside the port of Marghera, that incipient Manhattan.  

***The mayor of Barcelona specifically cited Venice as an example of the touristic hell her city was trying to avoid becoming. In response, an offended Brugnaro assured her she had it all wrong and invited her to visit and see for herself. 

Wouldn't it have been more helpful if he'd been able to share with the mayor of Barcelona the measures that his own administration was taking to protect local life? But lacking those, he had no other choice but to contradict the obvious. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Italy vs France at Venice's Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo, Tonight

The 15th century church of Sant'Elena and its modern bell tower (finished 1958) serve as a backdrop to the national anthems

For the first time ever the Italian National team played in Venice tonight: a friendly game between the Under-21 side against that of France on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Italy.

Italy had many more opportunities in the first half than the visitors, but France scored in the last seconds of extra time before the break, controlled most of the second half, then withstood a late barrage by the Italians in the four minutes of extra time that concluded the game, to win 1-0.

Late in the game France's goalie just manages to stop this shot on goal--partly with his face--to preserve the win