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.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Holographic City

I think it was John Berendt in his City of Falling Angels who referred to a claim he'd either heard or read that one could count out 50 paces (or 100?--I've forgotten the exact number) in any direction in Venice, stop, and look around oneself and be sure to find at least one beautiful sight or detail or juxtaposition in front of one's face. Then, setting off in any direction, one could count out another 50 paces, stop, and look up to find more beauty. And so on and so on, no matter how many times one set off, and no matter how arbitrary one's choice of direction, at the end of the counted paces there'd always be something extraordinary to see.

Berendt (or whoever wrote this account) actually put this to the test, and he found it to be true.

The two images of this post come from my own impromptu test of this idea. I took them as I was walking my son home from school, simply as a way of acquainting myself with a 40-year-old Soviet-made Helios lens I'd bought at an outdoor flea market in Croatia (it was attached to the old Zenit film camera it originally came on, and the whole thing cost about 25 euros--though I really only wanted the lens). I didn't really care what I shot as we walked along, yet no matter where we paused there was something to see and shoot (even if I didn't necessarily do a good job of capturing it).

It made me think that Venice is rather like a hologram, in that each piece of a broken hologram contains in itself the entirety of the original image as a whole--though seen from a slightly different perspective, or, if broken into very small pieces, with reduced clarity. So, in a similar way, it can seem that every bit of Venice--whether captured from a limited perspective, or in just a detail--represents the whole of Venice. The whole is there, somehow, to be seen in just a piece, it seems.

Though that's not to say that seeing only a small fraction of Venice is enough. No more than seeing "all" of it from the elevated vantage point of a passing cruise ship is enough. As easily and emphatically visual as the city may be, its three-dimensionality--unlike that of a hologram--depends on a certain amount of time and of experiences.    

Monday, October 17, 2016

D'Annunzio, Ca' d'Oro, the Casetta Rossa, and Venice

 A panorama of Ca' D'Oro's androne mosaic                                    photo credit: Sandro
The ground floor courtyard (or androne) of Ca' d'Oro is probably the most exotic and evocative space of its kind in Venice. But while the palace's famous facade exemplifies 15th-century Venetian architectural taste at its "most decorative and florid" (according to Deborah Howard in her Architectural History of Venice), the androne displays the connoisseurship and refined turn-of-the-20th-century taste of Baron Franchetti, who restored the "Venetian-ness" to a space that had been gutted by the famous ballerina Mademoiselle Taglioni in the mid-nineteenth century. (Taglioni, to John Ruskin's horror, had torn out the palace's beautiful external 15th-century staircase, its ornate portal over the street entrance, and its wellhead, among many other barbarous alterations.)

In 1896 as Franchetti himself was busy on his hands and knees arranging the rare colored stones of the androne's beautiful mosaic pavement (modeled on the 12th-century floor of Murano's church of Santa Maria e San Donato) another well-known, highly-cultured, connoisseur of the time was often right beside him, helping out: Gabriele D'Annunzio.

The colorful, elaborately-patterned floor of Ca'D'Oro serves as a guiding image of the biographical method of Lucy Hughes-Hallett's excellent 2013 biography of D'Annunzio, entitled The Pike in the UK, and Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War in the US.

Though little-known in the US, where his extravagant language and self-consciously-literary decadence isn't really to the national taste (even if his militarism and twin obsessions with youth and conscienceless individual power might find a ready audience), D'Annunzio serves in Hughes-Hallet's book as a fascinating and complex prism through which to see the young state of Italy at the end of the 19th-century and its disastrous attempts to forge a strong national identity in the first decades of the 20th.

In this sense, it's an overview of Italian culture and politics of this period, using one of the country's most famous and influential figures as a focal point.

Though bearing no physical resemblance to his virile ideal, D'Annunzio was something of a proto-rock star: with all the fame, the crowds, the mass adoration, the groupies, the excess, the drugs (he loved cocaine), the world-famous lovers (eg, Eleonora Duse), the celebrity perks, the influence, the entitlement, and the unquestioned authority.

But not even the most celebrated of rock stars has managed to do what D'Annunzio did after World War I in the former Venetian territory of Istria: establish his own little proto-Fascist nation-state in the port town of Fiume, with himself as dictator, which he held for nearly a year and a half while the allied victors of the Great War tried to figure out what to do with both the region and him.

D'Annunzio's time in Venice makes up just a part of his mad life, but it's such a significant part--and he plays so colorful a part in the history of the city--that I'm tempted to call Hughes-Hallett's entertaining and well-researched biography a must read for any lover of Venice.

Forget about the famous love affairs he carried on here, the theatrical premieres of his work and all the other kinds of drama, the years he spent here during World War I alone will alter your sense of the Grand Canal and the Casetta Rossa: that little red palazzo set back from the water by a small garden right beside the immense facade of the Palazzo Corner (now seat of the Province and Prefect of Venice), and across the water from the Guggenheim Museum.

The Casetta Rossa this afternoon: an engraved commemorative plaque of D'Annunzio's habitation there is set into the garden railing at right, but its worn letters are almost impossible to make out even in person
Having used his celebrity to obtain an officer's commission in the newly-hatched Italian Air Force (though by this time he was already over 50 years of age), D'Annunzio would be chauffeured in a motor boat from what he called this "doll's house" on the Grand Canal--rented for a pittance from his pal the Austrian Prince Frederick von Hohenlohe--to the airport on Lido, from which he would set off on regular bombing raids against those he described in unceasingly inflammatory public pronouncements as Italy's "ancestoral enemies" and the loathsome spawn of a nation he likened to a "vulture vomiting human flesh": the countrymen, that is, of his landlord.

Then after quite literally dropping bombs, or sometimes, in the case of a dangerous foray over Trieste, pamphlets of his own creation; after surviving anti-aircraft fire and the brutally frigid and perilous conditions of early air warfare, he'd return to his palazetto on the Grand Canal to soak in a hot bath, powder and perfume himself and, amid the 18th-century furniture and ornaments collected by his Austrian benefactor, entertain one of his many female friends or admirers.

After a year of increasingly daring raids, D'Annunzio's luck ran out. Temporarily, at least. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and D'Annunzio was blinded when his head smashed into the machine gun mounted in front of his seat. He'd eventually regain sight in one eye, but only after three months of lying motionless on his back in a completely blacked-out room of the Casetta Rossa.

He would, in fact, return, one-eyed, to his bombing raids--against medical advice. And, having escaped death, he'd go on to even greater prominence, power, and influence, not least of all with Benito Mussolini, with whom he had an uneasy relationship. (D'Annunzio recognized that Mussolini had basically stolen some of his best material and methods and, though uncouth and vulgar, was enjoying the power that D'Annunzio believed rightfully should have belonged to himself. Mussolini, meanwhile, keen on presenting himself as the political heir to Italy's world-famous nationalist poet, felt obligated to flatter the older man, and showered him with extravagant gifts (such as installing the front half of an actual battleship, complete with sailors, on D'Annunzio's property near Lake Garda), saying "When a decayed tooth cannot be pulled out it is capped with gold.").

For anyone interested in Venice, Hughes-Hallett's book does what all all the best books about the city do: it enlivens and enriches one's sense of this peculiar little place which, in spite of its long history, can sometimes subside into merely the collection of beautiful monuments and picturesque views it's long been sold as. It re-orients one's personal map of the city, freighting previously unnoticed areas with new significance, and, more generally, it offers a compelling perspective on the early years of the nation of Italy.   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

From Both Sides Now: Two Views of This Evening's Sunset

The same scene, taken just minutes apart, from opposing angles.

As you can see below, the freshly painted benches of Sant'Elena are now such a vivid red as to seem almost more like an artistic intervention from the Biennale--say, a low-budget minimalist version of Christo's and Jean-Claude's bright saffron "gates" in Central Park or his recent "Floating Piers" on Italy's Lake Iseo, intended, perhaps, to call attention to our unexamined assumptions about "bench-ness", or about their ostensibly natural place in the ostensibly natural space of a public park, or something like that--than the plain old park benches they used to be just one week ago. But it's a pleasant change.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Airing Laundry, Both Dirty & Clean, or, Confessions of a Venetian Laundress to the Stars

I'm trying something new with this post--as well as reviving something old.

For some time now I've been interested in the possibility of adding an audio element to this blog. Doing so would eventually open up the possibility of audio interviews with different people in Venice, and of maybe creating pieces that used the distinctive ambient sounds of the city, or recording live musical performances.

More immediately, this required me to learn about the process of podcasting, and how to include audio files in this blog.

During the 2015 Venice Biennale I spent 7 nearly months reading, on an almost daily basis and with a variety of co-readers, all of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, little by little, in three 30-minute sessions in the large Arena space of the Central Pavilion for each day that the Biennale was open. This project was the brainchild of the 56th Venice Biennale's General Director, Okwui Enwezor, who described it as the centerpiece of the extensive series of performances staged in the Arena, and it was directed by the English filmmaker Isaac Julien, in collaboration with curator and critical theorist Mark Nash (

Doing this kind of thing for so long makes you think about the difference between the written and the spoken word--the different effects and experience of the one versus the other. On the one hand, it seemed somewhat natural to me, as I've always had to read and re-read my own writing out loud to myself as part of the process of editing it. But, of course, it's different when you're reading something out loud to others. And it was also quite different from the experiences I'd had reading my own fiction out loud in public, or speaking in public.

If part of the appeal of a travel blog of this sort is that it perhaps sometimes offers a certain immediate sense of a place to people who are, in fact, far away from it--and maybe missing it--I wondered if audio might give a different sense of immediacy. It seemed worth a try.

And in the act of trying, I've discovered this is yet another kind of reading out loud--in which I require a lot more practice. 

I've made four podcasts so far of the earliest essays in what now totals (after more than five and a half years of blogging) more than 650 posts--not all of these posts in the form of writing, fortunately. I'm hoping this is not only a way of finding my way into podcasting, but of selecting written posts (as opposed to the photographic) from the hundreds I've put up which, taken together, develop certain ongoing themes of the blog.

Of what I've described on the Soundcloud site that hosts these podcasts as an ongoing project of writing about living in, and raising a child in, what has long been called one of the world's most beautiful cities, as it confronts rising waters, a dwindling native population, a crushing deluge of tourism--and my young son becomes that ever-more-rare of creatures: a Venetian.

In any case, below you'll find one of my first four podcasts: about the very different ways that a native Venetian and at least certain Americans look at those picturesque clotheslines of drying laundry that tourist shutterbugs find so irresistible. And which asks the question: Just how much do we really want to know about the underwear of our neighbors--and some of Hollywood's most celebrated leading men?

Other, even earlier posts, are available on the Venezia Blog stream on Soundcloud.   

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Rush Hour Traffic, Bacino Orseolo

These two take in the bacino fray, book-end style, from one of the rare public (or semi-public) benches in Venice