Sunday, December 31, 2017

On Practical Beauty and Christmas Trees, Revisited

I hope you'll forgive me for raiding the blog's archives a second time this month to link to a piece I first posted in December 2013 which remains, I think, perhaps the best post I've put up about the particularities, or peculiarities, of raising a child in Venice--or at least of raising a certain child here--and how they play out during the holiday season, as well as more generally:

Four years since this original post went up, our son's enthusiasm for the world of deliveries and logistics has only expanded and deepened. Though now, at age 10, he's a good deal taller (and heavier) than his red delivery trolley you can see in the image above.

Happy New Year!


Friday, December 29, 2017

Early Moon, This Afternoon

The light in the city was so beautiful today the moon (at top) showed up to work early just to take it in

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Boating Home a Christmas Tree, Revisited: Tradition or Folly?

Boating homeward down the Grand Canal with tree

There's a flu going around town and I seem to have gotten it, so, as I'm not getting out much at present, I'll take this opportunity to link below to a seasonal blog piece about Christmas tree shopping in Venice from three years back--to which there is still no definitive answer to the question posed in its title (though I did catch sight of a live Christmas tree being transported in a small family boat a couple of weeks ago). As we now live in the center of Venice we simply wheeled our potted tree home on our son's trolley this year. Which was more convenient, but not quite as fun as the boat ride described below:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Details, Details... Moses and Creatine Monohydrate (in the Church of Madonna dell'Orto)

A very fit Moses communes with the Almighty in Tintoretto's Adoration of the Golden Calf (detail)

Combine creatine Monohydrate, a body-building supplement, with the title of Freud's controversial late book Moses and Monotheism and you end up with the title of this post--and what comes to mind when I gaze high up at the figure of Moses in Tintoretto's towering split-level depiction of the delivery of the Ten Commandments and the worship of the Golden Calf in the church of Madonna dell'Orto.

Because these figures are so high up the apse (just below the church's ceiling), you really need binoculars to get a decent look at them in person. But it's worth the effort, as Tintoretto clearly intends this meeting of a mortal with the Almighty, this reception of The Law, to be even more dramatic than Adam's reception of Life on the Sistine Chapel. And, of course, there are a lot of other details to see as well--not least among them, all the horrors of Hell on the wall directly opposite, which supposedly sent Ruskin's frustrated young wife Effie Gray rushing from the church in fright. (Though one can't help but suspect her fear might have been just a pretext to escape for a short time from what one imagines were Ruskin's ceaseless lectures on what they were looking at.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

2 Noonday Views of Cannaregio, Today

The Campo dell'Abbazia della Misercordia

I fear that by the time I finish typing this sentence its point will no longer be true--as that's how short the tourist off-season in Venice now is--but today was a gloriously gray, cold, foggy-ish December day during which, in the course of my errands around town, I do believe I actually saw more residents than tourists. No doubt this experience had something to do with the parts of town to which my errands took me, but it wasn't just that, as in the very same parts of town on most days of the year tourists outnumber residents. No, I realized that we're now in one of those all-too-short-lived and rare tourist lulls, a period whose difference is not just seen by residents but felt. Even the rather mercurial fruttivendolo (vegetable and fruit seller) in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, who can bounce in a flash from brightly hailing kids and their parents as they pass to or from a nearby school to snarling at a tourist for touching an eggplant, seemed as beatifically calm as the Buddha. Venetians seem noticeably less tense, less bitter, less despondent during such lulls. The old (or older) timers among them--but not only them--might perhaps be quick enough to say that this is how things should always be, and how they once were. But there's a sense that for them, too, so long removed from what once seemed like a given, such lulls now appear as nothing less than magical periods, as charged and wondrous as Christmas morning is for children, and like children they move through these periods a bit breathlessly, haunted by the constant sense of how soon they'll be over.      

The view from behind the brass nose (of Sior Rioba)

Friday, December 1, 2017

Details, Details... Monstrous Head on the Campanile of San Bartolomeo (and Monstrous Behavior in the City Council)

Beauty and the beast

The glower on this monumental face seems like the appropriate response to the Venetian city council's approval today of the city's latest fire sale of public properties to private interests--to be turned into hotels, of course. Venice's non-resident mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, demonstrated his usual respect for the ostensibly more democratic aspects of governing, such as those involving public discussion, by showing up to the council meeting 3 1/2 hours late. For a fuller account of what the international activist group Campaign for a Living Venice calls a "shameful display," please see

Monday, November 27, 2017

Venice Wants to Live: A Protest with a Keen Sense (or Senso, As the Case May Be) of the Past

A flurry of red, white and green flyers protesting the bargain-basement sale of public properties to private interests set on converting them into hotels drifts down upon the opening night crowd of La Fenice (photo credit: Julia Nikitina, Gruppo 25 aprile)

In an inspired act of peaceful protest by the Venetian activist group Gruppo 25 aprile on the opening night of La Fenice's season, 24 November, life imitated art (which had imitated life which had drawn from art which had responded to life). And right on cue Venice's spotlight-loving mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, stepped into a role for which, alas, he's proven himself all-too-perfect.

The specific focus of the protest was the continued sale--typically at cut-rate prices and without competition--of publicly-owned properties in Venice to private interests planning to convert them into hotels (as recounted, for example, on the Campaign for a Living Venice website). The form of the protest imitated the one which opens Lucchino Visconti's 1954 film Senso, as RAI's coverage of the protest effectively shows: the flurry of green, white and red flyers in the old film's La Fenice setting cross-fades almost seamlessly into the falling flyers of last Friday night.*

In the film, set in 1866, shortly before the unification of Venice with Italy, Venetian protesters in the nosebleed seats of the theater drop thousands of leaflets decrying the occupation of their city by the hated Austrians, a large contingent of whose soldiers sit in white-coated splendor in the orchestra seats below. The film's protest occurs during a performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore, which is no accident, as Verdi was strongly associated with the drive for Italian unification and his work interpreted as coded encouragement for resistance and insurrection. Even his surname was used as an acronym for unification, and shouts of "Viva Verdi" were meant to convey (at least in certain contexts) "Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia."**

And so, too, it was no accident that last Friday night's protest preceded a production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, or that the message on each flyer emphasized the letter V, reading:


Venezia Vuole Vivere

(Or ""ENOUGH HOTELS / Venice wants to live")

Everything about the protest, in other words, was meant to evoke in anyone familiar with Visconti's film, and the Venetian and Italian history upon which it was based, the sense of Venice as a city presently being occupied and governed (or mis-governed) by forces hostile to its best interests.

It's not simply a matter of the cruise ships--to which the recently trumpeted "solution" is no solution at all, and Orwellian in its deceptions--but of an unavoidable sense that the city's assets are being plundered, as Austrians, for example, plundered the city's archives, as Napoleon plundered its art (and as the old Republic of Venice plundered Constantinople and plenty of other places).

The sense is that the government of Venice is operating along the lines of a traditional colonial government: stripping and selling off anything of value, without concern for either the citizens (who are generally treated as profit-inhibiting nuisances) or the future. A short-sighted wholesale sell-off which, as Salvatore Settis explains in his important book If Venice Dies, is actually encouraged by the Italian government itself in a legislative decree signed into law by Berlusconi in 2010.*** (America is also set on encouraging this kind of sell-off: one need look no further than the full-out assault on the very notion of National Parks.)

But this kind of predatory mis-government is simply in keeping with a strategy of predatory mismanagement widespread in the business world, extending far beyond Venice or Italy, and known as "asset stripping."

When citizens--whether they be Italians, who, after the fervor of the Risorgimento, began (with no lack of reasons) to distrust their national government as soon as they had one, or Americans, whom a steady diet of anti-government vitriol since 1980 have brought to a political cynicism/nihilism now equaling that of Italians--choose to fantasize that the solution to all their problems is for their city or state or nation to be "run like a business," perhaps they should take the time before casting their ballots to look at just how businesses are run these days (often by the very people, eg, Mitt Romney of Bain Capital, Donald Trump, for whom they're voting).

With Luigi Brugnaro, Venice and Mestre elected their very own uomo d'affari to run one of the world's most celebrated cities "like a business" and, well, he certainly is. Venice needs to convert already existing properties into affordable housing for people who work here; what it ends up with is even more hotels.

Mayor Brugnaro tweeted his criticism of RAI
But last Friday night's protest opened up the role of the foreign occupier for Brugnaro and Venice's non-resident mayor enthusiastically leapt into it, taking his cue from the latest edition of the wanna-be authoritarian handbook and responding not to the issue raised by the protest but to the coverage itself of the issue. Though he is currently in Brazil, Brugnaro felt the need to dismiss RAI's segment on the protest as merely politically-inspired--"politica non informazione!" In other words, with his own version, complete with exclamation point, of another infamous tweeter's oft-repeated refrain of "fake news." For, after all, as Brugnaro never tires of repeating, he himself is above mere politics and is "neither left nor right." As if activities involving conflicts of interest and the short-sighted pursuit of profit over all else occur in some transcendent heavenly realm, and are carried out only by the unsullied Select.

The fact that Brugnaro is well known for falling asleep at events such as operas and symphonies makes his lament that RAI's coverage of the protest neglected the "magnificent spectacle" of the opera itself rather funny.

There's nothing amusing about what's going on in Venice, though, and Gruppo 25 aprile's protest last Friday night, with all its historic overtones, strikes me as a particularly compelling and successful way of foregrounding the situation in the city.



*After the interior of La Fenice was destroyed by fire in 1996, Visconti's shots of the theater with which Senso begins became a primary point of reference for the artists and artisans tasked with exactly recreating it.  

**The highly informative website A Lover of Venice has an image and description of a bridge a short distance from Campo Santa Maria Formosa whose "wrought iron railing is said to represent an acronym for Viva(long live) Vittorio Emanuele. Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy, visited Venice in 1866, when the bridge underwent its last reconstruction." This suggests the intertwined Vs, which can easily be taken for intertwined hearts, were created after October 12, when Venice was ceded to Italy, not before, while still in Austrian possession. Vittoria Emanuele himself arrived in Venice with much fanfare on November 7 of that year.

***Named after legislator Roberto Calderoli, the act which bears his surname transfers public heritage sites which, as federal property had once belonged to all Italians, to individual city governments. Settis writes "once transferred [in this way], the majority of these assets and heritage sites become instantly available for sale to private interests and investors. In fact the Calderoli Act allows for city governments to literally give these properties away to [private interests]." Indeed, "city authorities are encouraged in every possible way to sell off their patrimony, to the point that another law requires them to furnish a yearly report on their 'real estate disposals' alongside their budgets."--from Chapter VII of If Venice Dies (my emphases)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Details, Details... Palazzo Grassi

Gaudy as the handles to the French doors of the piano nobile of Palazzo Grassi are (see an example of one above), I recently turned to them--and really noticed them for the first time--as a respite from the massive display of kitsch filling the center of the palazzo's exhibition space: Damian Hirst's Andromeda and the Sea Monster (detail below), which is a comically overwrought combination in bronze of, among other things, woman-in-peril pulp fiction and comic book covers of a half-century ago with the unconvincing rubber sharks that surfaced in popular films of around the same era (and then, most famously and profitably, in Spielberg's Jaws).

So much has been written about the Hirst show that I've never felt any need to bother with it myself. You can still catch it until December 3. There is no time limit on when you can have a look at the flashy door handles, about which, I must admit, I know nothing. 

Sometimes a piece of art, no matter how spectacular it aims to be, only becomes interesting in the presence of viewers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

7 Views of the Festa della Madonna della Salute, Today

Candles, balloons, castradina, and sweets, thanks for one's good health and prayers for good health in the year to come: these are the key elements (sacred and profane) of the Festa della Madonna della Salute.

For more on this major Venetian holiday, please see:

For information on the three-day process of preparing the feast's ritual dish of castradina, see:

One can't help but have candles on one's mind when it comes to this festa

For those concerned about the health of their soul, as well as their body, the sacrament of confession was available

The speed with which balloon vendors locate and disentangle a specific balloon from the massive cluster of them they sell strikes me as one the day's minor miracles

Friday, November 17, 2017

Unseen Venice: A Cantiere in Cannaregio

Every two years the city of Venice is supposed to hold a lottery for its resident boat owners to assign any new mooring places (ormeggi) around the city that have opened up since the prior lottery (something I've written about both here: "Adrift in Venice" and here: "Moorings Found and Lost"). The latest statistics show no less than 180 ormeggi are now free. However, it's been a full five years since the last lottery and the calls of local politicians, such as Monica Sambo, and resident activists for another lottery have fallen on deaf ears.

Embroiled in the corruption charges that would ultimately lead to his removal from office, perhaps it's understandable that ormeggi were the last thing on the mind of the city's previous mayor, Giorgio Orsoni. But what about the current one, the one who likes to present himself as Mayor Can-Do?

Some harbored the suspicion that as Mayor Brugnaro was born and raised on the mainland, and continues to live on the mainland, near Treviso, he was unfamiliar with the boat culture of Venice, and the importance of ormeggi to residents. These people tried to alert him to the fact that this was not just a matter of leisure boats--as a terraferma-dweller (the less-polite term would be campagnolo) such as himself might imagine--but that having access to one's own boat, for work and for other everyday needs, was a defining feature of Venetian life.

Once again, this fell on deaf ears. It seems difficult to get the attention of Venice's "First Citizen" when it comes to issues affecting the lives of those residents who might very well be his neighbors if he deigned to actually live in Venice. Brugnaro's focus is almost invariably on developments (in all senses of that term) related to tourism: whether he's very publicly insulting four British tourists who wrote to him with their concerns that they'd been ripped off by a Venice restaurant or supporting the continued sell-off of public properties to be turned into hotels.

Which means that more than a few Venice residents, my family among them, find themselves renting space to keep their boat in one of the private marinas at the edges of the city or in a cantiere (or boat workshop and warehouse) of the sort you see pictured in this post--and of which most visitors are completely unaware, concealed as they are behind walls and stretching through neighborhoods that appear simply residential.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Wild in the Streets (or Calli), Five Years On

During our first couple of years living here, to pick up our son from school was to be reminded how in car-free Venice pre-schoolers and kindergartners are the kings and queens of the calli, frolicking through them with complete (and sometimes operatic) abandon, as I recounted in this post:

This begins to change as they move toward the end of first grade, and by the time they hit their fourth year of elementary school, as our son has, they've mostly abdicated what was once their realm, bowing, on the one hand, to a creeping sense of what it means to be "cool" and, on the other, to the unmistakable fact that in many parts of the historic center the streets really belong to the tourist masses, who greatly outnumber them.

But sometimes, as in the instance pictured above, as a chain of boys make their way to an after-school birthday party, they reassert their old dominion and for a short time there's some life--rather than just foot traffic--in the city again.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Another Foreigner in Venice--Who's Become Quite Popular

Though not native to the city, Jack O'Lantern (above), and the festivities with which he's associated, have become rather popular in Venice.

Though some few people (and institutions) are no happier about this than they were when I wrote the following post 6 years ago:

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Beauty, Coming and Going: Sotoportego del Filatoio

It's the glimpse of the water entrance at one end of the Sotoportego del Filatoio that stops you as you pass by it along the Fondamenta de le Grue. You venture into the sotoportego's depths, drawn by the canal view bracketed by twin columns, then turn and find that the view in the other direction is just as appealing. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

City of Falling (and Leaping, Climbing, and Swimming) Tourists

The beings falling earthward around Venice these days bear little resemblance to this fellow high up on the facade of the church of Santa Maria della Salute

The other day, on one of the less-frequented calli leading from the Rialto Bridge area toward Campo San Cassiano, my son and I were stopped in our tracks by the sight of a large young man standing on the parapet of a small stone bridge and giving every indication he was about to jump.

It was a bridge we had to cross to get home and as he looked about to jump into the center of the bridge, rather than into the canal below, we had no choice but to stop. The young man's girlfriend was poised with a smart phone on the crown of the bridge, waiting.

After checking that she was ready, the young man leapt with a yowl, landed heavily, then bounced up to see if his girlfriend had captured his heroic leap in all its glory, demanding "Did you get it?" As this digital-age American Narcissus gazed at the little screen, Sandro and I seized on our chance to pass, before they could set up to do another take.

It's not easy being a tourist these days.

In the old pre-internet days you might have anticipated showing the images you took on a trip to friends (and/or victims) when you returned home, envisioning their favorable response.

Now, you can make yourself subject to those responses immediately, by posting images online as soon as you capture them and receiving instant real-time feedback on how well they're going over. 

This, in my shamefully outmoded way of thinking about things, seems awful. For it has the potential to make all of us obsessed with our "ratings." Not so long ago, this would have been considered a terrible thing. In movies from the 1970s such as Network, or even from the 1980s, such as Broadcast News, an obsession with ratings was presented as the defining (and corrosive) feature of a soulless, intellectually vacant corporate culture, and depicted as being antithetical to creativity, freedom, justice, and truth.

In the 1960s such quantifiable responses were the sole concern of advertising firms on Madison Avenue.

But I suppose we are all Mad Men now.  

We accept such an obsession as a matter of course, as unavoidable, and replicate it even in our own personal lives. The basic human need for social acceptance has been quantified, and turned into a mother lode of information to be mined by the likes of Google, Facebook, et al.

How it actually profits us, as human beings (rather than brands), is open to debate. 

What makes all of this worse, though, is that the same social media that quantifies responses to what we post, also makes us continually aware of the infinite competition we have for anyone's (even our closest family members') attention.

To some of us this may not matter. It's enough to know that Uncle Anselm or Aunt Latifa, no matter how far way they may be from where we are, has seen our travel image.

For others, however, it means that only an image of yourself flying through the air--rather than merely standing--before a picturesque Venetian backdrop will do. Or climbing up the facade of the Palazzo Ducale. Or shimmying up an old lamp post in Campo San Pantalon. Or any of the many other simian (or aquatic) tourist feats you're likely to encounter when you live in Venice.

In other words, you can't live in an international destination like Venice and not be reminded of how technology and social media have profoundly altered how we view and experience the world--and what we value.*

And even when the ostensible aim of our travel is to "get away from it all," or at least from our regular workaday life, we carry the cultural ideals of the workplace with us: self-advancement, competition, and the inclination to judge our efforts by how we profit from them. Thanks to smart phones and social media, even our "free time" seems like work, as we (consciously or unconsciously) construct and disseminate the brand of ourselves. 

The most venerable and fragile of historical, cultural and/or religious sites become merely location shoots, or sound stages, for the show that is our self.

And what won't some people do for ratings? As television series are said to "jump the shark" to increase their audience share, so tourists jump all kinds of other things. Sometimes even each other.

As John Berendt recounts in his 2005 book on Venice, the heavenly host of statuary adorning the facade of the church of Santa Maria della Salute was in such bad repair in the 1970s that a sign beneath it warned "Beware of falling angels."

These days in Venice, as Sandro and I were recently reminded, the beings likely to crash down upon you from out of the sky are of a purely terrestrial sort.


For an interesting article on "museums" specifically oriented toward being the perfect backdrop for social media selfies see:  But this trend is evident in traditional museums and art galleries as well.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Dante and Virgil in Venice

I've never felt the least inclination to form any kind of aesthetic opinion on this sculpture of Dante and Virgil situated in the lagoon between Fondamenta Nove and the cemetery island of San Michele, but I can tell you that its creator was a Russian sculptor named Georgi Frangulyan, that it was placed in its present spot in 2007, and that, considering it weighs 2 tons, any decision to remove it won't be undertaken lightly.

It's inspired by the two poets' crossing of the river Styx in Canto 8 of L'Inferno toward the flaming city of Dis.

Friday, October 13, 2017

3 Views of the Rialto Bridge in This Morning's Fog

It's not just that Venice looks different in the fog, it's that the fog, by blunting the city's visual assault upon a spectator, diminishing its usually staggering array of details, allows the viewer to look differently at Venice. You see more in less.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Two Venices

As a Venetian friend told me soon after we moved here, "There are two Venices, one you see on foot, and the other you know only from a boat."

In Venice: The Tourist Maze, Robert C. Davis and Garry R. Marvin put it this way:
Enclosed and walled in rather than scooped out, canals have primacy in Venice, even when they have been whittled down to the narrowness of alleys by competing palace builders: the waterscape of the city is, paradoxically, its bedrock. Even with a good many of them now filled in [a favorite activity of the Austrians in the 19th century], they still represent the most direct way to reach most parts of Venice; unlike the contorted maze of calli, campi, and bridges just above them, they generally make sense, at least to those who have a boat handy to take advantage of them. Which is... to say that they make sense to Venetians, and indeed the canals of the city, or more precisely, getting around on those canals, could reasonably be called the last backstage left in Venice, the final spatial possession of the Venetians.
It should probably be noted, though, that this book was published in 2004, and since that time even this "final spatial possession of the Venetians" has become less exclusively their own. One spends years learning about the city's waterways and observing others in their boats before making one's own timid first ventures into the narrow rii, and you shout out the traditional warning as you approach a tight blind right-angle, receive no reply, idle into the turn and--encounter a pod of kayakers in town for the day. My hope is that the number of kayak tours and kayakers won't--like every other tourist venture in Venice--be allowed to get completely out of control.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Rio de Ca' Granzoni

When the water in the rii is still you're reminded that Venice is its own "sister city": the city and its reflection are twins joined at the waterline.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Worth the Wait: A Titian Returns to I Frari

Titian's Ca' Pesaro Madonna newly re-installed in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Here's looking at you, kid.

After five years of intensive analysis and restoration funded by the American non-profit Save Venice organization, Titian's great Madonna di Ca' Pesaro is now back in its familiar spot in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.

For a very interesting account of the particular challenges that the painting presented to restorers, and of the methods used to discover the factors (both recent and long past) that contributed to its deterioration, as well as the strategies to address and prevent future degradation, visit Save Venice's page on the work:

And then visit the work itself as soon as you have the chance.