Saturday, March 25, 2017

Anywhere But Here

A screen can prove irresistible even while being rowed across the Grand Canal...

I'm aware that some people--maybe even the majority--visit blogs like this one because it's a chance to catch up on a place they'd like to be but aren't. It's certainly one of the things that led me to blogs on Venice before we actually lived here. And the thought of this gives me pause when I find myself reading a book or an e-book on a vaporetto as it passes by, say, the Doges' Palace and Piazza San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute and all the other sights I myself once longed to behold in person when I was in fact far away from them. I know that we get used to any- and everything. But should we?

Consider the image above. Let's assume the person standing in the center of the Santa Sophia traghetto in the slightly hunched screen-focused posture that defines our times is in the midst of her commute to or from work, in which the short passage across the Grand Canal is a link. Commuters everywhere take refuge in their screens, just as they previously took refuge in the printed page of newspapers, magazines, or books. And yet to spend the mere 30 seconds or so it takes to be rowed across one of the world's most famous and picturesque waterways/avenues focused on a small screen seems like a bad idea to me. 

Perhaps in this case it was some pressing matter that couldn't be delayed even half a minute. Okay. But in my own case I marvel at how the definition of "pressing" and "imperative" has expanded when it comes to screens--and I don't even have a smart phone.

And I wonder about how dramatically the constant temptation of screens, which lure us with the promise of information in "real time" or "as it happens"--something newspapers could never do--have destroyed our sense of place.

"How do you like your new apartment?" I'm asked, and though I can answer in any number of ways I'm not sure I can feel the experience of this very particular place as I once could. I trust, or hope, that I just need more time in it and that it will come.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, how different it feels to live in Venice now than it did 25 years ago. Not just because of the way Venice has changed but because of the way technology has changed our sense of place. Or maybe it's only mine.

25 years ago Venice was much more distant from the life I'd left behind in the US. And it was a much less clamorous place--not objectively, acoustically, but, well, inside my own head.

I'm afraid this threatens to turn into a long dull post--Paul Valéry, WD Howells, the French theorist Paul Virilio,* and a host of others are hovering allusively around its yet unwritten edges, and I think it best to keep them out. But isn't it odd that we pay so much to travel to distant places and then spend much of our time worrying about wi-fi access to keep us in touch with the place we've just left--and a thousand other places besides?

"To be everywhere is to be nowhere," Seneca warned in a line that took on new meaning with the coming of the internet. And to be everywhere at once never seemed especially satisfying even for the Almighty Himself; that Great Being defined by His ubiquity who, like the earliest recorded adapter of Facebook, seemed in frequent if not constant need of attention, praise and adoration.

...or on the outside seats at the back of a vaporetto

Note: * "In the opening section of The Lost Dimension [published in France way back in 1984], Virilio sets up his polemic about the 'disappearance' and 'loss' of architectonic dimension. The screen [film, tv or early computer] is an 'interface' which relies on a 'visibility without any face-to-face encounter, in which the vis-a-vis of the ancient streets disappears and is erased.' The polis, agora and forum have been replaced by the screen. ... Virilio writes: 'With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.'" 
                                                            --From a 2004 essay on Virilio by Anne Friedberg


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Living Venice, and If Venice Dies

The courtyard of ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian, currently a health care facility

In a much-derided and parodied tweet during the last week of Carnevale, Venice's non-resident Mayor Luigi Brugnaro presented an image of a masked young woman at a private ball as conclusive proof that, contrary to what those dismayed by the steady exodus of Venetians from the historic city have suggested, Venice is a thriving city.

Given that the ball was one of those created by private commercial interests for predominantly out-of-town ticket buyers and staffed by such young women in masks, using this as an illustration of Venice's communal vigor was akin to the mayor of Anaheim, California posting an image of a young woman in a Minnie Mouse costume on Disney's "Main Street USA" attraction as evidence that the city of Anaheim had never been a more vibrant, productive place for its residents.

In fact, living Venice--what's left of it--often goes on unnoticed by visitors. It's the ever-shrinking number of stores where you can buy basic unglamorous necessities (like an ironing board); the storefront children's library near San Zaccaria (which Brugnaro wants to close); and the large old health care facilities: their interiors a combination of the centuries-old ecclesiastical and the modern institutional--the latter usually appearing much more run-down than the former.

Always in danger of being closed in whole or in part--a few years back Venice's residents rebuffed the region's attempt to shut down their already half-staffed Ospedale Civile near the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo; now, in a shamelessly overt bit of symbolism, it's the hospital's maternity department that's been targeted for the ax--these large old institutions have the feel of ghost ships: their skeletal staffs working hard to serve a populace that the mainland-based authorities have already seemed to consign to oblivion.

Yet these are the places where the city's population lives--or tries to. Where it goes when it's ill, when it's dying, or when it's preparing to deliver the next (last?) generation of Venetian residents actually born in the lagoon.

I thought of this last week while waiting in the long, windowed hallway of the ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian for my son to come out of his appointment. I looked outside at the courtyard that you can see pictured above, and enjoyed the sun and the scene. Until after a time the question arose that now always arises here for any resident looking upon some valued (and valuable) piece of their city's property: How long until this, too, becomes a hotel?

You see, as Salvatore Settis explains in Chapter VII of his important book If Venice Dies, every public heritage site in Italy has been officially labeled with a price as part of a legislative decree of 2010 (signed into law by the ever-enterprising Silvio Berlusconi) that turned over ownership of federal properties to individual city governments. That is, properties once held in trust and manged by the Italian government for the sake all Italian citizens, to whom it belonged, have now been gifted to cash-strapped local governments with the explicit encouragement for them to sell them off, or even to give them away, to private interests and investors. Indeed, as Settis notes, so strong is the push for local governments to liquidate public property belonging to their citizens that "another law requires local governments to furnish a yearly report on their 'real estate disposals' alongside their budgets."*

(Hence you end up with absurd situations like the one that played out here in Venice in regard to the island of Poveglia, in which Venetians/Italians joined forces to try to buy a property that literally, according to the Italian constitution, already belonged to them.)

So, looking out upon the Giustinian cloister pictured above, one finds oneself speculating on the exact shape the hotel swimming pool will take once the old well head has been moved to a spot better suited to the changed use of the property.

This is what Venetians are up against. A government quite literally occupied by private business interests, an array of recent laws (many of them, Settis argues, unconstitutional), and an economic system in which the public interest simply does not figure at all. Except, that is, insofar as the public continues to exist at all, as an impediment to profit margins and rapacious speculation: red figures on the wrong side of the balance sheet, ripe for erasure.

But it's not only what Venetians are up against. Venice serves as Settis's canary in the coal mine; in this case a rare bird, indeed, one of the world's most celebrated, whose life is threatened by the same Neoliberal forces running amok elsewhere; threatened by what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls "wantons." As Samuel Scheffler explains in his lecture The Afterlife (the basis for his book Death and the Afterlife, alluded to by Settis), "A wanton... is an agent who is not a person because his actions simply 'reflect the economy of his first-order desires,' and because he is indifferent to 'the enterprise of evaluating' those desires."

Actually, the wantons in power are not merely indifferent to "the enterprise of evaluating" those desires (the capacity for which evaluation distinguishes humans from animals) but blatantly hostile to it. Whether it's Brugnaro in Venice or Trump (Bannon) in America or Putin in Russia, wantons are forever denigrating "so-called" experts and their studies, contemptuous of science and any kind of rational, considered assessment. They sell themselves as "men of action," promising the most stupendous results--if only we give them absolute power. 

Fortunately, this is not a deal everyone is willing to make. And in Venice, as is true elsewhere, there's a determined resistance.


* Of course this kind of thing is not peculiar to Italy; it's a primary aim of the Neoliberal doctrine that holds sway in much of the world. Americans will recognize it, for example, behind the drive by Republicans to turn over tens of millions of acres of National Park lands to state governments.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Memoriam: Flavio Franceschet, Venice's Great Cultivator

Flavio Franceschet, in his customary straw hat, at a vendemmia lunch on San Michele in September 2013

Venice's rate of depopulation has gotten to the point that it's no exaggeration to say that the city really can't afford to lose a single resident, either through relocation or death. But the loss of certain residents such as Flavio Franceschet, who died at the beginning of last week and was laid to rest yesterday on the cemetery island of San Michele, tears a particularly large hole in the social and cultural fabric of the living city.

Trained as an architect, Flavio was a popular and influential teacher at la Scuola Media Statale Pier Fortunaro Calvi. But this was just one important role among the many he played in the life of the city. He was also instrumental, for example, in the transformation of a large unused greenhouse at the edge of the public gardens (originally constructed in 1894 as a tepidarium) into La Serra dei Giardini, a cultural and educational center whose exhibitions, programs, and nursery make it a valuable resource for both residents and visitors, and whose pleasant grounds and cafe offer an appealing respite from the stones of Venice.

Mourners fill the cloister of San Michele yesterday

He was also the founder and president of Laguna nel bicchiere, a non-profit association dedicated to the re-invigoration and cultivation of forgotten vineyards around the lagoon: such as the one within the old cloister walls of the cemetery island of San Michele. This is where I first met Flavio, during one unforgettable vendemmia (grape harvest) I wrote more than one post about in September of 2013.

A lot could be written about Laguna nel bicchiere, which at one and the same time was both all about the wine and about so much more than the wine. As was the case in every association or program or event that Flavio created or was involved in, there was both a profound commitment to tradition, to being deeply grounded in the oftentimes ancient culture of the thing, along with an equally profound commitment to the creation of something new and vibrant and now. In Laguna nel bicchiere the past was retrieved as something that could become a vital part of both the present and a future. For all his knowledge of the past, I never detected anything nostalgic about Flavio. He always seemed quite alive in the present, where he was busy cultivating not just grapes, olives, and gardens, but a well-grounded sense of community that seemed to offer the last best hope for a living future in Venice and its lagoon.
A handout from yesterday's service

I noticed this broader project of cultivation in everything he did; it informed the seasonal feste he created in Campo Bragora, as well as the educational program around the cultivation of the lagoon's olive groves that Laguna nel bicchiere developed along with Slow Food Venezia. A program which brought the city's school children to olive groves on the islands of San Servolo and Sant' Elena, and involved them in the year-long process that would eventually result in olive oil, whose sales proceeds would be donated to fund gardens in Africa.

In fact, Flavio had been at my son's elementary school last Monday to talk to students about the cultivation of olives, and was scheduled to meet them two days later in the olive grove of San Servolo.

But on Tuesday he suddenly fell and ill died in the offices of the Comune, where he'd gone to see about extending the agreement with the city whereby the vineyard and old cantina on San Michele would continue to be cultivated by Laguna nel bicciere for educational and community purposes. Which, alas, is not assured in a city where the interests of private outside developers usually trump those of resident citizens. Indeed, the predatory, commercially-minded atmosphere of City Hall was why some people at the funeral yesterday referred, not entirely in jest, to Flavio as a martyr on behalf of Venice's residents and culture.

But the mood was mostly celebratory yesterday, with live music and song, and speeches, and even some juggling. The turnout, not surprisingly, was large. So large, in fact, that before the 11 am start time ACTV (which runs the vaporetti) had to run a Corsa Bis--a special Linea-1-style vaporetto service from Fondamenta Nove to San Michele--just for the mourners. Just as it does for special events such as the Feste della Salute or Redentore, or a Venezia Lega Pro soccer game.

The cloister of San Michele, yesterday

One of Flavio's two adult sons recalled that his father used to tell him when he was a child that a setback or difficulty or source of frustration was like a gioco, a game, which it was our challenge to figure out. Life could also be like a battle, but the point was to keep finding a way forward, attentive to and alive in the world around us, with good cheer, and openness, and the pleasure that comes with working with others. 

Laguna nel bicchiere, along with other projects Flavio created, will continue without him. Though it won't be easy, as Flavio was--as many people remarked yesterday--un personaggio. What in English might be called a "character;" and so much himself, and singular, and knowledgeable, and insightful, and amiably persuasive, as to be irreplaceable. Among the things I admired most about Flavio was that he somehow managed to be a commanding presence without being in any way domineering. He wasn't showy or overbearing, dictatorial or egocentric. He was a reassuring and thoughtful presence, spirited, creative, and effortlessly committed, in whose company good things became possible. In the last couple of years I kept missing Laguna nel bicchiere activities I'd intended to go to, but I was always happy to run into Flavio in the street around town. The mere sight of him, a few words, would remind me of living Venice, and of those like him who willingly, fervently, bear so much of the burden of keeping it alive, and of imagining--and advocating for--its future. Yesterday at San Michele, in a celebration of his life, there was a widespread commitment to pick up where he left off.


A complete list of my blog posts on Laguna nel bicchiere and other activities created by Flavio gives a hint of his importance to the life of the city:

Laguna nel bicchiere:

Community festivals in Campo Bragora:

An empty bottle of Laguna nel bicchiere's "Barefoot Archangels" wine with memorial candles in the cantina of San Michele, yesterday

Monday, March 6, 2017

Ponte Widmann: The Short and the Long of It

The above image was taken with a short exposure time--short enough to capture the momentary two-color effect of the boat passing underneath the bridge. The below was taken with a long exposure time.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Unseen Venice: Three Frescoes By Pietro Antonio Novelli

This series of three large wall freschi in the single room of a private residence by the the Venetian painter Pietro Antonio Novelli (1729-1804) suggests the Carnevale just concluded and the warmer weather to come.