Friday, June 30, 2017

Season of Sudden Storms

The most dramatic storms of the year blow into town during the summer: dark, thunderous, torrential, turbulent, and typically over in far less time than it takes to play one half of a soccer game. They sweep in all biblical and apocalyptic, forcing you to take shelter wherever you can and wondering if you'll ever see your home again, but tend to pass so swiftly as to end up seeming almost theatrical--a masterfully produced stage set squall for the stage set city so many people take Venice to be.

Of course it's a different matter if you're out in a boat in the lagoon, and the first thing I was warned about by locals when I started to row out into the lagoon by myself--though I never went out far--was to watch for such storms. If caught in one I was told to stake my boat on a barena (mudflat): one oar lodged in the mud at the boat's prow, a second at its stern on the opposite side. (I had two oars as I was rowing ala Valesana.)

The kayaker pictured above was, fortunately, on the Grand Canal when a recent thunderstorm hit. Still, it's not a place I'd much like to be at such a time.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Headless Summer, Certosa

With apologies to the Beach Boys and their bestselling album of a similar title.

For some reason this image also makes me think of the famous passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun:
...the years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment, when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by, there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries, we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones. It is wise, therefore, to come back betimes, or never.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

What Does the Real Venice Look Like?

A central paradox of Venice is that the very sights and places universally considered to be the most representative of the city, the most quintessentially Venetian, often have the least actual Venetian life left in them. There are times, for example, when I've walked out of our apartment near the Rialto fish market and encountered anywhere from 30 to 50 camera-toting or luggage-pulling tourists before spotting the first resident--even as I make my way down calli that epitomize what people think of when they think of Venice.

How long has it been since any Venetians took their evening stroll (or passeggiata) through Piazza San Marco? It was the place to be seen even during Austrian occupation, as William Dean Howells recounted in the early 1860s, and I think it remained so to a lesser extent even into the days of Jan (then James) Morris at the end of the 1950s. But the Piazza and the area all around it are now occupied more absolutely by tourists (in their hotels and B&Bs, both legal and illegal) than the mighty Austrians ever imagined possible.

A friend once told me about the year he spent living just off beautiful Campiello San Vidal at one end of the Accademia Bridge. What could be more picturesquely Venetian, he thought--before he moved in.

But he said the only neighbor he had during his dispiriting time there was an accountant whose office was just down the calle from his apartment. Otherwise, he lived in a ghost town, except for the occasional tourist drifting through, or some second- or third-home owners who'd show up for the Feast of Redentore or some other weekend now and again. He was happy to move to a less picturesque but more populated area of Venice when his lease was up.

Of course the absence of local life has spawned its own commercial opportunities and sales pitches beyond merely the tourist-rentals that contribute to the emptiness. Guidebooks, guides, tours, and, yes, blogs like this one promise to lead you to the dwindling number of sites where Venetians can still be observed in their native habitat. Everyone is looking for leads to unknown or hidden Venice, a Venice off the beaten path, or the real Venice.

Then there are others of us who pride ourselves in being to sniff out on our own local enclaves in even the most over-run of tourist destinations.

What do we look for? Well, language, is an obvious sign, and we'd listen for the sound of Venetian. Activities are another. But not the picture postcard activities of gondoliere or fishmonger or glass blower, but the everyday ones of parents or grandparents taking their children to school or picking them up.

At other times, dress can serve as clues.

Though this method can lead to some questionable conclusions.

For example, I usually motor our little boat down the Grand Canal without attracting any notice. But the other day when the sun was especially brutal I resorted to wearing a rather rustic straw hat and found I'd suddenly become picturesque in the eyes of any number of visitors. I couldn't pass a crowded vaporetto without finding a couple of cameras aimed at me.

Here was a real Venetian sight!

Though the lone element that qualified me as such--the only difference from how I usually puttered down the Grand Canal in our 6 hp outboard--was a hat I'd bought from a cheap tourist stall in Croatia while on vacation there, which had been made in China. 

Perhaps what I'm ultimately thinking about here is the way in which we travel in order to see things--but rarely think much about how we are actually and actively looking for certain things.

Or, to put it another way, is it possible to see what we're not looking for?

If I remember correctly this is a central theme in Proust's In Search of Lost Time--a novel all about memory that I can only remember, as it's been in storage in Brooklyn for the past 6 years. According to that book a certain place--and sometimes only the name of a certain place--has magical associations for us and we go there looking to find, or re-find them.

We may not even feel that we've really been in Venice till we capture (and post on social media!) our own image of, say, that much-seen view of gondolas moored along the molo near the Palazzo Ducale, with the church of San Giorgio Maggiore all majestic in the background.

A bored gondolier leaning his stripe-shirted torso against the parapet of a bridge is the very image of Venice.

However, a Bangladeshi hawking splat toys in front of that very same parapet is not.

In the terms of my last post such a street vendor may be one of the elements we leave out of the picture of Venice we're constantly composing in our minds--and composing far less consciously than any painter composes the views he or she is painting of the city.

Insofar as such a vendor suggests intractable questions about, say, immigration and acculturation at play both in Venice and beyond, he is rather too real.

The real Venice we're looking for wears an instantly recognizable costume--each element of which we can now buy from stores in the historic center and is emblazoned with the new logo of the gondolier's association, attesting to its authenticity.

An elaborate taxonomy of touristic discernment could probably be plotted out according to the type of subjects considered photo-worthy by visitors. Some people might focus on the most famous sights (Piazza San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, the Rialto Bridge); a tendency probably more common in the era of film cameras. Others might limit themselves to what strikes them as the obscure and little seen. Some might shoot, say, gondoliers and glass blowers but not work boat drivers and taxi drivers; while others, reasoning that the latter two groups play a larger part in the actual economic life of the city, would do the inverse. Some people might focus on the colors and textures of the city, abstracted from any larger sense of the whole. Others might become "meta-tourists" and take as their subject other tourists and the tourism industry itself.  

Some people might do a little of all of the above, and more. And some, myself among them, might take an image like the one at the top of the page and not be quite sure what they're doing.

Has the depopulation of the historic center reached such a point that the "realest" Venice are those areas of town where the population is densest, regardless of whether they look much like Venice or not?

Or is isolation or boredom or fatigue without a recognizably Venetian backdrop too much like the isolation or boredom or fatigue we've left our own home town in order to escape to be worth a picture?

Is the above image one of real Venice or too real Venice?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pretty As a Picture--But Not Quite

Passing through Campo Santa Maria Formosa the other day I was reminded of how painters make the scenes they depict at least as much as they find them. The English painter Ian Layton, whose work you see above (and which you can also see more of on Facebook), was kind enough to talk to me about his process, the differences between working in oil versus working in water colors, and everything else I could throw at him.

Of course some people are still rather scandalized to find that Canaletto made substantial alterations in the scenes of Venice he was supposedly only reproducing, but his departures from things as they strictly were to things as he thought they looked best on his canvases are a matter of course for painters to a greater or lesser degree--as you can see above by comparing Layton's work-in-progress to the scene beyond it.

That people might value an image of the thing more than they valued the thing itself, might confuse an image (or even words!) with reality, dismayed Plato no end, and has continued to drive people and some religions to distraction ever since.

But living in Venice one is reminded that if reality (however you define that) ever had even the slimmest chance of holding its own against images our digital age has finished it off for good. Capturing an image now precedes--if not entirely supersedes--seeing the thing itself, as one can observe most dramatically in Giotto's great Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Aware that they're allowed only 15 minutes inside the small precious space, smart phones are set to snapping before their owners' eyes can possibly take in any of the scene.

But even without a smart phone or camera or paint brush in hand, I think we tend to constantly construct or compose the scenes before us. Indeed, in a city of such overwhelmingly abundant and artful details we have no choice. On any given day I suspect that that tourist souvenir cart to the right of the photo above is almost as entirely absent from my perception of Campo Santa Maria Formosa as it is from Layton's canvas. We all have a certain Venice in mind, a Venice we'd like to see, a pleasing or maybe just tolerable Venice, and we frame our vision of it, with or without a camera, accordingly.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Look, Ma, No Hands!" Or, Getting Cheeky on the Grand Canal

I've written before on this blog that it seems to me that Venetians never look so pleased as when they're piloting their own boats. The images that accompany today's post do nothing to change my mind about this, but they do suggest, perhaps, a type of pleasure I hadn't even considered when I typed my initial remark.

As you can see, it's common for the drivers of mototopi, or large work boats, to steer them with--well, with what you can see for yourself. And even after living here for 6 years, and in spite of its indisputable practicality, it still surprises me.

Of course my 9-year-old son, who aspires to be a mototopo driver himself--and studies and mimics their every move as other kids around the world study and mimic the moves of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi--finds nothing at all curious about this way of steering. Rather, the only question in his mind is whether he'd prefer the smaller type of handle you see above or the type with the long upright extension, as below, against which you can lean back for maximum comfort while driving (note the black padding taped around the upright in the image below).  

At the end of a work day I've seen drivers reclining against (and upon) this latter type of tiller looking quite contented indeed.  

In any case, this is one of those cultural differences between us that I think best to let pass without much comment. I wonder, though, if it would considered acceptable for women mototopi drivers to steer in this way.

But as I've never seen a woman piloting a mototopo here, there's no way of knowing. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Local Heroes and the Question of Local Autonomy

Jane da Mosto receives the Premio Osella from the president of the Comitato Festa della Sensa, Giorgio Suppiej, as Mayor Gianluigi Brugnaro applauds at far right

Two weekends ago Venice celebrated La Festa della Sensa, or its traditional ritual of "marrying" the sea, and as part of the weekend's festivities three Venetian residents were awarded the Premio Osella d'Oro della Sensa. The award--named after the gold coin once given out to senators by the doge--was intended to recognize the contribution of either institutions or individuals which/who have enriched the city through their efforts in the spheres of culture, crafts or commerce.

The honorees were:

Jane da Mosto, co-founder of the non-profit community organization We Are Here Venice and co-author and editor, respectively, of two books to which I've frequently referred in this blog: The Science of Saving Venice and The Venice Report. (I read and recommended those books before I ever met Jane herself, but since doing so I've contributed photos to Jane and the group for use on their website and in other materials.) 

Saverio Pastor addressed the audience after receiving the Premio
Saverio Pastor, master craftsman of Venetian forcole (oarlocks) and remi (oars), long-time proponent of the culture of Venetian rowing and of Venetian artisans in general, and founder of El Felze, which his website describes as "an association of craftsmen involved in the construction of the gondola and its fittings, and articles of clothing for gondoliers."

Michele Bugliesi, Chancellor of the Università Ca' Foscari, whose most recent achievement--and I think it's a significant one--was the inauguration of the International Center for the Humanities and Social Change on May 17, an interdisciplinary research program with centers in Europe and America devoted to the effects of globalization on contemporary society.

In a city whose resident culture is literally fighting for its life in the face of mass tourism, irresponsible "development", and the ongoing, life-sucking 6 billion euro swindle that are the forever inoperable MOSE water gates, such residents and their efforts deserve not just to be celebrated but held up as examples of the kinds of things that must be done to keep the city alive. 

Ca' Foscari Chancellor Michele Bugliesi addresses the audience
Alas, on the official website of the Comune di Venezia, and in local new reports, the focus was elsewhere. In the former case, a single sentence refers to the award, without bothering even to name its recipients. Then, that perfunctory bit of information done (the use of "però" in the following sentence is interesting), it boasts of the "increasing number of people" who come to Venice to view the marriage ceremony to the sea on the following day.

Because, after all, if there's one thing Venice really needs it's more tourists.

At the award ceremony itself, held in the Palazzo Ducale, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro's focus was also elsewhere. This year's establishment of a "twin city" relationship between Venice and l'Unione Montana Agordina in the Dolomites served as an opportunity for him to lay out a far-reaching vision of a Venice whose "brand" (his word) would extend to the mountains. Of course, as he noted, there had always been an important relationship between the Venice and the mountains, from which comes the city's water and raw building materials.

But as he talked about Venice as "a great metropolitan area" stretching from the sea to the mountains, an area whose economic development should be conceived of as a unified bloc, I couldn't help remembering passages from Salvatore Settis's book If Venice Dies.

In the same chapter in which Settis refers to the "cargo cult" of those who mindlessly "venerate the absolute power of the market," he brings up the following points about those who like to envision Venice as doing little more than imparting its commodity "aura" (or Brugnaro's "brand") to a "great metropolitan area.":

1) While discussing Pierre Cardin's now scuttled plans to build a massive skyscraper on the mainland near the lagoon, Settis writes that the "real issue facing all Venetians, the regeneration of the the former industrial zone of Marghera, has been hijacked to justify real estate speculation. As part of the bargain [of Cardin's proposed residential/commercial high-rise], a new highway planned in the vicinity would modernize Venice by making it look like a Chinese or American metropolis."

Cardin's skyscraper plans may have collapsed beneath widespread public outrage, but similar developments on the mainland are still very much in the works. And perhaps it might be worth noting here that Brugnaro himself is said to own a great deal of property in Marghera.

2) Settis also notes that "Rethinking transit connections in order to save Venice from isolation"--a key point of Brugnaro's at the awards ceremony--"is yet another favorite theme of the high priests of the cargo cult. The Futurists thought they could fill the Grand Canal and pave it over, while their heirs today are planning a huge metropolitan area that would turn the cities of Venice, Padua, and Treviso into a single megapolis."

The "cargo cultists" singled out by Settis like to depict their projects as "sustainable", "green" and the foundations of a "new community"--notions you'll also find in the account of Brugnaro's speech linked to above. And both Settis's "cargo cultists" and Brugnaro inevitably present their favored projects as the inevitable, absolutely necessary, and only possible alternative.  (Brugnaro says: "Solo così possiamo costruire una comunità, progetto che richiede un tempo lungo superando i campanilismi e guardando alle capitali del mondo, perché questo è il senso della nostra città, senza piangersi addosso.")

To entertain any ideas other than those put forth by Venice's non-resident, mainland mayor is to be nothing but a weak-minded, sentimental crybaby (that "senza piangersi addosso" phrase above). 

But of course there are other ideas out there, put forth by people like Settis himself, and community groups such as Jane da Mosto's We Are Here Venice and Generazione 90, which are committed to maintaining Venice as something more than merely a "luxury brand." Indeed, Brugnaro's obsession with the notion of "luxury" and "luxury brands" seems to have come to its full rancid flowering in the current Biennale's embarrassing Venice Pavilion, whose very theme is "Luxus", and whose gaudy "trash" commodities on display are better suited to a suburban outlet mall or a cruise ship port than an international festival of art. 

And, in fact, an alternative vision of Venice's possible future is likely to be put to the vote this fall, in the form of a referendum proposing that Venice and Mestre be separated into two distinct cities--as they were before Mussolini bound them into a single comune

This topic merits a post of its own, which I'll soon put up. But, in short, the idea is that the issues facing Venice are quite different from those facing Mestre, and that each place would benefit from having its own mayor and administration. At present, the majority of the electorate whose votes determine the fate of Venice live on the mainland--as does Brugnaro himself (the first Venice mayor ever born and raised outside of the lagoon).

Indeed, the very stridency of Brugnaro's remarks during the awards ceremony may have been inspired by his awareness of this proposed referendum--which he adamantly opposes, and which he has attempted (and thus far failed) to prevent from taking place.

All of which background made for a rather loaded if good-natured exchange of glances between award-recipient and mayor during Jane da Mosto's short acceptance speech for the Premio Osella. "Given the complexity of the place we live in," da Mosto said (originally in Italian): 
one of my main aims is to encourage citizens to understand the factors that determine our quality of life in the city, together with the limits of what's possible--in economic, social and environmental terms. In this way we will all be able to participate more knowledgeably, and more effectively, in political choices.

We are here Venice is not a factory for trouble-makers [fabbrica di "rompiscatole": literally, "box breakers," but a common euphemism for "ball busters"--and the point at which da Mosto and Brugnaro exchanged smiles] but an incubator for citizens that adds value to their experience, understanding, and knowledge. Even if little is left of Venice (and the need to re-grow the population is urgent*), its value is still immeasurable in terms of history, culture, civilisation and, above all, its innate resilience.

Venice is often considered a mirror on the world. Many of its problems are also found on a global scale. We have the privilege of living here and seeing everything close-up. If we don't manage to save Venice, how will the world save itself?
Even as the Comitato Festa della Sensa chose to recognize three Venetian residents for their efforts on behalf of a living Venice, the attention of the mayor and comune's publicity department was, as usual, elsewhere.

The referendum to separate Venice and Mestre is the best--and perhaps last--chance for the residents of Venice to once again have a say in the future of their city. The ceremony that took place in the grand Sala dello Scrutinio of the Palazzo Ducale on 27 May during the Festa della Sensa reminded me of everything at stake in that referendum. I'll post more information on it soon.  

*While campaigning for mayor Brugnaro promised to increase the resident population of Venice by 30,000 people. During his two years in office the city has in fact lost 1,600 residents. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bottoms Up on the Grand Canal, This Afternoon

A capsized kayaker is towed to safety by a passing group of rowers with a small outboard motor on their boat

The 43rd Vogalonga, a non-competitive 30 km row around the Venetian lagoon, takes place tomorrow, but the rowers were already out in force today. Initiated as a distinctly local reassertion of the importance of traditional Venetian oar-powered boats and an objection to the motorboat waves that were battering the foundations of the city, the Vogalonga has become an international celebration of the oar, with participants coming from far and wide and taking to the water in all styles of boats (as you can see in images from previous year's editions: 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013).

Various types of rowed boats passed up and down the Grand Canal all day today, multi-person crews and single and double kayakers, all of them looking adept, as you'd expect of anyone about to undertake an outing of tomorrow's length. But traffic on the Grand Canal can create difficulties for even more experienced rowers, as became evident when a kayaker found himself upended by the wake of a passing vaporetto in the center of the Grand Canal.

Fortunately, at that moment traffic in that part of the canal was sparse and the kayaker was quickly towed by a passing crew to the safe port, or rather, portico, of Ca' D'Oro. If it had been a work day, or even a typical Saturday afternoon (as today is part of the extended holiday of the Festa della Republica), the kayaker could easily have found himself in much more trouble.

The city has implemented regulations forbidding the use of kayaks, standup paddle boards, canoes, and dragon boats in the canals and most rii (small side canals) from 8 am to 3 pm on weekdays and from 8 am to 1 pm on Saturdays. A wise decision, I think, based upon what I personally witnessed in the days when a kayak rental outfit right near the Rialto Bridge was renting kayaks to absolutely anyone--including rank beginners--and sending them out into the waterways with a useless water-proof map.

This afternoon provided yet another reminder, of the sort that periodically occurs here, that Venice is not a theme park or play land: something that both visitors and city officials would do well to keep in mind.

Ca' D'Oro must qualify as one of the world's most beautiful boat houses

Disrobing in the historic center, much less in one of the city's great buildings, is generally looked down upon by Venetians--but that rarely seems to stop visitors