Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Seasonal Chill--and A Forgotten Cinematic Evocation of Venice in Winter

I was admiring the lighted balcony of a palazzo and its reflection in Rio San Servero last night, not a soul in sight, when the red coated figure in the image above appeared on the bridge of Calle di Mezzo, just down the canal from Palazzo Grimani (its lighted windows and Italian flag visible in the background). Those familiar with Nicolas Roeg's unsettling Venice 1973 film Don't Look Now, in whose climax this same calle and palazzo figure prominently, will not be surprised to learn that I made sure not to follow her.

For those who haven't watched the film--well, in spite of the central role played by a red cloak in the plot, it's not a Christmas movie, but worth watching anyway for its setting of a grimy workaday Venice that's markedly different from the spiffy one we're used to today.

Another less-known film from the same era, which shows even more of the still-living city than Roeg's, is the 1970 melodrama Anonimo Veneziano (The Anonymous Venetian), directed by Enrico Maria Salerno. It's not a great, nor even a good movie: it's maudlin in the same way that I imagine another film released in 1970 must be: Love Story.

But the real love story in Anonimo Veneziano takes place between the film's cinematographer and the city itself. Like Roeg's film, this one is also a winter's tale, set in the off-season Venice of Venetians (back in the day when there still was one and still were some, respectively) and the unhappy pair of lovers go everywhere in the city, and in every possible way: on foot, on vaporetto, traghetto, and in gondola.

You don't need to know a word of Italian to watch this film, as it's not the words that make it worth watching. The two leads are photogenic and may even be fine actors (I didn't notice), and they certainly model the era's fashions marvelously, but their real function is to serve as what Michelangelo Antonioni called "moving space."* That is--in a reversal of the usual relationship between a film's stars and its setting--to occupy the foreground in a way that sets off the background to its best advantage.

For any lover of Venice I'm tempted to say this film, unremarkable as it may be as a film, is something of a must-see (though I've never seen it included in any list of Venice films to watch). And those who have access to RAI Play online** can watch it for free:

(A google search turned up an informative Youtube video of some of the locations of the film. Though, as there's a certain pleasure in trying to recognize the many locations--both exterior and interior--as one watches the film, to watch this 8 minute video before watching the film may be like looking at the answers to a crossword puzzle in advance of doing it.)



*According to Jack Nicholson, who starred in Antonioni's 1975 film The Passenger, Antonioni responded to the actor's questions about his own performance by assuring him that it was fine, before admitting that "for me, the actor is a moving space."

**In Italy one can sign up for RAI Play free of charge, gaining access to a vast array of streaming programs and films. I don't, however, know of its availability in other countries.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Off the Beaten Track

"I've never seen that palazzo," my wife declared when I showed her the two images posted here, and I replied that she never will, unless she comes with our son and I the next time we take a boat ride through certain rii in the historic center.

For this is one of those facades whose splendor--weathered enchantingly by time and tide, and almost impossible to capture, even with a wide angle lens--glimmers upon a narrow high-walled canal, completely out of sight of any foot traffic.

It is quite literally off the beaten track, as that phrase refers to a path pounded smooth by pedestrians, and it's doubtful that anyone's ever been able to stump past this facade.  

I think there is a gondola route that passes by this place but, based upon years of casual observation, it seems a good many passengers on gondole would be too absorbed in taking selfies to notice it, as the narrowness of the canal means that even motoring or rowing at the slowest rate you come upon it suddenly--and just as suddenly it's out of sight. You really need to be watching for it.

To get even these two images required the aid of a skilled 10-year-old boat driver, who kept our sandolo-sanpierota idling in place against the wall opposite this facade, while I stood upon the highest point of our low boat, stretched the camera as far above my head as I could reach (to minimize converging vertical lines) and snapped.

Whenever I think of posting an image like this, one visible only from a boat, I think of those who will take it as evidence of the need for kayak rentals or kayak tours in the historic center, so that such views can be open to everyone.

But whoever said that every part of any city--even every public part of every city--should be readily available to all?

After all, it's not like Venice is lacking for sights readily seen on foot, is it?

In his preface to A Portrait of a Lady, which he completed while staying in a pensione on the Riva degli Schiavoni, Henry James wrote how the sight of Venice outside his window was always calling him away from his work: that Venice was one of those places that simply refused to remain merely background.

But James was writing this preface over 100 years ago, and recalling a period of composition from two decades before that. Much has changed: the selfie stick--and the mindset from which it sprang, and which it now exacerbates--can reduce even a Leonardo or Michelangelo to stage set or prop.

It's too bad, as it really is hard to go anywhere in Venice without finding some place or scene more than worthy of attention. The city bristles with what James would have called subjects: they fall at your feet, they fall into your lap, they fall upon you hard like hail. Or maybe that's the way to describe objects of attention.

Subjects perhaps, in contrast, don't so much fall upon you, passively, as call upon you. They assert themselves, demanding your attention, overwhelming your own sense of self, interfering with your plans and whatever sense of purpose you might have had the minute before. And nowhere, James suggested, do they do this more frequently or thickly than in Venice. They're everywhere.

So, as much as I marvel at these off-the-beaten-track water doors, I don't post them to suggest that people who've never seen them are missing something, as missing something--actually, missing a countless number of somethings--is also, inevitably, part of the Venice experience, whether on land or water, and even for the most attentive of visitors, or residents. The interesting question, in the midst of such overwhelming sensory abundance, is not of what one's missing, but of what manages to stick--and, luckily, contrary to the suggestions of guide books and tour guides, there's no predicting that for each person.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Campo San Cassiano, or, Thinking of Giacometti

"In Venice," Gabriele D'Annunzio writes in Il fuoco, "one cannot think except through images."

With the image above I found myself thinking of a work of Alberto Giacometti's from the late 1940s entitled Piazza that you can see at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum here in Venice.

The museum's website provides Giacometti's own explanation for the work's (or series of works') inspiration:
In the street people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting. Every second the people stream together and go apart, then they approach each other to get closer to one another. They unceasingly form and re-form living compositions in unbelievable complexity. . . . It’s the totality of this life that I want to reproduce in everything I do. . . .

One of the things that is lost to mass tourism is the dynamism of the public space, whether piazza or campo, as described by Giacometti. Mass tour groups simply clump or trudge, volitionless; tourists, needing to be nowhere in particular, and not knowing how to get there in any case, merely drift, washing up on steps, clotting in calli, adhering to any brightly lit display window, like sea wrack.

But sometimes, and in some places, on brisk fall or winter nights (or mornings), you can still see what Giacometti had in mind. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

'Round Midnight, Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio

In the last hour of yesterday and the first minutes of this morning it looked like a fog was settling in for an extended stay in Venice--the city's long history turning palpable, it seemed, cold breath of the countless long-gone thickening the air, the paving stones mimicking the dark sheen of canals--while I took these shots in and around San Giacomo dell'Orio. But the fog ended up spending no more time here than the 3 or 4 hours that about 75% of mass tourists do, and today was sunny, clear, and cold.

Friday, December 7, 2018

'Tis the Season...

Workers construct the ice skating rink in Campo San Polo last Friday, while, at left,  a small colony of orange plastic sea lions await their opportunity to aid the unsteady upon the ice go ice skating in Campo San Polo. At least it will be beginning tomorrow.

Lacking much chance to practice, I suspect the vast majority of Venetians are no better at ice skating than they are at driving (at which they are reputed to be very bad indeed). But the absence of expertise never shows any sign of lessening anyone's enjoyment of the latter activity--and, unlike the former, almost never poses any danger to innocent bystanders or property.

The small rink will stay up through the end of Carnevale.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Off-Season Lunch, Sant'Erasmo, Today

On December 1 the summer crowds are a distant memory at Al Bacan Ristorante e Pizzeria on Sant'Erasmo, and it seems the frittura mista (just cuttlefish and prawns) and pizza taste better on a clear cold day than on all the hot ones. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Local Color: The Regata delle 50 Caorline

The Regata Storica held at the end of each summer on the Grand Canal is the most famous rowing event in Venice, but it's just one of a series of regate--known in total as il circuito--which begins in the spring and runs almost to the end of November.

Last Sunday in the south lagoon behind the Giudecca, as part of the 20th Festa Grande de Sant'Andrea, was the last event of the circuito, and after what seemed like two weeks of uninterrupted gloom and drizzle (not unusual for November) it brought an abundance of welcome color to the lagoon.

It was also the first regata in which our 10-year-old son competed, in the Schìe (basically "waterbug") division. Having had but one day of practice with a new rowing partner, and rowing in the prua (prow) position instead of the poppa to which he was accustomed, he and his partner posed little threat to the eventual winners, but that was never really the point. It was his chance to get his feet wet (so to speak) in regate, and he enjoyed it thoroughly.

There were other races as well--such as the four-oar women's competition at top--but the highlight of the day was a final race of 50 six-rower caorline.

The most accomplished crews of Regatanti that started in the front of the pack competed fiercely along the whole 3.55 meter course and first place came down to a photo finish (as you can see in the third photo below). But the overall aim of the event was to close the season with a sense of community, in which rowers with differing degrees of expertise and competitive drive could share.

I learned it's really impossible to capture more than a small fraction of 50 caorline in one shot, but I hope these images provide some sense of the event.

The shirts of this crew basically declare (in Venetian): "We don't need gas, our turbo fuel tank is in our arms"

Although I couldn't tell who won from my vantage point, it turned out to be the crew in the black and white stripes

As the winners caught their breath a good part of the rest of the 50 caorline had yet to finish

A good number of spectators watched from their own boats (like these three, here chatting with someone on the flooded fondamenta before the races began)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A Gondolier's Best Friend At Work (Loosely Speaking) on the Traghetto di Santa Sophia

Since winter arrived in earnest last Friday with four consecutive days of strong Bora winds, even a fur coat has proved insufficient to keep warm.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sunset, South Lagoon, This Evening

Anyone who's spent some time in Venice at this time of year will probably not need to be told that no filter was applied to this image, nor to the one below, captured a few minutes earlier

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Unseen Venice: Private Cortile, Rio San Giacomo dall'Orio

In a stretch of narrow canal banked on either side by two uninterrupted rows of modest palazzi, this low water gate, and the glimpse it provides of just a few potted plants and a column, appears as nothing less than fantastical. And so narrow is the canal a wide angle is needed to capture even this much of its setting.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Venetian Life, Past and Present (Noon Today)

"Among other provisioners who come to your house in Venice," writes William Deans Howells in Chapter VII of his great non-fiction book Venetian Life (originally published in 1866), "are those ancient peasant-women, who bring fresh milk in bottles carefully packed in baskets filled with straw. They set off the whiteness of their wares by the brownness of their sunburnt hands and faces, and bear in their general stoutness and burliness of presence, a curious resemblance to their own comfortable bottles. They wear broad straw hats, and dangling ear-rings of yellow gold, and are the pleasantest sight of the morning streets of Venice, to the stoniness of which they bring a sense of the country’s clovery pasturage, in the milk just drawn from the great cream-colored cows.

Fishermen, also, come down the little calli—with shallow baskets of fish upon their heads and under either arm, and cry their soles and mackerel to the neighborhood, stopping now and then at some door to bargain away the eels which they chop into sections as the thrilling drama proceeds, and hand over as a denouement at the purchaser’s own price. “Beautiful and all alive!” is the engaging cry with which they hawk their fish.

Besides these daily purveyors, there are men of divers arts who come to exercise their crafts at your house: not chimney-sweeps merely, but glaziers, and that sort of workmen, and, best of all, chair-menders—who bear a mended chair upon their shoulders for a sign, with pieces of white wood for further mending, a drawing-knife, a hammer, and a sheaf of rushes, and who sit down at your door, and plait the rush bottoms of your kitchen-chairs anew, and make heaps of fragrant whittlings with their knives, and gossip with your serving-woman."

It was the last of these types of "provisioners" once common in the calli and campi of Venice that I thought I caught sight of today around noon in Cannaregio, hurrying along Fondamenta dei Mori with two wooden chairs stacked seat to seat in his hands, then dashing over a bridge as we puttered beneath it in our little boat and out of sight. Thinking of the Howells passage above, I was almost ready to take him for a ghost. But he's more likely to have been heading to Sunday lunch with a pair of extra seats for some other guests--in one of the few areas of the city still animated by Venetian life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

That Sinking Feeling, Rio della Sensa

This image was taken a few days prior to last week's extreme acqua alta, and as the luxuriant marine growth shows, this boat's situation has been dire for quite some time.

Of course, the upside to such long-term neglect is that having long ago and quite literally hit bottom, things can't really get any worse, and this boat is one of the few things or places that escaped last week's harsh weather unscathed.

I would have thought a boat so far gone would have been beyond repair, but having witnessed the remarkable transformation of the boat pictured below, which had been more sea wrack than even sea wreck, a mere small fraction of a boat, I've learned there are skilled craftsman in Venice who, with the liberal use of fiberglass, can work miracles.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Long Time No See: The Church of the Scalzi

The massive actual appears here to be supported by its two-dimensional image

The church of the Scalzi, or of Santa Maria di Nazareth, as it's officially known, is one of those monumental Venetian sights which is typically rendered invisible to me by the tourist throngs inevitably surrounding it. Foot and suitcase traffic is usually so thick before it that I rush past the church as quickly as possible, noticing nothing except the next opening through the crowd, thinking of nothing except the relief I'll feel when I eventually arrive at a calle with a bit of breathing room.

It's a bad way to go about things, as the day inevitably arrives--as it did just three days ago--when I finally notice what I've been missing.

I've no aesthetic opinion to offer on the Scalzi's Baroque facade; I was just to struck to see it at all, its stone beautifully tinted by the wet weather.

Was this solely the effect of the cleaning efforts just completed, or did the church benefit as well from a certain fleeting peek-a-boo appeal, only half-undraped as it was that moment, the printed image of the facade stretched upon the scaffolding serving as the perfect foil for the thing itself? (Perhaps an ever-more rare inversion of what Henry James, in his great story "The Real Thing," calls the "the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal.")

Or maybe, like the city of Los Angeles, the church of the Scalzi just simply looks it best right after a heavy rain storm. 

A couple of new figures appear, temporarily, with Mary, Jesus, and other holy sorts amid the first order of the facade

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Every Door A Water Door: Venice Submerged

We don't usually have a water door in our apartment building, but last night our cortile became a canale (and our son sweeps out the water that surmounted our front steps)

Two common misperceptions about acqua alta are that:

1) It signifies the same kind of flooding that commonly strikes other parts of the world when, for example, a river overflows and inundates an area for a full day or two (or more) before receding. In contrast, acqua alta is simply part of the usual movement of the tides here, which follow an alternating cycle of roughly 6 hours up and 6 hours down. So that, for example, while a normal instance of acqua alta may impede your path through a certain part of town some morning, it's likely to be out of your way by noon.

2) If there's acqua alta in Piazza San Marco, the rest of the city must also be flooded. This depends, but as Piazza San Marco, which centuries ago was one of the highest points in the city, is now (thanks to subsistence) one of its lowest, there may be flooding there but very little anywhere else. That is, acqua alta is not necessarily general throughout Venice.

But when the tides surges 156 cm above its mean level, as it did yesterday, then even buildings situated in higher parts of the city find themselves with water doors, which had led out to paving stones before.

70% of the city was flooded yesterday and most of the city was shut down. In fact, in anticipation of the high tide all schools had been canceled as of Sunday evening--and not just for yesterday, but for today as well. The Rialto markets didn't open yesterday, nor did supermarkets, and though most of the Rialto produce stalls were open today, and a couple of the fish stalls of the pescheria, the supermarkets were still closed today as of noon due to the extensive cleanup necessitated by the flooding. I don't know how many, if any, were able to open by this evening.

The most famous instance of acqua alta that stuck around for far longer than usual is of course the flood of 1966, whose waters rose to over 190 cm and were prevented from receding by an extraordinarily strong scirocco forcing water up the Adriatic, and topped off by heavy rains and rivers that overflowed the diversionary routes Venetians had laboriously dredged for them centuries before.

There were strong winds yesterday and last night as well, and our upstairs neighbor, who'd weathered the 1966 flood in the same building in which he (still) and we (now) live, alluded to that disastrous scirocco of old and hoped the one blowing last night wouldn't have anything like the same effect. The next high tide was due in just after midnight, and at 11 pm I looked out our window to find the previous one still filling our courtyard.

But this morning our cortile was no longer a basin whose water exceeded the height of our just-below-the-knee stivali (rubber boots) and it was time to clean up. 

Of course, one is tempted to note here that if MOSE, the multi-billion euro flood prevention system, was working all of this might have been avoided. But then one remembers that MOSE is working perfectly--on its own terms. For it has done what seems to be its real job of transferring billions of euros of public money into the bank accounts of well-connected private interests--flood prevention and the saving of Venice serving merely as the pretext for this admirable operation.

Meanwhile, as today's New York Times reports, the basilica of San Marco's interior was submerged yesterday to an extent recorded only four times before in its 900 year history and, according to one of its board members, "in just one day aged 20 years."

And thus I find myself further convinced that, considering the cultural and historical importance of the city which it was charged to protect and the amount of money that has been spent on it, the forever non-functional MOSE project must surely rank as one of history's great swindles. Anyone and everyone involved with it should be very proud indeed: they assume their well-deserved places among those Venetian and/or mercenary miscreants who sacked Constantinople and bombarded the Parthenon. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Not Dead Yet, This Afternoon

Chivalry, that is. 

Acqua alta, like that which was driven into the city this afternoon by a strong scirocco, tends to bring it out in some people (as above).

Just a few minutes before this I'd seen a woman carrying a man, piggy-back style, across a stretch of water, but didn't have the chance to capture that instance.

Alas, the many participants in today's Venice Marathon had no choice but to simply slog through the water, as you can see below.