Monday, December 23, 2019

'Tis the Season, or, Venetian Tidings

In the area around the church of San Giacometto, between the Rialto's Bridge and market, water was over an adult's knee at 9:40 am this morning

It's the acqua alta season in Venice and the tidings this year have made no residents glad, as an unprecedented number of what used to be considered exceptionally high tides have repeatedly flooded the defenseless city, causing more than a billion euros worth of estimated damages.

The total of five tides we've already had this season in excess of 140 cm is 3 more than the second highest number of such tides in any given year since 1872, and the overall frequency and intensity of the flooding is unparalleled. This morning's tide came in at 144 cm, a number which as recently as last year would have qualified as disturbingly high. But after a string of 140+ cm tides, it's gotten to the point that there was a certain amount of relief today because, well, at least it didn't hit 150. 

One could have shopped at the vegetable stalls of the Railto market without ever leaving one's boat

Campo San Giacometto (or San Giacomo di Rialto) submerged

Though never known for his beauty, the statue/pedestal known as "Il Gobbo"--atop which public announcements were proclaimed to what used to be the bustling hub of the Venetian Republic's expansive commercial empire--appeared to make like Narcissus in this morning's high tide....

While just a stone's throw away at the Osteria al Pesador, the Catch of the Day could quite literally have been caught while seated at one's table (appropriately enough, I suppose, as pesador is the Venetian word for fisherman).

But regardless of how high the water rose, deliveries still had to be made

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Two Grotesque Portals

Some entrances, whether because of the door itself (as above) or the apartment bell pulls (as below), seem to promise that something other than an ordinary domestic interior awaits you inside.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Cortile delle Scarpe

Cortile delle Scarpe is not the actual name of the small courtyard pictured above, but the odd pair of shoes were so precisely placed within it that they, not the little marble well in the center of the space, seemed to be the focus of the place, like relics on display, imbued with some indecipherable significance unavailable to a causal passerby who chanced into it, as I did. Set in the center of that ground floor, with its array of architectural shapes, its shattered orange plastic drain pipe, its coiled green hose, its wrought iron window bars, its bricked-in archway, the shoes (and even the broom and dustpan in the corner) seemed uncanny, like objects in a dream, inviting interpretation and resisting it in equal measure. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Piazza San Marco 1972; or, Pigeons, Painters and the Question of What Constitutes a Pest?

photo credit: Larry Castek

Today we're lucky to get a striking glimpse of the Venice of 47 years ago, courtesy of Larry Castek, during the era when pigeons still ruled Piazza San Marco.

John Berendt describes the city administration's unsuccessful and often clandestine attempts to control (and sometimes poison) its pigeon population in his best-selling book The City of Falling Angels, published in 2005.  In May of 2008 a law was finally passed which banned their feeding and put the 19 licensed vendors of feed out of business.

At the left of the photo you can see one such vendor in the act of filling a small paper bag of seed from a podium-sized green stand.

And just to the left of him, further in the background, you can see what looks to be a sizable canvas on an easel, with more canvases leaning against its legs. Was this someone licensed to sell his or her works in the piazza, or someone simply painting?

The unlicensed sales of paintings in the piazza has long been banned, but in the last couple of years so, too, has the mere painting of pictures. Artists long used to working there have been chased out by the police. There is no actual law against painting in the piazza, but local authorities have adopted a "zero tolerance" policy toward even the smallest of easels set up in the city's most famously picturesque space.

But though police now keep a watchful eye out for artists, on most sunny days it's not hard to find an illegal vendor or two of pigeon food....

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Shopping in Venice, Past and Present--and A Recommendation

The front window of Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche on Barbaria de le Tole

Shortly after we moved to Venice in 2010 I was walking with a visiting American friend over the Rialto Bridge when he asked me "So what are you supposed to buy in Venice? These silk ties, maybe?" he said, gesturing toward a display of them in a shop window.

We'd been talking of something else entirely, his question came out of the blue, but I knew what he meant. For I, too, when I first visited Europe as a teenager in 1982, had been told before leaving home that certain places were famous for the particular things they produced--eg, carved wood figures in Switzerland, lace in Venice, gold and leather in Florence--and I was, it seemed, almost duty-bound to purchase accordingly and return to the US with my loot.

In fact this compulsion was rather like the one that Venetian traders must have felt many centuries before our conversation, having been ordered by their rulers to return from their own voyages abroad with valuable objects--acquired by whatever means necessary--with which the city could be decorated for its greater glory. The basilica of San Marco, of course, became (and remains) Exhibit Number 1 of the loot thus acquired (or the acquisitions thus looted, as the case often was).

In spite of how much the city had changed between 1982 (when I first saw it) and 2011 (when this conversation took place), the things one was supposed to buy in Venice hadn't changed: lace and glass. But real Burano lace, as I told my friend, is produced by quite literally just a few remaining elderly women, as a long-time retailer of lace told me soon after I moved here, and is accordingly both scarce and expensive. While real Murano glass, though less costly than lace, isn't necessarily as ubiquitous as it first appears, as the cheap stuff is either made in the Far East or is such swift, shoddy work as to have little to do with the tradition it is supposed to evoke.

My friend wasn't a lace or glass kind of guy anyway, and so I concluded simply, "Don't worry about it. There's almost nothing you'll see here that you won't see any place else you go in Italy. Or Europe. And most of it isn't even made here."

This didn't stop him from asking me the same question again the next day.... After all, old habits die hard, and the late- and short-lived modern ideal of being a citizen of the world, seeking after some idealistic and unquantifiable sense of companionship with one's fellow humans, often seems to have been displaced by that of being a consumer of the world, avid for and defined by one's acquisitions, paid for in ready cash.

I feel the effects of this emphasis on consumption in myself, and not wanting to encourage it either in myself or others, I've rarely been inclined to write about things to buy in Venice. Besides, the great bulk of articles on Venice are ultimately trying to sell you something, so my contribution was hardly needed. 

On the other hand, Venice has long been famous as a marketplace--in fact, as the great marketplace of Europe at a time long before "international emporiums" (with their batik prints and scented candles) became a mainstay in 20th-century American malls.

In the opening chapter of his book Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book, Alessandro Marzo Magno points out that the shopping streets between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge have changed less than one might imagine over the last five centuries:
[In 1520 Venice was] a city that, relatively speaking, was much more important than Italy today. Although Italy is now the world’s sixth or seventh industrial power, half a millennium ago Venice had a place on the podium. In the Europe of that time there were only three cities that we might call big; three cities with a population of more than one hundred fifty thousand: Paris, Naples, and Venice.

So, then, what would we have been able to find in the stores—which often were also workshops and homes—on the sixteenth century Mercerie? Cloth, for one thing, or rather the splendid red fabrics for which Venice was famous, dyed according to secret recipes inherited from the Byzantines. Or gilded leather; embossed leather panels decorated with gold leaf, used to embellish the interior walls of palaces, crafted using techniques imported from Moorish Spain, which in turn had inherited them from the Arabs. Or weapons, lots and lots of weapons: hankered over and vied for by plutocrats and sovereigns from all over Europe[....] The names of a couple of nearby streets, Spadaria (from spada, or sword) and Frezzaria (from freccia, or arrow) still speak to us today of that ancient vocation. 
But what struck foreign visitors most were the books: the dozens and dozens of bookmaking workshops that were gathered here in a density unequaled anywhere else in Europe. Word has come down to us of authentic book-shopping tours, like the one described by the historian Marcantonio Sabellico [...]when two friends trying go from the Fontego dei Tedeschi at the foot of the Rialto bridge, [...] to Saint Mark’s Square, [are] unable to make it to their destination, overwhelmed by their curiosity to read the lists of books appended outside the shops.
But Venice's status as the great market place of Europe goes back even further. In Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Philip Ball notes that Venice was trading with the Arabic world as early as the 9th century, and quotes Martin da Canal from his 13th century Chronique de Vénetiens (1267-1275), in which he writes that "merchandise passes through this noble city as water flows through fountains." Ball, whose eye-opening book examines the history of color in art in its material rather than theoretical or aesthetic sense--that is, as being intimately connected to trade and mining and chemistry and what might be called the proto-chemistry of the alchemists--elaborates thus on the offerings of Venetian markets:
From the Aegean Islands came sugar and wine; from the Far East, spices, porcelain, and pearls. Northen Europe supplied minerals, metal, and woolen cloth, while Egypt and Asia Minor were sources of gems, dyes, perfumes, ceramics, pigments, alum, and rich textiles.
And he suggests that this access to color exercised a profound effect on the work of the Venetian painters such as Titian, who "used an unusually large range of pigments, including orpiment and the only true orange of the Renaissance, realgar, available in Venice from around 1490."

Philip Ball writes that Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne "is a chart of nearly every known pigment at the time [of its painting]"--a benefit of having a wealthy patron who could afford (and demanded) the rarest pigments and of living in the great port city of Venice, unparalleled in Europe at the time for the array of exotic materials passing through it

Indeed, Venice, which Ball calls the "City of Color," was the major supply post for painters of the day with funds to spend on the best of materials. At a time when the contracts between patrons and painters went into great detail about both the type and quality of pigments to be used and the money allotted for their purchase he writes that:
The reputation of Venice as the best source of fine pigments is evident in the travel concession in Filippino Lippi's contract for the Strozzi Chapel; [and] Cosimo Tura came to Venice from Ferrara in 1469 to procure materials for his work on the Belriguardo Chapel.
So, in truth, Venice has always been about shopping, in some senses. The challenge these days of mass tourism and online sales is to locate something which truly is unique to this place. But it's not impossible, and for those who are interested in supporting the Venetian economy I'll put up some blog posts over the coming days (or weeks?) of places where I've purchased things myself.

Far from being definitive, this is nothing other than idiosyncratic, and I have no arrangement whereby I benefit from your patronage of any of these places. Nor have I arranged for you to receive a discount at any of them with the mention of my blog. I'll only briefly tell you what I've found and why each place has interested me, and leave the rest to you, to be taken up or not.

Which is a very long way of getting to a photography studio and archive, any one of whose photographic images is worth, as the old saying goes, much more than the thousand words written above.

Vittorio Pavan in Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche

The name of the place is the Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche, and it's located a short distance from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on Barbaria de le Tole (simply set off in the opposite direction from that which Verocchio's famous horse and rider face and in a few minutes you'll see the shop on your left, with its display window adorned by large black-and-white prints).

Its owner is Vittorio Pavan, who in addition to acting as the caretaker of more than 50 years of 20th-century Venetian history is also, as a publisher of fine arts books recently told me, the best printer of black-and-white photographic prints in the area.

His skill in this is amply evident in the fine art prints you'll find in his shop--and how nice it is to see fine art prints created in a dark room instead of by an inkjet printer! Though it's easy enough to get so swept away in the figures and scenes themselves as to lose sight of their developer's expertise.

For there's Igor Stravinsky reclining not-quite-comfortably in a gondola, or more at home conducting a rehearsal for the world premiere of his opera The Rake's Progress in La Fenice. There's a famous image of the young Sophia Loren and her impossibly tiny waistline on a balcony overlooking the Grand Canal. There's Picasso, Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Hemingway, Richard Wright (dapper in a white dinner jacket outside Hotel Excelsior), Pasolini, Bardot, Denueve, Sutherland and Christie, Mick and Bianca, Keith and Anita, and nearly any other bold name cultural figure from the second half of the 20th century at work or at play, busy promoting or protesting, in the distinctive settings of Venice.

But no less worthy of attention--some would say more--are the images of Venetian life starting from 1946: fishermen and hunters, boat builders and lace makers, families and clerics, natural and industrial calamities, feste and special events, and even images labeled "Cronaca Nera": crime scene photos, including some graphic ones of, for example, the murder of Count Filippo Giordano delle Lanze in the reputedly cursed Grand Canal palace Ca' Dario, which you'll certainly not find in the real estate brochures offering the newly-created condominium units there for sale. 

All of the scores of images you'll see on display or stacked in archival photo boxes in the studio make up just a tiny fraction of the 320,000 negatives from the Venice-based photo agency, founded in 1946, which in its last and longest incarnation went by the name of Cameraphoto, and whose photographers supplied images to major newspapers and magazines around the world. 

Vittorio Pavan started working for the photo agency in 1972 at the age of 14, and it is now Pavan who struggles with the challenge of digitally preserving what he can of an archive which is inevitably disintegrating. 

The best (and quite beautifully-produced) account of the Cameraphoto Archive and Vittorio Pavan can be found in a 4 1/2 minute documentary (with English subtitles), used as part of a crowdfunding campaign early this year (which, alas, did not meet its goal) that you can watch below:

And for an online sample of the images available visit Cameraphoto's website:

The website offers Archival Digital Fine-Art prints in various sizes and at various prices, but, in fact, you can no longer order through the website itself. 

Any online questions about images, or orders, should be emailed to

Fine art dark room prints are also available.

Cameraphoto can ship anywhere in the world, and for someone looking for a distinctively Venetian object, one made only here and at a certain moment--literally instant--in time, it is an invaluable resource. 

And if you're able to visit the studio itself the next time you're in Venice, and peruse the images in person, it's time well spent in a historical and cultural venture well worth supporting.