I've posted this in bits and pieces previously, with things out of order. Here's the consolidated, excessively long, brain dump.
They say that “all roads lead to Rome”, but everyone you've ever heard of has been to Venice. Mark Twain (who described the Basillica as a “vast warty bug taking a meditative walk”), Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, JFK, Marilyn Munro, Aristotle Onassis, Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth, Pablo Picasso, assorted Mafia dons, Winston Churchill with his watercolour paints. It is truly the World's City. Just don't tell the Venetians, they have been in the habit of thinking that the World, or at least “A Quarter and One Half of a Quarter” of the World belongs to Venice, or at least should belong.
Lou and I came to Italy in December 2006, for three and a half weeks, and spent six nights in Venice before Verona, Como, Florence, Assisi and Rome. I'd been to Venice before, in 1975, as quite a callow youth, with my then wife Jane and daughter Pip, as part of the mandatory one year overseas trip we Australians had to do then, before acquiring the brick home and generally “settling down”.
I rember Lou asking me “If you could go back to anywhere in Europe, where would you go?”. And I always said, “Venice”. So in 2006, Venice was the first port of call in the trip, Venice was our introduction to Italy, and I'm so glad we did it that way. See some Venice, and after that, see some Italy.
I remember arriving, and finding our hotel. It was near San Marco, and I'd mapped out in my mind exactly how to find it. Turn right from the Aligaluna ferry stop, past the souvenir vendors, cross the Piazzetta and the Piazza, under the clock tower, first right, 30 yards and we were there. I was so keen to show Venice to Lou, to unroll it like a magic carpet, albeit a carpet supported on wooden piles in the lagoon, a carpet with bumps and lumps and a bit waterlogged, wine stains and not a few blood stains, bare patches and worn threads. I so wanted Venice to deliver on the magic carpet. la Serenissima delivered.
It seemed like magic. We thought of changing our itinerary, staying for another week or two, and didn't. I'm glad we didn't, because if we'd stayed three weeks, we might have thought that we'd “done” Venice, seen it all. We did the bigger sights, the Baedeker “don't miss this” list of attractions, and didn't really see Venice.
When we left, after six days, we were both a bit quiet, biting the bottom lip a little. Before we were half way to Verona on the train, I think we'd both decided that we had to come back again, for a lot longer.
I'm a planning freak by nature. I like the process, and I'm inclined to think that you can have an experience three times over, once in the planning, once in the doing, and once in retrospect. So I do endless plans, many of which get abandonded, some which get followed for a little while, very few that survive unscathed. I operate in a visual way, an odd thing as I'm better with words than with the visual. If I remember reading something, I'm likely to forget which book I read it in, but remember the place on the page. This probably explains why my books look particularly well thumbed, and possibly explains why I'm hopeless with names.
The visual thing means that I see myself arriving and doing things way before they happen. Fifteen years ago, I did the mid life crisis by riding a bicycle around much of Australia, 8000 km in 100 days, rather vigorous. The thing that made it possible was that I'd had a vision, for years, of myself rolling into Darwin, having crossed the continent from Melbourne. A bit like a red carpet being rolled out continuously, and just having to follow it.
Venice has been the same, the vision becoming reality, after heaps of plannng. Negotiate time off work, save money, endless internet searches to find an apartment that was in the right location, and not too costly.
A lot of reading, guide books, the standard books, like Morris, Ruskin and Berendt. Acquiring an 1898 Baedeker, allowing us to visualise what it was like to travel in the Edwardian era. Travel sections of newspapers, the Commune d'Venezia web site for acqua alta info. Two years of anticipation, sentences starting with “When we are in Venice...”or, “the first thing we'll have to do is buy some fine wine glasses”, a map of Venice pinned up on the wall at home to note interesting places. Figure out what to bring, camera gear, quality cheese grater and pepper mill, decent kitchen knives, easel, art gear, baby computer. Learn a smattering of Italian – no way near enough - and that's a regret.
Lots, lots of reading. I went off on this Morris kick after reading 'Venice”, devouring most books that Morris has written, Coronation Everest, Fisher's Face, Conundrum, the Markets of Seluika, A Venetian Bestiary, the Victorian Empire trology. Morris inroduced Venice to me and Venice introduced Morris to me. How fortunate was that!
Reading “No Vulgar Hotel”, which we neither finished. It seemed so patronising, these two women who spend three weeks in Venice each year, and calling themselves “we Venetophiles”. It seemed to me to be two hundred pages of put downs and elitism.
Arriving, with Venice rising through the fog on the lagoon as the ferry from the airport brought us closer. Through Murano, quick stop at Fondamenta Nuove, call at the Lido, and then you are at San Marco. Disembark. You've arrived, stepping onto dry land, walking into the most recognisable streetscape in all the world.
The silence here is palpable, broken mainly by the bells of our local church, which strike the hours, and also play a tune somewhere between “I like Aeroplane Jelly” and “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. It was once said, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”, so assuming that the sunbeam scenario tolled for me, I found myself at Mass last Sunday in the Basillica of San Marco.
San Marco is Relic Central, Jim's Relics, Relics-r-Us, Relic Warehouse and Mr Relics rolled into one. It is claimed that relics include a knife used at the Last Supper, the stone on which John the baptist was beheaded, the skull of the said Baptist, an arm of St George, a picture painted by St Luke, a rib of St Stephen, a finger of Mary Magdalene, the sword with which St Peter cut off Malchus's ear, a splinter from the Cross, fish bones from the loaves-and-fishes miracle, chopsticks used by Buddha, a lace from the One True Blue Suede Shoe, the femur of St Dhakota and Pauline Hansen's wisdom teeth.
The above ensured a reasonable flow of pilgrims to Venice up to the ninth century, and when the pilgrim trade went quiet – Venice has always relied on a stream of tourists – a new attraction was needed, a patron Saint to replace St Theodore, who was not looking like being Venice's answer to Italian Idol. Enter, stage left, St Mark, or at least his remains, stolen from Alexandria by a pair of Venetian adventurers, smuggled out in a barrel of salt pork, in the knowledge that Muslim customs clerks would not open and check the barrel. St Mark, a Saint on the A-list, a first magnitude star in the panoply of Saints, was duly buried in a new Basilica, and the pilgrims flowed. Sadly, his remains were lost in the fire of 976, but were recovered in a well documented and brilliantly stage managed miracle when the bones burst forth from a marble column. Or bones very like St Mark's, as one skull looks much like another, dental records not being extant.
So, I had a few things to ponder when I attended Mass on Sunday – like, how did they apply all that gold leaf to the ceilng – reputed to be eight kilos of leaf, and would Pauline Hansen been any the wiser if she'd had wisdom teeth. And there was a choir from a girls school in Sydney singing parts of the Mass – quite special and ethereal.
Venice is big on campaniles, there are scads of them, and they occasionally collapse. The campanile in San Marco fell in 1902, the only casualty being the caretakers cat, and was rebuilt, dov'era e com'era, or “where it was, and as it was”. This possibly extended to the foundations, which are wooden soldier piles, and are now being restrained with titanium rods to stop the piles spreading. Sometimes repeating the designs of the past can be a problem, and they found a few years ago that the outer piles were starting to lean, the whole stone pile cap was growing. The titanium rods – which will see a lot of sea water – are being strain gauged so that growth can be monitored. The engineering here is amazing, especially when you consider that most of Venice is a only foot or so above the water table.
The clock tower in San Marco, built in 1490-odd survives. It has a 24 hour clock, digital date function (today being XI-XII, the year being not given), phase of the moon, and sign of the zodiac. The sign of the zodiac is a waste of time – all Venetians are fated to be Aquarians, water carriers, over the next few days – as the tide for Friday XII-XII is forecast to be 110 cm, which will flood most of Venice. Sump pumps are high on everyone's Christmas wish list, featuring prominantly in window displays, and carpenters all over town are hammering lee boards across doorways. Rubber boots are much in fashion, as are fishing waders. We bought carrots this morning from a guy standing in six inches of water, and the tide was ebbing at the time. It all seemed pretty normal to him. The Venetians don't talk about floods. For them, it's just acqua alta, high water, and an excuse for women to procure the most fashionable of rubber boots. Rubber boots with high heels. And gentlemen look pretty sharp in their Armani suits and waders.
There are sirens to warn of exceptionally high acqua alta – they go off about two hours before high water, and are the air raid sirens from WWII. They went off at 6:00 this morning, sounding like those Ealing Broadway 1950's movies. One expects to hear a clipped English accent saying “Right-ho lads, man the ack-ack guns, and well give Jerry a bloody nose”. Anyway, the Venetian sirens are being put to use – and I'd recommend Grundfoss shares as being a sound investment – Grundfoss pumps are walking out of the shops here. Selleys No-more-gaps seems popular also.
It is rumoured that the builders of the clock, an horogolical masterpiece of its time, were judicially blinded so that they could not create another. That seems a most robust way of securing intellectual property. One can visualise the dialogue at the the Risk Management Committee.
“How can we secure our IP?”
“Easy peasy, we'll just blind the engineers and drafters”.
“OK, sounds like a plan.”
Piaget of Geneva, Switzerland, have just completed an overhaul of the clock that has taken some six years. It's pretty complex, massive, and their craftsmen are sighted. There are a pair of life sized bronze statues armed with hammers which strike the bell – they inadvertently hit a workman, precipitating him into the square and breaking his neck about three hundred years ago. I believe that Piaget's artisans were better looked after – most likely with better permitting procedures in place.
There is every sort of craft here – rubbish boats with on-board compactor and jib crane, police boats – very snappy, ambulance boats with sirens and strobe lights, fire boats, boats delivering scaffold pipes and planks, boats with high reach cranes (you want your Steinway piano delivered to the top floor? No problem, we'll drop it in through that window”). Gondolas, of course, with the patrons being treated to endless “O solo mio's”, while drifting around at about two metres per minute, with the temperature hovering around 2 degrees. It's pretty cold here – the gondola patrons don't look all that happy with their 80 plus Euro per hour experience.
Mapping here is interesting. There are no street numbers, but every door has a number. Each sestier, or suburb, of which there are six, has had the doors numbered. Our address is simply 2878A Dorsoduro – the place over the road – the road being just two metres wide – being 2688 Dorsorduro. Even doors that have been bricked up two hundred years ago have numbers. Simple, really. Unless you are the postman.
There's an amazing feling of antiquity here – you could walk into Venice after a 200 year absence and have no problem finding your way about. There is a ferry to cross the Grand Canal at the end of our street – a gondola with two at the oars – and the ferry or traghetto is shown on maps from the 14th century. You expect to run into Marco Polo, just back from the Orient with the latest in silks and spices, offering goods for sale on the street. Instead, it's dudes from Africa selling fake Gucci hand bags. Maps created 100 years ago still work well enough. Long before Lonely Planet existed, Baedeker published definitive travel guides to Europe, the first in about 1860. I bought a Northern Italy Baedeker printed in 1905 and it is accurate enough for present day usage (Marco Polo Airport notwithstanding), and it reports the cafe at the railway station, the Ferrovia, as “cafe – poor”. The more things change, the more they stay the same, except for prices, sadly.
The two main cafes in the Piazza, Florians and Quadri's, have both been in business for over 150 years. Both cafes can provide a cappucino at prices that are ruinous to the average tourist.
Base price – 3 Euro, to drink it standing at the bar.
Extra to have it outside on the terrace – another 6 Euro.
Extra because the cafe orchestra is belting out selections from Phantom of the Opera – 5 Euro.
Service – 12 ½ %.
Total – about 17 Euro. But at least, you are taking coffee in what Napoleon was pleased to call “The drawing room of Europe”.
The two cafe orchestras are something of a bizarre institution, a Venetian Battle of the Sounds. Quadri will blast off with “Colonel Bogey”, Florians see them and raise them one with “I'm getting married in the morning”. Quadri tops out, though, the full musical royal flush, with “If I was a rich man” from Fiddler on the Roof. And if I was a rich man, we'd take coffee at Quadri's on the terrace.
But I'm not rich – and Quadri's going to flood tomorrow anyway.
I’m no big fan of motor racing, but I think I’ve discovered something. There’s been no great Italian driver since Fangio, and the reason is now clear to me. All the Italians who might be gracing the Formula 1 Circuit are racing on a daily basis on the streets of Rome. And what a circuit it is. Round the Circus Maximus, down the via Di San Gregorio straight, hard right at Constantine’s arch, sweeping left hander at the Colloseo, dodge the guys dressed as centurions who are waiting for (paid) photo ops. Full noise up the via de Fori Imperiali (mind that Korean guy taking snaps). Rocket through the Piazza Venezia past the Victor Emmanuel monument, minding the tight chicane by the barriers aroung the current archeological excavations, and off up the streets of the Capotoline Hill. Throw a left at St Peters, and blast down the bank of the Tiber. It’s absoultely free for spectators, and the whole thing is raced in micro cars – or diesel buses.
If you are outrageously brave, you can stop the whole show by stepping onto a pedestrian crossing. This takes considerable nerve, I’m here to tell you. It is a test of will, pedestrian vs driver in Fiat 500, and leaves the running of the bulls in Pamplona for dead as a spectacle and adrenaline rush. There is an insane moment, when both pedestrian and driver do a quick “will he / won’t he” calculation, eye contact is made, and one either crosses, or hops back to the safety of the pavement. It has one in mind of Octavius (later to become Ceasar Augustus) staring down Mark Antony in Egypt, except that in Rome, Cleopatra will likely be wearing ostrich leather boots (Prada), a silk scarf (Hermes), crocodile handbag (Gucci), a well cut little number (Yves st Laurent) and coat (Dolce & Gabana), bling by Cartier. As you do.
My Italian is not perfect, but I do have a grasp of basic sign language. I rather think that the two fingered salute that one receives from motorists on occasion is not meant in homage to Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory” salute. Particularly when it comes with a blast from an air horn. Allora!
Motorcycling, or rather scootering, is a different contest to automobiles. Scooters are immune from road laws, pedestrian crossings and red lights. Lights and laws are clearly intended as advisory only, a sort of ”You might consider stopping here, provided it doesn’t interfere too much with the chat you are having on the mobile phone, or maybe you need to pause to light a smoke”. The combination of cobbled streets and souped up scooters rattling themselves to pieces makes for some interesting spectacles. The double lines in the centre of the road seem intended as a two way dedicated scooter lane 40 cm wide. I can see now how Valentino Rossi has become a champion bike rider – he is Roman, and it’s in the blood.
Combine all the above ingredients with some horse drawn carriages – Rome’s answer to the gondola – Vespa 3 wheel delivery vans with two stroke engines blowing much smoke and some suicidal cyclists and the resulting pandemonium is a great performance.
Tourists are fair game for scams in Rome. We are tourists, so naturally fair game. We were stung in the most memorable fashion a couple of years ago, when we managed to purchase a pair of leather jackets (“I’m on my way home from the Milan fashion shows, where are you from?, my sister lives in Adelaide, I’ve lost half my map of Rome (shows half map), can you direct me to the bank, my Visa card is broken (shows Visa card with broken corner), here take these two leather jackets – they are just samples, I don’t need them, could you spot me 50 Euro, I’m about out of petrol (points to petrol gauge)”. 50 Euro for two leather jackets – unbelievable, and they had an Italian label – pasted over the other label that said “Made in Beijing”. A few polyvinylchlorides were killed and their skins tanned to make those jackets. And he was right when he thanked us for our help – “you’ll never forget me”, he said. We haven’t.
So we were chuffed this time when a guy pulled up, asking to be directed to the Tiber – all of 50 metres away, bridge in full view, jackets in plastic bags on the back seat. Anticipation of sweet revenge. Same dialogue, up to the point when we were advised that his sister lived in Perth. And then he drove off – he must have spotted Lou’s grin as she poked me in the ribs. Damn. Hate that.
The centre of Rome is ruined, totally. While the shortage of tradesmen is acknowledged, I find it hard to believe that after two thousand years, they could not have fixed it up a little. If I can paint a room in a mere six months, then surely the Colloseum could have been repaired in two thousand years. It looks for all the world like the MCG without the northern stand. And the Forum – it’s just a total mess. Bits of marble everywhere.
The foundations to the temple of the Vestal Virgins still exist, but they’ve let the flame go out long ago. I thought they were instructed to keep the thing alight, on pain of excommunication or marriage or something, but obviously the message got lost. Or maybe the virgins just got de-flowered, and replacements were hard to come by – it’s hard to tell.
The Palatine hill is slowly being dug over, revealing the most intricate brickwork, arches and vaults built on vaults, which in turn are built on vaults. The private residence of Augustus is open, and the frescoes on the walls that remain are in good condition. I find that remarkable – they are just water colour on plaster. And I can’t see how they could ever have had enough firewood to fire the millions of bricks that create the Paletine. There are remains of sewers (draining to the Tiber, of course), wash troughs, chimneys, courtyards, all the requirements of a comfortable life in 50 B.C.
We’re back in Venice, and it’s cold.
So IT’S FUR TIME! Venetian women of a certain age – the age being about 60 – take fur. I think it’s a coming of age ritual, or maybe a status thing, in the way that top barristers take silk There are totally no PVC’s being slaughtered to create the furs – but a lot of foxes, sables, arctic seals, minks and the like have met their end to dress these women. Their silouette resembles your average house brick, with colour and facial expression to match. Only the truly foolhardy would mess with these women.
They complain. “There’s no cabbage to be bought in all of Venice”, which means that the green grocer that her family has been dealing with for the last 300 years has just sold his last cabbage. Tradition dies hard in this town.
Tradition is alive and well, and part of the tradition is keeping dogs. The average Venetian residence does not extend to a back yard, so Fido, a Great Dane, gets walked in the streets – which are alleys at best. And dogs being dogs, and Italians being Italians, having contempt for the sign that says “Clean up after your dog”, dog droppings are not unknown. The streets are swept every morning by folk using traditional brooms – twigs bound with wire onto a handle – and garbage is collected daily. There’s no such thing as a mechanical street sweeper here.
The amount of pure physical work that goes to keep Venice operatiing is massive. Everything is ultimately carried by hand or barrow, and there are steps over every bridge. It’s hard yacka. Barrels of beer, sheets of plaster board, structural steel, fish, fabrics, food, furniture, books, bricks, bread, boots, the lot. About the only place that has direct street, or rather canal, access, is our local Billa supermaret. They load the delivery truck onto a barge, and transport the whole contrivance to the front of the supermarket and unload it by fork truck. The fork was working in nine inches of water last week, acqua alta being acqua alta. It seemed part of the routine.
In spite of the work that goes to keep Venice afloat and proceeding under it’s own steam, prices are not as savage as we would have expected. Wine is pleasingly cheap, with drinkable wine costing about 3 or 4 Euro a bottle, which does offset quite nicely the high cost of red meat. Fresh produce is cheap, even after allowing for the AUD/Euro exchange rate – cherries at 20 Euro or AUD 40 per kilo being a notable exception. Our apartment is well equipped, and we’re working through the Venetian cook book we brought with us. The chicken stock is cooking now, ready for this evening’s risotto.
Crime in Venice is not common, but we were in the right place at the right time to witness a police chase, Venice style, straight out of the Keystone Cops. Alt! Ladro! ( Stop! Thief!), blowing of whistles. African hand bag seller (specialising in fake Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton bags) runs through the campo at high speed, hurling bags behind him as a diversion, closely followed by policeman with whistle. That endurance training on the Veldt paid off for the chased, and he got away. Closing scene – cop returns, spends time kicking and stamping on the bags.
It’s the Christmas holiday period, and so Venice is seeing an influx of visitors. American accents are heard on the streets, along with comments like “But they said it was just beside the canal, and can you tell me, Shirlene, which canal they meant. And how come that bar that Hemingway made famous, it’s called Harry’s rather than Ernest’s”. That’s the mid-West for you, I suppose.
Getting lost in Venice is part of life here. With the narrowest street being a bare two feet wide, finding one’s way presents intersting challenges, and a GPS would suffer a total melt down. I anticipated this, and came armed with a compass, a fine Silva model. It has a slight problem, though, which has contributed to me seeing some most unexpected sights both in Rome and Venice – I’ve observed that the north end of the needle, painted red and clearly marked “N”, actually points south. I’ve checked this – the sun rises in the south east and sets in a westerly direction, right? - and I do lay claim to some basic navigational skills. Making a compass that is completely WRONG takes some doing. I could tolerate minor errors, magnetic deviation being not unknown, but 180 degrees wrong? I could be sailing the South Seas, and find myself heading towards Alaska when my destination is Terra del Fuego.
There will be words in Melbourne with the Silva retailers, and that will be quite fun. I’m not going to accept a replacement or refund – that compass has shown me way too many new vistas.
A greater hazard to navigation is tourists reading maps and taking photos. Hansel and Gretel laid a trail of bread crumbs to find a way back out of the forest (the trail eaten by sparrows, as I’m told, which rather prejudiced their return), but some tourists seem compelled to photograph every step of the way in Venice. Maybe they can just press re-wind, and find themselves back at Marco Polo Airport. I’m being cynical here. But Lou earned the ultimate accolade yesterday – an ITALIAN asked her for directions! Sadly, she had to reply, in her best Italian, “Mi scusui, non capisco, sono Australiana, ciao, ciao”, to which he replied “Allora”, and threw up his hands in his best Italian.
Cameras are big here – really big. Digital SLR cameras seem the weapon of choice, resembling a shoulder launched anti tank missile in both size and sophistication of electronics. Lock on and fire! I’m a bit of a Luddite here – I think I’m the last man standing in Venezia that is still using film and a hand held light meter. The people at the photo shop treat me as if I am from the past, a visitor from the nineteenth century – they speak slowly and gently to me when I buy film. Lou is doing water colour paintings, so not worrying in the slightest about apertures, shutter speeds or film ASA ratings.
I’m shooting black and white.
The sophistication of the digital cameras, however, is far exceeded by the sophistication of our washing machine. It has all the dials that one would expect in a Soviet era nuclear power station, Chernoble on the Adriatic. One can select temperature, time, spin speed, water quantity, day of the week and biorythm – and that’s just the basic set of controls for the casual user. Power users can opt for water hardness, background radiation level, tide level, ambient temperature and barometric pressure. Lou’s mastered it.
Have you ever seen that Alfred Hitchcock film “Rear Widow”? Venice is like that. Life is very internal – but the windows give a glimpse of life inside these houses. Sure, there’s a problem with rising damp, Istrian stone not making the best of damp courses, and red brick working like a suction pump to pull water from the canals. But on the second floor, behind the peeling facade, people are living in rooms that were decorated 300 years ago. We’ve just watched through the window the woman of the house at No 2688B Calle Lunga St Barnaba setting the table for Christmas Eve, and the children unwrapping their Christmas presents, in a room with a chandelier that must weigh half a tonne. The presents look like a lava lamp and a Superman suit (Warning – wearing suit does not enable occupant to fly) and we will probably see the Superman suit at midnight Mass later tonight.
I am not often accused of being religious, but we did attend Mass at mid-night, in our local church, a church with the odd Tiepolo painting, a Veronese or two, plus minor works. Statues of various Saints and notables chisseled out in 1500 A.D. Incense, chanting, singing, the whole Ecclestical show. One can’t help but be swept up in it, the knowledge that, for a brief time, one is part of an ancient tradition, part of a very old community of faith, and part of a continuing community too. The Christmas story resonates universally.
Houses, even the grand palazzios, are compact, with furniture and appliances to match. A wide screen television in Venice has a 17” screen, and I can’t help but think that people live better when they have less stuff in their lives, and the life is simultaneously rich and simple. One factor that inhibits the acquisition of stuff is that it is just so hard to transport. Sure, there’s an Ikea on the mainland, but to get that Billy bookcase home will mean a drive, and then walking it over about 40 bridges, and then up three floors. Alternatively, engage a transport company to deliver it by boat. The community is close, because people go about on foot all the time, and continually rub up against their neighbours. Shopping is a daily occurrence, because it is impossible to cart a weekly shop home in your average trolley. There are voices in the streets. And the garden next door is planted out with winter vegies. We’ve bought seeds from Venice for our garden in Melbourne.
This is a town with 60,000 permanent residents – the population of Wagga – with about 20 million visitors a year. That’s a lot of visitors, making for pedestrian traffic jams in the streets. The protocol is that you walk on the right, and dawdling two abreast is seen as being anti-social, three abreast is the equivalent of a B-double smash on the Westgate bridge. Bearing in mind that the main drag from the Rialto to the railway station is frequently less than a couple of metres wide, traffic jams can be significant. Don’t stop in mid step to consult that map. Pull over into a slip lane – the slip lane most likely to be selling horrible glass from Murano – Homer Simpson paddling a gondola. But maybe some of the Murano glasswere has just been unpacked out of a container from the Peoples Republic of China at Murano – it’s hard to tell. Lou and I promised ourselves that we would buy some fine wine glasses here, and we’ve done it. They cost a bomb, and will be treasures to come. The contents come cheaply, so we see it as a kind of economy.
It’s Boxing day, with the wind sweeping down from the Italian alps, blowing hard enough to have the shutters rattling and the seagulls working to windward with difficulty. A gondola ride today would be like a surf boat at Coogee or Bell’s Beach, with no lifesavers standing by with the line and reel. It is freezing cold, one or two degrees, I think, with a perfectly clear sky that would have had Canaletto reaching for his paint box, or JMW Turner stretching a canvas. The wind carries the sound of the bells from the campaniles probably north of us (the compass being a dud), and so we are hearing a whole lot of new bells. I’m not totally anal, but I did count one bell ringing seventy three times. Venice is full of bells – it is just delightful.
The wind has also shredded the “No Mose” protest banner on the apartment railing a block away. One sees a lot of “No Mose” graffiti, Mose being the set of barriers presently being built at the entrance to the lagoon in an attempt to stem the flow of water when exceptionally high tides are anticipated. When a big acqua alta is expected, then the barriers will be raised to stem the flow of water from the Adriatic into the lagoon. Many Venetians think Mose is a waste of money – it’s costing multi-billion Euro – and might not work anyway. I suspect the protests are about “We’ve been doing water here for 1500 years plus, so go buy some waders and get over it”. The floor of the lagoon has dropped about 20 cm over the last 50 years through extraction of ground water to supply the chemical industry at Mestre, on the land side of the lagoon. Add to this the dredging to allow tankers and corpulent cruise liners to enter the lagoon, and you’ve got the perfect environmental problem – tidal flows have increased hugely. The perfect environmental solution is something else again.
Maybe the locals just dont like the concept of Mose, or Moses, handing down a fresh set of commandments which will take the fun out of life. I can sympathise – the commandments will probably be driven by a bunch of EU officials from Brussels, and Brussels is not the most exciting of towns – even the citizens of Brussels agree on that. Or maybe the Venetians think that Mose will be about as effective as the tidal warning sirens, a system that sees much derision and humour.
We don’t watch television much. Venetian TV seems to comprise movies dubbed into Italian by interpreters whose first language is Arabic. The alternative is soap operas that make “The Bold and the Beautiful” appear quite Shakesperean, or game shows that make “The Price is Right” look philosophically sophisticated. One particular game show seems designed to provide a venue for a woman with exceptional legs and miniskirt with a length measured in microns to prance across the stage, shaking her Watusi. Shot, as one would expect, from low camera angles.
The Christmas / New Year influx of visitors over the last few days has seen an equivalent influx of street vendors, handbag floggers and rose sellers. The rose vendors have a cool style – shove two roses into the woman’s hand, demand money from her male companion. They won’t take no for an answer, but we’ve now got a routine to foil them. Lou smiles, takes roses. Hands them to me. I hand back to vendor, who snatches them. He says something un-printable, expletives not deleted, in a language that I don’t understand, but it’s not Italian. Easy peasy. The handbag vendors (genuine Gucci, guaranteed) have a different system. Pick tourist, thrust handbag into woman’s hand. Ask “what do you think this is worth”. Negotiate price with woman. Then say to male companion, as cash is handed over, “Is that all you are going to pay?” We’ve got no strategy for these gentlemen, we just click on mute, and pretend to be Venetian.
Priceless – or price negotiable.
Food is good here, both what we buy and cook, and also eating out. Venice is known for sea food and fish, and so one particularly good place close to us advises “No fish” on its menu. Very Venetian, given Venetian perversity. You’ve got to be perverse to build a city on a mud flat, and turn it into a major maritime power. However, the restaurant does do smoked leg of goose and hare pie.
Supermarkets are different, too. Note the number of your produce (carrots are number 47), place produce on scales and enter the number. Put the resulting bar coded ticket on produce, and it will be scanned at the checkout. Easy – once you know the system – we got into trouble the first time around. Allora! Stupido! Bread is sold by weight too, and sliced bread is unknown – as are toasters, it would seem. They charge for plastic bags, and shopping jeeps are all the go. I’ve yet to see it, but I bet Louis Vuitton are making shopping jeeps for the Venetian market.
There are four classes of produce available. The imported (not desirable or in the least patriotic), the Italian (acceptable), produce from our region, the Veneto (OK, if you MUST!), and produce from the lagoon – which is the real thing, likely to be just off the boat. Artichokes are most popular here, and a source of local pride. Our favourite green grocer is friendly, and we stumble through in a combination of sign language, pointing, and “Si, si”. There’s a boat load of produce just in front of his shop.
We’re cooking in a kitchen about the size of the galley of your average racing yacht, but doing pretty well. The galley does not move with the swells – unless it’s swells caused by the fact that wine is about 3 Euro a bottle. The fridge is microscopic – but as the outside temperature hovers around zero, food keeps well on our terrace.
Breakfast is now Italian-style, a cappucino and marmalade croissant, eaten at the bar. Many people take a glass of something stronger with their morning caffeine hit, a slug of grappa or a brandy. We have not taken to that practice – yet. This morning I saw a bottle of absinthe, guaranteed alcohol content 72%. It comes with a free spoon for some reason – maybe to scrape the consumer up off the pavement. I’d have thought that with that alcohol content, a fire extinguisher and Material Safety Data sheet would be more appropriate. I was tempted, though – it’s so cold that maybe the alcohol would function like anti-freeze.
I think I mentioned the concept of getting lost in Venice. We were here with my five year old some years ago (about 33, in fact), and she got lost! Pip went in search of a toyshop she had seen. Twenty minutes while one’s heart stops, and then we spotted her, or she spotted us. ‘Where were you!!” she demanded, somewhat angrily. At times like that, you don’t know whether to hug your child or beat them. I recollect we did both.
I also remember Pip dancing in St Marco’s to “Tiptoe through the tulips”, belted out by Quadri’s cafe orchestra, and breaking off in mid bar to harass pidgeons, of which there were multitudes, avain rats. Pidgeons have been a curse in Venice for centuries, and Venice has been trying to eliminate them. The main problem, I believe, were the licensed vendors of corn to feed them in St Marco’s, with licenses probably issued by Benito Mussolini, so not easy to cancel. Somehow, the licences have been withdrawn, and the pidgeon population is now much reduced. Perhaps the corn vendors have been re-trained as street beggars, with turf allocated by ballot or public tender. They abound.
There’s two contour maps here. The first is pretty simple – it just maps the areas that are likely to flood with acqua alta. The second is cost based, and we’ve noted that if one shops along the Statione / Rialto Bridge / St Marco ridge, the main visitor route, then prices will be higher. We’re keeping to the lower ground. Slugging tourists has an ancient tradition here, ever since the knights of the Fourth Crusade were kept holed up on the Lido in 1202, while shipping rates to the Holy Land were negotiated and a fleet, fodder and victuals assembled. In the meantime, Venetian armourers were able to sell materiel to both sides of the conflict, making them, I suppose, the first war profiteers. The sting in the tail of the deal was, when the Crusaders were unable to pay, Doge Dandolo, near blind and aged 88, had a little side venture written into the charter agreement, “Yep, we’ll ship you there, but as a little contract sweetener, we want you to subdue some recalcitrant Dalmatian colonies, and invade Constantinople en route”, thereby hijacking the Crusade. The Crusaders delivered on the deal, and history records that Dandolo was the first man ashore at Constantinople – history mostly being written by the victors. The crusade never reached the Holy Land, but from a minor breach of contract, the Venetians were able dominate the eastern Med. I believe they call it negotiating from a position of strength, and the tradition continues.
The population of Venice is in decline, and the permanent population is now about 60,000 – it was three times that number 30 years ago, and Venice has the oldest population of any European city. They also have the longest life expectancy of any European city, probably to do with all that walking, or 72% absinthe – or maybe, as cigarette smoking is de rigeur, they’ve preseved themselves like fine smoked proscuitto. Many people have moved to the mainland, to Mestre, an industrial city that looks as though it was designed by architects who worked with the radio on, listening to Easy Network, and whose last commission was East Berlin in 1947. There are many buildings in Venice with doors that look as though they have not been opened in years. Locks that appear to have been hand forged.
The upper floors of the house over the road at No 2691 Dorsoduro seem quite uninhabited, and the window shutters look as though they have not been opened in decades – possibly not since the Fourth crusade. This is common in Venice – commercial activity on the ground, and vacant rooms, whole vacant floors, above. I’d give my eye teeth to have a look in there. Furniture left over from Napoleon’s time in Venice, wine from the vintage of 1930, and newspapers with headlines saying “Assassinato” “JFK morte”, “Jacki lamentare”.
We’re studying hard at “Looking Venetian 101”, with mixed success. Decent marks are awarded if one can walk past a gondolier without him saying “Gondole, gondole”. A Credit is obtained when the handbag sellers don’t bother to accost one, and a High Distinction is awarded when the rose sellers leave you alone. Dragging a shopping trolley helps, and leading a dog seems most Venetian. I could, of course, solve the problem with a stroke of a pen. Cash in my super, mortgage the house, and buy Lou a fur, preferably made of skin from an endangered species.
Molto Venetian, but I’m afraid not priceless.
We find the greengrocer beside the Ponte de Pugni – the Bridge of Fists – not to be the friendliest of people. It’s the signs in both Italian and English saying “Don’t touch”, and he’s a bit grumpy. Maybe he’s just suspicious of anyone who walks over the bridge from the Parish of Santa Maria del Carmine into his Parish of San Barnaba. Parochialism elevated to a high order – the Rialto Bridge had, in 1494, a drawbridge section in it, to keep the pesky tradesmen from San Polo away from the money changers, bankers, insurers and stock exchange traders in San Marco. In its day, the Rialto was Wall Street. Later research at the Gallerie dell’Accademia indicates that the drawbridge may have been to allow ship’s masts to pass the Rialto. Take your pick, but I like to think it was for defensive purposes.
But the Ponte de Pugni has an interesting history. The bridge was the venue for organised fist fights between the Santa Maria lads vs the San Barnaba boys, and when fists proved insufficient to carry the day, resort was had to cudgels, iron bars, and the occasional dagger, Cronulla on the Veneto. There was no parapet on the bridge, so plunging into the Rio San Barnaba canal was common (and this at a time when the canals served as sewers and waste disposal systems). The history of the bridge is immortalised in footprints let into the paving in white stone, which deliniate the starting line for the fights. I’ve seen an engraving of an event, and it was certainly full on – maybe we cross on a daily basis the birthplace of football hooliganism. The fights were outlawed in 1705, and possibly peace broke out, or a fresh venue was found.
There’s a parapet to the bridge now.
There is a smell to New Years Eve in Venice, compounded of pizza, cooked fish, and freshly baked bread. There is another vital ingredient in the mix – the smell of black powder. Fireworks are available at our local mini mart, and the explosions started around dusk, about 5:00 PM this time of year, and continued until the small hours. Fireworks is really a misnomer – there were crackers being let off in San Marco about the size of a milk carton, which qualifies them as ordnance. I might mention that the entire population of Venice was in San Marco at the time, and so a little circle was cleared in the middle for the fireworks, displacing children, cops, prams and dogs – cleared by letting off fireworks.
There was a New Years Eve concert in San Marco, themed on “Love”, or “Lerve”, take your pick. Lots of encouragement to love, kiss somebody, anybody.
“Love to everyone, love to the world, we love you all”.
Followed by crash of exploding ordnance, loud enough to make the air pulsate and the window shutters dance.
The whole charade was sponsored by the bottlers of Bellini, a pleasant concoction of peach juice and prosecco, a light sparkling white. We watched the Bellinii boys set out a couple of thousand plastic glasses for the crowd and fill them. Australia has the big banana, the big pineapple and the big Merino at Goulburn, and San Marco had the big inflated Bellini bottle. Bellini cocktails were invented by Cipriani, operator of Harry’s bar, Hemingway’s favourite drinking haunt, but not Hemingway’s favourite drink, and I’ve always thought of him as a bourbon or rough rye man myself. But Ernest did try a Bellini once, labelling it a drink for sissies, and suggesting that it was more appropriate for his drinking buddy, Scott Fitzgerald. One wonders what Hemingway would have thought of a thousand sneaker shod tourists consuming his not favourite cocktail.
A little dialogue, quoted from a not-remembered source,
Fitzgerald - “The rich, they’re different to you and me”.
Hemmingway - “Yeah, they’ve got more money”.
It started to snow just before the stroke of midnight, which was quite magical, and one could imagine that the snow was the result of excellent stage management. This did not dampen the fireworks in the least. The snow lasted in places for a whole week – it’s been exceptionally cold, daytime max of about one degree, if that.
There’s a tradition of Americans in Venice, Henry James, Ernest H, Scott Fitzgerald, and Peggy Guggenheim who became Venice’s favourite American daughter and an Honorary Venetian, which is no small accolade. She certainly did it in style, buying in 1951 the incomplete Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (started construction 1749, contractor claiming Extension of Time, negotiations still continuing), maintaining a private gondola and gondoliers, and a fleet of small dogs, which are buried in the garden of said Palazzo (the dogs, that is). She also maintained a salon of the brightest artists of her day, Paul Klee, Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky, and was, by contemporary reports, as free with her favours as she was with her money, the USD / lire exchange rate being pretty hot in the fifties and sixties. As was Peggy. Kick Jackson out of bed, dust down the Picasso, send the gondolier out for some decent fresh food for the dogs, lunch with Mondrian. Tea with Klee, dinner with Kandinsky, sup with the gondolier(s). Her legacy is a fine museum of modern art, including a large equestrian statue which many find a tad confronting, facing the Canal Grande.
This might, of course, be all untrue, facts being difficult to establish in Venice. Paolo Sarpi, the Venetian philosopher, once remarked, “I never, never tell a lie, but the truth not to everyone”. However, Peggy’s gondola is in the Museum Maritime.
Or a gondola very like hers.
I visited the Museum Maritime yesterday, and yes, there’s a gondola said to have been Peggy’s. Venice has a proud naval history, having thumped just about every marine power over a period of one thousand years. Pick any country in the Levant, or all the eastern Med for that matter, and Venice has defeated them – along with some non-Levant nations like Libya. They had naval warfare developed to an art form, and one wonders what the outcome might have been if the Spanish at Trafalgar had the Venetian navy on its side. The sad thing, of course, is that by the time of Trafalgar, the Venetian navy was a shadow of its former self, Venice having turned into a sort of pleasure dome, repeating the excesses of Rome, and anticipating the speculative excesses of today’s USA.
The Venetians built ships at the Arsenale for any one who would pay, and they pumped them out. It’s recorded that, as a demonstration for a visiting big-wig, Henry/Henri III, the Venetians laid the keel for a galley at breakfast, and rowed the completed vessel past the visitor as he completed his dinner. Complete with a cannon or mortar, cast that morning, that weighed 2,000 pounds. (The engineer in me questions the cannon – it takes longer than a day to cool a casting of that mass. But it was a standard piece of ordnance, so a switch was possible.)
The galley that rowed past the dinner party was very much like the one whose keel was laid in the morning – that’s Venetian marketing for you, and galleys were a standard product. Contemporary records recount the “galley in a day” story, while word of the substitution was likely suppressed. “The truth not to everyone”, as they say.
It’s undeniable, though, that the Arsenale was the biggest industrial facility of its time, the progenitor of the military-industrial complex, and the time lasted about 800 years. At its peak, it employed 17,000 tradesmen, who were skilled and, once employed at the Arsenale, were guaranteed a job for life, still paid if they were sick or after they finished work. The Job for Life tradition still seems to continue – many of the trades at the Williamstown Dockyard in Melbourne (“Warship Builders to the Nation” was their proud bumper sticker) seemed to think the same way, even if they did little work. But the Arsenale was “Warship Builders to Anyone Who Could Pay”, and the Arsenale was able to launch a ship a day, and did. It has me in mind of the present day Korean ship yards, with ten vessels on the stocks, extruding tankers by the metre.
The Arsenale facility was self contained, producing rope and cordage, cannon balls, cloth for sails, gold leaf for decoration, gunpowder, oars for galleys (which weigh 60 kilos each, so a decent sized vessel sailed with over six tonnes of oars), salted meat in barrels and even baked ships biscuit, which was highly regarded. One biscuit oven survives at the Arsenale, but the recipe has sadly been lost with the death of the last baker. A store of ships biscuit was found walled up in a store in a Venetian fortress in Crete and was still edible and free of mould and weevils after 150 years when the fortress had been abandoned. Good news for the citizens of Crete who were suffering a famine, and redefining the concept of “Use by”, or “Best before”, I suppose.
In a way, there were two power bases in Venice, the Doge’s Palace and the Arsenale. Napoleon laid waste and looted both when the Austrians invaded, and I’m inclined to think that a visitor who nominates a Viennese address in the hotel register may still not receive the best of service. Memories are long here. There are “before and after” engravings of the Arsenale, showing in great detail the broken ships, torched sheds and ruined slips, missing piles of lead ingots, spars and masting, stolen cannonballs, and mentioning the 6000 cannons looted and melted down. The Sestier of Castello, where most of the trades lived, still retains something of a gritty working class feeling, like suburbs on Tyne-side or around the Belfast yards, where the Titanic was built.
The Venetians were particularly grumpy when Napoleon looted the four gilded bronze horses from the portico of St Marks – they represented the soul of Venice. The Venetians were devastated; the portico looked naked without them. In some ways, their complaints seem a bit rich – the Venetians had looted the horses in turn from the Hippodrome, the racecourse in Constantinople in 1204, payola from assisting the knights of the Fourth Crusade. Easy come, easy go, but for Venice easy come has always been preferable, and the easy go side is not so happy for them. I notice this at the supermarket – if the tab comes to 10.97 Euro, don’t expect change from eleven. If the tab comes to 11.03 Euro, the full amount is expected. Small change is always in scant supply – when we bought mussels yesterday, the fishmonger threw in a few extras to bring the cost up to a rounded Euro.
Plunder can be unlucky for some, too. It’s unlucky to walk between the pair of columns by the Basin of St Marks. One column has the winged lion of St Mark atop, and St Theodore, with his foot resting on a crocodile, is on the other. The origin of the crocodile is uncertain, but many theories abound. The columns were looted, also from Constantinople courtesy of said Crusade, and took some removal and erecting, being about 20 metres tall and monolithic. Legend has it that there were three columns, but one was dropped into the Basin of St Marks, where it rests to this day, but maybe that’s a “Truth not to everyone” sort of thing. The Incident Report would make fine reading, and the remaining columns were erected in 1172, as it took 150 years to figure out how to raise them.
The erection was overseen by Nicolo Barattieri, also engineer for the first Rialto bridge. He sweated them into place by rigging them with wet rope, and as the rope dried, it tightened and lifted the columns a couple of millimetres. Pack columns with dunnage, re-rig ropes and repeat the process – many times. Ingenious. For his efforts, Nicolo was awarded a license to operate gaming tables between the columns. There are spoil sports in every society, and to curb the gaming the authorities used the air space above the tables for public executions, which were not infrequent. A contemporary account says, “This morning ... in the piazza I saw the spectacle of two drowned men, three in the stocks and two hanged”, as though this was somewhat routine. This rather cruelled the place as a gaming venue, and it’s still unlucky to walk between the columns. I don’t walk between them, and I’m not even a gambler.
Got an issue with problem gambling?
Public hangings on Southbank should do the trick.
There is a chain of stores in Melbourne called “Sexyland” - product range is obvious. I’ve found no corresponding chain in Venice, not that I’m looking in particular, but it has not always been so.
Gutenberg invented movable type, and Caxton the press. Venetian printers were onto this in a flash, and a stream of publications followed, many of them of a licentious nature. Bookshops need books, even bookshops like Sexyland, where the pictures are more important than the text and wood block prints won’t cut it. Enter stage left the skilled engravers and lithograph techos. The Church issued an “Index of Forbidden Books” in 1449 – Venetian printers naturally ignored it, seeing it as restraint of trade and a most lucrative trade at that. In 1605, Pope Paul V attempted to exert Church authority on Earth, and the Venetians were not about to concede to this authority – it would have threatened the book trade, along with other commercial activities. The Pope retaliated by threatening to excommunicate anyone who did not yield, and more significantly, confiscate property. The Venetians upped the ante, in the usual Venetian style, by forbidding publication of the Papal edict. The Jesuits obeyed the Pope, published the edict, and were expelled from the city for their pains. “Publish and be damned”, or “Publish and be expelled”.
This war of the scriptures was watched by all Europe, until a Venetian friar, one Paolo Sarpi (who told the truth not to everyone) came up with the solution. There are two distinct empires, one Holy and one Temporal, and they co-exist, a version of the “Render unto Caesar” dictum, and so there should be no conflict. This put the whole church taxation regime in jeopardy, along with church military activities, and so was not well received. Paolo survived an assassination attempt for his troubles, and Venice continued to thumb its nose at the Vatican. The thumbing of the nose tradition has existed for a long time here, the Rialto bridge being a fine example.
There have been a number of Rialto bridges, built in 1180, 1264 and 1310. In 1144 the bridge collapsed under the weight of a crowd gathered to witness the arrival of the wife of the Marquis of Ferrara, a beauty in her day. (Eat your heart out, Paris Hilton; you are too late on the scene.) Antonio da Ponte (Tony of the Bridge) built the present structure between 1588 and 1590. The three year construction period clearly inconvenienced the Rialto merchants, who were partly funding the Works, and the rumour was started that the bridge wouldn’t be finished until the male organ grew fingernails, and the female counterpart caught fire – or words to that effect.
The contractor can always have the last word. Tony placed small statues of these very events on the adjacent Palazzo dei Camerlinghi. They survive to this day, and are quite graphic in their detail. That’s what I call having the last word – 500 years later.
There’s a concept here - restaurants with cashiers. You order with a cashier, who gives you a ticket for what you want – “due cappucini e due brioche”. Take the ticket to the counter, and an exceptionally suave gentleman will furnish said coffees and croissants. Front up to the counter without the ticket and receive derision instead of coffees from less than suave gentleman – or you will simply be ignored. This is a particular trap at the railway station, for tourists just off the train, unfamiliar with the system and desperate for a caffeine hit. One wonders what Herr Baedeker would have thought – maybe that is why he reported “cafe-poor” at the station in his 1905 guide to Northern Italy. However, his descriptions of San Marco are still accurate, and he recommends Quadri’s over Florians “unless the sun is hot, in which case Florians will provide welcome shade for the visitor” – as would I, if I could afford to buy a coffee at either of those fine establishments, and make an informed decision.
He also comments on dealing with street beggars - best ignored, or possibly a copper coin if one is generous – and the availability of porters at the station. One can imagine porters struggling with those trunks – the Edwardian generation never travelled light, and Baedeker could never have endorsed the “carry it yourself” generation of back-packers. He comments “A gondola can be taken from the station to your hotel, and porters will transport your luggage promptly”, taking the assumption that no traveller would stay at a hotel anywhere but on the Grand Canal. My Baedeker has margin comments pencilled in the best copperplate - against the Scuollo San Rocco, “fine Tintoretto”, courtesy of some long dead lady of good taste – and well funded too, I suspect.
Baedeker never had to visit our Billa supermarket, as he would have had people to attend to such matters. Our Billa – built in a palazzo on the Zattere – is the biggest supermarket in Venice. It is microscopic, about the size of your average 7/11 times six, but has barge access to the front door, acqua alta notwithstanding. It is frantically busy of an evening, when one mixes with well-furred Venetian women buying the evening meal. While the supermarket is microscopic, the range of produce is astronomical. Three different types of radiccio (in Melbourne, we can’t even buy it), and rabbit sausages. Cooking here is an adventure, and buying fish at the Rialto market is like being exposed to the contents of a most exotic aquarium.
Billa also have this old tradition, long dead in Melbourne. Green trading stamps (or actually, red stamps), handed to one when a purchase is made. We’ve witnessed people negotiating the quantum of stamps – one per ten Euro spent. “Hang on, E49.95 – surely that’s five stamps”. “No, No, Giacomo”. Collect enough, and receive a discount on a promotional item. We’ve collected 24 stamps, and will receive a discount on the risotto pan that we are about to purchase. Frequent flyer points may not be worth a cracker, but loyalty to Billa pays off.
There was a public holiday on the sixth of January, and this marked the end of the high winter tourist season. Venice seems to be sleeping, hibernating a little before the start of Carnivale in February. Many restaurants have closed for a month, some for holidays and others for renovations. A lot of shops are closed on the major tourist trail, and we are discovering smaller places, workshops doing shop fittings, guilders laying on gold leaf to mirror frames, workshops creating masks. Shops are no longer selling Christmas product – the windows now feature masks in bulk. There are fewer visitors, and more tradesmen to be seen – or maybe the tradies are just more visible now. It is now possible to open up pavements without causing a traffic sensation, and in a way we are able to see more of a working city. The African bag (Gucci, genuine, guaranteed, here, look at the label) sellers have departed to warmer climes, and the gondoliers spend more time texting one another than at the oars.
It is cold. Weather report issued at 9:00 on 9th January, courtesy of me. Sky – clear. Temperature - minus 1 deg C (or that is the reading on my thermometer, and I think it is accurate). Acqua alta forecast for 60cm, which won’t cause any issues in San Marco. It has been cold since New year when it snowed, and there is still snow on next-door’s lawn. There was a micro heat wave yesterday when there was a little snow turning to rain, and the mercury shot up to 4.5 degrees. The sky is absolutely clear and it is very sunny.
I’m tracking the sun with all the enthusiasm of a Druid at the Stonehenge observatory, constructed to determine the time of the Winter solstice. “I just asked for a bloody sundial, and you gather a thousand tonnes of bloody rocks” - contract negotiations still continuing. If you make it to the Winter Solstice, then you’ve got a chance of seeing Spring, and it’s OK to eat more of that pig that you killed and smoked in Autumn. The Winter Solstice is a real marker for survival. Even though we’ve got Billa and central heating, the advance of the sun is welcome. We’ve watched it climb a little higher each day, scraping over the Istrian stone parapet next door, then clearing the 300 year old tiled roof, brushing the top of the neighbours conical brick chimney. Today it will clear the satellite dish, and we see more and more sun on our balcony. The conical chimneys are a curiously Venetian affair, maybe constructed with an internal matrix of brick to prevent spread of sparks. It’s only 4.5 degrees outside at noon, too cold for Lou to paint “en plein air”.
The tradesmen at No 2686 are back on the job, carrying bricks. Italian bricks are half the size of the Australian version, about 9” x 4.5” x 1.5”, and are solid, so they weigh about five pounds. The guys have a trolley with about 250 bricks on it – so they have dragged more than half a tonne of bricks 200 metres from the unloading point in Campo San Barnaba down Calle Lunga – but at least there are no bridges to cross en-route. The work proceeds slowly – Calle Lunga San Barnaba, while being a “big” street, is two metres wide, and the guys are mixing it with the rubbish collection barrows and a lot of pedestrian traffic. Tradesmen being tradesmen the world over, and attractive girls being a big part of the pedestrian mix, and in good supply on Calle Lunga, the guys take more than the occasional pause and lingering look. Or maybe it is just the cold they are feeling.
Morris – James or Jan, take your pick – wrote what many consider the definitive book, “Venice”, in MCMLX, and comments on the attractiveness of Venetian women. “The women of Venice are very handsome, and very vain. They are tall, they walk beautifully, ...”. He’s right, and the tradesman over the road would agree. Morris also speaks about rats and mice being common in 1960, and cats being about in gangs, troops, indeed armies of cats. I visited Kakadu a while ago, and was advised “you are not at the top of the food chain here – crocodiles are”. Maybe St Theodore, with foot on crocodile was making a statement. Cats are at the top of the food chain here, and better rubbish collection and sanitation over the last sixty years has reduced the rat and mouse population – we’ve not seen any – and so there is less food for cats. The cats are around, looking most satisfied and completely un-feral. They always welcome a pat, and respond to “Gattim gatti”.
Morris is interesting. As journalist for The Times, he was accredited to the successful Everest expedition in 1952 (or was it ‘53), wrote “Venice” while living here with his family for a year in 1960, followed this up with a three volume history of the British Empire in the Victorian era. The description of his gender re-assignment half way through writing that trilogy makes good, if perplexing, reading, and Morris, at the age of 81, attended Ed Hilary’s funeral in New Zealand last year. I’ve stolen phrases from Morris, for which I offer a somewhat insincere apology.
Lou pointed out a funny anomaly this morning – no cars in Venice, but all the boats are strung about with car tyres as fenders. The used tyres would have to be imported – by boat. Another anomaly – the last steam powered ferry was withdrawn from service in 1956, but ferries are still known as steamers, vaporetti.
I keep on mentioning rubbish collection. It’s the engineer in me. The garbage boats are little more than a compactor with a hull wrapped around them, a cab for the operator and a jib crane. This superstructure makes them too tall to pass under some bridges when the tide is high. They passed under the bridges to get to our Campo San Barnaba, and this morning the garbage boat and the paper recycling boat are trapped between two bridges (one bridge being the Ponte de Pugni) by the rising tide. They have enough garbage to keep them busy until they are liberated by the falling tide. Actually, the above “tall superstructure” thing is wrong – the operator’s cabin telescopes down by a metre, allowing clearance under the bridges. I saw this happen this morning – ingenious
We are close to the Municipal Fire Station, and a fleet of fire boats is wet berthed, ready to steam out and fight the latest conflagration. It looks just like a normal terrestrial station, with traffic lights, “No Parking” signs on the canal, warning hooters and bored looking firies lounging around. Fire fighting is problematic, as ladder access is impossible. Add to this a total lack of fire segration of buildings, shared staircases, chimneys and ventilation shafts, no reliable fire water (you need fire water? – put a pump in a canal) and you have a disaster waiting to happen. It happened at the the opera house, La Fenice, in 1996 – the canal had been drained for cleaning when the fire broke out, and la Fenice burned to the ground, as no fire water was available. The fire was set by a disgruntled electrical contractor, running late on his Works, and looking to gain some time. I believe he may still be in jail, and if not, he should be, fit punishment for torching Venice’s heart.
Buildings here are friendly and good companions to each other, relying on each other for mutual support, slumping together in a cooperative fashion, linking their arms around each other as people do in the street. There are arched brick compression struts built across alleys, so that the corners can be supported by neighbours. Walkways, sotoportegi, are built through and under buildings, created by the City authorities taking a room by compulsory acquisition. The city is a maze. We walked down what is said to be Venice’s narrowest street, the Salizzada Zusto, twenty metres long, and a scant two feet wide. A real challenge for members of Weight Watchers.
Radio is said to have been invented by Marconi or by someone else. We came to Venice equipped with some CD’s and an iPod shuffle with scant contents which are now exhausted. So we’re listening to the radio, Easy Network, “Rete facile”. Easy Networks are the same the world over, and it’s like being in an audio time warp. To quote the play list for the last twenty minutes:
? What's in a kiss
? Evil Woman
? When you get caught between the moon and New York City (make sense of that, I challenge you. Go call a cab, or ask a cop for directions.)
? Sex 'n Dwugs 'n Wock 'n Woll (what, all together, or in that order)
? Won't you take me to funky town (a question better addressed to a travel agent. I'd rather stay in Venice, if that's OK, but Bologna is nice too)
? Boogie Wonderland (surely an oxymoron)
? We're all American Girls and we love the life that we lead. We're all Amercan girls, hear what we say and know what we mean. (“You know, you know, you know”, to quote the recent interview transcript by Ms Kennedy)
? Fernando - Abba (the definitive history of a failed Mexican uprising)
? Dancing Queen - Abba (Hear the beat of the tambourine! Obviously, if it rhymes, it goes into the lyrics. Possibly a musical legacy of Bjorn's tambourine playing time with the Salvation Army).
? Dance like an Egyptian (Belly dancing classes, anyone?)
? la Bomba (!!)
I rest my case. The architects of Mestre were listening to Easy Network.
Shopping is simultaneously interesting and scary. Scary because it’s SALDI time, 30% off everything (skins of endangered species being an exception), so the plastic can take a hammering. Interesting, because we’ve found some great shops. Two years ago we were here, bought paper products from Legatoria Polliero, and forgot both the name and location of the shop. It’s taken four weeks to find the shop again in Campo dei Frari (I believe I’ve mentioned the concept of getting lost). Paolo Polliero, a gentleman of about 70, has been making paper products seemingly forever, and by the look of his shop, his great great grandfather occupied the same premises, probably refusing service to Austrian invaders. There’s still no service as such, and Paolo gets on with his business while you browse his shop. You can stand in a corner and watch a volume being bound in leather, marbled end papers being applied, and the cut leaves being polished with graphite and an agate rubbing stone. It is very special to watch a master craftsman in action.
And then connection is made, and he is the most lovely person imaginable, the apparent mask of indifference hiding a person of great courtesy. I picked up a photo of him with his grandson, and he explained that while he has no English, his son has some, and his grandson, now eight years old, is fluent, like a bird, “e somigliare il uccello”. I envy his grandson, being bi-lingual. As we made purchases, he was at pains to explain “non fabbrica, artisan”, and he cut the wrapping paper on a guillotine. The fine objects that he makes and sells are certainly not factory produced, and he’s an artisan. Shopping like that is more than buying stuff – there’s a little relationship being started as well. He’ll recognise us next time we are there, and I like that.
We found a tiny shop selling turned wooden items, wooden eggs, children’s spinning tops, pedestals to mount an egg on. The owner left his lathe, covered in shavings. We explained that we needed a pedestal for an “uovo ostriche”, and he understood – there was, after all, an ostrich egg in the window. I did not try to explain that it was actually for an emu egg – I’ve no idea what the Italian word is for emu. We find that the older shopkeepers with no English take the trouble to speak Italian slowly, and so we get by. Again, the knowledge that one is dealing with an artisan, and a relationship started.
Of course it is possible to get it wrong, and I witnessed this yesterday at our local bar about 10:30 AM, after the breakfast rush was over. Real estate in Venice is tight, even the real estate taken by a table, which is why a coffee taken at the bar costs Euro 1.20, while at the table it is twice that. Two women walked in, asked “Do you serve lunch?”. Blank look from behind the counter – lunch happens around 1:00 PM. Slightly louder (if they don’t speak English, talk louder. They must be thick or something) “Do you serve spaghetti, pizza, food for lunch”. Confirmation from behind counter, a rather grumpy “Si”. Women take table, and don’t order anything. Shrug from behind counter, but as time progressed, the body language started to display consternation and we left. If you want a table, at least order a coffee, pay the rent.
Until last night, I’ve not been particularly fond of quail, a legacy of my grandfather. He was the classic “poor boy makes exceptionally good” story, one of seven children, starting work aged twelve as an office boy filling ink wells, same employer for about sixty years, career finishing as Managing Director. In the course of turning himself into a gentlemen (children to fine schools, family takes European tour in 1927, Baedeker in hand) he took to gentlemanly pursuits, notably fly fishing and shooting – he never would have “hunted”. There was a gun room in the house, with guns, rods, fly boxes, gun oil, boxes of shells. It was forbidden territory to a six year old. Amongst the game he shot were quail, and I have recollections of my grandmother placing pieces of lead shot around her plate when quail was served. He was a good shot, by all accounts, and a 4-10 shell devastates a quail. It seemed like eating the family fowl, like the scene in the late 1950’s film “Giant” when Rock Hudson’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s children burst into tears at the sight of the pet family turkey being served up at Thanksgiving.
I digress, a written ramble, pushing words around the page the way a child plays with its food, pushing the hated beans or quail to the side of the plate is an attempt to hide them and move on to the ice cream course.
Last night we cooked quail risotto, and it was both excellent and free of shot. We have a cook book, written by one Francesco da Mosco, a writer, architect, TV series producer, thorough Venetian and clearly an excellent cook. The Palazzo da Mosco stands on the grand Canal, and is the oldest surviving Palazzo, with the facade now covered in scaffold. The book is simply “Francesco’s Kitchen”, and I’d recommend it. It is a great read, and is as much about Venetian life, both now and for the last 500 years, as a cook book. The recipe for quail risotto works well. He also includes recipes for eel dishes, and I can’t quite come at them. Our local fishmonger had half a dozen of them, very alive and swimming around in a styrene box a couple of days ago. Not being armed with a 4-10 gun, I’d not know how to kill one, let alone butcher it.
Venice has never been big on public monuments to notables – one will walk many streets before finding an equivalent to Nelson’s column, or our Melbourne monument to the explorers Bourke and Wills (who sadly failed to take copyright on the phrase that best described their ill fated adventure – “Get Lost”). Melbourne even has a statue of Kylie Minogue – the reason for this escapes me, but at least it is at one of Melbourne’s more windswept locations. A monument to Carlo Goldoni the playwright stands near the Rialto, and a happy man he looks with a slightly quizzical gaze, a life well lived. He has a smile, and looks as if he is about to greet a dear friend. There’s a monument to Vittorio Emmanuel near the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop, but these are a dime a dozen in Italy, and Rome’s monument makes the Venitian version pale into insignificance. The statue to Daniele Manin, leader of the 1848 revolution against the Austrians, stands in Campo Manin, with a most excellent winged lion. Taxidermists would wonder at the lion – it is not clear whether the lion should have fur or feathers under its wings, and would seem to have a mixture of both.
The exception, however, is the equestrian statue in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo and it’s a monster. I’m no judge of horseflesh (my bookmaker can supply confirmation of this) but I reckon the horse stands about 37 hands. It’s magnificent, and was meant to be somewhere else – like in the Piazza San Marco, to be exact.
The statue celebrates Bartolomeo Colleoni. I recollect that Marlon Brando played Don Corleone in “The Godfather”, and if the horses head in the bed had been as big as the statue in Campo SS Giovani et al, the bed would have collapsed. Colleoni was a mercenary commander from Bergamo (Venice has never been averse to contracting out the dirty work, as evidence the Fourth Crusade) and was most successful. He made a small fortune, or maybe a not so small fortune, as a part of his military service – perhaps it was written into his Conditions of Engagement. “A dollar a day, plus a percentage of loot.” Military operations would appear to have been self funding, for the Venetians at least.
Colleoni, patriot to the last, or at least knowing who buttered his bread, left his fortune – half a million ducats – to the State of Venice which was broke at the time, on condition that a statue be erected to him “in front of San Marco”, with his estate to fund the statue. Big conundrum for the City Fathers – while wanting the money, a statue of anyone in front of St Marks was inconceivable. But a deal is a deal, and Venetians honour deals. So the statue stands in all its magnificence in front of San Marco – the Scuole Grande San Marco. Colleoni should have defined his conditions a little more tightly, and the Venetians delivered on the agreement – to the letter. If not the spirit. Molto Veneziano. The Scuolo Grand San Marco is just around the corner from the site of the Municipal Gasworks, next to the Hospital, and a fair step from the Piazza San Marco.
It is, even to one with a less than perfect eye for horseflesh, a fine bronze statue, and Colleoni looks quite magnificent, and not cheesed off in the slightest to be in his present location. He’s been there since 1496.
Sunday 11 January, so we are just over half way through out time here. We can feel the days racing past. Happily, we are having a micro heat wave – the mercury hit 10 degrees – and the remnants of New Year’s snow next door have almost all melted. “Molto freddo” is not so often heard, and I think the last couple of weeks have been exceptionally cold, even by Venetian standards. We can now take coffee because we want a coffee, not because we need refuge in a warm bar from the cold.
We went to the opera a few nights ago. They gave Verdi’s “la Traviata”, with a small cast, leading to some confusion, and a chamber orchestra, piano, two violins, viola and ‘cello. The first violin was exceptionally good, indeed all the music was excellent, and the performance was in the Scuola Grande S. Giovanni Evangelista, in a hall dating from the 1700’s. The story of la Traviata is simple – Courtesan takes up with gentleman A, she is also fancied by another gentleman B. There is an argument between Courtesan and Gent A, possibly a duel – certainly a challenge to a duel, between Gent A and Gent B, as Gent A has insulted the woman that Gent B fancies. Gent A and Courtesan are reconciled, she dies of TB in his arms. Closing aria, Gran Dio! Morir si giovane - “O God, to die so young”.
Walk out into the streets of the most lovely city in the world at mid-night, freezing cold, ice crackling underfoot, voices fading away, silent.
Big problem – Lou’s set her heart on No 1, Santa Croce. Close to all facilities, short walk to the Punto supermarket, widows walk at roof level, wine shop just over the bridge, choice of three fishmongers within 75 metres, and a florist 100 metres away. It’s all just too, too convenient. Nice corner room, with two windows overlooking the Nuove Rio di Ca’ Foscari (she’s promised me that room). Canal entrance, place to park a small boat, vacant shop that can certainly be put to some good use. The clincher, the thing that sold it to her, was when she discovered a postcard, shot in about 1900, of No 1 Santa Croce. It is quite recognisable in the photo – even the news stand and my corner window are visible. It is quite vacant and derelict, the TV aerial looks as though it would be connected to a black and white set, the bottom bars of the water gate rusted clean off, the shutters rotting off their hinges. It looks ready to tumble into the Nuove Rio di Ca’ Foscari, which will certainly be a hazard to navigation. If I can find a lazy 10 million Euro I should be able to secure it. She really wants it. Another million or four for renovations – just a Venetian tad of rising damp to cure – and we’re set. There is even a firm of architects in the adjacent building to supervise the renovations.
And I can’t even afford table rental at Quadri’s – where does she get these notions!
It’s a worry, I’m here to tell you.
But there’s another story there as well, to do with this door numbering protocol in Venice. The adjacent building, with the architects, has door number 2 – and that door did not exist in 1900, in the postcard. So when did the door numbering system kick in? There’s a little research project to consider. I suspect that it is after Napoleon, because the numbers have not changed where he had a few buildings torn down to create the public gardens between the Piazza and the Grand Canal. We tried to find 1 San Marco, but I don’t know that it exists – the closest number we found was No 3, facing the Piazzetta, close to St Theodore’s (and the crocodile’s) column.
We are quite disconnected from reality here, the World exists in a parallel universe that we’re mostly ignoring. I’m not going in search of English language newspapers, which I suspect will be full of the horrible events happening in Gaza – we can pick that up even from the Italian language papers.
There is, of course, the internet. The letter “W” does not exist in Italian, there is no Italian word equating to the English “W”. But even Easy Network has to advertise its web site in case one wishes to stream their audio, and return to the 60’s. So one hears “Vou vou vou punto Easynetwork punto ita”. I’ve yet to visit their web site, but I would expect their home page to be written on paisley pattern wall paper or maybe lime green text on burnt orange background. Technology does abound, but in a discreet fashion, as does advertising. Satellite dishes are common, but all the roof mounted dishes are coloured terracotta. This may be a planning requirement, and there is no outdoor advertising – maybe a small sandwich board in the street, but not much more. We found the same in Rome. Even Maccas has been forced to comply – the Golden Arches look like an “M” in 24 point font.
I’ve seen technology in the form of a GPS in Venice. The GPS owner was lost, and was asking directions. He’ll be given the standard Venetian response – Sempre diritto, straight ahead. Maybe “straight ahead” is designed to reduce the number of visitors – walk straight ahead to Mestre – it’s too crowded already here. Summer must be unbearable, standing in line to cross the Rialto.
Venetians have been advising “straight ahead” since Pepin, son of Charlemagne, entered the lagoon in 809, bent on invasion. The Venetians, outnumbered and out-gunned (actually, out-crossbowed), pulled up all the stakes that marked the channels and retreated. Pepin invaded Malomocco, a small island in the lagoon, the then seat of Venetian power, vacated in a hurry by the Venetians. Except one old crone remained, determined to defend Malomocco (or maybe just left behind as too grumpy – the truth not to everyone). History, or at least Morris, records that she was summonsed by Pepin, and asked “Which way to the Rivo Alto” (later to be the Rialto). She advised “sempre diretto”, straight ahead, with quivering finger, towards the unmarked channels, tide races and mud banks of the lagoon. Pepin followed her directions, his fleet was grounded, and his troops slaughtered. The channel running to Malomocco is called the Canale del Orfano, because so many orphans were made that day.
So, when advised “sempre diretto” by a Venetian, take it with a grain of salt – it may not be kindly meant.
Old crones feature not infrequently in the history of Venice – one is credited with ending a revolt by one Biaminti Tiepolo. Biaminti was cheesed off when the Golden Book, the list of notables and persons of clout, was closed (unless one was prepared to buy one’s way in), and figured a revolution was the way to resolve his ego problem. His little revolution proceeded towards San Marco, up the Merceria from the Rialto, as far as the intersection with the Merceria and the Calle Capello. A brave show it must have been, drums, standards, shouting, confusion, probably women in furs, dogs of various breeds, the whole box and dice. The revolution was brought to its knees when a mortar was dropped or hurled by said crone from her window, braining Biamintini Tiepolo’s standard bearer. Or maybe she just knocked the mortar off her window sill as she leaned out to see what all the fuss was about, or maybe she was just adjusting her flower pots, hanging out the washing, or hurling everything to hand at the revolutionaries – I think I’ve previously mentioned the concept of “the truth not to everyone”. Confusion reigned, revolution failed, and the episode is immortalised in statuary and inscription. A bust of the famous crone with mortar high on the wall, and a stone let into the pavement marking the point of impact. The stone bears the inscription XV-VI-MCCCX, 15th June, 1310, and you can see it on the left, about 15 metres after you walk under the clock tower towards Rialto.
I suppose that Venetian women of a certain age, clad in fur, take this story to heart. Don’t get in their way if they are armed with pestle and mortar. Revolutionary Tiepolo was tortured and then hanged for his trouble, others merely hanged. Do not, on any account mess, with Venetian women.
Lou’s into painting, and painters need paint, plus all sorts of other artistic paraphenalia, so we went shopping. We found an artists supplies shop, complete with jars and trays of powdered pigments. I’ve never seen that before, pigments in the raw. Just add linseed, gum arabic, ox gall or whatever and attack that canvas or fresh frescoe. I suppose that is how Antony Canal, aka Cannaletto, mixed his paints, or had an apprentice mix them for him. A little mercuric oxide (toxic), a little plumbum oxide (ditto), and advertise for a new apprentice. The shop looks as though it has been serving artists for a long time – I fancy I saw an instruction pinned up, “No more paint for Senor Tintorretto unti he settles his account. Same applies for Titian. I don’t care if they are painting the Doge’s dungeon – NO MORE CREDIT”. But maybe I mis-translated it, and artist’s shops are the best fun. For Lou.
I have my revenge by subjecting Lou to the contents of a hardware shop that sells Proxxon machine tools. They are miniatures – reflecting the size of the shed of your average Venetian bloke. Tiny milling machine, drill press, lathe, a buzzer and a band saw that I’d love to take back to Aus. This hardware shop is the best fun. But not automatically fun for Lou.
There’s Venice, and then there’s Giudecca, that long fish shaped island just south of San Marco. I won’t say it’s a different country, but I think it might be part of a different city. It is to Venice as Melton is to Melbourne, or Mount Druitt is to Sydney, lacking the post industrial buzz of Yarraville or Ultimo. Like parts of Castello, it retains a working class feel, and one guide book that we have records that some houses on Guidecca did not have indoor plumbing as recently as 1960. At one end of Guidecca, the east, there is the Church of San Gieorgi Maggiore, a magnificent structure designed by Palladio. (Yes, purists, I acknowledge that San Gieorgio is on it’s own island). Move west a little and one comes to the Hotel Cipriani, run by the Harry’s bar folk, pretty flash with its own dedicated water taxi from San Marco. Move past the Church of the Redentore (Palladio again) and it gets pretty gritty. At the other end, there is the Gothic pile of the Mulino Stucky, once a flour and pasta mill, owned by one Kevin Stucky (or was it Bruce), employing some two thousand people, now converted to a five plus star hotel, with Venice’s only rooftop swimming pool. In between, it seems depopulated and desolated. Heavy cranes on the south side, waiting for ships to come and be repaired – except those ships now go to Korea to be repaired. New housing for workers, with the salt already leaching out of the 1970 brickwork, and not the press of people to brush the salt deposits off the face brick. Sorry folks, but that’s how La Giudecca seemed to me – I’m sure that in Summer it would be a different story. We found a good bar, but.
Again the engineer in me raises its ugly head, and I work in the area of Water. Otherwise known as sewage treatment. The bathroom equipment shop just over the Ponte de Pugni sells a fine range of sanitary fixtures. The thing I don’t understand is how they feel it a need to have fourty nine (yep, count ‘em, folks), fourty nine toilet brushes of different configurations in the window. That shop is toilet brush central. They do sump pumps, too, for the acqua alta. Most shops have a barrier they can fix across the doorway, and a sump pump to discharge water that flows past the barrier – the pump discharges back into the street, and you can see them going flat stick when the water is high. Flooding is interesting. I’d expected to see water overflowing from the canals, but water just rises out of the drains in a most discreet fashion, creating ever-expanding puddles.
Food and hints for travellers.
I’ve not attempted to do a trip report, rather a written ramble around my head, while my head is in Venice. However, some recommendations.
In Rome, have a meal at Le Tamerici, which is near the Trevi Fountain. Vicolo Scavolino 79, uphill from the Trevi, take via del Lavatore, and first left. Think 120 Euro for two, and we ate there twice in three days. They have a web site, www.letamerici.com. Best food we have eaten in all Italy, ever, and was one of the reasons we went to Rome this time. We were served by one Kate, who hails from the Hunter Valley in Aus, a girl of good humour. (“Would you recommend the pork or the duck?” “Don’t ask me, I’m a vegetarian.”)
In Rome, the bar called “The Glass”, Via Carlo Battisti, left side as you go downhill. It looks very cool and expensive – but it’s not.
La Bitta in Calle Lunga San Barnaba, Dorsoduro, is a good place to eat – they don’t do fish. On the left as you walk west from Campo San Barnaba.
The bar, Ai Artisti in Campo San Barnaba, is fun, and the staff get to know you quickly.
Fabio Bressanello, Calle Lunga San Barnaba, Dorsoduro 2751 sells photos, which is a complete understatement. He’s brilliant, some of the most evocative images of Venice and the lagoon that I’ve ever seen. Limited edition photos, printed on good paper, four colour offset for the technically minded, registration of the print is perfect. Pleasant guy, we talked for half an hour about photography, printing, selling stuff. Www.bressanelloartstudio.com is worth a look.
The shop just west of him sells linen, and the woman who runs it is most charming.
Glass – try L’Isola, Salizada San Moise, San Marco 1468 (Salizada San Moise runs west of the Piazza.) This is the showroom for glass by Carlo Moretti, and not cheap. However, you can buy work there that you won’t see anywhere else, except in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in NY, and the designs are spectacular. Expect to shell out 70 Euro for a glass that you’ll use and treasure forever. Www.lisola.com. He does mail order, for when you smash the treasured glass and can’t live without it.
Paper – try Legatoria Polliero, Campo dei Frari, San Polo 2995.
Nice green grocer with good smile – Fondamenta San Basillio, Dorsoduro, near the church of San Sabastiano. He’s fun, even if you just buy an apple and munch it in the sun on the Zattere.
Gondolas have a list price of 80 Euro for the first 40 minutes, plus 40 Euro for each additional 20 minutes. Charge may increase with additional passengers – I’m not sure. But traghettos, which cross the Grand Canal, cost 50 cents each way, and can save a lot of walking. It is de rigeur to stand up, and when embarking, walk to the farthest end of the gondola, and turn around. Dogs travel free – the Golden Retriever on the Ca’ Rezonnico traghetto yesterday seemed to enjoy the voyage, but then, they are water dogs.
A 12 hour Waterbus pass costs 14 Euro, and must be the best bargain available anywhere.
MacDonalds. A Big Mac, Fries and Coke will set you back 7.60, but I’m not about to pass through the Golden Arches. Maccas are pleased to call this a Happy Meal, surely an oxymoron, up there with “friendly fire”, “military intelligence” and “fun run” on the oxymoron league table.
Hint for travellers – navigation in Venice is tricky. (Oh, derr, tell us something we don’t know.) I’ve found that the maps, and more importantly the street index in the Moleskine Venice City Notebook to be the most useful, and it is pocket sized. The maps cover all of Venice proper, but not the Lido or Murano. It’s a guidebook that you write yourself – there is not much other info, but it serves to scribble notes in, and makes a great memento. The best water bus route map is one you get when you buy tickets – most guide book maps are too small to read. Another hint for travellers – bring a copy of Venice by James Morris, if you are interested in the odd, the quirky, the unusual. Like dead elaphants, of which more later.
I know I keep banging on about food, but one does have to eat three times a day, approx. I’d expected fresh food to be expensive (I’m not sure why I expected this, but there you go). So I thought a list of things would be good.
Wine – you can buy drinkable wine for 4 Euro a bottle, and it will be better than Australian generic wine – Jacob’s Creek, for example. Spirits – vodka, Baileys, etc – are about Euro 10.00 a bottle.
Meat – Red meat is expensive. Good quality minced beef plus pork is Euro 9.90 a kilo. It makes good ragu for spag Bol, and is good value.
Here’s an interesting one – chicken livers are about Euro 6.90 a kilo, indicating that they are not treated as awful offal, as they are in Aus.
Chicken breast fillet – say Euro 7.00 a kilo, which is about AUD 14.00 – almost the same as in Melbourne.
Bread – Euro 3.20 per kilo, and it is sold by weight.
Mussels – about 3.00 a kilo, but more exotic crustacea cost more – and are worth every cent. Razor clams are excellent, 12.00 a kilo, and are live.
Can’t comment on eel.
Tripe costs more than chicken – what we Aussies see as un-saleable, Venetians see as special.
Glass of wine and a little roll, a panini, about 4.50, taken at the bar.
Vegetables are about the same as in Melbourne, except for exotics. Potatoes and carrots – two Euro a kilo, tomatoes 3.50, radiccio 3.90, parsley thrown in for free. All in all, we find that we are spending not much more on food than we would in Melbourne.
There is less fast food – or less conventional fast food – than some places. A micro McDdonalds, a modest Burger King. Fast food is slices of pizza, with a thin crust and not much cheese, excellent.
Coffee and croissant – costs Euro 2.10, taken at the bar at our local. Expect to pay 3.40 if you want to have a table. But just a coffee at the Bar Americano at San Marco will set you back 2.00. It all depends on location – or maybe they think that Americans are loaded. You don’t see people toting take away coffees, the cappucino grande, beloved of Hudsons or Starbucks. If you want a coffee to go, drink it at the bar quickly, unless you come from an adjacent shop or gondola, in which case take cup, saucer and all. I’d love to know if Starbucks ever attempted a coffee shop in Venice. It might have seen patronage from visitors, but Italians would never go there. A bar selling just coffee – coffee in buckets – and no alcohol would fail the morning it opened in Italy.
Eating out is not a killer. We ate well last night – a shared entree, plus two main courses (we both had the pork shank) plus a shared dessert and bottle of wine – 65 Euro, including service, bread, tablecloth. The same meal in Melbourne would cost AUD 120, so it seems good value. A five Euro tip seemed completely justified. However, I would recommend never to order the Ensalada Verde, the green salad. Grated carrot atop ordinary lettuce. Don’t go there – it’s a waste of money.
All in all, food is fun, as is buying it. Our favourite geeengrocer smiles and corrects Lou’s pronunciation, and enquires whether the potatoes are for gnochi or not. On being told “not”, he directs us to the appropriate spuds, and there’s an Italian lesson thrown in free gratis. The butcher wants to know if the mince is for ragu, and then points to the best. The whole process from recipe book to table is an adventure, creating relationships along the way.
We’re not really doing the sights here, but we’re spending time seeking out the strange and unusual, like the Corte del Teatro, site of the first screening of a movie in Venice, on 9th June, 1896. We’ve visited San Marco for Mass, the odd Palladian church, checked out the monster equestrian statue. We saw an exhibition of engravings from about 1700, scenes of Venice. A syndicate of engravers did them, the lead man doing the architectural details, and others putting in people, animals, boats and so on. The lead man was acknowledged as being not good at people, so subbed the work out. They were devised as a promotional set of about 30 sheets, to lure the tourists, so the Doge Palace, the equestrian statue of Colleoni, San Marco, the Torre dell Orologio all feature (including a view of the Piazza from said clock tower). The bell ringing would have been deafening while the sketches were being made.
One engraving took our fancy – a view of a canal, the Rio del Mendicianti, hospital to east side, a boat repair yard, a squero, to the west. In 1700, the squero was a mud bank with boats drawn up. We found it, and the squero is still there, albeit concrete paved with a small slip. Boat builders mostly came from the alps, and I suppose the Venetians were better with stone and brick than with timber. The architecture of the squero reflects the alpine heritage, timber buildings, vertical timber cladding, where’s Heidi the cowherd. The name “squero”, or rather the nick-name comes from the square, as in carpenter’s square. There are many streets all over Venice named “squero” - it was a big industry here. Only a couple of squero remain now, and I’ve sought them out, as I’ve messed about in boats a bit.
A canal, the Rio del Santissimo di S Stefano, passes clean under the church of that name, and a kayak would be fun. There’s a nice conjunction – the roof of the church is a “ships keel” roof, and most spectacular. It mirrors, in a way, the fact that a canal runs under the high altar, an upturned ships hull over the canal. We sought out the cloister of San Stefano, now occupied by a government department, Taxation, I believe, so accordingly fraught and tense. As was Pordeonone, who went about his work armed with a fistfull of paintbrushes and a sword when he painted a series of Biblical frescoes in the building. His bitter rival, and possibly the losing bidder for the Works, Titian, was in the habit of harassing him as he worked. I suppose this anticipated the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, by a few centuries, and Pordeonone possibly wished for a nice little hand gun, a Beretta maybe, being a patriotic Italian.
San Stefano has clearly seen its share of angst. The Church has been de-consecrated five times, evidence of power strruggles between the Vatican and Venice, or perhaps just bad behaviour. And there has clearly been some innapropriate behaviour outside the church doors, too. The stone plaque, dated 20th June 1663 (I love the precision engraved into the stone tablet), advises that it is forbidden to gamble, set up stands, sell things or blaspheme in the vicinity. Transgressors risk banishment, the galleys, or a period in stir.
I’ve found the church of San’ Antonin, but it’s been de-consectrated and is closed. Morris records that, in 1819, an elephant, having escaped from a visiting managerie, took refuge in that church, and was “only despatched with a shot from a piece of ordnance”, according to contemporary records. The main doors open towards the Rio de San Agostino, no doubt allowing easy removal of the unfortunate animal. The Church is just around the corner from the Calle della Morte, not a dead end street, and probably not imortalising the death of the elephant. One wonders who died – maybe it was a plague thing. The church is close to the Arsenale, and so ordnance was conveniently to hand, even after Napoleon had looted the place. Hemingway records a duck shooting expedition on the lagoon, with a grumpy boatman smashing the ice to float decoys, but I doubt if even Ern, big game hunter as he was, came equipped with an elephant gun to Venice. Times change, and the elephant attraction has been replaced with a merry-go-round and set of dodgem cars on the Riva degli Schiavoni, just down the way from the Danieli, Ernest’s preferred hotel.
There are other sights, micro sights. We witnessed the Fire Department at work, raising a sunken motor boat from a canal. Drag boat to surface, pump faster than water flows in until freeboard is obtained. I think this was more a public service than a favour to the unfortunate owner – a sunken boat may play havoc with navigation. Pity about the outboard motor – it’ll need a trip to the nearby squerro.
Another sight is artisans at work, and one can linger at shop windows and workshops. Workers painting gondolas, which have to be slipped and cleaned and anti-fouled about once a month, as marine growth is fierce in the lagoon. Skilled restorers touching up antiques, including a four drawer chest, with fine inlaid pearl shell. We’ve watched the progression through the drawers, and now he is onto the carcasse. We passed his shop this morning and he was on the telephone, and I’m sure it was a bakelite job. His assistant is carefully restoring the paintwork on an old bench, being careful to preserve the patina.
It’s wet, umbrella time, and I’m almost inclined to wear safety glasses. The combination of fur clad woman plus umbrella equals Peter might have to learn Braile. Children are the same the world over. Little girls chatter and carry pink umbrellas. Little boys jump in puddles. The thing that amazes me is how the kids can speak such good Italian. They are totally brilliant, dressed to kill. I can see how Italian women are so well dressed – they have been working at it since birth, if not conception. I don’t think they would even own a polyester track suit, much less wear it in public.
Dorsoduro, where we live, is close to the Academe and sundry other University campuses (campii, maybe, to call up my poor schoolboy Latin. I remember amo, amas, amat, amamus, amartant, amant. The balance is lost in a haze of detentions and other punishments). We are surrounded by students, and they make for a lively environment, along with book shops to die for. Shops are shuttered at lunch time, and at night. I don’t believe this is a crime prevention thing, it would seem the shutters are intended to provide a canvas for graffiti. There are more political slogans, “Bush = War’, and less street art than in inner Melbourne, probably a higher class of graffitisti. “The medium is the message”, to quote Marshall McCluhan, and the medium is a closed shutter and spray can. Many closed shutters, but it still pains me to see graffiti on a 500 year old church – go find a blank shutter. I get the impression that people are more politically connected, and we witnessed a political rally with as many as say, oh, at least fifteen people in attendance. There was a hammer and sickle flag – talk about a blast from the past!
Venice is reputed to be pretty much free of crime. Doubtless there’s the odd pickpocket, and I could imagine the pickings are rich in Summer, when the crowds are dense. Maybe there’s the occasional hand bag vendor out-sprinting the police, but the feeling is one of safety. Goods are left beside the canal for a few hours – pallet loads of product – cases of Johny Walker, barrels of Heineken, protected by no more than shrink wrap. I’ve taken a walk in the small hours, down twisting alleys and dead ends, and had no apprehension. At the Bridge of Breasts, so named because it was a place favoured by courtesans, there are no working girls to be seen. Even in the Rio Terra degli Assassini, there’s no fear of a stilletto in the ribs. Fear of the stilletto in the instep is another thing – don’t get me started on Italian women’s shoes.
The names of streets and lanes are evocative. The Alley of the Curly Headed Woman, the Alley of the Love of Friends or of the Gypsies, The Filled In Canal of Thoughts, The Broad Alley of the Proverbs, The First Burnt Alley, the Street of the Monkey or of the Swords, the Alley of the Blind, The Bridge of the Honest Woman (perhaps a scarcity in Venice at the time?).
In the meantime, I’ve lost Lou, she’s disappeared into an identity crisis of her own making, by enrolling in a short course of Italian. When you study a foreign language, you unearth your lack of knowledge of your own language, or at least your lack of formal knowledge of grammar. While Lou is not likely to utter the phrase “Doge Dandolo, he done gone invaded Constantinople”, the structure of irregular verbs and nouns are not her forte, and not mine either. And what tense is the phrase “Dandolo was later to discover that invading Constantinople was not such a smart trick”? Is it the past imperfect, the pluperfect, or what. I don’t know. But Lou can now conjugate with the best of them, she’s a champ. It’s just that she might not know what the verb means.
She’s lost so much of her identity that she’s not able to mutter the phrase “Look, I’m paying for these bloody lessons, so SPEAK SLOWER, per favore.” Her teacher, despite a seemingly good knowledge of English, refuses to utter a single word in the language of that green and pleasant land, perfidious Albion.
“Sono, sei, siamo Veneziano” (sung to the tune “I am, you are, we are Australian”). But we went to Burano, and they’d never claim to be Venetian – they remain proudly Buranese. Burano is, of course, famous for lace, and the legend is that the women of Burano made lace in imitation of their men-folk who were making fishing nets. I find this a bit far-fetched – the intricacy of the lace makes your average purse sein or drift net look most basic. We saw a lace museum, lace made in Belgium in the 16th century, christening gowns, first communion dresses, Buranese lace. And there was an incomplete work, a sampler, showing the different knots used in Buranese lace – 16 different knots, from memory. Each lace maker specialises in only a couple of knots, and so a piece of work with many different knots will be passed from hand to hand, a community effort. It is not cheap – a fine piece, say A5 plus a bit, will cost about one thousand Euro. We saw such a piece being created, by a woman who must have been about 80, wearing glasses as thick as a milk bottle. The work is slow, and there must be hundreds of hours of work in that A5 piece, which possibly explains the quite hard sell that we experienced, having us in mind of the handbag (Gucci, guaranteed) sellers.
Burano is like a country town, tiny houses, painted brightly, so that fishermen could find their way home through the fog, so I am told, and not a fur clad woman to be seen. The dogs on Burano seem a tougher breed than their Venetian counterparts, as they go about their business without the benefit of coats in Burberry pattern. Lagoon sized fishing boats abound, fully kitted for dredging shellfish, an ingenious drum screen on board, electrically driven, to reject both oversized and undersized shell fish, which would explain why the clams that we buy are so regular in size. Fishing nets strung up, being dried and mended, floats, buoys, styrene boxes, rope, all the marine paraphanelia one could imagine. A “Service Station” beside the canal sells diesel fuel oil at 1.15 per litre, unleaded 1.18.
The inclination to the south on the San Martino Vescovo campanile rivals the tower at Pisa, and when it falls, it will surely put the adjacent soccer pitch out of action for months. One can only hope there is not a game in progress at the time. Doubtless Buranese mothers have been warning their sons of the danger of the falling campanile for several centuries. Buranese males, like Buranese dogs, being of an independent streak, will have been ignoring the warnings for the same period.
One could imagine that Venice hangs as a pendulum from the rail bridge, the Ponte della Liberta from Mestre, suspended in the lagoon, surrounded by Murano, the Lido and Giudecca, with Burano and Torcello away in the lower 40, and not much else. There are many other islands, some inhabited, others not. The ferry to Burano takes one close to Polviera, a tiny island, or two islands, one containing just a heap of bricks, the other a three story building, mostly ruined, that covers almost the entire island. None of the guide books I’ve found recounts its history, and one can’t help but wonder what its story has been. Away off in the northern lagoon is Sant’ Ariano, once a thriving community and suburb of Torcello, which in its day was bigger than Venice. It is now a bone house, an Osseria, as the bones from San’ Michelle would be taken there once their allotted time was up, a practice dating from 1575 and finishing in the 1950’s. I’m not all that keen to go there.
Erasmo and Vignole are just off the tip of Castello, Vignole barely two kilometres from San Marco, and both islands are market garden islands. The No 13 ferry will get you there, and the land area of the two islands is greater than Venice. The tranquil island of San Francisco del Deserte near Burano still contains a monastery of the Franciscan Order, and a church built in 1228. St Francis was shipwrecked here in 1219 for his troubles, returning from the East where he had been engaged in evangelizing Muslims, with minimal success, one imagines.
La Grazia, half a mile from Giudecca, used to be a hospice for pilgrims going to the Holy Land, in the days when the Venetians organised it most thoroughly like travel agents, as Islamic countries do the Haj to Mecca in these days. The Venetians had multi-lingual greeters at San Marco, directing the pilgrims to La Grazie, probably not mentioning that it lay right beside the Canal of the Orphans, and taking a kick-back from the tour operators. Nothing changes in Venice – I heard the multi lingual waiter outside a restaurant near San Marco greet a party of Japanese with “Konichi-wa”. La Grazie had a Gothic Church, which Napoleon requisitioned as a powder magazine, and which was destroyed in the revolution of 1848 when someone lit a match inside.
Mazzorbo, just beside Burano and connected by footbridge, was big in its day. In Roman times, the site of a shrine to the god Belanus, and its name means “major urbis”, “big town”. The Mazzorbo customs controlled entry of trade from Germany, indeed most of Eastern Europe and there was a series of particularly flash convents and monasteries, five in all, particularly rich, inhabited by particularly racy nuns. Palaces lined the canal, and merchants made it comfortable. In the mid 1700’s, eight campaniles still stood there, probably demolished since and the bricks recycled.
Malaria, silting of canals, and the rise of the Rialto exchange did for Mazzorbo, as it did for Torcello. By the eleventh century, the place was in decline, and the citizens mostly decided to emigrate. They took their houses with them, loaded into barges stone by stone, to Venice, where they were re-erected near the Rialto. One wonders if they were considered trailer trash by the Venetians. Mazzorbo now contains the cemetery for Burano, some modern housing in a style that could be called “functional-brutalist meets Victorian Ministry of Housing”, and not a great deal else. A few gardens, a little trattoria, that’s it, a rather melancholy it, a thousand years after its greatness. There are many vacant houses, and you think “At some time, someone spent the night in that house, and nobody has slept there since”. It sends a slight shiver down the spine.
We travelled across the lagoon as calm as glass, channel markers standing like old sentinels. A strange, melancholy feel to the whole environment. One can’t avoid the melancholy in Venice.
I found the saddest story carved on the facade of the Doge palace. Count six columns (not including the corner column) along the Piazzetta, and on the octagonal capitol to the column there is a tale in eight parts, the first part facing the Piazzetta, and proceeding clockwise.
A girl greets a man from her window, Romeo and Juiet in stone.
She professes her love of him
They make love
A baby is born, a son.
He is seen standing between his proud parents.
The last scene shows them burying him.
I can’t help but think the mason was telling his own story, it is so touching. It is a story five hundred years old, and still can move one today.
The figures are less than a hand span high, just the right size for such an intimate account, and yet such a universal tragedy.
You will see “Ticket Restaurant” on doors. This means that the establishment has been forced to subscribe to a system that must make the Mafia green with envy. Here’s how it works.
A company, say Mister Tickets, prints booklets of vouchers, with a face value of say five Euro per voucher.
Employer buys vouchers from Mister Tickets, probably for the face value less a discount.
Employer gives vouchers to employees as part of their salary – but it won’t be taxed.
Employee hands over a voucher instead of cash at Ticket Restaurant when buying lunch – or at Billa when buying groceries.
Restaurant collates tickets into a say 5000 Euro package and then claims money back from Mister Ticket.
Mister Ticket pays restaurant after 90 days – less a whacking discount, say 12.5% for one restaurant that we know. Billa would be on a lesser discount, but I don’t know how much.
Winners – the employer, the employee, and Mister Ticket.
Loser – the restaurant, by 12.5%, and taxation revenues.
It is a licence to print money, but the restaurant has no choice but to go along and accept the tickets – otherwise they lose significant patronage. There is a bit of a scandal in Italy about this system – there are many millions of tickets being presented each day. Someone’s printing money.
However, one would not dare to present a ticket at the Rialto Market.
This morning we were up early, for us, at 6:30, and headed off to the Rialto market to watch the fish being unloaded – we should have been earlier, there is so much action. Such a variety, shark, shellfish, trout which looked farmed, as they were all of a size, crabs, tuna, sardines, flounder, squid, scampi, octopus and very few oysters, which I suspect are very expensive. Even when fish were in their styrene boxes, they looked beautifully arranged, and no frozen fish.
Cruised the butchers shops. There’s a butcher who does horse. Horse meat, horse carpachio, horse salami. Vicious thought – take horse salami sandwiches next time you are rostered onto canteen duty at Pony Club. Ouch. I’ve not seen horse on a Venetian menu, but someone must be buying it, and it’s not cheap.
23 January, and we have had a morning taking us from the sublime to the ridiculous. I’ll start with the sublime – the Frari Church.
If you only visit one church in all of Venice, the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, aka “the Frari” is it. While the Basilicca is Byzantine, the Frari is pure, soaring, spiritual, take your breath away, Gothic. You walk in the front door, and the whole 100 metre long nave is laid out before you, a visual procession. There is a monument to the sculptor, Canova, which is the most achingly beautiful work of art I have seen anywhere. It was created by Canova’s pupils, to a design created by Canova, but intended as a monument to Titian. It is simplicity in itself, the figures at human scale, the bronze door into the sepulchure where Canova’s heart rests in an urn is invitingly ajar. The angel and lion of Venice are both mourning, and the funeral procession leads to the bronze doors, representing the gap, the space, the ultimate divide between living and dead. You could study the face of the woman carrying the urn for hours. It brings a lump to my throat, a tingle up the spine.
The monument to Titian stands opposite, and shows in bas-relief the painting by Titian, the Assumption of the Virgin, that stands over the altar. Titian died of the plague, and always wished to buried in the Frari. At the time, authorities had decreed that plague victims were to be buried in mass graves. A rare exception was made for Titian, and he’s buried in the Frari, as a genius ought be.
Titian painted a madonna for the Pesaro family in 1509, which hangs in the Frari. There are both Saints, and members of the Pesaro family in the painting. The faces are all turned to the Madonna, except St Peter, who is looking at Jacopo Pesaro, Titian’s patron, who kneels to give thanks. And also, Lunardo Pesaro, who gazes outwards towards the viewer, almost in a way confronting the viewer, challenging the viewer. “Well, are you going to look at the Madonna, or are you going to look at me”. He inherited the family fortune, and looks as if he knows it is coming his way.
Another thing in the Frari Church is the Nativity. It is fascinating – an Italian village with animated figures, with the village coming to life, chooks being fed, a man fishing, knife grinder at work, plus sound effects. I liked it – little kids would be fascinated, and you enter the chapel by the side door closest to the campanile, which is presently having some seriously heavy restoration. The movement of the campanile is being tracked, with an accuracy of one hundredth of a millimetre. These buildings are being cherished.
Now the ridiculous – or at least the strange.
Riduculous / Strange No 1. In the Frari church, on the left hand side, past the Canova monument, past the monument with the four huge Negro gentlemen to a deceased doge, one Doge Giovanni Pessaro, 1669 (described in my Rough Guide as surely the most grotesque monument in the city, “a German sculptor called Melchiorre Barthel must take the blame”) there is a small unexploded bomb mounted on the wall. It fell in February 1918 on the Frari, and failed to detonate. I assume it’s been disarmed.
Riduculous / Remarkable No. 2. Canova was honourary President of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.
Ridiculous / Bizarre No 3. Canova’s heart rests in the monument to him in the Frari, most of his body at Possagno, and his right hand is somehwere in the Academia.
Ridiculous / Riduculous No 4. Venice has suffered a small invasion, maybe a pre-carnivale thing, of German and Swiss brass bands. There is a distinct lack of spit and polish with these bands. Think a band dressed with masks in the shape of wolves heads, gents in dresses with cleavage that makes the Grand Canyon look like a suburban gutter, folk with the hairiest legs – the barely tanned hide of polyvinylchlorides, purple wigs, Neanderthals, Wassail, Viking horn hats, the whole insane get-up. They numbered about three hundred, and thumped, drummed and blew their way along the Riva Schiavoni, through the Piazza, as far as Campo San Maurizo. A fine show indeed – some of them looked like Hells Angels with trumpets and tambourines.
They did some excellent reggae music, and then gave a fine rendition of the March of the Corriedors from Carmen. One wonders what Bizet would have thought. One also wonders what the Korean tourists though of them – if I’d been asked, I’d have had to say that it was a traditional religious festival, instituted by Doge Pantaloon.
Venice has been divided on clan lines, the Nicolotti and the Castellani, for centuries, millenia. The Nicolletti are from Dorsoduro, San Polo and Santa Croce – I’m not a little proud to be a member, albeit a most temporary member, of the Nicolotti. The Castellani are from Cannaregio, San Marco and Castello, and, sad to say, must be regarded as a most inferior lot. I think this might re-open the matter of fist fights on the Ponte de Pugni, but there you go, can’t be helped. No edged weapons or firearms, concealed carry or otherwise, commence on the last stroke at noon of the Santa Maria Carmini campanile. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11, 12 and open hostilities. I mean, we Nicolotti have the Frari and the Venice prison. What have the poor Castellani got? San Marco and the Arsenale. I rest my case – there’s no need to fight after all.
But there’s a greater fault line running through all Italy, greater than the conflict between Communist and Christian Democrats, greater than Montagu vs Capulet,a fault line of geological proportions, making the San Andreas Fault in California look like a minor crack in the bitumen. I speak, of course, about the Campari / Aperol fault. One is either a Campari man, or an Aperol man. It is similar, for Australians, being a Fosters man, or a Tooheys man (God forbid). This raises a problem. I am a Campari man, always have been, always will be, and Lou has declared a liking for Aperol. I think our marriage can survive this schism, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. For insurance, I put a slug of vodka in her Aperol - “In Vino, Veritas”.
Evidence of a minor tragedy.
I think I may have sighted the evidence of a small pesonal tragedy in Calle Lunga San Barnaba this morning. A torn up map of Venice, and I allow myself the space to ramble around.
I used to be a golfer, which is an insult to many golfers, rather I used to play at golf. I mastered that skulled chip that slid across the green, the hooked drive that had players on adjacent fairways thinking that a safety helmet should be standard attire, the stylish tee shot across the water trap, that skated like a speedboat, scaring ducks and slaughtering surfacing fish, before sinking out of sight. I played on a course that had a water trap on every hole, the exceptions being the holes with multiple water traps.
The guys in the pro shop mined those water traps for golf balls and sold them, a great many to me. They said “Look, they are top value – most of them have only been hit once”. But they also told me that, on one aqualung clad mining venture, they had retrieved a full set of clubs, No 1 driver through to putter, plus bag and buggy, from a lagoon. I can see the frustrated golfer saying, with the expletives deleted, “I don’t care to play at golf any more”, before throwing the whole kit into the water.
Maybe the owner of the torn up map in Calle Lunga San Barnaba tore up their map in frustration, sick of navigation and getting lost, sick of dragging suitcases, sick of their partner saying “why don’t you just ask someone” - men NEVER ask directions – and decided they did not care to play at Venice any more. But there might be a happier story – maybe they decided that the best itinerary in Venice was the one where you don’t use a map, where you just get lost. I don’t know, and I hope this was the case.
I succeeded in getting lost yesterday, walking in a full circle. It’s funny, but I recognise landmarks when they are in a familiar place, when they come up in an expected sequence. But when I don’t expect to see them, I don’t recognise them. So when I recognised our local beggar on a bridge, I thought, “Hello, she’s changed her turf. That’s a bit odd. I’d expect to see her near San Barnaba, what’s she doing here. And that looks like a nice campo just beyond her”. Except she was on her own turf, it was me who was out of place.
I suppose she is a reincarnation of the Barnabotti, impoverished nobles, forced to live around San Barnaba because rents were cheap in 1750. (They are a little higher these days, sadly.) The Barnabotti were in a complete poverty trap, prohibited by law from engaging in crafts or keeping shops, and required by law to wear silk. I don’t see all that much silk on the streets these days, and no Barnabotti.
19. On various things.
A gondola is 14 metres long, and fully laden will displace some 800 kilos. You see them drifting along the canals, sometimes in a fleet of half a dozen, with a gentleman playing a piano accordion – surely the Devil’s instrument – possibly with a tenor who should go and find another job, ideally at the oil refinery at Marghera. The gondoliers make their way rather lazily up the smaller canals, an occasional stroke with the oar, cigarette in hand, or maybe texting on the mobile phone. I saw one this evening reading “il Gazzettino” as he rowed a party of tourists. The occasional kick to a brick wall to keep the craft on course. The occasional song – I particularly liked one version of “Whisky, whisky, always makes me tipsy”. He had a party of Japanese on board – it’s possible they thought he was doing some G&S, maybe from “The Mikado”. True. And this time, the truth to everyone.
I saw a couple of gondoliers yesterday, getting somewhere in a hurry, and it was a different sight. Think about a guy in a straw hat and striped shirt, making the gondola fairly rip along, the port gunwale barely six inches from the wall, really bending their backs. I did the Sydney-Hobart in a smaller craft, and I didn’t have to row the thing. That’s when you can really see their skill, when there are no passengers on board, and it’s something to witness. Ballet in a 36 foot craft weighing half a ton.
There is, without a doubt, an awful lot of glass in Venice. The inescapable corollary to this is that there is a lot of awful glass in Venice, much of it in a particularly bilious yellow. There are some classic designs, at least to my eye. I bought a couple of fragile hexagonal glasses with the most delicate coloured rims here in 1975, and they survived many house moves, kids, dogs, parties, with the pair being split with a divorce. Jane and I always called them the “Venini” glasses, as we’d bought them from a shop selling Venini glass in the Piazza, but I don’t think Venini had much to do with them. We kept one each, and I’ve since found out they are made by Segusa.
I was able to complete both pairs two years ago, thirty one years after the original puchase, and buying two more hexagonal glasses has become, if not a tradition, at least a custom for me in Venice. And Jane will, in several weeks course, have a trio of glasses. Eventually it might be a quartet, maybe – who knows? Habits die hard.
Everyone says that Venice is quiet, which means that there’s no traffic noise. But it’s not silent by any means, you just hear more. Our campanile, the Carmini, belts out the hours, plus a couple of different tunes of about nine strokes. One tune, “Allay, Allay, Allahleuia” means that it is about to strike the hour, so stand by to count. At 6:00 PM, it goes ballistic, all four bells ringing in a fugue, with the four bells all at a different rate. The rhythm seems to split up, and then the bells chase each other until they are in time, and then split again. A quarter of an hour before mass, the tenor bell rings about 120 times, and the bass bell just before mass. There’s another tune, to the rhythm of Twinkle Twinkle, and we’re not sure what that means, but we’re mapping it through the 24 hour cycle. The campanile was struck by lightning in 1756, while the monks were ringing the bells – in their hurry to escape, one man ran his head against a wall, and was killed.
You can hear the beat of birds wings, Actv ferries and the ferry that runs to Pireaus blasting their horns in the fog, which distorts the sound. Occasional sirens from the police, fire and ambulance boats, the thud of the diesels on the boats hauling freight around the canals. The clatter on Wednesdays and Saturdays, which are the days for recycling glass, and to which we feel obliged to make a proper contribution. Walking home from the supermarket, I heard a soprano singing exercises, and this evening, a kid (I assume) giving a spirited rendition of “Mary had a little lamb”, followed by “When the Saints go marching in” on the recorder, as she walked down the street. Encore, encore!
Another sound that permeates is the “Dok dok dok” of hard heels on stone paving, as people walk up Calle Lunga. You hear it at any time of the day or night, and it seems particularly Venetian. Maybe it’s the kind of stone that is used for paving, or the fact that the water table is barely below the stones. Lou’s joined the Venetians, buying a pair of shoes with hard heels. Dok dok dok.
On strange pieces of stone and brick.
You’ll see sloping pieces of stone let into corners about two feet above the ground, or brick structures with a cement rendered top in corners. The campanile of San Toma has a veritable row of these stones, and I always wondered what they were for.
I found out - “Venice is a Fish” by Tiziano Scarpa informed me. Venice is notoriously short of public conveniences, and to avoid corners being used for what the French are pleased to call a pissoir, these sloping stones have been erected. So if a gentlemen attempts to “splash his boots”, as they say, his boots will be splashed.
On the declining population of Venice.
Everyone, from Morris to de Mosto, comments on, and rather mourns, the decline in the population of Venice. It’s a hard city to live in, particularly for the elderly. I saw a small example of the decline yesterday – a group of undertakers discharging a coffin on the Zattere, headed for Santa Maria d’ Rosario, or maybe Sant’ Agnese. They did not look like boat people, fumbling with the mooring lines, and the boat was a standard, craft, albeit pretty well painted – but not black. Once it was well secured, a hydraulic lift raised the coffin, they loaded it onto a trolley, and wheeled it along the Fondamenta. Next stop, the Isola di San Michelle, for a ten year stint.
While the true Venetian population may number only 60,000, there is a vibrant student population, moving from campus to campus around Dorsoduro and San Polo. The bars in Campo Santa Marghherita are a popular stop along the route, and while many head to Piazzale Roma at the end of the day for buses to Mestre, many of them live locally – we see them in the supermarkets. At school finishing time, the streets buzz with kids. They are not dying out.
Another population that is not moving away from Venice any time soon – but which would certainly prefer – reside in the area beside the Fondamenta di Santa Maria Maggiore in Santa Croce, and beside the Fondamenta delle Convertite on Giudecca. These are the male and female prisons respectively. Visiting days, on Saturdays and Sundays, sees quite a press of people, plus not a few police boats lined up along Rio de Santa Maria Maggiore, and one hears a rather coarse Italian being spoken by people waiting to visit inmates, and a cigerette smoke haze which may well summon the fire boats. A wide range of clothing, and maybe the better dressed are visiting white collar crims.
If you are going to have prisons, have the them near town, so that inmates are not completely isolated from the society they are expected to rejoin. In Australia, we build them 100 miles out of town, and then wonder why prisoners are un-socialised on release. Build them in town, so that everyone has to take responsibility for the fact that no better solution can be found than to throw people into prison. Even the prison hulks, cast off vessels from Nelson’s fleet, were in the Thames.
A Day Trip on the Lagoon.
The Lagoon is getting under my skin. Seriously under my skin. The guide books mostly treat it as no more than a fish bowl to keep Venice afloat along with Murano and Burano, treating the Lido as a barrier to restrain the Adriatic, lagoon as acquarium. There’s a dearth of information, at least in English. I’ve searched the book shops, and found little. There’s one good one, a heap of helicopter photos, with a one page explanation per island, but it is still rather lacking. Maybe an Admiralty chart would be more forthcoming, and I’ll have to search one out.
So, in the absence of books, we circumnavigated the northern lagoon. We took ship to Mazzorbo, overland traverse by foot to Burano, traghetto over to Torcello and back, and then continued the voyage via Actv to Treporti, where we found a bar and bus stop, plus a large sculpture for Fred and Ginger, a pair of monster bronze shoes. Embarked on a non-Actv vessel serving the No 13 Linea, to Punta Vela and Chiesa where we trans-shipped, for some reason. Continued with vessel flagged to the Actv, via Capannone and Vignole, then Faro and Colonnia on Murano, and thence to Venice. The best fun, for 14 Euro.
The islands of the lagoon have not always been so accessible. The guide books from the Edwardian era speak of unspoilt beaches, making it sound, as Morris puts it, that a sleeping bag and bag of trade beads might be required. Now the Actv ferries run like clockwork, as did our little voyage.
The channels in the lagoon are very narrow, and one would leave them at one’s peril. I believe the lagoon has an area of one thousand square miles, and an average depth of one and a half metres. It’s like navigating in a puddle, with slight ditches. The channels are marked by tripods of piles driven into the mud, and these tripods, bricole, are one of the most evocative sights of Venice, for me. There must be thousands of them, one book says 20,000 of them, and sometimes there is a shrine attached to them, or a photo of a loved one. Venice seems to be made of brick and stone, but in a way it is made of water. Water provided the ramparts, the moat, the entire reason for Venice’s existence. Without the bricole, one is truly lost, as Pepin’s fleet discovered in 809.
Channel maintenance is continual – Venetians trying to avoid the progressing silting that brought Torcello down one thousand years ago, an early victim of environmental change. There are barges with excavators working all over the lagoon, and also heavy civil works being done along the island on San Erasmo, which look as though they are intended for recreational boating, maybe bringing some economic activity to this island. There have been multi-million trees cut down to build Venice – 1.2 million alone under the Church of the Salute, and this tree cutting must have caused so much extra run-off and silting of the lagoon. No wonder that Torcello got silted out of existence. Maybe Venice has been a victim of its own ambition and endeavour.
Torcello boasts the oldest building in the lagoon, from aboout 550 AD, and at one time had a population of some 50,000, its own Bishop and Council, not unlike the Grand Council of Venice. The mosaics in the cathedral there are quite stunning, and the campanile is clouded with scaffolding, so work is being done. It is rather depopulated now, with residents numbering thirty souls, but with one of Venice’s more exclusive hotels, the Locanda Cipriani, which has housed QEII and other notables. Maybe security is easier there – half a dozen guys with shot guns could protect the entire establishment. It is pretty quiet there this time of year, and nothing is open. Which is nice – it seemed like a day in the country, walking around on un-paved ground, seeing fields where artichokes have been harvested. The guys restoring the Ponte Diavolo, the Devils Bridge, took the traghetto back to Burano for lunch – it’s only a five minute trip, and these men expect a glass of something to be served with lunch – they don’t do a thermos of tea and sandwiches.
The house numbering on Torcello follows the Venetian practice of sequential numbers, but not numbering every door. The highest number we sighted was 34, a coincidence as we live at No 34, in Melbourne.
Art and Art Galleries.
We visited the Gallerie dell’Accademia today, and I was keen to see Paolo Callaria’s (otherwise known as Veronese) painting of “The Feast at the House of Levi”. It is truly enormous, and most detailed. It was originally commissioned as a “Last Supper”, and did not meet with approval on its unveiling in 1573. It contains a wealth of bizarre detail, a Salvador Dali Last Supper, except lacking folded watches. The Inquisitors did not approve of a painting that incorporated “dogs, buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarves and other such absurdities”, accusing him of allowing himself “the same licence as poets and madmen”, and gave him three months to fix the thing. The sessions must have been a hoot – on being asked “What signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding”, Veronese replied, “He is a servant who has a nose bleed from some accident”. Very dead pan, and the said servant is on the staircase at lower left, bloodied kerchief in hand, and looking sorry for himself.
Veronese must have retained a top silk, a smart attourney, a Jesuit or a Dominican, the sorts of guys who can determine, exactly, how many angels can dance on a head of a pin. Their advice was, in essence, Look, just change the title, call it “The Feast at the House of Levi”, and if you get any heat, hit them with Luke, Chapter 5, “And Levi made Him a great feast in his own house”. Which Veronese duly did, end of issue. As they say, the Devil can quote scripture for his own purpose. The painting is a riot.
Other paintings there give a most detailed view of Venetian life, including a large crowd scene from about 1550, which contains, in one corner, an advertisement. “House to let, 5 ducats per annum.”
The provenance of the works makes interesting reading. “Taken to Paris in 1790, retreived in 1820“or “From the main altar at church so-and-so, since demolished.” I believe Venice had 200 churches, but maybe this is not quite correct, maybe it is “Venice has had 200 churches, but not all at the same time”, along with several synagogues and a mosque. Our local cinema in Campo Santa Margherita is built in a church (the campanile still stands). The Church of San Aperniian was put up for auction: it failed to make its reserve price, and was pulled down to make way for the statue in Campo Manin, which surely fronts Venice’s second most ugly building. A Palladian church vanished beneath the rails of the station. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore now forms part of the prison.
The same applies to campaniles – some survive, some are converted to other uses – such as electricity sub-stations, there is one near the Rialto, some fall and are re-constructed, some just dissapear. Mazzorbo retains one from its former five, surrounded by grape vines, with no adjacent church and with a remnant small chapel converted to public conveniences – free, I might add, surely a miracle in Venice. In the sixteenth century, there were more than 200 campaniles in Venice, a veritable forest.
The campanile of Sant’ Angelo fell three times before they finally gave in and demolished it, the tower of San Georgio dei Greci leaned from its inception, and has caused concern since 1816. It serves as a great photo opportunity from the Ponte de la Pieta on the Rive degli Schiavoni, and must be digitally captured when it falls – there are photographers there all the time. The San Marco campanile fell and was re-constructed, while, in 1515, the campanile of the Oratory of the Virgin, near San Giobbe, was trashed overnight by the monks of the adjacent monastery. They were so infuriated by the ringing of the bells they flattened it: they had to rebuild it at their own expense. I took a look – it’s near the Ponte de Tri Archi in Canneregio, and I couldn’t see where the new brickwork had been coursed in – but after all, it has been 500 years, and things weather.
The list to starboard on the Carmini campanile was solved by boring holes into the brick on three sides of the campanile, driving in wooden wedges, and then eating the wedges with acid, allowing the campanile to settle into the cavities. It’s been standing for 450 years since this treatment, and the responsible – and, one must allow, most brave – engineer is buried in the church. The campanile of Sant’ Angelo was less fortunate. A Bolognese, one Aristotle, undertook to correct the lean, and they do know about towers in Bologna. His method was secret, but involved excavating the foundations, and the lean was corrected. Until the scaffoding was removed, and the campanile collapsed. Aristotle fled to Moscow, where he built part of the Kremlin. Sounds like the sort of thing that would have happened in Queensland 25 years ago, commissioned by Bjelke Petersen, sponsor of the car that ran on water.
In 1902, the campanile of St Toma was in such poor condition that it was demolished, and a small belfry erected beside the church. One can still see the set of three bells (what’s the collective noun for bells? A peal, a chorus, I don’t know), but I’ve yet to hear them ring. It still stands, with sloping stone let into the corners to discourage gentlemen from doing un-gentlemanly things, while a real estate agent occupies the bell ringer’s house.
I sighted some sobering monuments in Canneragio, in the Ghetto, a sequence, a story.
Monument No 1. A tablet, let into the wall, generally detailing the things that Jews were allowed to do in Venice, and providing for a reward for anyone denouncing people (i.e. Jews) for blasphemy. The reward to be funded from the prpoerty of the blasphemer, punishment fully detailed, secret denunciations invited. It is dated 26 September 1704, but I find it hard to believe that such persecution was still happening at that time, but two hundred ant thirty years later it certainly was. Every Jewish child in the Ghetto would have understood fully the significance of that tablet on the wall. The restrictions on Jews only ceased in 1797, with the arrival of Napoleon, barely two centuries ago. The Lion of Venice has been hammered off this tablet, and I can imagine the enthusiasm with which this little piece of civic vandalism was conducted.
Monument No 2. A tablet, listing the names of Venetian Jews who died in the 1915-18 war, patriotic Italians, who happened to be Jewish, and supported Italy in spite of Monument No 1.
Monument No 3. A tablet, immediately opposite No 2, erected by the remants of the Venetian Jewish community, abhoring the deaths of 200 Venetian Jews, 8000 Italian Jews and six million European Jews in the Holocaust. The Venetian Jews branded as undesirables, in spite of the patriots named on Monument No 2.
Monument No 4. An apology by the Mayor of Venice, in Hebrew, Italian and English, to the 200 Venetian Jews who were carted out of Venice on the fifth of December, 1943, and the seventeenth of August, 1944. Signed by the Mayor, Mario Rigo, and I have to find out when he was Mayor. I anticipate it will be well after the erection of Monument No 3, but an apology none the less.
Monument No 5. A structure made of horizontal timber boards, bound with vertical steel straps. The names of the 200 Venetian Jewish victims are engraved on the boards. The whole effect is of a cattle truck, and is most profound - I spent a time reading the names, Elena Serini, aged 14, Scandiani Diena, aged 81. I have no idea what their story is, and possibly this is the only monument they will ever have.
Monument No 6 is not meant to be a monument at all, but I can’t help but see it in the sequence. It is a small kiosk in the Ghetto, to contain the three or four security guards on duty there all the time. That’s a monument to intolerance, and can too easily lead one back to Monument No 1.
Thing No 1.
In Campo Zan Degola there is a carved stone head on a tablet mounted on the church wall – it’s just to the left of No 1710, Santa Croce. It commemorates one Biagio Cargnio, Venice’s counterpart to Sweeney Todd, a suasage maker. A workman found a child’s finger with nail attached in his bowl of stew. Biagio confessed, he was tortured, beheaded and quartered. Five hundred years later, there’s still a tablet showing this bodyless head. I imagine that this little stone tablet is of great assistance to Venetian mothers when applying discipline to unruly children.
But he is immortalised, too – the Riva di Biasio, alongside the Grand Canal, opposite and downstream from the Station remembers him. When his quartered body parts were put on public display for public edification, they were hung from the Ponte dei Squartai, the Bridge of the Quartered Men over the Rio del Tolentini, and his hooded executioner lived, incognito and very quietly, in the Calle della Testa, the Street of the Head, near the Rialto.
When you walk around this town, you can't escape all these associations – Peggy Guggenheim's gallery is close to the Ponte de Fromager – the Bridge of Cheese. Smile, say “Cheese”. Snap.
Thing No 2.
Paolo Sarpi, my favourite Venetian philosopher, who told the truth not to everyone, angered the Vatican. (He also discovered the contraction of the iris, so there you go, he can't have been all bad.) He was the Official Religious Adviser to the Doges during the anti-Rome period, a job which might be seen as having temporary tenure at best. The Vatican beleved in a “Crash through or crash” method at the time, and hired assassins to nail Sarpi - one of them was reputed to be a Scot – and the attempt was made near the church of Santa Fosca. He was left for dead with a dagger in his cheek, but recovered, and hung the dagger in his monastery church, as an offering for his miraculous escape – after the dagger had been tested for poison on a dog and a chicken. Doubtless Sarpi dined out for months on the tale of “Hey, did I ever tell you about these two guys who tried to kill me – one of them was wearing a skirt”. There's a fine statue of him in the Campo San Fosca, erected three hundred years after his death, which was on 15 January, 1623, hopefully from natural causes.
Thing No 3.
Another curiosity are the paintings by Carpaccio in the Scuola di San Georgio degli Schiavoni. Carpaccio painted a cycle of paintings detailing how St George maimed the dragon, slaughtered it in front of an admiring crowd, then Saint Jerome leading a lion into his monastery to have a thorn removed from his foot, and Saint Jerome being inspired in his study. The cycle of paintings is a riot of detail and humour.
In the painting where St George mains the dragon, the ground is littered with body parts, and St George’s horse looks considerably more fierce than the dragon. The dragon looks particularly sad, the sort of dragon that might be found in a book of fairy tales. Or maybe the kind of dragon that Charles Darwin discovered on the Galapogos islands, a dragon not feeling too happy being dragged into St. George's celestial limelight.
As Saint George kills the dragon, many people look on, in a docile fashion. Not so St George’s failthful steed, recognisable by its harness. The horse is engaged in bashing another horse with its head, while the bashed horse rears up. I find it as almost as great a focus as the dragon and the dragon appears to be saying, “George, George, if I promised to behave a little better, eat a few less people, could we stop this right now. Please, please, pretty please”. George looks as though he might be amenable to this suggestion.
The third painting shows St Jerome leading a lion into his monastery, to remove a thorn from the lion’s foot – maybe St Jerome is patron saint to vetinerary surgeons. St Jerome walks on a crutch, the lion is particularly docile, and Carpaccio may have modelled the lion on his own tabby cat, with touches of golder retriever. This has not stopped the monks from running away in fear, including one monk who is keeping up with the pace on a peg leg. Other people in the painting are not disturbed – fear of lions would appear to be a monkly thing only. Domestic touches flourish – there are washing lines strung from the monastery windows, and the livestock on the monastery green do not appear in the least disturbed by the commotion.
The final Carpaccio shows St Jerome being inspired, gazing out his window. A small dog, a Jack Russell maybe, gazes at him expectantly, willing St Jerome to leave this inspiration kick and throw a ball for him.
Thing No 4.
The Cathedral of San Pietro in Castello is about as far East from San Marco you can go in Venice without wetting your feet – but it was the seat of the Bishop until 1797, although religious affairs were concentrated at St Marks – the Doges were always going to keep spiritual matters firmly under state control. During the period of the great interdict in the early 1600's, when Venice and the Vatican had a major power struggle, a priest, wary of Venetian pride, advised that he'd celebrate Mass when the Holy Ghost told hime to get on with it. The response from the Republic was that the Holy Ghost had already inspired them – to hang anyone who refused, so would he kindly proceed. That's the way things were – the Bishop in his lofty seat in Castello, the Republic conducting its spiritual affairs in St.Marks. The Bishop's throne in the Cathedral in Castello is said to contain a stone from St Peter's throne in Antioch – it's also carved with lines from the Holy Koran, but I don't read Arabic. Given the Phrophet Muhammed was born around 500 AD, and that He wrote the Koran, and that by then St Peter was long in the panoply of Saints, I can't quite see how that could be. But it is an excellent story, demonstrating how Venice's face was turned more towards the East than the West (and Venice's back was certainly turned towards that generally despised Western adversary, the Vatican).
The first door to the left when you enter the adjacent monastery cloister is Castello No 1. The cloister has a somewhat spooky feeling, quite lonely although I believe it has been used as accomodation for Petty Officers at the adjacent Naval College. Now it's pretty well all shuttered up, with some fishing gear stored in it. We're slowly finding No 1 for each Sestieri, but Lou's not about to give up on No 1, Santa Croce. No.1 Castello is a little too out of the way for her tastes.
Thing No 5.
There are a pair of stone lions on the base of the campanile of San Polo. One lion appears to be fighting with a fish. The other is quite content holding the head of Doge Marin Faliero, beheaded for treason in 1355 on the steps of his palace. He was Doge for only eight months, and made the profound mistake, when coming ashore in the Piazzetta to take up office, of walking between the two columns. His Doge-ship was doomed from the start – it is REALLY IS UNLUCKY TO WALK BETWEEN THOSE COLUMNS – DO NOT SAY THAT YOU HAVE NOT BEEN WARNED! He is the only Doge without a portrait in the Doge's Palace – in its place is a black cloth with the inscription “This is the place of Marini Falieri, decapitated for treason”. So there.
There is a pair of pink marble columns on the portico of the Doge's Palace, facing the Piazzetta, and the election of a new Doge was announced between these columns, the announcement taking the form “So-and- so is now Doge. Get over it”. Fallieri's head and torso were exhibited for public edification for a day between these columns, before he was buried with his head between his legs, in a stone coffin, which subsequently saw duty as a cattle trough on the mainland. Such is life.
Thing No 6.
In the Naval Museum there are relief maps, made prior to Venetian military action against various fortifications, such as Crete or Corfu, maps created as a visual aid to military planning, gun trajectories, weak points in fortifications. The same relief maps are to be found on the facade of the church of Santa Maria Giglio. The facade records the military activities of a Venetian family, the Barbaros, and is the ego wall to end them all. It even shows a relief map of Rome, complete with Colluseum and St Peters, and a relief map of Spoletto, which is accurate, to my memory at least. Saint Peter's has been worn quite smooth by finger touching.
Thing No 7.
The Basillica of St Mark burned in 976 (well before the advent of the fire service just across the Rio Ca' Foscari from the Foscari Campus). Bad luck, one would have thought, except that the fire was set in order to burn out the last of the Candiano Doges, Pietro IV. Venetians were not happy with Pietro's policies, attempting to push Venetians into a feudal way of life, restricting the slave trade and increasing taxation, repudiating his wife Giovanna, sending her off to a convent, and making a further political marriage with the sister of the Marquis of Tuscany, of all people. Plus, Otto I of Germany had supplied a force of foreign mercenaries to the Doge, with the Doge starting to appear like an emperor, not a servant of the Republic.
Sufficient reasons for an insurgency – the Venetians were seriously Not Happy.
The Doge's palace was a defended fort at that time, not the lace confection that we see today, and the insurgents decided to burn it down – but for kindling they had to use some 300 wooden houses surrounding it, and so they went up in smoke. The Basillica was collateral damage, as the military are wont to say, and the Doge and his son were murdered and their bodies put on display near the Rivoalto.
Tricky job being Doge, one would do well to have one's life insurance well funded – and a fast boat with loyal, well paid, crew immediately to hand in case of aggro.
Sunday 1 February, 2009, and we have a week to go. It's snowing – again – and we're a bit over it. We think that a sunny Venice would be nice. OK, so go in August, and stand in line for three hours to see the Doge's Palace, or cross the Rialto bridge. But we like a Venice that we can walk around in without feeling intolerably crowded, so we had better just get over the cold.
So after eight weeks, how does it feel? We do feel connected, in a tiny way, but maybe as connected as outsiders can be. I've enjoyed a “guide book free” experience, discovering the city in reverse – see something, say a stone head between the paws of a carved lion – and then find out what it is all about. We've wandered, with no particular destination in mind, finding odd things, an indoor skittle alley, the old gas works, the place where water was piped ashore in Venice in 1848, the prison, boat yards, the occasional church or notable sight. We've watched garbage boats, cranes lifting loads, guys driving mooring piles into the bed of a canal, mothers collecting little children from school, people restoring ceilings. We've been elbowed by the boys leaving the Polytech in Cannaregio, given directions to beffuddled visitors in Italian and English, stroked cats. We've spoken broken Italian and broken English to the girls in our local bar, walked through every door we fancied that looked even slightly inviting.
I'll quote from “Venice is a Fish” by Tiziano Scarpa – he puts it very well. “The first and only itinerary I suggest to you has a name. It's called: at random. Subtitle: aimlessly. ............... Getting lost is the only place worth going to.”
We've done a lot of that.
I think I've learned something of how a community can work, when it has to live within itself. It's fashionable to brand Venice as a theme park, a kind of Disney creation, but we've found a Venice that exists for itself. We've found the diversity, shop keepers who are charming, others who seem chronically grumpy, no matter what they are selling. It really is the luxury of time, being able to go to places twice, because if you can go somewhere twice, there's the start of a relationship. Venetians are surprised at how long we've stayed here – I believe the average visitor stays for a couple of nights – but the only reason that we've stayed for eight weeks is that we could not stay longer.
I think that Venice 101 should be a compulsory subject for urban planners, the subject to be taken on site, in Venice. I live in Melbourne, a city of 2.5 million, an eighty kilometre traverse from one side to the other. It's enormous, with traffic and communication problems that increase exponentially as it grows. The normal suburban house sits on a quarter acre plot of land or thereabouts. It is a recipe for urban sprawl, and car ownership becomes mandatory – even the layout of streets renders walking almost impossible, the streets being arranged as cul de sacs off cul de sacs off cul de sacs. It can take a walk of half a kilometer to reach the house over the back fence.
In Venice, the residents of East Castello have to leave their car – or bus or train – about four kilometres from their homes, and either walk or take a ferry. It sounds hard, but either the walk or ferry ride will allow them to meet people, to socialise, to reinforce their community. (It keeps them fit, too – you don't see too many tubby Venetians.) You can't get that on the freeway, or when you drive into your garage via the remote controlled door, walk into the house direct from the garage. Even people that live on Mazzorbo are closer to the action, in spite of a 45 minute ferry ride, than many people in Melbourne – and the ferries run all night.
Visualise an ideal community. People know one another, people look out for each other's children, there's action in the streets, and the streets are safe. People can get to where they want to go on foot, or by decent public transport. Houses are modest but adequate, and generally not pretentious. Shops are local, and traders and customers know each other. The community is pretty much free of crime, public drunkeness does not happen, air pollution in minimal. Universities lend colour and life, night clubs don't exist. There is an equal number of bookshops and shops selling televisions. Life expectancy is high, and there's good standard of medical care.
Sounds like Venice to me, and the whole thing happened by accident.
But also, visualise this community. Rentals are steep, everything has to be carried by hand, drainage is a massive problem, the infrastructure is stressed, street excavations are done by hand, tourists make the place difficult for five months a year, there is little or no true industry, and where the resident population is both declining and ageing. Access for disabled is poor at best, and there is no way to correct this without destroying the city. The housing stock has a mean age of some hundreds of years, and much is in need of expensive repairs or renovation that would destroy the character of the city. Costs are high, because of transport by boat, rates are high because all municipal works, like garbage collection and street cleaning, are costly to undertake.
That's Venice too, and the existence of Venice is almost a contradiction in terms.
I work as an engineer, and at the end of each project we attempt to do a “Lessons Learned” session, what worked for the project, what was a really bad idea. (Sometimes the really bad ideas were so bad that nobody wants to talk about them, and often the lessons learned get forgotten. Too often I have to say “I tried this, and it was a total, unmitigated disaster”. But we try.)
So, Venetian Lessons Learned.
Visit Venice in Winter. Sure, it's cold, but there are no crowds. We have never stood in line for anything. If there are acqua alta problems, invest in some rubber boots, which will cost about 25 Euro, and well worth it.
Maps – Buy a Hallwag 1:5,500 map of Venice – it has a good street finding index in it, the best I've found. It is probably too bulky cart around with you, but shows pretty well every street you would need, along with hotels, churches, traghettos.
The Moleskine City Guide for Venice is good. It's blank, except for a good map, street finder, waterbus map and some useful info. It is a guide book you have to write yourself, and is pocket sized. I don't leave home without it. Beware the street finder in it – for example, the Calle della Donna Oneste – the “Street of the Honest Woman”, which I wanted to find, is indexed as “Onesta Donna, Calle della”, so can take a bit of interpreting. The map is a bit scant on detail for major attractions, such as various Scuole. Moleskines cost 15 Euro in Venice, but you'd want one before you leave home.
Walking – you will do lots. A bit of a standard circuit for us is San Barnaba – San Marco – Rialto – San Polo – San Barnaba. I wore a pedometer one day – it's 6500 steps, about 5 kilometres, plus the bridges. So good shoes are a must – I know it is stating the obvious. As the crow flies, it's 6 km return from San Barnaba to San Pietro in Castello, probably more like 9 km with the zigs and zags.
Often you'll enter a church or whatever, and find it scaffolded out. Relish it. It would have been the same 500 years ago when the monument to some notable, Doge or rich guy was being erected. All these edifices have a life, and it goes on. Take the time to check out what's being done behind the screens, as it's Venice at work. The movement of the campanile of the Frari is being measured to one hundredth of a millimetre – and if they keep on doing that, our great grandchildren will be able to admire it. Take the time to read the science and pure geniius behind the restoration work – it is the finese Italian engineering, and they know all about brilliant structures. Venice is more than Tintorettos, and the Romans, after all, did invent concrete.
Breakfast is reputed to be the most important meal of the day, which is why many Italians take a slug of grappa in their morning coffee, and not much else. It's fun to have breakfast as Venetians do. Walk into the bar, order a coffee, and help yourself to a croissant, a brioche, from the warm cabinet on the counter. It should cost no more than 3 Euro (2.10 at our local bar, the Ai Artisti in Campo San Barnaba). It gets you going in the morning, and it's fun to be out and about as shops are opening, street sweepers are hard at it, and the fish at the Rialto fish market is gleaming. Better than sitting in the hotel dining room, grazing the buffet breakfast, and if you go to the same bar each time, the staff will quickly get to know you. Cappucino is not taken after mid-day.
Lunch – bars do panini, little rolls with ham, cheese, whatever, which cost about 2 Euro. Good value with a spritz, which is sparkling Prosecco, soda and a slug of Campari or Aperol. They are more alcoholic than one would imagine. A spritz costs 2 Euro, and is the drink of choice here. Our postman has one with his morning coffee at precisely 10:00.
Pre-dinner drink – try the bar Arancina, near the Ca' Rezzonico, Calle Foscari, 5255 Doroduro. Finger food seems to be free, 2.00 for a spritz, and the barman is nice.
Supermarkets. Small change is a chronic problem in Italy, and if you hand over the correct money, you'll win a friend for life.
Language – will always be a problem. We've found the phrase “Sono Australiiano, piccolo Italiano” works wonders in shops. i.e. “We come from Australia, we don't have much Italian, so please make allowances for us”. It invariably brings a smile, sometimes it opens a conversation, sometimes it brings a reply in perfect English. The question, “Do you speak English” is uncomfortable at best, a complete barrier at worst.
Books. Where to start. I've had the benefit of nine or ten guide books here, because every previous resident of this apartment has left a book.
I've enjoyed the “Venice and the Veneto – the Rough Guide” by Jonathan Buckley. It integrates the history and the built environment most admirably, and can be very funny - try the report of the May 9th, 1997 taking of the campanile of St Marks by soldiers of The Most Serene Venetian Government, armed, the 1998 Rough Guide informs me at page 72, with “a sub-machine gun, a bottle of grappa, and a few sets of crisply laundered underwear”. Not a shot was fired in the subsequent storming of the campanile, but one caribineri reported that a revolutionary swore at him in Venetian dialect. The incident was sponsored by Umberto Bossi, leader of the Lega Nord, the League of the North, aiming to create the Republic of Padania (where DO they get those names). Bossi's 2IC, one Robert Maroni, described the gang as a group of nut cases who had missed Carnivale by a couple of months. The editor of the Venetian rag reported that “The situation here is critical. There is an air of revolt”.
The National Geographic Traveller series – Venice – takes a more sober view to the city, and is good. Their maps work well, and the guide was most recently published in 2001. The odd inaccuracy, like “The Da Mosto family died out in the 16th century”, which would come as a surprise to Francesco (of whom more below), detracts in no way from the book, and it contains some really quirky information, which one would expect from a six year resident of Venice. Check out the statues on the facade of the law courts, just on the San Polo side of the Ponte Rialto, the first statue in from the corners, facing the bridge. You can see them well from the first few rises of the stairs on the bridge. The explanation is somewhat risque, so you'll have to look it up for yourself – pages 58 / 59 refer.
The Venice Tourist Board does a good little publication, sights in various areas. It's worth carrying.
Rick Steve's Venice 2005 contains gems such as “Venice is one of the cradles of the art form known as opera”. Rick Steve is known as the writer of a guide book that has more than a few incorrect statements – like the Bellini “was invented here by Hemingway in 1948” in reference to Harry's bar, and that the present Rialto bridge is the third.
There was a pontoon bridge in 1180, timber bridges in 1264 and 1310 (which sadly collapsed in 1444), so it's actually the fourth. I doubt that the foundations extend for 650 feet on each side as he states – this would take them clean under the law courts, church of San Giacomo Apostolo, (founded in 421, 428 or 540, and surviving the fire of 1514, so pre-dating the Rialto Bridge by about one thousand years), and finish up in the fish market. On the other side of the Grand Canal, the foundations would have extended through Campo San Bartolomeo, through the internet cafe, under the Rio dela Fava, almost to the steps of the church of Santa Maria de Fava. He's saying that the bridge plus foundations are three times the length of the Piazza – quote him if you like. The merchants of the Rialto would never have tolerated such disruption,and the architect would never won the design cempetition.
The arcade of shops, which the travel book writer known as Rick Steve says are to strengthen the bridge, were a later addition – you can see works of art in Venice of the bridge ex arcade. But he's good for the occasional laugh. He brands the area west of the Grand Canal (San Polo, Dorsoduro and Santa Croce) as where “real Venetians” live, and one wonders what the residents of Castello, San Marco and Cannaregio would say to that – maybe they are not real Venetians.
He is mute on the Arsenale, the seat of Venetian military power for near a thousand years, but then, it's a fair stroll from the Piazza.
Mr Steve uses some quaint language, for example, in reference to the Doges, “Many others just put on their funny hat and accepted their role as figurehead and ceremonial ribbon cutter. Most were geezers, elected in their seventies and committed to preserving the Venetian traditions”. Tell that to Doge Dandolo, invader of Constantinople. Maybe Mr Steve does not indulge overly in checking his facts – his book is full of errors.
He does says one very true thing, though. “If there is a negative aspect to the image Italians have of Americans, it is that we are big, loud, aggressive, impolite, rich, and a bit naive”. and “... they nearly always afford us individual travellers all the warmth we deserve”. With his approach, the warmth Rick receives may be a little frosty. Good book for the dedicated sight seeing tourist.
But the best books aren't guide books at all, and you don't need to be guided anyway. You can't see all the big sights no matter what, and art-fatigue is a real health hazard. Just go with the flow.
Venice, by Jan Morris, is brilliant. First written in 1960, and updated a couple of times, most recently in about 1988 I think. Buy a copy and fill it with post-it notes, against things like the Ponte Donna Onesta. It is a good read, as they say, a story with Venice as the main player. Although written in 1960, it still works. Morris sent me off in quest of the Bridge of the Honest Woman.
“Venice is a Fish” by Tiziano Scarpa, who is a Venetian, is good. It's a quick read – three or four hours would see you through it, and helps you to understand Venetians as well as Venice.
Venice by Francesco da Mosto is excellent, it's published by BBC books. Francesco made a TV series called Venice, which we watched on DVD, and it's good, I'd recommend it. He can make some claim to family fame – the Da Mosto Pallazzio still stands on the Grand Canal, covered in scaffold, right hand side, 300 yards upstream from the Rialto. And he's descended from Alvise Da Mosto, born in 1432, who was commissioned by Henry III of England (Henri III of France) to explore the west coast of Africa, discovering the Cape Verde islands. He weaves his family all through the book, providing a thread to the narrative, and there were both Da Mosto heroes and not a few villians. We saw Francesco's house and speed boat in Venice, but not the man himself. He has also done a book, “Francesco's Kitchen”, which is both history and recipes, and fun. We've used it a lot – razor clams, crabs, spaghetti with clams, artichoke.
I read “Beware of Falling Angels” by Berendt a couple of years ago, and it certainly gives an insight into Society in Venice, a slightly bitchy Society, I might mention, with the narrative strung together around the fire that destroyed La Fenice, the opera house. (“La Fenice” means “The Phoenix” - make sense of that.)
Novels set in Venice are fun, and I've read a few detective novels set here. They can give a real feel for the city.
All I could say is read heaps, and don't bring a guide book with you. Bring a sense of adventure, that's all. And a map. With scribbles on it.
A sort of summing up.
This narrative runs to about 30,000 words, and it's still a work in progress. But the progress will have to suffer something of a hiatus. I know when I came, I intended to write, but I did not have much idea what I'd write about. Just let your fingers do the walking, I suppose, and see what ends up on the page. I certainly never intended to do a trip report, a diary, a “we arrived on th 8:16 which was seven minutes late, and found our hotel after 28 minutes. Lunch cost 5.87 Euro, but was good value”. I don't work like that, other than logging distance pedalled and average speed when I cycled around Australia (324 km in a 24 hour period, for the record, Katherine to Darwin). So I have done a kind of written ramble around Venice.
In Venice, the days have drifted past in a kind of historical haze, punctuated with coffees at our local, acqua alta, treasure hunts for odd things like Barbiero's head on a plaque (or platter), or Venice's narrowest street. There's been no big, significant events, it has just been a most delightful sequence of little events, small discoveries like the water colour painter that includes no gondolas in his scenes of Venice, or finding the church where they shot the elephant (San Antonin's, now sadly closed).
We ate at the Osteria “san Barnaba”, Calle Lunga san Barnaba, Dosoduro 2736. It's small – seats about 16 people, operated by a couple, and the menu is written in Italian only. However, the proprietor speaks excellent English, and steps you through the menu. We had smoked leg of goose as an anti-pasto, rabbit cooked in a casserole, and calves liver Venetian style, which is a standard here, along with grilled artichoke and a bottle of good local wine. The tab came to about 70 Euro, and this is probably the best meal we have eaten in Venice – it was great. We regret that we did not go there weeks ago, because then we would have visited there again. Closed on mercoledi and giovedi mattina.
We can't stop. We've discovered Tiepolo (Oh, derr!)
There's a great Tiepolo in the National Gallery in Melbourne, “The Banquet of Cleopatra”, and it's the finest work in the gallery, the absolute pride of the gallery. There's an occasional Tiepolo in Venice too, and we hit on them, almost by chance, in the Church of San Polo. A “Stations of the Cross” that reads like a film strip in fourteen frames, and a Resurrection that shows a most vigorous Christ, absolutely leaping towards Heaven, freed of all Earthly shackles. That's no passive ascension, being borne up on clouds, or on the wings of putti, or by some Heavenly thread. The eye is drawn to the red cloak of one of only two figures remaining on the ground, and he looks stunned, amazed, transfixed. Which is what Tiepolo was trying to say, I feel. It is a most emotive work.
The other fun thing with Tiepolo is that the same faces keep on turning up in his paintings, the same models. A man who attended Cleopatra's Banquet in the Melbourne painting is also in attendance in the Third Station of the Cross in San Polo. He's got a particularly cruel face, and also appears in a work in the Correr Museum. Tiepolo used relatives, brothers, his children as models – but I hope that particular man was no relative, or otherwise count the silver if you invite him to dine.
So we're tracking Tiepolo and his models all over Venice – there's a small problem, though – there's Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696 to 1770, his son, Giandomenico, 1727 to 1804, and Lorenzo Tiepolo, 1736 to 1776, and we are not sure how they all fit in. Bit of Wikipedia to unearth that, I think.
I become obsessed with finding the unusual things. Venice is reputed to have some 460 bridges, give or take a score or two, and only one has no parapet. Even the Rialto has a parapet of shops to prevent unwary tourists from taking a dunking. The fist fights on the Pont de Pugni happened in the pre-parapet days, and I guess the Republic saw fit to add parapets to all – well, almost all, bridges. The one without a parapet is over the Rio de San Felice, off the Fondamenta ditto, in Cannaregio, and I sought it out. It makes a fun photograph, and you've a fair chance of getting a photo without one of those ever present ubiquitous damn gondolas in frame.
Some things just leap off the wall at you, sort of, once you pause. Like the plaque on the wall that we've walked past and never paused to read, dated 1667, in the Campiello beside St Toma.
I've been mentioning the Ponte di Donna Onesta – the Bridge of the Honest Woman. “The only honest woman in Venice”, a wry husband remarked to a friend one day, “is that woman there”, pointing to a little stone figure carved on a wall above a bridge, according to Morris. The Bridge of the Honest Woman is at the end of Calle ditto, right beside the Trattoria Donna Onesta, and yes, there's a stone figure of a woman's face let into the wall. It is high on the left as you cross towards the Frari, about the size of a modest Carnivale mask. History recorded in a stone face.
So our days have been circimscribed, in some fashion, by the outrageously ordinary. We've seen the scaffold come down from No 2680 Calle Lunga revealing a nicely rendered yellow-ish facade, the drainage works in Rio terra Carita get finished, shops close for holidays and re-open. Bumped into a pleasant barman from near San Marco at the Asian grocery near Rialto, buying food for his girlfriend who is Japanese (he's English), met up with a monster ginger tortoise-shell cat who lives on the window sill of an antique shop in Calle Capeller, and stroked it, as does everyone else who walks past. It arches its back and purrs, and must be the best known cat in all of Venice. We've watched the antique restorer opposite the cat finish off the bow fronted four drawer chest with mother of pearl inlay, and move onto a wooden crucifix and replace some veneer on a Roccoco piece, most delicate work. He wears a dustcoat, collar and tie to work.
The work on No 2686 proceeds slowly, and they've hung the new doors. It looks like it will be a shop of some sort, not a bar because there's no plumbing. We'll just have to come back and find out. We've seen the Arancina bar finish its fit out and open, and had time to make friends with the owner and another barman, and seen the Pane e Vino bar open up the street, but it's got a wide screen TV and advertises Turin vs Milan, 14:30 so we are unlikely to patronise it. I've observed boats coming and going at the squero, gondolas being pulled out for anti fouling and a nice black paint job, but more often, everyday work boats being slipped for work. Tiny happenings in the great scheme of the Cosmos, but they make us feel part of a city that is alive.
We've seen the shops go from Christmas, to New Year and now Carnivale, and swim wear replace winter clothes, and we've seen the sun advance a little each day. Confetti is being thrown about by children, until their mothers get grumpy and say “Basta!”, “Enough, Finish”. We've attempted to circumnavigate the fourth column of the Doge's Palace facing St Marks Basin, starting at the Adam and Eve corner. Try it – you'll tumble off towards the basin. Try any other column and you'll make it.
The longer we stay here, the more Venice seems like a country town. Yes, the tourist industry keeps it going, and without visitors the economy would collapse. But wherever there is something that people want to see or experience, then some sort of facility will be built to service them. Ularu in Central Aus exists because people want to come and view a (very) large rock. Whistler exists because people want to slide down hills with planks strapped to their feet, Euro-Disney and all the other synthetic theme parks exist because people want to see stuff. Venice existed because it had wealth beyond comprehension, and that wealth has left the legacy that we come to see today. It's more than a tourist town, it's no theme park, not Hollywood or the Great Barrier Reef, not a Dubai on the lagoon or a Las Vegas in the desert. It's Venice.
Without a doubt, we've had time, and yet more time, being able to do deja vu all over again, so to speak. Losing places, and then re-discovering them, and thinking “I know I've beeen here, but I can't remember when it was”.
Small diversion, a one act play in two scenes.
Scene 1, the Ai Artisti bar, Campo san Barnaba, mid-morning. Two Australian tourists enter, usual cappucini e' brioche, ciao, ciao in remarkably atrocious Italian. Conversation with one of the bar staff, and she gets to understand that we're leaving on Monday. She explains that she finishes at noon, won't be back before Monday, and so goodbye – all in Italian, rattled of like machine gun fire, while her colleague says to her something like “Cento per cento non capisco tutto”, which tourists take to mean, “They 100% can't understand what you are saying”, to which she laughs and says, “Si, si, capisco” - “Yep, I know thay can't understand what I'm saying, but I'm not about to talk English”. The Australian tourists are fully aware that she has actually quite good English, which she refuses to use, and makes no concessions to their broken – at best – Italian. She mostly pretends to not understand them when they speak English, and she knows that they know that she speaks English.
Scene 2, the Air Artisti bar, later that morning. Same Australan tourists enter with a small gift for the staff – some chocolates – and say that they'll be back in a couple of years. Same girl expresses her thanks in machine gun Italian, and seems a little touched as well. Tourists retire gracefully, but knowing they've had the last laugh – the card with the gift is written in poor Italian, but also in passable but somewhat emotive English. She'll have no alternative but to interpret it for her colleagues.
The sirens has just gone off – acqua alta of 110 cm, which means that, as they say, “Streets full of water”. Calle Lunga San Barnaba will have about three inches of water in an hour, so we'll pull on the rubber boots and head out for several spritzes.
We're in need of the crutch of alcohol, and we're playing “The Songs of Leonard Cohen”, aka “Songs to slash your wrists by”, free scalpel blade included with every CD.
We're going to miss Venice horribly.
The sirens went off again at 6:00 this morning, the double tone siren which indicates a tide of 120 cm. There is one small advantage to acqua alta – it sluices out all the remnant dog droppings, so we'll see nice clean streets. In the meantime, there are bags of garbage floating down the street like so many barges on the Rhine, and the sump pump in the ground floor apartment is churning away.
It's 10:00 now, Saturday 7th February, bucketing rain, and today is the first day of the pre-Carnivale carnival. It's just about high water right now, as I can't see any flow coming up out of the drains. In 20 minutes, I should be able to see debris heading south, tidal flow demonstrated by confetti heading into the drains and towards the lagoon, and I'll be able to sort one of the world's greater conundrums – does the flow go clockwise or counter clockwise down the plug hole in the Northern hemisphere. Counter clockwise, for the record.
The sound of heels on stone, the “dock dock dock” of footsteps has been replaced by the “splosh splosh splosh” of people in waders, including the postman who is right on time – he leaves his mail trolley at the linen shop every morning at 10:00, and has a coffee with the linen shop lady at Ai Artisti, and then continues his rounds. The mail must get through. The occasional non-local plods up the street, wearing garbage bags over their shoes – a less than totally effective way of maintaining dry feet. Garbage collection will be problematic, as the garbage boat won't pass under the Ponte San Barnaba for a couple of hours yet. Very high water really limits what boats can do – the operators must have a mental map of bridges vs. water levels.
We made it to Quadri's at the same time that the acqua alta hit about 110 cm. The Quadri people were more interested in attempting to keep things dry rather than serving a pair of idiots like us sitting in eight inches of water. So we got to rent a table for free – but no hot chocolate or coffee, which saved the Visa card from taking a significant hit. But at least we have a photo of us at almost Quadris. We're planning our departure against the chart for acqua alta, because there's a good chance we could be marooned, or find ourselves lugging our gear through six inches of water to the vaporretto, which would be a literal dampener.
We're planning a return visit in a couple of years time, and we'll crack Quadris.
Errors and Omissions – aka The Truth not to Everyone.
I know there are errors.
I said that the head between the paws of a stone lion at the base of the San Polo campanile was the head of Doge Falieri. It's not – the lion pre-dates Falieri by some hundreds of years. Got that wrong. Venetians believe the other lion, devouring a fish, represents the State getting rid of Falieri, and that the other head is of a man beheaded for treason, but that's not what the carvers of the lions believed at the time. So we're all wrong.
I've got no idea where I'm at with Tiepolo, other than the clan are pretty complex. It's not made easier by the guide books, who say “work by Tiepolo”, but don't say which Tiepolo they mean, and there are three of them, maybe more!
I was wrong about the clock tower in the Piazza – the digital date function is actually a digital time function. So, when I sad that the date was XI – XII it probably meant that it was twelve minutes past eleven. Forgive me on this one – I was there on 11th December, so it did make sense.
Mose – the lagoon protection system. There's more to this than meets the eye, environmental clean up at Mestra and Marghera, locks around the barriers for fishing boats and large ships, and strengthening the barrier islands. It's huge. There is an information centre in Campo San Stefano, No 2949 from memory, on the side away from San Marco – look for a small vertical red sign outside. Interactive displays, and a great satellite picture of the lagoon, sized about A1, which makes a great memento. The satellite photo gives an excellent insight into how and why Venice existed in the first place, and the info centre is worth a 10 minute visit. The sat map is free.
I referred to Rick Steves as Rick Steve, and was far less critical of his book than I could have been. It is the most culturally insensitive guide book I have ever seen.
I stated that a 12 hour ferry pass costs 14 Euro – the price is now 16 Euro. The Commune d' Venezia has upped the prices on everything, and public toilets are now 1.50 instead of 1 Euro.
I stated that we'd found the place where water was piped ashore in 1848, because we'd seen a small stone tablet on the Fondamenta Nuove, just north east of the rio Gesuati, corner of Salizzada Specchieri and Fondamenta Nuove. Water is piped across the Ponte della Liberia, so it doesn't come ashore on the Fond. Nuove. I have no idea what Venice did for water when the revolutionary forces led by Manin blew up arches of the causeway in the mid-1800's. This did not stop the Austrians from dis-mounting their field guns to obtain more elevation, allowing them to lay artillery fire as far as the Ponte d' Rialto. There's a cannon ball bricked into the wall of our apartment.
I referred to the tune that the bells play in our local campanile, the Santa Maria dei Carmini, as “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”, a recollection from Sunday school in Melbourne in 1957. I faied Sunday School 101, which sadly did not prevent me from being forcibly re-enrolled for a couple of subsequent terms. I believe that the tune is actually the first bars of the Hymn of Lourdes, “Hallay, Hallay, Halleluiah”, with apologies to the Sisters of the Carmini for the spelling.
I said that the campanile of St Toma was pulled down and replaced in 1902 after being weakened by an earthquake. I was wrong – it was the campanile of San Stefano that was demolished and replaced in 1902, the same year that the San Marco campanile fell, and one wonders if San Marco was a victim of the same earthquake. However, this clears up a little mystery too – the St Toma campanile fronts the Calle Campanile, and the houses behind are inscribed 1667 AD or thereabouts, so I think the little St Toma campanile is quite old.
There are, of course, other errors. Venice does not reveal the truth to everyone, and she always holds a bit back - for the next visit.
I figure that if I'm going to belt out 30,000 words about Venice and our time here, it is appropriate to mention the books that I've referred to. Every one of them has made the experience richer, our time in the city known la Serenessima, the Serene One, more enjoyable.
Frommer's Portable Venice 2007
Access Forence and Venice 2003
Spiral Guides Venice 2007
Rick Steves Venice 2005
Scarpa, Tiziano Venice is a Fish 2000
National Geographic Traveller Venice 2001
Eyewitness Travel Italy 2006
The Rough Guide Venice and the Veneto 1998
Essa & Edenbaum Chow! Venice 2007
Phaidon – Wallpaper Venice-City Guide 2008
Eyewitness Venice and the Veneto 1997
Lonely Planet Venice – City Guide 2004
Time Out Venice, Treviso & the Veneto 2005
The Venice Tourist Board Venice and the Islands 2006
da Mosto, Francesco Francesco's Venice 2007
da Mosto, Francesco Francesco's Kitchen 2007
Morris, James Venice 1960
Moleskine Moleskine City Notebook Venezia 2007
Baedeker Guide to Northern Italy 1898
Sunday, 8th February 2009, the last full day.
Acqua alta at about 115 cm, which seems most appropriate. Venice is all about water.
A tiny victory today – Billa, our local supermarket, issues green stamps, one per 10 Euro spent, and they've had a promotion on cookware, 23 stamps plus 12 Euro for a frying pan, ditto for the rissotto dish, 11 stamps plus 2 Euro for a lid that fits either. So the focus on this our last day in Venice was to complete the set, and we were able to get the lid, which has been out of stock for weeks. We've can now leave in Venice a set of pans that have cost a mere 1200 Australian dollars at present exchange rates.
Took a long slow walk, along the Zattere, Academe, San Marco, favourite bar, Rialto, and back to San Barnaba, saying goodbye to things that we've come to know very well. Internet cafe, to learn that 100 people have lost their lives in the fires in Victoria, my home state. It is an enormous tragedy, the worst natural disaster in our history. Two years ago when we were here in Venice, there were massive fires which burned out our favourite camping area, and it's happened all over again, only much, much worse. The town of Marysville, where we have had holidays, has been completely destroyed, with loss of life.
We walked past the Ristorante Sempione, and a waiter we met two years ago is on duty – they've been closed since Christmas. He's friendly and talked about life in Venice with us. The food is a tad “touristique”, menu in every language from Eskimo to Russian, but we'll go there tonight and eat. And feel most nostalgic.
And then we'd better leave.
Venice is known for melancholia, and we'd best depart before we are totally afflicted.
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Venice - Trip Report - warning - I'm most verbose
I've posted this in bits and pieces previously, with things out of order. Here's the consolidated, excessively long, brain dump.