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Jun
11

The Venetian menagerie

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Ever since tourists have taken over Venice, nobody thinks much about other life forms (except maybe fish), but there have been many more creatures here than dogs and cats and the occasional canary.

And lions, of course. But most of them don’t require feeding or shots.

Last night we were sitting on a full vaporetto trundling its way from the train station toward the Lido.  We were facing forward, but some people a few rows ahead were facing backward.  I had seen them, but until Lino spoke up, I had not observed (as Sherlock Holmes would put it).

Lino:  “Did you see ‘Little Snail’?”  (I refrain from translating his nickname in Venetian; this is a small town, as I may have mentioned).

Me:  “No.”  (Short answer meaning “Mainly because I have no idea who he is.”)

Lino indicates a now completely obvious person, a man whose chronological engine seems to have stalled just after middle age, kind of like Piers Morgan.  The man is wearing a whitish baseball cap with some inscription, and a red windbreaker.  He’s alone, looking nowhere in particular.

“He used to live near me,” Lino went on.  “For a while, he had a pet mallard.  He’d put a leash on it and he’d walk around the neighborhood with it.”

If you might think this is eccentric, there used to be a man who lived near Santa Marta who kept monkeys.  His name was Ricco — “Richetto,” as a diminutive.  His house was full of smallish monkeys, macaques, whatever they were.

Sometimes he’d go out for a stroll with one of them on his shoulder.

A bonnet macaque, just to set the mood. Cute, but mainly from afar. (Photo: Shantanu Kuveskar)

“The neighbors couldn’t wait till he died.”

You can understand it — living next to the Primates Enclosure in Venice wouldn’t be a very great thing, but certainly that was back in the Dark Ages, before consumers and the environment and the health department had been invented.

“No no,” Lino said, “this went on up till the Sixties, even the Seventies.” But hey — Lino’s godmother Eugenia, who lived in the same courtyard where his family lived, kept a couple of geese in the storage room. He doesn’t know why they were there, but he does remember her force-feeding them.  This was two steps from Campo San Barnaba, not down in the Po Delta.

There may have been only two in godmother Eugenia’s storage area, but they probably looked like this to Lino.

But that’s nothing!  His cousin Carla (“who lived in the calle de l’Avogaria, you know, where the fountain is that doesn’t run anymore”) lived on the ground floor, and she had a pet rat.  Not that she kept it, it just came to visit.  “There was a hole in the wall of the bedroom, and sometimes the rat would come out, and she’d pick it up and caress it, call it nicknames…”

And speaking of rats, there was Lino’s friend who lived on the Fondamenta Bragadin, next door to the Spanish Ambassador.  The friend kept some chickens in his little courtyard, but sometimes he (the friend, not Lino or the ambassador) would come out in the morning and discover one of the chickens had been killed and sort of half-disemboweled by the rats, who wanted to get at the liver.  I used to like chicken livers too, until I heard this story about five minutes ago.

Back to the “Snail.”  Something about the name brought back a prehistoric memory of something Lino once told me.

“Isn’t he the one who used to howl like a wolf?”

“Yep.  He’d come home really drunk some nights, like at 2:00 AM, howling just like a wolf.” (Whisper: “Ah-WOOOOoooooooooooo….”)

If you might wonder what kind of work a person with that skill might do, he was a gondolier. Not a job that usually calls for howling, though I have to say it would have been cool if he’d taken his duck with him.  You know, “Take your duck to work” Day.

Lino: “But he only worked for a couple of years, then sold his license and just lived on the money ever since.  He had seven or eight brothers, he was the littlest.”

“In size, or in birth order?” (I need to understand what I’m being told.)

“Birth order.  He’s the last one left.  He’s got a nice house and everything.”

Any children?

“Nope.  Never married.”

I guess I could see that.  The wife would never know whether “Honey, I’m home” was going to be carnivorous keening or a couple of heartrending quacks.

 

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One feels the imminence of the opening of the annual contemporary art exhibition in the way one feels the approach of a heavily-laden barge on a body of still water.  (Hint: A barely perceptible surge of energy which produces only the faintest wave, but you know it’s caused by something very big.)

One of the earliest indications of the oncoming event was this.

For the past 10-14 days the impact zone delimited by via Garibaldi/Giardini/Arsenale has experienced similar increasing energy manifested by more people outside drinking at bars, more people dragging suitcases to hotels and apartments, MANY more people clogging the supermarket aisles, almost all of whom don’t look much like the locals.  They are more uptown, more trendy (hair, clothes, makeup, accessories — the full catastrophe, as Zorba said about something else).  They walk around looking at each other and at themselves — I don’t know, I can just tell that they’re looking at themselves.  The Venetians seem to be invisible to them as they occupy a stage on which the curtain is about to rise.  It’s an interesting sensation to be in the same place as someone else and yet not be in the same place at all.

None of these musings is intended to be pejorative.  I’m just attempting to convey the altered atmosphere, the shifting of the rpm’s in the old zeitgeist.  And why would there not be such alterations?  The Biennale (founded in 1895) now runs for seven months of the year, and is worth 30 million euros.  The article I read cited that number but didn’t clarify how it breaks down, but as I look around, I’m guessing that at least 28 million euros are spent on vaporetto tickets and taxis.  And drinks and ice cream cones.  The joint is definitely jumping.

120 artists from 51 countries are featured, including plucky little Kiribati, out in the Pacific Ocean, where each new day officially begins.  There are 85 “national participations,” according to the press release, strewn about the city from the national pavilions at the Giardini to 260 other spaces wherever they might be claimed, from non-practicing churches to literal holes in the wall.  There are 23 “collateral events,” 5,000 journalists, and a healthy number of luxury yachts ranging from big to astonishingly ginormous.  So far, so normal.

What follows are some glimpses from the past few days, bits that show what the arrival of the Biennale looks like.  This is not an encyclopedia because life is short and my interest in the subject likewise.  I was impelled to put this together merely to give a resident’s-eye view of the proceedings.  There will certainly be more jinks of various heights in the next few days (Opening Day is officially Saturday, May 13), but I won’t be trying to keep up with them. I’m covering this entirely by whim.  It’s my new operating system.

A bishop and a polar bear in a gondola captioned “I’ve got a sinking feeling.” That makes a sort of sense, I suppose, if you really insist on sense. But where does Bambi come into it?

Then housekeeping began to spiff up some areas which had been crying for spiffage for quite some while. This was an abandoned sea-pine glade till they wanted to make it prettier for the monster metal rhino. Did I not mention him?

Here he is, being assembled, installed, fed, whatever they had to do to get him ready.

This may well be art, but my hat is permanently off to the person(s) who hammered the metal to form this creature. They have to be amazing.

The tail alone is like something out of “Game of Thrones.”

Not far away is this creation. This is not the first large hand rising from the earth (or pavement) that I’ve seen here, though this is more modest. Years ago there was a huge concrete hand about ten feet high that remained reaching upward from the Riva degli Schiavoni for years. I know that our dreams are supposed to exceed our grasp, but this version is more friendly. It’s almost like a wave.

These hands, however, will be crawling out of the water and up the walls of the Hotel Ca’ Sagredo till November. I wonder if the people inside can sense them?

Meanwhile, in the park next door to the rhino, these creations have appeared. As in all of these discoveries, I don’t know who did them, where they come from, what the inner significance is, or what they cost if I want one for my porch or lawn. I’m just showing them as one sees them in a casual stroll on the way to the gelateria. Anyway, I’m fairly sure the explanations would only baffle me.

Not that women in swimwear require any explanation.

Other premonitory signs include these helpful stickers on the ground near the Giardini vaporetto stops.  Directional signs are always needed, especially really sophomoric ones.

As expected, the big yachts are parking along the Riva dei Sette Martiri. I have never seen anyone except the crew, but probably the big parties will be this weekend.

I want this one. I want it to take me to Ultima Thule.

The next yacht over has mysteriously (if indeed only crew is aboard) accumulated big sacks of garbage. This is the last of about ten that was dropped into the special barge they engaged to take it away.

Traveling aboard the more mundane vaporetto reveals more art works that continue to rise. At the Accademia Bridge, in the garden by Palazzo Franchetti, a festive reception is underway to celebrate the raising of the bronze dead tree.

I’d like to be able to talk to Titian for a minute. I’d like to hear him say “I always wanted to make something like that, but nobody would let me.”

Here’s what’s intriguing about a man standing alone dripping water from melting ice onto a dead mackerel: There is absolutely nothing — no sign, no acolytes, no flyers — to elucidate what he’s doing. There’s something refreshing about that. I mean, does everything have to have an explanation? Ice. Mackerel. Figure it out for yourself.

Or, an hour or so later, just ice. Is this a statement about glaciers, climate change, the end of the world?  Or just the usual metaphor for the brevity/meaning/fragility of life?  Perhaps, to paraphrase whoever it was, sometimes a pile of melting ice is just a pile of melting ice.  I hope he ate the mackerel.

And speaking of performance art, Tuesday evening we were coming home after 10 PM and came upon a rehearsal for something which was well underway in viale Garibaldi.

It is a group from Korea; the woman in the center is a dancer, the two men holding the illuminated umbrellas are very muscular, and the effigy in the center is a framework supporting priestly or godly garb, but with no one inside. The photographer was shooting the stately advance of the dancer to wafty mystic music coming from somewhere.

A closer look at the effigy and the beef. And the umbrellas, which were screamingly bright.  The two men had to remain in this pose even as the dancer moved slowly away; there was a small but persistent chilly breeze blowing, and I began to feel sorry for them. As soon as there was a break, they were bundled up in full-length quilts.

She moved slowly and deliberately to the singing by the woman at the end of the strip of runway, who was producing a sort of eerie throat music.

A story line or narrative did not suggest itself, though her movements were lovely.

I tried to devise a coherent theory of what was transpiring, but what I saw was what you’re seeing. The white veil kind of complicated the situation in my imagination.  When she finally reached the hieratic singer, she turned and moved slowly back toward the men and the effigy. This all took about an hour.

Nevertheless, the area has been pullulating with visitors, to the special joy of the local bars and restaurants.

The white marble strip is the normal (and legally certified) limit of the outdoor tables at this bar/noshery.  But these days, as long as there’s space, tables are filling it all the way down via Garibaldi.

When it’s closing time at the exhibitions and everyone has drunk and eaten their fill, it’s time to take the vaporetto uptown. As you see by the line, either they or the ACTV were not prepared for this moment. Yes, they are waiting to board the next vaporetto. And the next, and the next…. It’s as crowded as Carnival, only people aren’t laughing.

Dress code: Anything, as long as it’s black. Someone who didn’t know that this is the indisputable color of art-gazers and -discussers might suppose the city was in mourning.

Surveys reveal that black is the color most commonly associated with mourning, the end, secrets, magic, force, violence, evil, and elegance.  Mainly, it’s the color that everything goes with.

Red! Somebody just made a wild and dramatic bid to be different!

So on the one hand we have these clusters of  trendiness (everyone on their cell phones, as always — I couldn’t wait long enough to see if anybody ever talked to anybody who was sitting right there with them) …

…. and on the other hand, the antidote to the glossiness of it all was standing in front of the pastry shop, evidently dressed for Act III of Swan Lake on Mars. I say it every year: the Biennale is more entertaining than Carnival. During Carnival, people dress up and pretend, but at the Giardini in May, people dress up and they aren’t pretending at all.

 

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While my mind is still loitering around the Giardini Reali, soon to be refurbished, titivated, and otherwise brought back to life (the Giardini, not my mind), I thought I’d show a glimpse of how the immediate area looked before Napoleon moved in and there went the neighborhood.

The little building on the right is the charmingly domed Palazzina Selva, bordering the west side of the Giardini Reali.  The Vallaresso vaporetto stop is visible on the left.  The ecru-colored building in the center of the picture is the headquarters of the Coast Guard and Harbormaster, but it was once the Fontegheto de la Farina, or flour warehouse.

Between the early 1800’s and the 1930’s, the white stone bridge so gracefully arching over the canal didn’t exist, for the simple reason that Napoleon and those who followed wanted the Gardens (royal, remember?) to be appropriately separated from the rest of the city on that side.

In this images from the 1930’s, the canal flows in regal isolation.  But take a closer look at the building to the left, the former Fontegheto.  Notice the two large arched window/doors at the corner of the building.  The archway on the canal side is obviously blocked off, but it wasn’t always so…

Slightly further back in history, there once was a perfectly serviceable bridge, and without parapets or steps, which was more the norm than not.  It led to that now-closed archway, which then was a perfectly serviceable passageway (sotoportego) that went through the Fontegheto de la Farina.

The waterfront at San Marco used to see a lot of working boats and cargo which were not gondolas and tourists. The Fontegheto de la Farina (the building front and center, with the bridge attached) has stood here since 1492 (this painting by Canaletto is from c.1730), a smaller flour warehouse than the Fontego de la Farina at the Rialto.  Smaller merchants were allowed to sell flour in the covered passageway.  But man does not live on flour alone. On December 14, 1724, the Venetian Senate ordered that a few rooms on the second floor be given to the Academy of Painters and Sculptors.  This academy provided instruction and working space for foreign artists passing through Venice on their way to Rome, Florence, and Bologna.  It was funded by contributions from Venetian noblemen, ordinary citizens, the artists and their students.

 

Categories : Venetian History
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Apr
14

Regrowing a garden

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Let’s start at the beginning. This is how the area between the campanile of San Marco and the canal to the west looked in 1500. We can see this due to Jacopo dei’ Barbari’s evident out-of-body experience, for which we are extremely grateful.  Notice that there are buildings where the garden will be 300 years later, when Napoleon comes to improve things.

Aerial views of Venice reveal an unsuspected abundance of gardens and parks, which aren’t always apparent to the wanderer of the brick- and stone-walled streets.  But one garden cum park is so obvious that I wonder how many people are even aware of it.  Those who are, though, have long been disappointed, and like so many things that ought to be done but somehow aren’t, the Giardini Reali stretching between the Piazza San Marco and the lagoon have spent years in quiet, despairing decline.

Once or twice a year, an article would appear in the Gazzettino urging the campers and backpackers and picnickers who bivouac in the Piazza to avail themselves of the green space — with benches, even! — where they could munch and relax.  But either the message didn’t get across, or many people looked through the rusty gate at the dusty, gravelly area which once was a garden and now had more of the atmosphere of an abandoned parking lot in Buffalo and had second thoughts.  Dust in the summer you can sort of put up with, but a mid-day garden which affords NO SHADE is very hard to make appealing.

In any case, tell the truth: Did you have any idea there was a garden there?

This is the area as it was seen at some unspecified date, but some time in the early 20th century. It’s a fairly large stretch of land to be used just for a batch of trees, but Napoleon did the same thing at the Giardini Pubblici.

(Photo by Cynthia Prefontaine for Venice Gardens Foundation.)

But I’m here with good news: The garden is coming back, with flowers and a fountain and SHADE.  At least those are the glad tidings announced at a press conference last Friday by the Venice Gardens Foundation (which is new — you haven’t somehow missed it, but its website will compel you to brush up on your Italian), an ambitious undertaking launched with lavish funding from the Generali Insurance Company.

The “Royal Gardens” (your first hint that they do not date from the days of the non-royal doges) were created by the wish of Napoleon in 1806 according to a design by Giovanni Antonio Antolini.  When he wasn’t razing and demolishing swathes of Venice, Napoleon was transforming them. No sooner had he turned the Procuratie Nuove into the Royal Palace than he commissioned an adjoining garden, because as we all know, a palace must have a garden. Just look at Versailles.  Napoleon may have been all about egalite’, but only up to a point.

The original design for the garden by Giovanni Antonio Antolini, spread out so geometrically between the Procuratie Nuove — sorry, Royal Palace — and the bacino of San Marco.  The march of time and neglect have reduced this glistening perfection to a mishmash of feral botanical survivors.

So a garden was decreed and so it was, and so it continued under the Austrian occupiers and on into the epoch of the Republic of Italy, when I suppose the nervous sensation that no ghe xe schei to maintain it began to be felt.

Now we’re here and the garden will bloom again, in the form of a return to the classic design (with a few modifications) by Paolo Pejrone, one of the most celebrated landscape architects in Italy, if not the world. Meanwhile, architect Alberto Tosello will restore and re-pristinate, as the fabulous Italian verb comes out, the suffering buildings of the Padiglione Santi (another architect, not a batch of saints) — a small classic temple often identified as Palazzina Selva — the hothouse, and the sadly decrepit pergola.  And the disconsolate rusty gates.  Not to mention the long since seized-up old metal drawbridge.

Here is how Paolo Pejrone describes how his work will look (translated by me): “…one can imagine a garden of abundance and coolness, rich and luxurious…On the whole it won’t be a flower garden, except for the wisteria and trumpet vines, the agapanthus, some clerodendrum and hydrangeas; all suffused with a light spirit, with colorful and sometimes perfumed intervals in an elaborate and yet simple garden of leaves… It will be a triumph of leafy green, a play of transparency and shadows: every kind of leaf, thin and ribbon-like, supple and broad, glossy, leathery, or fluffy and opaque.  The Gardens will proudly overbrim in every moment of the year…”  It sounds divine, especially the part about the SHADOWS.  It practically sounds like a stretch of the Amazon lowlands.

All this should be ready for the pleasure of everybody in the second half of 2018.  Perhaps just in time for the first snowfall, but no matter.  It will be beautiful again, that’s the point.  And if tourists keep deciding anyway to fire up their camp stoves to cook lunch in the Piazza San Marco (not made up), or sprawl across the steps near the Caffe Florian to gnaw their sandwiches instead of reposing briefly in what should be a delectable little nook of leafy green, it certainly won’t be anybody’s fault but their own.

If you’ve ever run the gauntlet between the Molo and the vaporetto stop at “Vallaresso,” you will recognize this battlement of kiosks. But yes, there is a garden-like space open just behind them.

Even if the gate is open, I can’t say I’ve ever felt an urge to go in. Perhaps it’s because I feared that it might lead to Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion.

Needs no comment from me, except to say that one might be forgiven for passing up the chance to go in.

If gravel is your game, you’ve come to the right place. But tell me if you can find a bench sheltered by anything but the sky.

However, one could make a case for more benches.

I realize that most of the public attention and concern for Venice is dedicated to churches and palaces and paintings, but a space that is part of a World Heritage Site had become a landscaped cry for help.

The pergola, which ought to be draped with wisteria and not tarpaulins and “CLOSED” “DANGER” “ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN” signs. This is what “We have no money” looks like.

On the left of the canal is the frozen-in-time-and-rust iron drawbridge, which served to connect the Royal Palace to the gardens for the convenience and delectation of the royals. It will be put back into working order, and anyone in what is now part of the Correr Museum will be able to wander over to the garden without having to go all the way around the Piazza.  At least that’s the plan.

Sigh.

But landscape architect Paolo Pejrone has come to save the day, here explaining to the press how the garden will be laid out. When it’s all finished, I think they should install a statue of him, perhaps in this pose.

This is the new design, somewhat related to the old, with all the plants and trees indicated by myriad colors to which I do not have the key. But if anyone wants to know where the hydrangeas are going to be, I’ll try to find out.  Even if you don’t care about hydrangeas, there will be grace and loveliness. And shade.

 

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