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Lugash on the lagoon

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The exhibition poster: “Treasures of the Mughals and the Maharajahs.”  This piece alone gives a glimpse of the insane gorgeousness of the collection belonging to Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of the royal family of  Qatar.

Imagine a large room in a world-famous palace/museum, in which a lavish assortment of five centuries of dazzling Indian jewelry has been on display for months.  This palace is in a famous, small, cramped, waterbound tourist city, a place not especially conducive to rapid escape.  Imagine also that on the last day of the exhibition two men stroll in at 10:00 AM, deftly open a case, and mere seconds later just wander off, out of sight, with a pair of earrings and a brooch valued at 3 million dollars.

You can stop imagining.  It happened on January 3 in the Doge’s Palace, and the jewels were not called the Pink Panther, but they might as well have been.  The thieves are two men, caught on surveillance video, who didn’t even use a picklock, crowbar, bobby pin, small explosive; it appears that the case had already been slightly opened to facilitate the theft.  It also appears that they had an electronic device that delayed the sounding of the alarm.  Certainly it went off.  Just too late to do any good; by then, the two thieves were lost in the crowd and gone.

The Sala dello Scrutinio doesn’t need any help in looking fabulous, but the dressing of this set, if we want to call it that, was worthy of the 270 pieces dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries displayed for the first time in Italy. It was as if Faberge’ had gone to India and came back to Venice.  (Photo: Mattinopadova)

The city is agog, as you might suppose, and none more so than the parties directly involved in ensuring that this kind of thing doesn’t happen.  Did the thieves have inside help?  And how clever they were to plan this exploit for the last day, when the atmosphere was certainly that of the party being over.

There have already been pages and pages written in the press about this most unpleasant start to the New Year.  Sparing you every speculation so far, may I merely note that the display cases were made by the Al Thani Foundation, as was the security system used.  That certainly complicates the directions in which fingers might be pointing.

The items now at large. Most articles have pointed out that they were not among the most valuable, either historically or monetarily, of the items in the collection.  If that makes anybody feel any better.  (Photo: Corriere del Veneto).


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bring on the laurels

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Let’s see…1,124 graduates were allowed at least two people (let’s say their parents) — that means 3,372 people in the Guests enclosure. There was still room outside the barriers for plenty of unofficially invited friends, relatives, and the curious to mill around, which was pleasant until the sun began to go down. Then a chilly breeze began to make the event feel more like waiting for an overdue bus in Buffalo.

Two wonderful young women who have rowed with us over the past three years (when their studies would permit) graduated from Ca’ Foscari, the University of Venice, last Friday: The middle of the Piazza San Marco was awash in diplomas, theirs along with 1,122 other exuberant “doctors” of whatever their subject was.

This was the 20th year that a mass graduation ceremony has been held here for students from Venice and Treviso.  The typical procedure, as we have seen in the case of some other friends, is that the candidate confronts a panel of professors and is interrogated on the subject of their thesis, nerve-wracking for the candidate and just wracking for the friends and family sitting behind him/her because there are no microphones.  It’s like watching a closed-circuit television with the sound off, except you’re right there.

But for whatever administrative reason there may be, the November group was rounded up and given the graduation ceremony all’ americana, complete with mortarboards crowning their heads (though some received their more traditional laurel wreath afterwards).  Clearly one reason why it was held in the piazza was because there isn’t anywhere else, except maybe the soccer stadium, that would hold three thousand people.

Anyone getting their degree is said to have received their laurea (LAOW-rey-ah).  Or, as Toto’, the immortal Neapolitan comic, earnestly termed it in a film, their laura (LOW-ra), which cracks me up because that’s just Laura.

Apart from the amazing setting, the experience was Classic Graduation: There was confusion, emotion, and the boilerplate commencement address(es) focusing on their future and the need to continue to nurture their dreams and not to ever let the world beat them down.  “Yours is not a point of arrival, but of departure,” said Paola Mar, councilor for Tourism representing the city administration.  “Be passionately curious and ask yourselves every day the ‘why’ of things.  Curiosity can guide you into new paths.”  There was praise for their perseverance and their talents and collective hopes for whatever comes next in their lives.  I have no idea how a graduation can be considered official without the majestic soundtrack of “Pomp and Circumstance,” or at least the Triumphal March from Aida, but graduate they did.

I have no pictures of our friends together because I never saw them, being on the outside of the sacred enclosure where parents and close relatives were huddled, shivering as the sun slid behind the Ala Napoleonica.  Everyone was listening to the names as they were called — the list was so long that the university divided it into half at the letter “M,” and called out the names in pairs.  Happily for me, Marta and Camilla’s last names begin with “C” and “D,” so I went home (by now I was shivering too) as soon as I heard them called.  I missed seeing the jubilant thousand fling their mortarboards into the air, so no photo of the peak moment.  I’m happy enough just to be warm and imagine it.

The entrance for guests was on the east side of the Piazza, facing the basilica of San Marco.  The sun and anticipation made everybody happy.

Security was definitely checking tickets at the entrance. No “I’m with the band” dodges here.

Speaking of security, there was a certain amount around.

Family festivizing at the Caffe Lavena.

And there was plenty of this, of course.

The crush and confusion was even greater on the “Entrance Students” side, because each graduate seemed to come with an entourage of friends and admirers.

But why so many in black? Isn’t this supposed to be a happy occasion?

Though black was clearly not always to be taken seriously. I think.

Not black at all! Who is this free spirit who has burst his way into the spectrum?

And this personage in a suit and tie. This ensemble is shocking in its perfection, not to mention originality. I hope he wasn’t being ironic.

Bouquets were everywhere.

I’d consider going back to school if this guy would bring me a bouquet.

I could have dedicated this entire post to bouquets, now that I think of it.

One family said it with balloons. As each name was announced there would be scattered bursts of cheers from the reaches of the piazza, like little fireworks of happiness.

As the names dragged on, and the air got cooler and people got more tired, the edges of the piazza began to take on a “Just get it over with” atmosphere.

Still, if you were to need two official witnesses, who better than the Venetian Republic represented as Justice, and the archangel Gabriel covered with gold leaf?  They’ve got your back, graduates, at least for today.


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Is Venice that way?

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The Venice Marathon finishes in the most beautiful city in the world. Or maybe not.

The classic foot race known as a marathon is generally predictable, from the distance (26 miles/385 yards or 42 km/195 meters) to the winner (so often an athlete from Kenya or Ethiopia or Eritrea).  And why should the 32nd Venice Marathon, which was run last Sunday, October 22, have been any different?

Why indeed?  That’s what people would really like to know.

Because in 31 years here no competitors in the lead have ever somehow taken the wrong road at the 16-mile point.  And yet on Sunday there was a little peloton of East Africans who were some distance ahead of the 5,962 other runners.  Abdulahl Dawud, Gilbert Kipleting Chumba, Kipkemei Mutai and David Kiprono Metto were following the motorcycle at the head of the race, as per normal, and when it turned right, going up the ramp onto the overpass leading to Venice, naturally they followed.  Except that they were supposed to be on the highway below the overpass.

The drone — or helicopter — showed this scene in real time. Unbelievable. (

Of course there’s nothing strange about seeing the front runners on an empty road.  It just turned out to be the wrong empty road. (Sports Illustrated)

As two precious minutes ticked by, somebody else on a motorcycle caught up with them, yelling (I imagine) “What the hell, you guys?  You’re supposed to be down there!”  I imagine this because Lino and I were watching the live broadcast and you could easily see the men begin to turn around and trot back the way they came, no longer in the lead although still all by themselves, race essentially over. In fact, it was literally over; they withdrew immediately.  One doesn’t run 26 miles/385 yards, or at that point one hour and 15 minutes, for the sheer euphoric joy of it.  Who was responsible for that wrong turn?  If you know, the world would like to hear from you.  And so would the four runners.

As if we needed another problem, here it is: The winner, Eyob Faniel — who finished with an amazing two-minute lead over the rest of the pack — was born in Eritrea but is a naturalized Italian citizen and runs for the Venicemarathon Club.  Fun fact:  It has been 22 years since an Italian won the Venice Marathon.  About time, you say?  Somebody else might have been thinking the same thought.  I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but the optics here, as the current expression has it, are not attractive.

Here is what Lorenzo Cortesi, general secretary of the Venice Marathon, has said (translated by me): “We need to evaluate if this was an error by the vigili urbani (a sort of local police), or by us.  The service autos exited the barriers and the local police didn’t close the street.  The motorcycles, then, weren’t able to transit the underpass.” (I totally do not understand this last bit.  You want the people to run on a road that the motorcycle is forbidden to take?)  “But I wouldn’t want the significance of this race to be limited only to this.”  Of course you wouldn’t.  Neither would I, if I were in charge.

But enough unpleasantness!  Backpats generously administered by Signor Cortesi to the 2,000 volunteers involved, not to mention to everyone involved in the successful completion of all the unusual elements which the Venice Marathon requires: “Just think of the fact that we have to transport from the mainland to the arrival area, with 12 big trucks and 12 boats, the sacks of all the personal effects of the athletes.”

I can confirm that the organization was impressive as seen from ground level, from the chemical toilets to the bags of snacks to the massage tables with massagers waiting for massaggees.

But although the scaffolding and some bridges and the bleachers have all been removed, the questions refuse to go away.  It used to be that everybody would be talking about how people ran.  Now the only thing they’re talking about is where.

On Thursday, things began to be done on the Riva dei Sette Martiri. Unusual things for the Riva, normal things for the marathon, which is held on the fourth (and usually also the last) Sunday in October.

This spacious area in the Giardini Pubblici was soon to be revised to accommodate the immediate needs of thousands of exhausted and sweaty people.

The accommodation was, first of all, big tents for changing your clothes. Smaller tents were for medical attention of various sorts.

Masses of runners downshifting after the 10K race, which preceded the main event by a few hours. The brown-paper bags contained cartons of fruit juice, cookies, fruit and something else — I only got a glimpse inside one. The broad plastic wrappers were temporary blankets doing double duty as large posters for the main sponsor, Huawei Technologies. I should have mentioned that the official name of the event, as announced by the speaker in virtually every sentence, is “Huawei Venice Marathon.”

Yes, there will be garbage. Let’s see…thousands of plastic blankets and paper bags of food and busted shoelaces and fistfuls of used tissues, or whatever runners throw away when the party’s over, all have to be collected and carried off by the hardy trashmen and women of Veritas.


Three of the 12 enormous boats loaded with bags which contain the bags of runners’ personal effects trundled toward the Giardini to wherever the pickup point was organized.  If you’ve ever had any reason to inquire about the cost of renting one of these boats, you won’t have to ask why there are so many sponsors for this event.

As you see: Sponsors. Job lots of them, which is the only way these affairs can exist.

We sat in the bleachers watching the overjoyed 10K runners cross the finish line. The sky threw down some gobbets of rain but it didn’t last long.

The jumbotron was a great way to watch the big race as the runners coasted along the Brenta river. It all seemed so peaceful and normal…

A few sections of the temporary bridge used for the feast of the Redentore bring the runners from the Zattere across the Grand Canal to San Marco.

There was a little soupcon of acqua alta in the Piazza, but the higher stretch in the center of the square meant the runners kept their feet dry (which was not the case on one memorable day some years ago when “sloshing” entered the event’s description).

The fabulous finish by Eyob Faniel was pretty exciting. I don’t want the backstory to discolor what was a great moment for the spectators anyway.  Nobody had truly grasped the whole situation at this point, and a guy running with nobody to be seen behind him is irresistibly thrilling.

And of course, crossing the finish line was a huge experience for the myriad unsung runners racing against themselves.

And after the glory come the showers. Follow the helpful hand-drawn arrows to hot water and soap, the happy ending after the happy ending.


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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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