Archive for Events
As anyone who has ever walked along the Riva degli Schiavoni knows, there is a honking big statue in the middle of the street.
Many (most? all?) countries can boast imposing effigies of men on horseback, usually brandishing a saber, or their hat, or maybe a banner. Brandishing, anyway.
Considering that, in the case of the mounted man on the Riva, nobody has seen fit to provide even the tiniest clue as to who he is, you’ve probably been satisfied to surmise that somewhere, at some time, this man did something bronzeworthy..
Then you take pictures of the more memorable lions, and move on.
But for anyone who would, in fact, like to know what’s up with all these characters, I am ready to reveal all. And my excuse is the date, June 2, which is a national holiday known as the Festa della Repubblica, or Republic Day. Although the man relates only inversely to the event (more on that below), I’m exploiting this occasion because there isn’t another one around that fits him any better.
The swordbearing cavalier is King Vittorio Emanuele II (also known as the “Father of the Fatherland”), and he was the first king of the newly created nation of Italy. Clicking on that link will spare us slowing down for a reprise of most of the details; the “juice” of the subject, as they put it here, is that in 1861 Italy pulled itself together to form one nation out of many assorted mini-nations, duchies, and kingdoms.
The pulling-together process was long, toilsome, and often extremely bloody. Then the newly-minted Italians, having established the Kingdom of Italy on March 17, 1861, had to find a ruler. The mantle fell on the aforementioned Vittorio Emanuele, a member of the House of Savoy (one of the oldest ruling families in Europe), who was already King of Sardinia and, more important, had been a major participant in the Unification process.
Some of the main events which led to this moment, with several Venetian codicils, are depicted in nearly insane detail on the monument, as follows:
I mentioned above that I’m writing this on Republic Day, even though the king relates to it only inversely. I say that because after 85 years of kings, the Italian people went to the polls on June 2, 1946 and voted to replace him with a republic. That’s one impressive job-performance evaluation.
Furthermore, the king and his entire family were sent into exile, which demonstrates some prudence on the part of the new government, considering that 54 percent (almost all in the North) had voted for a republic but 45 per cent voted to keep the monarchy (almost all in the South). There are a few characters around Venice who still make a point of putting out the royal flag on certain occasions. It’s a vain gesture; the Italian Constitution forbids the reinstatement of a monarchy by constitutional amendment. The only way to bring back a king would be to write a completely new constitution. This is not on anybody’s to-do list.
In any case, if there were to be a new king, he couldn’t come from the House of Savoy, as the Savoyards formally renounced their claim to the (non-existent) throne in 2002 in return for being permitted to set foot in Italy again, should the mood strike.
But the statue remains, and even if nobody now recognizes who it is on the horse, it served a very important purpose in its time. Statues of Vittorio Emanuele II and his co-divinity, Giuseppe Garibaldi, began to appear in many places after Unification. The reason, as so aptly and famously put by contemporary statesman Massimo d’Azeglio, was “Now that Italy has been made, we need to make the Italians.”
You wake up one morning and you’re an Italian. What is that supposed to mean? Statues of the two major protagonists were one way of focusing public attention on the new reality and the new identity.
“To transmit the … sense of a common past and present identity … effectively, urban space became re-defined for the political realities of the late nineteenth century. Public commemorations became widespread, especially through the erection of monuments and plaques, and the re-naming of streets. Their inauguration ceremonies encouraged the collective participation in the spectacle of the ‘imagined’ nation. Personality cults which glorified national figures such as King Vittorio Emanuele II and Giuseppe Garibaldi were perceived as important tools in the nation-building process.” (Laura Parker, “Identity, memory, and la diarchia di bronzo, Commemorating Vittorio Emanuele II and Giuseppe Garibaldi in post-Risorgimento Venice.”)
I close with some trivia, which as everyone knows, I never consider trivial.
“Biennial” means “every two years” in, I suppose, every language from Amharic to Tongan. Even in Italian.
But in Venice, “Biennale” has come to mean “The Voltron of international modern art exhibitions put on every single year to draw more people here for longer so they’ll, you know, spend money.”
The original event was inaugurated in April 30, 1895 and was dedicated solely to art. Back then, that meant painting and sculpture. But scheduling it to skip a year meant losing momentum, and limiting it to painting and sculpture was dangerously droll.
By now some Venice Biennale opens every spring, so they have worked around the logistical and etymological complications of “bi” by having created an assortment of choices — there is, alternatively, the Biennale of Art, Architecture, Dance, Music, Theatre, and the Venice Film Festival, which has always been once a year, though I suppose if there were a way to have one every four months the city would rejoice.
The opening weekend of the annual Biennale, of whatever sort, as I have chronicled in other years, is a spectacular spasm of art objects and art people in the zone of the Giardini, where the national pavilions are. You have to pay to see what’s in there, but for these few triumphant days the neighborhood is bestrewn with art of the performance and/or concept variety. Or something.
It’s hugely entertaining to see this gathering of the art clans in their startling garb, as well as the blithe spirits who come to demonstrate their feats of skill and daring. They’re here to exhibit something about themselves, about the world, about what’s wrong with the world, about what’s wrong with everything, about I don’t really know what the heck what.
I dimly recall that perplexed unenlightened viewers used to be sneered at because they didn’t understand the work before them — peasants! But now I have the impression that artists have ceased to concern themselves with being understood. If these artists were people who had undergone years of therapy, I’d think that this state of mind represented progress.
As it is, I don’t know what it represents. My grasp of the convoluted symbolism now in vogue is extremely feeble, and certain exotic forms of irony are evidently beyond my mental or emotional capacity to comprehend, much less appreciate.
But I’m cool with all this now. If they don’t care about being understood, I’m not worried about not understanding.
Two thoughts have taken up permanent residence in my brain.
One: That much of contemporary art has gotten trapped in the Dadaism Room and can’t get out. (The room has no doors, being Dadaist and all, ha ha).
Here’s the five-second rundown on Dada, helpfully summarized by Wikipedia:
The term anti-art, a precursor to Dada, was coined by Marcel Duchamp around 1913 when he created his first readymades. Dada, in addition to being anti-war, had political affinities with the radical left and was also anti-bourgeois.
The beginnings of Dada correspond to the outbreak of World War I. For many participants, the movement was a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests, which many Dadaists believed were the root cause of the war, and against the cultural and intellectual conformity—in art and more broadly in society—that corresponded to the war.
Dada activities included public gatherings, demonstrations, and publication of art/literary journals; passionate coverage of art, politics, and culture were topics often discussed in a variety of media.
So if it seems that art and politics and social causes have thrown themselves into a hot-tub together and are drying off in the Biennale, there is a long history of this already. Nothing new going on here, folks, sorry.
Two: That much of the art seen here, and anywhere else these artistoids go, doesn’t refer so much to culture as it does to other art. It’s the visual equivalent of novels that are really about language. Conclusion: As it gets broader and covers more conceptual territory, art is becoming shallower and shallower. Western culture itself may be in the process of shallowization, but art is only making it worse.
Paul Gauguin noticed something of this already happening in the late 1800’s: “The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience,” he observed. “Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.”
We wandered, baffled and bemused, around and through the throngs over the weekend, and below are some examples of what we saw on Friday and Saturday (Opening Night!). The Biennale will go on till November 22; this divertissement gets longer each year. If they continue at this rate, eventually it will just be simply the “Ennale.”
If you think the tides are predictable, consider the movie industry and Venice.
Many and varied have been the films made here, from “The Wings of the Dove” to “Death in Venice” to “The Tourist” and on and on. And those are just a few titles in English; plenty of other nations have sent their troupes here to act out among the canals. Has anyone seen Nenu Naa Rakshasi? Les Enfants du Siecle?
But you can’t go wrong with Giacomo Casanova. Sure, we’ve seen Effie Gray‘s life detailed — it’s finally coming out this week — and George Sand and Chopin (all so famous in their day), but these are not marquee names. Casanova, though, is a product with no expiration date; his exploits, real or imagined, have made him film fodder no fewer than eleven times. Sorry, make that twelve, counting the one they were shooting here a few days ago.
Amazon is getting into the streaming-films game (see: Netflix and Marco Polo), and this version of the madcap entrepreneur’s life will focus, I was told, on Casanova after he went into exile. It was a movie-worthy life pretty much up to the end. He was definitely not all show (or as they say here, “Beautiful vineyard but puny grapes”); here is something he wrote about his famous escape from prison which deserves to be read and remembered:
“Thus did God provide me with what I needed for an escape which was to be a wonder if not a miracle. I admit that I am proud of it; but my pride does not come from my having succeeded, for luck had a good deal to do with that; it comes from my having concluded that the thing could be done and having had the courage to undertake it.“
Now back to me and our two days with the boats.
Making a movie, from what I have seen, is like writing “Remembrance of Things Past” on an endless series of postage stamps. Enormous amounts of toil involving equipment, technicians, objects of every sort, humans of every pay grade, and uncounted hours of just loading and unloading things, setting them up and taking them down, are dedicated to putting even the tiniest fragments of story on film.
Last Sunday and Monday the filming was in high gear in Venice; at certain crucial moments Giacomo would need a boat, and Lino and I and several others were there with two vessels: a small mascareta that just sat there and looked boaty, and a gondola, a replica built several years ago of the type used in the 18th century, to aid his escape (or so it appeared). No costumes or makeup for us this time, we were just the boat wranglers.
Which was fine with me. Although I thoroughly enjoy getting paid, even just a few euros, for just standing around doing nothing, doing something is better in most ways. So we had episodes of rowing, and pushing, and pulling, and lifting, and watching mobs of multilingual people doing stuff you are unable to comprehend in any useful way.
Here is something I discovered: When the director yells “Silenzio!!” just before “Action!” you can hear a baby hiccup in the hospital on the mainland. You cannot believe how many noises there are in normal life until it’s imperative that you hear nothing. That was the most entertaining thing of all: What is that tiny little humming behind that building at the end of the street? How can shoes with rubber soles actually make a sound going over the bridge behind you? The canal is blocked by a watch-boat at both ends to block traffic. The waiting boats have to turn off their engines. Total silence falls.
Then the church bells start to ring.
Finally they stop. “Action!” (Action.) “Cut!” (Lunch.)
Then we rowed the boats back home. That was it.
Fred Astaire once stated that he only “did it for the dough and the old applause.” For me, no need to rush on the applause.
The year has started with a spontaneous act of courage which has heartened many people, especially those whose default opinion of humanity is not lovely at all.
It was December 31 — New Year’s Eve, around 3:00 PM. Muhamed Pozhari, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Kosovo who kept body and soul connected by day work as a mason, was pushing a handtruck loaded with bags of cement from Piazzale Roma to Rialto.
As he began to horse the heavy load over the bridge spanning the rio dei Tolentini, he heard cries. A man, soon identified as Maurizio Boscolo, 63, had fallen in the canal. Theories were contradictory but it seems that he slipped while attempting to recover his 20-euro banknote which had somehow wafted into the water. Boscolo was (understandably) flailing around, with few or no results. It didn’t look good.
According to reports, various passersby stopped passing by and stood there, looking. I can understand the stopping; I can’t understand the standing there. (One report says that at least one person began to take photographs, but I have completely shut my mind to that, especially if it’s true.)
“I was crossing the bridge when I saw the man who had slipped and fallen in the water,” Pozhari later recounted. “He was looking me in the eyes, desperate. Everybody was standing there looking and I felt like I had to do something. I jumped in to save him.
“The water was very low and he was sinking in the mud. I tried to pull him up but in doing that I was also sinking in the mud. Then two people came to help.”
Muddy, freezing, soaking wet, the two men were hauled ashore. Pozhari no longer had his cell phone or his ID or his money, because he hadn’t stopped to take them out of his pockets before plunging in. Boscolo, however, no longer had his 20 euros or, not long afterwards, his life.
The excitement was now divided between the victim and the savior. Some people offered Pozhari money, which he refused. Staff at the nearby Hotel Papadopoli asked him to come in and have a hot shower, but he refused because he didn’t want to have to start answering awkward questions about his identity and all. However, an architect whose studio was nearby, Pozhari later related, induced him to come inside, where he accepted a shower and a change of clothes, and some pocket money.
Then Pozhari went home, back to the mainland where he was staying with friends. I suppose he intended to just disappear again into his under-the-radar world, complete with post-trauma insomnia, except that that night he began to feel ill. Freezing temperatures and possible mouthfuls of canal water and, I imagine, also emotional stress, were having their effect. So he went to the Emergency Room, where he was kept overnight in observation. He must have been feeling seriously bad, considering how eager he had been hours before to avoid awkward questions, the kind of questions they also ask on hospital intake forms.
When he eventually learned that the man he’d tried to save had died, he began to cry. In any case, he hadn’t been able to sleep “for two nights,” he said. “But if I hadn’t tried to do something, I’d never sleep again.”
Now the story takes a happy turn. He’s been in Italy for five years; three years ago he applied for an immigrant permit (permesso di soggiorno) as a political refugee. His request was denied, and he was marked for expulsion, but he decided to stay anyway, which explains his need to remain invisible to people in uniform.
But now, in the space of not even two weeks, his application for a permesso for “humanitarian reasons” has been granted. Furthermore, a friend and fellow Kosovaro has stated he’s ready to give him a full-time job and stand as guarantor for him in any way that might be necessary.
Many studies have been conducted to analyze heroic actions, why one person will jump into the water fully clothed to rescue someone while another stops to take a picture. But one thing strikes me: Pozhari’s comment that the victim was looking him in the eyes.
I once read of a German fighter pilot during World War II who shot down a number of British planes in an aerial battle, and seriously damaged another. As the German approached to deliver the fatal blow, the two pilots locked eyes. The German flew away.
An article in Scientific American entitled “How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person” (by Sander van der Linden, May 3, 2011) explains that “Humans (and other animals) have a dedicated neural architecture for detecting facial features, including the presence of eyes. This built-in system, also known as “gaze detection,” served as an important evolutionary tool …. What’s interesting is that this system largely involves brain areas that are not under voluntary control. Experiments have shown that people are unable to inhibit responses to gaze even when instructed to.”
I’m not saying that I think that Pozhari wouldn’t have leaped if Boscolo’s eyes had been closed. After all, it wasn’t the eyes that conveyed the information that he was in danger of drowning — anybody could see that. But they did convey desperation, and Pozhari couldn’t not respond.
So in a strange way, now that I think about it, Boscolo saved Pozhari.