Archive for History


Floating music

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We had the radio on very low this afternoon — a makeshift substitute for the soothing sound of an imaginary Alpine brook — when I realized I was hearing an extremely beautiful aria that I hadn’t heard in ages.  (For the record: “Mi par d’udir ancora” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” though I don’t know who was singing.  I’ll gladly settle for Beniamino Gigli, though, just to keep it in mind.)  Here is the link:

Lino also hadn’t heard it in ages, but it immediately brought back some happy, and very specific, memories of a hot summer evening when he was a little boy.  I want you to be listening to this seductive barcarole — though perhaps it was more lovely at a slightly less funereal tempo — as you imagine this scene:

“I was standing by the Rialto Bridge with my sisters on the evening of Ferragosto (August 15),” he told me.”  (If you’ve never been in Venice on August 15, it means “hot.”)  “And the galleggiante was coming slowly up the Grand Canal and there were the chorus and musicians from La Fenice playing, and this is what they were singing.  And there were hundreds of boats following along behind, rowed by just everybody.”

The galleggiante (literally “floating”) was a platform made of two peatas lashed together, perhaps towed, perhaps rowed, he doesn’t remember.  Here is a picture of a peata, which was used for everyday work of massive dimensions till the Fifties, at least.  

A gazebo-like dome had been constructed on which little lights were shining — I’ll pause while you adjust your mind to the very idea — and the summer-night music was wafting up along the canal as the boats drifted by.

An image of the rotunda “galleggiante” designed by architect Vincenzo Scamozzi for the ceremonial boat procession celebrating the coronation of the dogaressa Morosina Morosini Grimani in 1595. The boats following this extraordinary construction were mostly more expensive and glamorous than the ones that were being rowed behind Bizet on that summer evening in the late Forties.  But those people weren’t trying to show off.

The mere thought of such an event brings a “knot to my throat,” as they say here.  Evening promenades were nothing new in Venice — over the centuries they were often indulged in by Venetians of all ranks and stations seeking a breath of cooler air in the sultry summer nights. There were even boats designed for these nocturnal perambulations, such as the gondola da fresco, the mussin (there is one still to be seen occasionally), and the pupparino.  Even today, if someone asks me how I stand the summer heat here, I say “We go out on the water, that’s how.”

If music in the Grand Canal seems like the best idea ever, I would concur.  A group of women have organized a somewhat similar event over the past few years, but although I haven’t participated, I have the impression that it wasn’t very much like the evening Lino remembers.  For one thing, Venetians (few as they are nowadays) tend to go to the mountains in August.  But I can tell you that if I’d been there with him, I’d never have forgotten it either.

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recycling the cinema, part 2

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As I mentioned in my last post, Venice used to be infested with movie theatres, but time and tide and commerce wait for no man, and we all know that cinemas stay in business on a margin thinner than tissue paper.  But it wasn’t always so.  Lino took me on a walk around Venice to discover the movie theatres he remembered from days gone by.

Launching our voyage of discovery were two plaques I had long since noted (I can’t remember why I was there) on a meaningless little side street between San Marco and San Moise’.  These announce to the few people who pass each day that two extraordinary events in Venetian history, and the history of theatre/spectacle/opera/public performances, took place there.

This spot was the site of the Teatro San Moise’, which like many cinemas was born as a regular theatre, with a stage and sandbags and so on.  It had been established (as many theatres were) by a noble family — in this case, the Giustinian of San Barnaba — as an opera house in 1640 and, though small, was highly influential.  (In 1668 it was enlarged to 800 seats.)  Vivaldi and Albinoni and other musicians, Venetian or otherwise, held concerts of their music here, and it was also used for entertainments of the commedia dell’arte.  In 1818 the theatre shifted to puppets, then was rebuilt as the Teatro Minerva.

There is nothing that even hints at an erstwhile theatre except this doorway:

I detect that this door now leads in a semi-secret way into the Hotel Europa Regina.  Passing beneath this mythic goddess must — I hope — exert some positive influence on somebody.

Back to the plaques.  The first one commemorates the defunct theatre in its musical incarnation:

It says: “From the theatre of S. Moise’ which stood here the evening of 3 November 1810 the genius of Gioachino Rossini 18 years old with ‘The Marriage Contract’ his first opera happily began his flight toward immortal glory.  The Comune 1914.”

And just a few feet away, on the same wall of what is now partly shops and partly apartments, is this:

It says: “Here stood the Teatro Minerva (once San Moise’) where on the evening of 9 July 1896 the first public Venetian projection of film by the Lumiere brothers took place.  On the first centenary the Comune of Venice 1996.”

As must be clear by now, movie theatres came, and then went.  Their relatively brief life here was glorious.  Following are most of the cinemas that Lino remembers.  He didn’t favor me with any reminiscences about the back rows.

This building on via Garibaldi was once a cinema (though by the look of the bishop carved over the main door, that wasn’t its first job). I presume that the entrance to the theatre was under the bishop, but I knew it for years as a massive big store called “Il Bottegon” which closed last year. (Pause for respectful silence.)  The shop entrance was the central gray steel gate, and it went on forever inside, crammed to the gills with everything you could ever need except pencils and paper.  Anyway, to create this amazing emporium the renovators just ripped everything out and put in vast shelving, and left the projection room intact; it loomed above the cash registers, with the unmistakeable medium-sized square hole for the projector clearly cut into the sheetrock.

Bird’s-eye view of the photo above.  The map scheme will continue; I hope it’s helpful.  It seemed like a good idea when Lino suggested it.

Behind the church of the Pieta’ and across the street from the Hotel Bisanzio was the Cinema Arsenale.

The former cinema here is now an elementary school named for General Armando Diaz.

This trattoria across the street next to the church of San Zulian was once the “Olimpia.”  I’ve seen this space go through a few different versions (the erotic museum didn’t last long), but never saw it as a cinema.

The “Ridotto” was famous in Casanova’s day as one of the more noted gambling houses cum brothels. Lino went to a New Year’s Eve party here when it was a theatre (it never evolved into a cinema). It has now been digested by the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal.

“Il Ridotto” at Ca’ Rezzonico by Pietro Longhi (1701-1785) gives an idea of the atmosphere in a ridotto, especially when wearing masks was permitted.  There were a number of “ridottos” in assorted palaces, duly painted by the artists of the day.

The desperately trendy Caffe Centrale was once the Cinema Centrale.

Happily for us, nobody bothered to obliterate the traces of what appear to have been a series of signs. I can make out the skeleton of the word “spettacolo.”

And I detect “centrale” here.

The Scuola Grande di San Teodoro lived a brief portion of its long life as a cinema named “Il Massimo” (the greatest, the maximum). There were a number of movie theatres operated by churches or monasteries, and this would, I surmise, have been run by the remnant of whoever is responsible for the building.

Plenty of people, including me, still refer to this supermarket as the Cinema Rossini. I remember it as the place where Lino and I saw “Titanic.” I nagged him into going because everybody in the galaxy was talking about the dang thing, and then we were walking to the theatre one gray Sunday afternoon and I suddenly had qualms. I said, “I don’t know if I want to see entertainment about a huge tragedy…..” to which he replied, “You wanted to go, we’re going.” And we went.

The theatre concept is hanging tough, though — the supermarket is at the feet of the “Ponte del Teatro” and is bordered by a street named for “la chiesa o il teatro” (the church or the theatre — you get to pick?). A Multisala Rossini has been built behind the supermarket, so the movies live on, if in somewhat less imposing surroundings.

The magnificent Teatro Malibran, named for the extremely famous soprano of the 19th century, Maria Malibran.  It was inaugurated in 1678 as the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo by the Grimani family and was the most splendid opera house in Venice for many years.  After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 it became the Teatro Civico, deteriorated, was restored in 1819, continued to deteriorate, was renamed  Teatro Emeronitto and reopened in 1834.  But it was still a mess; when the diva Malibran came to sing in 1835, she renounced her fee, telling the management it ought to spend the money on the theatre.  I don’t know if the work was ever done, but they did change the name in her honor.  (Meanwhile, she spent most of that year singing at La Fenice.)  I don’t know at what point it became a cinema, but Lino remembers it in that incarnation. It is now very much restored to its former theatrical glory, and many productions of various types are staged here.

Yes, the Hotel Nazionale near the train station on the Lista di Spagna used to be a cinema. Lino went there once when he was 8 or 9 years old with his mother’s cousin, who was a fireman.  On Epiphany — which translates as “more candy and presents!!” — the firemen organized a big party for all the children in the firemen’s families. Lino says that many organizations put on this kind of party for their members’ children — the railway workers also did it. When they called his name he went up onstage and got candy and also a hobbyhorse.  Movie theatres were ideal for this kind of party because they were big, lots of space for all those little Venetians.

Let’s stop for coffee.  The next episode will be a wander around Lino’s old neighborhood on the other side of the Grand Canal.

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recycling the cinema, part 1

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The former Teatro Italia, in all its glory, majestically surveying the Campiello de l’Anconeta on the Strada Nova.

A ridiculous amount of movies has been made in Venice over the last 100 years or so — Wikipedia lists 114, but that is a paltry and inaccurate number because the list omits many films, as well as the many films that have been made here in languages other than English.

For example, there is “Viaggi di Nozze” (“Honeymoons”) starring Carlo Verdone in which he plays an insufferable doctor who takes his bride to Venice on their honeymoon, but by the time they arrive in their suite at the Danieli Hotel he has become so unbearable that she throws herself out the window just to get the hell away from him. There is the fabulous “Vacanze Intelligenti” (“Intelligent Vacations”) with Alberto Sordi, in which he and his fruit-selling Roman wife end up at the Biennale in the summer heat and she, exhausted, collapses under a tree and is mistaken by the public for a work of art.  There is also “Les Enfants du Siecle,” a French film about George Sand and Chopin in which Lino repeatedly rowed an old boat loaded with oranges past the facade of Palazzo Pisani-Moretta.  These are just random examples, but you see that the list could go on and on into German and Spanish and probably Russian and, for all I know, Tongan.

But while we’re all accustomed to Venice being the star of innumerable movies, you may never have asked yourself if anybody ever went to the movies in Venice.  They did.  A lot.  Back before cell phones roamed the earth and everything electronic took over people’s brains, going to the movies was just as much prime entertainment here as it was in Boring, Oregon and Sweet Lips, Tennessee.  Perhaps you imagined the Venetians spending their free time floating around in boats, singing folk songs, but most people were sitting in the dark watching crazy things happen on a big square of silver-coated cloth.  Venice was rife with movie theatres.

I managed to see a few movies in my early days in Venice (dubbed in Italian, as is almost always the case here), before the few remaining theatres gasped their last.  A few small ones are hanging on, showings listed each day in the Gazzettino.  “La-La Land” is here, with subtitles in Italian.  Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is also here (or was, a few days ago), in English.

All this has come to mind because of the renovation and reopening of the Teatro Italia, shown above.  Ever since I’ve been here this splendid edifice has been closed, silent and empty.  But there are plenty of Venetians who have vivid memories (especially of the back rows, I’m guessing) of the decades when it reigned as a movie theatre.  Now people who go there will be having vivid memories of the mortadella and the rigatoni, because it has been revived as a supermarket belonging to the Dutch supermarket chain, De Spar.  To its credit, the company has retained and refurbished the frescoes (did your hometown movie theatre have FRESCOES?), adding a touch of glamour to your search for scallopine and cheap wine.

A view of the interior when it was a movie theatre.

Let me give you a glimpse of this transformed emporium of fantasy and thrill, but I’m not going to stop there.  As usual, I let myself get carried away, and so in the next episode I will be conducting a tour of the movie theatres that Lino remembers from the days of yore.

The sign at the entrance advises customers that there is video surveillance, it is forbidden to smoke, and furthermore forbidden to take pictures. The first two notices are normal, but the third gives one pause. Are they concerned that people will be snapping selfies by the salame?

If you thought the exterior was amazing, just take a look at the entrance. As you see, I snapped some pictures before the guard politely told me that he would permit me to do this, so technically I wasn’t breaking the law.

Do not omit to admire the frieze as you wander into the store.

The decoration of the entryway.

Mere lobby lighting. Wow.

The space where the screen loomed has now been frescoed over. Pay no attention to that man behind the fresco…

Make sure you’ve written down your shopping list, because you’re never going to remember everything you need in this dazzling environment.

Laurel wreaths, or bunches of grapevines, or whatever the roughage is, looks wonderful on somebody’s head. Above the soft drinks.

This, not so much.  Sketchy for a theatre and even more so above Aisle 3.

The balcony AND the projection room. Extremely cool.

What is so fabulous isn’t that there’s a supermarket that looks like this (though of course that’s great) — it’s that there was a theatre that looked like this. I’d have gone and not even bothered to watch the movie.

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September 8, 1943

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This is a date which has sunk somewhere below the waterline of general knowledge, but in Italy it still carries serious significance. By which I don’t imply that people commemorate it or talk about it, but it remains one of those watershed dates in European/national/sometimes individual history.

I bring it up — today being September 8 — not to indulge in a monologue about politics and World War II, but because Lino’s father was briefly and importantly involved.

The barest outline is this, with apologies to true experts and connoisseurs of all the fine points:  Italy and Germany were allies at the outbreak of the war.  The war was going very badly for Italy because it had begun to go badly for Hitler, so Hitler essentially abandoned his Italian so-called friends.  Abandoned (as noted), the Italian government decided to forego large amounts of futile bloodshed, and asked the Allies (more particularly General Eisenhower) for an armistice.  One of the conditions of this surrender was that the Americans would land on the Italian mainland. It was an excellent plan; the armistice, known as the Armistice of Cassabile, was duly signed on September 8, 1943.  All this was kept as secret as possible for reasons which even I can grasp.

Except that secrets are tricky.  The change of label from “enemy” to “friend” or vice versa worked fine on paper, but nobody told the army this was going to happen.  Came the dawn on September 9, and the troops didn’t know who they were supposed to be fighting anymore. Even their generals, who were similarly blindsided, basically told their men “Do what you want, we have no idea what’s going on.” So the armed forces disbanded, just like that, every man for himself.  Most just ran away somewhere (not to be confused with “running away”); many headed for home, a good number struck out for the mountains to hide and become guerrilla partisans.  Not everybody made it, however.

The Germans saw the Italians as traitors, i.e. adversaries, and proceeded to occupy the peninsula, up to and including Venice. And here, as elsewhere in Italy, the Germans began to round up all the Italian soldiers they could find to cart them away to Germany as prisoners. Ships were engaged to hold the growing collection as the Germans went up and down the Adriatic coast seeking Italian deserters.  Some of those ships were in Venice.

Therefore, one day in this turbulent and panicky period, a ship was moving along the Giudecca Canal, sailing away with its load of Italian troops, destination: Depths of Hell. Some of the prisoners decided to risk an escape, and jumped overboard.  And that day Lino’s father was rowing back home from an interlude of fishing (there were ten mouths at home to feed), and was crossing the Giudecca Canal when he saw one man hit the water.

Lino’s father rowed over (I don’t know how far he had to go), pulled the man into his boat and threw a spare jacket on him as a makeshift disguise.  He rowed the man home and hustled him upstairs.  His name was Mario Dossi, and he was from Naples. Lino says they used to have a photo of him standing with Lino’s brother, Puccio, on the Ponte della Paglia near the Piazza San Marco.

But the apartment was small (Lino’s sister still lives there, and it’s perfectly fine for one person.  But not for ten — or rather, eleven.)  Some ladies down the street took Mario in, and there the story ends.

Except that it’s a happy ending, because some time after the war, one of Lino’s sister’s boyfriends was in Naples, and looked Mario up.  So he was fine.

A substantial number of films, some of them famous classics, deal with the war and Italy after the fateful September 8. Their common theme is brutality, as you might expect.  I’ve seen Spike Lee’s “Miracle at Sant’Anna” (one of many massacres committed as reprisals).  “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” follows the same thread of warfare between the Italians and Germans after September 8 in Greece.  In my opinion, two films on this theme that belong in the pantheon of great cinema, however, are “Everybody Go Home” with Alberto Sordi (“Tutti a Casa”), and “The Two Marshals” with Vittorio de Sica and Toto’ (“I Due Marescialli”), if for nothing else than the divine scene of the German colonel and the unidentifiable fart.

If you can see those movies, you’ll be glad.  Just remember that there wasn’t anything funny about September 8. But be glad for Mario Dossi.

Pomegranates begin to ripen here in September. I wonder if anybody noticed.

Pomegranates begin to ripen here in September. I wonder if anybody noticed.


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Categories : History
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