Archive for Problems


That pesky Grand Canal traffic

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I took this picture on Wednesday morning, October 2, at about 10:00 AM, on the "Rialto Mercato" vaporetto dock.  The Rialto bridge is slightly behind me.  I don't suppose all these boats disappeared before reaching it.  Therefore.... there are still more than enough boats on a normal day to sink anybody's Master Plan.

I took this picture on Wednesday morning, October 2, at about 10:00 AM, standing on the “Rialto Mercato” vaporetto dock. The Rialto Bridge, at which point the canal narrows, is slightly behind me. I don’t suppose all these boats disappeared before reaching it. Therefore there are still more than enough boats on a normal day to sink anybody’s Master Plan.

Following the death of German tourist Dr. Joachim Reinhard Vogel, the city went into a more-than-usually-intense spasm of introspection and finger-pointing, which I suppose could be called “extrospection.”

The urgent need to release the bottleneck at the Rialto Bridge is agreed upon by everyone.

The urgent need for everyone other than whoever is speaking to change is also universally agreed-upon.

So far, the mayor is re-examining the many and varied boat-parking permissions granted over time, the boats concerned having hardened up the narrowest part of the Grand Canal like plaque on arteries.  And we all know what plaque does, and how very good it is for you and your general well-being, otherwise known as survival.  It’s the same with the narrowing of the already narrow space at the bridge.

I admit that I have not been tracking every little blip on this issue.  I know that the Vaporetto dell’Arte is slated for removal (in November — no rush).  And the garbage-collection company, Veritas, has submitted a radical plan for removing its barges from the area.  I don’t know many there were; perhaps it means they’ve removed three.  In any case, the right spirit is at work.

Except it’s not working hard enough.  I hope it will not be thought churlish of me to note that a few days ago, a vaporetto backing up (same spot as the tragic accident) ran into a taxi which was standing still, at the same spot where the fatal gondola had also paused, for the same reason: To wait for the traffic to abate in order to avoid an accident.  There were no injuries except to the taxi.

A recent article in the Gazzettino reported this (translated by me):

“The latest confirmation of how, a month after the tragedy, nothing has changed comes from a video made by Manuel Vecchina and put on YouTube and the site of the Gazzettino.

A good 3,062 photographs, shot Monday, Sept. 2 near the Rialto Bridge between 8:47 and 18:44, and then put into a film of 4 minutes and 24 seconds, synthesize these ten hours of hellish traffic, with 1,615 boats in various movements, among which are 700 taxis, 219 vaporettos, 216 transport barges, 209 gondolas, 168 private boats, 39 airport launches, 18 “Vaporetto dell’Arte,” 13 ambulances, 17 police boats, and 2 of the firemen.”

I think we can agree that 2 fire-department boats and 13 ambulances can get a pass.

Otherwise, full steam ahead.


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Same old same old

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I don’t know why they call it news — here, at least, certain things happen over and over to the point where they ought to be called olds.

Some random examples of olds would be the periodic blitz of the Guardia di Finanza against the illegal clam fishermen; the periodic blitz of the Carabinieri (or vigili, or Guardia di Finanza) against the illegal handbag sellers, with concomitant confiscation of their unfathomable supply of counterfeit goods; the periodic blitz (hm, we haven’t had one of those for a while) of the aforementioned forces of public order against the perpetrators of motondoso; and the ceaseless moaning of the city, like a raccoon caught in a foothold trap, that “no ghe xe schei,”

Two headlines this week are worth reporting, if only because we haven’t seen them for a while — though that does not mitigate the “here we go again” factor.

Note that the gates are not going to be in the Bacino of San Marco. But it’s a cheerful little vision of how beautifully the system is supposed to work.

Opere infinite Il Mose slitta di due anni” (Infinite works MOSE slips by two years).

MOSE:  Sometimes friends and/or visitors inquire as to the progress of the floodgate project which is going to save Venice from acqua alta, so the builders claim.  Despite incessant statements by interested parties giving the impression that high water is virtually a daily scourge, I should mention that I didn’t put on my boots even once last season (by which I mean acqua-alta-season, running from September to April).  Not once. Yes, there was some water in the Piazza San Marco a few times.  As usual, it went away after a few hours.

This headline carries no surprises but only some new information. First of all,  construction projects everywhere are born behind schedule. So we are not amazed to read that the project isn’t going to be finished in 2014, as claimed a few years ago when 2014 was also a shifted-forward date.  They say it’s going to be finished on December 31, 2016.

Bear in mind that the construction of the Calatrava Bridge took six years to complete (original projection: one and a half years), and it’s a simple span a mere 80 meters (262 feet) long.  So looking at MOSE, if the term “Great Pyramid of Khufu” comes to mind, it’s understandable. (For the record, the pyramid was built in 20 years.  MOSE was begun in 2003, but considering how far construction projects tend to expand into the future and into the budget, we may be seeing a rival for the record in the making.)

The basic reason for the change in date is that the money is running out.  You may have noticed that money is not as plentiful as it once was — say, back in 2003, or even in 2006, when the government, under Prime Minister Romano Prodi, voted colossal quantities of cash for this undertaking.  In my view, this was an investment, not in the future of Venice, but in the future of the investors themselves, seeing that it will require spending money for maintenance for the rest of eternity.

It’s the first time I’ve noticed the geometrical similarity between the two mega-projects, though I suppose engineering feats involving 45-degree angles aren’t all that rare. I wonder if anyone will be around in 4,500 years to notice if the floodgates have lasted as long as the pyramid. Or if anybody will care.

The Berlusconi government was less enthusiastic, but the funding continued.  But now it’s different. The current government, headed by economist Mario Monti, is attempting to keep the entire country from going to the bottom with all hands aboard, so you can understand why paying for MOSE might not be seen as an urgent national priority. Especially since the current estimate on how much it will cost to finish this little adventure is 1,200 million euros ($1,451,890,000). There might be other things that cost more, but those other things might be more important to more people. Anyway, this number will also change.

Vu’ cumpra’ in fuga dai vigili travolgono due turiste (“Illegal handbag-sellers fleeing the police knock over two women tourists,” reported Monday, July 23);  Blitz antiabusivi, agente travolto (“Blitz against the illegal handbag sellers, an agent knocked down,” reported Tuesday, July 24).  

Nothing new here except the quantity of victims.

Translation: “”Vu’ cumpra'” is the African-accent rendition of “Vuoi comprare?” or “Do you want to buy?” It has become the generic nickname for the entire category. “Abusivi” is a general term which could be applied to anyone doing something without a license which requires a license.  (Hence drug dealers or prostitutes, for example, wouldn’t be called “abusivi.”)

In Venetian terms, an abusivo could be a clam fishermen who digs mollusks out of season, in forbidden areas, in excessive quantities.  It can also describe the new self-appointed porters, mostly Eastern European men, who semi-threaten tourists in order to carry their luggage over the Calatrava Bridge for money.

But it most often is used to describe the street-sellers of counterfeit handbags and other objects such as sunglasses and tiny camera tripods.  There are so many of them in critical tourist areas (Riva degli Schiavoni, Calle Larga XX Marzo, Strada Nuova) that the undermanned police forces make only sporadic efforts to punish them.  They arrest whomever they can catch, they take their goods, they might even take them to court, briefly. Next day — sorry, next hour — everything has returned to exactly the way it was.

A typical scene. I would have taken some pictures myself, but I’m afraid of them too. (Published on, perhaps taken by the author, Giovanna D’Arbitrio.)

The only reason the abusivi might deserve a place in the Gazzettino would be either the assault by the police, or an unusually large amount of merchandise taken away, or physical harm to whatever unfortunate human was in their way as they were fleeing at top speed down narrow streets and around corners. In this case, two of the above.

Running into people, I note, is a good thing for the fleeing abusivi because it means that at least some of the pursuing officers have to stop to look after the injured person.

On Monday, July 23, a surprise “attack” on the sellers in the Calle Larga XX Marzo was made around 7:00 PM, when the shops begin to close and the street begins to be lined with bag-sellers.  This action was a result of a petition signed by the merchants who say that potential customers are afraid to pass the vu’ cumpra’ to enter their stores.  These petitions are also perennial.

The agents blocked all the exits, so to speak, and swooped down.  They carried away some 400 items, mostly bags, a trifling amount, as well as 15 sellers, half of whom were clandestine (i.e., here without permission) and some of whom already had long, dense rap sheets on file.  But some of the sellers fought back, particularly the one who violently pushed one agent who fell to the pavement.

Around 11:00 PM last Saturday night, on the bridge by the Danieli Hotel, a similar scene involved a woman bowled over by a man running away loaded with his bulky bag of stuff. No major harm done to her; it appears that the man got away.

Sunday afternoon around 3:00 PM in Campo San Zulian, the same scenario: Running man ricochets off woman.  No major harm here either, but it’s not much more attractive to watch than it is to experience.

You may ask why this situation persists.  Everyone wants to know the answer to this question.  If I ever find out, I will immediately let you know. The answer might even be published in the oldspaper.



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Justice will be served

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Pick a street -- any street -- and you'll find plenty of picturesque dilapidation. At least I suppose it's picturesque. If this were a palace, people would love it.

Visitors and even residents who regard the peeling plaster and crumbling brick and other symptoms of age and use as part of Venice’s transcendent charm mostly don’t have to concern themselves with the consequences of the aforesaid peeling and crumbling.

But if you were the plaintiff in a certain court case, you would find little to no charm in the condition of your case.  I mean the physical condition, not your chances of winning it.

Folders eaten by rats, case postponed” reads a headline from a recent Gazzettino.

This did not surprise me, because I have been, more than once, down the hallways and into various offices of the civil court here.  There is scarcely any more space for documents and files in these warrens than there is for the average person in the average dead-end backstreet during Carnival.  And the files, by now, are a thousand times more than many. It’s like something out of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Thus many of these slabs of paperwork are left outside the staggering, overloaded file cabinets, and they are simply stacked on the floor in dusty, tattered heaps.  I have seen this with these very eyes.

No worries, though — assuming you don’t need to find a particular file, because it’s not clear they have been stacked according to any particular system.  Other, that is, than the system of numbering houses in Tokyo: In order of age.

Enter the rats.  What they don’t see are mute masses of pain and anger and greed and bureaucratic boredom and the occasional fatal misspelling or lost identification number or whatever.  They see what, I gather, amounts to towering columns of food.  And even a rat knows what to do with food.

“The case?” the article begins.  “It has to be placed on a new schedule because the file has been gnawed by rats and has to be ‘reconstructed.’

“This unusual reason for postponing the audience was pronounced a few weeks ago by the president of one of the penal sections of the Court of Appeals.  But it seems this is not the only such case: For years the judicial offices have been suffering from grave shortages of space and the areas available aren’t always adequate, especially those used for the archiving of the proceedings.” Translation: As stated above, no more space.

The defendent’s lawyer, Giovanni Fabris, wasn’t so amused.  Instead of arming himself with a magnifying glass, flour paste, duct tape, or spray shellac , reassembling the documents and depositing them in the chancellery, he sent a packet to the judge presiding over the court.

It contained a mousetrap.

It also contained a note: ‘Here is my personal contribution to the efficiency of justice.”

The dog ate your homework?  Piffle!

Rats mean cats, or at least they used to, as demonstrated on a capital of the Doge's Palace. I'd like to see the dog du jour attempt this.

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A situation has been brought to light — actually, had light suddenly and dramatically shone on it — that ought to be noticed more clearly than by the faint gleam discernible over here.  Allow me to step in with at least a couple of highway flares.

A few paragraphs in the Gazzettino recently revealed that the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta at Torcello is falling apart.  Brief and brutal, but there it is. This news may not have interested very many people here because the paper is full of stories, depressingly often, about the ways in which Venice is falling apart.

The basilica of Santa Maria Assunta is on the left; the smaller church of Santa Fosca to the right. May I mention that despite many notations to the contrary, "basilica" and "cathedral" are not synonymous. A basilica describes a building with a specific floor plan, which could just as easily be your school gym. The world is full of basilicas which aren't cathedrals; they don't even have to be churches. A cathedral is the church where the bishop has his cathedra, or seat, which could just as easily be in an Airstream trailer. The cathedral of Venice (also a basilica, as it happens) is San Marco. (Photo: necrothesp)

Pieces of stone drop off facades (November, 2007, a 110-pound/50- kilo chunk fell from the Palazzo Ducale and grazed an elderly German tourist; November, 2008, a 15-inch/40 cm bit of marble from a house in the San Marco area grazed a Swiss tourist as it headed earthward; March, 2010, a 132-pound/60-kilo piece broke off the convent of Cristo Re near the Celestia; October, 2010, a bit of stone decoration fell off the Court building and struck an employee…..).  Roofs collapse, bell-towers are braced, and so on. The reason?  All together now: No ghe xe schei. The mayor himself has said that he may have to ask for money, not for the sake of the buildings per se, but for the sake of public safety.

But back to Torcello, a lovely, almost uninhabited little island famous for the aforementioned basilica, which is arguably one of the gemmiest of the gems of Venetian history, art, architecture, and above all, mosaics.

Life is hard on Venice in so many ways, from high water  to tourist trampling. But let us not overlook what may be the most dangerous hazard of all: Neglect.

Torcello’s parish priest, don Ettore Fornezza, recently drew attention to one example of what neglect can lead to: The floor mosaics are breaking up.

I went to Torcello the other day to see don Ettore and the situation that he was describing.

The ten-minute walk from the vaporetto stop to the church has never been so lovely.

For anybody who loves Torcello, or who believes that there is no place within 50 miles where you can go to escape the tourist tidal waves, I cheerfully recommend you visit the island early on a freezing, windy, gray Sunday morning in January.  Yes, it was colder than I don’t know what. (Down side.) But there was literally no one and nothing in sight. (Up side!) I’ve been going to Torcello for years and I have never seen it utterly deserted.  The lagoon was empty too.  It was so astonishing that it was worth not being able to feel my feet.

Looking toward Burano, normally a scene of motor-driven anarchy.

People go to Torcello to admire the mosaics on the walls.  But the floors are no less valuable, and they get a lot more punishment. You can see the evidence of this deterioration everywhere, in the widening spaces between the bits of stone and even in grotty, dark empty areas as big as salad plates and as much as an inch deep. Unchecked humidity, for one thing, has gradually loosened the tesserae (as the bits of stone are called) and made them vulnerable to other forces.  Like people and their footwear.

A view of the interior of the basilica. Note the condition of the floor in the foreground. This is nothing.

And so it was that during a recent stroll around the church, don Ettore saw a tourist not only dislodge a small piece of 1000-year-old mosaic with the heel of her shoe (regrettable but not intentional), she then picked up the loose bit and made to put it in her pocket.  Or purse. Anyway, to take it away.

When he asked her what she was doing, she replied, “I wanted it as a souvenir.”

Somewhat thunderstruck, he suggested she consider leaving it behind, so it could be kept, if not actually returned to its native habitat.

She gave it back.

When don Ettore reached this point in the story, it occurred to me that it was too bad he hadn’t replied, “Well then, I’d like to take your shoe as a souvenir.”  Just a thought.

A detail of damage to the floor mosaics. I would have taken photographs, but it's strictly forbidden, not that that would have stopped me. But the girl on guard that morning made nabbing me her mission. My admiration and appreciation to the intrepid visitors who managed these images. (Photo: ezioman).

But this is no time for gay repartee.  The incident of the tessera was merely one random event in a long and all-too-evident decline.  Because for some time now, the heels of the shoes of thousands of tourists a day have been weakening what is, in fact, a very fragile creation.  All it takes is for one piece to go, and the discussion shifts from what is happening to merely how long it’s going to continue.

For don Ettore, this moment was, as he put it, “the spark” to bring to light the larger, deeper, wider problems of the basilica.

“We can’t go on like this,” he said. “People come from all over the world, and they see the deterioration and they come to tell me.  I can’t do anything, because I”m responsible for the spiritual side. But I have eyes, and I see the things that don’t go well.  Torcello could be reborn, with a little attention. With the love people have for this place, this would be the pearl, not only of Venice, but of the world.  It’s worth the trouble to insist on this, because Torcello is worth it. We don’t want Torcello to die. If it were up to me, it would have been resolved already.”

There are so many distressing aspects to this situation that you can pick any one at random and ruin your day.  Given that the present mosaics (not the first mosaic flooring, by the way, which was laid in the 8th century) date from 1008, it’s obvious that they will now be in need of constant and expensive care.  Just like a person, actually, when you think of it.

But here we have an ancient and irreplaceable work of religious, historic, and artistic value; we have uncontrolled masses of people using it every day for most of the year; and we also have lack of personnel, lack of serious interest, and — no need to repeat it, but I must — absence (they say “lack”) of money to do anything useful to deal with it.  Here, too, the skeletal hand of chronic poverty is tightening its grip.

Speaking of poverty, however, let me insert some startling observations made to me in Hyderabad, India by Mr. P.K. Mohanty, then Commissioner of the city’s governing body.  (I was there for my article on “Megacities,” National Geographic, November 2002.)

“What we need in India isn’t money,” Mohanty said. “Large cities of the Third World are reservoirs of wealth.  We need political reforms, bureaucratic reforms. The problem is one of poor management. If cities are properly managed, there cannot be resource problems.”  I’d guess that the same could be said of large cities of the First World.

As for the mosaic floor of the basilica, nobody can consider spending the money that would be needed to complete a serious restoration — they say there’s no money even to pay for a protective carpet like the one that often covers the floor of the basilica of San Marco.  But anyone who has visited the Roman-mosaic-blessed former churches at Aquileia and Ravenna will recall that their mosaic pavements  are kept in near-perfect condition. Aquileia and Ravenna have mysteriously found a way to acquire the schei necessary for their mosaic maintenance.  Or maybe, as Mr. Mohanty observed, the problem isn’t really schei.

Small gaps between the stones; you can just imagine where this is going to go.

Back to Torcello. I would like to blame mass tourism, because obviously masses of tourists are not helping the situation.  But I hesitate to use a term which is so general that it could describe almost everything except plants (no wait, those travel too) to describe just one certain type of tourist.  Of course there are cultivated, intelligent, sensitive tourists who leave a very faint footprint on the delicate, peerless places and cultures they visit.

But there is the clueless tourist who tends to come in chaotic herds, and who passes through leaving behind not much beyond a few sous and a lot of accumulating wear and tear on the places and people he or she has encountered.  And some trash, usually.

Taking away pieces of Italian history is  nothing new.  The Italians themselves, over the centuries, have removed tons of pieces of their monuments for use in other projects.  And there are, unfortunately, still too many tomb-robbers who steal and sell priceless artifacts from lost civilizations.

And let us not forget the famous advancing barbarian hordes, who pillaged and burned and wrecked large parts of Europe and its treasures. Also bad, but at least you can fit this damage into the category “Conquer and Dominate,” which does make a kind of sense.

But we’re talking about tourists.  They have been known to dislodge and remove, as far as they can, pieces of the Roman walls built by Marcus Aurelius.  Tourists climb over altar railings and try to take away historic sacred vessels.  (I am not making any of this up.)  I learned more than I ever wanted to about this for my article “Italy’s Endangered Art” (National Geographic, August 1999).  These are not necessarily evil people, nor even people seeking to make money by selling what they take.  They just take. Why?

The lady at Torcello admitted why she did it: She wanted a souvenir. Instead of buying something that had been manufactured, she impulsively felt that something genuine would be better. But how does this work?  You take a little piece of old stone, dislodged from its context, dislodged from its reason for being, specifically in order to be reminded of the place you’ve just despoiled?  You don’t run to the ticket booth to say “The floor is coming apart!”? Or does the fact that the piece is loose mean that it’s now free pickings?

I pause here to recognize that there may be an insignificant difference between a souvenir and spoils of war; the Elgin Marbles, which I suppose you could regard as a sort of monumental souvenir, come to mind.  But if the possessors of cultural patrimony have finally come to recognize at least some of the value of their heritage, it ought to follow that visitors ought to value it even more, otherwise why are they there? They could just as well be sitting under an awning somewhere, eating gelato.

To many visitors, a trip to Torcello is mainly a good excuse for a jaunt out into the lagoon. When they're done here, they go to Burano and buy lace-like objects. Real souvenirs.

All this makes my  brain hurt.  Because I am convinced that whatever bits of stone or wood or pottery get carried away — a bit that really mattered where it was born — is going to get lost.  Thrown away. Forgotten. Hidden under stuff in the attic that nobody ever looks at until they have to sell the house and by then nobody remembers what the thing is, or why it’s there. So what was the point?

Wait!  Let’s say the person takes it home and puts it in a beautiful box or frame to display it.  This means that either they are capable of spending the next 50 years looking at something they stole, which probably won’t remind them that they stole it, or they want other people to admire it. So they can say, “Yes — I contributed to the destruction of an irreplaceable landmark by stealing this. Nice, isn’t it? I’m glad you like it.”  Then they send money to protect the dolphins or save the rainforest.

If you’re still reading, you may be edging toward the door.  But I’m not crazy.  Or if I am, I’ll never be as crazy as the tourists.

But let’s be fair. Even if the tourists were all made to tiptoe around the church in cloth slippers, it wouldn’t do much to stave off the inexorable damage caused by humidity, salt in the groundwater, storms, subsidence, and many other factors that are part of life on this planet and whose effects are all too visible at Torcello.

The point isn’t that people want to take bits home, it’s that the church isn’t being protected and cared for. It’s just sitting there, enduring what it must till another piece breaks off.

And by the way, the same thing is happening in the church of Santa Maria e Donato on Murano (first building, 7th century, flooring completed 1140), an edifice equally rich in mosaics.  Don Carlo Gusso, the parish priest, is also ringing the alarm bells.

So far, though, it appears that nobody but you and me have heard them. Or at least have recognized that they’re not the dinner bell.

"The Pavement San Marco" by John Singer Sargent (1898). Who would ever have thought that even here, the floor would have been left to deteriorate like this? I'm not referring to the undulations, but to the holes. But if they could fix the floor here, I'm not clear on what's stopping them at Torcello. Did they have more schei back in 1898?

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