Archive for February, 2011


Sensing Venice: Smell

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I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking of what immediately precedes a flushing sound.

This is a trick photo because it only looks like something that ought to smell. But it doesn't, or at least not much, and definitely not the way you probably expect. I just wanted to set the mood.

For an astonishing number of people, this is the only odor that Venice brings to mind.  But it’s not so simple.  In fact, the aforementioned aroma is not all that frequent anymore, even at low tide, thanks to long and patient dredging of the canals, and the installation of septic tanks in most public buildings and many private ones.  So let us not become fixated on biological byproducts.

While we're on the subject, however, this innocent-looking tube will be giving off a stronger odor than five average canals. It is the conduit of the contents of some septic tank. Happily, it's a job that doesn't take long.

The tube leads to a "honey-boat," which carries the material to the water-treatment plant. This smell is one of the few things I've never heard somebody complain about. If they're past 60, they may be remembering how home sanitation worked when they were children, which was a lot more direct.

Furthermore, I invite you to consider some of the daily smells in your average mainland city: The perfume of imperfectly combusted diesel wafting from buses waiting at traffic lights, for instance, or your overflowing dumpster under the sun.   I’m not saying I prefer the stench of sewage – there, I said it – I’m just saying there is no city that smells entirely of lavender potpourri.

And another thing. Before someone Beyond the Bridge starts imagining what the objectionable smells might be out here, they ought to include in that list the much more frequent AND PREVENTABLE odor that too many people — tourists or otherwise — emit from their underarms on crowded vaporettos and buses in the summer.  The fact that many of them (usually men, sorry) are clinging for support to something overhead just makes it worse. Often their shirts have no sleeves.

Continuing our sensual tour of Venice — or, as I think of it, enjoying Venice with your eyes closed — I’m going to state that smell may well be the sense that gives me the most pleasure here.  A random walk with your nose attuned will almost certainly awaken you to either an activity, or a product, or a season, or a plant, or something defying categorization that is something that makes Venice beautiful.

Clean laundry. I realize that anyone just walking around the city isn’t likely to be able to inhale this exquisite aroma (though one blithe spirit in Cannaregio was recently discovered at night stealing somebody’s laundry off the line, for reasons that were never very clear.)  But if you are here in the summer and in a position to wash some piece of fabric and hang it out to dry, you’ll have the pleasure of inhaling the air of Venice toasted by the sun.  There is no product you can put in a clothes dryer that could ever match the perfume created by the sun and the breeze, not even if it were something labeled “Venetian Sun and Breeze.”

Yes, it’s tiresome to have to calculate the time needed to dry your clothes outside on the line, especially because that time may not be quite enough to get the job done. Then you have a little psychological struggle to decide whether that sheet is really dry, or if you just wish, really hard, that it were, because it has to be.  But those are details.  This is one of the best smells in the world and I suppose one of the few Venetian ones you could replicate wherever you live, if your neighbors didn’t care, which they probably do.


One excellent reason to go out for a walk before dawn is to be able, in certain streets, to smell the bread coming out of the oven.

Fresh bread. If you have never, or not for a long time, walked into or past a bakery really early in the morning, when large batches of bread have just been taken out of the ovens, you might think that this is just another aroma, one of those few that humans are able to detect. (Bloodhounds, if you care, have noses that are ten- to one hundred million times more sensitive than a human’s. And bears are seven times more sensitive than bloodhounds.  Just to give some perspective.)  Is it the yeast?  The flour? The profound need of nourishment that our primitive organism requires? Warm bread.  The limbic system rejoices even if you don’t happen to be hungry.

There are 33 streets in Venice either named “baker,” “bakery” or “bakeries” (forner, forno, forni), the word denoting strictly bread, as opposed to eclairs or cake or muffins or anything else. (When I try to imagine what an average neighborhood in Venice smelled like in the year 1200 — apart from whatever the horses, humans, and roaming pigs contributed — I have to imagine the waftage from that many bakeries.  Not  so bad.) When First Crusader Godfreyof Bouillon set about founding the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, he promised the Venetians that in exchange for their help in his little effort, in every city they conquered their merchants would have their own neighborhood containing “A street, a square, a church, a bath, and a bakery.”  All the essentials, though I’d have started the list with a bakery.

One of my earliest encounters with this celestial aroma and its effect on me was in the dark of a winter dawn, when we were out rowing.  We were headed south along the lagoon shore of the Lido, toward Malamocco, and my attention was mainly on the fact that there was so much fog that I could barely see where we were going.  Suddenly I found myself in an invisible billow of warm-bread smell, drifting from a bakery somewhere behind the trees.  It was beyond magical.  And then it was gone, and we were back in the chilly, gunmetal gray world.

“Our daily bread” — it still means something here.

Pastry.  Walk past certain corners early in the morning — especially Sunday morning — and you will pass through a delectable little cloud composed of the smell of warm butter and sugar.  Come to think of it, I never notice any vanilla or almond or cinnamon tones, though you would expect them.  It’s essentially just butter and caramelizing sugar that are doing the work and the aroma is as gorgeous as a bouquet of peonies.  On a humbler note, you have an even better chance of smelling hot croissants just out of the oven of many bars and cafes — sweet, buttery, crusty.  (I maintain that “crusty” is a smell.) Hardly anybody makes their own anymore; they buy them frozen.  But the smell is delectable just the same.

Anything burning. Obviously I’m not referring to houses or boats here, though I think an incinerated plastic-resin boat (which I’ve seen from afar) must emit a smell that’s truly scary.  And harmful.

Then there is the smoke from the motors on boats.  This is, if possible, even more vile.  There’s more of it, and it seems to contain 97 extra poisonous ingredients.  Cruddy little boats backing up, big bruising barges stopping suddenly with a roar of the retro-rockets, and an assortment of geriatric motors belonging to men who grew up with the notion that it needs to “warm up” for ten or 15 minutes before departure.  Like the old black and white TVs.

You have to imagine greasy gray smoke roiling around this object, which is also roaring away like a mammoth trapped in a tar pit.

And there are motors which have been removed from their boats.  The man who lives across the street (about six feet away), conducted a late-autumn ritual the other day by putting his outboard motor onto a sort of metal trolley so he could clean it out by combusting all its fuel before putting it away for the winter.  So the motor stood there for a good 20 minutes, roaring, excreting thick grey smoke.  Of course this is against the law.  I closed the windows.

I’ve often mentioned the allure of distant woodsmoke (another smoky smell that doesn’t make any fireman feel warm and cozy).  I’m really thinking about food.

The aroma of cooking comestibles could be pork ribs over charcoal (at several saint’s-day festivals), or a batch of chestnuts (Lino does this at home, though I don’t detect anyone else doing it), or anything fishy –seppoline  or grey  mullet or sardines on the skillet.  I’ve developed sufficiently to be able to tell the difference  if I’m downwind of some intrepid cook.  Mostly that would be Lino.  I think people generally boil or bake fish because of the smell, though sometimes I walk through the cloud of somebody else’s imminent lunch or dinner.

This lady sells roasted chestnuts for a few weeks in the fall at the Lido, at the vaporetto stop. It's like the olfactory opening day of autumn.

When Lino was a lad, the smell of fish of any sort crisping up on a sheet of hot metal was one of the most normal smells around, so normal that people probably didn’t even notice it.  Now it’s something that inspires comment, via voices like the ones I heard out the bedroom window from people passing in the street as we were scorching a batch of the little critters.  If the people are past a certain age, their comments will be smoking with appreciation and desire.  If not, the heck with them. Our onlycontribution to good will among men is to avoid cooking them when people have hung their laundry out to dry just above us, because we open the windows and much as I love fish, even I wouldn’t want my underwear to smell like foodsmoke.

The fish smells vary by season. Seppie (cuttlefish) are in the fall (migrating adults) and spring (their babies).  Baby seppie (seppoline), as opposed to bass or shrimp, have some extra element that comes out on the griddle, maybe because they don’t have scales.  I don’t know.  It’s a slightly acrid, slightly salty, slightly bitter scent. It’s a fragrance that seems to connote a party, or at least a small but chaotic family gathering.


This long stretch of jasmine has such a powerful perfume that even though you love it at the beginning, after several weeks you can't wait for it to be gone. And it doesn't leave quickly, or willingly. By the time it's gone, you're saying "Thank God."

Flowers.  In April and May Venetian flora goes berserk. Festoons of wisteria, then the magnolia blossoms, then dense bushes of jasmine andpittosporum  saturate the air with a fragrance so powerful it verges on nauseating.  (I said “verges.”)

Followed immediately, in early June, by the flowering of the lime, or linden, trees. I never knew this smell before coming here, and it is absolutely the most wonderful plant-perfume here (exception made for  calicanthus).

I don’t need to see the linden blossoms, it’s enough for me to inhale their perfume, an exquisite mingling of delicate, not-too-sweet, utterly seductive elements.  Somebody knows what they are and what they’re called, but I’m not interested.  I just want to breathe it all in while I can. It doesn’t last as long as I’d like it to — maybe ten days.  I’d willingly shift some of the time the jasmine hangs around and give it to the lime trees.

The lovely, creamy little blossoms of the pittosporum are actually lovely, creamy little perfume bombs. One is enough, no matter how much you may love it.

This is a lime-tree in bloom. I wish you could smell it. If I even tried to describe it, I'd destroy it.

It had been so hot for so long that the rain had hardly begun to fall before we were walking through a Turkish bath.

Rain.  The summer sun beats down on the  masegni, or paving stones, day after day, and nobody notices until it rains.  Especially if the rain isn’t very hard or heavy, the superheated blocks of trachyte release a mist of steam (usually invisible, though not always) that smells of equal parts water and stone.  It smells of cool, it smells of relaxation.  It must stimulate that little part of the brain that responds to the word “oasis” or “waterfall.”

Fog definitely has its own smell. It’s something sharply clean and faintly metallic, something resembling wet iron. Being hot augments the rain smell; being cold augment

Coffee. In the 17th century, an Arab judge, Hadjibun di Medina, was instructed by the Ottoman sultan to settle some social controversy concerning the benefits of coffee.  (There was one intrepid subject who felt about coffee the way I feel about smoke, which created some temporary controversy.)  The good Hadjibun issued this statement:  “Oh you men of open mind, drink coffee and don’t pay any attention to the detractors who with denigrate it with brazen lies.  Drink it generously because its aroma banishes worries, and its fire reduces to ashes the turbid thoughts produced by daily life.”

As my thoughts are dangerously prone to becoming turbid it’s a good thing there’s so much good java around.  Even a whiff as I pass certain cafes on my daily rounds is an ethereal encouragement.  Which keeps me going till I pass the next cafe.

It's worth a trip to Sant' Erasmo for their patron saint's festival in June just for the charcoaled ribs.

Calicanthus, in the market at Rialto before Christmas. Heavenly.

The nose now knows that Carnival is on the way. Our friend Dino Righetto had just made a houseful of frittelle, which were even better than the warm-oil-and-sugar aroma which will probably stick to the upholstery till Easter.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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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?

Categories : History, Problems, Tourism
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Follow-up photo

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A few days ago I was expatiating on the nature of trash/biological refuse disposal here.  Or lack thereof.

One reader who shares my outlook on many things was moved to send me the following photo she made of one means of poop-disposal left by a Neanderthal somewhere in her ambit.  Not her back yard, I’m pretty sure.

We mustn’t begin to smile at these things.  But then again.

Yes, this does indeed look like some cheerful little mutant rabbit, ears and all. I wonder if it was intentional? I'd be sorry to learn that people who do this can also have a sense of humor. No wait -- that's crazy talk.

Categories : Problems, Venetian-ness
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Candlemas-hog Day

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I see that Punxsutawney Phil has spoken, and the utterance (you have to imagine it) comes out as “Early spring.”

Here, on this Very Same Day, we also have prognostications.  But we don’t consult just any old random mammal — we go for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Seeing as February 2 is the Feast of the Purification of the aforementioned BVM (meaning no disrespect), and seeing that candles have somehow become involved in this observance over the centuries (I’d tell you why but I don’t have time to check right now), the day is also called Candlemas.  Here, specifically, it’s called Candelora.  It sounds like a detergent of some sort, but it’s not.

The Venetian doggerel of the day goes:

De la Madonna Candelora

del inverno semo fora

se xe piova o xe vento

del inverno semo dentro.

(It’s the Madonna Candelora and we’re out of winter; if there’s rain or wind, we’re still in winter. Hey, it rhymes.)

In other words, we’d be getting six more weeks of winter if the BVM doesn’t see her shadow.

Today, the sun is blazing down as if to say “Take that!” to everybody who has spent the last two months whingeing about fog, rain, and freezing cold.

I’ll take it!  I’ll take it!

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Categories : Venetian-ness
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