Archive for May, 2012


Big day for me

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Anyone who knows that last Sunday was the 38th Vogalonga (I was there, rowing on the six-oar balotina, as last year) might be surprised to hear that that event is not filed under “Big day” in Erla’s Cosmic File Cabinet.

My big day was day before yesterday, hereinafter referred to as the Apparition of the First Magnolia Blossom.

This is not a trick: There is a single white blossom in there -- admittedly easier to see in real life than here. Check the upper right quarter of the central tree. Trust me.

My mother had the habit (obsession) of remaining on the lookout for little signals throughout the year — animal, vegetable, mineral, comestible, aural, but especially vegetable.  The way she watched for them made them seem important. And evidently a random twist of the old DNA has passed this persistent little practice on to me.  The first seppia.  The first frog-song. It’s such a part of how I see the world that I find it odd that everybody doesn’t do it.

I used to watch for the very first leaves coming out on the small weeping willow on the canal near our first dwelling.  First leaves are celestial, filmy, diaphanous. Complete, full-grown, ready-to-use, batteries-included leaves are not. And don’t tell me that the anticipation was more meaningful/pleasurable/important than detecting the nascent foliage itself.  You might convince me that the voyage matters more than the destination, but anticipation with no fulfillment is dumb.

So I have been keeping the huge magnolia tree near the Giardini vaporetto stop under close surveillance. Tell me why the first blossom could possibly matter.  No wait — don’t tell me.  It matters.

Now I have seen it and I feel happy.  I’m not sure what I’m going to be tracking next, but there will definitely be something. Followed by something else. Until December 31, and then I start over.

That famous Next Big Thing everybody's waiting for? I'm waiting for the Next Little Thing.

Categories : Nature
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America’s Cup album

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Due to a small technical tangle, I couldn’t add much illustration to my post about the America’s Cup.

Now that the tangle has been untied, here goes:

The American contender on the left strolls past the Italian contender on the right. It’s nice to see where some of those millions earned from software and handbags has turned up, in case you ever wondered.

Possibly the first time the Cup has been displayed in a gondola, but it was excellent to see it in the flesh, so to speak.

Two fans at the finals. Boats? Don't bother us.

More excitement in the stands.

The only participants who had more fun than the winner were the police. I’m imagining they had to draw lots to choose the men who got this assignment, otherwise there’d have been violence.

They totally loved doing this. All this white water was only a tiny fraction of the waveage created by all the official boats from every branch of every conceivable service, often going very fast. Which brought to mind the oddness of using so many motors at an event devoted to sailing -- though no odder, I suppose, than the motors required to conduct horse racing and skiing.

It was a good day for selling flags of the competing countries.

The window of “Alice in Wonderland” was loaded with a flotilla of vitreous craft in full sail, not to mention assorted marine mosaics.

The stationery and school-supplies store got in the groove.

The dancing-gear emporium did what it could, but the idea of rope and toe shoes makes me feel strangely apprehensive.

The boutique-soap-and-mystic-lamp store did a neat job of mystically floating the boat on a mystic pool of vapor.

A rusty anchor is always appropriate.

Even cooler is the pair of ancient diving boots. I could use some of these on the vaporetto.

The funky-clothing store made AmCup garb out of I'm not really sure what.

The lady who makes wedding favors sailed far into the past with this baby. Stand by to repel boarders.

Her best touch was the silver-coated shells. The globe was nice, too, lest we forget that before fiber-optic catamarans there were real ships that did real things.

Fireboats hurling water are extremely entertaining when they're not actually facing a fire. And as several wags on the shore remarked, if the crews got soaked, well, they're used to it.

The schooner that started it all: "America" in 1887. Of course, she also sang all the verses and the chorus of "You could never afford this, and even if you could, you probably wouldn't know what to do with it." But she sang it in a very different key.

Categories : Boatworld, Events
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America’s Cup hits Venice

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I’ve noticed that there are people who don’t like to change their minds, but I do.  It generally means I’ve learned something.  Here follows my most recent advance.

For the past two weeks or so, there were intermittent and increasing signs of the arrival of a Very Big Time sailing race to be held last weekend: Catamarans battling it out for a title belonging  to something known as the World Series of the America’s Cup.  There were to be races in the Adriatic just off the Lido, and races in the Bacino of San Marco.  The idea of a boat race in what amounts to the center of downtown struck me as extremely strange, possibly not appropriate, probably not very successful.  This reaction wasn’t the result of actual thought, just the force of habit.

Essentially, it sounded like it was going to be Just Another Thing.  Specifically, just another of those many things which exploit Venice as a stage set, but which have nothing to do with the city and which only create problems for everybody.

Wrong again.

The banners were lovely. I only noticed later they had chosen the papal color scheme. I wonder what it all means.

Yes, I had observed intriguing new elements, such as the various crews walking around the neighborhood (the boats were kept in the Arsenal).  These were men of various sizes who seemed to have been hewn from oak: All young, all strong, all superbly confident.  I don’t mean confident of winning, I mean confident of existing.

It was also announced, in what seemed to me to be a cute sort of “go team” spirit, that a prize would be awarded to the shop on via Garibaldi which was deemed to have created the most imaginative window display with a nautical theme.

That’s as far as I’d gone with tuning into this event.

Then, on my way home Friday afternoon about 5:00, tired and cranky, I found myself at San Marco, stuck because the vaporettos had been suspended because of the races.  First reaction: Oh swell.

Second reaction: My God, that’s a lot of helicopter racket from overhead (there were four).  As I began my inevitable walk home, plod plod, I looked out at the water.  Then I stopped.

Maybe those people on dark Kentucky back roads who find themselves in front of a UFO feel something like what I felt.  Because the Bacino had suddenly been transformed from its usual condition of resembling the Wal-Mart parking lot on the last Saturday before school starts into an arena that could only be described as epic.

The Bacino had been taken over by majestic beings skimming with a speed and precision that made it hard to believe they were even touching the water.

It was thrilling.

On your average day/week/era, Venice makes it far too clear that however much it wants to bill itself as a world-class city  (credible only because it once was), today it’s essentially a small town in Ohio.  And nothing could have made this clearer than to suddenly find the city in the throes of what was in fact a truly world-class event.

I don’t especially care about catamarans and I don’t spend much energy on the America’s Cup.  Of course I’m vastly proud of it and know that it’s a huge deal, but I suppose if everybody said, “oh well, let’s not do this anymore,” it wouldn’t have much effect on the fate of the world.

But this was beyond dazzling.  The sheer magnitude and splendor of these creations, the diabolical skill of their creators and their sailors (not to mention their owners), the stunning effect of seeing something this important here in little old Venice — I literally stopped in my tracks. And beyond the beauty and strangeness and scope of it all, behind the roaring of the helicopters, you could also hear the roar of the cataract of money which had created all this, which, in a strange way, also added to its fascination.  It was like standing under an Iguazu Falls of dollars.  Euros.  South Korean wons.

It was too much.  Venice, which spends most of its time plinking out the same drab little melodies (“We have no money, there are too many tourists, we hate/love/hate/love the big cruise ships, we don’t know what to do about anything…….”) was suddenly on center stage in the middle of the Ride of the Valkyries.

And she pulled it off.  There were thousands and thousands of spectators for the finals over the weekend, the hotels were full, and the weather exceptional (except for Sunday afternoon, when the wind wore out). All told, a spectacular success. In fact, it may have been the first time that I glimpsed some sliver of the sheer magnificence which used to be the order of the day here, the grandeur which overwhelmed every visitor who ever got within eyeshot of the place.

That’s where my mind changed. Ideas here, however good and even expensive they may be, are usually left only partially realized, or fully realized and then abandoned, or briefly put aside and then forgotten.

But this was brilliant.  Which brought to mind my high school choir director.  The first time we managed to do something exactly the way he wanted, he’d stop. “Now you’re in trouble,” he’d say. “Because now I know you can do it.”

Venice, over to you.


PS: Many photographs will be coming as soon as a technical seizure is resolved.



Categories : Events
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Stendhal syndrome in San Marco

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The Pala d'Oro started out as a relatively modest silver panel commissioned by doge Pietro Orseolo in 976-978 A.D. It was expanded by doge Ordelafo Falier (1104), and over the centuries it grew into this ponderous rectangle 11.4 feet (3.5 meters) long and 6.8 feet (2.1 meters) high.

I can tell you precisely when was the last time I sat and looked at art. It was Easter morning, and I wasn’t in a museum.

We were sitting in the front row of the basilica of San Marco and the occasion was the elaborate festal mass.  The sermon was well underway.  I had had every intention of listening carefully, because it was the new patriarch’s maiden voyage and I had been curious to check his rigging and navigation skills on one of the biggest days of the year.

If you’d like to know more, you’ll need to ask someone else.  Because while he didn’t drift into uncharted political or theological waters (I’m finished with this metaphor now), as his predecessor used to do, he wanted to convey a message I couldn’t follow, and he was in no hurry to finish it.  It was the religious equivalent of the stationary bicycle.

To be fair, he could just as well have been reading the Government Printing Office Style Manual, because the basilica of San Marco is an Olympics-level competitor if you’re trying to get somebody’s attention.  So I made the most of being installed in my seat for a while, and let my eyes wander around the opulence of the basilica itself.  And where my eyes wander, my brain tends to follow.

The story of Christ's temptations is presented in its barest essentials, but nothing has been left out, up to and including Satan giving up and flying back down to Hell.

I love this lion. He's just one small part of the gleaming mosaics on the ceiling and walls, which cover about 86,000 square feet (8,000 sq/m). I'm convinced that Venetian mothers for centuries implored their daughters to marry a mosaicist. They'd have been fixed for life.

After scanning my usual favorites (the mosaic depicting the Temptation in the Wilderness, the bug-eyed lion of San Marco in the Prophets Cupola, the relief on the small marble altar outlining Saint Paul’s crisis on the road to Damascus), I let my eyes settle on the Pala d’Oro.

One usually has to pay a small fee to go behind the high altar to see this prodigy, but on major feast days it is rotated to face the nave.  Of course, when you’re seated out there you can’t discern much detail, but even from a distance you can tell it’s something phenomenal.

As I gazed at it, I let my eyes slide beyond the extravagant assortment of enamel medallions, and the myriad (1,927, actually) precious and semi-precious stones, and its gleaming golden surface, dazzling though it all may be.

What I saw were the hundreds of people involved in making it, and how hard the work was, and how much it cost.  I don’t mean the bills that were presented to various doges, or what its total price would be today in round dollars, if such a thing could be calculated, which it probably can’t.

I mean the money every single person earned who was involved in this project, bearing in mind that what we see is the result of additions, substitutions, and renovations over centuries.  If thinking of Accounts Payable seems crass, it probably wasn’t so crass to the artists who made it.  Art is many things, but toward the top of the list is the word “business.”  I doubt that any more than .0035 percent of all the art in the world was made for free.

The number of individuals who contributed to this prodigious creation is similarly difficult to calculate, along with their vast amount of skill, effort, and imagination. So let’s take just one person.

I’m thinking about a master enamelist. First, there are the years he spends as an apprentice, doing the scut work, making mistakes, throwing things out, learning little tricks, getting yelled at.  He learns how to work with wire, with glass, with color, with fire. After I don’t know how long, he ‘s good enough to get the commission to do five saints (let’s say).

So he goes home to give his wife the good news, and tells her how much he’s  going to be paid (and when!).  And they stay up late feeling happy and trying to decide how they’ll spend the money — finally buy that horse? Pay the butcher? Order their daughter’s wedding dress?

Then I thought the same things about the artist who applied the baroque pearls (years, labor, etc.). Then I stepped back one step to the merchants who sold and bought the pearls (years, labor).  And the person who brought the pearls from the Persian Gulf to Constantinople.  And the person who dived for the pearls.  (I stopped short of imagining the oyster making the pearls, but you’re free to go ahead.)

Then I thought about the gold-leaf beaters and appliers. (This is no small thought, considering that the Pala d’Oro consists of gold in  many forms: repousse’, cast, applique’, chased, stamped, matted, and filigrees, not to mention granulation and beading.)  The gold merchant.  His wife and kids.  The camel-driver and ship’s captain who carried the gold.  Their wives and kids. The gold miner.  His wife and kids.

The central medallion depicts "Christ Pantocrator," a classic Orthodox/Byzantine depiction of Christ as the Almighty, or Ruler of All. This piece alone would have kept a number of people busy.

So I probably missed an excellent sermon while I was imagining spouses and offspring and extra food and new shoes and sick grandfathers and quack doctors and on and on, through the whole infinitely expanding intricacy of the connections between just about everything.

So whenever I see a few square inches of art (frescoes, mosaics, marble statues, kilim carpets, whatever), I sometimes unleash my mind and let it roll around like a Weazel Ball among centuries and countries and people.

I came back to my immediate surroundings when they passed to take up the collection.  Speaking of money.

So the goldsmith comes home and his wife asks how his day went, and he says "Excellent -- I finished the wings. Tomorrow, the seraphim." I deduce that this is an image of Ariel, one of 12 archangels represented in the throng. The garment is reminiscent of the Byzantine emperor's robes.





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Categories : Venetian History
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