Archive for Charles Ray


And speaking of animals

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I suddenly realized that when I was proposing the going-away party for the boy — clothes, but possibly also food, because he must be really hungry by now — I didn’t mention the frog.

That was an oversight. So here’s the plan.

First, the frog would be freed.

Second, he would be given a large pile of small- and medium-sized rocks to throw at the boy.

Third, he would be given a hundred things his heart might desire, from the unlisted phone numbers of Charles Ray (sculptor) and Francois Pinault (collector), to his own private estate with tennis court and helipad in the Great Moss Swamp, to a date with every winner of the Miss Humanity of the Netherlands pageant.  And a huge party at the Waldorf-Astoria for freed dolphins, liberated dancing bears, wounded hedgehogs, rehabilitated slow lorises, and birds whose owners accidentally left their cages open.  He’ll also have his own smorgasbord with all the beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and Purina Frog Chow he’ll ever want.  And a trampoline.  And a pony.

Lino spotted this gull because of his little identification anklet. Maybe he’s in the bird atlas by now, with a number if not a name.

While we’re on the subject of animals, here’s something you might find interesting.  More than 240 species of birds spend at least some, if not all, of their time in the Venetian lagoon and immediate vicinity.

An article in the Gazzettino announced this fact along with the notice of the publication of a new atlas of birds, the result of five years of data-gathering. For the record, the title is “Uccelli di laguna e di citta’ – L’atlante ornitologico del comune di Venezia 2006-2011,” written by Mauro Bon and Emanuele Stival, ornithologists of the Museum of Natural History, published by Marsilio.

Of these birds, 142 species come only for the winter, 115 come to nest, and about 60 are migrating. If you stop and read that over again, I think you’ll be respectfully amazed.  In fact, the lagoon is at a crucial point on a major north-south flyway, and is one of the largest lagoons left in Europe. It’s far from being just scenery.

Even though I’ve never seen them, I now have learned that there is a Hungarian royal seagull which arrives in the fall, and spends the winter in the Giardini Reali between the Piazza San Marco and the lagoon. And there is an extremely rare black-legged kittiwake that comes from England.

The Little Egret, which is abundant in the lagoon, doesn’t mind looking for a bite wherever the chances seem good, though they seem to be happier pecking through the shallows when the tide is low. There is a tree near the Vignole which at twilight in the summer is almost completely white with the egrets who’ve come to perch there for the night.

I was already interested in birds because rowing around the lagoon at all hours and in all seasons means that you see plenty of them.  For one thing, they’re everywhere.  For another, they’re generally easier to see than fish.

Some of the birds I’ve come to recognize are as much as part of Venice as canals and tourists. The svasso (grebe) and tuffetto (little grebe), only appear in the winter. The cormorants, mallards, seagulls, egrets and herons are here all year. I’ve already gone on too long about my passion for blackbirds (a few months per year), and I’ve never bothered to mention pigeons because there’s nothing worth saying about them.  They are the roaches of the avian world; they’ll be here pecking around and crooning after the last nuclear device explodes. I am prepared for hostile letters from pigeon-feeders.

There is one kingfisher who I watch for as we row behind the Vignole; all you can see is a flash of iridescent blue-green flitting through the trees and over the water. I wish he’d hold still somewhere just for a minute, but he’s not interested in being admired.

In the plush summer nights we almost always hear a solitary owl called a soleta (civetta in Italian), somewhere high in the trees in the Public Gardens.  He or she makes a soft one-tone hoot, repeated pensively at perfectly regular intervals.  It’s like a metronome, far away. It goes on for hours.  It’s very comforting.

A young Little Gull, photographed in Northumberland. Maybe he’s thinking about his Venetian vacation.

For two days not long ago we were startled to see a fluffy young gull we’d never seen before, standing on the fondamenta gazing out at the lagoon. Determined research revealed that it is a Little Gull. We haven’t seen it since.

And one magical winter day a trio of swans flew over us.  You hardly ever see the wild swans, but here were three, flying so low that I could see their long necks undulating slightly and hear a curious murmur from their throats.

Many of these birds depend on organisms and elements in the lagoon wetlands which exist because of, or are replenished by, acqua alta.  If so many people who never leave the city didn’t get so worked up about having to put on boots, the water could continue to provide for lots of creatures who like being here too.  Maybe your tourist or trinket-seller doesn’t care about the birds, but the birds probably don’t care about the Doge’s Palace and Harry’s Bar. Just saying.

A luscious look at acqua alta in the lagoon. A soaking marshy islet looks even better to a bird than it does to me.

This is the single grey heron I’ve seen here, always fishing between Sant’ Andrea and Sant’ Erasmo.

And of course the indefatigable seagulls. They look more attractive out here than plodding along the fondamentas ripping open plastic bags and strewing the garbage all around. Lino says nobody ever saw gulls in the canals, much less on the streets, when he was a boy. The same with cormorants, who we sometimes see fishing in our canal.

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Prepare to be stunned. The big news in today’s Gazzettino  comes as a thunderstrike from the blue, at least to me who doubted that I or my non-existent great-grandchildren would ever see the departure of the “Boy with a Frog” from the Punta della Dogana. 

He’s leaving.

The “Boy with a Frog” photographed by Pierre ( on August 21, 2009. At the time, he was still the new kid in town and hadn’t yet begun to wear out his welcome.

One might recall that we signed a petition on November 21, 2011 to remove the statue and replace it with the long-beloved and historically valid lamppost.  There was also a Facebook group organized with the same purpose, and while the time has been long and toilsome, perhaps they both had some effect on this happy outcome.

Tourists flocked to take photos of his appendages, but many Venetians looked at him and saw only what wasn’t there anymore, and what they wanted to have back.  Including Lino, and also me.

There were so many protests of various sorts, including occasional calls to arms to destroy it, that the museum owner, Francois Pinault, paid for a transparent protective box to cover it every night, and an armed guard around the clock.  A guard who, a recent article recounted, was required to work a 12-hour shift without anywhere to sit, keep warm, eat, or go to the bathroom.  You don’t get to be a billionaire by feeling sorry for people.

But perhaps the “vehement letter” from Franco Miracco, ex-councilor of the Ministry for Cultural Treasures (“beni“) was what was finally needed.  He wrote, the story reports, asking the city and the local Superintendency for Artistic and Architectural Treasures “whatever happened to the authorization to leave (the statue) there.” As in: The jig is up.

So the news is that on March 18 the work will begin to remove the lad and replace the lamp.

The city is congratulating itself publicly for its concern to replace the old lamp with a perfect replica, made from the mold (1860’s vintage) at the foundry in Mantova which had made the original lamp.  I too congratulate them.  I also wonder whatever happened to the lamp that was there until 2009, but there must be a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” injunction on that question.  Works of art and history get lost in warehouses all the time.  Cut up, sold, melted down, and so on.

In case you might wonder how this feat is being accomplished by a municipality which has made a cult of having no money, it’s being paid for by a group of companies which supply public lighting.

So is this the last we’ll ever see of the eight-foot stripling?  Maybe not.  The city has only said that “Its future at the moment is uncertain.  The sculpture could find a new space in Venice, but might also leave the city.”

I’m seriously considering planning a going-away party for the little guy.  It would be like a baby shower — we could all give him clothes.  Underpants.  Shearling coats.  Collegiate hoodies.  Compression running tights.  Mukluks.

If I ever hear of a reason why this decision was made, I’ll pass it along.  Of course, you don’t get to be a billionaire by explaining why you do things.

For now, I’m filing it under “The Fullness of Time.”

I wish someone would explain the fatal attraction of pre-pubescent boys and frogs. This “Boy and Frog” won a bronze medal for American sculptor Elsie Ward Hering at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. Copies are in Brookgreen Gardens (South Carolina) and the Denver Botanic Gardens.


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The real news is not that a statue was put where the street lamp used to be — this happened a year and a half ago.

What’s worth talking about is that the resulting public protest may be having some effect.

Protests here usually involve some letters and op-ed pieces in the paper and a lot of discontented murmuring in the bars and cafes. But now Facebook has made itself felt, which has made protesting a whole new game.

It all involves the Opprobrious Case of the Lamp and the Frog. Translation: Yet another in the endless procession of municipal decisions which are made for reasons which mean nothing to the dwindling indigenous population; in this case, the removing of the old street lamp at the Customs House Point to make room for said undraped youth.

The Customs House Point (Punta della Dogana) is virtually in front of the Piazza San Marco.  People are going to notice whatever you put here,whether they like it or not.

The Customs House Point (Punta della Dogana) is virtually in front of the Piazza San Marco. People are going to notice whatever you put here,whether they like it or not.

To make it worse, this administrative Coup de Lamp has occurred on public space coopted for private something: Gain, notoriety, or any other motive not involving Venetian history or its inhabitants.  Or, as I think of it, another example of the insatiable desire felt by people in business to use the city as a stage set for personal gain.  It is an impressive bit of scenery against which to place your product, this is undeniable.

Here is what has happened and how the story may — MAY — turn out to have a happy ending.

The Customs House building (1677), sitting at the eponymous point, the tip of Dorsoduro facing the Bacino of San Marco, was dilapidated and unused for years.

Then in 2007 or 2008, an intergalactically rich French businessman named Francois Pinault worked out a deal with the city: He would pay for the restoration of the historic building in exchange for the right to transform it into a modern art museum displaying his own intergalactically famous modern art collection.  Named Punta della Dogana (Customs House Point), the  museum opened on June 6, 2009.

Here is the lamp.  True, in this case the moon has outshone the lamp, but the wattage is not the point.

Here is the lamp. True, in this case the moon is brighter, but wattage is not the point.

I’ve noticed that modesty does not usually, or ever, aid you in amassing unfathomable wealth, and I present Mr. Pinault as a case in point.  He owns a holding company named Artemis which comprises Converse shoes, Samsonite luggage, the Vail Ski Resort, Chateau Latour, and Christie’s auction house.  You don’t make a fortune of $19 billion by playing “Mother, may I?” You just forge ahead.

Bear with me for another paragraph or two, because context is important.

For some 20 years, Fiat, the car company, was the proud owner of the museum housed in the Palazzo Grassi.  It was the go-to place for important mega-shows, like “The Etruscans” or “The Celts,” that kind that require advance reservations and standing in long lines and you leave exhausted lugging an expensive catalog that weighs eight pounds which you will never look at and only occasionally dust. It was the sole place in Venice that was capable of presenting shows of that caliber and it was always full.

Whether the boy and his frog are more beautiful than the lamp is obviously a personal opinion, but you can't deny that the lamp is also useful. (Photo:

Whether the boy and his frog are more beautiful than the lamp is obviously a personal opinion, but you can't deny that the lamp has the advantage of being useful. (Photo:

In 2005 Fiat was facing bankruptcy, and the last thing they needed was a museum on the Grand Canal.  So Mr. Pinault became the new owner, and he dedicated Palazzo Grassi to his personal collection.  If you want to see something other than, say, a huge skull made entirely of tin cans, or an enormous shrieking-pink balloon-dog poodle made of metal, you’ll have to go elsewhere.  And forget the Etruscans and Celts, they now have nowhere in Venice to stay.

But evidently that was only fun for a little while, because then he wanted another museum.  Hence the Punta della Dogana. Conversion accomplished by intergalactically famous Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, with the warm support of the mayor and Renata Codello, the Superintendent of Beni Architettonici e Paesaggistici (Architectural and Landscaping Patrimonies — “landscape” in the sense of physical environment in its aesthetic and historical aspects).  You may remember her as the putative guardian of the city’s monuments who so cooperative in allowing the use of Venetian monuments as scaffolds for commercial billboards.

It’s interesting that this shred of municipal land has fallen under her jurisdiction — there are so many categories to which this building/area might perhaps belong.  Not only Architecture, but Art, or  Culture, or History, or Archaeology, or maybe even Ethnoanthropology.  Yes, these are all categories into which Italy’s infinite number of treasures may be administratively shoehorned and within which they struggle for dominance, or at least survival. And they always struggle for money. Just another of the many ways in which my life resembles an Italian art work.

However, the process of this transformation revealed that Mr. Pinault was given to consider the territory surrounding his museum as also belonging to him.  This isn’t surprising, considering that he also flies the flag of Brittany from the roof, where the flag of San Marco would look much better. Flying your own flag from a historic building that isn’t really yours is so uncool.

But THEN he (or they) removed the very old and beloved street light from the point itself and replaced it with “Boy with Frog,” a sculpture by American artist Charles Ray — a white statue of a naked, larger-than-life-size pre-pubescent lad.  From his outstretched hand dangles a dead frog.  And the frog is not the dangle-age that attracts the most attention.

Superintendent Codello was shocked to hear that the public found this objectionable.  But it hasn't stopped scores of other billboards from taking the city's buildings hostage.

Superintendent Codello was shocked to hear that the public found this objectionable. But that hasn't stopped scores of other billboards from taking the city's buildings hostage.

This has made a lot of Venetians mad.  It’s not that they especially care about artistic enigmas or naked boys or their assorted appendages. Nor would they care to hear that the frog typically symbolizes resurrection, healing and intuition, transitions, dreams, or opportunity.

But they do care that their street light was taken away to make room for this object.  Not only was the light beautiful, and romantic, it was also useful if you were returning at night in your boat. None of which could truly be said of the bareskinned lad and his amphibious accessory.

They also care that — as per virtually usual — a number of laws that restrict the use of public space for personal motives were overridden, ignored, or forgotten by the administrators entrusted with their enforcement.  They care that there was never any public discussion of this decision.  They care that something that has personal emotional significance has been treated like just some old thing that was in the way.

Even if you love the statue and think it’s greater than Michelangelo’s “David” or the Winged Victory of Samothrace or Christ of the Ozarks or the Bronze Horseman, it doesn’t belong on the Customs House Point and it certainly had no reason to displace something beautiful as well as useful that had stood there for as long as anyone can remember.  Actually, longer.

So a citizens’ protest movement began on Facebook and it has grown to almost 3,000 members. Even we signed a petition in the dark in the rain to add our names to the list of people who want the lamp back.

Should you feel moved to join this group, log onto Facebook and sign up. Just write “lampione” in the search field and you’ll get to “Lampione della Punta della Dogana,: NOI lo vorremmo indietro!”  (“Streetlight at the Punta della Dogana: WE want it back”).  Click on the “join” icon and then write your comment, should you feel so inspired.

But it now appears that this spontaneous peaceful uprising may be having an effect. The latest news is that the mayor talked to Superintendent Codello and Mr. Pinault.  The Gazzettino explained that the statue was put there as part of an exhibition, “Mapping the Studio,” and that when it closes (March? May? June? the date is oddly difficult to pinpoint) the statue will go and the lamp will return.  Probably.  They mayor has left a couple of tiny loopholes open in his last, apparently positive, declaration of intent.

Superintendent Codello, perhaps feeling a bit nettled by all the fuss, defended the removal of the lamp on the grounds that it isn’t historic (dating only from the 1980’s and “of no value.”  Yes, that’s what she said.)  Facebook group founder Manuel Vecchina says no, it was made in the 19th century by the Venetian foundry of the Gradenigo family. Whichever may be true — and it’s too bad that I find Vecchina more credible than Codello, who of all people ought to know such things — I draw the line at her assessment of “value.”  As in, what has none.  I mean, it’s not as if we needed her appraisal for insurance purposes.

But at least up to this point the vox populi seems for once to have made itself heard.

Speaking of frogs, it was funny when comedian Peter Cook created an imaginary restaurant which he called “The Frog and Peach.”  But in the end, his fictional founder had to admit that the venture had turned out to be “A gigantic failure and a huge catastrophe.”

I don’t know that I’d call the “Boy with Frog” a gigantic failure — a gigantic something is certainly is — but it does belong in the “catastrophe” column of the municipal-credibility-and-responsibility ledger.

And put some clothes on the kid, he must be freezing out there.

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