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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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Would you like to know how to say “So big your mind vaporizes in front of it” in Turkish?

Answer: “Bogazici.”

In English it’s “Bosphorus,” which is actually Greek, but whatever you want to call it, you’ll say it standing at attention.

And we were out there on July 17, four of us from Venice and four Turkish men, in two gondolas, rowing across it.

Even from space the Bosphorus looks impressive, especially that little dog-leg to the left up there. That must be highly entertaining to the captains and pilots aboard the 55,000-some vessels that transit each year.

So what’s so big about it?  In normal human terms, the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation isn’t all that big. It’s about 31 km/17 nautical miles long and its maximum width is 3,329 meters/1.7 nautical miles and its minimum width is a mere 704 meters/.38 nautical miles. But unless you need to pilot a tanker of liquefied natural gas or something, these numbers don’t tell you its true dimensions.

When you row out onto it in a four-oar gondola, the whole concept of size suddenly multiplies in every direction.  I knew there were currents and vortexes and so on, though Lino in the stern knew how to deal with them so I, rowing in the bow, didn’t pay much attention.  But I didn’t know then that the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south flow toward each other with differing densities, which forms an underwater river in the Bosphorus which, if it were on the surface, would be the sixth largest river (in volume, I presume) on earth.

It’s probably better I didn’t know that.

The Rumelihisari fortress was built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1451-52. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge is also named for him ("Fatih" means "Conqueror"). We were out there, smaller than any boat shown here, rowing back and forth in front of it, focusing on not being conquered by the waves. Photo: Sagredo

Carbing up before our first expedition onto the Bosphorus. The boats are waiting for us five minutes away, but we seem to be in no hurry.

What I did feel was not only the mass of water under us, I felt the mass of history bearing down on this strip of sea which by now is so heavy there ought to be a black hole there instead of mere water. It’s not every day I get to row around in front of a Turkish fortress built in 1451 to enable the Ottoman assault which conquered Constantinople in 1453.

And just for the record, Lino told me later than when we rowed out there, he had a lump in his throat, for the very same reasons I was listening to my brain spinning its wheels saying “I cannot believe I’m out here doing this.”  The fact that he could get emotional is a great thing — and that he could be dealing with the throat-lump while also keeping track of the vortexes is even better.

Gondolas on the Bosphorus — how weird is that? Despite the fact that, somewhere back in history, there were plenty of boats our size being rowed all around here, we were thrillingly tiny.  Under the soaring Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge the passing ocean-going tugboat and the double-decker tourist boats and the random tanker, all of which seemed to have three-million-horsepower motors and created waves the size of Quonset huts, made rowing a fairly unusual thing to be doing out here.  Possibly the people aboard the aforementioned craft thought so too, though I’m not sure we even showed up on their radar. Certainly the tourists were excited to see us, waving and snapping pictures, though only God knows what they were thinking as we passed.  They certainly weren’t thinking about the massive wake they were leaving behind them.                                                                                                                                                              

This is the Bosphorus at its peerless best. We are toiling toward the Bosphorus Bridge, the second of only two across the strait. The finish line was almost in sight (imagine applauding hordes to the right of the frame). Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey

So we were there just to be weird?  Mais non, mon capitaine. Thanks to the collaboration of His Excellency Gianpaolo Scarante, the Italian Ambassador to Turkey, we were invited to be the opening number in the spectacle of the Bosphorus Cross Continental, an annual event organized by the Turkish Olympic Committee, the only swimming event in the world which involves two continents.

Some 1,200 swimmers plunge into the water like penguins off an ice floe from a dock on the Asian shore of Istanbul and swim to the European side, a distance of some 6 km/3.8 miles, with the bonus of having to turn around and do the last stretch against the current.

But Venetian boats in Istanbul?  Of course there were plenty here when it was Byzantium, and plenty even after it became Constantinople.  But given much of the history between Venice and Turkey, it was a very cool thing to be there all together — two Venetians and two Turks per boat — with absolutely no ulterior motive, like buying, selling, or slaying.

This map shows the path the swimmers follow. We started below the bridge at the top, at the little protuberance on the Asian shore called Kandilli, and finished somewhat above the next, a distance of about three kilometers/1.8 miles. It turned out to be not quite as easy as that might sound -- heat, breeze, and a gondola that seemed to weigh about as much as the USS New Hampshire made this little adventure a real calorie-incinerator.

Traffic is blocked for four hours to smooth the stage for the mob of Australian-crawlers (and the small pod of dolphins we saw arcing around the finish line).  If delivery of your new plasma TV is held up, maybe you could blame it on this.  In any case, we also benefited handsomely from this blockade, benefited, that is, until about ten minutes from the finish line, when two double-decker tourist boats carrying the swimmers upstream passed by.  The swimmers waved at our brilliant strangeness and beauty but didn’t notice the wake. Our gondola stolidly took the three or four walls of water head-on — womp, womp, womp — but it isn’t good for the boat and it really slowed us down.  When you’re panting to reach the finish line, hot and sweaty, being slowed down is intensely annoying. Still, compared to the gymkhana of yesterday, with waves from everywhere, it wasn’t so bad.

Lino’s and I, with Ata and Samet on the red-and-green gondola, finished second.  I don’t say we lost, nor do I say the blue gondola won, because the boats were totally mismatched in several technical but telling details.  Also, it wasn’t supposed to be a genuine race; Ata and Samet, and Burak and Mehmet, had only tried Venetian rowing twice in their lives, on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. It’s just that the desire to see no one in front of them overcame the sporting good sense of our adversaries.  I didn’t care if they came in first.  I did care that they did it by five or six boat-lengths.

Say what you will, I do not consider this a scene of effulgent sportsmanship. Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey

So what could be next?  I’d be perfectly happy if we were to be able to do this again next year. Otherwise, unless we find a way to tackle the Bering Strait, or maybe the Strait of Malacca, I’m going to leave this experience in lonely splendor at the top of a list of one, labeled “If this doesn’t astound you, you must be completely missing your astound-o-meter.”


The wave may be gone but the effect lingers briefly. Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey

(L to r): Erla Zwingle, Lino Farnea, Ata Sukuroglu, Samet Baki Uctepe of the red/green gondola. Burak Dilsiz, Mehmet Gokhun Karagoz, Cesare Peris, Dino Righetto of the blue gondola; H.E. Gianpaolo Scarante, Italian Ambassador to Turkey. We had no idea that at this very moment, the winner of the swimming competition had just reached the finish line -- and a Turk, as it happened -- an 18-year-old named Hasan Emre Musluoglu. And the Olympic Committee organizers did not give the tiniest sign of interrupting our little moment of glory until all the prizes were given and the snaps taken. There are extreme sports, and sometimes there is extreme sportsmanship, not to mention world-class class. I'm going to have to start learning Turkish. Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey.

A more informal lineup: The two crews before our first session.



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