Archive for Doge’s Palace


Just glimpsing

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One could do very well here not reading or listening to the news — though eventually one would miss something good — but there would be no point in living in Venice if you couldn’t wander around just looking at things.  And things there always are, needing no introduction and often no comprehension.  If you require that the world make sense, don’t come here.  Go somewhere logical, like Naples, or Lagos.  I speak from experience.

But back to Venice:

This building has clearly led several useful lives.  You don’t need that archway anymore? Brick it up and punch out a window. But the arch presented problems for later revisions; the owners had to slice a corner off the panel on the wall near its arch ring to accommodate it.  And what to do with that fireplace hovering above it?  That fireplace has become  a small obsession of mine. Its floor should be parallel to the street, one would think, but the arch has left it to fend for itself.

Speaking of trying to fit things into a squeezy space there is this barge, which needed to park here. No room? No problem! Just let the part that doesn’t fit stretch out into the street. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a truck parked like this in some city on the mainland, so why should it make me blink here by the canal?

This is a very happy scene. A few whiles back, somebody smashed the plaque and offering box to bits.  In a cit y where everything is tending to fall to pieces that might not merit much attention.  But the inscription has always intrigued me: “Acknowledging Archpriest Giovanni Cotin 1915 1918 the inhabitants of Quintavalle.  Offerings.”  Quintavalle is a little lobe of land behind the church of San Pietro di Castello, and it is truly the back of beyond.  What Giovanni Cotin did to merit the love and gratitude of its residents is something I AM going to find out.  But meanwhile, by some miraculous hand(s), the damage has been repaired.  The story could end here, but I am fascinated by the fact that they installed an awning to protect the relief image of the Madonna and Child from the blazing sun. The image is of bronze, for heaven’s sake. Does bronze need protection? I wouldn’t have thought so, but perhaps they think it’s the mother and her baby, and not the art work itself, that need some shade, which is enchanting, and somehow shows as much reverence and affection as the plaque.  Quintavalle, I underestimated you.

Let’s move indoors.  There is an art to managing the superstitions involving the number 13.  We were invited to a festive lunch in a popular and crowded place where they tape a piece of paper by your table to indicate the time and number of people to be seated. (Also the name of the person who made the reservation, which I have removed.) It is known to be desperately bad luck to write that there are 13 people in a group — as I understand it, which I mostly don’t — so they have cleverly written the number of diners as 12 + 1. It doesn’t seem that there BEING 13 people is a problem, you just can’t write it.  But the time is 1300 hours, or 1:00 PM. Obviously “13” gets all kinds of waivers in the luck department.

More messages, and chalk is just as good as carved stone if the sentiment has that lapidary character. On the bar at a cafe by the Rialto market: “The client is always right … is a concept invented by a client…The person who is right is one who is polite, courteous and understanding of whoever is working.” If you don’t agree, by all means feel free to get out and go elsewhere.  That’s written in invisible chalk.

On the door to the restroom of a bar/cafe. Speaks for itself.

I’m on this staircase in the Doge’s Palace only once a year — it’s closed to the public — so I have to make the most of it. Late afternoon makes so many things look good.


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Lugash on the lagoon

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The exhibition poster: “Treasures of the Mughals and the Maharajahs.”  This piece alone gives a glimpse of the insane gorgeousness of the collection belonging to Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of the royal family of  Qatar.

Imagine a large room in a world-famous palace/museum, in which a lavish assortment of five centuries of dazzling Indian jewelry has been on display for months.  This palace is in a famous, small, cramped, waterbound tourist city, a place not especially conducive to rapid escape.  Imagine also that on the last day of the exhibition two men stroll in at 10:00 AM, deftly open a case, and mere seconds later just wander off, out of sight, with a pair of earrings and a brooch valued at 3 million dollars.

You can stop imagining.  It happened on January 3 in the Doge’s Palace, and the jewels were not called the Pink Panther, but they might as well have been.  The thieves are two men, caught on surveillance video, who didn’t even use a picklock, crowbar, bobby pin, small explosive; it appears that the case had already been slightly opened to facilitate the theft.  It also appears that they had an electronic device that delayed the sounding of the alarm.  Certainly it went off.  Just too late to do any good; by then, the two thieves were lost in the crowd and gone.

The Sala dello Scrutinio doesn’t need any help in looking fabulous, but the dressing of this set, if we want to call it that, was worthy of the 270 pieces dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries displayed for the first time in Italy. It was as if Faberge’ had gone to India and came back to Venice.  (Photo: Mattinopadova)

The city is agog, as you might suppose, and none more so than the parties directly involved in ensuring that this kind of thing doesn’t happen.  Did the thieves have inside help?  And how clever they were to plan this exploit for the last day, when the atmosphere was certainly that of the party being over.

There have already been pages and pages written in the press about this most unpleasant start to the New Year.  Sparing you every speculation so far, may I merely note that the display cases were made by the Al Thani Foundation, as was the security system used.  That certainly complicates the directions in which fingers might be pointing.

The items now at large. Most articles have pointed out that they were not among the most valuable, either historically or monetarily, of the items in the collection.  If that makes anybody feel any better.  (Photo: Corriere del Veneto).


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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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Some big-ships lore

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Yesterday at a family gathering I got to talking with my nephew-in-law, someone I don’t get to see very often.

He is in his 33rd year of working as a tugboat captain for the port of Venice, so I made the most of the moment, grilling him lightly on both sides with questions about the floating Alps.  Specifically, what sort of danger they present to the city — especially that nightmare scenario in which a ship the size of Madagascar goes off course and cleaves the Piazza San Marco in twain.

Here is what he told me:

1.  The ships have many propellers (I forget the number) and it is highly unlikely that they would all go out of service.  More than the propellers, I think it’s probably the motors one should be more concerned about.  Here too, the probabilities are notable:  Cunard’s Queen Victoria (my floating Alp of choice) has six diesel engines, as well as three bow thrusters.  Could they all stop at once?  I suppose, if you lived long enough.

2.  The big ships each arrive and depart Venice with two tugboats attached, one at the bow and one at the stern.  If the ship were to suddenly go dead in the water, the two tugs would be capable of keeping it on course. Pushing, like two little sheepdogs.

3.  The last factor which is perhaps unique to Venice (at least in the big-cruising world) is that what’s down under the surface is mud.  The channel along which the ship traces its passage provides a rather narrow strip of sufficient depth; tide and the action of many motors have pushed mud up against the embankments.   We don’t have rocky shores, like some islands I won’t mention, which dealt the fatal blow last January 13 to a ship whose name I will not utter.  So even if a ship did suddenly head straight for the Doge’s Palace, it would run aground in the mud before it got there.

I have rowed a little mascareta at full speed (arguably not comparable to that of the Queen Victoria) up onto a mudbank.  You’d be amazed how fast the boat stops.  Which I mention to confirm that mud has phenomenal braking powers.  And when you try to pull the boat off the mudbank, you appreciate that even more.

So I’ve stopped caring about the buoyant metropolises that steam past us all summer.  I’d be a thousand times more afraid to find myself in the path of an illegal clam fisherman at night, as he races across the lagoon with his 300-horsepower engines trying to get away from the Guardia di Finanza.  I promise you, he wouldn’t even ask his friend “Did you feel something?” as he went over you and kept on going.  But I shouldn’t change the subject — because the world is lying awake at night worrying about Venice, not about me. I merely note that on the “clear and present danger” list, big-ships-sundering-Venice is pretty low.


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Categories : Venetian Problems
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