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Sep
14

The wonders worked by gold

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Simple little gold.  I don't know how much this is worth, but I know I could use most of it.

Simple little gold, otherwise known as Au, or 79. I don’t know how much this is worth, but I know I could use most of it.  So could Venice, but I”m not sharing. (Dallas Refining)

Money in Venetian is known as schei (“skay”).  It is also known, by extension, as the thing we need most and have least.  In fact, we have none.  We never have any.  There isn’t any.  We can’t pay for anything because we haven’t got anything to use, not even bricks of salt or boxes of tulips.  We’re broke, and proud of it.

I’m broke because no money comes in.  The city is broke because money comes in but then it goes out again, somewhere, lots of somewheres, all according to accounting systems that bear more resemblance to Advanced Squad Leader than simple little double-entry bookkeeping, which was invented in Venice, by the way.

It’s something astonishing.  Venice can’t pay for the Regata Storica.  It can’t pay for the city hospital.  It can’t pay for repairing (fill in name of favorite monument, church, work of art here).  It can’t pay to build a new cinema for the Film Festival.  It can’t pay to correct the errors which were paid for with money which it didn’t have.  It’s trying to sell the Casino because the once-flourishing cash cow is running out of butterfat.  Somebody wrote to the Gazzettino that the best way to settle the evergreen conflict about whether the Italian Region of Alto Adige is really the Austrian Region of South Tyrol is to sell it to the Austrians. Conflict over, coffers bursting.

The only way to confront snaggly streets and exhausted bridges and anything else that needs fixing is to seek a sponsor.  The word “sponsor” has acquired the lonely, sacred, unattainable significance of “Holy Grail.”  “We have to find a sponsor” is the most annoying, monotonous, “I got nothin'” phrase since “Have a nice day.”  It means “We have to find an oil field,” “We have to find a rhodium mine,” “We have to find something that doesn’t cost us anything and gives us everything.”

But money there is, because it keeps popping up where it isn’t supposed to be — not only in Venice, but all over Italy.  Bribes.  Payoffs.  Fake blind people imbibing state subsidies for disabilities.  (A woman has just been nabbed for having requested — and received — a 300-euro contribution to pay for her children’s schoolbooks.  She claimed to have only 6,000 euros in this world.  But in fact, she turns out to have 480,000 euros in this world.)  One man who has finally been cornered for some malfeasance I haven’t been tracking was discovered to have 238  bank accounts.  Is that a lot?  I have no way of knowing.

If it's hard to earn gold to spend on cars and clothes, think of how hard it is to earn gold in Olympic medal form. This is from the Winter Olympics of Cortina d'Ampezzo, 1956.

If it’s hard to earn gold to spend on cars and clothes, think of how hard it is to earn gold in Olympic medal form. This is from the Winter Olympics of Cortina d’Ampezzo, 1956.

I do know that there were long, convoluted negotiations between the city and Pierre Cardin about the “Palais Lumiere,” the cyclopean ultra-modern glass skyscraper he wanted to build on the edge of the lagoon.  Everybody but the two aforementioned entities thought it was a terrible idea and finally he gave up and took his idea and went away.  Which means that now the city suddenly doesn’t have the 30 million euros (I believe it was) which they had already happily scribbled onto the “Income” side of the ledger.  Which means that now they haven’t got enough to pay for extending the tram across the bridge from Mestre to Piazzale Roma.  Evidently the phrase “You should have thought of that sooner” applies to more situations than to five-year-olds in the back seat of the car who suddenly have to go to the bathroom.

As usual, everyone is wailing about taxes and many are wailing about the cost of government.  (Feel free to wail in your own language.)  But if anybody has the sensation that the taxes are going nowhere, it’s possible to discover at least some of the wheres.  Such as running the government.  We heard on the radio that the cost of government in Germany is 4 euros per person; in Greece it’s 6 euros per person; in Italy, it’s 27.  It’s expensive to keep 630 people in Rome arguing all day about the other parties’ members and mistakes.

Am I going somewhere with all this?  Certainly.

I am reading a very diverting book entitled “A Book of Scoundrels,” by Charles Whibley (1897), which delineates the careers of England’s most notable highwaymen and other sorts of thieves and criminals.  Short version: In spite of their faults and failures as humans, he was basically on their side as long as they had panache, originality, and/or great clothes.

I offer the following segment in honor of all the fiscal frivolity that crowds the newspapers and the courts.  This may be the only period that I’ve ever wished I were a lawyer; I’d be fixed for life.

And there was that little unpleasantness about the Golden Calf. Based, as I recall, more on its calfness than its goldenness. A detail, and not one that would get me out of court.. (The Nuremberg Chronicle, Vanderbilt University).

And there was that little unpleasantness about the Golden Calf. Based, as I recall, more on its calfness than its goldenness. A detail, and not one that would get me out of jail. (The Nuremberg Chronicle, Vanderbilt University).

The characters: James Hind (1616 – 1652) a notorious highwayman of Royalist sympathies who happened to get his clutches on John Bradshaw, the judge who had condemned King Charles I to decapitation. The scene: The luxurious open spaces of Dorset, near Sherborne.

First, Hind took all of the judge’s money, told the bodyguard (who had judiciously decided to suspend his active service) to take off his hat, and then delivered the following discourse on gold:

“This is that incomparable medicament, which the republican physicians call the wonder-working plaster.  It is truly catholic in operation, and somewhat akin to the Jesuit’s powder, but more effectual.

“The virtues of it are strange and various; it makes justice deaf as well as blind, and takes out spots of the deepest treason more cleverly than castle-soap (sic) does common stains; it alters a man’s constitution in two or three days, more than the virtuoso’s transfusion of blood can do in seven years.

“‘Tis a great alexiopharmick, and helps poisonous principles of rebellion, and those that use them.  It miraculously exalts and purifies the eyesight, and makes traitors behold nothing but innocence in the blackest malefactors.

“‘Tis a mighty cordial for a declining cause; it stifles faction or schism, as certainly as the itch is destroyed by butter and brimstone.

” … The very colour of this precious balm is bright and dazzling.  If it be properly applied to the fist, that is in a decent manner, and a competent dose, it infallibly performs all the cures which the evils of humanity crave.”

Thus having spoken, he killed the six horses of Bradshaw’s coach, and went contemptuously on his way.

Take that!  And that!  Hind’s scorn might be wasted on the prime exemplars of modern brigandage here in the cradle of the Renaissance.  Not that they’re unfamiliar with scorn, and some irony manages to make itself heard from time to time, but discourses such as Hind’s would lack flourish in Italian, where utterances often depend more on blunt instruments (words such as “shame”) than the whetted poniards of true rhetoric.

But I feel better now.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe because it shows that there’s no point in struggling to be better people. It’s been this way forever.  Here we are, and here we’ll stay.  Evolution is over.

So let's revert to mythology, when life was simpler, if shorter.  Danae met Zeus in the form of a golden shower, the story goes.  James Hind could only dream of this.  (Orazio Gentileschi, date TK, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).

So let’s revert to mythology, when life was simpler, if shorter. Danae met Zeus in the form of a golden shower, the story goes. James Hind could only dream of this. The gold, I mean, not the girl. (Orazio Gentileschi, c. 1621, Cleveland Museum of Art).

 

 

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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: www.house42.com)

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: www.house42.com)

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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Dec
01

Venice vaporettos: give me a sign

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I saw something today that I have longed — longed — to see, and had despaired of ever seeing. Ever. And had ceased to believe that my grandchildren, if I ever had any, would see it either.

Signs.  They have finally installed signs showing route maps on the vaporettos indicating each blessed stop of the blessed line being ridden. You can’t believe it?  I can’t either, but there they are.

Not only does the sign exist, it has been placed in a useful location on both sides of the aisle, and it's legible. They thought of everything.

Not only does the sign exist, it has been placed in a useful location (there's another on the other side of the aisle), and it's legible, unlike the other supposedly useful announcements you can just barely make out stuck to the right-hand window. They thought of everything.

The Big Cities I know have always done this on their buses and subways: New York, Paris, Moscow, London, Rome, San Francisco … I think Oslo, too, but I can’t remember at the moment.  Probably. Norway’s supposed to have the highest quality of life of any place on the planet, and I’d put bus maps right up there with free flu shots in the Great Scheme of Human Development.

In any case, it’s such an obviously simple and useful thing to do that not doing it must have required an impressive amount of density and sloth on the part of everybody here who could have made it happen.

But then again, there are countless things in life that seem so obvious, so simple, so helpful, and even so inexpensive, that it seems impossible that there should be people who can’t see the need or find the means to do them. Kissing your kid goodnight, say, or putting your hand on your heart when your national flag goes by, or running to help somebody get up who’s just tripped on the sidewalk.

But in Venice, the obvious and the simple have found an oddly inhospitable environment, where “We have no time,” “There is no money,” “The guy who knows how to do it is on vacation/ retired/dead” smothers a very large number of ideas on how to make daily life just a little bit more liveable.

This sign is a thing of true beauty.  I wouldn't put it in the league as the ABAB sonnet, but it's close.

This sign is a thing of true beauty. I wouldn't put it in the same league as the ABAB sonnet, but it's close.

Why — I have asked myself ever since I first came here, back in the Bronze Age –why should public transport have been made so thrillingly complicated for ordinary people who, let’s face it, comprise 98 percent of the world’s population and 99.9 percent of the visitors to Venice? (I made that up, but it could still be true.)

I don’t know the answer.  But I do know that many, many people whom I have seen with these very eyes have struggled not only with their luggage and their hysterical offspring and their own fatigue and lack of fluency in Italian, but with a bus system which gave you no intelligent means of knowing where you are or how to get where you’re going.

I have seen frantic people with big suitcases pull up to the Lido stop and ask the vaporetto conductor, “Is this the train station?”  Not only is the correct answer “No, it’s not,” but the full phrase is “The station is at the other end of town and it will take you 50 minutes to get there.  Sorry about you missing your train.”  (Actually, they don’t say “Sorry.”)

Then they decided to put another map further back in the cabin, showing both of the routes which this type of vehicle is likely to take, plus the N, or night-time abbreviated route which begins at

Then they decided to put another map further back in the cabin, showing both of the routes which this type of vehicle is likely to take, plus the N, or night-time abbreviated route which begins around midnight, depending on where you are.

In any civilized settlement in the world, from Scott City, Kansas on up, the traveler would have had some means of confirming his progress by consulting a conveniently placed and easy-to-read map, then looking out the window at the name of the upcoming stop.  It takes less than half a second to know if you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Of course there are plenty of maps around.  Tiny, Gordian diagrams in guidebooks or given out by the hotel, with supposedly helpful colors and numbers of lines, but the colors twist themselves into macrame and some of the numbers no longer exist. You can spend a long time waiting for the #82 before you find out that it doesn’t run after September 13. And that it is now called the #2.

Or the route map on the bus-stop dock.  It would be an intrepid traveler indeed to be able to read, and remember after boarding, what the next stops are called which lead toward one’s destination as one struggles through the wildebeest-migration that occurs on most docks.

Say what you will about the not-so-new mayor, Giorgio Orsoni;  he seems to have put a few people in positions of authority who not only have intelligent, grown-up ideas on how to make things work, but have figured out how to bring them to pass before the next Ice Age, which by the way is probably never going to happen considering which way the climate is going.  But you see my point.

So I give two thumbs-up to Carla Rey, the new councilor (or as I translate assessore, sub-mayor) for Commerce, Consumer Affairs, and Urban Quality.  I don’t know that she is behind this leap into the future, but what she has done so far in other areas leads me to believe it’s highly likely. Hers is a title which never existed before and has a bracingly modern, Big-City ring to it.

“Urban”?  Little old us?

So what’s my next Impossible Dream?  Large to Very Large public trash bins placed everywhere.  To be specific, I want there to be at least one large trash bin no further than 50 feet from any point in the entire city where you may be standing.  Wherever you stop, you need to be able to see a trash bin. This is not, I can assure you, the case at the moment.

I know, it sounds like crazy talk.  But now there are route maps on the vaporettos.

This changes everything.

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The big water event in the Veneto region in November has had nothing to do with Venice and high water and the temporary walkways and how inconvenient or amusing the tourists find it and how aggravating it is for the merchants to deal with some water on the floor for a few hours.

Part of downtown Vicenza, a part of the world which is not accustomed to seeing water in its streets.

A scene of downtown Vicenza, a city which, unlike Venice, is not accustomed to seeing water in its streets. (Photo: Stampalibera.com)

The real story, which is still unfolding in all its drama and grief, has been the catastrophic flooding in large areas of the region caused  by diluvial rains and overflowing rivers.

I mention this as part of my modest personal crusade to give acqua alta some useful context for people beyond the old Bel Paese who read the endless and fairly repetitive  articles on Venice.  I’d like  to provide some recent perspective on the subject of water in these parts.

On November 1 the sky fell on the Veneto region.  I actually can’t remember whether we got acqua alta in Venice — if we did it couldn’t have been a problem. But what happened out beyond the shoreline showed, at least to me, that anyone living near a river is going to be facing bigger and uglier problems than anybody does  in Venice when the tide comes in.

The town of Caldogno has declared 80,000,000 euros in damage.

The town of Caldogno has declared 80,000,000 euros in damage. (Photo: Stampalibera.com)

Areas in or near Vicenza, Padova, Treviso, the mountains of Belluno and the countryside around Verona have been declared disaster areas.  In a 48-hour period 23 inches of rain fell on Belluno, 21 inches on Vicenza, 15 inches on Verona, 14 inches on Treviso.  Roughly the amount that falls in a normal year.

The total damage to houses, property, municipal infrastructure and agriculture in the Veneto has been estimated (this will undoubtedly increase) at over one billion euros ($1,365,530,000).

Garbage: Many of the Veneto’s 200 km (124 miles) of beaches, usually covered by vacationing Germans and other families, are now covered by seven million tons of garbage deposited by the swollen  rivers emptying into the Adriatic. By “garbage” I don’t just mean bags of coffee grounds and orange peel but plastic of every sort, sheets of metal, uprooted trees.

Experts meeting in Treviso are trying to figure out not only how to remove this amount of material, but how the sam hill to pay for getting rid of it, seeing that this type of trash costs between 170 and 180 euros ($232 – $245) per ton to destroy.  I’ll help you out: That comes to more than one and a half billion dollars just for the garbage.  I’ll send them a contribution but it probably wouldn’t pay for destroying more than a shopping-bag’s worth of detritus.

Mudslides: That amount of rain has drastically undermined the character of the land in many places.  Cleaning up and consolidating the areas of mudslides is another entire problem which will cost an amount of money I’m not going to bother calculating.

Businesses: On their knees.  Loss of merchandise, damage to buildings and interruptions in transport have immobilized many businesses.  Parts of many roads are still under water.

A scene of the countryside outside Vicenza, where traffic has ceased to function.

A scene of the countryside outside Vicenza, where we see that traffic has run out of road.

Agriculture: Fields and crops destroyed.  Some 500 farming operations are now at risk of going out of business. The government has estimated the damage at 25 million euros ($34,138,250).

I realize that you can replant sugar beets and chardonnay grapes but you can’t replant the Doge’s Palace, should water ever inflict comparable damage on this incomparable monument.  But still.

Very recently, but before all this happened, Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, took a trip to Rome to make the rounds of government ministers and rattle the tin cup.  He didn’t come back with much, and now the future will inevitably be even more austere.  It’s not hard to picture how urgent it’s going to seem to preserve a couple of palaces and churches  to a government struggling to help an estimated 500,000 people get their lives back.

These are the most recent figures on the damage, which probably need no translation.  The numbers will undoubtedly rise.

These are the most recent figures on the damage, which probably need no translation. The numbers will undoubtedly rise. Among other items is the damage to the Prosecco vineyards, so don't expect an excess of this delicacy next year.

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Categories : Events, Problems, Water
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