Archive for Palazzo Grassi


Could you make change for me?

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Despite the fact that he represents a doge (see ducal "corno"), this lion looks just like lots of Venetians when told they're going to have to change something.  Even if it's something dangerous and futile, it's change.  We don't want that!

Despite the fact that he represents a doge (notice the ducal “corno”), this lion looks surprisingly like lots of Venetians when told they’re going to have to change something.  Baffled.  Apprehensive.  Disbelieving.  If it’s change, make somebody else do it!

My recent silence would typically have been due to the winding down of the summer, the winding down of me, an annual process which usually is distinguished by….nothing.  Sloth, heat, tedium, what the doctors might call general malaise.  (The tedium, unhappily, is also caused by the endless, predictable procession of homicides, femicides, drownings, drug overdoses, fatal mountain accidents, political did-so-did-not, and miles of traffic backups on the major days of departing and returning from vacation.)  It’s practically a tradition.

There are usually some slight variations.  Today we read “After he slit his friend’s throat, he went out to drink a beer.”  That’s a little different.  Or the young man who was accosted by a prostitute on the street in a town out on the mainland who got fined 450 euros for the verbal exchange even though he turned her down.  The law says clients are criminals too, and it appears that even telling her no counts as much as hiring her for the weekend.  But on the whole, a typical 30 summer days, not so unlike what people experience in many other parts of the world.

By now, though, we all know that August, which is supposed to be the Nothing Month, was very much a Something Month, for the gondoliers, ACTV, and city as a whole. Which also explains my recent silence because (A) I was trying to keep up with the constantly evolving situation and (B) doing so made my brain seize up, therefore (C) we went to the mountains for a few days where my brain wasn’t needed for anything but maintaining basic life functions.

Returning to Venice, we immediately fell into the groove, right where we had left it.  There is a traditional sequence of events in this sliver of time, which involves lots of people moving ceaselessly around the city, especially in our neighborhood, not to mention the Lido.

Plenty of visitors are still going to see exhibitions of the Biennale; every evening, when the doors close at 6:00, we sit at our favorite cafe and watch the migration moving sluggishly from the distant Arsenal outposts toward and along via Garibaldi, in search of food, drink, and a place to sit.  I’ve seen a lot of really nice dresses this year, if anybody wants to know.

The Venice Film Festival opened three days ago, so although actors and fans aren’t to be seen in our little cranny of the city, there are plenty of badge-and-totebag-and-camera-bearing journalists around (a reported 3,000 have come to cover the festival. How could there be that many outlets in the world that want hourly bulletins about movies and their makers?).

Here's a Film Festival tradition I really like: the megayachts.  They're not for going anywhere, they're merely for parties.

Here’s a Film Festival tradition I really like: the megayachts. They’re not for going anywhere, they’re merely for parties.  But if you’re looking for a film contract, these boats will take you somewhere, if you’re lucky.

In fact, a number of traditions here are pleasant, even reassuring.  I enjoy the eternal cycle of seasonal food; right now the grapes and the warty, gnarly pumpkins (suca baruca, “the veal of Chioggia”) are appearing in the market. And I feel the onset of the Regata Storica, to be fought out tomorrow, and there are the signs in the shop windows selling new backpacks and school supplies. That’s the happy side of tradition.

Then there is the also-traditional way in which events have been unfurling since the death in the Grand Canal.  Everything that has happened since two weeks ago today has been as predictable as dusty bookshelves, but they are not positive developments.  In fact, they’re not really developments at all.

In the days following the accident, there was a mighty outcry from all sides demanding change.  That was predictable.

What is also predictable is that change is now being resisted with every weapon that comes to hand.  Life here obeys Newton’s Third Law, the one about equal-and-opposite-reactions. Newton’s Laws are among the few edicts nobody objects to, mainly because Newton isn’t around to argue with.

When I say “laws,” I am referring specifically to the recent regulations that have been proposed to establish order on the traffic in the Grand Canal.  Because even if you say you need them and want them, when you get them, you have to fight back.

The mayor and assorted sub-mayors and people who wear uniforms worked mightily and also rapidly to devise a new way of organizing the assorted boatly categories.  In record time, a 26-point plan was presented, and published in the Gazzettino.

This plan contained a number of dramatic innovations, such as collecting garbage at night, and requiring the barges to have finished their chores by 10:00 AM.

But this is the point at which the true, fundamental, guiding-more-surely-than-a-compass tradition took over.

The tradition is: I’m not changing anything.  Somebody else can change if they’re that dumb, but not me.

I knew the minute I read it that night work wasn’t going to fly.  If people hate working by day, which it seems many do, they would hate even more doing it by night.  Then the barge drivers said that working those hours would make everything more expensive. And so on.

So the very people who clamored for change in the heat of the moment have shown that they don’t want it.  They want somebody else to want it.  This is tradition!

People hardly had time to finish reading the list of 26 proposed changes to the traffic on the Grand Canal before the protests began.  The Nuova Venezia says:

People hardly had time to finish reading the list of 26 proposed changes to the traffic on the Grand Canal before the protests began. The Nuova Venezia says: “Limits in the Grand Canal, it’s a revolt,” and the Gazzettino says: “Revolution in the Grand Canal: Immediately there’s a storm about stopping the #2 line and garbage collection at night.”  I could have read these with my eyes shut.

I can tell you how things are going to go in the next few months, or perhaps merely weeks: Some tiny tweaks will be made, and everything will return to the way it was.  The #2 vaporetto is scheduled to go out of service on November 3, because it’s a high-season traffic-overflow adjunct.  The proposal to cut it earlier makes moderate sense, but it’s really window-dressing, because then there would have to be more #1 vaporettos to handle the traffic.

The “Vaporetto dell’Arte,” an enormous, lumbering, amazingly underused and overpriced vehicle, will also stop on November 3.  They could stop it now and nobody would notice, but it must be somebody’s pet project because it keeps on going.  Empty and big and expensive and pointless.  (The “pointless” part is a special ACTV sub-tradition.)

As for what everybody else thinks about revising the way things are done, Grug from “The Croods” put it best: “Change is always bad.”  As his son replied: “I get it, Dad!  I will never do anything new or different!”  Just a cartoon?  Maybe not.

By the staircase in the Palazzo Grassi, the original owner, Angelo Grassi, had the following phrase incised in 1749:  CONCORDIA RES PARVAE CRESCUNT, DISCORDIA ETIAM MAXIMAE DILABUNTUR.”  With harmony the small things grow, but with discord even the greatest things are brought to ruin.

One thing you can really count on is the instigation of new rules (otherwise known as "change") on the vaporettos.  The ACTV must have a team of people dedicated only to devising new and preposterous regulations which are almost impossible to enforce. But they take them so seriously, I don't want to hurt their feelings by laughing.  I might scoff, but I would never laugh.

Here’s a tradition that never fails: the invention of new rules (otherwise known as “change”) on the vaporettos. The ACTV must have a team of people dedicated only to devising new and preposterous regulations which are almost impossible to enforce. But they take them so seriously! Here’s the latest, in the so-called effort to eliminate freeloaders who don’t pay for their ticket.  This says “People found without a validated ticket on the floating pontoons will receive a fine.”  How will these deadbeats be found?  By whom?  The ACTV doesn’t have enough ticket-checkers on the boats themselves — they can spare them to roam around the city looking for unticketed people just standing on the dock?  Most of the world is satisfied to have people buy a ticket to take the bus.  Here, they have to buy a ticket just to wait for it.  You’re stuck in the rain waiting for your friend?  You have to buy a ticket.  You want to help your grandmother get her shopping trolley onto the boat?  You have to buy a ticket.  Hard as I try to grasp this concept, it just slips away.


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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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