Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pretty As a Picture--But Not Quite

Passing through Campo Santa Maria Formosa the other day I was reminded of how painters make the scenes they depict at least as much as they find them. The English painter Ian Layton, whose work you see above (and which you can also see more of on Facebook), was kind enough to talk to me about his process, the differences between working in oil versus working in water colors, and everything else I could throw at him.

Of course some people are still rather scandalized to find that Canaletto made substantial alterations in the scenes of Venice he was supposedly only reproducing, but his departures from things as they strictly were to things as he thought they looked best on his canvases are a matter of course for painters to a greater or lesser degree--as you can see above by comparing Layton's work-in-progress to the scene beyond it.

That people might value an image of the thing more than they valued the thing itself, might confuse an image (or even words!) with reality, dismayed Plato no end, and has continued to drive people and some religions to distraction ever since.

But living in Venice one is reminded that if reality (however you define that) ever had even the slimmest chance of holding its own against images our digital age has finished it off for good. Capturing an image now precedes--if not entirely supersedes--seeing the thing itself, as one can observe most dramatically in Giotto's great Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Aware that they're allowed only 15 minutes inside the small precious space, smart phones are set to snapping before their owners' eyes can possibly take in any of the scene.

But even without a smart phone or camera or paint brush in hand, I think we tend to constantly construct or compose the scenes before us. Indeed, in a city of such overwhelmingly abundant and artful details we have no choice. On any given day I suspect that that tourist souvenir cart to the right of the photo above is almost as entirely absent from my perception of Campo Santa Maria Formosa as it is from Layton's canvas. We all have a certain Venice in mind, a Venice we'd like to see, a pleasing or maybe just tolerable Venice, and we frame our vision of it, with or without a camera, accordingly.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Look, Ma, No Hands!"

I've written before on this blog that it seems to me that Venetians never look so pleased as when they're piloting their own boats. The images that accompany today's post do nothing to change my mind about this, but they do suggest, perhaps, a type of pleasure I hadn't even considered when I typed my initial remark.

As you can see, it's common for the drivers of mototopi, or large work boats, to steer them with--well, with what you can see for yourself. And even after living here for 6 years, and in spite of its indisputable practicality, it still surprises me.

Of course my 9-year-old son, who aspires to be a mototopo driver himself--and studies and mimics their every move as other kids around the world study and mimic the moves of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi--finds nothing at all curious about this way of steering. Rather, the only question in his mind is whether he'd prefer the smaller type of handle you see above or the type with the long upright extension, as below, against which you can lean back for maximum comfort while driving (note the black padding taped around the upright in the image below).  

At the end of a work day I've seen drivers reclining against (and upon) this latter type of tiller looking quite contented indeed.  

In any case, this is one of those cultural differences between us that I think best to let pass without much comment. I wonder, though, if it would considered acceptable for women mototopi drivers to steer in this way.

But as I've never seen a woman piloting a mototopo here, there's no way of knowing. 

Thunderstorm Over Grand Canal, Tonight

Monday, June 12, 2017

Local Heroes and the Question of Local Autonomy

Jane da Mosto receives the Premio Osella from the president of the Comitato Festa della Sensa, Giorgio Suppiej, as Mayor Gianluigi Brugnaro applauds at far right

Two weekends ago Venice celebrated La Festa della Sensa, or its traditional ritual of "marrying" the sea, and as part of the weekend's festivities three Venetian residents were awarded the Premio Osella d'Oro della Sensa. The award--named after the gold coin once given out to senators by the doge--was intended to recognize the contribution of either institutions or individuals which/who have enriched the city through their efforts in the spheres of culture, crafts or commerce.

The honorees were:

Jane da Mosto, co-founder of the non-profit community organization We Are Here Venice and co-author and editor, respectively, of two books to which I've frequently referred in this blog: The Science of Saving Venice and The Venice Report. (I read and recommended those books before I ever met Jane herself, but since doing so I've contributed photos to Jane and the group for use on their website and in other materials.) 

Saverio Pastor addressed the audience after receiving the Premio
Saverio Pastor, master craftsman of Venetian forcole (oarlocks) and remi (oars), long-time proponent of the culture of Venetian rowing and of Venetian artisans in general, and founder of El Felze, which his website describes as "an association of craftsmen involved in the construction of the gondola and its fittings, and articles of clothing for gondoliers."

Michele Bugliesi, Chancellor of the Università Ca' Foscari, whose most recent achievement--and I think it's a significant one--was the inauguration of the International Center for the Humanities and Social Change on May 17, an interdisciplinary research program with centers in Europe and America devoted to the effects of globalization on contemporary society.

In a city whose resident culture is literally fighting for its life in the face of mass tourism, irresponsible "development", and the ongoing, life-sucking 6 billion euro swindle that are the forever inoperable MOSE water gates, such residents and their efforts deserve not just to be celebrated but held up as examples of the kinds of things that must be done to keep the city alive. 

Ca' Foscari Chancellor Michele Bugliesi addresses the audience
Alas, on the official website of the Comune di Venezia, and in local new reports, the focus was elsewhere. In the former case, a single sentence refers to the award, without bothering even to name its recipients. Then, that perfunctory bit of information done (the use of "però" in the following sentence is interesting), it boasts of the "increasing number of people" who come to Venice to view the marriage ceremony to the sea on the following day.

Because, after all, if there's one thing Venice really needs it's more tourists.

At the award ceremony itself, held in the Palazzo Ducale, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro's focus was also elsewhere. This year's establishment of a "twin city" relationship between Venice and l'Unione Montana Agordina in the Dolomites served as an opportunity for him to lay out a far-reaching vision of a Venice whose "brand" (his word) would extend to the mountains. Of course, as he noted, there had always been an important relationship between the Venice and the mountains, from which comes the city's water and raw building materials.

But as he talked about Venice as "a great metropolitan area" stretching from the sea to the mountains, an area whose economic development should be conceived of as a unified bloc, I couldn't help remembering passages from Salvatore Settis's book If Venice Dies.

In the same chapter in which Settis refers to the "cargo cult" of those who mindlessly "venerate the absolute power of the market," he brings up the following points about those who like to envision Venice as doing little more than imparting its commodity "aura" (or Brugnaro's "brand") to a "great metropolitan area.":

1) While discussing Pierre Cardin's now scuttled plans to build a massive skyscraper on the mainland near the lagoon, Settis writes that the "real issue facing all Venetians, the regeneration of the the former industrial zone of Marghera, has been hijacked to justify real estate speculation. As part of the bargain [of Cardin's proposed residential/commercial high-rise], a new highway planned in the vicinity would modernize Venice by making it look like a Chinese or American metropolis."

Cardin's skyscraper plans may have collapsed beneath widespread public outrage, but similar developments on the mainland are still very much in the works. And perhaps it might be worth noting here that Brugnaro himself is said to own a great deal of property in Marghera.

2) Settis also notes that "Rethinking transit connections in order to save Venice from isolation"--a key point of Brugnaro's at the awards ceremony--"is yet another favorite theme of the high priests of the cargo cult. The Futurists thought they could fill the Grand Canal and pave it over, while their heirs today are planning a huge metropolitan area that would turn the cities of Venice, Padua, and Treviso into a single megapolis."

The "cargo cultists" singled out by Settis like to depict their projects as "sustainable", "green" and the foundations of a "new community"--notions you'll also find in the account of Brugnaro's speech linked to above. And both Settis's "cargo cultists" and Brugnaro inevitably present their favored projects as the inevitable, absolutely necessary, and only possible alternative.  (Brugnaro says: "Solo così possiamo costruire una comunità, progetto che richiede un tempo lungo superando i campanilismi e guardando alle capitali del mondo, perché questo è il senso della nostra città, senza piangersi addosso.")

To entertain any ideas other than those put forth by Venice's non-resident, mainland mayor is to be nothing but a weak-minded, sentimental crybaby (that "senza piangersi addosso" phrase above). 

But of course there are other ideas out there, put forth by people like Settis himself, and community groups such as Jane da Mosto's We Are Here Venice and Generazione 90, which are committed to maintaining Venice as something more than merely a "luxury brand." Indeed, Brugnaro's obsession with the notion of "luxury" and "luxury brands" seems to have come to its full rancid flowering in the current Biennale's embarrassing Venice Pavilion, whose very theme is "Luxus", and whose gaudy "trash" commodities on display are better suited to a suburban outlet mall or a cruise ship port than an international festival of art. 

And, in fact, an alternative vision of Venice's possible future is likely to be put to the vote this fall, in the form of a referendum proposing that Venice and Mestre be separated into two distinct cities--as they were before Mussolini bound them into a single comune

This topic merits a post of its own, which I'll soon put up. But, in short, the idea is that the issues facing Venice are quite different from those facing Mestre, and that each place would benefit from having its own mayor and administration. At present, the majority of the electorate whose votes determine the fate of Venice live on the mainland--as does Brugnaro himself (the first Venice mayor ever born and raised outside of the lagoon).

Indeed, the very stridency of Brugnaro's remarks during the awards ceremony may have been inspired by his awareness of this proposed referendum--which he adamantly opposes, and which he has attempted (and thus far failed) to prevent from taking place.

All of which background made for a rather loaded if good-natured exchange of glances between award-recipient and mayor during Jane da Mosto's short acceptance speech for the Premio Osella. "Given the complexity of the place we live in," da Mosto said (originally in Italian): 
one of my main aims is to encourage citizens to understand the factors that determine our quality of life in the city, together with the limits of what's possible--in economic, social and environmental terms. In this way we will all be able to participate more knowledgeably, and more effectively, in political choices.

We are here Venice is not a factory for trouble-makers [fabbrica di "rompiscatole": literally, "box breakers," but a common euphemism for "ball busters"--and the point at which da Mosto and Brugnaro exchanged smiles] but an incubator for citizens that adds value to their experience, understanding, and knowledge. Even if little is left of Venice (and the need to re-grow the population is urgent*), its value is still immeasurable in terms of history, culture, civilisation and, above all, its innate resilience.

Venice is often considered a mirror on the world. Many of its problems are also found on a global scale. We have the privilege of living here and seeing everything close-up. If we don't manage to save Venice, how will the world save itself?
Even as the Comitato Festa della Sensa chose to recognize three Venetian residents for their efforts on behalf of a living Venice, the attention of the mayor and comune's publicity department was, as usual, elsewhere.

The referendum to separate Venice and Mestre is the best--and perhaps last--chance for the residents of Venice to once again have a say in the future of their city. The ceremony that took place in the grand Sala dello Scrutinio of the Palazzo Ducale on 27 May during the Festa della Sensa reminded me of everything at stake in that referendum. I'll post more information on it soon.  

*While campaigning for mayor Brugnaro promised to increase the resident population of Venice by 30,000 people. During his two years in office the city has in fact lost 1,600 residents. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bottoms Up on the Grand Canal, This Afternoon

A capsized kayaker is towed to safety by a passing group of rowers with a small outboard motor on their boat

The 43rd Vogalonga, a non-competitive 30 km row around the Venetian lagoon, takes place tomorrow, but the rowers were already out in force today. Initiated as a distinctly local reassertion of the importance of traditional Venetian oar-powered boats and an objection to the motorboat waves that were battering the foundations of the city, the Vogalonga has become an international celebration of the oar, with participants coming from far and wide and taking to the water in all styles of boats (as you can see in images from previous year's editions: 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013).

Various types of rowed boats passed up and down the Grand Canal all day today, multi-person crews and single and double kayakers, all of them looking adept, as you'd expect of anyone about to undertake an outing of tomorrow's length. But traffic on the Grand Canal can create difficulties for even more experienced rowers, as became evident when a kayaker found himself upended by the wake of a passing vaporetto in the center of the Grand Canal.

Fortunately, at that moment traffic in that part of the canal was sparse and the kayaker was quickly towed by a passing crew to the safe port, or rather, portico, of Ca' D'Oro. If it had been a work day, or even a typical Saturday afternoon (as today is part of the extended holiday of the Festa della Republica), the kayaker could easily have found himself in much more trouble.

The city has implemented regulations forbidding the use of kayaks, standup paddle boards, canoes, and dragon boats in the canals and most rii (small side canals) from 8 am to 3 pm on weekdays and from 8 am to 1 pm on Saturdays. A wise decision, I think, based upon what I personally witnessed in the days when a kayak rental outfit right near the Rialto Bridge was renting kayaks to absolutely anyone--including rank beginners--and sending them out into the waterways with a useless water-proof map.

This afternoon provided yet another reminder, of the sort that periodically occurs here, that Venice is not a theme park or play land: something that both visitors and city officials would do well to keep in mind.

Ca' D'Oro must qualify as one of the world's most beautiful boat houses

Disrobing in the historic center, much less in one of the city's great buildings, is generally looked down upon by Venetians--but that rarely seems to stop visitors