Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Adrift in Venice

I think this is the smallest boat in Venice: less than 6 feet or 2 meters from stern to prow
If you're thinking of buying a boat in Venice and want to save a good deal of money on the cost of a mooring place, buy a wood boat. The comune is trying to stem the continuing decline of wooden boats in Venice by offering steep discounts for ormeggi to those who own such boats. Of course, what you save on mooring fees you may spend on the extra work and upkeep one must put into a wood boat to keep it sound. And, more immediately, there simply are no mooring places available.


How bad is it? The other day I was talking to a native Venetian friend when he suddenly leaned in close and said quietly, sheepishly, "I'm embarrassed to be asking you this, as I've lived here all my life, but if you hear of an ormeggio, please let me know. I'd like to get a boat, just a little one, but I can't find a place to put it."

As real estate is a constant topic of concern in New York City, so ormeggi are here. Especially as I'm discovering that even the least likely of Venetians--folks who rarely venture outside, for instance, or people who had boats for decades and sold them off after reaching a certain age--all get the itch to buy one.

You'd think that with so many fewer people in Venice than there were 40 years ago there would be more ormeggi available than ever before. But it seems that perhaps the percentage of boat owners among city residents has greatly increased over the years: a friend complains that even teenagers now have their own. And according to another friend, the size of people's boats has greatly increased. He claims that one large boat now takes up the space in which two or three could formerly have been moored.

All of this is very bad news indeed for boat owners but, even as I sympathize, I have to admit what a relief it is to me. You see, among those who would love to have a boat are my son and wife, and I've found it infinitely more effective and pleasant to remind them that there simply is not a single place to put the boat they so ardently desire than to remind them, once again, that there's no way we could really afford it.

PS: A couple of days ago, after I'd started a draft of this post, I happened upon a beautiful photo of the same little boat pictured above on the 16 February post of the Venetia Micio blog. It's taken from a different angle and shows more of the surroundings:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Venetian Beach Rule # 1,359

                                                                                          photo credit: Jen
Is it proper to walk upon this pier in Cavallino Treporti on February 26? Probably not. 
For a country that is infamously factious and difficult to rule, it's amazing to observe the number of inherited rules and proscriptions from which individual Italians would never dream of straying--nor even question. For instance, tax laws exist solely to be flouted, but letting some grated parmigiano fall upon a piece of fish merits the sternest rebuke. Or while even Venetian firemen believe that smoke alarms are absurdly unnecessary in family dwellings, for a child to go swimming any sooner than three hours after eating lunch is to invite certain death.

This last example is one of the first (of countless) beach rules one learns when one starts to go to the Lido during the summer with Venetians. But yesterday Jen learned another.

It was a mild sunny day and Jen and Sandro spent much of it on Lido. Sandro met a girl of his own age there and they played together for quite a while. She was there with her grandfather, a friendly man, and good with kids, as many older Italian men seem to be. But he looked a little less conventional than the average Italian grandfather, Jen said. His gray hair was long, he wore camouflage pants and a black T-shirt, he smoked cigarettes. He looked a bit like a very tidy biker, a bit like a sculptor. He pointed out sea gulls to his grand-daughter and Sandro. He looked on pleasantly as they ran around and played in the sand with sticks, but when his grand-daughter began to dig in the sand with the plastic beach shovel Sandro had brought he gently took it away from her, telling her in Italian that it was not the right season for sand shovels and buckets.

Inevitably, in the course of their play she succumbed a few more times to the temptation to use the shovel and each time he took it away from her again and calmly explained once more that it was not yet time to use such things. It's only February, after all. He held up a hand to her and counted off on his fingers the number of months until the proper time will arrive: one, two, three. Late May or the beginning of June, depending on how you want to calculate it. Then, and only then, will it be time to use sand shovels at the beach. At least according to Venetian rules.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Carnevale Comes to a Fiery End, This Morning

The ancient rite of Dionysus clamorously concluded with the murder of a live bull. The female followers of Dionysus, inflamed by music and dance and (depending on whom you believe) certain intoxicants and/or the presence of the god himself, would reach such a state of ecstasy that they would, with their bare hands, tear a bull to pieces. That famous resident of San Michele here in Venice, Stravinsky, had something like this in mind when he composed his Rite of Spring. A version of the rite also appears at the end of Apocalypse Now.

The destruction of a bull in the wee hours of this morning to mark the end of Carnevale was not quite so dramatic as this, but it was certainly a great spectacle.

Well endowed at all points with everything that makes a bull a bull, the sacrificial victim had been moored beside La Punta della Dogana since the beginning of Carnevale--except during a period of repair after some extraordinarily high winds got the better of him.

You can find close-up photos of the bull and a description of what he was made of at the excellent Venetian blog Hello World:

As the gondolieri began to reach the basin of San Marco at the end of their annual Vogata del Silenzio down the Grand Canal, the bull, floating on a raft in the basin, was put to the torch. It was about 12:30 am. The large crowd on the molo had begun forming just after 11 pm. I'd arrived at 11:15. It was worth the wait. There's something peculiarly satisfying about concluding a festival with fire; last year they simply set loose a raft-load of helium balloons as the gondolas arrived at San Marco. Here's hoping that, as the old gospel song puts it, it's the fire next time--or next year--as well.

An effigy of a cruise ship might be rather fun to see go up in flames...

The Venice FD gets in a little practice

Time to pack up the wine fountain: after the immolation, peace returns to the Piazzetta.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Martedì Grasso on Via Garibaldi, This Afternoon

Fat Tuesday has a lot different feel on Via Garibaldi than it does in Piazza San Marco. Not nearly as many people in costume--and not nearly as many people, period--but a lot more actual socializing and catching up between old friends. It's a local crowd, which gathers to enjoy the food and drinks table set up in front of La Società di Mutuo Soccorso fra Carpentieri e Calafati--or the Mutual Aid Society of Carpenters and Ship Caulkers, whose membership, sadly, is surely dwindling, and whose headquarters is probably my favorite storefront on Via Garibaldi.

Like Piazza San Marco, Via Garibaldi (as you can see to left) offers live entertainment of its own. After watching this singer for a while I think he has some right to lay claim to the late great James Brown's title of "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." It can't be easy to give your all when your performance, amply amplified though it is, rarely draws a single person away from the food and wine some 20 yards to your right. But give it his all he did, nonetheless.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Venetian Education

This is not the exact mototopo our son took to school, but one like it
The other morning our son Sandro went to school in a mototopo--that is, in one of the long motorized workboats you see plying the waters of Venice carrying merchandise, food, or (as above) construction materials and workers. Of course it seems odd to me that my son should go to school in any kind of boat, but the vaporetto doesn't seem quite as exotic to me as it once did. He also gets a ride to school pretty regularly in our neighbors' little outboard motorboat. He was, and is, extremely excited about this and it used to seem quite exotic to me also--but not quite so much now. But a mototopo...!

A small yellow school bus was the most exotic form of transportation I ever took to school, and it wouldn't have been exotic at all if I'd been any older than five years of age. At that age just traveling anywhere, in anything, without my mother along was thrillingly novel.

But Sandro is becoming something like a real Venetian. This is one of the reasons he is now taking a boat to a school about as far from our apartment as one can go in Venice instead of attending the preschool just a few hundred meters away from us. At a certain point this year we began to ask ourselves about what kind of "real Venetian" we wanted him to be. This is actually a longer subject than I want to go into in this post, but when a child speaks one language at school and another at home it can sometimes seem that he is becoming rather a different person in each language. That is, what I'll call his repertoire of expression can vary greatly from one language to the other. It's not just that the vocabulary differs, but the parameters or breadth of each vocabulary differs and with them his range or mode of expression as well.

Put simply, in the absence of the good teachers he had last year (both of whom left), his Italian self was becoming much more aggressive, much more foul-mouthed than his English-speaking self. The models for his Italian self were not his teachers, who showed little interest in their students except when it came to yelling at them, but some particularly energetic classmates. Energetic in the sense of selvaggio, or wild.

But with his change of schools his Italian self is changing. He now has two teachers who actually model a much broader and calmer range of behavior and communication. He likes school again. Actually, he loves going to school again.

But he hasn't forgotten what he learned at his previous school--or what, I'm sure, he's still learning from older boys at his new one--and that in some contexts some people seem to even consider appropriate. As, for example, when traveling to school in a mototopo.

The other morning the mototopo piloted by the Venetian grandfather of one of Sandro's classmates got held up for 15 minutes in a small canal in Cannareggio behind a garbage mototopo and a construction mototopo. Sandro and his classmate and her grandfather could do nothing but wait, floating in place, while the workers on the two other workboats did whatever it was they had to do. Or at least it seemed there was nothing for the two kids and the grandfather, Nonno Pietro, to do but wait, until Sandro started to yell in Italian at the workers in the other boats to "get out of the way" or he would "punch them in the stomach."

I think I blushed in embarrassment when this was first recounted to me and I blush even now in the typing of it, but Nonno Pietro told it not only with amusement but a certain approval. Perhaps more evidence that my son may yet become the Venetian I know I will never be.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Carnevale Internazionale dei Ragazzi Opens Today

The black-light arts & crafts workshop room
I thought the most fun and spontaneity of all of last year's carnevale was to be found not in Piazza San Marco but in the middle of the Giardini Pubblici, within the central exposition space of the Biennale, at the Carnevale Internazionale dei Ragazzi.

Today the third annual edition of this kids carnival opened, with a greater number of participating countries (up to 7, from 4), more workshops in various forms of creativity, live performances, free hot chocolate for the kids, free pasticcio for everyone, and free (and quite tasty) vin brule for very grateful adults. This year's theme is Favole e pensieri (Tales and Thoughts) and features free workshops in making toys from everyday and recycled materials, carnival masks and costumes, art with painted lightbulbs, puppet theatres, and music--among other things. 

And did I happen to mention that today there was free vin brule for parents?

The Carnevale Internazionale dei Ragazzi runs from today until 21 February. Admission is free, as are all workshop materials, and the hours are typically 10:00-18:00.

Much more information about it can be found at

Clouds are a visual motif of this year's edition, but these inflated ones out front were redundant today

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A World of Pulcinellas at Ca' Rezzonico

I'm a little obsessed lately with Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's series of Pulcinella frescoes in the Ca' Rezzonico and January was a very good month to indulge this fixation. Even during the busiest times of year people rarely linger among these works--there are so many other things to see in the palazzo, including the famous ceiling frescoes of Domenico's father, Giambattista, on the piano nobile--but in January it was possible to hang with them (so to speak) almost without interruption.

In a city filled with grand gestures, with paintings intended for public spaces and functions, these frescoes were painted by the artist in the lesser ("non-monumental") rooms of the family's mainland Villa Zianigo between 1759 and 1797 for his own enjoyment. It's interesting to think about the significance of Pulcinella for the painter: a character he (as well as his father) painted throughout his career and to which he returned in a big way near the end of his life with a series of 104 wash drawings for Il divertimento per li ragazzi (Entertainment for Children).

But even more interesting, at least to me lately, is the significance of these Pulcinella paintings in our own time. As many other people have noted, the series of frescoes in Ca' Rezzonico is hardly just kids' stuff. No more than Pulcinella is.

Though famously a creation--and symbol--of Naples, the character of Pulcinella is traced by Pierre Louis Ducharte in his classic study of Italian commedia dell'arte to two different characters in the ancient Roman theater.

Befitting this dual paternity, the 17th-century character of Pulcinella could take two different forms: one, high-strung and given to a peculiar peeping sound, another, slow moving and reserved. Sometimes these two different manifestations appeared together in the same production.

But the Pulcinellas of Tiepolo's frescos riotously embody traits for which the character is most famous. Ducharte writes: "Never one to be bowed down by the cares and responsibilities of a profession, [Pulcinella was] eccentric and selfish..., strongly inclined to sensual and epicurean gluttony.... Self-centered and bestial, he had no scruples whatever, and because the moral suffering from his physical deformity reacted upon his brain at the expense of his heart, he was exceedingly cruel."

Collodi's Pinocchio would share many of these traits before he reformed himself and "became a real boy." But there's no hint of any possible reformation or self-improvement in Tiepolo's frescoes. His Pulcinellas carry on, unredeemed and unredeemable, to the bitter end.

And the end of certain things, we are told by Ca' Rezzonico's text on these frescoes, was probably very much on Tiepolo's mind as he painted these works. The end of the Baroque style exemplified by Giambattista Tiepolo, the end of the Venetian Republic itself, and perhaps the end of the larger Eurocentric world.

These last two points seem to be made most emphatically and famously in the large fresco Il mondo novo. It's in a separate larger room from the Pulcinellas I'm focusing on and depicts a large group of figures, their backs to us, intently watching a performance we can't see in a small tent. It's a crowd of fashionably-dressed ladies and gentlemen and children and a solitary Pulcinella seen in wide-screen Cinemascope, and beyond them and the top of the little performance tent that they fix their gaze upon lies the broad ocean and empty horizon.

Il novo mondo
But there's a more intimate version of this theme in the little room of Pulcinellas, too. Again, there's a luminous horizon and ocean but a group of Pulcinellas pays them no heed: they drink, they talk, and

one, foregrounded among an array of objects that represent almost the full extent of their customary concerns--a food basket, a wine pitcher, a shuttlecock and racket (only a wench is missing)--sleeps off his excess. Over the crest of the hill on which they stand, the conical top of a Pulcinella's hat is visible beside a flag. I'm not sure what to make of this. Indolent and indulgent as they are, might this tribe of Pulcinellas be considering a military campaign of some sort? This is far more worrisome than their sloth.

One thing seems certain though: if a new world is in the offing, it's beyond the awareness of these Pulcinellas. All their revels depicted in this room end in this image of exhaustion: self-absorbed and self-interested as ever, they seem blind to what lies beyond. A new world may very well be dawning, but there is the dark sense in this painting that it is bound to occur elsewhere, across the ocean, far away.

It's not hard to imagine why Tiepolo would have had this sense in the last years of the Venetian Republic but, sadly, it's a sense that most young contemporary Italians seem to share: a recent poll by The European Institute of Political, Economic and Social Studies showed that nearly 60% of them are ready to move abroad. They've lost hope that anything can change in this country that is sometimes still derisively referred to (by Italians themselves) as "the country of Pulcinella."

But it's not only Italians who are concerned: Pulcinella's gone global.

I suppose that's what keeps bringing me back to these frescoes: a sense that they depict not just Tiepolo's time but our own more effectively than most contemporary art at the Biennale or elsewhere. That odd old foreign anti-humanistic art form of the commedia dell'arte seems more and more useful to me for conceptualizing blind human appetites and an almost infinite capacity for destruction. I mean, the corporate name Monsanto itself sounds almost like a stock character from the commedia dell'arte--though its greed, cruelty and viciousness puts poor Pulcinella to shame....

Follow these fellows at your own risk