Saturday, December 19, 2009

Double Whammy

I woke up, looked outside, and the garden was covered with several inches of snow.

My response was to put on several layers of clothing and my wellies and head out with my camera.

On my side of the Accademia Bridge it wasn't apparent yet, but on the San Marco side it was obvious. Then I remembered the text message I had received the day before. Distracted by the snow, I had forgotten. Acqua alta. 130cm.

That only made it more interesting. I headed toward San Marco. Snow-covered boats lined the canals. By Campo San Moise the elevated walkways were up; the rising tidal surge met the snow like the sea meets sand.

Piazza San Marco, relatively deserted, was of course underwater. It doesn't take much to flood Piazza San Marco. The walkways traced a curious circuit around the Piazza, the Piazzetta, the Molo.

Salt had already been laid on a few of the big bridges and the walkways have a gritty surface, but the paving stones and stairs of the unsalted streets and bridges required extreme caution. Street cleaners in orange jumpsuits were out, scraping at embedded snow and ice with their shovels.

By Rialto the flood waters had already washed over the Riva del Carbon. The vaporettos were running on schedule. On the vaporetto I heard the sirens go off. It hadn't peaked yet. There was more to come. I was glad to be on my way home.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Mindf**k in Castelfranco Veneto

"La Tempesta," Giorgione, 1506-8

I didn't set out to go to an art exhibit. I went to Castelfranco this morning to verify the schedule for the buses from Castelfranco to Villa Barbaro in Maser. That sounds easy, however, it isn't and nobody seemed to know anything for sure. But on my way from the station I noticed that there is a big Giorgione show at the Casa Giorgione, next to the Duomo in the center of the old walled town.

Briefly, Giorgione (1478-1510) was born in Castelfranco, flowered early and died young. Like Rafaello and Caravaggio, his genius was of a different order of magnitude than the brief years of his life. There are only five works that he indisputably painted, several others which the experts are reasonably certain he painted, and some others he may have painted. As with all great geniuses, you know it when you see it; the real thing glows with an unearthly beauty, and the "maybe" real, or the expert copies by such other geniuses as Tiziano, bask in the reflected glory.

It is generally agreed that Giorgione studied under the old and towering power of Giovanni Bellini; some hold that both Tiziano and Giorgione studied under Bellini at the same time. Giorgione shows the influence of Bellini but his was a genius of a different order altogether.

Giorgione was a revolutionary.

Until he painted, the work of all painters was divided into two neat categories: religious (or mythological) scenes and portraits. The figures -- and their messages and morals, or their egos in the case of the portraits -- took stage center. Landscapes were in the background. The great renaissance artists lavished loving attention on these backgrounds; they became increasingly detailed, with all manner of flora and fauna and realistic or fantastic buildings and ruins, or raw nature-- mountain crags and tropical Edens. But they were always only that, backgrounds. Nobody painted nature for the sake of painting nature, but only as settings for the people who were the center of attention, and every painterly skill was used and developed to draw attention to them.

With a single painting, Giorgione blew all that up. "La Tempesta" (above) was like a molotov cocktail lobbed into the symmetrical, harmonious, classical imaginative world of the renaissance. Suddenly the background became the subject: the majestic sky, the cityscape and the river, the trees and the reflections in the water and the lightning that looks like sun tearing open a seam in the clouds. The figures are discrete, mysterious, their presence, both alone and together, open to endless interpretation; they are a part of the picture. They are not its center.

Brave new world. Art changes forever as the background moves to the foreground.

But Giorgione, in addition to inventing the "paesaggio," the landscape painting, also painted portraits, and here his contribution is mood, affect, and especially, "la melanconia" -- melancholy. Instead of looking robust, demure, posed, classical, his portraits sigh with wistfulness and longing and the mysteries of the heart.

Besides the few Giorgione paintings, the exhibition is filled with other treasures such as Durer prints of both plants and animals, paintings by Tiziano, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni Bellini, Perugino, Rafaello, and the heretofore unknown to me and stunningly wonderful Giulio Campagnola. Even the fragment of carved stone by an anonymous Venetian artisan is more expressive than whole rooms at museums I've been to. It is possible that Durer, considered the greatest artist of the northern renaissance, met Giorgione during his visits to Bellini's studio.

For me, the most touching of the additional works are watercolors painted in 1896 of what remained at that time of the frescoes Giorgione and Tiziano painted on the walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the German trade association, on the Grand Canal (today the main post office). These frescoes have entirely vanished. We have the sketchiest remains and ideas of what they looked like; what they might have been is forever left to our imaginations. The water colors are a fragmentary record of that particular paradise lost.

But what lives in the imagination thrives. We are blessed with the images that remain, and for the galvanic impact they had on all subsequent art, and while we cannot know, our imaginations can suggest the splendor of those frescoed walls lit by the sunlight or moonlight reflected in the Grand Canal.

It is always staggering to walk out of an art show and stand amid the buildings in the paintings. Italy offers that beautiful dissonance in abundance. From the Casa Giorgione you walk around the Duomo to see the Pala Giorgione, the altarpiece Giorgione painted in 1505. It isn't where it was painted to be; it is in a side chapel of the Duomo which, on a cold December day, is like a refrigerator. The melancholy beauty of the faces, the jewel-like splendor of the fabrics and the hills upon which the walled city stands in the distance, make you forget the temperature, the time, and just about everything else during that delicious moment, however long it lasts.

That is what art is all about.

"Doppio Ritratto (Double Portrait)", Giorgione, 1502

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Venetian Efficiency | Venetian Sublime

Last Sunday I went to the Church of San Salvador for a performance of Tchaikovsky's Liturgy for San Giovanni Grisostomo. I was struck by two things; first, the deep Russian-ness, the unique sound of Russain liturgical music, closer to the Byzantine than to the Roman. Secondly, that music expresses the inexpressible. This is clearest in purely instrumental music, but this music, with a liturgical text sung a capella by a small choir with male soloists, enables us to experience what the words alone attempt, and necessarily fail, to express. That is to say, we experience of the sublime. We hear the music and feel its presence; it fills our senses in a way our minds can understand.

In the church I noticed a poster for a series of organ concerts, vespri d'organi, at the Basilica di San Marco and made a mental note to go on Tuesday at 17:00. On Monday afternoon I wondered if there might be a concert on Monday. San Salvador was closed when I went by, and since I had to go through Piazza San Marco I stopped at the tourist office. I hadn't seen the posters anywhere else.

The woman behind the counter was nice enough. I told her I couldn't find any information on the organ concerts at San Marco.

Surely I was mistaken, she said. There is no organ at San Marco. She was quite emphatic, and suggested that perhaps I meant Salute.

I told her I knew about the vespri d'organo at Salute, but that this was different. She shuffled through her catalog and shook her head. There aren't even any at Salute in December, she said, as though a bit puzzled. At any rate she assured me that there couldn't be an organ concert in San Marco because there is no organ. I couldn't remember having seen one there and deferred to her superior knowledge.

This afternoon I went to the flea market at Campo Santa Maria Novella. (A guy was selling 70's leather bags. I was tempted to buy a brown leather borsetta with two buckles, very snappy, for 35E but got sidetracked and didn't. Have to see if he's there next Sunday!) On my way home I passed through Piazza San Marco. There was absolutely no line for the Basilica, and I always take advantage of such opportunities. The sun was out and the light was good. The interior was wonderfully luminous. (I won't go into it here. I will only say that repeated viewings always pay off; I'm never sorry I stopped in.) I noticed, in the left chancel arch, organ pipes. The lady at the tourist office had been so emphatic; but there it was. There were more pipes on the other side. It is a considerable organ that doesn't exist.

I went to the Chapel of St. Isidore where you can sit down because I wanted to make some notes. On a bannister were handouts for the vespri d'organi. It was the same program as I had seen on the poster in San Salvador. These were the concerts that didn't exist on the non-existent organ. I decided to come back for the concert, and thought about going to the tourist office tomorrow and pointing out to the lady that San Marco indeed has a quite an organ, and the vespri d'organo are there in December, not at Salute, which is why there were none in Salute. She works for the city; she is the source of last resort for people looking for things in the city. She should, one would think, have a clue. If she's there, I will stop in.

By the by, the vespri d'organo was interesting, less because of the organ than because every opportunity to see the interior of the basilica lit up is an opportunity worth taking. A few brief comments here; I will go on and on on my own time.

The gold background of the mosaics make the images seem more artificial, but they also reflect light. They illumate the figures in the foreground, giving them a more dramatic reality, not a naturalistic one. The basilica, because it is Byzantine, is the monument in Venice which most lacks windows; there are many, but not enough to entirely illuminate all the mosaics which are maddeningly difficult to see even under the best of circumstances. Artificial illumination is required. Well lit, the "Christ blessing" in the cove above the apse, though late (but to an old design), is a crown of creation, a great big "hell, yeah!" for human artistry.

The organist played sections of Bach's Art of Fugue. I am quite certain he is the same organist I heard playing Art of Fugue at Salute a few weeks back, perhaps rehearsing, afternoons around 4. A couple times at Salute he got lost and trailed off into improvisatory vamping. Tonight he played the sections straight. I know that the organ is a fiercely difficult instrument to play, requiring both hands and feet; but I couldn't follow the fugal structure. This may in part have to do with the fact that the echo-ey five dome structure of the basilica is inhospitable to this music; Bach's clean interweaving lines are smudged over by the long reverb of the basilica's domes and arches. I checked when I got home; I could follow the lines on my recording, so it wasn't just me...

Friday, December 11, 2009

How I Remember It

The opium came from Paul, the guy at the record store. He laid it on me just to be cool. He had worked in the kitchen of an ashram in India. When he invited me over for curry, he neglected to tell me that they had been making it a little hotter each day since they got back, twenty-eight days earlier. My entire digestive system, including my lips and tongue, were scorched.

You showed up at my place a couple days later. You were all fired up about a demonstration on campus. You heard about it from your Black Panther friend. I think that's when you were living in the rented room next door to Eldridge Cleaver's apartment-headquarters in the San Francisco's Fillmore district. Correct me if I'm wrong.

This particular wave of protest had begun on the California State University campus and spread to Berkeley instead of the other way around. Led by the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of SDS and the Black Panthers, and others all representing the vast non-white communities, the student strike at State made S. I. Hayakawa, its president, a darling of the Right Wing. Before becoming President of SF State, Hayakowa, an English professor there, had led a voter's crusade against all digit-dialing, demanding letter prefixes remain. As a result of the Student Strike, he was nationally known overnight and went on to become a State Senator. It's gratifying to know that we still have all-digit dialing. His greatest moment was pulling the plug on the sound system and bringing in the National Guard.

The Third World Liberation Front were demanding, inter alia, an end to racism at the university, the creation of a Black Studies Department, and an end to the Vietnam War. Looking back, they got two out of three.

The demonstrators on the Berkeley campus eventually met the massed forces of the Berkeley Police and the dreaded Oakland Tac Squad, the Blue Meanies (named for their blue jumpsuits) with their body armour and heavy artillery. Who knows who all was there? The FBI, the National Guard, the CIA, the Red Squads, assorted provocateurs and plants and the just plain crazy, all mixed in with the ideologues who were there for cause.

The police flushed the demonstration off the campus onto Telegraph Avenue. Then they advanced down Telegraph Avenue in a solid phalax with guns and gas masks. Special cars preceded them, pipes coming out of their windows, pepperfoggers, spraying the crowd with tear gas. Hipper store owners left buckets of water and paper towels outside their doors; used together, they created a sort of protective mask. This show of support was also a propitiatory offering to the lords of window-breaking and looting.

The people who had earlier been marching in solid ranks wearing leather jackets and snappy dashikis, chanting "Ungh! Ungawa! Third World Power!" were now rampaging down the streets, hurling everything that came in hand, screaming "Power to the People!"

We skirted the edge, emerging on Telegraph Avenue at Dwight Way, several blocks from the volcano, but the chaos was spilling toward us like flaming lava. You picked up a brick and put it in the pocket of your jacket and said "let's go up there," pointing toward the rooftops overlooking Telegraph.

It wasn't hard to find the stairway to the roof. I had lived in the second floor apartment during my sophomore year. We climbed up past the third floor to the roof, which was flat save for a low brick wall on the street sides. In the rear the building abutted an uneven terrain of roofs and television aerials.

You edged toward the street, glaring down at the Police with fierce hatred. My outrage at injustice was beginning to fray; you were propelled by a more powerful engine.

The teargas preceding the confrontation had begun to reach us. There wasn't a lot of time to equivocate. You waited only until the first Police car was in range, and hurled the brick at it.

The impact was seismic, spreading in jolting, instantaneous waves. All eyes turned up. Within seconds Police were in the street door and pounding up the stairs. You looked at me and I looked at you, and then we both started running as fast as we could.

The Police hit our roof just as we hit the roof next door in a loud thud and sprawl. You tell me if their guns were raised; that's what I saw. There was a gap between us and the next roof, a gap that didn't seem to matter very much as we hurled ourselves at it.

About four buildings on we made it to the street and kept running all the way to your car, parked far enough that we could still get away once we got to it, a beat-up VW bug. We had to push it to jump start it and prayed there was enough gas to get us out, but once it fired up it got us to my apartment near San Pablo.

We were insane with buzz; sheer adrenalin, paranoia, exulatation. We smoked more pot and opium and had much sex and then some take out Chinese food.

It was the same roof where James Rector was famously shot after the Third World Riots ebbed and People's Park hit flood tide.

A few days later we ran into Kathy at the MDR in North Beach. She was with Jim, and they told us about The Advisory in the old Kingsbury mansion in the heart of Pacific Heights, and mayhem ensued.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Stones of Assisi (and Urbino)

Between Bologna and Firenze, the Eurostar crosses the Appenines, the spine of mountains that runs the length of the boot of Italy. The mountains rise and fall like the waves of a green and rocky sea. The peaks of these mountains are craggy and erose; buildings cling to their sides or crown their peaks.

The Veneto and Emilia-Romagna were grey, grey, grey. Grey clouds, grey fog, grey light. The Eurostar enters one of many tunnels cut through the mountain; when it comes out on the other side the bright Tuscan sun floods the hillsides with light.

I am on my way to Assisi. I change trains at Florence Santa Maria Novella. No more Eurostar; I am now on an Interregionale which stops at every stop. It took two and a half hours to travel from Venice to Florence. It will take another two and a half to Assisi, half the distance. But if you grab a window seat it is a ride well worth enjoying. Descending into Umbria, the train winds between the base of the mountains and the Spoleto Valley at their feet. You skirt Lake Trasimeno, which is vast and beautiful, ringed with hills and grassy plain. Olive trees are everywhere, and the strange cachi -- persimmons -- whose fruit hangs like orange bulbs on the bare and skeletal limbs long after the leaves have fallen.

The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi is one of my favorite places. What strikes me, each time, is how festive the interior is. Even the dark lower basilica is decorated for a party in geometric pastel festoons painted in wet plaster seven hundred years ago.

The last time I was here the apse behind the altar of the lower basilica was hidden by scaffolding, undergoing restoration. Today it is finished, and beautifully lit. Like the basilica itself it is peculiarly brilliant, unlike anything else. The colors appear freshly painted. It is amazing that pigments mixed with wet plaster seven centuries ago could become this durable. In many places, almost entirely in Venice, they have crumbled or faded; it's a matter of microclimates. When an earthquake shook this basilica several of the ceiling frescoes in the transept collapsed. The fragments were gathered to the last speck of dust, and they were lovingly restored as best as humanly possible. Fortunately most of the frescoes were spared.

The apsidal fresco in the lower basilica is much later than the Giottos upstairs. There are heroic Renaissance figures amid the late medieval throngs. Veronese meets El Greco in a painting that stylistically would not look out of place amid the Orozco and Sequieros domes painted in Guadalajara six centuries later. Stylewise. But the messages could not be more opposite. Orozco painted fiery hells, but they were the lurid industrial furnaces of capitalism; the angels and saints were Marx and Engels and Lenin. Here, Hell and Death writhe at the bottom. Above, amid bugles and trumpets and angels hovering like birds, is Christ triumphant. The two worlds meet along the center meridian of the fresco, which draws an arc around you. That is the point of tangency where heaven meets earth, and it is mediated by friars of the Minor Order which Saint Frances founded. The Franciscan brothers are lowering ropes down into the torment of purgatory, to rescue lost and desperate souls.

The oldest stone in Assisi, pink stone hewn from Mount Subasio, has never seen plaster. The stonework is solidly medieval but inextricably commingled with the earlier Roman masonry. The medieval stones are eccentrically well put together. These stonemasons were bold and imaginative, amusing themselves with clever, ever shifting patterns to make the walls more interesting.

The basilica of San Francesco was built upon a rocky spur of steep hillside, like the prow of a ship cutting into the flat plain below. It required an immense superstructure to create the flat floor of the upper basilica. The floor of the lower basilica, directly beneath, slopes down like a ramp toward the apse. As a result the side chapels are reached by increasing numbers of steeply pitched stairs. What they lacked in light they made up for in a mad profusion of painted color and stained glass, as brilliant today as it was in 1330.

Both basilicas, upper and lower, are decorated inside with frescos; the outside is simple, with masses of stonework only around the portal and the rose window above it. It is utter simplicity, and it is close to perfect. You have to stand back and see it in context to appreciate the scale of the imagination required to build. You can best appreciate its splendid audacity from high above, from Rocca Maggiore, the castle fortress high above the town.

Ruskin was right that you can read the stones like a book. They tell the story of a place and time and were intended to do so forever.

Ruskin was a Christian moralist and this colors his thinking, but his eye was invariably clear and true. One of his assertions in this vein is that the ratios and proportions of classical architecture -- Egyptian, Greek, Roman -- their rigid regularity and symmetry, results from the fact that they were built by slaves. The artists were not free to indulge in flights of fancy; their imaginations were as fettered as their limbs.

That is why he maintains that the peculiar glory of the Gothic is that the artisans were free, both in the material circumstances of their lives and in the lives of their minds. They were free to sculpt and carve whatever they loved and found beautiful and amazing in the natural world. It was a sublime exercise of free will. This was certainly true in Venice, par excellence, which is Ruskin's point. The stones of Assisi, however, tell their story differently, and, perhaps most importantly, their interior surfaces are still plastered over with some of the most amazing pictorial art ever conceived and drawn by human hand.

The Porziuncola is a stone church the size of a suburban dining room. It was given by the Bishop of Monte Subasio to Francis and his band of brothers if they accepted it as the seat of their order. It was in ruins on the plains below the city; they were effectively banished from the life of the city to practice their vocation in splendid isolation. Francis and the brothers restored it with their own hands, stone by stone.

The silhouette of the Porziuncola is such perfect gothic that Ruskin could have built it himself. The doorway arch is pointed ever so gently; the outer roof is a sharp high gable and the inner roof is a stone barrel vault. It is the humblest of structures.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is a meretricious baroque basilica that sits atop the Porziuncola. It is like a Faberge easter egg, a gaudy outer shell encasing a perfect gem inside. This easter egg demonstrates quite vividly what Saint Francis was originally and what the Church quickly turned him into. Once the Porziuncola stood alone, a beacon of saintly poverty. Now suburbs sprawl around it, and the train station and MacDonald's, and, encasing it, S. M. degli Angeli with its parklike surrounds.

Walking along the flank of S. M. degli Angeli, taking its measure, I crossed the street to see it better; on the wall beside me I saw a stone plaque with the Medici coat-of-arms: a shield with a circular arrangement of six balls. I thought I must be mistaken. We are in Umbria, not Tuscany. I crossed the street to see a fountain running along the basilica wall. There were 20 or 30 spigots and at the end, embedded in the wall, a small plaque: Fonti Medicee sec. XVI-XVII. The Medici fountains, high renaissance. The dynasts left their imprint in the holiest of places.

These walled hilltop towns were built for defense; the hillsides and the plains below were cultivated, the farmers dependent upon the military power and prestige of the city above.

The medieval city of Assisi was literally built upon the Roman city whose foundations and street levels can be seen in many places, nowhere more clearly than the Museo del Foro Romano, the Roman Forum museum, located under the present Piazza del Comune. Here you see the original foundations of the square, with the temple of Minerva at its center whose facade still fronts the piazza above. High above the square stands the fortress, then as now, refortified as a bastion of the Papal State in the 14th century.

The Roman Forum Museum has sculpture and fragmentary remains of Roman stonework, but is distinguished by the Roman masonry itself. From the signage:

East monumental fountain
Placed in the East part of the terracing wall, the fountain consists of two rooms with a connecting archway. The walls are built in travertine opus quadratum with barrel vault. The front face shows two arches and a large monolithic travertine slab.

The Tetrastyle
The tetrastyle, an aedicule [a platform framed by columns] made up of four pink limestone columns holding the statues of the Diosscuri dates to the first half of the First Century A.D. It completes the central terracing building project which took more than a hundred years to finish.

You can only marvel at the elegance and precision with which these stones are laid, how strong and sound they still seem two thousand years later. They were built to last, and they did.

Elsewhere in the museum they have computer generated simulations of the Roman Forum, both still photos and a video walk-through. There you can see how the medieval city fits atop the Roman like a porcelain cap and intermingles their stones. The existing Roman masonry, uncannily precise, impossibly strong, is rigorously regular. Later, the gothic stonemasons made their walls in complex and irregular patterns pieced together from smaller stones and bricks; in comparison, they are infinitely varied and felicitous.

Ruskin was right.

Urbino is located in Le Marche -- the Marches -- the province bounded on the north by Emilia-Romagna, on the west by Tuscany and Umbria, on the south by Abruzzi, and on the east by the Adriatic Sea; it is in the approximate center of the eastern coast of the boot.

From Assisi I took the train to Foligno and transferred to an InterCity to Falcone Marittima. The train follows a pass through the Appenines down to the sea at Faro which was the key Roman port on the Adriatic. At Faro I transferred to Pesaro and from Pesaro I took a bus.

I am standing high on a hilltop surrounded on all sides by a sea of hills and mountains; there are no plains here, only variegated hillsids and scarps of granite. This was the seat of the Montefeltros, the dynasts who ruled these hillside towns, orchards and vineyards for several hundred years. The current city owes its fame and its form to Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino from 1444-1482. He built the massive Palazzo Ducale and Duomo which dominate the town and are its distinctive landmark.

The city is also the site of the University of Urbino, founded in 1506. Today Urbino is the college town par excellence, filled with students, the university having taken the place of the Ducal court as the center of its vitality.

The Duomo, of later date, rotated 90 degrees from its medieval predecessor, is straight Palladio in inspiration. But its interior walls are paneled in pastel pistachio stucco. It makes the place feel more gay than somber. The pulpit, positioned above the nave on a stone pier, is covered with baroque stucco work like white icing on a cake of pale pistachio marzipan. It is perfectly way-too-much.

I sit. But for me, the place is deserted. The images and impact of the past few days collapse inward and I am face to face with the bare essence. The place itself, its design and its imagery, compel me to think about religion; the duomo posits a dogma with a Counter-reformation Baroque sugar-coating.

In all cultures, at all times, the loftiest and lovliest work was put into the temples and the basilicas. At its best, it is a gesture of gratitude to the spirit that animates the universe; at its worst it enforces a rigid code of exclusionary clauses demanding strict adherence to its own language and rituals.

But no, I think... Did only St. Francis get it right? Religion -- worship -- should begin with joy, the joy a child feels watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon and flutter up into the sunlight on jeweled wings.

Religion should be the safety net, the unbreakable skein, supported by the understanding that suffering can not, and need not, be justified or eliminated; put simply, it is. It occurs on every level of sentient life and is part of a continuum with ecstasy at its opposite pole.

Religion should begin in joy and it should end in forgiveness, forgiveness of all things. That's a really tough proposition. It is much easier to envision excruciating hell for those who have harmed us, but we have to be able to let that go, too. It is all, Buddha said, a veil of illusion. The most difficult and the most rewarding peace arises not from justice -- however conceived and delivered -- but from compassion, infinite compassion.

As I sit here scribbling this in my notebook a choir of monks somewhere beyond the apse are singing plain chant. It echoes softly in the baroque faux-Palladio vaults, hanging in the air like a soft breeze.

It brings tears to my eyes and induces a feeling that I would like to last a long, long time, a kind of euphoria, the ecstasy of simply being alive, sentient, capable of experiencing and appreciating such beauty.

Ruskin believed that the beauty of the greatest works of man, the gothic structures and ornamentation, were so precisely because of the joy the artisans felt in their freedom to create the most beautiful stonework they could imagine. They could not rival Nature, but they could pay it homage, devout, humorous, sensual, mundane, from the angel blowing his trumpet on high to the loyal dog at the portal base baring his teeth. That is what Ruskin believed they were doing.

We might imagine that we are, each and every one of us, stonemasons. Our task in life is to fashion and to embellish it, to make it rich and beautiful, filled with love and gratitude. The work is so fulfilling and exhilarating that we can endure the pain and the sorrow life inevitably brings. We really aren't in this alone; we are in it together. We carve more than just our piece. My piece fits with your piece to build an exceptional piece neither of us could have built alone. Then multiply that by everyone you know and everyone they know.

That is how a gothic cathedral was built, over the centuries, by generations of families who lived and died without ever seeing it completed. The greatest buildings freely-built consumed lifetimes in their construction and decoration. That is why they are neither uniform nor symmetrical; they are as varied and complex as life itself.

Here is how it works for me: I am sitting in an outdoor cafe down the hill from the duomo. I am having a caffe macchiato and a brioche al cioccolata. I am surrounded by university students who have finished classes for the day. The air is charged with their ebullience. Across the street are two stupendous renaissance stone portals. Downhill the square is teeming with people chatting, waiting for buses, hanging out. The Christmas lights just went up and are switched on for the first time. It is also going-home-from-work time, which is inherently festive. It is an absolutely perfect moment. Is it all there is? No. Is it all I want? No. But it is the moment I have, and it is perfect. I want to share it with you, and this is how I do it. I am carving my stones.

The strange turrets of the Palazzo Ducale, the iconic image of Urbino, are tall and pink and slightly effete. I understand what Ruskin means when he speaks of the masculine energy of the best architecture. He is not being a sexist. To him it was clear that although the urge to build was shared, the task of building fell on the men. The women sent the men off to carve stone that would last throughout the ages, to shelter them and to celebrate them. It was men's particular genius. When she was a brilliant thinker, in Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia made the same point throughout the long arc from ancient Egypt, through classical Greece, to Imperial Rome.

Ruskin says it best. In judging if a building is good, "First, see if it looks as if it had been built by strong men; if it has the sort of roughness, and largeness, and nonchalance, mixed in places with the exquisite tenderness which seems always to be the sign-manual of the broad vision, and massy power of men who can see past the work they are doing, and betray here and there something like disdain for it."

Masculinity is an interesting quality. It is cultural and it varies. The Italian brand, for example, is far less aggressive than American macho. The Italians seem a quiet breed given to heights of passionate hysteria. Theirs is a softer, rounded masculinity, buffed by history and time. It allows for the physical closeness and open affection men routinely display toward one another, from the gentlest camaraderie, holding hands and kissing, to the most exuberant horseplay. It is a coat of many colors. They queue patiently, they argue passionately, they carefully savor a tiny cup of espresso, dress with attention to detail, and speak musically, drawing the logic with their hands like a conductor. It's when you see this that you can understand what Ruskin meant by the masculinity of great architecture.

Raffaello Santi was a greater painter than his father Giovanni, but seeing Giovanni's work reveals a direct line of artistry. Raffaello's genius did not burst from nowhere, comet-like. He was his father's son, but a generation later, freer, more sensual and closer to the reality of the natural world which is the archetype of all beauty. Giovanni's best figures look like particularly well-executed waxworks. Raffaello's breathe. Giovanni worked within the formal constraints of early Renaissance perspective. Raffaello reinvented them in voluptuous curves and swirling fabrics.

A bit further on in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, located in the Palazzo Ducale, is the "Flagellation" of Piero della Francesca. First and foremost, Piero had style. His work is instantly recognizable. Yes, for all its complex perspective, what truly speaks are faces and expressions, so much more alive than the architectonic composition. It represents the transition from an earlier, freer medieval style of painting -- the Giotto frescoes at San Francesco for example -- to the highly composed and ordered style of the renaissance.

Was the gothic the Golden Age? Was the Renaissance? Was there ever really a "Golden Age"?

It seems there were many Golden Ages, in different times and places. In all cases what they shared in common was the momentary flowering of human genius in all its forms of expression. We make fetishes of these moments, forgetting that in all times and in all places something is arising and something is dying. Which is what is often only clear in retrospect.

The virtue of architecture and of art is that it fixes these moments, so that in other places and at other times we can read the story of genius in flower, of its rise and fall, and perhaps better understand our place in the big picture.

This seems perfectly clear to me, sitting deep in the basement of Federico da Montefeltro's Palazzo Ducale in Urbino. It was blindingly clear in the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.

A multimedia show is being projected on the low vaults of the service basement beneath the ramparts and towers, projected all around, evoking the glories of Federico's court, which was, by all accounts, an exceptionally brilliant one. Wit, intellect, genius, all gathered; the library was full of gorgeous books, the walls emblazoned with art, the rooms filled with brilliant minds. Its particular genius was local, rooted in these craggy mountains and green hillsides. Wisdom and virtue, greed and lust, war and politics did their dance until greed and lust, war and politics, blew out its light and the light appeared elsewhere, as surprising there as it was here, and as brief.

"Golden Ages," like perfection itself, are simply ideas. History indicates that all efforts at perfection are doomed to fail. Perfection is an ideal that dwells in the realm of the mind. It provides something unattainable to aspire to. We may never get there, but we can come dangerously close, in our art, in our buildings, and in our minds and hearts. Like all greatness, it begins with love and ends with compassion, and is an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to experience the sublime.


Larry Mellman
Assisi | Urbino | Venezia

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nightscapes, Castello

There was a bit of fog. The water was still and the tide was high as I wandered through Castello around midnight.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Villa Pisani | Xanadu on the Brenta

Alvise Pisani, the 114th Doge of the Republic of Venice set out to build, on the green banks of the Brenta River, an earthly paradise to showcase his wealth and power.

He built his Xanadu at Stra, only 15 miles from Venice, but it was fraught with peril and filled with intrigue. Every Eden has its serpent with the power to bring the whole house down. In this case, the house stood, but the Venetian Republic crashed down around it. Villa Pisani was built as the thousand-year old Republic teetered on the brink of financial, political and historical collapse. Napoleon merely knocked over a house of cards; it had already collapsed from within.

Napoleon made his stepson, Eugene Beauharnais, the Prince of Venice and Viceroy of Italy, and gave him Villa Pisani. The villa was Napoleonized, although Napoleon only stayed a night or two. The gardens remained much as old Alvise Pisani had wanted them, a fabulous playground to rival the gardens of Versailles in fascination if not in size.

The facade of the villa, the first thing you see as you round the bend along the Riviera del Brenta, is conspicuously modeled after the Palace at Versailles, on a smaller scale. It represents a sad reflux, where Italian structural genius, so apparent in Venice itself, stops being original and begins aping its imitators. It is a poor imitation, not without grandeur, but lacking integrity, the soul stroke of genius the four caryatids that flank the portal. It is entirely devoid of the animating spirit of Venice's greatest buildings, first and foremost the Ducal Palace, the basilica of San Marco, the great Gothic palaces, then the Palladio churches, Santa Maria della Salute and Longhena's baroque palaces. Those buildings were innovative and brilliant both in scope and in conception. In comparison, Villa Pisani is conservative, imitative, frivolous: it represents exhausted wealth. The economic engine had run out of gas, or, more accurately, the great wealth was changing hands, first to Napoleon and the French, then to the Austrians, and, finally back to the Italians themselves, somewhat depleted. Villa Pisani represents the bella figura, the glittering mask with which the tottering Venetian Republic attempted to hide its bankruptcy.

Of course everything is relative. Pisani was rich enough to bribe the 41 electors to elect him Doge. But in periods of decadence, which precede the fall, the wealth is so concentrated that everyday life is strangled and the extremities wither while the center still decks itself in jewels.

There are, in reality, several Villa Pisanis: the Villa of Alvise Pisani, a rococo fantasy extravaganza; the neoclassical Napoleonic villa, filled with imperial pretensions; and the Villa of the Austrian monarchs who got it from Napoleon, who enjoyed it, and who made it into a complex of bourgeoisified vacation apartments. It was also the site of the first meeting between Hitler and Mussolini. Imperial pretensions are all of a piece.

The particular beauty and the brilliance of Villa Pisani is the 30 acres of gardens. Here Pisani succeeded in creating a stately pleasure palace of immense proportions. The long reflecting pool, as at Versailles, extends from the rear portico of the Villa to the stables, the broad central axis of the gardens which surround it, containing "everything which gives pleasure to the sight and gratifies our taste," Pisani said.

There is, for example a coffee house, a small pavillion set atop a hill. But the hill is fake, and just below its grassy green surface are the arched ceiling vaults of an ice-house. It is said that during the summer the Venetians enjoyed sitting in this pavillion to cool their feet in the air vented up from below.

The kitchen gardens, later upgraded to French-style orangeries, provided a selection of citrus year round, so that the Pisanis never wanted for a glass of fresh orange juice.

The gardens are decorated with arches and statuary set amid the trees and shrubs. Every where you look is a view. No corner is simply a corner, each is a pavillion, a triumphal arch, a marble niche, a grape-covered arbor.

The purpose of this garden was to divert, to dazzle, to amuse and delight. This is most perfectly seen in the maze and the exedra.

The maze is a labyrinth of hedges with a two-story tower at its center, topped by a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The gardens and the maze were built before the Villa itself; they were the essence of Pisani's dream.

Composed of nine concentric circles, the maze surrounds the tower. You can see it, but getting there is not so easy. The statue of Minerva atop the tower was an essential point of reference without which even the most intrepid gamester might not find his way. And Gerolamo Frigimelica, who designed the maze as well as the stables and the exedra, thought of everything. A double-helix stairway winds up and down the tower. It is a brilliant conception. The twin spiral stairs are the twisted end of the maze itself, offering an infinite number of vistas as you ascend and descend.

The exedra is another clever concept with no purpose but to entertain. It is a playground structure for adults, comprised of six arches from which six paths lead into the gardens. A stairway within its central turret leads to a terrace embellished with twelve classical statues and offering garden vistas in every direction.

And there are vistas. Vista after vista. Everywhere you turn. Just when you've gotten over one swoon, you're into another. I visited on a chilly autumn day. The baroque trees were on fire with color, orange, red, yellow and pink. The sun was hot and the sky a flawless Tiepolo blue. (If you wanted to check you could go inside and look at the ceiling of the ballroom, a vast fresco by Tiepolo representing the Triumph of the Pisanis.) Many of the buildings are covered in marmorino, a stucco of marble dust or painted delicate pastels. Much of the stonework and statuary is first class, dating to the original building, though none is particularly brilliant in the manner of Bernini or Canova or the Gothic artisans of Venice's golden age.

Strolling through these gardens on such a day is a walk through Paradise, no doubt about it. The interior, however, is not so brilliant. There are some fine frescoes besides the ballroom ceiling, and some interesting details, but inside the sad lesson of history is evident. The villa is filled with imperial pretensions and Grand Gestures, and its relatively empty state is eloquent comment on those pretensions. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Bedroom of the Viceregent, Amalia of Bavaria, stepdaughter-in-law to Napoleon, is especially beautiful. The walls are covered in a silk fabric of the Pisani period, 1735 or so, which the Austrians probably discovered in a storage bin and recycled. It is called "Indian," sprays of roses, peonies, liles and parrots, and exhibits Pisani's taste for exoticism so characteristic of the rococo period.

Decadence so extravagant brought to mind Shelley's "Ozymandias," which I quote in full because it is short and because it says everything about the men who build these Xanadus, monuments to their own glory, from the perspective of history.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Boka Bence, Lute Player

Boka Bence, Accademia Bridge, night

I have been hearing him for the last four years, always in surprising places. I didn't know his name, and dubbed him The Lute Player. I always asked other people who live here if they have heard him; everyone had seen him somewhere at one time or another. Often on summer warm autumn nights I would hear him at the apex of the Rialto Bridge, elegantly bent over his lute, playing renaissance dances to an obliggato of boat wake and heels on the grey stone stairs. For one season he played frequently in Campo San Aponal and I would see him there often.

Usually I was going from one place to another and suddenly there he would be, tucked in a niche around a corner behind San Salvador or in the shade of Ca' Franchetti's wall crowned with fragrant bushes in the spring.

One day last week he was playing near my apartment, and I bought his CDs. His name is Boka Bence, he is Hungarian, and in addition to playing music from the Hungarian renaissance he plays his own dances, composed in the style of the Hungarian renaissance. It is a unique and enchanting sound.

What struck me most was how deeply he had mastered the renaissance style, and yet his own dances were not slavish imitations; they were subtle variations filtered through a modern sensibility, traditional and not.

First and foremost, they are dances. They lilt and leap and glide and sway and if you have a soul, they make you want to dance.

"You have so thoroughly mastered the style and idiom of the renaissance," I commented to him, and he spontaneously burst into a big grin. He appreciated the compliment.

"I have heard a lot renaissance music," I said, "but never Hungarian."

"They are..." He struggled to find the words in English, his Italian being on a par with mine. "Not so..." He touched the air and paused. "Not so far. Is that right? Far."

Different but identifiable, sharing common genes with the rest of the renaissance, which was already mature in Italy by the time it reached Hungary, but with a flavor all their own. Far not only in distance but in time. Far, but not so far. They still speak to the modern mind.

He started to play. The music echoed nicely on the brick and stucco walls of the tiny campiello just beyond the Guggenheim. Tourists walked by clutching maps and barely heard a note. Wheeled luggage clattered across the paving stones. Strollers stopped to listen and throw money in the lute case. He wore wool gloves with the fingers cut off so that he could play in the autumn chill.

He has two CDs. One is with a small instrumental and vocal ensemble devoted entirely to songs and dances of the Hungarian Renaissance. It is a piece of vanished time and Bence's solos are exquisite. But his own music on the CD entitled Dances is individual and poetic.

These renaissance tunes were the popular music of their time. From the streets to the royal courts and back to the streets again, they were defined and refined and transformed, driven by the rhythms of complex dance steps. They can be joyous, carefree, melancholy, sensual, simple, complex, sublime.

Between two of the dances I said, "I guess my question is this: do you think you were born in the wrong century?"

He laughed and nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. Very much."

"Me too," I said, "I just haven't found my century."

I asked how long he has been playing the lute. He said he played guitar for a long time first, and about ten years ago he switched to this lute which a friend had made for him.

There is a lot of music on the streets of Venice, especially when the weather is fine. It ranges from accordion players to rockabilly to gypsy fiddle jazz to the virtuoso of the water glasses to the man who plays the violin so badly that it is hard to believe he does not do so intentionally, because it is impossible to play an instrument that much and still be so bad.

Bence is at the head of the class. He offers something fresh and historic at the same time. Relativity soup, the renaissance channeled through a twenty-first century talent. It is rare and original, something you never find often enough.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Venice at Night

This is about images, not words. These are a few of many, zone by zone. See VENICE AT NIGHT.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rubelli | In a word, sumptuous

IF you ever find yourself needing to reupholster a chair or cover a wall with a fabric as sumptuous as those in a Renaissance painting, go to Rubelli.

Rubelli is located at the Sant'Angelo vaporetto stop in the 15th century Palazzo Corner Spinelli, designed by Mauro Codussi who, along with the Lombardi family, introduced the language of the Renaissance to the stones of Venice.

And you won't just find traditional fabrics of silk brocades and cut velvets. There are plenty of those to choose from, but Rubelli also maintains a design studio in Marghera where modern fantasias on traditional themes are created. Within the last few years Rubelli has also acquired other lines of thoroughly modern fabrics and, in the case of Donghia, striking modern furniture as well. You can flip through the collections on their website.

It was hard to concentrate on the fabrics with such splendid views from the balconies outside the showrooms. My first visit was last week, with my friend Pip and two of her friends from Paris. We were given the Cook's Tour by Francesco Caradonna. Pip is a regular and regularly brings people there, and Francesco graciously opened all the doors and drawers for us.

In the office, with its Sansovino fireplace and intricately carved and painted wooden ceiling, Francesco pulled out swatches of historic luxury fabrics, pieces of extraordinary clothing centuries old, ancient ecclesiastical vestments. He showed us particular patterns, such as sprigs of caper berries, that Rubelli reproduced from these ancient fabrics in modern cut velvets, stressing the continuum not only of beauty but of quality.

I forgot my camera the first time, but not the second. When Pip called to say she was going back to Rubelli to pick up the fabric her friends had ordered, I grabbed my camera.

Francesco opened doors and turned lights on and off for me and then left me alone to take pictures. Every ten minutes the daylight seemed to change in those mysterious and enchanting late afternoon ways, reflecting off the Grand Canal and through the florid stonework tracery. It was hard to focus.

The fabrics themselves are striking in their range and extraordinary quality. Although Rubelli is traditionally a purveyor of tessuti per arredamento, upholstery and drapery goods, I have seen their fabrics used for costumes in baroque opera and they looked even better on bodies than they do on sofas and walls. With a little imagination, much of it could be worn to stunning effect. The instant Charlotte saw the silver linen she knew it would be a fabulous skirt.

The Donghia sofas, chairs and love seats are upholstered simply, but dramatically. I was particularly struck by the Donghia because I remembered them from LA, where years ago I had often admired the arresting designs in their West Hollywood showroom. The marriage of Rubelli and Donghia is certainly inspired, as are the scarlet or silver cut velvets and brocades that make the old chairs and walls shimmer like Veroneses.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Rainy day, San Marco

I ended up crossing San Marco on a rainy day. Much of the square was flooded, as was the atrium to the basilica. You entered on passarelle, the raised walkways over the water, but the line was short and I decided to see how it looked.

The experience is always astonishing. I had some questions I knew only Ruskin could answer and so I began rereading "The Stones of Venice," which is where I came across this which I have begun to truly understand:

""This looks somehwat like pride; but it is true humility, a trust that you have been so created as to enjoy what is fitting for you, and a willingness to be pleased, as it was intended you should be. It is the child's spirit, which we are most happy when we most recover; remaining wiser than children in our gratitude that we can still be pleased with a fair colour, or a dancing light. And, above all, do not try to make all these pleasures reasonable, nor to connect the delight which you take in ornament with that which you take in construction of usefulness. They have no connection; and every effort that you make to reason from one to the other will blunt your sense of beauty, or confuse it with sensations altogether inferior to it. You were made for enjoyment, and the world was filled with things which you will enjoy, unless you are too proud to be pleased by them, or too grasping to care for what you cannot turn to other account than mere delight. Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance; at least I suppose this quill I hold in my hand writes better than a peacock's would, and the peasants of Vevay, whose fields in spring time are as white with lilies as the Dent du Midi is with its snow, told me the hay was none the better for them."


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Two hours at the Doge's Palace

The Doge's Palace is pre-programmed. No more wandering around aimlessly; there is a well-travelled track from which it is difficult to deviate.

I knew what I wanted to see, but had to go through things I didn't want to see to get there. As often happens, I blundered into several perfect moments in which the building revealed itself to me in its full splendor.

The first stop on the route consists of several rooms with the original sculpture from the building's exterior, especially the decorative capitals and one spectacular section of the flower-like archwork that makes the windows so majestic. You can see their design clearly, at eye level, rather than cranning your neck from a distance.

The capitals of the columns, the broad neckband that funnels the weight of the building down through the columns to the floor, are wreathed with leaves. Scenes of daily life, from high to low, are nestled in these wreaths. They are studded with faces that were not carved for ideal beauty. This is what distinguishes them from antiquity before them and the renaissance after them. They represent, instead real life as it happened daily in all its countless permutations. Some of the faces are beautiful; some are grotesque. Most fall in between. They are the butcher, the baker, the soldier, the priest, the knight, the monarch, the saint. Everyone in the crowd is there.

Each is carved in his proper setting, nestled amid the thick acanthus leaves. He or she wears the appropriate dress for his or her station. If you follow around the capitals, they often tell stories. More often than not, however, they are an encyclopedia of human types. One capital features men of every known race while others display occupations arranged by category.

Farther on there is a fragment of a capital from a lower order column, with no people, no faces, rendered beautiful by the sumptuous curves of fat leaves.

From the Basin side of the first floor you can see San Giorgio Maggiore through the arches. You could not have seen it during the Byzantine and Gothic periods because it wasn't there. You would only have seen the island it was later built upon floating in the lagoon.

On the opposite side of the Rio wing, behind the Doge's apartments, the Palace abuts the apse of the basilica of San Marco. A passageway links the Doge's bedroom to what was, after all, his very own chapel. The rear view of that particular apse is revelatory.

The five-dome plan of San Marco was based on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Istanbul, then Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Church of the Apostles did not survive; its dilapidated ruins were later transformed into a mosque and there is no record of its original appearance except for an image from 1162 which shows the five dome profile. You need to look at San Marco to understand what the second greatest church of the Byzantines looked like.

The rear apse of San Marco was not decorated like the facades; the elegant lines of the brickwork are evident. You can see the Byzantine structure beneath the florid Gothic and Renaissances overlays, topped the great dome which covers the original smaller dome underneath with a crown of lead sheathing.

Think about any building. The floors are certainly simple: a flat surface. The roof is probably a pitched flat surface, the walls are vertical flat surfaces. Putting holes in these surfaces is a more complex problem, especially when you are building with brick. Because windows were difficult, they were found more often in public buildings and rich homes than in buildings devoted to work and to the people who did it. The massive windows were one of the glories of the Baths of Diocletian, designed specifically to woo a spoiled and fickle populace, and certainly captured the imagination of Palladio.

At the time the Doge's Palace was being built, other castles in Europe were armed fortresses, with square towers at the corners and thick brick and stone walls. The windows were few, small, often only narrow slits just wide enough to fire an arrow through. They were often on hilltops making them draughty, cold in the winter and cool but airless in the summer because there was no ventilation.

Compared to these in their countless permutations on terrafirma, the Doge's Palace is utterly fantastic. It is filled with windows. It was created to admit as much light as possible. In some places that was difficult, but the sides facing the basin and the piazetta have an extraordinary amount of windows open to the breezes and to the sun, and can be shuttered in the wet heat of July and August.

Even late in fall -- today is 26 October, and it is mid-afternoon -- the light in the Room of the Maggiore Consiglio is dazzling.

The Sala del Maggior Consiglio is overwhelming on several levels. First by its sheer size; it is 177 feet long, 82 feet wide and 50 feet high. A professional basketball court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. You could drop two of them into the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, which is as tall as a basketball court is wide.

Because it is flooded with light today, it is almost pointless to look at the oil on canvas paintings on the walls and ceilings. It is better simply to enjoy the space and the light. The room is a rectangle. Its long sides face the basin and the interior courtyard respectively. The far wall faces the piazzetta. Before the gold baroque woodwork of Venice's decline, these walls were covered with long vanished frescoes by the greatest masters of the late medieval and early renaissance periods.

The devastating fire in 1577 which almost totally destroyed that entire wing of the Doge's Palace happened at a very fortuitous time. Andrea Palladio was attempting to build in Venice the buildings of his dreams. He drew up plans for a new Rialto Bridge after the third wooden one burned burned down, a Roman market spanning the Grand Canal. After the fire, he drew plans for a new Doge's Palace , which would have remade it in Palladio's own image. His antagonist in this venture was Antonio da Ponte, the proto, or architectural czar, of the Republic. Da Ponte won. They used his design for the Rialto Bridge and he was put in charge of rebuilding at the Doge's Palace. Perhaps the fire was only an accident that opened the door of opportunity. Either way, it slammed shut in Palladio's face.

Another overwhelming feature of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio is its 14,000 square foot unsupported ceiling. There are no posts or columns; only the four walls. It is a Venetian creation, a shipbuilder's ceiling. It is an upside-down boat; the ceiling is the deck and the ribbing extends high up into the attic above. The timbers used for its construction were pickled in brine and dried to stone before they were assembled, and they bear the weight of the lead roofing. The upside-down ship is suspended, it hangs down over the room, resting only on the four walls, the stress transferred out and down the heavy outer walls of the building.

Using the deck of an upside-down boat for the ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio was not an innovation. They had been doing it in churches for centuries. But the scale of this ceiling was staggering, and, commensurate with its size, was the number of windows.

There are five windows under graceful gothic arches along the wall facing the basin. They are immense. The room is not as sublimely luminous as St. Chapelle with its walls of stained glass, but Sainte-Chapelle is only 114' by 36', half the size of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, although it is a third taller. The Sala del Maggior Consiglio was designed to accommodate the full Major Counsel, which numbered up to 1,600 bodies; the entire male Venetian aristocracy over the age of 25.

The light through the windows is golden, a brilliant glare of sun and its watery reflections in the terrazzo floor. In those days, light was the ultimate luxury. The rich could afford windows, and in Venice the most singular feature of all the palaces is their windows. When the princes of Europe paid state visits, they were received in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. How could they not draw the contrast between their dark and drafty castles and this stupendous space filled with air and light and the most beautiful paintings on the walls and ceilings.

On the one side the sun reflects off the green-blue water of the basin. On the other side there are only three windows, but they face the open inner courtyard of the palace and the bright blue sky over the domes and spires of San Marco. Two windows on the far wall catch the sun as it moves west. The long wall on the basin side faces southwest. Its five windows on the water are oriented toward the long arc of the sun rising over Lido and setting over the mainland.

There are only three windows on the couryard side because the place of the final two is occupied by the hall of the magistrature and the Sala del Scrutinio, the room in which the votes were counted when the Maggior Consiglio voted or elected a new Doge and other officials of the Republic.

There is a triumphal Roman arch at the far end of the Sala del Scrutinio. We are in the Renaissance where Imperial Rome still sets the bar for grandeur. A spectacularly large window opens onto the balcony over the Piazzetta.

Here, as throughout the Palace, two styles contend; gothic splendor and renaissance dreams of ancient Rome. You have to mentally strip away the encrustations of time and decadence to get back to the way these rooms felicitously created an exalted light-filled space decorated with frescoes.

The current paintings were painted after the 1577 fire. They celebrate historical events that never happened, but which certified the Serene Republic's equal footing with the Popes of Rome to the south and the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire to the north. Strip them away and the room remains spectacular. It is the scale and measure, the nobility and transparency of the structure itself, the deployment of walls and floors, doors and windows, that make this building one of the most beautiful in the world, and very little else on this scale poses a challenge, with the exception of the Parthenon, the Pantheon, and the remaining structures of the antiquity. This Palace was the jewel of the Republic and the envy of the world. Nothing built since matches its evocative and innovative beauty.

But it requires work to see it. What exists today in the Doge's Palace is Venice past its peak, a moribund Venice living on its glorious past. The truly splendid Venice, Venice at the acme of its wealth and power, the seductive queen of the seas and the ruthless prince of merchants, back in the days when the walls were movies and everything told a story, is left forever to our imagination.

You can't take pictures on the inside, but the exterior tells the same story, differently, in the DOGE'S PALACE GALLERY.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Venice Marathon

The Venice Marathon is 42km -- 26 miles long -- like other marathons. Like other marathons there are thousands of runners (6,000 entries). But the last few kilometers are, like the city itself, absolutely unique.

The marathon begins at the Villa Pisani in Stra and follows the Brenta canal through the Riviera del Brenta, home to the Palladian summer villas of the Venetian aristocrats of the high renaissance and baroque. The course then runs through industrial Marghera and Mestre, loops for 3K through Parco San Giuliano on the landward shore of the lagoon, then crosses the lagoon over the 4km Ponte della Liberta.

It continues around the hind end of Venice, where the cruise ships dock, and reaches the Zattere, the city's southern flank. From that point, it is a run like no other. It edges the Giudecca canal, passing that unprecedented string of Palladio churches -- Redentore, Zitelle, and San Giorgio Maggiore -- and at the Punta della Dogana crosses a temporary 170m pontoon bridge over St. Mark's Basin and continues past Piazza San Marco to the finish line, several bridges later, at the Riva Sette Martiri.

As marathons go, this one is considered "flat and fast." But in the last 3km there are 14 bridges over canals; wooden ramps are placed over the stone steps of the bridges making the run a bit of a roller coaster ride. The runners crossing the bridges echo like drums and thunder.

It is also one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the world, if not the most beautiful. Crossing the pontoon bridge across the basin the runners seemed as dazzled as they were exhausted. The crowd was generous with their rallying cries and rounds of applause for the runners. The clouds parted, perhaps s little too much for running comfort, but from a spectators point of view, the bright sun and blue sky were textbook beautiful.

See for yourself in the MARATHON GALLERY

Monday, October 19, 2009

Venice at Night

I love Venice best at night.

During the day the light and color are overwhelming and, ironically, it is easy to overlook the details which make the city so uniquely beautiful. Full light smooths out the details of the stonework; it looks brighter but flatter, or dirtier and less defined. At night the shadows etch the details. The difference between full moon and no moon is almost as dramatic as the difference between sunrise and sunset.

Because of the way the city is lit at night, it is hard to take pictures faithful to the living experience. There are thousands of bright street lights at close intervals. They drive cameras insane. There is no more well-lit city at night than Venice. But it is not even lighting, it is in bursts, and the best looking is between the lamps.

But at night the city is quite deserted. Venice is, in its essence, a small town with 30,000,000 tourists a year. During the day and at dusk, when the streets teem with people, it is impossible to focus on the structures which make Venice what it is in its essence. At night, when the streets and squares are deserted, it shows best its proper scale, its improbable physical setting, and its eclectic beauty, the fusion of Byzantine style, renaissance nostalgia for the glory of ancient Rome, and the baroque esthetic of more is more.

This is my first night gallery. Up until last week, I knew what I wanted to do but couldn't do it. The solutions were quite simple: a tripd and a new camera. These images are the closest I have gotten to capturing what it is I see walking around at night.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Handel Rocks Malibran

Handel, Agrippina
Teatro Malibran

Handel was 24, at the tail end of a three-year sojourn in Italy, when he composed Agrippina for the Carnevale festivities in Venice. It premiered at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo on 26 December, 1709, almost exactly three hundred years ago.

I saw it performed last night at the same theater. Inaugurated in 1678, by 1730 the theater was already in decline. While Napleon closed many things, that theater was not one of them. It was restored in the 1830s and reopened as the Teatro Malibran in honor the the mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran.

Today the theater is serviceable although I have heard musicians judge the acoustic as rather dry. I enjoy it because you can see and hear well from a larger percentage of the seats than at La Fenice.

Agrippina sounded astoundingly fresh, sly, exuberant; it is forever young. The show runs four hours -- two hours of arias, two hours of da capo -- but my interest never flagged. Although one of the indispensable elements of baroque opera was lavish stage spectacle, nobody could afford to mount such productions today. But even absent spectacle, Agrippina was engaging. The production here was Philippe Starck modern and it worked just fine.

Handel's inventiveness is nothing short of miraculous. There are 47 numbers in Agrippina, almost all of them arias for one of the eight singers, and they are stitched together with recitativo that is engaging, affecting, witty. The story is a baroque fantasia on classical themes, the approach is caustic, filled with the social criticism of a Beaumarchais applied to the Roman Imperials and here played for farce. Claudio, the emperor, was a drunken oaf, Miles Gloriosus as Imperator. Agrippina, his wife, is every bit the asp as Livia in "I, Claudius", but played for laughs and the batting of her Bette Davis eyes. Nerone is an ineffectual wimp, Poppea a scheming vamp with a scared little girl inside, and Ottone, a tall hunk of manly man whose mezzo-soprano voice is at ironic odds with his Mr. Clean build and shaved dome.

Of the eight singers last night, two were female sopranos, two were male sopranos, two were mezzo sopranos and two were basses. Of the two male sopranos, Nerone -- Florin Cezar Ouatu -- was a true soprano as opposed to the richer mezzo voice of Xavier Sabata as Ottone.

Ann Hallenberg played Agrippina like a plush Bette Davis and sang the fiercely difficult music effortlessly, richly detailed and exquisitely articulated, while convincing us that she was only trying, as any mother would, to make sure that her son Nerone landed on the throne, no matter what.

Poppea, Veronica Cangemi, looked like a young Teresa Stratas, a mistress of slink and vamp in a blond wig, spinning off little Glitter-and-be-gay type showpiece arias. Ottone's aria at the beginning of act two was a breathtaking -- literally -- demonstration of breath control over extraordinarily long and melancholy legato lines, and Nerone's manic Act III aria brought cheers from the house. Each one of the cast has several arias that stop you dead with musical skill, rhythmic incisiveness, sheer loveliness of tone, or the persuasive urgency of the melody, whether melancholy, giddy, angry, jubilant, or nasty -- Machiavellian nasty-- often the case.

As was customary, Handel canniabalized his own works and everyone else's for tunes, 47 of them, each distinct melodically and rhythmically. Huge kudos to Fabio Bondi and the musicians who realized Handel's score and met his impossible demands with rich, full-bodied music making that never lost track of nuance and mood.

But the biggest kudos of all go to George Frederich. Let's talk about standing the test of time. When a baroque opera lasts for four hours, you expect to see an exodus at each of the intervals.

Didn't happen.

The music-making was of such a consistently high level, and the music of such glittering charm, that there was no reason to leave. There was no better place to be.

Magic Numbers

Andrea Palladio a/e Venezia
Museo Correr,

Old buildings were not built the way new buildings are. For one thing, they were built with the assumption they would stand forever, or at least for a very very long time.

The oldest buildings we have were all built on complex numerical systems, systems of ratio and proportion which were determined to be the right ones to create harmonious, meaningful interior and exterior space. When we call them perfect, we mean that literally. The numbers all add up. They are the realization of ideal form, whether its the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, or San Giorgio Maggiore.

But San Giorgio Maggiore is the one I know best, so it's the building I will stick with for the sake of argument.

The model for San Giorgio Maggiore was the Temple to Augustus in Pula, Croatia which was built sometime between 2 BC and 14 AD. Under the Byzantines, it was turned into a church, and like other pagan temples turned into churches, it survived where others were cannibalized for their marble.

Vitruvius -- Marcus Vitruvius Pollio -- was born and died before the Christian Era. He was a Roman soldier and architect, a man of exceptional brilliance sometimes referred to as the world's first engineer in the modern sense of the word.

Vitruvius wrote De Architectura, the Ten Books of Architecture that Palladio studied in the mid-1500s. He studied the books and, thanks to his patron Gian Giorgio Trissino, visited many of the sites, and measured for himself, to verify that the numbers, which had been run through the Vitruvean computer, were perfect.

They were.

The key measurement for understanding the proportions of the facade of San Giorgio Maggiore is the diameter of a large column at its base. It is the key, the 1 of a system of ratios such as 1:15 for the height of the major order columns.

Palladio's original design for San Giorgio didn't simply recreate the Temple of Augustus. He reimagined it for a new site, an island at the tip of Giudecca, in a new setting, overlooking St. Mark's Basin and the mouth of the Grand Canal, in full view of the Doge's Palace and the Basilica of San Marco.

You cannot stand back too far to admire the building. The space in front of it is short. One more step and you are in the water. It was meant to be seen across the water, rising up like a majestic dream. The pronaus -- the porch -- of the building was designed to thrust toward the basin, surrounded by free-standing Corinthian columns.

How the interior works with the exterior

The rich Bendictines who had hired Palladio agreed to his design, although it was thoroughly iconoclastic for many reasons. Palladio's personal tide was high in Venice at that moment, and they agreed despite he church's historic aversion to church buildings emulating pagan temples. That they agreed was partly an expression of the historic conflicts between Venice and Rome, and also a measure of the rising tide of the Renaissance which had flowed downhill to Rome earlier and even up hill, to Venice, by Palladio's moment. Up until that time the church abhorred free-standing exterior columns; instead, they were "engaged", stuck in the walls like a decorative motif. Monospaces were also abhorred. Cubic, rectangular, and especially circular spaces were distinctly "pagan." Proper Christian basilicas required a nave-and-aisle structure in the form of either a Greek or Latin cross.

Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Palladio had already brilliantly solved the aisle-and-nave problem at San Pietro di Castello, San Francesco della Vigna, and Redentore, by superimposing Roman facades. Flattened, their columns engaged, all space absent around them, are two perfectly proportioned Roman facades, one to accommodate the full width of the aisles, and one to majestically frame the nave. At San Pietro di Castello the central sectopm is based on a Roman triumphal arch, the Arco di Savi in Verona. At San Giorgio, Palladio pushed the envelope even further.

Palladio's design for San Giorgio with the Temple of Augustus as pronaus broke all the rules. The columns were free-standing. This was not a flattened approximation of a great Roman temple; it was the full monty, in three dimensions. But it was not round, it was not a monospace; behind the majestic facade was a Latin cross basilica that corresponded in every dimension with proportions of the major order columns. Palladio made the concessions he needed to build the building he wanted.

Unfortunately, Palladio died long before the completion of San Giorgio Maggiore, and upon his death the Benectines immediately retreated and ordered the pronaus pushed back into another superimposed facade. They would go no further than Redentore, a kilometer away. The full brilliance of Palladio's building was never realized; our loss.

But inside, Palladio has the last laugh. Majestic Diocletian windows light the porticos and arches and apses, the same porticos and arches and apses as the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, the most lavish of the public baths at the height of Roman decadence.

But back to the numbers...

The ratio of the diameter of the major order columns to their height is 1:15, which is the proper proportion for a Corinthian column (the Corinthian order is the slenderest) as laid out in Palladio's Four Books of Architecture based on Vitruvius's Ten.

The space between the inner pillars flanking the portal is a bit smaller than it should be but the space between the remaining columns is the two diameters it should be.

The 1:15 ratio is for height measured from the base to the crown of the major order columns. The Corinthian capitals have corresponding proportions of their own: the entire capital is 1-1/6 diameter, while the leafy crown alone is one even.

Like other precision- engineered designs intended to last, these structures are jigsaw puzzles of chiseled stone, everything breaking down into pieces carefully fit together. Palladio was a stone mason first; he understood stone and stone construction, down to the minutest details. The notches into which a stone tooth of pediment slots into a column was based on specific numbers also in ratio.

At the Palladio show currently in the Museo Correr, there is a video which shows the order in which the stones were laid for the entire facade, from the base to the peak of the pediment. The split-screened and superimposed images of San Giorgio, San Francisco, San Pietro and Redentore show the numbers.

It is a gigantic harmony machine, the numbers going back to Pythagoras and the Music of the Spheres. It is the soul music of Western Civilization, although most of us don't hear it.

Palladio certainly did.