Friday, February 27, 2009

Whither La Fenice?

I love opera.

I love opera the way a mad monk loves his prayers. I have loved it since my first time, when I was thirteen, and went with my friend Pete, his aunt and his cousin. The opera was Tannhauser with the San Francisco Opera Company at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. I will never forget it.

And I have loved it ever since. It spans heights from the grandest pageantry to the most scaldingly intimate, desperate passion; and from the sublime to the ridiculous. But it is also a strange and expensive world, expensive to mount, expensive to attend. And for all the expense, even I, an opera lover, rarely see what I want to see. It is spread thin and wide; to catch its fleeting moments of glory you have to be able to move between Paris and Berlin, New York and Milan, Barcelona, Munich, Vienna. It's fiercely expensive for a seat and for the trip, especially these days.

Too often, it is not worth the expense. When it disappoints, it disappoints on as grand a scale as it exalts when it fires on all cylinders. I have often maintained that a few mediocre performances are a small price to pay for the night when they hit it out of the park. But these days, it's harder to afford the duds. We want ten; we get fives and sixes.

The variables are immense. Does the production meet the music squarely? Does the soprano or tenor have a cold? Are they tired, pushed too far by grueling globe-trotting schedules? Did the conductor communicate a coherent vision to all his troops? Are these hundreds of people it takes to produce an opera all on the same page. Does it come together?

It's a lot to come together. Orchestra, chorus, singers, directors, designers, stage hands, supers. It takes a village, literally. When it comes together, there's nothing like it. When it doesn't, there's nothing like it. To paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy operatic performance is unhappy in its own way.

Which brings me to "Romeo et Juliette" at La Fenice the other night. Everything collided in a perfect storm of bad. The production was ugly and inane, the voices inadequate to the music, the orchestra in ooom-pah-pah mode with a conductor who barely kept it together. (This orchestra is capable of fine, disciplined and impassioned playing.)

I went in with high hopes; I always do. I left angry and annoyed, which I rarely do.

I live in Venice. La Fenice is my local opera house. It was a glorious house with tremendous history. "La Traviata" had its world premiere here; Maria Callas sang Traviata here for the 100th anniversary of that premiere in 1953. Rigoletto and Semiramide and Ernani premiered here. The Rake's Progress premiered here. The greatest voices of the last two centuries sang here. So what is to be said about its current sad estate?


La Fenice is now a bush league opera house. It's a cruel thing to say, but true. It's largely a question of financial resources. They cannot afford the best singers; the auditorium is too small to pack in big house audiences. The ticket prices are as high or higher than better houses, but the casts are not at the same high level. (Juan Diego Florez sang the Duke of Mantua at Bologna; the seats cost half as much as here and we haven't seen him. What's up with that?)

Being unable to afford the marquee singers is not necessarily a bad thing. One assumes that it offers the opportunity to hear voices on their way up who have not yet reached the salary stratosphere. Unfortunately it works both ways, talent on the way down, or going nowhere, or on the skids to oblivion.

It doesn't have to be that way. Some of the most stunning opera productions I have ever seen were at the small theatre-in-the-round of the Long Beach Opera during the 1980s. The productions, intimate, scaled to the size of the house, were inventive, often brilliantly so, and musically adventurous. I particularly remember Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea," featuring Malfitano before she hit the big houses of the world, in a production by the Alden brothers, before they hit the big houses of the world. It was brilliant and satisfying in every way. We walked out of the theater buzzed and enchanted. It's a matter of vision.

So when I walked out of La Fenice angry and annoyed, I thought about it a lot.

In fairness, I have to admit that partly it suffered in comparison to the Barenboim-Chereau-Meier "Tristan" I saw two weeks ago at La Scala (see below). But even had it not been for that, I would have been angry and annoyed.

La Fenice is a great and historic house. Venice was once the epicenter of the operatic world. Monteverdi, the Godfather of opera, composed here; he is buried in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. So what gives?

Sadly, it's not just La Fenice. All the opera houses of Italy are being strangled by the financial crisis. Their government subsidies have been slashed. They will all be taking in their seasons to fit their shrunken budgets. And because they have no tradition of fund-raising here (there are no tax breaks for such donations), they are caught very very short.

La Fenice is not alone but the situation is particularly egregious in a house with such history. I was astonished to be watching so inane and ugly a production, with voices straining uncomfortably to perform the music. Great singing is like Olympic gymastics; fiercely difficult, the best make it look natural, effortless. This low level at Fenice has been apparent since the 2004 reopening. Now and then an inspired conductor pulls together something wonderful, like Jeffrey Tate's Ring, still unfolding; or inspired artists raise a production above itself, as Daniela Dessi did with Tosca, and Patrizia Cioffi with Il Crociato In Egitto . But that is the exception; mediocrity reigns.

To some extent this is a residual effect of the rebuilding of the house after it burned to the ground. The original Fenice was built in 1792, after its predecessor burnt to the ground. It was rebuilt again after a devastating fire in 1836, and again after burning to the ground in 1996. At that time, the decision was made to rebuild it "com'era, dov'era" ("like it was, where it was," the slogan used when the campanile in Piazza San Marco collapsed in 1902 and was rebuilt exactly as it had been for five hundred years).

But was that the best decision for Fenice? It left the house with a burden of debt; the productions suffered since. As the price tag grew and grew, inferior materials began to be used in order to finish at all. The re-opening triggered a fierce debate in the press as to whether it was a brilliant recreation or an exercise in kitsch, a lurid imitation.

IMHO, it is, at best, a reasonable facsimile of the theatre that burned down. But the old one was like a seasoned instrument, mellowed by age and warmly resonant. The new one is not even close; plastic has not helped the acoustic. I was there before and after. It is not as it was, despite the slogan.

What if, instead of "com'era, dov'era", a radical new solution had been embraced? A new opera house in the old footprint, not one dripping with gold and braid in imitation of its former self, but something daring and inventive that carried the glorious heritage of Venice into the future in a brilliant new way. Now that would have been something.

We pay each season for that decision. The loyal local audience gets second- and third-rate production, but the house looks like it used to, sort of. It was a political decision with the tourist trade in mind. You still can't see the stage from over 40% of the seats, many of which are sold to tourists who simply want to sit in the house and take pictures. They generally don't know the difference, or care. Their seats are empty after the first interval. But the musically sophisticated audiences, local and visiting, all experience the same disappointment as the level of the productions continues to decline.

This can only get worse, as it will from Palermo to Torino, as the budgets are slashed by the Berlusconi government. Prognosis negative, as Bette Davis said in "Dark Victory."

Between opera lovers, those of us who buy the tickets and love the music, and opera producers and performers, a new relationship is necessary. Not scaled back versions of the same old thing, or infrequent extravagant blow-outs, or high definition television on movie screens (although that plays a role, I have yet to see one), but re-conceived opera productions that address the economic and social realities of the audience. Ok, ok; Bayreuth will never change. But everything else can. This crisis will not be over soon, or easily, and Lord knows we need our opera now more than ever!

Opera is a strange animal. It can never be truly popular, by definition. Its audience will always be limited, but it is always an audience willing to pay, within limits, for the unique thrills it offers them. It is equally important that the traditions of live, un-amplified performance be preserved and advanced.

Radical solutions are needed. This applies to everything-- new pricing models, new casting solutions, smarter use of available resources to give the most great music to the widest possible audience.

Otherwise, no one gets what they want. Productions are scrapped, performers are hurt, companies close. We lose a part of our souls.

I'll get down off my high horse now...

LIDO, 27 February 2009

It was these narrow bars of sand pushed out by the rivers that made Venice possible, cradeling the lagoon and keeping the Adriatic at bay.

It is clear, with haze over the Lido beaches. By noon the haze evaporates. The sun is hot, the air is cold, like walking in a heated refrigerator.

Beaches, which we think of as static places, are alive, mutable, shaped and reshaped by the wind and tide. Today, the Adriatic is as smooth as a freshly-ironed blue satin bed sheet. It is hard to imagine this gentle surface in a rage, flooding towns and swamping the beaches and pulverizing the stones placed there to contain it, which they do, barely.

The sign says that they are again shoring up the fragile coastline, moving the rocks and sand with claw-beaked tractors. Soon it will be summer and the bare sand will be covered with bare flesh and dogs and beach toys.

A fishing boat mired in diamonds close to the shore hauls in crabs and other crustaceans. To the north, the work proceeds slowly on the gigantic MOSE project designed to save the city from devastating floods. The lines and lines of cabanas, some of which rent for 6,000 euros for the brief 3-month season, are shuttered.

Beach towns everywhere share a common feel; Lido is like Santa Monica and La Jolla in a kaleidoscope blender, stirred not shaken. The pavilion at the foot of Via Sta. Maria Elisabetta always reminds me of Pacific Ocean Park on the Santa Monica/Venice border, now as long gone as my youth.

But today, the bliss is all in the details, the gleam of pink rocks lapped by the waves; the sun shimmering on the water like a sequined net; the bounty of shells and crabs on the beach; the bliss of the hot sun breaking through the cool morning mist.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Carnevale shootings: New Orleans, 6; Venice, 0

I read this today:

"NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) — Six people were shot at the New Orleans' Mardi Gras festival, casting a shadow on the annual festivities in a city still recovering from the ravages of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

Authorities said the shooting took place on "Fat Tuesday" -- the most festive day of the 12-day Carnival season -- on the St. Charles Avenue parade route shortly before 2 pm (2000 GMT). The victims included a one-year-old boy.
None of the injuries appeared fatal and police quickly arrested two men after a brief chase, recovering three guns."

On Sunday, 22 February, 125,000 people (above and beyond the city's less than 60,000 resident population) flooded Venice for Carnevale. While the crowds ebbed and flowed, for eleven days Carnevale was violence-free. The crowds here had a lot of time on their hands, and were crammed into a relatively tiny space.

While there was chaos and hysteria at the train station when there wasn't enough train capacity to get many of them home, there was no violence. There were no gunshots. There were no guns. There were lots of people, many in costumes with masks, looking for a good time. If they found it they were happy, if they didn't, they contented themselves with looking at each other and taking pictures. Overall the vibe was extremely mellow. There was neither fear nor violence.

What's the difference?

The first and most obvious difference is guns. People have them and carry them and use them in the U.S. They shoot each other, police, animals, and anything else they can get away with. In Venice, at least, it simply isn't so. There is no major gun -- and "gun right" -- fetish. You don't see them, you don't hear much about them, there is no continuous, raging, polarizing debate about them. By and large, they are illegal. That being said, I must add that Venice is the safest place I have ever lived. Overall the level of violent crime is incredibly low.

This is not true for other parts of Italy where there is horrendous violence at the hands of the various "Mafia" type organizations. It is in the news. There are murders and robberies and kidnappings and executions. But those crimes are largely concentrated in certain areas. Overall, Italy has a very low crime rate. It has the second lowest murder rate in Europe. It also has the most restrictive gun laws in Europe, and there is no death penalty.

When I think about the violence that is endemic in the U.S., I am glad I am here. I do not see violence here; I do not feel it in the air. I am not afraid to walk the streets at any hour of day or night. I have been part of enormous crowds and although I worried about being squeezed or caught in pedestrian gridlocks, I never felt fear, real fear, the fear of insane or random violence. Its absence makes my life better. I was sad and appalled that people got shot trying to have a good time in New Orleans; but I was not surprised. Nor was I surprised that no one got shot here. I would have been totally shocked if they had.

The real question is why violence is taken for granted in the U.S., to be expected; why it is written large in the social context of the country, and why it continues to grow, to threaten, and to compromise the quality of life for everyone? Whatever the reasons -- complex political, sociological, psychological reasons to be sure -- they do not explain it. While "respect for life" is a hypocritical rallying cry for the all gun-toters when it comes to the "unborn", when it comes to real people, to children and adults, there is no respect, only cynicism. With the deepening of the economic crisis, there will be more; more desperation, more anger, and more violence.

So far, no teenager has walked into a high school here and shot twenty or thirty people, either randomly or by design. That's not to say it couldn't happen, but I seriously doubt it. In the end, the difference is in the culture.

Discuss among yourselves...

Down the rivers of the windfall light

Fern Hill
by Dylan Thomas

It is worth getting into the swing of his idiosyncratic language for this gorgeous poem. Below, a link to a nice reading of the poem, if you'd rather listen.

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Carnevale Update

From the local press:

(Sunday) Carnevale burst at the seams; 125,000 people visited the city Sunday. Then, when everyone tried to leave from the train station, all hell broke loose. There weren't enough trains or cars to meet the demand.

"Chaos" and "hysteria" ensued. What trains there were, were packed to the gills. People couldn't get on. The Railway Police set up cordons and tried to keep people calm. The system was, as they say, "in tilt."

At 6pm the 6-57 to Bologna was already filled with thousands more trying to get on. The same thing happened with the 7-57. The trains coming into the city had also been packed full, leaving thousands of people unable to reach the city. (Thank god.)

The award for best costumes went to the suite of 18th C. lanterns, inspired by Marco Polo and the Emperor of China. (I had tagged them as best, and as French early on, but they were in fact German). They were the best and the only gorgeous costumes around and they deserved to win. You can see them here. Third place went to an eight-year-old dressed as a trash can stuffed with garbage bags (sorry, no picture).

I went out to dinner with Richard in Castello. When we got off the packed vaporetto at San Zaccharia, the lines to get on snaked all the way down the Riva; the crowds were heading for Piazzale Roma and the train station. We planned an alternate route home. Castello was deserted; the streets peacefully empty. It was as if we were in a different city. By the time we headed home, toward 10pm, the lines were gone. The crowd was now blocked at the train station.

Tristan | La Scala | Barenboim

First a word about La Scala.

It is glamorous. Bella figura rules. People Dress. Whatever their flavor or style, they are a class act.

Each box has a corresponding cloakroom (I wondered at first what all those other numbered doors were. A parallel universe facing away from the stage?) The last time I was there I sat in the Gallery; a different scene.

The ushers are all young and attractive. They wear black uniforms; the tunic coat gives them an air part ecclesiastical and part military. They wear a chain around their necks with a medallion. The impact is of another time. They open your box and your cloakroom with keys they carry, and if the box is empty at the intervals they lock it until you return.

It was clear from the outset that there was a special rapport between Barenboim and the orchestra; the audience applauded them rapturously every chance they got, even before a baton had been raised or a note played.

It's not easy to be an Isolde. Many try, few succeed. Technically, musically, emotionally, the role is a ballbuster. Beginning as a young, angry, betrayed princess forced into a politcal marriage, she transforms by means of a magic potion into a vortex of all-consuming passion and she dies in a swoon of love that reaches beyond mortality.

Waltraute Meier magically transforms herself into Isolde; it is a role she was born for. She inhabits it like a second skin, channels some cosmic Isolde longing to sing, and sings it like it's real.

Clearly she was a little thrown by Tristan. He was spelling the original Tristan in this production, Ian Storey, and it was his first time out. It had to be clear to everyone concerned that he simply did not have enough voice to sing over the orchestra and rise to the rafters. His voice certainly did not rise to my seat, and I had a choice seat in the front row of a center box on the third tier. I heard and saw everything beautifully, from the smallest orchestral detail to the greatest climaxes, and there are many. I heard soft woodwinds and quiet strings, I heard Melot and Brangane and Kurwenal and King Mark effortlessly. I heard the lonely sailor singing a capella. But I didn't hear Tristan. It wasn't "Tristan and Isolde," it was "Isolde."

The Chereau production is real and virile. Isolde is imprisoned in a man's world, where she has only Brangane and her magic to protect her. The men are not menacing, but they are always there, taking off their shirts and washing their bodies at a water barrel, lounging aimlessly, coiling rope. They look at her; they can't help themselves. They are men. At the end of the prelude the ship emerges from the fog; by the end of the act, in full light and orchestral brilliance, having both drunk the love potion, Tristan and Isolde had to be torn apart while the magisterial Matti Salminen as King Mark strode on board in an executive overcoat. It is a stunning coup de theatre.

To overcome the obvious deficit, the orchestra was extraordinarily brilliant, and Baremboim knows exactly how to exploit the full magic of this music. It rages and simmers and burns with ecstasy. He clearly has an extraordinary artistic connection with Mme. Meier, and knows how to coax both her and the orchestra into the perfect blend of Wagnerian bliss.

When the orchestra was playing softly and you could hear him, Tristan had a pleasant enough voice. And to his credit, he was wonderful physically, considering that he has to sing while dragging himself across the stage by one arm, or while he clawed his way up and down a steep flight of stairs on his stomach. But whenever the music rose above a mezzo forte, his voice simply vanished. During the love duet Meier rode the waves of sound majestically while Tristan sank beneath them.

I was touched by the way the other artists circled the wagons around him to protect him from the loud, inevitable boos of the loggionisti. At the final curtain most of the bows were taken by the entire ensemble, or in groups, but in deference to the radiant performance of Meier and the stature of Salminen, individual bows had to be taken, but only one, and Tristan was booed loudly and it was over very quickly, primarily because the audience was rapturously appreciative of everything else wonderful about this performance.

The unusual intelligence that Barenboim brings to the realization of music is not only musical. He is one of those rare people who has seen the mountaintop. He is not only one of the great conductors of our time; in addition to his unique artistry he is a brave and committed human being. It was international news when he, an Israeli and a Jew, took on the hardliners over the issue of conducting Wagner in Israel. He fought the good fight. He did not win, but he did not lose, either.

As a Jew, I am often put in a very defensive posture because I find Wagner's music sublime and it moves me like no other. I was thrilled to hear Maestro Barenboim say what I had long been saying: that you have to be able to separate the man from the music, the artist from the art. If you can't, more art is compromised than not. Many of the greatest artists in human history were monsters in their personal lives. But the music exists on its own, it was willed into being by the force of genius, and must be appreciated free from considerations of the monstrous personality of the only person crazy enough to have been able to create it. Wagner's music is like the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal; it doesn't matter what we think. It is. Whether we like it or not, it exists in all its glorious and profound humanity.

Barenboim is both an Israeli and Palestinian citizen, which places him in a minority of one. He is committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to further this end he, along with his late colleague Edward Said, a Palestinian-born writer and professor at Columbia University, formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He took a group of musicians, aged 14 to 25, from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Israel, welded them into a musical ensemble and coaxed brilliance from them. They are an object lesson. They remind us that anything is possible. They now perform all over the world. You can read about it on his website Many of his journal entries there are particularly interesting.

There was a moment at the end of the Liebestod where Barenboim did some alchemical articulation of the music that levitated me right out of my seat, a shiver of the sublime down my spine. It was a moment of absolute perferction and those moments are rare. I forgot about Tristan, I forgot about the seat in the opera house, and about me. I was part of the music. If orgasms lasted that long, they'd be better.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Whatever it is, whatever it is supposed to be, it isn't.

There are enchanting moments for sure, and then moments when the crowd churns like a wave breaking. The vibe is generally mellow given the number of people, lacking in rage and menace and violence, but nobody seems to know where they're going or what they're doing. It is incoherent, and worst of all, it is quite joyless.

The old festivals of misrule that Carnevale arises from made a concious and socially necessary point of turning the world upside down for a limited period of time. The beggar became King, and the King beggar, everything went topsy-turvy, everything was permitted without having to worry about retribution later. This served a tremendous social and political function, as an escape valve for everyone, high and low.

But what is happening here in Venice is a pallid shadow of an 18th Century model that still hasn't figured out what it wants to be when it grows up, if it grows up. There's no exuberant dancing in the streets, as in Rio; nor the kind of public partying we saw in New Orleans. In fact, there's nothing much but the costumes people wear and, this year, even those were lackluster. You can probably blame the economy for that.

Overall the crowds have been lackluster and business has not boomed. But good carnival or bad, carnival or any other time of year, the city's population swells on the weekends, and particularly on Sunday. This is the second and last Sunday of Carnevale 2009, and sure enough the streets are swamped by a human tide. It wasn't a record breaking number, but the city was busting at the seams with people whose major activity is taking pictures. You can't count the cameras, everything from cellphones to twelve pound SLRs with yard-long lenses to shoulder-mount video rigs.

The game is simple: you either take pictures or pose. This is the dance of narcissism and voyeurism I mentioned above. But it gets increasingly complex.

The English girl posing in a rented costume on the steps in front of Caffe Florian is taking a picture of the American guy with the really big lens who is taking a picture of her.

He got jostled aside by a crowd of Englishmen in medieval armor and they danced to the same step as she shouted encouragement and shook her hoop-skirted hips. (It led nowhere; they all moved on to take and be in more pictures.)

Meanwhile, for most of the time, nothing happens on the stage in the center of Piazza San Marco, the epicenter of Carnevale. When, finally, at 3PM, something does happen, the Most Beautiful Costume competition, it borders on banal, dwarfed by the crowd, outshone by the kids not even bothering to watch. There are better costumes off-stage than onstage. There is more interest in the crowd, jostling to see, than in what they are jostling to see. It's all just something else to take pictures of, a sort of cluster-fuck Photo Op.

Carnevale deserves better, but the crowd doesn't seem to care. They are doing what they really came here to do. Pose or take pictures. Or both.

This incessant photo-taking is par for the course here, fault the city's ravishing beauty. People are taking pictures everywhere all the time almost twelve months a year. The same pictures are taken twenty million times a season, and anyone who thinks they've found an undiscovered angle is simply naive. It has all been shot before, and will be shot again.

But the focus shifts at Carnevale. The people don't come to see Venice; they come to take pictures of themselves and of each other. The ancient monuments, no less beautiful than last week, take back seat to cheap confetti and tacky store-bought costumes. Nobody even pretends to notice them; they don't matter. For a millenium this space had astonishing civic and religious importance; the space was revered. This gave the rites of Carnevale a special symbolic significance. This was the ceremonial heart of Venice. Today, it means nothing, not even for the majority of merchants for whom, in the past at least, it meant buckets of money.

In the Piazza and the Piazzetta, the crowd is vast and dense; at times you lose your freedom of motion and simply have to go with the current or exhaust yourself trying to go against it.

It is frustrating when you know where you want to go and the current, which doesn't, is going in the opposite direction. I know the area very well and still found myself gridlocked at various escape routes. I battled my way out convinced that nothing short of the Second Coming was worth battling that crowd. Sadly, what there was, wasn't.

There is no money. There is no entertainment to speak of. There is no center. It would be better if something were happening, and periodically there is, but it is quickly swallowed up in a mad surge in a random direction.

In the end not even the costumes can hold up under the pressure of being there. What should be fabulous isn't fabulous enough. It all seems slight and tired, as light and spent as the confetti.

And it certainly wasn't all that good for business. Places usually closed on this final Sunday were open, like the bar on my corner near the Accademia. Many areas outside of Piazza San Marco were clogged with people. But the gondolas were largely empty. The shop keepers smoked in their doorways, looking bored and annoyed. Nobody was really buying.

Perhaps it is the weight of the world collapsing around us; but old Venice partied like mad through its collapse. This is a party without partying, at least in the streets, where the parties should be. I can't tell you how it went at all the private parties charging 500 Euros and up to get in, but it's hard to imagine that they could have been doing as booming a business as the face-painters who paint extravagant designs flecked with glitter on your face for 3 euros.

If we're lucky, this will be the last Carnevale like this.

It is such a missed opportunity. Whenever this many people congregate in one place at one time, anything is possible and nobody seemed to be taking advantage of the possibilities. Music and magic can warm up the vibe until a sense of community blossoms, but not spontaneously. It has to be arranged. Being thrown together on a shoestring budget doesn't by definition mean cheap and tacky. All it takes is a little imagination and good music, a little dancing on the old stones of the Piazza, to bring people together in a positive way and fill the streets with joy. Instead, the narrow dance of narcissism and voyeurism, as dead as the undead, fills the void as people wander aimlessly looking for something that isn't there.

Carnevale remains a great idea waiting to happen.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Marriage of Narcissism and Voyeurism

The costumes picked up a little today. (Above, Homage to DiChirico which is, I think, underneath, the same little man who did the fabulous Klimt a year or two ago).

I was particularly taken with a sextet (three couples) done up in an 18th Century chinoiserie theme, featuring Chinese and Japanese lanterns. I'd be willing to lay odds that these masquers were French; the style was certainly French-flavored rococo. These are not store-bought, not rented. They are not Ready-To-Wear. They are couture.

As ever, although less crowded and frenzied than in Carnevales past, the main activity divides into two: either you pose or you watch. Those in costumes pose; they have come to pose, and that's what they do, playfully, teasingly. Everyone else watches, more or less enchanted or seduced; most take pictures. It is the marriage of narcissism and voyeurism.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

In Vaporetto

A crowded vaporetto, Thursday afternoon, Carnevale, 19 February, 2009


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Carnevale, Tuesday, 17 February

The first Tuesday night of Carnevale (it's over next Tuesday, Fat Tuesday) the city is deserted. Makes for pleasant walking, but it's a disaster for the tourist industry and hence for the city.

The newspaper headlines proudly trumpeted "100,000 in Piazza San Marco" for the Volo del Angelo, the descent of an "angel" from the top of the Campanile into Piazza San Marco. (The girl was so scared she cried, she said.)

It's true. I can't attest to the number, which seems inflated, but the square was so packed you couldn't get in, and police routed the traffic through obscure routes. I got as far as the side of the Basilica and decided angel or no, I was leaving.

But that was just an hour or so; by late afternoon the foot traffic was heading toward Piazzale Roma and the station; the vaporettos were packed to the gills, and by dark the city was deserted again, like it is tonight.

There are fewer people in San Marco than there are pigeons (the number of pigeons has been greatly reduced by the banishment of the pigeon feed sellers, but there are still a few). There is no great proscenium stage as in the past. The centerpiece, quite nice really, is a large, topiary lion. He is made from pine boughs, laurel leaves (some green, some dried brown, some gilded), ivy, squares of sod, and gilded artichokes.

On the stage-in-the-round in front of him, dancers are doing the tango to canned tango music. It's not much different from the crowd you can see weekly in various campos throughout the city on warm summer nights. Tango is a big deal here. They get out and dance every change they get. Tonight they danced in front of the sparse crowd in the most famous square in the world. At least they were having fun.

There was a certain enchantment in the air, a combination of the music and the lights and the surprisingly mild night air. It was the party where nobody came.

Monday, February 16, 2009


No, not this:

I'm speaking of Gothicness as in the generally misunderstood and under-appreciated moment in human history (ca. 1000-1400).

I have to admit it did little for me for the first 61 years of my life, but in the last two years I have slowly begun to understand the ecstatic praise lavished on the Gothic by its leading evangelist, English Victorian writer and critic John Ruskin.

Because I have been researching the 13th and 14th centuries, and because I live in Venice, the Gothic is at hand. Here, its particular flavor -- Venetian Gothic -- is unavoidable. You encounter it every day, from the rhythmic arches of countless window arcades

to the Doge's Palace, which Ruskin called "the central building of the world." (He did not mince words.)

It is especially at the Doge's Palace that you can appreciate the glory of the Gothic spirit. There, and at the adjacent Basilica di San Marco-- more Byzantine than Gothic -- the spirit of the Gothic is manifest in stone. It is especially apparent as sculpted on the capitals of the 36 pillars of the ground-level arcades of the Doge's Palace.

These capitals teem with life, with every form of life, from curling leaf and flower to birds and beasts to men of every sort, from every place. The artists interpreted their task of ornamenting these buildings to mean joyously reflecting all creation. Ruskin pointed this out to me, and I am sincerely greatful. Nothing was too humble, nothing was too grand. We see carpenters and shoemakers at work; we see saints and angels; we see young couples in love and later, as grieving parents; we see scribes and dogs, bishops and peacocks, knights and hens, kings and babies. They are all linked together in great chains by wreaths of extravagantly lush foliage. Each has an individual face and is unique.

(Unfortunately, the photos in the GOTHICNESS GALLERY were taken outside, at dusk. I will have to redo them on a better light day. Even more problematic, these outside capitals are casts of the originals (which were removed safely into the palace to prevent further deterioration). The originals inside are better to look at, the cutting of the stone cleaner and more exact; the details reveal themselves more clearly. Even in their deteriorated state they are extraordinarily beautiful. The outside reproductions are, at best, reasonable facsimiles.)

I see two elements of paramount importance to appreciating these things. The first is that we do not know who did them. They are unified stylistically and thematically, but each is different, unique, bearing the "signatures" of individual artists in the way they are crafted, but they are unsigned and remain anonymous. We do not and we will never know who the creators were. All that remains is their work. Their names are lost in time.

The second element is that they share a common spirit, a vision, a world outlook. These were conscious creations of individual artists, not mindless industrial stampings. They are intended to express and celebrate all creation.

In his comments on Gothic ornamentation, Ruskin slips for a moment inside the Gothic head set:

"... We are going to be happy: to look around the world and discover ... what we like best in it, and to enjoy the same at our leisure: to gather it, examine it, fasten all we can of it into imperishable forms, and put it where we may see it for ever."

That is the soul of "Gothicness.".

So I was particularly struck when my sister sent me photos from her recent trip to Southeast Asia, and I saw this

and this

These, from the temple complex of Angkor Wat, were apparently created around the same time as the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, although the Venetian buildings were encrusted over time with additions and renovations which the Angkor temples were not.

The creators of the Angkor temples were equally anonymous artists. Their work is similarly filled with teeming vegetative imagery and the celebration of dieties, kings and ordinary people. The overall impression of the work is continuous. The building structure was their canvas and they used every space in harmonious and ingenious ways.

We tend to think of globalization as a recent phenomena, but it isn't. There are the surface manifestations, the integration and interdependece of economies and the cultural aspects of life, the ubiquitization of Coke and McDonald's and cellphones. But there is something deeper in all of this. Factor out the specifics of cultural identity and you begin to approach the realm of the human spirit, that common circumstance we all share regardless of our name, country of origin, language, or soft drink preference. There is a common spirit that animates all human life as we know it. In the simplest terms, we all eat, breath air, sleep, and dream. Our art comes out of the same pool of collective unconsciousness as our dreams. This is what we see so clearly in these images.

Check the [ GOTHICNESS GALLERY] and see for yourself. It combines details from both Angkor Wat and San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale.

It's Back

The seaweed is back. Not in the same place, but the same seaweed, this gorgeous, everchanging field of Gothic ornament carved in water, spangled by sun, spun by tide, splashed by waves, an ever-moving, beautiful-in-the-instant demonstration of the endless beauty of natural things.


If you haven't already, check out the original [ SEAWEED GALLERY]

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Testosterone Music

Now that I have your attention, we well get to that in a moment.

First, some random comments about Carnevale 2009 which officially began yesterday (Saturday).

1. People walk around in costumes. I'm not referring to the fabulous posers with the extravagant handmade costumes -- they are few and far between this year so far (2007 was the best recent Carnevale for that). I refer to the day trippers in their capes and feathered masks and clown wigs and ready-to-wear 17th c. numbers (powdered white wigs, anyone?). Ordinary folks out for a good time, their faces painted. They are having a fun and it's nice to see.

2. The guy who plays a tableful of crystsal glasses filled with water, whose music is absolutely enchanting at all times, is drawing crowds. That translates into money for him. I'm sure he likes Carnevale. I hope it is good to him. The first time I heard him, years ago, I was crossing the bridge into Campo dei Frari and the music shimmered on the air like sunshine. He was playing the Beatles' "Yesterday." I had to stop, sit, and smile.

3. The lutenist is back! I am a great fan of his. He plays all over Venice, often at the apex of the Rialto Bridge at night, and in Campo San Aponal near the b&b where I work. I've seen him as far afield as Salute. I haven't seen him in a while, but I suppose it's hard to play your lute outside, without gloves, in the rain, cold, and acqua alta! He plays renaissance music, which is about as good as it gets, with total absorption. I hadn't seen him in a while and there he was, in Campo Sant'Angelo.

4. I had a fritelle Venexiane at Rosa e Salve that made my tastebuds sing the Hallelujah Chorus. You can only get fritelle between Christmas and the end of Carnevale. They are to be enjoyed then by all means. I had a pretty good one with the whipped cream filling, and another one, very high grade, filled with zabaglione. But the Venexiane have no filling; they are a puff of dough thrown in hot oil and rolled with sugar and spice and everything nice. It's much better that they are only available for a short time.


I'm talking about the Historical Drum Guild of Conegliano. I was approaching Campo San Moise and could hear martial drum music, serious marching-off -to-battle beats, in the distance. I didn't catch up to them until Campo Francesco Morosini. The oldest of them was thirtyish. For the most part the corps were young, tweens and teens wearing simple medieval costumes. Their sound stirred the blood and spiked the adrenalin. Serious testosterone music. Ear-drum shattering war dance rhythms, like Japanese taiko or traditional African drums. The leader explained that they only play authentic drums, wood and skin, such as you would have found in the 1300s. He said you cannot play medieval music on plastic drums. They strive to be as authentic as possible, but since none of it was written down, nobody really knows what it sounded like. History is always like that; you fill in the blanks. (This is a theme I will return to often!) What they fill in the blanks with is compellingly convincing. They had me ready to march. There is no melody, no harmony, no words; only the beat, and they beat the shit out of those skins.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Wrapped Street (Not Christo)

What lies under the ubiquitous grey paving stones can be a mystery. Houses of solid brick built centuries ago don't have plumbing and wiring conduits in the walls. Most of it is external, crosshatching the exteriors of houses, running down into the streets. There, the paving stones can be pulled up and the city's guts sutured in.

Most of these projects begin with numbering the paving stones, marking them with chalk, so they can be fitted back, like a numbered jigsaw. In severe cases, modern replacesments are used, but as much of the original materials as possible is recycled.

I pass this little street at least three times a week. The configuration of the wrapping has changed as the work has progressed. For a while, walking through it was like navigating a maze; now it is a little more straightforward.


Thursday, February 12, 2009


This particular seaweed was especially noticeable in the spring of 2007. I was staying in Castello at the time and I would see it every day walking along the canal in front of the Arsenale.

At first I was taken by the graceful way it swirled in the wake of passing boats; then I saw it on a Sunday when there were no boats and the tide was uncharacteristically still. It looked like the swirling braids carved in baroque picture frames or the amazing stucco work on the ceilings and walls of sixteenth century palaces. At other times it moved in a sinuous dance, driven by the action of the waves along the sides of the canal, flinging it against the mossy stone stairs. It brought to mind the carved stonework that trims the crests of the arches on the facade of the Basilica of San Marco.

Most of it grew fringelike from the stones lining the sides of the canal; some of it grew up from the bottom in sinuous stalks, rising to the surface like the exploratory tentacles of submerged creature. It clearly had an expansionist foreign policy.

Out came the camera. It became an obsession. The seaweed changed with the light, the conditions of the water, the day of the week, growing ever more florid.

Later I found out that it is an extremely unwelcome guest who snuck into the lagoon on the keels of ships, perhaps from China (remember the massive lake cleaning prior to the Beijing Olympics? They harvested so much seaweed you could see it from outer space... Left to its own devices, this particular seaweed would proliferate exponentially and choke the life out of the lagoon.

An interesting paradox: gorgeous and deadly. That is the formula of the most scintillating femmes fatales in literature and history.

To me it's a metaphor. Inexpressible beauty is married to extraordinary danger in this garden of which we are the stewards.

For now the seaweed, which was shorn away, is under control. It's growing back, not quite like it was, but with the potential to wipe everything else out. It can't be entirely eradicated, only controlled.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Four Days in Assisi

Day 1

You don't come to Assisi for great theater, museums, galleries, opera, night life, fashion, or fine dining. You come either to pray at the Basilica of San Francesco, or to see some of the most wonderful paintings in the world. There are other churches with smaller miracles, and the ravishing rolling countryside of the Umbrian hills, to be sure. From Rocca Maggiore, the medieval fortress of popes and emperors atop Monte Subasio, down to the orchards and vineyards of the broad green valley below, Assisi is picture-postcard lovely. But first and foremost, it is the city of Saint Francis.

I didn't just go. I had a mission: to study the frescoes of the Upper and Lower Basilica of S. Francesco as mirrors of thirteenth and fourteenth century life. I allowed myself four days, although I wasn't sure that I'd even want to stay in Assisi four full days. But if I exhausted it quickly I knew I could always take the train to Perugia or Spoleto, Gubbio or Foligno or Orvieto. Having never been to Assisi before, I was playing it by ear.

The first thing that struck me was the homogeneity: inside the city, the clock stopped at 1226. Venice, where I live, is a mad jumble of periods and styles, one layered on the other. In Assisi there are a few intrusions of the baroque, some renaissance facades, a Roman temple front from the previous millenium, but it is fundamentally a medieval walled town built from stone cut from Mount Subasio.

The bus from the train station let me off at the top of the city. I asked directions from two middle-aged women who were chatting nearby. "Sempre diritto," they said, pointing. Literally, it means "always straight," or "straight ahead." It is the universal answer in places where it is impossible to go straight because everything twists and turns. I understand it because we use it in Venice all the time -- where it is always impossible -- to mean "go that way by whatever means available."

The vicolo, as these steep, narrow, often stair-stepped lanes are called, led down to a square in front of S. Ruffino, a gothic church with a thick square campanile. My hotel was on Via S. Ruffino, which I spotted, and headed downhill. I overshot the hotel completely because I was distracted by another piazza at the foot of the hill, Piazza del Comune, Assisi's central square. I could see the Roman Temple of Minerva (1st C. B.C.) wedged between medieval stonework and the clock tower of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (13th C.), a complete time sandwich.

One look was all it took. I knew immediately I was exactly where I wanted to be, not only in space, but in time. I dropped my bags off at the hotel and with just enough daylight left to reconnoiter, I headed for the Basilica to plan my campaign.

Entering the lower basilica at the end of a dark, overcast afternoon, my eyes took a while to adjust to the gloom and bad electric lighting. The nave has three bays and transepts at either end; each bay has chapels off to each side. The low ceilings are supported on squat pilasters. In the distance the vaults above the Papal altar glittered with gold Byzantine splendor. This was Medieval Italy par excellence, that phantasmagoria of Lombardic, Gothic, Byzantine, Roman, and Moorish. The flat walls, rounded walls, curved vaults, mouldings, cornices, pilasters, niches, are all covered with swirling patterns, geometric eye teasers, lush florals, lace, Persian enamels, Christmas gifts and candy wrappers painted with a rainbow brush. And those were just the trimmings framing the frescoes: panel after panel of medieval storybooks telling stories old and new.

Now I feared that four days might not be enough. And that was just the Lower Basilica. The sky was darkening rapidly so I ducked upstairs to see what the Upper Basilica is like.

San Francesco is like Saint-Chapelle in Paris: there is a church below, and one above, built directly on top of it. The lower structures are supportive, dark, cavelike; the soaring upper structures are filled with light. But at Saint Chapelle the lower chapel simply leads you to the upper chapel, where the walls of stained glass overwhelm you. It seemed the reverse at San Francesco. The Upper Basilica soars vertically, it is lighter, yes. But, at first glance, the lush velvety caverns below were immediately more enchanting.

Twenty-eight individual fresco panels line the nave of the Upper Basilica narrating the life of San Francesco, painted by Giotto and the "Giotteschi" -- his posse of students, cohorts, admirers. These were why I had come, and for the moment they withheld themselves from me. I was still reeling from the lower basilica.

The frescoes of the upper basilica were also suffering from comparison to the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, painted by Giotto a few years later. The Scrovegni frescoes are of such unsurpassed beauty that these seemed to come up a little short. But I also know that things often take time to reveal themselves. I got my orientation, and walked outside into the fading light. The setting sun was streaking the clouds bright orange and fire-coal red, turning the pink stones pinker.

The Piazza del Commune was pleasantly lit; the bars by the 15th c. lion fountain were filled with youngsters, people strolled toward Santa Chiara and the Porta Nuova, the old city gate in the other direction. The air was mild for a mid-winter evening and I was starving.

[For the Day 1 Photo Gallery, click Here]

Four Days in Assisi

Day 2

They sky is overcast when I step outside. I want as much sun as possible for San Francesco, so I go to Santa Chiara first.

Chiara, St. Clare, was a rich, young noblewoman who understood Francesco instantly and followed him implicity. She embraced a religious life against her parents' wishes; Francesco cut her hair and dressed her in sackcloth. They were brother and sister in their souls.

When Francesco died, in 1226, his body was buried in the church of S. Giorgio, where, in 1228, Pope Gregorio IX canonized him. In 1230 his body was moved to the new basilica built in his honor.

Chiara died in 1254, was canonized in 1256, and a basilica was built for her on the site of S. Giorgio in 1257. Her basilica is pristinely simple. The facade, in three tiers, like San Ruffino and San Francesco, is layered like a cake in horizontal stripes of pink and white stone . A lacy rose window occupies the middle tier, above the portal that dominates the lower level. The top level is a triangle that reaches into the sky. Massive buttresses were added to the sides to support the outward thrust of the stone walls. On the street side the buttresses were built over washing rooms; the stream-fed pools are still there.

Santa Chiara is elegant and and strong, a slightly more feminized version of the Upper Basilica of San Francesco. It is also similar inside, minus the frescoes. Santa Chiara's frescoes have all but disappeared, except for the vaults high above the altar, a jeweled embroidery just out of sight.

Stairs lead down from the nave to the crypt where Chiara's body lies. There is a dimly lit vestibule at the bottom of the stairs. Behind you, in a screened showcase, are clothes she made and wore, locks of her hair shorn by Francesco, one of Francesco's tunics. These saints were not from a previous millenium; they prayed here at the dawn of the thirteenth century. The builders knew them. Their clothing has not disintegrated entirely into dust.

In front of you, across a bay with candy-striped marble ribs and vaults painted like a starry sky, through carved and inlaid arches, is a pink confection of Byzantine arabesques: Chiara's tomb.

You can't help but wonder what Chiara and Francesco would have thought of such ostentation. At the same time, you can't help but be struck by the artistry, the beauty of the stone, the poetry of the conception. This is the curious paradox at the heart of the main monuments of Assisi.

Chiara herself is laid out on a polished wooden palette, dressed in a black nun's habit. The body has been preserved and her face sealed in a protective layer of wax.

After that, I need sunlight and fresh air. Outside, the sky is blue and clear, the clouds moving swiftly away across the valley and I have an appointment with Giotto.

I approach San Francesco differently than yesterday. I enter through the Piazza Inferiore, the broad lower plaza with very long porticos of simple arches on two sides designed, presumably, to shelter the lines of pilgrims queuing up to visit Francesco's tomb. Beyond the porticos the valley is lush green in full sun. The exterior of the basilica is gleaming.

I have to take off my glasses as I enter the lower basilica because they have darkened in the sun, and aren't lightening quickly enough for me to see where I'm going. It is still shadowy and dark. The sun only penetrates particular spots at particular times, I discover. I start down the nave, and notice a painting of two gorgeous women, both saints, on the underside of an archway into the side chapel. I climb three steep shiny marble steps.

I have to sit down immediately. It is the Scrovegni Chapel experience all over again. I don't know where to look. The walls and ceiling are throwing a party for my eyes. Fortunately, here there is no 15-minute limit here, as at Scrovegni. I have all the time want.

I am in the Chapel of St. Martin of Tours, painted by Simone Martini. The plaque on the grillwork gate into the chapel says the frescoes were painted in 1317; other sources date them toward the middle of that century. In either case, they were painted after Giotto's work was done.

While the presence of Giotto is strong in these frescoes, they are different. Giotto always goes for the bare moment where the human drama is at its height, adding only those decorative details necessary to illuminate the essence of the moment. Martini places his dramas in lush settings, in gardens of rare flowers, palaces of surpassing beauty, in a richly detailed natural world. The Renaissance is clearly showing through.

I sit at various points around the chapel so that I can see all the panels. They are painted in sequence and move like comic books, with internal connection and external logic. They are medieval movies with text and subtext, framed in jeweled arches and extravagant carved marble and drapery, all faux, quickly painted in wet plaster to seal them for all time.

But not for all time.

Most of the frescoes in Venice vanished centuries ago thanks to the moisture and salt; the closely controlled Scrovegni Chapel was at dire risk; two vaults in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco were shaken down by an earthquake in 1997. Given the odds, the Martini frescoes are miraculous.

The sun, advancing behind the chapel, suddenly breaks through the stained glass windows of the chapel, and I notice them for the first time. They were executed in 1330 by Giovanni Bonino, a local glass master. Set amid these frescoes, gorgeous but their original luster gone, these windows glitter as if freshly created by the advancing sun. They are three portraits tall on each side, and there are three of them, six panels in all filled with bishops, saints, martyrs, people with individual gestures and unique faces, in mosaics of the most brilliant and transparent gemlike glass.

The windows are overwhelming. But what makes the less luminous frescoes so especially moving, the key to their particular genius, is that stained glass cannot gently shape flat surfaces into drapery and hauntingly evocative human interactions, as fresco can. The glass is iconic, decorative. The frescoes plunge you into human drama with intense intimacy.

The sun has shifted again and I follow the light to the Upper Basilica. I walk through the nave to the transept to view the sadly vanishing Cimabue frescoes. Apparently he used lead oxide in his colors and applied them when the fresco was dry. Only shadows are left.

The glory of the Upper Basilica is the series of twenty-eight frescoes painted by Giotto and Company. I found the first in the series, and looked at each in sequence. My inital notes are funny because I recorded only what I saw, not yet knowing what they really were. There are no labels; this is not a museum, it is a Basilica. Hence, my own personal narrative runs something like this: Francis rises on a puff of pink cotton candy toward Christ appearing in the sky; an eastern potentate points toward a blazing fire beside Francesco; Francesco and two angels assist a wounded man in a splendid bed in a pink-walled palace; a queen begs before a bright pink candy-cane minaret while Francesco floats in the sky above.

The paintings begin to work their magic. I begin to understand the narrative technique. There is an Arabian Nights quality to many of the settings, particularly those heavy on architecture. The buildings are real, and they're not. They are icons, the universal symbol of building, high building, low building, holy building. These panels are telling their stories in a symbolic language; the part stands for the whole.

I have to admit that this period is one which, in my youth, I always flipped past in art books on my way to the renaissance or modern periods. Now I begin to deeply appreciate Ruskin's exaltation of the Gothic sensibility; it is, he says, characterized by sheer exuberance of creation, free of the Renaissance passion for symmetry and line. These artists channeled their triumphs and their sorrows directly into stone and paint. They found joy in the birds and the dogs and the flowers and their fellow man and recreated them lovingly. They breathed life into inanimate matter.

The central focus of the frescoes is always on the human drama; the panels lead from one key moment to the next with the logic of myth and all the genius of human invention. This is, above all, a narrative art; its purpose is to tell stories old and new. It is not self-conscious; it is humble and earnest and vivid.

Slowly I fall under the spell of the Upper Basilica frescoes, but to penetrate their world further, I need to know what the stories really are. I decide it's time to see the tomb of St. Francesco.

You reach by the crypt by a stairway located midway in the nave of the Lower Basilica. There is a simple altar with six white candles at the far end. The chapel feels like it was carved into the mountain. The ceiling is low, the lights are dim. The tomb is in a massive pier of grey stone. The front is open so that you can see the stone bier inside. It is encircled by a black metal mesh, with large sprays of white flowers on either side. Here lies whatever remains of the body of Francesco Bordenone, born 1182 in Assisi to a rich fabric merchant.

I find it touching that four of his closest brothers are buried around him, in plain stone graves marked with simple plaques: "Fr. Ruffino / 1249 / Compagne di S. Francesco," "Fr. Angelo, 1258..," "Fr. Masseo, 1280...," "Fr. Leone, 1271..."

This is the spiritual epicenter of Assisi, the thing that makes it different from every other place on earth. It is this spirit which permeates the city and the hills: the amazing appearance of man whose faith in the divine spirit of love moved heaven and earth. He was able to convince a Pope to sanction his order, to challenge a Sultan's religious leaders to walk through fire, to preach to the birds of the field, to bring a laser-bright lovelight into a contentious, warring world.

[For the Day 2 Photo Gallery, click Here]

Four Days in Assisi

Day 3

Today there is light fog the sun will soon burn off. After breakfast I decide to hike up to Rocco Maggiore, and then catch up with the afternoon sun at the Basilica.

I climb past S. Ruffino to the oldest quarter of the city, built in the remnants of a Roman arena. The central oval of the arena is now a garden and houses encircle it; the stone blocks quarried locally were laid amid Roman masonry. Just outside the arena is the Porta Perfici, the highest-placed of the old stone gates into the city. From there I walk along the crest to Rocca Maggiore.

Rocca Maggiore commands the summit of Monte Subasio, with 360-degree views of the city, the valley and the encircling hills covered with olive and pine, fields and forest slopes, farmhouses and churches. To naturalists, Monte Subasio is a protected nature preserve with a few ancient buildings of note.

A fortress has stood here since Etruscan times; it was a Roman fortress before being rebuilt in the twelfth century by the German Emperors who laid claim to Italy. Frederick II, the German king and Holy Roman Emperor, who was born in Assisi and later reigned over a brilliant court in Sicily, lived in Rocco Maggiore as a child. After the expulsion of the Germans the fortress was sacked by the locals only too glad to be rid of them, and was rebuilt almost immediately by a succession of Cardinals and Popes, for whom it was an important bastion against further incursions of the Empire.

My curiosity about Rocco Maggiore was especially keen because Frederick II's grandfather, the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, played an immense role in Venetian history. The 1174 meeting between Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III, known as the Peace of Venice, was orchestrated by Doge Sebastiano Ziano. This high summit, formalizing the submission of the Emperor to Papal authority, was conducted in a blaze of pomp and splendor on the steps of the Basilica of San Marco. In gratitude the Pope gave the Doge a suite of gifts that for the next 600 years were symbolically displayed in every Ducal procession. For Venice, the summit confirmed their pre-eminent position in the medieval world: Mistress of the Seas. Alexander III supposedly gave Ziani a gold ring with which to marry the sea during the Festa della Sensa, the annual rite which had already gone on for centuries and perhaps dated back to Roman times. Sailing to the San Nicolo mouth of the lagoon each Doge threw a ring into the Adriatic with the words "we marry you, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion."

The exoskeleton of Rocco Maggiore is a patchwork of periods; inside is a twelfth century fortress/castle with ovens for baking bread, dormitories for the soldiers, an enclosed garden for food and livestock, and a towering keep to house generals, emperors, or popes. The thick outer walls are pierced with keyhole windows where watch was kept and the crossbows which revolutionized medieval warfare were mounted. A corkscrew of stone stairs polished shiny with use winds up to the very top of the keep where the view is awe-inspiring. A corridor a quarter mile long runs through walls linking the keep to the polygonal tower which pinions the farthest flank of the mountaintop.

The view from atop the polygonal tower is dizzying and exhilarating. From here you can easily imagine the medieval powerbrokers planning their moves on the chessboard of history. It is the photo-op par excellence, windswept and dazzling.

But it is not the heart of Assisi. From the polygonal tower you also have a clear view of the Basilica of San Francesco below, perched on a sharp spine of rock once called the "Hill of Hell" because it was where the public executions took place. It was Francesco's express wish to be buried there. After his death, the basilica complex arose and it was transformed into the "Hill of Paradise," the symbolic and spiritual center of the city.

From Rocco Maggiore a dirt mountain path winds its way down into the city; I emerge near the Church of San Stefano. Twisted vicolos stair-step down to the broad green lawn in front of the Upper Basilica. There is a statue of San Francesco at the far end of the lawn. He is not standing with his arms outstretched to receive the stigmata; he is not preaching to the birds; he is not even dressed like a monk. He is a young warrior on the losing side, ill, heartsick, defeated, astride his weary horse. It is Francesco before his transformation; the horse plods slowly toward the basilica. The simple message "Pax," peace, is written in topiary hedges in front of him and above that a patch of purple bush is cut into the shape of a tau, the character with which he signed his letters and the symbol of his movement.

Francesco di Bernardone was charismatically charming, a party animal, master of revels for the young noblemen of the city. He was a musician, an aspiring poet, but above all he was inspired by the ideals of knightly chivalry and longed to distinguish himself in war.

In the first fresco of the cycle of his life, he is walking down the street, proud and fine, while a humble man spreads a cloak at his feet so that he will not soil his velvet slippers. That's how the story begins.

It is told in 28 frescoes lining the walls beneath the high stained glass windows. Each bay has a set of three panels; the last set nearest the portal has four panels because the bay is deeper. There is one panel on either side of the portal, and then the story continues in the same configuration down the opposite wall.

The each group of three panels is tied together by compositional elements that thrust the narrative forward. In one, Francesco meets with the Pope seeking authorization for his new Order. On the far left his humble band of monks in plain brown robes kneels in prayer. On the right, the Pope and Cardinals cluster in brilliant robes. Francesco kneels in the center, offering the Pope the rules of his order. The document, a delicate curl of white, links the two men, pulling the picture together and drawing the story forward.

The rising diagonal of bodies points directly to the focal point of the next panel, Francesco riding a chariot into the sky, above his awestruck and dreaming brothers . This in turn carries the eye to the third panel, Francesco's dream of the empty, awaiting thrones in heaven; they hover above the kneeling Francesco who anchors the lower part of the frame. The upper and lower elements are tied together by Christ hovering in the center, vertically and horizontally, linking heaven and earth.

Giotto, or whoever painted this image, was a complete master of his narrative technique. There is no pretty picture painting here, everything shown is essential to drive the story forward and reveal its meaning. The language is symbolic. The architectural elements of the buildings are realistic, but they do not add up to a real building, they add up to a universal symbol for glorious palace or humble, rundown church. The figures, who are portraying, for the most part, actual people, are at once palpably real as people and also abstactions, the prodigal son, the humble saint, the dying man, the village idiot. This is the extraordinary plasticity of medieval narrative. Reality and symbol are one. Reality is arranged to tell the story; the symbols are arranged to give it universal meaning and resonance. They are fused in a gorgeous pastel world.

It becomes impossible to single out individual pictures; none is better than the others. They all exist at the pinnacle of human expressiveness. You cannot help but feel that the men who created these frescoes, the kaleidoscopic patterns on the vaults, the faux fabric and uncannily real architectural details, were totally joyous in their creation. "Look, Ma!" they were singing. "We're painting the most gorgeous things the world has ever seen!"

Three times in two days I stopped, then walked up close to see if the dentils, the teeth of the deeply notched stone mouldings, were real or painted. Each time I forgot that I had checked before, or simply didn't believe that I was right. Even close up they preserve the illusion of depth although obviously painted on flat plaster.

The Upper Basilica is filled with marvels. There are stained glass windows above each bay that rival those in the Chapel of S. Martino downstairs. Small miracles abound. Near the altar, on the left corner where the nave meets the transept a stone pulpit rises up a quarter of the way toward the vaults. The slender seemingly-structural pilaster dropping from the vault above it stops just above the pulpit. I looked more closely. The base of the suspended pilaster rests in the palm of a large yet delicate hand cupping it. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the basilica. But these are decorative, a colossal framing device for the frescoes.

Something especially important was being represented in these stories in paint and plaster. At the living heart of religious myth is spirit, which we can see reflected in the faces of a humankind carefully and exhaustively painted on these walls, humble, hopeful, proud, afraid, dying, praying, exalted. It lies beyond the visible, we can only grasp it symbolically, and it unites and elevates. It shines through this art like a brilliant sun through patchy clouds, and at last I am able to appreciate the festive opulence of the basilica. It is a means of evoking the felicities and mysteries of the invisible spirit that moves the universe. To experience them is a joyous experience. It is the gift of all great art.

[For the Day 3 Photo Gallery, click Here]

Four Days in Assisi

Day 4

My walk Sunday morning walk to San Damiano pulls everything into perspective.

It is raining; not hard and driving, but softly, wrapped in fog. Heading downhill I pass Santa Chiara. The white stones dissolve in the mist leaving a field of hazy pink stripes. I go out through the Porta Nuova, another of the city's massive stone gates.

The walk is a series of steeply stepped paths broken by sloping terraces. On both sides, the hills are covered with olive groves and orchards. The route is marked, but not especially clearly, and as soon as I lose sight of the landmarks, I begin to wonder if I'm not on a wild goose chase. Minus the fog, navigating would be easier; this way it unfolds like a dream.

San Damiano is a humble stone church built into the hillside. It is tough enough to climb these slippery stone stairs in the rain; what an ordeal it must have been for Francesco and his brothers to rebuild the church, carrying stone and masonry up and down these hills.

This is where, while he prayed, the crucifix spoke to Francesco, saying "Go, Francesco, and repair my church which is falling into ruin." It is one of the key moments in Francesco's story, panel four in the Upper Basilica. Without question or hesitation, he undertook the charge, gaining brothers as he worked. I think about Tom Sawyer painting the fence; he made it look like fun until he had everyone doing it for him. Francesco's charm was of another order. He worked with such ecstatic conviction that the others were drawn by the simple majesty of his acts.

There is a mass going on inside San Damiano; I am here on a special day. I decide to explore the surrounds, waiting for the mass to end so I can go inside.

The surrounding trees, twisted olive and bare fruit, are playing hide-and-seek with the fog. The rain abates to a fine spray. The only sounds are the birds and the water coursing through stone flumes into collecting pools. A tall wall now surrounds the leeward side of the church, but this is where, in return for their labor, the church allowed Francesco and his brothers to live in huts they built of mud and thatch. They carved a garden into the hillside, they worked and prayed, they perfected the belief which they would take first to the pope (Panel 7) and then out into the world.

The arches of the church itself are low. Other buildings have been added around the original basilica, but the scale is still small. Nothing monumental here. From the portal looking outward, the encircling hills are incredibly fertile, even in winter, on 1 February, the grass is a deep stained-glass emerald. The fruit trees are dry gold but the olive trees are wet and velvety.

Sitting amid this serenity, it occurs to me that everyone has a spirituality of his own which he embraces or denies. Francesco embraced his with such fervor that he was able to convince a Pope to protect his band of brothers with the authority of the church. And he did it his way. His conviction was so absolute it made him brave, fearless even to walk through fire as proof of it (Panel 11); and everything he got, he gave.

A long line of birds sits quietly on a telephone wire above the olive trees, as if waiting for their Sunday sermon, a song of celebration. These fragrant hills echoing with near and distant birds were the cradle of Francesco's special sensibility. It is easier to understand, here, preaching to the birds. It is easy to understand living simply, free of pomp and greed and splendor, deep in the breast of the nurturing Earth.

The crucifix that spoke to Francesco is no longer at San Damiano. To see that you have to go back into the city.

It is big and hangs suspended from the ceiling of a special chapel built for it in Chiara's basilica. Rather than the usual sky blue, the ceiling is scarlet with golden stars. As at Francesco's basilica, the pilasters and vaulting are covered with interlacing geometric designs. Frescoes cover the walls beneath the vaults. Everything radiates from a Madonna in black robes. The white dove beside her head, inscribed in a black circle, is surrounded by flights of angels. To her left, in the fluid magic time of the medieval narrative fresco, San Giorgio slays a dragon. To her right, the wise men bring gifts. These panels are surmounted by an Annunciation. The back wall is covered with a Crucifixion which echoes the heavy, Byzantine crucifix suspended from the ceiling in front of it.

People come in, they cross themselves, they sit, they pray. They are not necessarily tourists. They, like the others at Francesco's and Chiara's tombs, have come to experience a direct connection to the spirit which emblazoned this city in the collective consciousness of the world.

The crucifix speaking to Francesco is number four in the fresco series of the Upper Basilica. It comes first in the second triplet of frescoes. Immediately following it is the exceptionally poignant "S. Francesco Renounces His Worldly Goods." Francesco has just stripped naked in the town square, in front of stunned bishops and burghers and children. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, is holding the clothes fresh off Francesco's back. The saint has emerged from the man; he is ecstatically oblivious to the shock he is delivering. His hands are raised in prayer; a divine hand slips through the vault of heaven signalling that Francesco is doing the right thing. He has become something else.

Moving forward, the fresco to the right is a further confirmation of the rightness of Francesco's action. The Pope dreams of a man shoring up the great Lateran Basilica in Rome on his shoulder; the basilica is about to collpase into the Pope's bedroom and out of the frame completely. The man is Francesco; he prevents the collapse with ease, supporting the tilting building on one palm, the other hand at his hip. From the left everything tilts precariously inward. But Francesco stands straight; everything to his right is true. The Pope, abed in a sumptuous pavillion draped in brocaded cloth of gold, is saved by Francesco in his humble brown robe, effortlessly staving off collapse.

The security guards in both the Upper and Lower Basilicas know me now. They have grown used to me coming in every afternoon and moving from spot to spot, observing. One of the things I observe is that most of the people who walk through don't actually see anything. Most walk through respectfully on their way to the gift shop or the Saint's Tomb. Some pause and look. Very, very few walk to the first panel and follow the progress of the story, which is indispensable to understanding this place. A few art history classes do this, with guides and teachers explaining, but often their patter is canned and their groups are glassy-eyed either with awe or Stendahl's syndrome. It takes time to absorb these riches. I'm glad when they leave and the basilica quiets again.

But what a privilege it is to be here. There is so much beauty, and whimsy, and joy painted inside these basilicas. The vaults are a basketweave pergola overhead, only instead of clusters of grapes or roses, they are filled with pictures of saints and angels in celestial pastels. There are no devils here, no gaping jaws of hell, no fearsome Last Judgments. Here the intent, like the light, the color, the space itself, is beatific.

The rose window in the Chapel of San Antonio di Padova downstairs is a thickly-clustered wreath of lilies-of-the-valley and violets, but for blossoms there are pious and whimsical friars praying. The window panels use various design motifs to solve the problem of linking the images vertically; architectural and floral motifs frame the figures and lead the eye.

Above the altar of the Lower Basilica, in a Byzantine grotto, even Christ looks like an Eastern diety, his halo articulated into golden peacock feathers. To the right, a Giotto series of the life of Christ makes the requisite parallels with San Francesco. To the left are the brilliant images of Lorenzetti, a master from Florence. The styles are richer, more cosmopolitan than in the humbler Giottos. Here the Renaissance is already in bloom. In the central vaults, over the altar, the frescoes look to the mosaics in San Marco and Byzantium for inspiration; painted on a background of glittering gold, San Francesco sits enthroned like a golden samurai, the most beautiful prince of heaven.

It didn't take the Papal orthodoxy long to transform Francesco from the avatar of peace and blissful poverty to a crusading warrior for Christ. The trial-by-fire panel in the Upper Basilica shows a Sultan astonished that Francesco would accept the challenge of walking through fire to prove his faith while the Sultan's holy men cower. Francesco was already being transformed by the Vatican PR machine into an ardent Crusader. It is fact that he went to Egypt and met with the Sultan, but now revisionists point out the logical fallacy of Francesco as Crusader, and hold that Francesco chose words over swords in explaining his faith to the pagans.

This is my last visit. I want a little more time in the Lower Basilica but it is quite dark; some lights have definitely not been turned on. But I look anyway. My theory is always to follow the light and see what you can see. I am about to when the guard walks by and disappear into a chapel behind me, and then it's like magic when, wham, the lights come on and everything sparks to life. The guard says nothing. He walks back up the nave to where he had been chewing the fat with the other guards. He did me a beautiful favor, unasked and unpaid. I take my last long looks.

In the world of Art History, it is conventional wisdom that these works prefigure and express the beginnings of the renaissance development of perspective; implicit in this is the assumption that perspective marks a great leap forward, like the wheel or penicillin. I see it differently. Giotto and Company were great artists, capable of anything, and their selective use of perspective is a matter of choice, not a lack of knowledge in its rendering. Just as their time is not conventional, mixing various periods and millenia within the same frame, their perspective is not conventional. It is one part of the grammar of a language all their own.

Perspective became a fetish, developed to its logical and pictorial limits and, by the twentieth century, was discarded as the dominant visual language. New languages emerged, nonlinear, relativistic, and equally valid. For Giotto and Company, their particular perspective was necessary to tell their stories. Their imagery reminds me of Marianne Moore's description of poetry, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." The expressions on the faces are more than real enough; but the scene around them is a careful Ikibana-like arrangement of symbols. This language is as distinct from the flat formalistic Byzantine iconography as it is from renaissance linear perspective. The faces are a glowing interplay of light and shadow and color; the folds of the fabric are soft and sensuous; but time and space are conflated in unique and original ways. Realistic detail is realized in a different spirit.

To see these masters of the Basilica primarily as "visionary geniuses" for first glimpsing the grand edifice of Perspective, misses the point. They were absolute masters of their own visual language, with only as much "perspective" as suited their dramatic ends.

It is also a mistake to see Francesco himself either as a Proto-Flower Child or as a an evangelizing Soldier of Christ. He absolutely evangelized; but to the birds and beasts of the field as well as to men and women, high and low. He was love-driven; it was all the same to him. Creation was continuous and his message is a special delivery telegram of love for it. That was his beat, his groove, his particular role in history. That is why this basilica, and this town, these ancient stones, these hills, and these timeless works of art, all vibrate with a sense of beneficent abundance.

But there are no free lunches. The price of appreciation is the obligation to become an active force for good with acts of kindness, love, bravery, generosity of spirit. Gratitude is not an emotion; it is an imperative upon which we must act. It takes the form of being able to say "I did everything I could today to exalt and preserve the majesty of the human spirit and the gift of the natural world."

Leaving the basilica, the image I choose to take with me is the last one you see on the way out. On his way to the nearby town of Bevagna, Francesco encounters a gathering of birds, and stops to speak with them. They listen. They understand. The fresco is called "La predica agli uccelli," the sermon to the birds. The brother behind him seems a little surprised that Francesco is speaking with the birds, but Francesco is beatific as he leans towards them, encouraging them to sing in celebration of the beauty of creation. You know they will, that just as soon as the conversation is over they will burst into the sky, the way the birds gathered on the telephone wire did this morning at San Damiano. They will find their favorite branches and sing. It is the song you hear all the time here if you're listening.

[For the Day 4 Photo Gallery, click Here]