Monday, March 30, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Berliner (1)

1. The Reichstag at Midnight

If this were Paris, it would be the Champs Elysees; but this is Berlin, and the broad avenue before me is Unter den Linden, the grand esplanade of imperial Berlin.

It runs from the Museumsinsul, a cluster of five major museums on a narrow island in the Spree River, at the one end, to the Brandenburg Gate at the other. In between is the German Historical Museum, the Staatsoper, brightly lit automobile showrooms, name brand stores, handsome government buildings, the Deutsche Guggenheim and Komische Oper, the Russian Embassy with its stunning stained glass mural lit from inside. At the western terminus, Pariser Platz, across from the Adlon Hotel and the American Embassy, in the lee of the Brandenburg Gate, is Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Haagen Dasz, and the Kennedy Museum.

Because it is late almost everything is closed, except for Starbucks, where I get a mocha to go because the girl behind the counter says they are closing soon.

In the Kennedy museum's window a flat-screen television plays images of Camelot. The collection includes JFK's monogrammed leather suitcase, a photo of JFK in an open limousine in front of the Brandenburg Gate -- his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" visit -- the crocodile Hermès briefcase he was using the day he was assassinated in Dallas, and one of Jackie's pillbox hats.

Lit up, the Brandenburg Gate looks new. It is not old by Venice standards; it was completed in 1791 and fully restored, as was much of east Berlin after the fall of the wall in 1989. It was one of several gates into Berlin during the reign of the kings of rich, autocratic Prussia. Atop the gate is a statue of the Roman goddess of Victory in a chariot drawn by four horses. They are echoes of the quadri of San Marco, which are attributed to the 4th c. BC sculptor Lysippos and were dragged back to Venice after the Fourth Crusade in 1205. Napoleon took those and these, from the Brandenburg Gate, back to Paris with him, fortunately only temporarily in the long span of history.

It is late March; a cold wind blows through the white Doric columns of the gate. Beyond is Strasse des XVII Juni which continues the line of Unter den Linden through the Tiergarten, Berlin's Central Park. I really should go back to my hotel, but it is my first night in Berlin and Unter den Linden is magical, while the iconic Brandenburg Gate stirs memories of the calamitous twentieth century and I am both excited and apprehensive. I have always wanted to visit Berlin, but its imperial roots and Nazi branches terrify me, an American Jew, just as its sheer physical beauty is blowing me away.

To my right is the massive bulk of the Reichstag building. Atop the 19c torso is a splendid, brightly-lit glass dome. It is after 9pm and I can clearly see people inside.

The queue on the monumental front steps is full of students, German and American, and middle-aged couples, mostly German. ("Germans are very orderly, but they don't know how to queue," one of the German students explains in perfect English to a British student beside him. He has a point.) The Reichstag is free and it is open from 8am to midnight (last entry 10pm). Inside you empty your pockets and pass through metal detectors and then go up to the roof in elevators. In the center of the roof is a glass Guggenheim Museum in the sky; double helix ramps wind up to the pinnacle, the dome's oculus, and down again.

A mirrored cone sprouts from the center of the dome, a silver ginger plant of massive proportions, which reflects light down into the glass-roofed legislative chamber below. The structure, by British architect Norman Foster, is brilliant. Beyond the glass is the spectacular 360-degree view of Berlin at night, a phosphorescent sea of light. Except for the Fernsehturm, the 1200-ft tall television tower rising up in the east at Alexanderplatz, and Helmut Jahn's Sony Center to the south, at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin has a relatively low profile, low and vast, the lights spreading out to the horizons, like LA without the hills and mountains. The oculus above is wide open and the wooden bench beneath is soaked with rain, but the white clouds blow quickly across the black sky leaving an open field of faint stars.

Around the glass roof of the legislative chamber is a ring of historical photographs. They tell the whole story: the origins of the Reichstag building as the imperial parliament, ruled by the Kaiser and run by the Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck; the abdication of the Kaiser and the founding of the Republic in the aftermath of the WWI; the fire that the Nazis blamed on the Communists in a successful play for power resulting in the passing of the infamous Enabling Act at Hitler's request.

The placards are simple and eloquent:

After the burning of the Reichstag parliament meets at the Kroll Opera House where the "Enabling Act" is passed by which legislation the Parliament deprives itself of its own powers. Only the Social Democrats oppose the Act; the Communists have already all been arrested.

Next to a photo of the burned-out Reichstag building: Burning of the Reichstag, February 27, 1933. Hitler, as Chancellor, uses the burning of the Reichstag as an excuse to rescind basic rights and establish the first concentration camps.

The text goes on to explain that the Nazis themselves were complicit in the fire.

If you had been standing on this same spot 64 years ago -- as old as I am this year -- you would be looking at the smouldering ruins of a great city ruined by monsters and leveled by the most devastating war the world has ever seen.

The Germans of today seem mindful of this. They are facing the past squarely. The story is clear and concise.

Using the shaky constitutional basis of a fledgling and tottering Republic, the Nazis engineered a coup that enabled Hitler to suspend the legal framework and rule unopposed. But the constitution and the legal framework were only 15 years old at the time, easily undone with neither habit nor tradition to protect them, and before that lay centuries of monarchies stretching back to the Holy Roman Empire, their parliamentary institutions mere window-dressing to the absolute authority of king and kaiser. The disastrous Republic was merely an interlude between a kaiser and a dictator. The habits of democracy had no time to take root and spread, especially in the countryside where Marx's "idiocy of rural life" reigned.

The composition of the Reichstag numerically favored the most backward rural regions of the country. The dynamic cities, like Berlin, bursting with technological innovation, were chronically underrepresented, making the Reichstag unrepresentatively conservative. Prior to the fire the Nazis had a third of seats. Their purge of the Communists and intimidation of the Social Democrats gave them the numbers they needed to pass the Enabling Act. With the Enabling Act, German democracy slit its own throat.

The question then becomes, how did the majority of Germans come to embrace the Nazis?

I'm not sure we can know the answer. History is a large part of it; circumstance another; national character another. One thing is certain: there are three generations since the war and the partitioning of Berlin, this democracy is four times as old and judging from Berlin today, I would say that it has taken root and, since reunification, both the physical city and the psychic city have become something powerfully modern and forward-looking. Can lightening strike twice? It's a moot question, but one thing is certain. No longer in the same way.

From the Reichstag, I walk past the Brandenburg Gate along along Ebertstrasse. On my left, surrounded by new hotels and restaurants and office buildings is a low, undulating field of shadow. It is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin's holocaust memorial, a 5 acre field of white concrete slabs, identical in length and width but varying in height. They are uniformly covered in a white anti-grafitti substance called Protectosil, which created a controversy since its manufacturer, Degussa, had worked with the Nazis to produce Zykon B, the gas used to murder Jews. After a raging public controversy the decision was made to continue using the Protectosil. Henryk Broder, Polish-born German journalist wrote that "the Jews don't need this memorial, and they are not prepared to designate a pig sty as kosher."

But the memorial stands, visited by thousands of people. The outside slabs barely come up to your calves but as you walk into the interior they rise up around you like sarcrophagi, like tombstones, like a maze of prison walls, the corridors tight and dark, and then slowly descend again to toward the edges opening out onto the lights of the bustling city.

It is a strange memorial, strangely anonymous, the stones plain, clean and unmarked. Below, in the Place of Information, the names of all known Jewish holocaust victims are recorded.

The controversy over the Protectosil was public and vociferous, the decisions heatedly argued and painfully considered. The issues remain on the front burner. But even the name of the memorial is revealing; the verb here, as elsewhere, is "murdered." Today's Germans are not afraid to speak its true name. I was discussing this with an Australian friend whose son lives in Japan with his Japanese wife and child. She remarked that the Japanese still deny their own atrocities during World War 2; it is neither taught nor discussed. Kept in the closet, it cannot be exorcised.

The Germans are facing it. This memorial stands beside the Brandenburg Gate, the most iconic site in the city, in the architectural, political and cultural center of Berlin. The concrete slabs stand for the vanished Jews of Berlin, but a few remain, and others have returned, among them none more internationally prominent than conductor Daniel Barenboim who, from the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, runs an amazing musical empire, which along with the Berlin Philharmonic (under the leadership of the British conductor Simon Rattle), keep Berlin at the center of the world's musical stage.

As I walk down Unter den Linden toward my hotel, just ahead of me three people are chatting loudly; they are young, Embassy well-dressed, and American, two women and a man in a dark wool overcoat, well into his beers. He says loudly, "And I'm like, what Embassy do you work in!? Oh, you're going to die." They laugh like doctors telling operating room jokes.

Brave New World.

[Food note: There is a cafe on the Reichstag roof; it is open until midnight. I went in because the currywurst I ate when I got off the plane would not hold me through the night. This cafe, however, is not a soup and sandwich kind of place; it is crystal and linen and small servings of exquisite things kind of place in a striking modern interior with a terrace looking east. I had a truly amusing amusebouche with a glass of Reisling. The basket of light and dark bread came with three tasty spreads. My fish soup had large chunks of succulent fish, and my cheese plate featured four beautiful, varied cheeses and an especially awesome dollop of gingery fig jam that I probably could have eaten a tub of... The crowd was international bourgeois, mostly suits and ties, a few sweaters and jeans, and me, who looked like I had just wandered in by mistake, which I had.]

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Cry in the Wilderness

Thanks, as ever, to the always vigilant Phyllis for alerting me to these two indispensable articles:

First, the always interesting Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone:

"People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they're not pissed off enough. The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations."


And then James K. Galbraith on the economy:

"If we are in a true collapse of finance, our models will not serve. It is then appropriate to reach back, past the postwar years, to the experience of the Great Depression. And this can only be done by qualitative and historical analysis. Our modern numerical models just don’t capture the key feature of that crisis—which is, precisely, the collapse of the financial system."


Matt, younger, angrier, more testosterone-filled, does a great job of exposing both the characters and their actions in this debacle, but Galbraith goes further. He programatically describes what is really necessary to rescue the wreckage of the economy from the hands of the men who wrecked it.

Criticism is easy; solutions are hard. Nobody ever said it would be a piece of cake, and Obama wanted the job. Now it is time to step up to the plate, clear the henhouse of foxes, and fight for the kinds of sweeping and visionary measures necessary to stem the bleeding while it is still possible. Once the men whose hands are on the levers have finished rewarding the men responsible for the crisis, stuffing their pockets with unimaginable amounts of money, they will move on to gutting the so-called "entitlements" in order to pay for it, which can and will throw millions more people into desperate poverty. The death toll of these actions will be high, in terms of people, institutions, education, (virtually non-existent) health care, physical infrastructure and the constitutional character of the Republic itself.

Galbraith is right on the money, it seems to me, but so far he is a lonely voice in the wilderness. We need more people to take heed of his analysis and program, while there is still time.

I will get off my high horse now.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Tree Says It's Spring

Days like today should be should doled out like a controlled substance, nature's remedy for the aches of winter. A perfect day. The sky is clear and blue, the sun is bright, there is a soft, light breeze; it is luminoso, sereno, una giornata bellissima.

The big cats from downstairs have moved outside now, lounging on the grass or on the pozzo. One is as wide as it is long when spread out on the lawn. The other, dark and sleek, suns himself on the pozzo, pausing to lick his paws and wash his face. The other night, under the full moon, the garden was filled with brilliant silver light and the breeze rustling the palm fronds sounded like a gently running mountain stream. I was about to look for where the water was coming from when I realized it was the wind. That moment was a haiku in realtime.

Other bright spots worthy of note:
Le Voci delle Donne
The concert last Thursday, Le Voci Delle Donne, Women's Voices, was a belated salute to the Festa della Donna. The music was written and sung by women. The ballroom of Ca' Rezzonico (otherwise known as The Museum of the Eighteenth Century) was a later add-on to the original palace. This accounts for the massive windows on the east side which open onto nothing but a wall behind them. The room is enormous, shaped like a shoebox, two stories high. The ceiling and walls are covered with rococo trompe l'oeil frescoes featuring mythological figures, sea shells, winged stucco putti and of course the family crest emblazoned in technicolor over the massive windows to nowhere.
The floors are marble and the room is enormously echo-y, which is markedly apparent before the music even begins when conversational voices reverberate like babble.
Before the music began the lights were turned down; the room became an immense gilt grotto. The only lights were the micro reading lights mounted over the singers' scores, like an unfamiliar constellation. The first selections were by Hildegarde Von Bingen, a twelfth century nun and mystic. Gothic music. Hildegarde was told in a vision to "write down what you see and hear," and she did, visions, music and all. The sound of the voices is eerie and cool, like the grey stone apse at the church of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello. The musical lines weave designs of gothic stonework in full moonlight. The long pedal tones hover like a light fog. The music reverberates, piling up in precise layers. Outstanding!
The lights came up for the balance of the concert, music of the same period as the room. Unfortunately the echo-y acoustic was not as kind to the florid baroque music. Every deviation from pitch collided with the other voices; the reverb overlapped and muddied the musical lines. What was clear and bright sounded strident, what was plush disappeared. The Hildegarde music was created to echo amid stone walls, and it triumphed in the same acoustic that swamped the rest.

What remains of the thousand-year-old Coventry Cathedral.
Britten, War Requiem
Saturday night the Orchestra of La Fenice performed Benjamin Britten's War Requiem under the baton of Bruno Bartoletti. Britten wrote the War Requiem for the 1962 reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral; the original thousand-year-old building was bombed to pieces during the Battle of Britain. Britten was a life-long pacifist; the War Requiem is dedicated to friends lost during the First World War and Britten intersperses the traditional Latin mass with poems by the great poet of that war, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action at the Battle of the Sambre one week before the War ended. That his poems exist at all is something of a miracle; and they are miraculous, powerful, hallucinatory in their intensity, visionary and sad. For Britten it must have seemed as if Fortune had handed him the perfect opening both to celebrate the dead and to make a compelling and triumphant statement of his pacifist ideals.
A small orchestra with a battery of drums, percussion and harps, was deployed in the pit. The main body of the orchestra filled the stage and flowed up into the risers where the chorus stood, in all, a true wall of sound, joined by the three vocal soloists and, offstage, a children's choir. The music communicates in both intimate detail, in small groupings of voices and instruments, and in extraordinary layering of sounds, from the delicate wisps of the offstage children's voices accompanied by the slightest breath of organ, to the Sanctus which exploded with all the glittering golden glory of San Marco.
My point is not to review the performance. I only want to convey the impact of this kind of experience, that begins in your toes and ultimately sears your brain cells, flooding you with a unique mixture of dread and celebration, a perfect conflation of text, music, and performance going off like a string of psychic firecrackers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It all started simply enough with a crossword puzzle; there was no knowing, then, where it would lead.


The LN Line

I caught the LN (Laguna Nord) boat on the Riva degli Schiavoni at the farthest of the San Zaccharia docks east of San Marco. The boat for San Servolo and the Amenian monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni (No. 20) leaves from here as well.

This boat is not a usual vaporetto, however. It's not a vaporetto at all. It is a two-deck commuter line, new and shiny, and the front cabin has windows all the way around so you can see directly in front of you (the bridge is above). It is a distinctly superior way to travel. The distance between stops is greater and it makes fewer of them. It's like the difference between a commuter bus and a light rail in a normal city.

The first stop is Lido, and as soon as we leave Lido we head past the channel opening into the Adriatic, making a lazy loop around the new island that is being built in the center of the channel on the lagoon side. It is part of the vast MOSE project to mount massive flood gates which will rise up from the lagoon floor and hold back the Adriatic during abnormal tidal surges (acqua alta). The gates will close the channels at either side of the new island between between Lido on the south and Lido di Jesoso on the north. In their prone position, they create an interesting new environmental challenge for the local marine life. Go HERE for a good overview of the MOSE project from NPR.

Once beyond Lido on this clear, sunny day, you see the magnificent arc of the surrounding mountains. They run from the northeast almost to Vicenza in the west. They are perfectly visible, covered with snow, and from this vantage the lagoon disappears behind the islands and there is nothing but a green carpet rising up to the knees of the snow-covered Alps.

In the opposite direction you can see the long flank of San Erasmo, which, until a century ago, operated as a natural barrier against the tidal surges. The frequency and intensity of these surges, according to the informational billboard on the fencing outside the MOSE project, escalated dramatically in the twentieth century, due in part to "improvements" in the mouth of the lagoon. (MOSE is an acronym for (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico or Electromechanical Experimental Module.) San Erasmo, which used to stopper the tidal flow into the lagoon, is larger than Venice proper but instead of palazzi and people it is covered with farms which supply the city with produce including the prized castauri artichokes, and, increasingly, residential development.

During the twentieth century the mouth of the lagoon was given a facelift. Stone jetties were thrust into the Adriatic, creating a triumphal entry for the ocean liners that stream in and out constantly during the season. Massive heaps of stone and pieces of concrete shaped like jacks, the toys for little girls, were mounted on either side of the channel to create the twin jetties, each with a lighthouse at its terminus. The channel was cleared and deepened and widened, and along with all the ocean liners came higher water than ever, the natural barriers having been compromised.The area behind the jetties was filled in with sand cleared from the lagoon. It's not hard to imagine the funneling of a tidal surge by these jetties, pointing it directly at San Erasmo, where it swirls into the surrounding lagoon.

The next stop after Lido is Punta Sabbioni, the southern extremity of Lido di Jesolo. From Punta Sabbioni north are the beach campgrounds which fill with campers from everywhere as soon as it is warm. Fortunately, it is too early for them today. The beach curves north, wide and empty. Between the vaporetto stop and the beach are farms. Via Dante Alleghieri runs from the vaporetto stop and parking lots around the edge of the channel and the MOSE construction and up to the beaches and campgrounds. There is a thin fringe of bars and restaurants and then the broad sweep of the beaches.

As you walk along Via Dante Alighieri, you can appreciate the massive scope of the MOSE project. In addition to building an island in the center of channel to mount the floodgates, both sides are being buttressed with terraces, some areas reserved for public use, including marinas, and some areas used for the technical operation. The project is as contested as it is ambitious, and feelings run high on the subject. The "No MOSE" folks are concerned about its long-term impact on the lagoon and also point out that there are less costly alternatives, partial solutions that are less invasive and damaging and possibly more pratical and with a better long-term prognosis. They tend to view MOSE as another huge government boondoggle, and endless money pit, with high potential for graft and corruption and incompetence. It's not an unreasonable position. The Pro-MOSE camp vaunts it as a brilliant high-tech solution to the increasingly high and frequent tidal surges that threaten to swamp the lagoon and flood the city.

Like it or not, MOSE is proceeding, but like all the big projects here, it proceeds very slowly.

From Punta Sabbioni the boat goes to Treporti, the northernmost stop on the line, and the farthest you can go by vaporetto. Lido di Jesolo runs northward from Treporti, to Cavallino and eventually the city of Jesolo, at the juncture with the mainland. From Treporti you can rent bicycles for excursions into the salt marshes that characterize the nothern extremity of the lagoon, the Laguna Morte, dead lagoon. It is still early in the season and nothing is quite open.

From Treporti you head to Burano (with its link to Torcello), Murano, and then Fondamenta Nove.

There are plenty of pictures in the [ GALLERY]. For more about Torcello, see below.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Crown of Creation

I brought my copy of the Stones of Venice with me on the boat to Torcello. Theoretically, the ride from San Zaccaria to Lido to Punta Sabbioni to Treporti to Burano provided plenty of time to reread Ruskin's eight-page chapter devoted to it. Unfortunately, the mountains were so breathtaking that I ended up on deck, outside. I had never seen the moutains while heading north and west toward them, on a day when they were perfectly visible in every detail, close, cradeling the hills, the deltas of the rivers, the salt marshes and the silvery lagoon. The snow was brilliant white atop the peaks and below the snow line, charcoal velvet was turning green.

Torcello is absolutely flat. The church and its square Lombardesque tower are the singular and iconic elements of an otherwise uneventful expanse of reeds, marshes, and the snaky fingers of the lagoon sluicing them, stretching as far as they eye can see. Here you see what Venice was before the canals were paved in stone and the palaces built along them.

Ruskin's view of Torcello is based on the straightforward proposition that the people who took up residence here were brave and stalwart and crushed by calamitous circumstances. They were not happy to come; they were not carefree fishermen and salt harvesters. They were men of consequence who loved the places they were fleeing, and took as much with them as they could: marble pillars and carvings, bricks from Roman buildings, whatever pieces of their former homes they could get into a flat, shallow-draught boat they brought. They were fugitives in a salt marsh whose only redeeming characteristic was that it protected them from successive waves of invaders. It was a hard life, built from scratch, on an unstable island of fishermen's huts and birds and brush, surrounded by the phantasmagoric lagoon which was lethal to invaders who did not know its ways. Vigilant, they could breathe free. They could see the entire lagoon around them from the 200-foot stone tower they built, and at its base they built the finest church they could, beginning in the seventh century.

Ruskin also bases his views on the proposition that the buildings men build are an expression of their fundamental character. His analyses of arches and windows and walls point out the purpose for which these things are necessary and the relative strengths of the different solutions that evolved to meet them. For example, he points out that the foliated gothic arch (see picture, left) is in fact the perfect solution for both strength and beauty. They are the least susceptible to corruption by the natural stresses of walls and roofs, and they are beautiful to the eye, the fusion of dolce et utile, beauty and utility, and for that reason they are, to Ruskin, perfect.

Of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta he writes that the elements "are expressive at once of the deep sorrow and the sacred courage of men who had no home left them upon earth, but who looked for one to come, of men 'persecuted but not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed.' I am," Ruskin continues, "not aware of any other early church in Italy which has this peculiar expression to such a marked degree."

Ruskin was profoundly religious, and his religion suffuses his perception, but I do not find it intrusive. I gather from it the same sense of awe I feel at Big Sur or a Giotto chapel. His religion is inseparable from the joy he reads in these ancient carvings and which he ascribes to their creators. Thus seen, these works are a hymn of celebration to the beauty and variety of creation, and hence to the majesty of god. You can substitute your own god, or anyone else's. I don't think it makes a difference, nor if you have none at all. They are merely masks to give form to a mystery that lies beyond our comprehension. But we can feel it. Ruskin felt it here in Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, and so do I.

Going about his business of looking, Ruskin exercised the most amazing powers of observation. His drawing, cataloging, systematizing of gothic ornament is the work of sheer mad genius. It is as brilliant as it is eccentric. His eye was unfailing. There is no one better to point out the singular genius of a place such as this. I sit in a pew dead center in nave, midway between the stark altar in front of the apse at one end, and the astonishing towering mosaic at the other end.

The first and most important characteristic of this church, Ruskin says, is its luminousness. As opposed to the "excessive gloom" of San Marco, and even in comparison with other notable basilicas in Italy, which, he says, "are like sepuchral caverns compared with Torcello, ... there is something especially touching in our finding the sunshine thus freely admitted into a church built by men in sorrow."

Today the sun is brilliant and the church is filled with light. It is possible to see every detail clearly. The light fills the space and reveals its character, the stones open up like storybooks. Ruskin goes on to discuss the carved marble screens in front of the altar, pairs of lions and of peacocks, and then spends two entire pages on the pulpit, because in his telling, the pulpit reveals the history and meaning and character of the men who created this place.

I set the book aside. Ruskin has done everything possible to prime me for the moment. It is time to yield to it.

One thing I have learned studying Ruskin is that a building is like a language we must learn. It comes in bits and pieces, an awkward recognition of tropes, until we master the terms enough to put it together into a coherent sentence. We measure the width and breadth of it, its extent, and then look at the details to see how it fits together, enlarging our vocabulary, apprehending the subtle and witty ways in which these ancient artists chose to amuse our eyes while ornamenting the sacred interior spaces of the building.

And it is just that. A sacred interior space. There are many in the world. I have been to several, but all in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I don't think the flavor matters. What makes these spaces holy is that they were created with the intention to be that. To make that happen, the best artists available were employed to design and ornament the spaces. This is true of every civilization that has ever walked the earth.

Santa Maria Assunta is very plain on the outside. Inside, a particular story unfolds. Here, fleeing people who had lost everything and faced only uncertainty created a space to meditate upon eternity. The decorations are as beautiful as they could possibly make them, and there were severe limitations. But the soaring human spirit broke through the limitations of means and material and with what was at hand created a hymn to the beauty and the bounty of god.

It is a place that asks you to sit quietly and think about these things. It invites you to lose yourself in the stories it has to tell, carved into its marble and emblazoned in brilliant mosaic on the walls.

In Ruskin's day the tower was open and untended, the deserted gate, he notes, flapping open. Today it is scaffolded for restoration work and costs 4 euros to enter, but inside it remains the same. The stairs and ramps that ascend to the top are arranged on interior arches that spring out of the walls with the rhythmic regularity and strange symmetry of an M.C. Escher composition. From the top it is easy to see that Torcello is as much mired in a boggy plain as it is encircled by a body of water. The lagoon is largely so shallow that, except for the deep navigation channels, the low tide exposes the undulant islets almost entirely.

The tower stands sentinal, both guardian and place-marker. Although the island has only 20 inhabitants now, at its peak it had 20,000 residents, maybe more. The city was wiped out by a wave of malaria, the mosquitoes flourishing on an imbalance of fresh water over salt in the north lagoon. By then, the center had been unalterably moved to Rivo Alto, the cluster of islands upon which Venice is built.

What remains on Torcello is the best it had to offer: its ravishing natural beauty, and its proud church and campanile.

If any you have found any of this intriguing, you would probably enjoy the brief chapter entitled [ TORCELLO] in Ruskin's "Stones of Venice."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Time Soup (again)

Age does not wither her, nor custom stale her infinited variety...

My friend Richard pointed this out to me this morning in the International Herald Tribune. "Don't you think it looks modern?" he asked, flashing it before my eyes. "It's from 1400 B.C."

It is amazing; it is not a 60s roach clip, a vaguely scatalogical Imperial Chinese nutcracker, a Chanel bath brush, or a document clip for the post-modern desk. Although I think they're guessing about what it is, ("duck-shaped container" is rather vague) whatever it is, it is timeless. It would look equally at home in just about any age you could imagine.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Fenice Orchestra | Henze

What was particularly wonderful about tonight's concert by the La Fenice Orchestra is that I had a chance to hear beautiful music I had never heard before.

The first part of the concert was devoted to two pieces by Hans Werner Henze. The first, "Das Vokaltuch der Kammersangerin Rosa Silbert" which I gather from the Italian translation means something like The Vocal Texture of Soprano Rosa Silber, is a suite drawn from the ballet of the same name, which was in turn based on a painting by Paul Klee of that title. In 1990 when Henze revised the score he subtitled it "Exercises with Stravisnky on a painting by Paul Klee."

The music was commissioned in 1950 by Ferenc Friscay, then director of the RIAS Berlin Orchestra. It was written in the dead center of the dread century. A divided Germany was still in smoking ruins. But listening to the music you would not know. It is a gorgeous conjuration of a lost world. Les vrais paradis sont les paradis perdus, Proust wrote. The true paradises are paradises lost.

This music glistens with some of the sheen of the glory years of the Ballets Russes. It is filled with Stravinsky and Prokofieff and Ravel, and moves quickly, a succession of dances, rhythmically and instrumentally distinct. The orchestra was inspired in a way they were not for Romeo et Juliette the other night. This probably has a lot to do with the conductor, Gerd Albrect, who has a clean, magisterial, and non-nostagic grasp of the musical language.

But I also think that this orchestra plays best when playing more challenging music. Their Wagner has been impressive, and their Korngold and Schoenberg and Nono. And I am sure it is somewhat the same for them as for me, the listener, appreciating the opportunity to hear music I have never heard before. They rose to the occasion. The music shimmered and spun and danced.

The second piece, Appassionatamente Plus, is a tone poem which opens with an explosion of percussion, everthing but the kitchen sink including drums, gongs, tam-tams wood blocks, o-daiko (Japanese barrel drums) and on and on. It was pretty impressive; certainly got your attention. The rest was alternately silky and dense, hyper-romantic, with attenuated crescendos and grand swirling climaxes, as if Verklarte Nacht had been orchestrated by Mahler.

With no pre-conceived notions, no expectations, no ready-made frame of reference derived from having heard the music a million times before, I was open and surprised and often astonished. It is much the same "wow" factor as when you are hiking up a hilly path somewhere you have never been, rise over a crest and suddenly see the majestic blue vastness of a sea that you didn't know was there. It stops you dead.

I found the first part of the concert dazzling in that way. The second part was the Brahms Second symphony. Here the music is intimately familiar. You can hear the instant the performers fall short of, or at least veer away from, the image in your mind drawn from previous performances and from a lifetime of recordings. It didn't sound as clean and well articulated as Chicago or Berlin, as warm and mellow as Vienna, it didn't have the spot-on pacing of Giulini or Reiner or Abbado or Bernstein or or or...

But it was the perfect Symphony for today, filled with sunshine and burnished warmth and infectious rhythms. It felt as much like spring as the mimosas outside.

SUGGESTION TO LA FENICE: How about some Henze opera, prego!

Loveliest of trees...

I saw mimosa today, prominently, all over town. This means two things here:
1) spring is just around the corner, and
2) the Festa della Donna is tomorrow.

The first appearance of mimosa bursting up over walls or climbing beside windows, is reason enough to celebrate. It is the true sign that spring is on the doorstep.

The Festa della Donna, otherwise known as International Women's Day (which is not celebrated in the U.S.) is when the men salute the significant women in their world, traditionally giving them a sprig of mimosa. For a day the city turns yellow.


Beautiful blonde,
radiant as the sun
delicate as a baby's finger,
and sweet as the Venetian dusk,
your breath is truly Spring,
as lovely as a song.

That was 2006. I wrote it in Italian for my Italian class; it is of the "kinder, gentler" tone. The following year was more like this year:

It's cold and nasty
and grey; there is
fog in the air
and the paving
stones are wet.
But the mimosa
doesn't care.
It blooms crazy
yellow over the
garden wall.

I am the mimosa.

The title of this entry is a poem by A. E. Houseman; if you don't already know it, you should (if only for your cultural literacy).

Grafitti of The Month

This month's winner in the Best Grafitti sweepstakes is particularly appropriate to here, in Venezia, where there is no north, south, east or west. The cardinal points on the local compass are "Piazzale Roma," "Ferrovia," "Rialto," and "San Marco." Or, in this case, the dream directions: "right" or ....

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Image: "Empress Theodora with her Court" Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, (Mosaic, 6th C.)

"Immediately beside the Hippodrome [in Constantinople], immediately opposite Santa Sophia, stood the Bucoleon, the Great Palace, just as the Doge's Palace stood beside the Piazza and the Basilica (the church for God, it used to be said, the palace for the emperor, the arena for the people). It was like an inner city of its own, spilling down the hillside in a complex of pavilions, courtyards, churches, barracks and gardens to its watergate on the Marmara shore. It was the palace of palaces, full of astonishments. The Imperial Silk Factory occupied only a small corner of its space; in the imperial chapel even the nails and hinges were made of silver; the palace lighthouse was a signal station too, and its flashes kept the emperor in touch with his officials far away in Asia Minor. The very complexity of the palace, corridor leading into gallery, hall opening only into anteroom, was designed to overawe the princes and ambassadors of lesser powers, while the core of it all, the audience chamber of the emperor himself, seemed to simple visitors actually magic. Mechanical birds twittered on enamelled branches as one entered it. Automatic lions roared, beating the ground with their tails. The towering blonde Varangians [Imperial Guard from Sweden], like creatures from another planet, stood perpetually on guard with their battle-axes. When at last one reached the imperial presence, the emperor was discovered sitting on a sumptuous throne of gold and diamonds dressed in robes of many colours: but even as one made one's obeisances, to a peal of organs he was whisked into the air and out of sight, descending a moment later still on his throne but in a yet more dazzling change of costume."

from The Venetian Empire, by Jan Morris.