Saturday, December 19, 2009

Double Whammy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 18, 2009

Mindf**k in Castelfranco Veneto

"La Tempesta," Giorgione, 1506-8

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

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

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

Giorgione was a revolutionary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what art is all about.

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Venetian Efficiency | Venetian Sublime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

How I Remember It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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