Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Two hours at the Doge's Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Venice Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

See for yourself in the MARATHON GALLERY

Monday, October 19, 2009

Venice at Night

I love Venice best at night.

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Handel Rocks Malibran

Handel, Agrippina
Teatro Malibran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didn't happen.

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

Magic Numbers

Andrea Palladio a/e Venezia
Museo Correr,

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were.

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

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

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

How the interior works with the exterior

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

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

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

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

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

But back to the numbers...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palladio certainly did.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Venice, Autumn, Night

Beyond the square
there is an arch.
Beyond the arch
there is a bridge
Beyond the bridge
there is water.
Beyond the water
there is a bridge.
Beyond the bridge
there is an arch.
Beyond the arch,
there is a square.

Beyond the the square
is the lagoon.
Beyond the lagoon
there are islands.
Beyond the islands
the Adriatic Sea
hisses, cold and silver
in the moonlight.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Night thoughts

Venice is different at night, drained of color, a study in shadow and light. It is a brightly lit city in general, at the street level, where there are almost no dark corners. I know this from experience.

After I had been here less than a year, I was teaching English on the mainland, in Mogliano Veneto. One night I stayed late with one of my students, drinking wine and talking about literature until almost midnight. I ran and caught the last train to Venice at 12-15. I sat down in my seat feeling pleased with myself for having made the train and then realized, half-way to Venice, my bag, with my cell phone and my keys, were locked in the classroom in Mogliano and there were no more trains that night.

At 1am they close Santa Lucia train station. It was early November, cold, but fortunately not freezing. My neighbor, who had a key to my apartment, was asleep; her lights were out.

I felt amazingly stupid, and I decided I could tough it out until 6am, when I knew my neighbor would be up, or I wouldn't feel so stupid about waking her up. I couldn't get a hotel for the night because my passport was at home; and I was paranoid about being stopped by police because I was, at that point, technically an illegal alien. Paranoia and frustration grew in equal measure.

As I walked across the Scalzi bridge, through Santa Croce and San Polo I looked for the kinds of places I might have found in the US to warm up. Venice closes early; nothing was open. All the shutters were down. The streets were deserted. I walked to the Accademia bridge, across, toward San Marco and then to Rialto and up Strada Nova back toward the train station. I did the entire circuit of the city, twice, before exhaustion set in and I had to find a place to rest. That was when I learned, indelibly, that there are no dark corners in Venice at night. There are incandescent street lamps on the narrowest lanes and in the most obscure cul-de-sacs.

Around 4am I found a walled courtyard just off the Grand Canal near Campo San Polo. The heavy iron gate was ajar; inside it was reasonably dark, the only light coming from a streetlight outside the wall. There was a marble bench under a large magnolia tree, and I lay there, trying to sleep, until 5-30, and then I knew I could find some coffee somewhere and head back to the apartment.

I didn't cover the entire city, but enough to know it intimately, at night, with nowhere to go. I never felt more alien, nor more alone; a sixty-year-old man in ridiculous situation. It had become something of a quest for me, a trial by darkness and solitude. I had the same feeling I had felt about jail forty years earlier. If I can get through this, I thought, I can get through anything. There is nothing left to frighten me.

At least -- and the only thing that got me through the long, long night without despair -- I knew that with the sunrise it would be over, that I would be able to get into my warm apartment, to sleep for a few hours before my real day began, to eat and piss in comfort and security. That was when I thought about what my friend Kate, who worked for the Canadian State Department in Rome, had said to me one fragrant spring morning in the garden of the bed and breakfast. She was stationed in Rome after years in Africa, where she had witnessed the worst poverty, carnage, and genocide, dealing routinely with torturers and the tortured. She hated Rome, and wanted to get back to Africa eventually.

"You have at least one good meal a day every day; more than one pair of shoes; and a reliable roof over your head," she said. "You're in the 1%." Her smile was simultaneously mirthful and ironic. "And if you can't get everything you own into two suitcases," she added, "you consume too much!"

Although I have always made a point of walking Venice at night because of its particular beauty, that night I had no choice. The lovely was menacing, the quaint, threatening, the obscure, frightening. But I also had ample opportunity to begin to understand the effect of moonlight on water and stone, the combined effect of all of these, and the miracle of sunrise as the sky finally lightened.

I finally bought a tripod. I have been thinking about it for a long time. Now I can experiment with capturing the experience of Venice at night. Given the limitations of my camera, and given that I am not a photographer, I do the best I can. With each batch, I learn.

I am working toward capturing Palladio's Giudecca churches, Redentore, Zitelle, and San Giorgio Maggiore. Tonight I began experimenting with Redentore. The difficulty with these Palladio structures is that the only way to get the proper distance from them is from the water, where you bobble. Bound to land, and without a panoply of lenses, you are forced to extreme longshots or extreme closeups. There is little middle ground.

You can see the preliminary attempts with Redentore and San Giorgio IN THE NIGHT GALLERY

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A sense of scale

A medium-sized cruise ship dwarfs Redentore

These cruise ships are the sea monsters destroying Venice. Serene on the surface, their wake roils the bottom of the canals and the lagoon; the erosive action of their wake and the vibratios of their engines, magnified under the water, is responsible for crackiing centuries-old stone, for loosening foundations, for undermining the infrastructure of the city.

They are floating cities, these boats. It was estimated that they loaded and unloaded 3,000,000 people in Venice last year. That's a lot of wear and tear on a fragile city, and accounts for 10% of the tourist load (which peaked in 2007 at 30,000,000 for the year). The city has sold itself to them. Tourism is the only game left in town. Shops and restaurants are dependent upon it; there is little local economy to speak of outside tourism.

But it is a dangerous addiction. In the main, these cruise passengers spend only a few hours on land. They walk a bit, take tours, buy cheap souvenirs, and move on to the next port of call.

There are so many shops selling cheap crap because that is what they, and the majority of the other tourists, want to buy.

"Oh, look," I heard one English woman scream to another. "These are REALLY cheap! Let's go in here!"

Venice is saturated with mask shops and glass trinket shops and tee-shirt and souvenir shops. My friend once counted 187 counterfeit purse sellers along the Riva between Arsenale and the Bridge of Sighs, the equivalent of a three block walk. There are so many cheap generic sandwiches because that is what the masses of tourists eat -- slices of mediocre pizza, sandwiches, and gelato; things you can eat on the fly, walking or sitting on the steps of a church or a bridge or the wall of a canal. The plague of plastic bottles is also monumental, but this is not restricted to Venice.

This is an expensive addiction for Venice. Often the cruise passengers stay and eat on their ships. The restaurants are hurting because so many of the tourists no longer even sit in restaurants or stop at bars for something to drink. They eat sandwiches while they walk and lug liter bottles of warm water wherever they go. How did people live without dehydrating for thousands of years prior to the fabrication of the plastic bottle?

And it is a suicidal addiction. The physics of these massive boats in the lagoon is a disaster. The erosive effects of their wake, so fortuitiously invisible to the untrained eye, can kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Unlike climate change and emissions controls, this is not a massive global-scaled problem, and, unlike them, there has a relatively simple solution: make the boats dock outside the lagoon, in the Adriatic.

There are activists fighting to stop entry of the big ships into the lagoon. Passengers could be loaded and unloaded on the Adriatic side, ferried in on smaller boats. But that would be hugely expensive and cut severely into profits. Given the addiction to money, black and white, that these ships generate, it is a daunting task to move their docks back into the sea. It would be nice if the crusaders against these Leviathans are doing more than tilting at windmills. They are right. The foundations of their world are being eroded before their very eyes.

What is unique to Venice, what is hers alone, is the network of sand bars and salt marshes, islands and canals, the encircling lagoon, and its extraordinarily dense patrimony of fabulous art and buildings. This is what is being threatened with spoliation and extinction.

Docked ship, from Zattere

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Changing seasons

It's all about the light. There is less of it, it's dark by 7:30 now, and it comes at different angles. But what there is, is glorious, especially under the full moon, and especially around the Punta della Dogana, where the moon soars like a white balloon over San Giorgio. The tones of the sky, and of the light on the water, put all human art to shame.

All the cameras with tripods were out; this does not happen every night. I don't have my tripod yet, but I keep trying. Here are shots around the Punta della Dogana, Saturday, October 3, 2009.