30 November 2007

Charles Dickens wrote...

"But, close about the quays and churches, palaces and prisons, sucking at their walls, and welling up into the secret places of the town, crept the water always. Noiseless and watchful: coiled round and round it, in its many folds, like an old serpent… "
- Charles Dickens
Pictures of Italy

Today I feel the scaly slither of the serpent.

27 November 2007

Biennale: El Anatsui

Here is the work of the only artist who truly dazzled me – El Anatsui of Ghana, currently working in Nigeria.

What you are looking at is a pair of enormous “quilts” painstakingly constructed from bits of trash metal – bent bottle caps, sealing lead, tin can scraps, aluminum and copper tubing slices, smashed film canisters, all stitched together with tiny circles of wire. (A third and even larger quilt is currently draped over the façade of the Museo Fortuny where it rustles gently if there is a good breeze.)

I admit I’m a pushover for the artist who has no money for nor access to supplies and tools. How completely driven must such an individual be to get the work done in spite of such difficult circumstances? Artists of Latin and African cultures in particular make extensive use of cast-off materials with very satisfying results. But this achievement surpassed anything I had ever witnessed. (Of course, El Anatsui is neither untrained nor an "outsider" artist in any sense. Google him to learn more about his remarkable career and see his broad range of works, almost all of which are based on cast-off materials.)

My photos don’t begin to capture the lush, tactile quality these sophisticated pieces possess, nor the stunning effect they have on the viewer. They drape deeply and, from a distance, they have a rich, low shimmer like Fortuny’s heavy, gold-stenciled velvets. They bring to mind a Klimt painting or one of the complex gilt mosaics of Basilica San Marco.

Up close the colors, images, and letters on the metal scraps come into focus. The effect is one of naïve playfulness, of the sheer pleasure of mingling and marrying hues and patterns and textures. Then, as you examine the intricacies of the construction, it comes to you just how many hundreds of hours went into producing these beautiful things.

In short, they were most inviting artworks I’ve experienced in ages. Utterly irresistible! We awestruck Biennale visitors were constantly being admonished not to touch the gorgeous quilts; many simply could not stop themselves.

26 November 2007

Biennale: Arsenale

Here curators opted for too many huge, glossy photos and time-wasting videos that had no effect on this viewer whatsoever (although there was a supersized, five-part sequence of Asian video imagery that gave me a chance to feel like an extra in Blade Runner for a few minutes). Add to that some sophomoric images of conflict in the Mideast (“Isn’t war like totally terrible? Ya know, like, all the innocence and beauty being, like, ya know, totally destroyed ‘n’ stuff?”) and an over-emphasis on Islamic culture in general. Also some silly stuff, like a turntable rigged up with a steel brush to scrape the tracks off Beatles albums, and a big white helium balloon with a vinyl question mark hurriedly glued onto it. Even a Chuck Close wanna-be got into this show. Been there, seen that.

Just like last time, I found my eyes wandering to the magnificent Arsenale itself. With its soaring ship’s keel ceilings, vast brick pillars, and imposing tanks and hydraulics systems, it’s a far more thrilling attraction than the puny artworks it currently showcases.

As awe-inspiring as an ancient temple, these historic buildings once housed the world’s first hyper-efficient assembly line (no matter what Detroiters might attribute to Henry Ford!). At the height of her powers and situated between the two empires, Venice launched a new warship everyday from the Arsenale’s mirror-like basin. The ghosts of generations of laborers and craftsmen nearly come out of the walls and pull your hair to remind you of what occurred here centuries ago. I had a great wish to see it emptied of all the Biennale nonsense and noise.

But there was one very bright spot…

25 November 2007

Biennale 2007

I finally got around to visiting this year’s Biennale. The theme is Pensa con i sensi, senti con la mente (“Think with the senses, sense with the mind”) – a lofty thought. I’m sorry to report that it was even more disappointing than the 2005 show. With only a few exceptions, I thought the work was trite, untrained, derivative, high school-ish, self-conscious, and – worst of all! – boring.

Wow, I am so mean sometimes! All the things I would NOT want said about my own work! But let’s remember: this is still the most important exhibition of contemporary art in the world. The bar should be set very high.

I had dropped into many collateral events around town over the past weeks, which might have told me what to expect at the pay-to-enter venues. Namely, a snooze.

And I might well have been snoozing part of the time because, to be perfectly honest, I can’t really remember much from the national pavilions at i Giardini. I just kept thinking of that emperor and his new clothes.

The Arsenale show is clearer in my mind…

23 November 2007


The most memorable moments I have in Venice are always unexpected ones, when circumstances conspire to give me a glimpse of the real city and (if I’m lucky) include me enough to make me feel I belong. Today I had just such a moment.

I spent this grey, rainy morning laying in provisions for the weekend – bread, groceries, produce, wine, cash… a new dress… (You get the picture.) Lunchtime got away from me somehow, and I found myself feeling chilly and needing a little pick-me-up. So I dropped into a small wine bar I like (Mondo di Vino) and ordered a glass of a wine I’ve been enjoying recently (Fichimori – it’s from Antinori, and it’s red, but you drink it slightly chilled). At my first sip, the bar went dark. In fact, the entire calle was blacked out.

No problem.

The two young women behind the bar scurried about, lighting the room with candles and filling up their customers’ glasses at the same time. Very quickly the room became cozy and intimate. Because there’s no mechanical traffic noise in Venice, I could hear all the lively commentary throughout the neighborhood. The blackout brought more people out of their shops and homes. The already crowded room got busier and buzz-ier. Inside and out, the jovial chatter grew louder, punctuated by the hearty sound of Venetians enjoying a good joke. They are such a lively, animated people. And my Italian is now good enough to keep up somewhat, so I caught the gist of their jests. In short, everyone was delighted to have the unscheduled break, but it was still great fun to complain about it to one another.

I don’t know when or if the power came back on for those Venetian neighbors, but what a pleasure it was to be one among them for a little while!

22 November 2007

Thanksgiving now

It’s an ordinary morning in Venice. No one here knows this is the day my countrymen pause to acknowledge and express their gratitude. A fine thing indeed! Among my many life lessons, this one falls very near the top of the list: “The Universe won’t give you anything else until you’re truly grateful for what you’ve already got.”

At one time I was convinced of the opposite. I feared that offering thanks would somehow stop the flow (or trickle, as I saw it). The concept of gratitude eluded me, kind of like when you’re a kid and you can’t possibly imagine how it could be better to give a Christmas present than to get one. But eventually I got the hang of it. Now thanksgiving – small “t” – is a healthy habit that makes me feel better every time I do it, like flossing.

Currently, my “plus column” is crammed. That’s not to say there are no “minuses” in the other column. In fact, at this moment I’m feeling the all too familiar sting of the Universe withholding something that I want very much! I’ll have to get around that today and focus instead on all the wonderful stuff I’ve received lately. If I am quiet and attentive enough, I will even find a way to be grateful for that perceived “withholding” (which is probably something else good that I just don’t recognize or appreciate yet). Grudging acceptance of what’s real right now is often my first step toward genuine thankfulness.

And that’s my point! Gratitude is all about NOW – about being alive and awake and aware of who and where you are and how you feel right this very moment. Usually, whatever is on our plates (literally and figuratively!) here and now is what moves us to give thanks. The bank grants the loan, the lost dog returns, your kid is unhurt in the accident, the medical test comes back negative. All “now” stuff. You can’t be grateful about something that hasn’t happened yet, so the future doesn’t apply here. You might well be grateful about something in the past, but you tune into it because the sweet feeling about it still lingers now. See? This is a great way to be present for your own life while you’re actually living it.

So, while I won’t see the Macy’s Parade and I won’t have any sage stuffing or pumpkin pie today, I will take myself across the Bacino to the lofty, hushed San Giorgio Maggiore. When I’m in Venice, that’s where I go to light a candle and give thanks. I hope you have a similar place and will do the same before all that turkey makes you too sleepy to remember just how lucky you are. Right now.

(David, you cannot imagine how very much I will miss you and Mikey and your wonderful family today. Say my “hellos” for me. I will be there in spirit, but call me from the car anyway. You know my U.S. cell number.)

Festa della Salute, November 21

Every November 21st since 2003 I have been aware of missing this special Venetian holiday, Festa della Santa Maria della Salute, honoring the Virgin Mary for Venice’s deliverance from a devastating two-year plague, 1630-31.

The site of festivities is an imposing church – built to express Venetian gratitude and now referred to simply as Salute (“good health”) – at the Bacino entrance to the Grand Canal. Every year the Venetians construct a bridge resting on boats from San Marco to Salute, to permit the people to make their pilgrimage across the water and offer their thanks.

I waited a long time to witness this. I have wanted to cross with them in the darkness, see them light their candles in the church, be a part of their lovely tradition…

The reality wasn’t exactly the way I pictured it.

To begin with, the bridge was not what I expected, as I had only seen photos of bridges built years ago – wooden planks lain over many small boat hulls, causing the faithful to walk carefully and very close to the water. Today’s bridge is a high, wide, well-constructed affair, fully braced and secured to several large pontoon boats and fitted with traffic signals on both sides to keep the vaporetti passing through on their routes. Safe and efficient. Not quite the quaint effect I had in mind.

The pilgrimage was indistinguishable from the foot traffic on any of the three permanent bridges over the Canal. The church itself, always beautiful, was a thrill to behold in the light of hundreds and hundreds of candles. But the real action took place outside, and it seemed to be primarily sugar-driven.

Behind the church there was a street festival that featured almost twenty stands offering every conceivable Italian dessert and cookie and candy. Adults and children alike had a heyday choosing their favorites. Neighbors and friends greeted one another with sticky smiles and powdered sugar kisses. There was more than enough laughter and camaraderie to keep all of us healthy for another year.

So, here's what I learned tonight. It’s possible for me to over-romanticize Venice and her traditions, but impossible to be disappointed by her.

19 November 2007

Cheese, sausages, milk

What does it say about me, that this is one of my best-loved details in palazzo-packed Venice? That I still have the graphic design virus in my blood, like it or not?

These pretty, old signs read “lowfat cheese, mixed link sausages, whole milk, skimmed milk,” and they hang above a little deli that I occasionally visit in Cannaregio. Their typographical design is timeless and balanced – note the happy marriage of four related but different typefaces! Their graduated yellow hues, so consistently speckled with rust, are subtle and satisfying. And they are utterly functional, too: the deli still sells these same items.

Beautiful in my eyes. Simply beautiful.

17 November 2007

Stranger in the Piscina

When you read the blog or my email, do you picture me composing it while lounging on a silk-covered chaise in a palazzo, a steaming caffe latte close at hand, and my pristine white laptop resting on a gilded table nearby?

Here is the grim reality: me, freezing, contorted and perched on the slim doorstep of my first apartment building, my coffee growing cold in its thermos, my now-slightly grubby Mac teetering dangerously on my knees... and the local Carabinieri eying me suspiciously from the bridge. More than once I have had to rely on my actress skills to deflect their attention: “Oh, mi dispiace, Signori, I am locked out. My husband will be here soon to let me in...,” smile smile, blush blush, etc. etc.

Why do I do this? The Piscina has something rarely found in Venice – a “hotspot.” The wireless internet connection is free for anyone willing to show up at weird hours, brave the elements (including one particularly feisty Jack Russell terrier who snorts at me!), and type while wearing mittens. While the weather was warm, this was a great way to save some cash. But the mornings have grown quite nippy lately, so…

Buona Notizia! ("Good News!") Yesterday I finally surrendered. I pulled out my thin purse and purchased a hideously expensive wireless modem that will permit me to surf from anywhere (in Italy) my heart desires anytime I wish for a mere 30 euros a month (gasp!). Even from my own cozy bed.

15 November 2007


“The most wonderful thing we can experience is the sense of mystery. It is the source of all true art and all science. Whosoever has never felt this emotion, who no longer knows how to stop and meditate and remain transfixed in fearful admiration, is like a dead man: his eyes are shut.”
- Albert Einstein

November. Now is the time I have set aside to search for the many ghosts of Venice, of whom I have heard and read so much. Wish me luck!

11 November 2007

San Martino, November 11

Venetian tykes don’t do much in the way of Hallowe’en celebration, but today they have a holiday honoring San Martino and they get to kick up their heels a little bit for that. I’m told they make a lot of racket (what else is new?) and go from house to house, playing pranks, teasing the neighbors, and begging for sweets. Sounds like trick-or-treat to me!

Myself, I can’t quite make the connection here – the same way some people don’t understand why the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated with jellybeans and bright yellow marshmallow chickens.

From what I gather, this San Martino fellow was a nobleman and sort of a Good King Wenceslas type. Among his other benevolent deeds, he gave his own cloak to warm a poor man on a cold winter’s night. He is depicted on horseback, brandishing his sword and wearing that same cloak. And today he is honored in sugar form.

Lately every grocery, bakery, and sweet shop in town has been offering cookies like this one, in every size from mini to gigantic. Sugar icing and candy decorations range from the simple and beautiful to the delightfully garish, and prices go as high as 75 euros (nearly $150.00!) for a very large, elegant, chocolate-covered version at Rosa Salva, Venice’s best-loved cake shop.

Of course, I have to try making one for myself tonight. I’ll let you know how it turns out. At worst, I will have a big, sticky cookie to eat. Happy San Martino Day!

04 November 2007

Italian lesson: scarpette

Not long ago, my friend “A” and I dined here at Osteria ae Cravatte, a small place I really like in Santa Croce. If you haven’t been there, you should go immediately. Consummate hosts Stefano & Bruno have a great menu that’s small but so satisfying, and gently-priced. They run the room, giving everything their personal touch. Lots of laughter, great chow. I love it.

“A” and I had a splendid supper, with the focus on Venice’s fresh fish. Particularly tasty was his San Pietro (Americans call it John Dory), dressed with a savory mushroom sauce. He took the moment to teach me about scarpette – small scraps of bread crust formed into scoops and used to snatch up every last bit of the good sauce. De-lish!

The translation of scarpette? “Little shoes.”

02 November 2007

Blogpostcard: "Il Padrone"

Early morning sunlight on "The Landlord" of Piazza San Marco