31 May 2008

Mercatino update

The Art Gods were smiling this time (and they were mindful of my thin purse, too).

Here’s what I got: old photos of two fine, young Italians – he from Venice, she from Florence – who undoubtedly never met, but will soon become marito e moglia (husband and wife) in a diptych I am building. Sadly, they won’t be Italians anymore when I’m finished with them, just a nameless couple, a set of symbols. Some sacrifices must be made for art.

I’ve been waiting two or three months for this bride and groom to turn up. But I thought they would be of another era, perhaps of my mother’s generation. It turns out that this pair, being from the time of Queen Victoria, will embody the spirit and message I want for the piece perfectly.

Do you see the magic here? Something envisioned and desired simply appears. No smoke, no mirror, no strings. Just magic.

30 May 2008

Mercatino San Maurizio

Tomorrow morning there will be a big flea market, a mercatino, here in Campo San Maurizio. Very special. It only comes four times a year. I stumbled upon it by accident in September 2003, just minutes after my arrival, when I brought myself to Venice to celebrate my birthday. I had heard and read about it, but I didn’t know exactly where to find it, nor even when it might be held. I guess Fate was on my side. More likely, La Serenissima had already begun her seduction of me. Che buona fortuna!

It turned out to be my first discovery in Venice, and an important one at that because here I first began buying some of the most important things I have used in my studio work, starting with a set of ten vintage Venetian perfume bottles. It’s a very fond memory, that first burst of inspiration in my overwhelmed but delighted mind. Since then I have done my best to schedule my visits to coincide with the mercatino schedule.

I like to come here the night before it opens and see it like this, all the stands waiting for the vendors and their merchandise. I never know what I’m going to find here – sometimes there’s nothing at all for me. But the empty mercatino in the late night gloom always seems so full of mystery and promise and excitement. I think about what might be waiting for me here in the morning, and what new ideas might occur to me when I find it. It’s exactly like being a kid on Christmas Eve.

Hope I can sleep tonight!

27 May 2008

Scent of a city

Late May, and La Serenissima’s mock orange hedges are in full bloom. There must be many more of them than I can see, hidden away in private gardens, because here and there the city has that intense “wedding bouquet” scent. It’s intoxicating, a lovely surprise, to turn a corner and find oneself surrounded by a fragrant cloud of it.

23 May 2008

Piazza alla mattina

Get up early enough and you can have the entire Piazza to yourself, even see the sun making its way through these noble old pillars.

You have to bring your own coffee, though.

21 May 2008

"Tiny Dancer"

Italian artisans make fantastic, elegantly dressed and bejeweled marionettes, and Venetian shops sell the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. They fascinate me. If I believed for even half a minute that I could actually learn to operate one of these little pretend beings, I would run straight out and buy one.

Their faces are so expressive and cunning. Their eyes glitter, their hairstyles gleam. Their intricate little costumes (complete with hats, boots or slippers, jewelry, furs, swords, masks, and props!) rival the most glamorous, costly ones offered for any full-size Carnevale reveler. The word for them is “delightful.”

Still, the one I like best is this dapper fellow, a wee, grinning skeleton in saddle oxfords and a blue fur top hat who dances like nobody’s business. He lives in a tiny lime green coffin when he’s not hoofing it for his young zinzaro (gypsy) master in knee pants. He’s got more personality and far more dazzling moves on the dance floor than most humans I know. He does it all: rock, pop, disco, salsa, hip-hop, or house. You can imagine his “Thriller” opening bit. (Moonwalk? Michael Jackson, step aside!) And he really works the crowd. Sometimes he’s quite bold. He picks out a female bystander and flirts shamelessly with her, never once missing a beat of his routine. It’s very funny to watch the way a few scraps of wood and papier mâche on strings can make a grown woman blush!

19 May 2008

Species: Hedera Veneta

All over Venice there are PVC plastic conduit tubes of different lengths appearing to “grow” out of the pavement at the base of buildings. Heaven knows what these ugly things are or were for. Most people never even see them.

But some clever prankster has noticed them. He or she located them all and gave each a label with its Latin horticultural “species” name and other pertinent information, i.e., color (all seem to be of the rossa variety), native environment, etc.

This individual went to considerable effort to complete this prank, even taking the time to find a label paper with a very stubborn adhesive. That is to say, these labels do not come off easily, thus adding to the illusion of the seriousness of this seemingly city-sanctioned project.

Again, here is a thoughtful and/or crazy person I would really like to meet.

17 May 2008

Her artisans

Of course everyone knows about Venice’s glass and lace industries, but the city has more than its share of craftsmen of every ilk – metal casters, mirror makers, woodcarving masters, marqueterie specialists, weavers, gilders, stonecutters, leather artisans, papermakers, printers, engravers, bookbinders, and more. Then there are all the skilled people who perform the magic of restoring old or damaged treasures to their original beauty. And then there are those who can hardly be labeled, like the amazing woman at Cenerentola (“Cinderella”) who makes fabulous lampshades out of any and everything. Once she used a countess’s underpants!

If you’re willing to step away from the “tourist tramp” and wander into some less-traveled calli, there are plenty of opportunities to peek in and watch these people at work. Many of them are delighted to take a break and chat about what they do (and just many will simply scowl or even growl at you).

How do you find them? With your eyes, ears, and nose… Watch the doorways for a puff of sawdust, listen for the tap-tap of a delicate chisel, sniff for a whiff of mineral spirits. If you’re lucky, there will be a big, gorgeous ornament on the door to draw your attention, like this beauty belonging to a busy metal caster in Santa Croce.

15 May 2008


When I come across a Venetian view like this one – nothing spectacular or unusual, just any corner in the city, looking as it has for hundreds of years – it takes me a moment to realize that it’s real. Not a movie set. Not a stage backdrop. Not a projection or an illusion of some kind. Not a Las Vegas theme park. Not fake. But a real city, full of living, breathing people leading their lives, doing their work, playing often, laughing a lot, loving their families and friends. Just like any other city on Earth. Except that the most ordinary street corner looks like this

The whole of La Serenissima is and always has been a living artwork-in-progress, more so than any other place on this planet. Why? Because every inch of Her, even the very ground, was created by men and women of minimal means who only intended to survive the onslaught of the Lombards and Attila the Hun. But they were surely a unique breed, because they completely outdid themselves over the years. They managed to thrive, and more – to flourish. Out of sheer will and not a little arrogance, they built a small but powerful, beautiful world unlike any other. The rest of us have gazed, slack-jawed, for centuries.

I, always hoping I will flourish too, never forget this utterly human achievement. Venice helps me remember that what can be envisioned can be realized… and far, far more. Certainly this is a great part of the city’s draw for me.

I imagine all of us who live here take this place for granted occasionally. But every so often I look up and I get a simple visual reminder like this one, and it just knocks me out.

12 May 2008


What a glorious day it was in Venice yesterday! Perfect weather for the Vogalonga, which I can only describe as the annual free-for-all boating parade around the city and right down the Grand Canal. Even the vaporetti halt service for this important Venetian tradition.

“Non è una regatta!” I was sternly told by one proud onlooker, meaning it’s not a race, and there’s no winner, no prize. The rules are few. No motorboats are permitted. Anybody can join in the merriment, even little kids in kayaks and one laidback guy on a pedalboat. Young or old, capable or comical – everybody is welcome.

Only in Venice can you see this particular spectacle! There was every possible combination of rowers and boats, and participants of all ages and abilities. I saw an eight-man team of Roman soldiers complete with the red brush helmets, a ten-man team of singing monks, a few children’s teams rowing to the beat of a sort of Venetian tom-tom, lots of what I would call ordinary canoes, some oldtimer duos in low-slung sandoli, a strange yellow boat laden with tropical flowers and La Serenissima’s scarlet and gold banner flying at the aft, a Dutch team in a classic Asian dragon boat, some very able and agile gondolieri zipping around in their traghetti, and a great many foursomes and sixsomes of both genders dressed in snappy white trousers and matching colored shirts, proudly showing the fine form that comes from hours of rigorous practice.

Everybody in town was very jolly and high-spirited all day. The tourists were dazzled, of course. I feared Rialto Bridge would collapse under all the extra weight! In short, it was great fun, with only one tiny disappointment: I missed seeing my cobbler and his seventeen fellow canottieri in their amazing craft, the disdottona. He’s so proud of it. I haven’t the heart to confess my failure to him.

10 May 2008

Cleaning up the neighborhood

This is Palazzo Soranzo, built early in the 15th century behind Basilica San Marco in an area where just about everything is named Something or Other L’Anzolo (“the angel” in Venetian dialect). There’s a good reason for that – and I got the story straight from the current tenants of the ground floor of the palazzo, the two gentleman proprietors of Legatoria Lanfranchi, a real Old World bookbindery still in full and fine operation. Here’s the scoop…

In 1552, when the ground floor now housing the legatoria was the workspace of some drapery dyers, it seems the Devil himself decided to occupy the top floor. Apparently it was quite a nuisance having Old Scratch for a neighbor. So an avenging angel (who certainly must have been in tip-top physical condition) showed up, wrestled the interloper around a bit, then flung him right through the brick wall and into the canal below. Of course, this left a pretty good-sized hole, and the real danger that the Devil just might let himself back into the palazzo by way of it. The solution was to secure and cover it up with a high relief memorial featuring that fierce angel, both to express the neighborhood’s gratitude and to serve as a warning to you-know-who. See it here for yourself!

I can’t speak for the Devil’s residency habits, but believe you me, the folks in this area still tell the story of Palazzo Soranzo with dead-serious faces. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it might not be true.

08 May 2008

Harry's Bar

This is my “Weegee” shot of Harry’s Bar, the famous Venetian watering hole preferred by Ernest Hemingway, the ultra-glam Biennale crowd, and various other luminaries. (I love this photo because it makes me imagine Harry’s situated on one of New York City’s mean streets, thus blurring the line between my two hometowns for a brief moment.)

Everybody who visits Venice should come to Harry’s once for a drink (although I would draw the line at ordering the puny €13,00 Bellini, which was created here, like the €35,00 carpaccio).

06 May 2008

Good sign!

I appreciate “high tech” as much as the next person, but I far prefer “high touch” – things “of the hand.” Thus, I adore these naïve, old-fashioned, handpainted advertising signs that still add quirky color to many of Venice’s neighborhood streets. I especially like them when they feature foods. Whenever I visit a mercatino, I always hope to find one for my own kitchen.

Here's a detail of one that draws attention to Osteria alla Bifora, a new place in Campo Santa Margherita. It was clearly created for the macelleria (butcher shop) that occupied the space before the osteria. The current tenants have just tacked paper scraps scribbled with the new biz name over the colorful artwork, which is a real shame. Everytime I see this old sign, I’m tempted to drop in and offer my services to paint in the restaurant’s name properly and save the pretty relic. Maybe I’ll do that when I know these folks better…

(By the way, this place serves pretty good chow. And at night, its authentic-looking, candlelit atmosphere is terribly romantic.)

04 May 2008

Festa della Sensa, May 4

Today Venice married the sea again. Hardly anybody noticed.

The “doge” (Who plays this role, and how does he get it?) set out across the Bacino for Lido on his Bucintoro, amid every sort of oared craft, with trumpets blaring out a suitably triumphant tune. There at San Nicolo, he made a great ceremony of casting a golden wedding ring into the waves, thereby renewing the Sposalizio, the sacred bond and promise between La Serenissima and the Adriatic Sea that surrounds Her. This pride-inspiring, particular-to-Venice tradition has been re-enacted for hundreds of years on Ascension Day.

Which made me wonder… Why such a poor turnout of Venetians to cheer him on his way? Why so little publicity, and so very little festivity? I show you this lackluster photo of the event because, in truth, there wasn’t very much to see.

Because I have a deep interest in Venice’s festivals, I’ve known for weeks this day was coming. But if not for a pair of posters pasted up in a back alley, I wouldn’t have known the time of the Bucintoro’s embarkation, nor anything else about this important celebration. Once again, it seems to me, Venice doesn’t really acknowledge nor take advantage of her own colorful, fairytale-like past, and thus misses the chance to garner the kind of attention I truly believe She deserves (not to mention generating some much-needed revenue!). I found myself explaining the day’s significance to some curious bystanders, who were delighted by the whole idea of the historical event. That showed me tourists have an interest in La Serenissima that goes far beyond plastic gondolas and junky masks.

What a time I had imagining the kind of celebration I would put on here if I were in charge, starting with the creation of a full-size, historically accurate Bucintoro in all its gilded splendor! (Can you even pick out the current model in this photograph? Hint: it looks nothing like the original.) I thought I would moor the new eye-dazzler on the Molo for about a week before the holiday to generate publicity, perhaps even charge visitors to board it and have a closer look at its many glories. And that’s only the beginning of my plans!

Seriously, doesn’t it seem like my lady Venice would offer me the opportunity to use my imagination and talents in a way that would honor and serve Her well? What is she waiting for?!

03 May 2008

The 17th century rat?

Something else to file under “Weird Venetian Stuff” – this winsome, life-size rat, very well incised into a pillar of the Palazzo Contarini Pisani at the San Felice vaporetto station, along with the date MDCXXXXIIII (1644 for those readers who have forgotten their Roman numerals).

Who would make such an effort? The work is smooth and deep. And can the date possibly be real? I hope so, but I don’t really care. That rat’s so darn cute, almost smiling. And why not? Venice is Paradise for rats!

He always reminds me…

Venetians have an expression: Fato el buso, pol passar qualunque sorze.
“Once the hole is made, any mouse can get in.”