30 August 2008

Death in Venice

I wonder how many tourists notice the “Cimitero” station on the vaporetto map but never think of spending an hour or so there. That station is the only stop on San Michele, the fortress-like island that is Venice’s cemetery. It’s a strange and fascinating place, well worth a visitor’s time.

Napoleon did Venice few favors when he came to conquer, but one was this: he made the decision to situate the Republic’s burial ground away from the main inhabited islands, as a sanitation measure in a place with a history of devastating plagues (69 outbreaks between 954 and 1793, the last). Since then San Michele (originally the two islands of San Michele and San Grisostomo, which were joined to increase burial space) has become something wonderful to see, somehow all the more odd in that its forbidding, heavy brick walls appear to float on the lagoon waters. Get off the boat and step inside those walls…

I did, and I found a place unlike any other I had ever seen. To begin, the grounds are much larger than one would imagine from viewing the island as the vaporetto approaches. They seem to stretch on forever. One has the sense of being in a pasha’s lush, walled garden. And it’s eerily quiet.

There are thousands of individuals resting in peace here, mostly stacked in row after row of mausoleums that look like big, white filing cabinets. There are also family sepulchers and single graves with traditional headstones. Grave decorations run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, not to mention the downright cheesy. Perhaps the most poignant sight is the little row of children’s graves near the entrance. I’m told there is also a somewhat unkempt Protestant cemetery on the grounds too, but I did not find it.

I have heard a grim adage in Venice. “San Michele,” people say, “is where Venetians at last become landowners.” But here’s a macabre fact – until a short time ago, most people buried at San Michele stayed only ten to twelve years, after which their remains and headstones were removed and unceremoniously dumped on a grim little island called the ossuario (boneyard) or “the island of snakes.” Nowadays they are merely tipped into a mass grave on another part of San Michele after their ten years of solitary slumber.

Of course, some illustrious individuals have merited undisturbed resting places. There are many “Golden Book” names inscribed on permanent markers (some of which are defaced!), as well as those of Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, and Joseph Brodsky, to name but a few. Franciscan Fra Paolo Sarpi, Venice’s tireless advocate for separation of church and state, and near-martyr for same, is buried right at the entrance. (Indeed, Franciscans still tend the grounds here.) Sergei Diaghilev’s grave is sometimes adorned with the ballet slippers of the dancers who have come to pay homage.

Myself, I dislike the practices of burial and entombment. It’s very creepy to me, the idea of being boxed up and put away, left in darkness forever on this somber, lizard-infested island, with lively, timeless Venice just a short journey over the waves. I would prefer to have my paltry ashes sprinkled from the crest of Rialto Bridge, preferably on the last night of a particularly beautiful and exciting Carnevale. At least from that damp grave I might still be able to see the moonlight on the water and hear the serenades of the gondolieri.

28 August 2008


La Serenissima has a rare beauty but recently, in the name of profit, she has been trashing it up with more and more ugly billboards – something I never dreamed I would have to see here.

Just a few years ago there were no such things. And when a palazzo or public building was being renovated or maintained, city fathers would only permit plain canvas or a life-size, fool-the-eye painted screen mimicking the building’s fa├žade to hide the work in progress. A few small, discreet sponsors’ logos could be shown at the bottom. Really, I thought these screens were rather clever, and served their purpose gracefully. I still enjoy seeing the nicely detailed one at Casino Vendramin when I pass by.

But then the big Times Square-style billboards started popping up, all on the Grand Canal and almost all advertising some lifestyle brand – a grubby-sexy cowgirl & cowboy couple in their dusty Replay jeans, a tanned, glossy-haired fashion model type showing off his new Movado watch, and the like.

And now comes this – the beautiful Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) flattened out and reduced to a puny illustration in a giant cluster of floodlit billboards that obscure much of the Palazzo Ducale and the prigione (prisons) and nearly block the view of the canal altogether. All this cheap, plastic ugliness just to promote a movie called Il Cielo dei Sospiri, currently featured at the Biennale. When I saw this mess, I nearly wept.

Tell me. What in this world is not for sale these days?

26 August 2008

Rialto Bridge

Is there any sight that says “Venice” more than il Ponte di Rialto? It rests at the center of La Serenissima, a place once called Rivo Alto (“high river”) where she first began to take shape about 1500 years ago. It hooks her two sides together and makes her whole. It is the very furniture of all our Venetian dreams.

There’s a certain awe the bridge evokes as it comes into view, even for those of us who see it frequently. I have watched many a visitor as he catches his first glimpse of it, particularly coming around the bend from the north side. Inevitably the chatter halts, the eyes widen, the breathing all but stops. There is a long moment of gazing… and then the frantic fumbling for the camera.

And it’s not just my imagination – the vaporetto slows as it passes underneath it (but perhaps that’s just to safely navigate the sharp curve). Still, the sky is blotted out, the air becomes dense, the water feels very close. That deep, broad, low-slung span of white marble hanging over one’s head almost forces it downward into a peculiar kind of reverence. No coincidence in my mind. I think that’s just what its architect, Antonio da Ponte, intended. (And yes, that really was his name.)

24 August 2008

Graspo de Ua

Few sights in Venice tickle me as much as this gigantic bunch of Murano glass grapes serving as the sign for the restaurant called (what else?!) Graspo de Ua, or “Bunch of Grapes.” My photo doesn’t do it justice – it’s a big, wonderful, garish, kitschy thing (although it really would benefit from a good scrubbing!). Kids and adults both marvel at it, if they happen to wander into the tiny backstreet near Rialto where it hangs. Given the chance, I always take people the few steps out of their way to see it. No one has been disappointed yet.

22 August 2008

Picture this!

Last evening I had supper on the broad garden terrazza of a splendidly maintained and furnished Gothic palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. (It would be rude to publicize the house, but I think it’s OK to show you the garden entry and one of its two wellheads.) The view from there included Rialto Bridge (from which camera flashes sparkled all night) and, of course, the parade of vaporetti, motoscafi, and gondole below, cutting through the blue-green water.

What made it even more delightful was the good company of a lovely gentlewoman and a gracious gentleman, both new friends in my life, and he the owner of the palazzo. There was bright and funny conversation about Venice’s colorful history and culture, to which I was able to add a few local proverbi and anecdotes that even the host, a true Venetian of an old family, had not heard. Imagine such lively chatter over a cool shrimp salad, a simply grilled Tuscan steak, and some fine wine in that magical setting on a warm, breezy evening…

Can you picture all this? I’m sure I will see it in my mind forever. Grazie mille to both of my charming companions.

19 August 2008

A little romance

Last Friday evening I had the pleasure of meeting a nice fellow from Chicago. He had just arrived in town and he was very excited because he was planning to “pop the question” the next evening. His intended, who was lured here with a clever ruse, was not due until Saturday morning, so he was spending the evening polishing his pitch. The would-be groom wondered if I knew of a romantic setting in which he could get down on bended knee and flash the diamond ring. (Did he ask the right person, or what?!) I suggested a gondola, under the Bridge of Sighs, at midnight when the Marangona tolls. Legend has it that a pair of lovers sharing a kiss at this spot and at this moment will stay together forever. He liked the idea, but wished aloud that someone could get a snapshot of the event… but who?

Yes, of course I volunteered!

It’s not so easy to get a good photo at the Bridge of Sighs though, so we conspired this way: the kiss would happen there at midnight, as the tradition requires, and then, for the actual proposal, the gondoliere would bring them to the next bridge, Ponte della Canonica, which offers several good lurking spots for a sneaky photographer.

And lurk I did, but…

I guess his patience ran out and he started without me! Midnight came, and the next thing I knew, their gondola was whizzing by and the pretty blonde fidanzata shouted, “We’re getting married!” I barely caught them before they disappeared under the bridge and into their new life together.

Since the bride-and-groom-to-be are both Greek, I suggested they pay a visit to ai Greci, the glorious little jewel box that is Venice’s Greek orthodox church, and consider it for their wedding. Maybe I’ll still be here then… Maybe they’ll invite me!

17 August 2008

Shopping: the pasta

In my current situation, you’d think I would be basking in gratitude everyday, wouldn’t you? Yet somehow I still manage to complain. The thing I usually whine about is lack of choice.

But I can’t get away with that here in the pasta aisle at Panorama (Venice’s “Target Greatland”). Sixty feet long, eight feet high on both sides, each square inch of it jam-packed with every imaginable kind of top quality dried pasta. More than a quarter of the aisle is dedicated to Barilla products alone. That’s my favorite brand!

Little ears, priests’ hats, pipes, pen points (smooth or corrugated, thin or thick, large, small or mini), tiny and giant seashells, bowties, celery stalks, wagon wheels, spiral twists, radiators, rice-like orzo, hand-shaped olive tree leaves, big yellow coins with rustic pictures stamped on them, many types of lasagna sheets (cook ahead or no-cook), any size and style of tube or string you could wish for, including handmade, hollow pici (pronounced “peachy”), even beet-, radicchio-, and spinach-tinted and other multicolored selections.

And that’s not all. You can buy the familiar stuff, or you can choose pastas made of special flours: whole wheat, semolina, corn, soy, or even rice. (By the way, Asian noodle products are in a different aisle altogether. Italians consider them ethnic foods, and there’s no room for them here anyway.)

Still not satisfied? Head over to the refrigerated case and find many of the same choices, except in the fresh versions. And while you’re there, don’t miss the gnocchi (potato dumplings that come in a range of flavors and sizes, including the romagna style discs, best when baked with cheese and butter), all the different ravioli and tortelloni with their rustic or elegant fillings, the skinny, twisted one called trofie (good with pesto), and the irregular, thick, pinched one called strozzapreti or strangolapreti (“choke priests” or “strangle priests” – how funny is that?).

So what kind do you think I buy most often? Yup. Ordinary Barilla No. 3 spaghetti, just like in New York. Still, I like the luxury of all these choices. I probably spend too much time in this aisle…

14 August 2008


Venetians have an expression:
El leto xe ‘l paradiso dei poveri.
"Bed is the Heaven of the poor."

In plain words, I am exhausted. I am worn out. I am entirely spent. It’s very hot and sticky here and, like Little Black Sambo’s tigers, I have run in circles around the tree until I have spun myself into warm butter.

For just a little while I need to stop worrying whether or not I will be staying here after September. I need to stop stressing about how I will be earning my living, wherever I may be. I need to stop informing every single person I meet that I’m looking for a job. I need to stop making lists, and then lists of those lists. I need to stop regretting certain mistakes I made here. I need to stop fearing I’m missing something that may never come again every time I close my own front door behind me. I need to stop doing “just this one little thing” in my studio when it’s already after 2:00 a.m. I need to stop staring at and undoing and re-doing and criticizing the work I’m producing. I need to stop wondering if it will ever have meaning and worth to anyone but me. I need to stop thinking thinking THINKING about the utterly incomprehensible behavior of a particular person I know here. I need to stop asking what in the world is the matter with me? and why has it always been like this for me? I need to stop all this non-stop doubting and fretting. I need to stop railing at the gods.

In short, I need to turn on the fan and go to bed.

That would be Heaven. I would love to go to bed early and sleep late. Then do it again the next night. And then maybe again the night after that.

But there’s no time for that now…

12 August 2008

Did you know...?

…that Venetian blinds are properly installed outside of the window? (Right. Because it’s not hard enough to clean them when they hang inside!)

10 August 2008

More updates, errata, etc.

Remember my irritation with people who feed pigeons? Well, this poster, printed in Italian and English (Excuse me - why just English?!), has just appeared around town. It looks like the city fathers are getting a bit more serious about enforcing the ban on crumb-casting. I say Bravo!

Remember the avenging angel of Palazzo Soranzo and the ousting of the Devil, who had taken up quarters there? Some variations on this story have come to my attention, odd in that they leave out the angel altogether but include a pet monkey, which, interestingly enough, could do household chores. It seems the creature was actually possessed by the Devil (which might have happened when he ran away from the Soranzo family for a short time). This state of being was detected by a local priest, who called him out and banished him (the Devil, not the monkey). One legend says the Devil was hanging around because he wanted to snatch up the soul of Signor Soranzo, who had been cheating in his business affairs, but the greedy man had escaped his Hellish fate up to that point by praying to the Virgin every night. On his departure, the frustrated Devil bashed the great hole in the wall, and the rest of the story you know. Me, I still think an angel was involved somehow because everything in the neighborhood is named for him, not some priest. And also the folks living and working there cite the angel’s role in the whole affair. I will continue my investigation and report back.

Remember that I had never seen watermelon ice cream offered anywhere except Igloo? Well, there are several versions available around town lately. Carlo Pistacchi at Alaska has one, and so does Gelateria Lo Squero. Both are winners. (Alaska is also offering arugula-orange gelato during these hot days. And Riva Reno had a pale green basil flavor once!) I guess I just hadn’t been to Venice in summertime before. Meanwhile I’m on an entirely different hot weather kick now: swimming pool-blue, anice-flavored ghiaccioli (popsicles!).

Remember my involuntary single status on tango night? I have a lead on a prospective partner…

08 August 2008

No fish, no coffee

It’s Ferragosto – August holiday time for Venetian folks. Translation for me? No fresh fish until the 19th, no freshly roasted coffee until the 20th.


05 August 2008

The Venice Diet

Ladies, you read it here first – the next diet book sensation! It’s The Venice Diet. Easy to follow and the pounds just melt away. You look in the mirror one day and 20 of them have disappeared, leaving you with nothing in your closet that fits anymore.

Here are the basics of the diet:

Set aside a limited amount of money to live on for an extended period of time – let’s say a year – and then prepare a very tight budget, making the grocery and restaurant allotments particularly restrictive. You must not stray from your budget, so plan on cooking at home regularly. Junk foods and those cholestrol-ridden eggs you adore will just be too costly for such a Spartan spending limit as yours. Restaurant dinners should rarely even be considered, unless someone else is picking up the tab. However, inexpensive snacks and accompanying beverages you encounter throughout the day may be enjoyed with real gusto. More on what to eat in a moment.

Next, move far away from whatever is annoying you – the nowhere job, the negligent boyfriend, the irritating political situation, whatever – preferably to a city that’s interesting and beautiful enough to distract constantly. Somewhere in Italy is probably best. I would suggest a place where the only thing more attractive than the view is the men. (It’s very helpful if the city fathers have showcased each one of them in his own little boat or else behind a bar where the wine and the lighting are both good. But I’m afraid there are few cities that fulfill this important requirement of the diet – perhaps only one, really.)

Be sure you choose a city where tempting, healthy foods like gorgeous fruits and vegetables and super-fresh fish are cheap and readily available. Also, the wines offered in bars and shops must be both very good and low-priced. If the local bread is overpriced yet tastes a lot like dry cotton encased in cardboard, you’re really in luck. But be careful! – bad bread can often be sold right next to addictively good cookies. (NOTE: You may test this hypothesis, but not too often.)

If your new city has no cars but lots of steep bridges, and if everything must be reached on foot, so much the better. If you can find a walk-up apartment in a tourist area (i.e., one that’s a long way from any kind of supermarket, cheese shop, or bakery), sign the lease immediately.

It’s best if you don’t have to go to a job while on the diet. Thus, you will have plenty of time to wander around all day and all evening, barely cognizant of the near-constant calorie-burning that is occurring. Feel free, however, to do anything that satisfies you creatively and intellectually as often as possible. This will enhance the general sense of well-being that is so critical to the full success of this diet. Be sure to wear yourself out completely everyday so that you will easily fall into a deep, restful sleep every night.

While on the diet, you may find that you actually enjoy yoga or Pilates or some such activity for its own sake, especially if no one is pestering you about it and you don’t have to jam it into the fifteen minutes between the end of a tiring workday and the beginning of a boring worknight. I would suggest turning on some kind of soothing New Age-y music while you make coffee in the morning, thus notifying your body that warm-up, stretching, and exercise are coming up next on the day’s agenda. Remarkable how quickly this becomes a pleasant habit rather than a tiresome pain in the… well, you know.

Now here’s the second best part of the diet: the food. You can eat whatever tempts you. Yes, that’s right. Eat anything you like! The best things will be right in front of you, cheap enough for your budget, and quick and easy to prepare – tempting fruits, great salads of fresh produce and a variety of beans, lean cutlets of meats, filets of fish, and veggies to grill. But you can also sample the beautiful cheeses, the tasty salami, prosciutto, and other cold cuts, the big, yummy walnuts, the emerald green, made-this-minute pesto sauce, the really great tuna in rich, fragrant olive oil, the fresh, whole milk yogurt with seductive European granola and special honeys, risotto and pasta and gnocchi, pizza, gelato, pastries, biscotti, your favorite cioccolata, soft, hazelnut-studded Italian nougat, delightful seasonal sweets, whatever!

Too good to be true? Well, I grant you, some attention must be paid to quality of your foods and especially to your portion sizes. Notice that I said you can eat “whatever tempts you,” NOT “as much as you want of whatever tempts you.” Duh! This isn’t The Magical Diet!

There is only one small catch in all this, but it’s very simple and palatable. In fact, it’s the best part, the foundation of and the secret to The Venice Diet. You cannot eliminate this important step of the program! You must stop whatever you are doing quite often (and always when you bump into friends on the street) and drink a small amount of good Italian red wine – no substitutes! And if it is offered, you should permit a man to pay for this wine, if only to be polite and respectful of the local culture. “When in Rome (or wherever)…”

Also, you must get in the habit of regularly visiting your local wine vendor, who will fill up your one-liter bottle with good “plonk” (so named for the sound it makes when it hits the tabletop) for only about three bucks. Keep this stock on your kitchen counter, and have a small glass of it whenever you are puttering around the house, and especially right before you begin cooking your meals. No, I’m not kidding. The sense of fullness and satisfaction provided by the volume and flavor of the wine makes it easier to quell hunger with much smaller portions on your plate. In short, if you begin a meal already half-satisfied, you will crave less food and your calorie intake will drop. And then – Eccola! – the pounds will drop. (And let’s not forget the well-known health benefits of the red wine itself! Your heart will thank you when you’re very, very old but still spry.)

Think it won’t work? Think I’m nuts? Well, it worked for me. And I only figured it out after the fact.

03 August 2008

Vietato "erotica"

You can’t throw a rock in Venice and not hit a museum of some kind. The locals like to brag about them and the tourists expect to visit them, whether they're intellectually curious or not.

So one wonders why this particular one failed…

01 August 2008

Blogpostcard: Orologio

The makers of this fantastic clock in the Piazza were blinded to prevent them from selling their mechanical secrets to other cities. I find it most interesting that the dominant image is the intricate, astrological theme clock face, which is much bigger than the beloved winged lion symbol of St. Mark or the Virgin on her little balcony. I believe it illustrates Venice’s integration of the mystical in her public image and political thought, and her independence from the Vatican.

If you are lucky enough to be here on January 6th, the feast of Epiphany, you can see the figures of the Magi, their gifts in hand, come out of the little doors and circle the Virgin and Christ Child.