30 June, 2006

36. Made under license in the PRC?

It's hard to know how many gondola-building boatyards are still functioning in Venice. Some sources say three, some 'a few', and one story I read referred to this boatyard on the Rio Trovaso in Dorsoduro as the very last one still in operation.

I find that hard to believe, but if it is true, then tomorrow's gondoliers are in deep trouble, because the two men in overalls who seemed to be the only workers in this boatyard could not in anyone's wildest imagination replace or even do basic maintenance on Venice's substantial fleet of gondolas on their own.

Gondola manufacturing is a complex and skilled process. Each boat is hand-crafted from 280 separate pieces of nine different kinds of wood. The main frame is oak, and other parts are made from beech, cherry, walnut, mahogany, fir, larch, elm, and lime.

Making a gondola supposedly takes about three months and a new gondola, with its seven layers of black lacquer, supposedly costs somewhere around 15,000-20,000 Euros. I keep saying 'supposedly', because to me, that doesn't sound like a lot of money for something hand-crafted with great precision into something so uniquely beautiful yet durable and functional and twice the length of an average car.

The price might be feasible if gondolas were manufactured with the same boat-building efficiency that used to operate in the old Venetian Arsenale, but sadly, there was no evidence of that sort of organisation or sense of urgency in this boatyard. I walked past this business every day for two weeks. The two workers were always there, sometimes sitting and chatting, sometimes standing and arguing, sometimes just hanging around smoking, but in all that time, nothing moved in the yard, and no visible progress was made on either of the boats propped up on the sawhorses.

Perhaps this boatyard is an illusion created just for the tourists. Perhaps they don't make gondolas in Venice at all anymore. Perhaps they are actually stamped out of fiberglass in China. Don't laugh, that idea's a lot more credible than trying to imagine this boatyard as the engine room of the gondola manufacturing industry.

29 June, 2006

35. Mariano Fortuny

This wonderfully private little courtyard is the 'backyard' of the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei in San Marco, which was the home and studio for many years of one of Venice's most acclaimed 20th century artists, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Although not a native Venetian, being born in Granada, Spain, Fortuny came to Venice when he was 18 and stayed, moving in to this Palazzo ten years later in 1899.

Fortuny was, among other things, a talented painter, sculptor, photographer, architect, theatre designer, inventor – a modern Renaissance man – but his fame rests mostly on his unique fabric designs. In 1907, when he was in his mid-thirties, and inspired by his muse and then new bride, Henriette Negrin, Fortuny began designing simple garments based on drapery from classical Greek sculpture. These were so good at complementing the female body in motion, they were soon admired and collected by dancers such as Isadora Duncan. It was quite probably a long and flowing Fortuny 'Knossos' scarf that Duncan was wearing which caught in the spokes of the wheels of her Bugatti and strangled her.

Encouraged by his success with the women of the 'beau monde', Fortuny developed secret new processes for printing exquisitely beautiful fabrics with transparent dies, so that his very colourful classical-looking designs were durable yet each one was an individual work of art, and in 1919 he set up a factory in a former convent on Giudecca to make textiles.

In 1927, an American interior decorator, Elsie McNeill, saw some of Fortuny's fabrics in Paris and came to Venice to meet the artist himself, where she convinced him of the commercial potential in his designs, which she then distributed from her business in Madison Avenue, New York.

When Fortuny died in 1949, Henriette persuaded Elsie to take over the running of the textile business, which she did with great success. Fortuny's factory on Giudecca is still going today, and the fabrics are still made with the same still secret processes, to the same high standards.

Unfortunately, the factory is off-limits to tourists – like Coca-Cola's secret formula and Kentucky Fried Chicken's secret herbs and spices, an important part of Fortuny's marketing still depends on the secret ingredients remaining secret – but Fortuny's old home is not. Palazzo Pesaro is now better known as the Museo Fortuny.

28 June, 2006

34. Making a mask

This old backstreet mask-maker's window reveals some of the traditional techniques used to make a Carnevale mask.

The form of the mask is first modeled in clay, and a plaster cast is then taken from the model, making a reverse mold of the shape. Three of those plaster molds are on the shelf below the raw masks hanging around the window.

Into all the curves and crevices of this mold the maker presses a soft fibrous sheet of rag and paper pulp dipped in glue, trimming the overhanging edges to the shape of the mold. You can see that the mold on the left in this picture has a blue-gray mask base still inside it, waiting to be removed.

As this 'papier maché' dries, the glue sets to a hard but flexible finish with a smooth shiny surface, like porcelain. This surface is then buffed with an abrasive polish so that the white paint sealing coat will better adhere to it, and then the eyeholes are carefully cut into it.

Some of these masks are left with only the traditionally simple decorations on a white base, others are very elaborately decorated, incorporating all kinds of extra touches like fancy paint effects, feathers, gilding, glitter – some are even encrusted with 'jewels'.

Apart from the traditional cast of Carnevale masked characters, each interpreted by different makers in a variety of ways, a vast range of other characters have been introduced in recent years for the tourists, including – heaven help us – Disney and Pixar cartoon characters. Perhaps it's time Venice passed another Sumptuary Law to protect this unique traditional celebration from being further contaminated by American popular culture?

27 June, 2006

33. La Befana

The early Christian churches hijacked the midwinter festivals of earlier religions and traditions – like various pagan winter solstice feasts, and the Jewish Hannukkah or Festival of Lights – and turned them into the celebration of the birth of Christ. The early eastern church fixed the date of this birth on January 6th, the western church settled on December 25th. Universally, the latter date is now known as Christmas Day, and the former date is called the feast of 'Epiphany', symbolizing the revelation of God in human form and better associated with the traditional visit of the Magi or three Wise Men.

Venice, torn as it was for so long between the eastern and western branches of the Christian religion, compromises by celebrating both dates. Children in the Veneto (and in some other parts of Italy, too) traditionally get a second stocking full of candy/lollies/sweets (depending on which part of the world you were in when you learned English) on January 6. This time, instead of being delivered by Santa Claus, the benefactor is 'La Befana', an old witch. La Befana also knows if you have been good or bad, and if you have been bad gives you cinders from her hearth instead of confectionery – these days of course, the cinders are coal-shaped lumps of sugar or biscuits made with black food dye rather than the real thing.

La Befana is also an excuse to hold a regatta on the Grand Canal. For most of January 6, specially built skiffs and racing gondolas push chaotically up and down the main reaches of the Canal around the Rialto, powered by single rowers, or by teams of two, three, four, or six, depending on the size and type of boat.

At this regatta, many of the boats – like the one pictured – are rowed by La Befana herself, gondoliers dressed up as the old crone, complete with broomstick. In some of the novelty races, the boats are rowed by teams of witches supposedly using broomsticks instead of oars, but in fact using oars wrapped in twigs to look like broomsticks. Oh well, I suppose it's an excuse for a little harmless cross-dressing.

26 June, 2006

32. The Campanile – bottom up

When the Campanile collapsed, and the rubble was finally cleared away, the city engineers had a rare opportunity to have a good look at the foundations of a major building that were over a thousand years old. This was significant because building foundations in Venice are nothing like those of any other city in the world.

Venice is a city in a shallow lagoon. Basically a swamp. The hundreds of muddy islands that have been built on and are connected by bridges over the gaps between them – the canals – are sitting on a compressed clay layer at the bottom of the sea at the northern end of the Adriatic. It is not surprising that many of the buildings in Venice are wonky, the floors are uneven and the walls aren't straight. It is more surprising that any buildings stand here at all. It is a tribute to the ingenuity of early Venetians that they managed to invent building techniques that allowed immensely heavy structures like the Basilica to remain for almost a thousand years without collapsing.

The bottom layer of Venetian foundations is made up of close-packed pinewood pilings hammered into the clay. They don't rot because they are too closely packed together to allow water to circulate, which means there is no free oxygen that could support microbe activity.

The engineers who examined the foundations of the Campanile found that the pilings were as sound as when they were first put in. The building collapsed because those foundations were never intended to take the weight that the various iterations of the Campanile finally acquired, and in the end they could no longer support it. The original foundations were repaired, strengthened, and extended to better support a belltower of this size, and a hundred years later this equally heavyweight replica is still here.

25 June, 2006

31. The Campanile – top down

The Campanile of San Marco dominates the only open space in Venice that carries the name 'Piazza'. It stands at one end of San Marco Piazza next to the Piazzetta which joins the lagoon to the main piazza. Originally, the Piazzetta was a dock, and where the campanile is today there stood a watchtower. When the dock was filled in to create the Piazzetta next to the Doge's Palace, the watchtower became a belltower, which has since been rebuilt several times.

The design of the Campanile reached its present form in 1514, but although identical in appearance, this building is not the one that was built 500 years ago. This one was built as its replacement in 1912, after its earlier incarnation suddenly collapsed on the morning of July 14, 1902, leaving nothing but a huge mound of white rubble and dust.

Amazingly, according to all reports I have read, no-one was killed. There may have been a cat under the pile of rubble in some reports, but not a single citizen or visitor was said to be missing. On any given morning today at around 9am, dozens if not hundreds of tourists would be wiped out, but in 1902, Venice was a different place.

You might think like I do that as Venetian buildings go it's not that great, why bother rebuilding it? Many Venetians in 1902 would have agreed with you, and there were some strong arguments that San Marco would look better without it, and rebuilding it would be a waste of taxpayers' money. Unfortunately, 'friends of Venice' in other countries donated enough money to cover the cost, and perhaps sensing that the future of this great city would rely more and more on its foreign visitors, Venice bowed to that external pressure and, regrettably, put it back up.

23 June, 2006

30. Art and kitsch

These Venetian glass beads are typical of the kinds of traditional glass product that are in many of the shops around the main tourist thoroughfares in Venice. In terms of quality and style they fall midway between the most sublimely beautiful – and very expensive - handblown art glass pieces, and the ugliest, tizziest, and most vulgar glass products you can imagine, such as stale urine coloured ornate chandeliers with hundreds of dust-catching dangly bits.

Venetian craftsmen were the first to discover how to make glass mirrors, and for several centuries, Venice was the main producer of glass in Europe. Glassmaking was an important part of the Venetian economy, and skilled artisans were forbidden to move away from Venice, to prevent them taking their trade secrets to competitors in a rival city-state. It was such a respected craft that glassblowers, unlike any other tradespeople, were even allowed to marry into noble families.

As the glass trade grew, and as the city of Venice grew, the danger of fires spreading from the furnaces of the glassmakers and destroying the mostly wooden city was increasingly real, so a decree in 1291 moved all glass manufacturing to the island of Murano, about a mile north of Venice across the lagoon, where their descendants and many of the tourist-oriented glass entrepreneurs still live and work.

The best Venetian glassware is exquisitely original, and the product of centuries of skill development and techniques handed down from generation to generation. But wherever you get this many transient visitors, traditional crafts become corrupted by the need to meet the demand for affordable tourist souvenirs, so that is what many of the glass factories now concentrate on. As a result, the worst glassware produced in these islands is about as bad as glassware can get – pure kitsch.

22 June, 2006

29. Wherefore art thou, Othello?

This gorgeous balcony window occupies almost the whole width of one of the sweetest little palazzos on the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Contarini Fasan, so-called because of the passion of one of its owners for pheasant hunting.

Even though it is one of the narrowest buildings fronting the Grand Canal, it has 'position' in its favour. Midway between Harry's Bar and the Accademia Bridge on the San Marco side, opposite Santa Maria della Salute, is a neighbourhood that's about as swanky as you can get.

One of the most perfect examples of the late Venetian Gothic style of the 15th Century, this skinny palace was built between 1470 and 1480. The three mullioned window pictured, with the most unusual and decorative stone tracery whirls, dominates the piano nobile; there are two single windows with similar stone tracery above; and three small windows without any decoration at all below at canal level. Together, the canal face of this building is symmetrical with lovely proportions and the architect and builders made the best of what must have been a challengingly small space to create a prestige building of great worth and charm.

Apparently, tour guides and even some guide books point out this building as the one belonging to Desdemona, wife of Shakespeare's moor, Othello, in his eponymous tragedy. It is even referred to on some tourist maps as "Il Palazzetto di Desdemona". Regardless of where they come from, it would seem that there are enough tourists who either don't know, choose to forget, or don't even care that Desdemona never actually existed, anymore than did Othello himself, both being completely fabricated characters in a work of fiction.

People will always choose to believe what they want to believe, and some will never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

21 June, 2006

28. Billa

It doesn't look much like it from the outside, but this shop on the Zattere, a wide promenade facing Giudecca on the southern side of Dorsoduro, is a Venetian supermarket grocery store.

Despite the dearth of trolleys and neon street signage, Billa is a substantial sized supermarket inside, with a row of checkouts, fresh produce, meat, grocery aisles, freezers, specials, dump bins, and frequent shopper discount loyalty cards. All it lacks is customer service.

In the supermarkets I am more familiar with, the checkout operators scan the goods standing up on your level so that they can talk to you while they bag your groceries. In Venice, the operators are all surly and sitting down behind their conveyor belt and barcode scanner, so that you would be lucky to get any eye contact at all, let alone a greeting and some cheery banter. Instead of providing complementary plastic bags and a bagging service, these operators charge 0.05 Euros each for their red and yellow 'sacchetti', and they literally throw them at you along with your groceries. They also expect you to bag your own groceries and get away from the checkout area quickly, or they will throw the next customer’s purchases down on top of yours.

It takes some skill and some practice to do all this and get your credit card out at the same time. Trying to be prepared for the moment when an outstretched hand expected rapid payment, I momentarily held my credit card between my lips while I put my wallet back in my pocket and then put the card down on top of the till as the operator finished scanning my groceries.

She looked at me and looked at the card like we had both been dragged in from the cowshed, and made a big deal of finding a tissue to handle my now disgustingly soiled card, then she got another one so that she could use both hands to orient the card correctly for the reader. She was tutting and raising her eyebrows and shaking her head at all the Italians in the queue behind me, like it was obvious to all that I had an advanced case of the plague and what was I doing trying to contaminate her with my foreign diseases.

In case you need to cook crumbed veal one night in Italy, breadcrumbs are called "pangrattata". I mention it because in Billa they aren't where you would expect to find them, it's not the sort of word you find in phrasebooks, and hospitality is not a word that means much at Billa.

19 June, 2006

27. Barging in

This narrow flat-bottomed barge is the Venetian equivalent of a delivery truck. Its load of mineral water and other beverages would probably be destined for one of the hotels or restaurants nearby.

Provisions to keep the millions of tourists fed and watered arrive daily over the bridge from the mainland by conventional wheeled trucks and are then kept in warehouse storage in the commercial port area to the west of Dorsoduro and Santa Croce. From there, supplies are loaded onto barges like this which weave their way through the canal streets to as close as they can get to their destination. At that point the goods are off-loaded onto the wheeled barrows that you can see on the front of the barge, and bounced up and down over the bridges and through the back lanes to their destination.

At a rough estimate, I would say there are about 80 trays of mineral waters and soft drinks on this barge, which had just arrived at this landing stage when I took this picture. About 2000 beverages. It would be safe to assume that every visitor to Venice stays an average of two days and would consume at least one non-alcoholic drink a day, and probably on average, at least one beer or glass of wine each day. The real figure may be a lot higher.

To keep 14 million visitors a year supplied with even that modest amount of liquid refreshment means that an average of around 75 bargeloads like this chug their way up the Venetian canals every single day. Half that number in winter, double that number at the height of summer. And that's just for the drinks, it doesn't include all the foodstuff as well – or the souvenirs, or the many bargeloads of garbage coming out, or bargeloads of laundry going both ways.

The barges may be motorized, but the barrows are still pushed through the streets as they would have been since Venice began. And providing for that many tourists – that's a lot of barrowloads.

18 June, 2006

26. All well and good

Every campo, or neighbourhood square (campo literally means 'field'), even the small ones called a 'campiello' like the one in this picture, had its own freshwater well. Some wellheads were large and expensively decorated and very ornate, others were small, very plain, and strictly functional. This one is typically between those two extremes, simple and modest, but with some decorative touches.

For most of Venice's history, the wells were the only source of fresh water for the dwellings and businesses nearby, and although no longer functional, most of the wellheads are still there, with their lids sealed shut.

You would think that a well dug into an island in a lagoon would quickly fill with nothing but undrinkable sea water, but these wells are not designed to penetrate down to a source of water that is naturally there, they are just the access points for underground water 'tanks'.

Under each wellhead is a cistern, a storage container for freshwater, consisting of a large clay lined pit, filled with sand. Rainwater is channeled into the outer edges of the cistern through grilles in the pavement. The sand provides some basic filtration of the water, which seeps through the sand and fills the centre column of the well, from where it was usually retrieved by lowering a container down to water level on a rope.

Because of the importance of fresh water to any Venetian community, there were strict laws protecting the purity of the source, prohibiting animals from contaminating it, and preventing people from dipping unwashed containers in it to collect their water, even from fetching water with unclean hands.

Goodness knows what the citizens of old Venice who relied on the integrity of this water supply would have done if they had caught any of today's vandals who have marked so many of these old wellheads with spray painted graffiti. They would not have been amused.

17 June, 2006

25. Booty from Byzantium: Part 2

When Emperor Constantine the Great decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to a more defensible location, he took these beautiful horses with him.

In 330 AD he chose the ancient city of Byzantium as his new capital and named it Nova Roma, but for the next 1600 years until the Turkish Government in 1930 renamed it Istanbul, the city was known to the world as Constantinople – Constantine's city. For more than 800 years (until Venice stole them in 1204) these horses and two others like them, together known as The Quadriga, stood in the Hippodrome of the world's most powerful and opulent city when Constantinople was the very epicenter of civilization.

The thing is, we know Constantine took them with him, but nobody knows where they came from in the first place. In all probability, Constantine didn't know either. They were obviously highly regarded and valuable artworks, but it is unlikely they were made in Rome, and certainly not made for Constantine. The best guess experts can make today is that they are probably Greek, and probably date from about the second century BC. Which means they would originally have been stolen by one of Constantine's predecessors – after a winning battle no doubt – and could have been in Rome for several hundred years before Constantine moved out, taking what was most important with him.

These horses are almost certainly more than 2000 years old, yet they breathe, they whinny, the stamp their feet and swish their tails, they toss their heads and champ on their bits. At least it seems like they do, and the longer you stand in front of them, the more alive they become.

Most guidebooks will call them 'bronze horses', but other, possibly more reliable, sources say that in fact they were cast in almost pure copper, which is harder to cast, but easier to gild, and these horses were at one time spectacularly gilded. Who could have made them? How could such exquisite skills have disappeared until something close to them was eventually rediscovered in the Renaissance?

And where will these horses go after they've had enough of Venice?

16 June, 2006

24. Booty from Byzantium: Part 1

Inside the portico and to the right of the main entry door to San Marco Basilica there is a narrow and steep staircase. Near it, there is a sign saying that it leads to the museum, but it gives you no good reason for making the climb. At the top of the stairs is a turnstile and a cashier taking entrance money. While I was there, several tourists made it all the way to the top of the stairs before they realised that they had to pay several euros to go any further, at which point they turned around and walked down the stairs again.

They didn't know what they had just missed, and what great value they would have received for some loose change. Apart from the fact that you can look down into the whole of the magnificent interior of the cathedral from just the other side of the turnstiles, and that the museum is full of wonderful mosaics and other artworks, going through the museum is the only way you can get out onto the balcony over the front door of the Basilica.

From this open portico roof area, you can see the whole of Piazza San Marco, and the whole of the Piazetta, and the Campanile, and the Doge's palace, and the lagoon beyond. It is the best view in Venice and should not be missed by any visitor.

After Doge Dandolo led his expedition in 1204 to Constantinople, laid siege and broke into the capital and heart of the Byzantine Empire, he sent back to Venice some major prizes. One of the most spectacular things he stole was a set of four sculpted horses, harnessed for a pairs or quads chariot race. These were installed up here, where everyone in Venice could see them, and here they stood for nearly 800 years (apart from a brief holiday in France when Napoleon took them from here in 1797, only for the French Government to return them in 1915, after Napoleon had been defeated).

They would still be up there today, if they hadn't been replaced late in the 20th century with fiberglass replicas because of the increasing acidity of the atmosphere. Yes, these actual horses are not the real ones at all. These are plastic.

Fortunately, the real ones are still here inside the San Marco museum, out of the acid rain, about 20 meters behind these replicas.

15 June, 2006

23. Play misty for me

Most of the tourist pictures you see of Venice show the city bathed in sunshine. The Adriatic climate may be semi-Mediterranean, but it isn't always that good. According to the locals, it rains a fair bit more than most tourists seem to think. Which either means that tourists tend to go to Venice only when the weather is nice, or Venetians like to complain a lot about their weather.

The city of Venice is actually more beautiful – if such a thing is possible – in the softer light of winter. Even when the sun is shining in the colder months it is lower in the sky, the shadows are not as deep or as harsh, and the glancing light shows the textures and details of the decorative buildings better than overhead glare.

Nothing else could be as beautiful as the basilica and the ducal palace when they are surrounded by the chill winter mist at dusk. Gondolas appear out of the haze, and the pink lampstands glow gently, making this place even less like any other in the world.

Sometimes a winter day can be clear, sunny, and pleasantly mild, but later in the day it will suddenly remind you that you are standing on a few small islands at sea-level in the middle of a lagoon, when the cold mist rolls in and wraps itself around you, sucking out your warmth.

It is the kind of damp that anywhere else in the world gets into your bones, but here it gets into your soul instead. Rather than shutting it out or hiding from it, you want to open your arms out and embrace it and dance in it.

And coming from a man with two left feet, that is really saying something.

14 June, 2006

22. The Drunkenness of Noah

Genesis:9.20 - And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard.
Genesis:9.21 - And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.

So goes the biblical story of Noah after he survived the flood, but who could blame Noah for sinking a few vinos after what he had just been through? His son Ham obviously did blame him, because he saw his father when he was legless and naked and did nothing to help him, but his two other sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him up – averting their eyes as they did so, naturally. When Noah sobered up, he cursed Ham, and rewarded the other two.

This extraordinary and remarkably finely detailed Gothic sculpture from about 1350 is on the south east corner of the Doge's Palace, facing the lagoon on one side and the canal that goes under the Bridge of Sighs on the other. It is a curiously human piece of sculpture for a religious subject, but then it is a very human story.

Noah, on one side of the central grapevine trunk is standing in a loose loin cloth with his eyes shut, and he is leaning at a precarious angle. In one hand he is spilling some liquid from a shell or gourd, with the other he is reaching out to the vine with his hand on a bunch of grapes. Whether he is looking for support, or for more fermented fruit juice, we don't know, but there is no doubt that the old man is in a sorry condition, and about to fall over.

On the other side of the vine are two of his sons, probably Shem and Japheth (the third, Ham, is on his own on the other side of the canal side arch). One son is gesturing impatiently at Noah as if to say "Look at the old man – trashed again!", and the other, who is hanging on to Noah's loincloth to keep him vaguely upright, is gesturing back "Calm down, it's OK, I've got him".

Supposedly symbolizing 'the frailty of man', I think the story is a fine advertisement for the life-preserving properties of wine, because this is how the bible chapter ends:

Genesis: 9.28 – And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years.
Genesis: 9.29 – And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years: and he died.

13 June, 2006

21. Café Chioggia

"It would be hard to imagine a better location for lunch than this", we said to each other one day in London. From our window seat in a restaurant called 'La Strada' in St Paul's Churchyard, we were looking straight up the steps to the main entrance of that magnificent domed cathedral.

In Venice we found somewhere at least as good. This picture shows that from our table in the Café Chioggia we looked directly across the Piazzetta, the ceremonial entrance to the city, to one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world, the beautiful Doge's Palace.

It was late afternoon in winter, just on dusk. The warm yellow lights of the restaurant were contrasting with the cold blue twilight out in the Piazzetta, and as the piano behind us inside the restaurant gently played, we sat and enjoyed a simple glass of house red, a glass of house white, and a small bottle of Coca-Cola.

I wasn't expecting the drinks to be cheap, but when I settled the bill for the three beverages, I was startled by their cost. For the same amount of money later that same evening we were able to buy three delicious meals at our favourite Taverna in Dorsoduro. For the Coke alone, we paid exactly 89 times the amount we would have paid for a similar amount of that Cola at our local supermarket at home.

It was worth every penny just to be there.

12 June, 2006

20. The University of Studies

This gate into a walled garden entrance carried the name "Universita degli studi", or University of Studies, an odd and somewhat tautological name.

It also has a very serious and scholarly looking head at the keystone of the gated arch, as well as a very classical looking figure sculpture on the wall above the gate.

There is no story to this picture, except for the amusing juxtaposition of these two sculptures. I just like the idea of the disembodied head on the gate beneath a headless body. It's as if Aristotle – or whoever the head symbolizes – was standing on the wall when his head fell off and got caught on the top of the gate. OK, I admit it's a silly thought.

But I like the fact that Venice is full of old oddities and incongruities, with far more of them packed in per square meter than anywhere else in the world. It's the perfect place for an old oddity collector like me.

11 June, 2006

19. Ponte de' Sospiri

The main council chambers of the Doge's Palace are huge and magnificently decorated, and one of their functions would have been to intimidate anyone unfortunate enough to be summoned before the powerful rulers of Venice to account for themselves, and to be judged.

Leading from the 'piano nobile', the noble floor of the Palazzo, across the adjoining canal to the prison of St Mark is this covered walkway, known as the 'Ponte de' Sospiri', or 'The Bridge of Sighs', supposedly a reference to the despairing groans of the condemned prisoners on their way to the cells.

On one side, palatial grandeur, wealth and power; on the other, grim squalor and a powerless fate too horrible to contemplate. To be judged in the former means your crime would be serious, and against the state. To then be dragged across this bridge to the dungeons, or to execution, would be to feel abandoned and utterly hopeless.

Lord Byron brought this Bridge, and Venice itself, to the popular awareness of 19th century England with this first verse of Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

"I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, thron'd on her hundred isles!"

John Ruskin, later in the same century, was impressed neither with the bridge nor the poet:

"The well-known 'Bridge of Sighs', is a work of no merit, and of a late period, owing the interest it possesses chiefly to its pretty name, and to the ignorant sentimentalism of Byron."

10 June, 2006

18. The heretical clock

Everyone knows that a clock has two hands, the dial is numbered one to twelve, the two hands go round clockwise, and the numbers start at the top. Don't they? Who decided that clocks should be like that, and not like this, with one hand, twenty-four numbers, midnight on the right, and mid-day on the left? When did clocks like this one start being…wrong? There must have been some sort of standardizing event in the clock world, because all our pre-digital clocks have used the same layout for hundreds of years, but I don't know what that event was.

Another thing I don't know about this clock, and this fact would be very helpful to know, is exactly when it was built. Why? Because the sun is in the centre of the clock face, with a much smaller orb towards the pointy end of the 'hand'. Every day, everyone who looked at this clock would be seeing a smaller 'planet' revolving around the sun at the centre of its 'universe'. This was a dangerous statement to be making in the Holy Roman Empire during certain parts of the middle ages.

If the clock was built after Galileo was forced by the Holy See in 1633 to recant his claim that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa, this clock would have been suggesting heresy every day for the next 125 years until the restriction on Galileo's theories were lifted. If it predated Galileo, then the clockmaker was a very well informed craftsman to know of the heliocentric theories of Copernicus which were not published until the year of his death in 1543, 90 years before the ban on Galileo.

The first church to stand on this spot was built in the 5th century, making it the oldest known church in Venice, but the present church is much later than that, and so is the clock. Could the clock have been built as recently as post 1758, when it was no longer heresy to say that the earth revolved around the sun? I don't think so. The unusual non-standard layout of the face would suggest that this is a very old clock as clocks go. Could it have been pre-1543? If so, the sun-with-revolving-planet design would have to be just an accidental coincidence, which seems improbable. The most likely date for the age of this clock would therefore seem to be somewhere between Copernicus and Galileo, around 1543-1633.

Unfortunately, that leaves us with another puzzle. If the clock was proclaiming heresy on a daily basis after 1633, why was it not destroyed while those ideas were banned? Venice was a very independent power at that time, not known for its obedience to papal authority, and so a papal edict about the solar system might simply have been ignored. But I suspect we'll never know.

09 June, 2006

17. St Mary the Beautiful

This is not the sort of decoration that you would expect to find at the base of the tower of a church dedicated to Santa Maria Formosa – St Mary the Beautiful.

Originally commissioned by the Bishop of Uderzo, following a vision commanding him to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mother, this church's facades were remodelled in 1542 and 1604. The fact that these renovations were paid for by the Cappello family doesn't explain the origins of the character in the picture, but it does explain why the outside of this church is now little more than a monument to Admiral Vincent Cappello, who must have been something of a bigshot in his day, because his statue appears over the main doorway rather than that of Christ or Mary as would have been more conventional.

John Ruskin, the 19th century writer and art critic, was not impressed at all by this particular grotesque sculpture, and said so in his book, The Stones of Venice:

"A head – huge, inhuman, and monstrous – leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant; yet let it be endured for more than that instant; for in that head is embodied the type of evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline; and it is well that we should see and feel the full horror of in on this spot, and know what pestilence it was that came and breathed upon her beauty…"

I think that's a tad harsh. You certainly wouldn't call him beautiful, but he quite brightened up my day when I found him.

08 June, 2006

16. Go the Gunners!

This magnificent Classical style gateway is the Porta Magna, the main entrance gate to the Venetian Arsenal, which was one of the keys to Venice's commercial and military power. The gate was built in about 1460 to a design by Jacopo Bellini, although the two lions flanking the door were added about two hundred years later.

At its height in the sixteenth century, this naval shipyard employed around 16,000 people and produced both warships and merchant ships at a prodigious rate, using assembly line techniques not seen elsewhere until the twentieth century. It was already active around 1200, which was why Venice was able to contract to build enough ships to transport the army of the Fourth Crusade (see the post 'Palazzo Dandolo' for why that crusade went pear-shaped).

In 1574, the newly-crowned King Henry III of France paid an official visit to Venice, and because Venice wanted France's support in restraining Spain's ambitions, the city pulled out all stops to impress him with its wealth, power, elegance, and wisdom. Early one morning, the king was taken to the Arsenal, where he witnessed the keel of a warship being laid. At sunset that evening, he was taken back to the Arsenal to witness that very same ship being launched down the slipway, fully rigged, armed, provisioned, and ready to go to war.

The Venice Arsenal didn't just build ships at a sustained rate of up to one a day, it experimented with different types of firearms and manufactured small arms as well as artillery – which makes the Football Club reference in the title of this post a bit more appropriate. The London-based Arsenal F.C. was originally founded near the London equivalent of the Venice Arsenal, the Woolwich Dockyard and Royal Arsenal. The club's original crest not only featured three cannons – hence their nickname 'The Gunners' – but, coincidentally, given that it is also Venice's primary symbol, a lion.

07 June, 2006

15. The Plague Doctor

Carnevale is a celebration of the passing of winter, and is marked with feasts, costumes, and masked balls. Its roots are in the old Roman Saturnalia, and it starts at Candlemas on February 2, and lasts through till the end of Mardi Gras, or 'Fat Tuesday' which precedes Ash Wednesday, marking the end of excess and the beginning of the austerity of Lent.

Venetian masks have become symbols of the city itself, sold throughout the year as tourist souvenirs, and the variety of elaborate and very decorative Venetian masks is now endless. Traditionally, though, there is a cast of familiar costumed characters that are impersonated by participants in Carnevale events, and each has a distinctive and easy to recognize mask and costume.

Not all of them are happy, jolly, characters. This mask represents El Medico Dea Peste or The Plague Doctor. 'Italian Cooking and Living' says this about him:

"You will be able to identify El Medico Dea Peste by his mask; it has a long white beak like a bird, or a mournful vulture. He is also likely to carry a stick, from which he removes the clothing of the victims. Keep your distance! … He wears white or gray with an elaborate white, starched, ruffle collar."

Venice has a long history of association with the plague. Supposedly, according to several sources, doctors attending plague victims adopted a disguise like this in order to protect themselves in some inexplicable way from being infected by the disease - although I suppose it would have served to prevent patients who knew him well from greeting him with the traditional kiss on each cheek.

If I was just starting to break out in bubos and feeling more than a little unwell, I don't think the presence of this character at my bedside would be all that comforting.

06 June, 2006

14. Collecting the garbage: Part 3

When the garbage trolleys are full, the collectors pull them back to one of the many emptying points, where a garbage barge will be waiting. This inlet off the Grand Canal next to Campo San Vidal and almost under the Accademia Bridge was one of the main garbage points, and it was in use almost every morning.

When full trolleys arrive, they are taken charge of by the shore-based assistant who positions them ready for the barge crane operator, who sits in the white cabin at the rear of the barge. The crane picks the trolley up by its big central handle, swings it over the barge and sets it down by its stubby lower handles on two horizontal bars over an opening into the barge's interior.

The crane presses the handle of the full trolley down, opening its double-hinged base which then spills its entire contents into the barge. Lifting the trolley up again closes the double underdoors and the crane plonks the empty trolley back onto dry land, ready to be dragged back into the Venetian alleyways by one of the young women who do that work.

All the operators of the barges and their assistants were men, suggesting that this part of the operation must be classified as much more important and highly skilled. Although it certainly didn't look like it, and why anyone would rather spend their time hanging around a smelly garbage barge when they could be keeping themselves fit wandering with a nice clean trolley through the infinitely interesting back streets of the most beautiful city in the world has me baffled.

05 June, 2006

13. Collecting the garbage: Part 2

When I was still in Primary School, for a Christmas present - or perhaps a birthday gift, I forget which – somebody gave me my first set of oil paints, ten or a dozen small tubes of wonderful smelling paints with exotic names like 'Alizarin Crimson', Gamboge Yellow', 'Hooker's Green', 'Ultramarine Blue', and my all-time favourite, 'Venetian Red'.

The name meant nothing to me then, but I loved that rich and earthy crimson brown. The old masters used the pigment, called Venetian red because it was derived from almost pure ferric oxide supposedly quarried on the mainland in the Veneto district, to create their soft warm shadowy skin tones and rich velvety crimson and purple fabrics. Tints and shades and amalgams of this colour pervade and define the city of Venice itself; in its painted walls, its faded stone washes, in its brickwork baked from iron oxide tainted clay – even in the uniforms of the municipal workers.

The official city colours of Venice are this gorgeous red, together with this harmonized and almost perfectly complimentary green. Where else could winter protective clothing for garbage collectors also be a fashion colour statement?

Interestingly, the only municipal workers I ever saw trundling their garbage carts (when they weren't leaning on them talking into their cell phones) over the bridges and through the alleyways and side streets were young women, like these two, on their way back to the garbage barge.

Only in Venice.

04 June, 2006

12. Collecting the garbage: Part 1

This is the front end of a City of Venice Municipal Waste Collection Unit – or whatever fancy name the Venetian garbologists like to give it. It is a hand-pushed, human-powered aluminium trolley with two small wheels sticking out in front, and two larger ones just forward of a halfway balance point.

There are a lot of these in Venice, because a city that hosts 14 million visitors a year creates a lot of garbage, and there are no motorized vehicles of any kind going from door to door picking up and emptying bins. Even if there were, they wouldn't get very far, because wherever you turn in Venice you are facing a pedestrians-only stepped footbridge.

Which is why the design of these garbage trolleys is so ingenious. The two sets of wheels are just the right distance apart to allow the pusher of this barrow to rock it back and forth and simply 'walk' it up and over a bridge with only a little more effort than it takes to push the thing on straight level ground.

On 'garbage day', residents leave tied up plastic bags of rubbish outside their front door on the footpath, and the collectors simply pick them up and throw them in the trolley as they trundle past. The system may be unlike that of any other city in the world but it is designed around Venice's unique environment and it works.

It may look a little untidy to see bags of garbage in some of the streets for a few hours each morning, but that has to be better than having thousands of bins cluttering up the narrow passageways between the buildings, which is where apartment-dwellers with no back or front yards would have to leave them all week.

03 June, 2006

11. A cryptic marker

Somewhere near San Marco, I noticed this brick-sized paving stone just before I stepped on it. No other paver near it had any word inscribed on it, and there was no obvious reason for it to be there, so I just recorded it as an interesting oddity, and walked on.

I keep coming back to this picture and it bugs me. The other paving stones round it were not a random collection of recycled building material, they were all carefully laid from similar stone, apart from this one. It was not put there by accident, it was not just a piece of old stone that happened to have been carved with letters, the word must have meant something to the person who placed it or caused it to be placed where it is.

In Latin, 'sacrum' means a holy thing, or place, which seems a strange thing to call the middle of a public footpath. Apparently, it can also mean a sacrifice, or a victim. Was someone accidentally, or even deliberately, killed on this spot?

In the middle of the Piazza Signoria in Florence is a plaque embedded in the paving which marks the exact spot where Savanorola was executed by being burned at the stake in 1498. This ultra-orthodox priest was briefly the ruler of Florence after an overthrow of the Medici and was responsible for the original 'Bonfire of the Vanities' by ordering the collection and burning of such things as cosmetics, mirrors, fine clothes, and non-pious artworks and books. He also changed being gay from a fineable misdemeanor into a capital offence, so it didn't take long for the fun-loving Florentines to get rid of him, but he made a memorable mark on the city before it revolted against him.

Savonarola was famous, and earned his explanatory plaque where he died, but perhaps the victim commemorated by the single word on this lone paver was a simple commoner whose passing, whether innocent or guilty, deserved only this marker and nothing more.

I also like the way the cigarette butt balances the picture visually and conceptually.

02 June, 2006

10. The Redeemer

Until about thirty years ago, and for nearly 400 years before that, as part of a commemorative deliverance celebration on the third Sunday in July every year, a bridge of boats was built stretching from the Zattere on the southern shore of Venice, where this photograph was taken, all the way across this waterway to the domed church on the far shore of the island of Giudecca.

The church was built by the celebrated architect Palladio, and it is the Redentore, the church of the Redeemer, itself a thanksgiving offering celebrating the deliverance of the city of Venice from a persistent outbreak of the bubonic plague which lasted from late 1575 until July 1577. On Sunday, 21 July of that year, the epidemic was officially declared over, but in the previous two years it had wiped out 51,000 citizens, including the artist Titian, Venice's favourite son.

The population of Venice at the outbreak was somewhere between 168,000 and 175,000, so the victims represented almost one third of the entire population at the beginning, and a little less than half of the number of survivors. The plague affected every family, whether high born or low life, and many families were completely wiped out. Given that almost anyone able to flee the city did so, it is not hard to imagine how deserted and depressing this normally thriving and busy metropolis would have seemed to the few left behind in 1576, as those around them succumbed to the plague.

There are moments when to live in a great city like Venice or Constantinople in its golden years is an attractive romantic fantasy. But try to imagine what life would really be like during something like a plague attack without antiseptics, antibiotics, or anaesthetics, and suddenly the past loses its allure as a place to visit.

01 June, 2006

9. Pimping the ride

The decorative prow of a gondola is called the 'ferro' – the 'iron' – but its purpose is not just decorative, it is a counterbalancing weight for the gondolier who stands at the rear of the shallow and short-drafted boat.

With minor variations, as in these two not quite identical examples, all gondolas carry the same shaped ferro. Like many other traditions, and despite considerable research, nobody is quite sure any longer why the ferro is shaped the way it is. Local legend has it that the six prongs or 'pettini' in the front represent the six sestieri, or districts, of the city; the single prong pointing to the rear represents the island of Giudecca, just south of the main city; the 'S' shaped curve represents the Grand Canal; the big blade above is a stylized version of the cap traditionally worn by the Doge of Venice; and the lunette formed by the bottom of the blade and the topmost forward prong symbolizes the Rialto bridge. That explanation seems to me to be a contrived invention, but it is appealing and possible even if slightly implausible. The truth, which we will now never know, may be something else entirely, and probably much more prosaic.

The rules for the construction of a gondola are very strict, specifying in some cases to the millimeter what its dimensions should be. For instance, to ensure its asymmetry, the right side of the boat must be 24mm less than the left; it must be 10.75 meters long and 1.38 meters wide.

There is even a city law which governs what colour a gondola must be. When Venice was at its apogee in terms of wealth and ostentation, gondolas became competitively decorative – like a drug-dealer's car in Hollywood, they were 'pimped up' to outrageous levels, allowing 'les nouveau riches' with bling to upstage those with rank and nobility. As a result, in 1562, a Sumptuary Law was passed by the nobles in council that decreed all gondolas henceforth would be black. And so they remain to this day.

It might seem to have been a rather heavy-handed use of legislative power, but in retrospect, it was not a bad thing. Had this sumptuary law not been passed, then it is very probable that Venetian gondolas would today be as crassly commercial as London taxicabs, which always used to be plain and unpretentiously black, but are now just mobile billboards for phone companies, airlines, and condoms. Who wants to see that on the Grand Canal?