31 July, 2006

67. The cheapest gondola ride in Venice

This boat ferrying passengers across the Grand Canal is a 'traghetto' – which not surprisingly simply means 'ferry' in Italian. Fifty years ago there were about 30 traghetti ferry points across the Grand Canal, now there are only seven, but they are a wonderfully convenient way to cross this long and wide stretch of water that only has three bridges.

It looks very much like a gondola, and so it should, because the traghetti are all former working gondolas, but without the fancy seats and other ornamentation and without the counterbalancing metal 'ferro' on the prow. The ferro is not needed because unlike a gondola, a traghetto is always rowed by two people, one in the normal gondolier position and one closer to the bow in front of the passengers.

Gondolas used to be the most common form of general transport in Venice, and were not expensive, but now gondolas are used only for tourist joy rides. Any tourist who has treated themselves to a gondola ride recently will know that a 40-50 minute cruise under a few bridges and through a few canals will cost between 80 and 100 euros, depending on how good you are at negotiating and how busy the gondoliers are that day. By contrast, a short ride in a traghetto is exceptional value for money, each journey costing less than one euro.

There is no scheduled service, the traghetti cross the canal back and forth all day whenever they have one or more passengers, most of whom stand the whole way unless the boat is fairly crowded. If you arrive at the ferry stop when the traghetto is waiting patiently at the other side, the ferrymen will come across the canal to pick you up.

These old style ferries are a great service, and great value for money – and there's not much else in this tourist town about which you can say that.

30 July, 2006

66. Her name was Courage

These walls surround the cemetery island of San Michele, a small island close to Canareggio in the north of Venice. In 1806, during Napoleon's occupation of Venice, it was decreed that Venetians could no longer bury their dead in the city as it was considered unsanitary, and this whole island and the adjoining San Cristoforo island were set aside as a burial ground.

Among the many graves of ordinary citizens are the remains of a number of famous expatriates, among them Igor Stravinsky, and Serge Diaghilev, Ezra Pound, and Olga Rudge.

Olga who, you say?

Olga Rudge, an American-born longtime resident of Venice, was a celebrated concert violinist until the outbreak of World War II, and later almost single-handedly revived the world's interest in the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi, publishing a complete catalog of his work and discovering and publicizing a staggering 309 concertos by Vivaldi which had been lost or forgotten.

Proud of her artistic and financial independence, Olga is nevertheless best known as the lifelong muse and mistress of the poet Ezra Pound, the mother of Pound's only daughter, and a staunch champion of Pound and his work. During times when it was far from fashionable to have an illegitimate child with your married lover, she was loyal to him despite his many peccadilloes, and despite the threat to her own career. She remained loyal not only after he was arrested for treason for broadcasting and writing in support of Italy in the Second World War, but even when he was declared insane after his acquittal and confined to a lunatic asylum for a further 12 years.

Olga met Pound in 1923 when he was already married, and Pound's wife Dorothy was still alive when he died in Olga's arms nearly fifty years later in 1972. The two women hated each other and much of Olga's life together with Pound was an uncomfortable ménage a trios between herself, the compulsively womanizing poet, and either his wife or one of his many other mistresses and casual lovers, but Olga's house in Venice where she had lived since 1928 was always a refuge for him and it was there they spent his final years together.

Olga outlived her lover by 24 years, never wavering in her loyalty to Pound, and was buried beside him in 1996 on the island of San Michele.

Among the final lines of poetry written by Pound are these, and they would have been a fitting epitaph:

Her name was courage
and is written Olga.

29 July, 2006

65. Growing old in Venice

You have to assume that this elderly lady was either born in Venice, or has lived here most of her life, because Venice is not the sort of place that you would choose to retire to and live out your final days. Life here is very demanding for old people, and not at all kind to them. In fact, growing old in Venice would suck.

Take something basic like shopping. In most cities, you could drive a car, or get someone else to drive you, and do a week's shopping in one trip. Not in Venice. Here, you buy only what you can carry, or what you can trundle behind you if your shopping bag has wheels. Which means you have to shop just about every day. That may be the best way to take advantage of the fresh produce at the markets, but you have to be reasonably fit and active to do that every day. Here, it becomes a daily chore, if, like this old lady carrying her distinctive Billa bag, you have to stop every few paces to cough into your handkerchief.

In most cities, you could get a cab to the supermarket if you were not that mobile. Here, there are only water taxis, which are very expensive, and anyway you would need to live on a canal to get door to door service.

Then there are the bridges. At least 400 of them, and there are always at least a few of them between you and wherever you want to get to, and no way to avoid them. Nearly all of the bridges have sides to them, but they don't all have handrails to hang on to or even steps with a non-slip surface.

Could Venice install wheelchair access ramps to all the old buildings; fit motorized tubular steel chair rails to all the ancient bridges; subsidise shopping delivery services; fit inside or outside elevators to all apartment blocks? It could, but it won't.

There has to be a tradeoff between the needs of the permanent residents and the needs of the temporary residents – the tourists – and the reality is that the tourists pay the bills. If Venice stopped being La Serenissima – the 'most serene one' – if it stopped being a cultural and temporal anachronism, a singularly unique and relatively unspoiled medieval city, and started looking more like a modern nursing home, the tourists would stop coming.

In the meantime, the old residents struggle on until their life in Venice becomes impossibly impractical. And then, I suppose, they leave.

28 July, 2006

64. Thank heavens for small mercers

One of the problems that residents of Venice have is that their home has almost become a theme park, a single industry town devoted almost exclusively to funneling tourists through its most historically significant areas. Many of the services that other cities take for granted have all but disappeared, and simple ordinary things can sometimes be very difficult.

A button came off my coat. In a hotel, the concierge would have had it mended for me, but there is no such service with an apartment, so we went looking for a shop that could sell us a needle and thread, ideally, a haberdashery. I can confidently say there is nothing remotely resembling such a beast in the entire sestiere of San Marco. In our further wanderings up to Rialto, across the bridge to the San Polo markets, down through Santa Croce and Dorsoduro and back to San Marco – nothing.

One of the shopkeepers I spoke to was not only sympathetic, he was in a similar situation – he had a leaking tap (faucet) and the only hardware store he knew of had closed down and was being refitted as something more tourist oriented. He needed a washer, and although he lived in Venice, he no longer had any idea where to get one.

One day, north of Rialto, off the beaten track in Canareggio, when we had almost given up hope, there it was, a mercer! Mercery is not a trade that still exists in the English speaking world, but in earlier times a mercer was a dealer in silks and wool and fine fabrics, and the Worshipful Company of Mercers, their trade guild, was a powerful organisation in medieval London.

From the look of the shop, a 'merceria' was the Italian equivalent of what we would call an old-fashioned haberdashery. Inside, as I expected, this business was just what we were looking for, with tiny drawers from floor to ceiling full of all kinds of buttons and yarns and beads and embroidery stuff. It had just the mending supplies we needed – a needle and some twist.

Ordinary life is still clinging to the margins of this tourist-devoted city. Thank heavens.

27 July, 2006

63. Rocco the pestilent saint

This is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – the Great School of St Rocco. The Scuoli Grande are very old, and in some cases, very wealthy fraternal charitable organisations, but for now, what interests me is Saint Rocco. Who was he, and how did he come to have such a grand building named for him?

San Rocco is known as Roque in Spain, and Roch in France, where he was born about 1340, supposedly the son of the local governor in Montpellier. When Rocco was 20, his parents died and he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, which was not such a good idea as the place was at that time in the middle of an outbreak of the plague. Being a religious lad, he prayed for and tended to some of the victims, and in due course came down with the plague himself. Now infectious, he was banished from the city and took refuge in a cave.

He survived the illness, and despite being left gaunt and debilitated by it he made his way back to Montpellier several years later, where he was thrown into prison – same say as a vagrant, some say because he was accused of being a spy. Even though his uncle was now the governor of the town, Rocco could not get anyone to recognize him and he died in the prison some five years later, only being identified post mortem by a birthmark on his chest.

You might think that was hardly the kind of life that would rate a major sanctification effort, and it wasn't. But apparently after he was dead and buried, it was discovered that praying for Rocco's intercession brought about some cures from the plague, a result which ranked as miraculous, and a cult grew up around his amazing healing powers.

The mortality rate for bubonic plague is between 30% and 75% if untreated and much less than that, 1-15% if treated, so you could say that at least half of the people being prayed for would have survived anyway, praying or no praying, but St Roch's 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' miracle cures were enough to get him fairly rapidly elevated to sainthood.

Rocco took a vow of poverty when he set out on his fairly unsuccessful pilgrimage, and I expect he would be very surprised to find that he is now not only a saint, but the Patron Saint of Pestilence, and that his body is encased in a glass tomb in the richly decorated Church of San Rocco, near this other lavish and expensive building also carrying his name.

26 July, 2006

62. Shonky workmanship, or something else?

If you walk around Venice with your eyes open you will see many examples of what appear to be the most slapdash cabling: fibre-optic TV cables snaking and dangling across the façades of very nice old buildings; cables draped loosely over sculptures above doors, and looping across and right in front of windows; electricity cable stapled into the stucco up and across in front of a beautiful gothic window; surplus cable just rolled up and left hanging on the outside of a building instead of being pulled through and hidden. And so on.

You would think that in a place as historic as Venice that they would be more careful to be discreet in the way they connect up electricity or TV cables, but they appear to do the job less carefully than you would expect a tradesperson to do at home in a country toilet.

How could this be allowed to occur, when so much of what surrounds us in this city was created in previous centuries with passion, with love, with immense care, enormous talent, and obsessive perfectionism? Have standards fallen so far that Italian tradespeople no longer know how to do a job right, or even care how they deface these historic places?

But what if it isn't incompetence? What if the laws against punching holes in ancient buildings to thread cables through, or carving channels in walls to bury and hide them, are so restrictive, so impractical, that leaving them exposed on the surface is economically the only thing that cablers can do? What's more, leaving them exposed in this most blatant way may be a silent protest against the regulations, perhaps cumulatively eloquent enough to force a relaxation of what is allowed.

There is another possibility, one that could be closer to the truth than either of the others. It may just be that this is another example of Venice and its inhabitants taking a longer view than other cities. It may be acceptable to feed TV cables to buildings in Venice in a crude and clumsy way like this, because they know that any technology is temporary, and it will change. Cable is the technology we need TODAY for this service, ugly and cumbersome though it is, but tomorrow is another story. The moment wi-fi services deliver TV, these cables will be redundant, and they can simply be unhooked and taken down again. No damage to the building installing them or removing them.

So the cables are a bit ugly for a few years. So what? Venice has endured a lot worse.

25 July, 2006

61. Palazzo dei Camerlenghi

Unusually, this grand palazzo is not joined to any other building, so it has no façade as such, its façade goes all the way round the building. Standing on its own next to the Rialto Bridge, it has several other claims to fame as well.

The Palazzo dei Camerlenghi was one of the first buildings in Europe that was purpose built to be administrative offices. Originally housing the Venetian Treasury, the building still performs a similar function today as the 'seat of the accounting courts' (whatever they are).

Also, when it was built, this impressive example of early Renaissance architecture was originally the centre of one of the largest decorative efforts ever carried out in the city. Nearly two hundred pictures were commissioned for its interior from a virtual 'Who's Who' of Venetian painters, many of them very large works. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, the collection was dispersed, some pieces destroyed, and some went 'astray', never to be seen again. The significance of this building to the development of Venetian painting has largely been unrecognized, but about 100 of the original works survived and many of those are now in the collection of the Accademia Museum, further down the Grand Canal.

Last, but by no means least, the carved capitals of the main entrance to the building are also famously vulgar (but unfortunately not visible in this picture – sorry about that). They depict a man with claws between his legs and a woman with flames emerging from between hers. These sculptures supposedly commemorate some remarks made in a tavern nearby during the more than seventy years long reconstruction of the Rialto Bridge after it burned down in 1514. The man is reputed to have said something thoughtful and eloquent like "that bridge won't be finished until my dick grows claws", to which the woman responded, "or until my pussy catches fire".

Who could blame the Government Works Department of the day for wanting to preserve these immortal observations for posterity?

24 July, 2006

60. Local delicacies

A pre-lunch eatery window piled high with biscuits and buns and involtini – rolled up flatbread with various fillings – is a common site in almost any city in today's world, but if you look a little more closely you will realise that you could be nowhere else but Venice (if you didn't know you can do this, click on the picture to make it big enough to read the labels).

To the left on the middle shelf is a small pile of peculiarly Venetian fat crunchy biscuits with almonds on top known as 'Pan del Doge', or Duke's Bread. Next to them is a pile of similar biscuits, but dark with chocolate, here labeled 'Moretti', but generally better known in Venice as 'Pan del Moro', or Moor's Bread. Perhaps this was the very place that Desdemona came to buy Othello's favourite biscuits? It wouldn't surprise me to find some enterprising bakery in Venice making that silly claim.

There are other foods and some famous dishes that are very Venetian, many of them derived from the types of seafood commonly found in the shallow lagoon or beyond in the northern Adriatic. Mussels, clams, octopus, and squid are all high on that list. 'Pasta al vongole', pasta with clams, is one such delicacy, and any kind of pasta cooked in cuttlefish ink so that when it hits your plate it is black – and I mean really black, not some dirty-washing grey tint – is another dish the locals are very proud of. To me, the flavour of the squid ink is not that appealing, and the weirdness of the dish's appearance actually puts me off enjoying it, but the Venetians love it and you'll see it on almost every restuaurant menu.

Here is one very simple but utterly delicious Venetian dish:

Fegato alla veneziana

About half a kilo of calf's liver cut into slices
A couple of large onions
150-200g butter
A nice juicy lemon
Lots of parsley

Fry the chopped onions in a pan with half the butter and some salt and pepper. Tip the onions out (or use a second pan) and cook the liver with the rest of the butter, and of course with some salt and pepper. Put the onions back in with the liver and squeeze in the lemon juice. Serve on a plate covered in finely chopped parsley.

...Don't skimp on the butter. If you're worried about the calories, cook something else.

23 July, 2006

59. Precise but useless

In most parts of the world, if your house was number 3883 then you would be living in a very long street. But this is Venice, and in Venice there aren't any long streets, and the longest streets are canals anyway.

So what does this number mean? Surprisingly, it is exactly what it appears to be, the postal address number of this dwelling. But this is not 3883 Something Street, it is number 3883 San Marco. The house numbers in Venice don't have anything to do with the street the building is in, they refer to the Sestieri, or six districts, in this case San Marco.

Isn't that a bit confusing? You bet it is. If someone said to you "Come to dinner at my place. I live at "Canareggio 7542" you would be very hungry indeed by the time you found it unless your host had given you some more detailed directions.

I have never seen any map of Venice that includes building numbers at all, let alone one that could let you find out where you are going if all you had was the official address and you had never been there before. And without sestiere border markings it isn't always easy even to know which of two neighbouring districts you are in, so even if you found the very number you were looking for, you could still be in the wrong place. Italian postmen must have useful maps or they would spend their lives going round in circles until they got to know the sequence in their district.

How do businesses advertise themselves? Do they use the 'official' address, or do they give their street name as well as a simple matter of practicality?

Astonishingly, they seem to stick to the official address. For instance, our favourite restaurant puts "Dorsoduro 1016, Venezia" on its business card. It also puts "(ponte dell' Accademia)" after the address, which might be helpful if the restaurant wasn't a narrow alley and several streets away from the Accademia Bridge. Another restaurant in the same district narrows your search down a little by adding "(San Pantalon)" after "Dorsoduro 3818", which gives you a clue to which Church Parish to start looking in if you have some knowledge of ecclesiastical geography.

It's not like all the streets and alleyways don't have names, they do, so it's baffling why they don't include the street as part of the address. This bizarre system has been around for a long time, so it must work somehow. How do Venetians deal with it? I've no idea.

22 July, 2006

58. The Hard Back

Nobody knows when Venice began, when the residents around the estuary of the River Po began to live on the marshy islands out in the Laguna Veneta, the Venetian Lagoon.

Legend has it that the 'Repubblica Marinara' was founded in 422, which is as likely a date as any other, but there are no existing records to support that. What is more certain is that the original marsh-dwellers were Roman refugees, first from the Goths in 166-168 AD, then the Visigoths a few hundred years later, and later the Huns, under Attila. A land-based marauding army found it difficult to ravage the island-based marsh towns and villages without a fleet of boats.

The original seat of the government was on Torcello island, then later on Malamocco. It wasn't until somewhere around 820 AD that the seat of the Byzantium-appointed governor – the 'duke' or Doge - was relocated to Rialto (an abbreviation of 'Rivo Alto' or 'High Shore'), because it was more easily defended. Around this settlement the present historic centre of Venice grew.

One of the reasons why Rialto was the 'high bank' is that the deeper river channel, which later became known as the Grand Canal and that flowed out through that part of the lagoon, twisted and turned to get around a ridge of more solid ground at the southern end of a group of silty islands. This hard ridge became known as 'Dorsoduro' or 'Hard Back', and this area is today one of the six sestieri of Venice.

Obviously, there are no pictures of what Dorsoduro looked like back then, so here is a picture of part of that district today.

21 July, 2006

57. 'Venetian' colours?

Forty minutes by Vaporetto from the Fondamente Nuove in Canareggio brings you to the island of Burano, smallish as islands go, but surprisingly, home to about 7000 people. As the island of Murano is famous for its glass manufacturing, Burano is famous for its lace, which is why so many tourists make the extra trip across the lagoon.

Lace from the Venetian lagoon has been famous since the fifteenth century, and there is a record of King Richard III of England (yes, "'a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" THAT King Richard) wearing a 'triumph of laces' from Venice at his coronation in 1483.

What makes Burano lace special is that it is needle-worked rather than created with bobbins like most other places that are renowned for the art.

What makes Burano itself special you can see a small example of in this picture. Unlike the main city of Venice, what strikes the visitor to Burano most is the exuberant colour of the buildings. No colour, no matter how lurid, is off-limits to the Buranesi. Bright pink, fluorescent orange, baby blue, peach, purple, and puce, everywhere the residents have indulged their most vivid preferences for the chromatic dramatic.

It's a pleasant surprise when you get off the ferry for the first time. It makes you smile and point. It makes you feel good, refreshed, irreverent, and you know just by looking at the place that the Buranesi don't take themselves or their historic little island all that seriously.

Then it makes you ask the obvious question: What stops the residents of Venice doing the same as the residents of Burano? Has it never occurred to any of them to say, "I'm tired of all those different shades of earthy reds and pinks and browns, I think I'll paint my house…mmm…turquoise instead"? I'm sure it must have, but I never saw any bright blue or lilac or heliotrope houses in San Marco or San Polo or Dorsoduro.

I love the warm subtle colours of Venice, the city has a chromatic cohesion like no other, but I don't think that kind of conformity can be easily imposed. There has to be something more than Heritage Commission regulation driving it. I think it has to be a combination of habit, and cultural respect. To step violently away from the normal range of Venetian colours would be almost unthinkable in the main city, an act of vandalism, an exercise of a freedom that only the Buranesi in this lagoon seem to be able to enjoy.

I once asked an Italian friend in Tuscany, "why are all the shutters in your town painted green?", expecting him to explain that it was a local heritage bylaw. He looked at me strangely, like it was a really stupid question. "Because when you need to paint your shutters, you go to the hardware store and buy Shutter Paint, and Shutter Paint is green". He didn't say "Duh!", but I heard it all the same.

Maybe all the bright colours go to the hardware store on Burano and they don't sell any other colour paint in Venice, apart from 'Venetian' colours.

20 July, 2006

56. Mario il bragozzo

If you are a street trader, how do you set up your stall if the street is a canal full of water?

Simple. Your mobile shop is a boat – like this one and many others all over Venice – although the established street traders don't seem to need to be all that mobile anymore. This one at least was fairly permanently moored in its prime spot in the Rio de San Barnaba in San Polo Sestiere.

If I was the owner of the land-based greengrocery in this same street, I don't think I would be too keen on having a mobile competitor parked straight in front of my shop, but both were doing a brisk trade every time I went by. Perhaps they attracted more customers together than either would have alone, as they would have a wider range of produce for customers to choose from, and their proximity would tend to keep each other's prices honest.

In the modern world, fresh produce can come from almost anywhere, regardless of the season, but most of Venice's fruits and vegetables used to be grown on the outerlying, less populated islands – out beyond the big three, Murano, Burano, and Torcello. But with no pastures to graze sheep or cattle, the 210-mile square lagoon was the rest of Venice's 'farmland', and hundreds of boats just like this one dragged their nets across its shallow muddy bottom every day to feed the city.

The curled up prow of 'Mario' (Mario? Surely this should be 'Maria', all boats are female, aren't they?) tells you that this craft is a 'Bragozzo', a flat-bottomed fishing boat once common in Venice, but now almost non-existent as a working boat except for a few that carry tourists round the lagoon. This one may not be as seaworthy as she once was, but she is still working for her living.

19 July, 2006

55. Ca' d'Oro

This beautiful jewel of a Palazzo framed between coupled spiral columns at the left and right front corners, is one of the most famous of all the palazzi on the Grand Canal, and one of the most unusual. It almost looks like two narrow palaces joined together, one half of the façade is so different from the other.

The Venetian-Byzantine canal entrance is a five-arched atrium with a central arch bigger than the pairs either side, while the two florid gothic upper floors have quatrefoil arched open galleries clearly inspired by the Doge's Palace in San Marco. This is hardly surprising, as this palace was built in the early 1400s at the same time as the main gothic parts of that other massive work, and some of the same master craftsmen are supposed to have worked on both buildings.

The façade is still unusually decorative with subtle use of red and pink and grey marble and finely carved details, but what we see now is very restrained compared with the way it was originally finished. The palace is known as Ca' d'Oro or the "Golden House" because at one time it was decorated in multicoloured red and blue with elaborate and extensive gilding. The canal front of this palace would once have dazzled passers by, glittering with reflections of the sun from its gilded features. Fortunately, none of this original 'flash' has survived. It is hard to imagine how that sort of exhibitionistic flamboyance could have been anything other than a gaudy distraction from the building's real merits.

In the middle of the 19th century, this palace was bought as a gift for the prima ballerina Maria Taglioni by an admiring Russian prince. The woman must have had something pretty special going for her, because she already owned two other Venetian palaces, presumably also gifts from wealthy admirers. She was better at acquiring them than preserving them, though, as she immediately carried out a truly disastrous renovation of Ca' d'Oro, radically altering the layout, destroying a glorious original internal marble staircase, and carting beautiful slabs of red flooring marble away as scrap.

Some of this damage was undone by Baron Giorgio Franchetti when he bought the place in 1894, and restored it as best he could, even tracking down much of the material that had been removed fifty years earlier, including the original 15th century courtyard well head carved by Bartolomeo Bon.

Ca' d'Oro is now a museum with a very fine art collection.

18 July, 2006

54. Gondola parking

During the official 'low season' – which in Venice is really only the beginning of December and most of January, shorter than almost any other tourist destination in the world –most of the gondoliers take a vacation, leaving their gondolas tied up abreast beside a jetty with their traditional blue covers over them to protect them from the worst of the weather.

Just after I took this picture, a gondolier walked down the jetty carrying his single oar and its complicated twisty carved wooden rowlock known as the 'forcola', and jumped down onto the gondola nearest to the jetty. When he had unwrapped his boat, folded the covers, and inserted the forcola in its hole in the right side of the boat, he cast off the gondola, pushed out from the wooden post it was moored to, and rowed off up the Grand Canal to our right.

Something about what I had seen bothered me, and it was this: If the gondolier's boat had been the third or fifth boat away from the jetty, clearly he could easily walk over the ones in between to get to his own boat, but if another gondolier now came down to get his gondola from this row of boats, intending to do just what the first gondolier had done, how would he get to it? There was now a gap next to the jetty that was too wide to jump over onto something as narrow and laterally unstable as a gondola, and there was no dinghy tied up to the jetty that could be used as a ferry.

I tried to think of alternate possibilities. Could he use his oar like a bridge and walk along it? Not if there was a two-boat gap, or a three-boat gap, that could never be practical. Could the boatmen somehow swing or jump from pole to pole until they could stand down on a boat? No, the poles were too flimsy and unstable, and some of the gondoliers I had seen looked nowhere near agile enough, anyway. Besides, if that was how it was done, surely there would be footholds in the poles or short cross-pieces to stand on, they wouldn't be smooth all the way to the waterline.

I waited on the jetty for quite a while, hoping that my question would be answered in the best way – by watching someone do it. But it was low season, and the owners of the other boats were probably sunning themselves on a beach in Bali.

I decided that there must be some general courtesy rule for gondoliers so that if you found yourself unable to get out to your moored gondola you could simply hail the next gondolier who rows by, knowing he would always stop to give you a lift, passenger or no passenger, because you would do the same for him.

To me, that was in the end the only explanation that was plausible, reliable, and safe, but I don't know if I'm right or not. One day I'll remember to ask.

17 July, 2006

53. Going places

If you look at a map of Venice, you would think that because it's such a tangled hotchpotch of lanes and bridges and covered walkways and dead ends, it would be very easy to get lost . In fact, it takes some skill to be disorientated for more than a few minutes because these obviously placed black and yellow signs are all over the city, and they anchor any visitor back to one of four landmarks, three fixed, one literally floating.

There are three main rallying points in Venice, around which most short term visitors cluster, and if you can find any one of them you can easily find each of the others. They are: the Rialto bridge – the main thoroughfare crossing the Grand Canal and linking Canareggio with San Polo; Accademia – the other main bridge over the Grand Canal, much further down the Grand Canal, linking San Marco to Dorsoduro right by the Accademia museum; and San Marco – the Piazza and the Basilica. These form a triangle around the points of which most of the tourist traffic gaggles.

About the only other arrowed sign you'll see, which is an even more common sight than the other three, points you to the nearest Vaporetto stop, wherever that happens to be. The Vaporetti are Venetian buses, motorized ferries that go round the islands and up and down the Grand Canal. Even if you are as far from the two bridges and the Piazza as you can get, the nearest Vaporetto will invariably, eventually, bring you back to at least one of them if not all three. It might take two hours if you hit one heading out across the lagoon to Murano or beyond, but sit tight and it will sooner or later bring you back.

The other sign in this picture is far less common – which is a sore point with many visitors. AMAV is the Venetian sanitation authority, and they run the public toilets, of which there are distressingly few for a city which regularly absorbs 100,000 visitors a day. In fact, there are only seven. Apart from the ones in the railway station and the car parking lots on the Venice side of the mainland bridge, there are two in San Marco, two more San Polo, and one each in Canareggio, Dorsosuro, and Castello. Santa Croce misses out. Don’t get caught with a full bladder in Santa Croce, because you'll have to walk to San Polo to pee. Better still, don't get caught short anywhere in Venice, because even if you know where the nearest public toilet is, until you get there you don't know how long you will have to line-up for it or if it is even open.

I guess if you're desperate enough the nearest canal is always open, but personally, I would rather walk into a bar or restaurant and order a beer or a glass of wine, and use the toilets there which are usually clean and empty. It's a good excuse for a drink during the day, too. Or you could go to the museum in Ca' Rezzonico, one of the best restored of the palazzi on the Grand Canal, because the lobby toilets are free and - miracolo - on the public side of the ticket booth.

When the Madonna in this picture was installed in her niche near the corner of this building, none of these things were an issue, and these signs weren't there. Neither were the little spikey things on the ledge beneath her next to the typically clumsy electrical wiring. The wire spikes are there to stop the pigeons sitting on the ledge and fouling the shopfront, which is why they sit on the Madonna and crap on her instead.

16 July, 2006

52. A unique beauty

This could be a tiny detail from any one of thousands of ordinary (well, ordinary for Venice) buildings somewhere off the beaten track in any of Venice's six sestieri, yet for me it contains most of the key elements that make Venice what it is.

Here is a wall with a structural crack in it crying out for repair, and you know it would probably be worse were it not for the iron brace with its crossbar anchoring the wall to another perhaps more solid part of the building. Here, too, are enough Venetian red stucco fragments clinging to parts of the brickwork to give you a hint of what this wall might once have looked like. There is part of a doorway, not magnificently ornate and grand, but more than just functional: this once announced itself as an entrance, not just a doorway, even though its lintel is cracked and a bit lopsided. The ironwork is rusting, the brickwork is crumbling, the scars of the building written on its exposed surface, this wall is what it is – aging, cosmetically unconcerned, but still upright.

In most other cities in the world, this building would never be left like this. It would either be sanitized and renovated if it was historically worth saving, or bulldozed and replaced if it wasn't.

But Venice isn't like other cities. Venice lives in harmony with its scars, it accepts its decay as part of its life, it knows that all existence is cyclic, that birth and death and rebirth are ephemeral and eternal at the same time, and that what goes around comes around.

In Venice there are countless corroded fragments like this section of a wall, but the whole place is a lot greater than the sum of its shabby parts. If you look at a really interesting old person through a microscope, all you will see is the many wrinkles on the surface. If you step back and look at the whole person, sometimes you can see both the timeless beauty that is and the seductive beauty that once was shining through the wrinkles.

If Venice was a woman, she would be Lauren Bacall.

15 July, 2006

51. Canal dump

I noticed a girl walking her dog on a leash somewhere in Santa Croce (although, to be fair, it wasn't this girl, nor either of these dogs, I wasn't quick enough that day. This picture was taken in Dorsoduro).

The young woman was in a hurry and walking briskly towards a bridge. The dog got to the bridge and decided to shit at the bottom of the steps. Her handler watched impatiently, tapping her feet while her dog crouched and completed his business. When the dog had finished, she fished a sheet of newspaper out of her bag, picked up most (but not all) of the poop with it, and then tossed poop and paper both into the canal. And walked on, up and over the bridge.

I stood where I was, momentarily shocked. How could she do that? How could she just throw her shitty rubbish into the canal like that? In Venice, for goodness sake! How could she befoul this precious fragile jewel of a city by throwing dogcrap into its uniquely picturesque waterways?

Then it occurred to me that I had witnessed something very commonplace and trivial compared to many of the things that the citizens of Venice must have dumped in their canals since the city began. The canals in Venice are reputed to be smelly and dirty, but today they are generally not nearly as foul as their reputation. You wouldn't choose to swim in them, and at low water on a warm day, the black sludge at the bottom of the shallower channels is sometimes partially revealed and is more than a bit whiffy, but what would you expect? Even then, it's not much smellier than the decomposing sludge at the bottom of my ornamental fish pond.

Go back a century or two, and the canals would have been far worse. Then they would have been open sewers, relying on the tide to gradually take the effluent of the city out beyond the lagoon. The canals of Venice have survived all manner of temporary insult, and still refreshed themselves.

One day the young Venetian and her dog – and us – will all be long gone, but other dogs will still be crapping in the canals, the canals will still be here, accepting our refuse and disposing of it, and Venice will still be Venice.

14 July, 2006

50. Non scribatur

This magnificent staircase, which ascends from the courtyard of the Doge's Palace to the first floor loggia is known as the Scala dei Giganti', the Giants' Staircase, and it was at the top of this staircase that a newly elected Doge was crowned and presented to the assembled nobles below.

This particular staircase had not yet been built at the time of today's story, but in that earlier time there was another more modest set of steps that also went from the same courtyard to the same loggia, and at the top of those stairs, the Republic of Venice, for the first and only time, executed a reigning and legitimately elected Doge.

In 1354, seventy-six years old Marin Falier, the Venetian ambassador to the Papal court at Avignon, was elected to be the 55th Doge of Venice.

An irascible and cantankerous old man, who was also possibly somewhat senile, Falier developed, within months of being elected, an unreasonable hatred of some of the arrogant young aristocrats of Venice, who had insulted his wife and assaulted, among others, Stefano Ghiazza, the director of the Arsenale. Together with some other supporters, the two old men hatched a plan to use the army of workers at the Arsenale to stage a coup d'etat, which would give them the excuse to get rid of the young nobles and at the same time crown Falier as Prince of Venice, giving him the absolute power he wanted but which the Doge didn't have within Venice's oligarchic electoral system.

Like so many other failed plots, this one was undone by loose lips, and before the day of the coup the Council of Ten had all the information and evidence they needed to make sure that the coup was thwarted and all the conspirators arrested. Ten of the ringleaders were hanged in a row from the windows of the Ducal Palace facing the Piazzetta, but not Marin Falier.

Not sure what to do with him, the Council of Ten added twenty additional noblemen to their deliberations to consider Falier's fate. The aspiring prince, however, pleaded guilty, so he was taken from his private apartments in the palace to the Council Chamber and from there to the top of the staircase which led down into the courtyard of the ducal palace. Here, Falier asked the Republic to forgive him for his treachery, and laid his head on the block, whereupon he was beheaded with a single stroke.

The Council did not put Falier's name in the minutes, leaving a blank where it should have been in the list of the condemned, and writing beside it "non scribatur" – 'let it not be written'. In the frieze of portraits of the Doges that is painted round the walls of the Council Chamber in the Doge's Palace there is now one space that contains instead of Falier's likeness a painted black veil, underneath which is written "Here is the place of Marin Falier, beheaded for his crimes".

13 July, 2006

49. Inside San Marco

It doesn't matter how many of the other great cathedrals in the world that you might have been to – Westminster Abbey in London, St Peter's in Rome, Chartres in France – none of these will prepare you for the gilded experience that awaits you inside St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

The gothic cathedrals of western Europe, like Chartres or Westminster, are characterized by their avenues of soaring columns reaching to the heavens, their intricate vaulting and their elaborate stained glass windows. The huge renaissance cathedral of St Peter's has a massive central dome decorated with marble and fresco. The ground plans of both types are shaped like a crucifix with a long central nave and shorter side arms, and they take your breath away with the light airy spaciousness of their interior spaces.

St Mark's is different. It's not a small church by any means, but it almost feels cosy, it's so enveloping and intimate compared with the others mentioned. This cathedral doesn’t try to overwhelm you with its physical scale, with its bold design, with the impressiveness of its structure, it just surrounds you with warmth, with the stories that matter to it, with the people at the centre of the mysteries to which it is dedicated. It beguiles you with its details and it invites you to sit quietly and think about them and share them. It is a much more spiritual place, if that word has any meaning at all to me.

San Marco is the kind of church that daylight should never be admitted into, a dimness that should always be lit by candles, flickering off the gold mosaic tiles on the walls like some stationary disco mirror ball, the air diffused with the haze of centuries of burned incense. Every square inch of the walls is covered in mosaic saints and martyrs and apostles and scenes of the prophets and events in the life of Christ, all set against a background of burnished gold glazed tile fragments.

The Greek cross layout with its five domes, four identical sized ones on the four equal length arms and the one much bigger central dome, betray the Eastern Orthodox stem of the religion as the origin of the style and character of St Mark's, so unusual in the west.

It wasn't until after I'd taken this photograph that I noticed the small sign nearby which said "Vietate fotographia" – Photography prohibited. No, really.

12 July, 2006

48.Essential public services – Venetian style

This boat looks like it's carrying an advertisement for a toilet cleanser. Or perhaps a brand of tampons. Or, the two men driving it in protective clothing could be sewerage inspectors working for some state-run waste-disposal department.

In fact, Sanitrans is a large European private health-related transport company, the two men are paramedics, and this boat is the Venetian equivalent of an ambulance. Elsewhere in Europe, Sanitrans runs conventional fleets of light truck type ambulances, but here in Venice, the ambulances are all boats. Shortly after taking this picture, I watched this boat slowly chug down this street and pull up at some canalside steps so that the ambulance men could help an elderly passenger in a wheelchair down into their vehicle, and off they went.

Venice demands some ingenuity from all the organizations providing public services like transport for the elderly, the sick, and the handicapped. The lack of roads or any kind of motorized land vehicles, not even scooters – an impossible thought in any other Italian city – presents some unique challenges.

For instance, a firefighting boat might not have any difficulty finding a source of water, but the pumps and hoses could be some way from the fire down winding backstreets, and how would you get an extension ladder up to elevate a hose or to rescue someone stranded on a roof? A boat would almost never get close enough nor would it provide a stable platform for a big ladder even if it was right next to the flaming building. And even if you pushed the ladder there on a hand trolley, quickly maneuvering a long and awkward device such as that through back alleys and up and down over stepped bridges without knocking out decorative street lamps and without chipping lumps off 16th century balconies would be no mean feat.

And the police would have to be fit enough and fast enough to chase their quarry down on foot. Yes, they have speedboats, and I'm sure these are very effective if your criminals are letting themselves be chased up and down the Grand Canal. But it doesn't matter how big your siren is, can you imagine a high speed pursuit down two-way side 'roads' like the one this ambulance is on without bouncing off the parked boats on each side?

11 July, 2006

47. Going under...

Is Venice sinking? This picture would suggest that if it isn't sinking right now, it sure as heck has been.

When this bricked-up doorway was first built, it would have been the main street (canal) entrance to this residential building. Visitors would step out of their gondola onto the now completely submerged stairway up to the entrance, the bottom of which would have been some way above the high water mark.

The day this picture was taken, the water level was exceptionally low, or we would not even be able to see the entrance steps at all, and yet it still only just reveals the bottom of the doorway. Clearly, the high water mark today is probably a fair bit more than a metre above where it was when this building was constructed. The water level could not have risen anything like that much, so the building has definitely sunk.

Now the doorway is a doorway no more. The lower level of this house is now a very wet basement, and the entrance is via a newer walkway which bridges from what has become the new front door down to the opposite side of the canal.

In most other places in the world, this would be a natural disaster, an argument with an insurance company, and a redevelopment plan. Here it is a shrug of the shoulders, an alternate practical solution, and a willingness to accept that, over time, everything changes.

10 July, 2006

46. Booty from Byzantium: Part 3

A Byzantine Emperor who was born as the son of a reigning emperor, thus inheriting the title rather than ascending to the throne through violence or cunning, was said to have been 'porphyrogenitos', that is 'born in the purple', a colour only the imperial family was allowed to wear.

This sculpture of two pairs of embracing figures stands a bit less than 1.5m high, and is carved from porphyry, a dark purple stone often used, for obvious reasons, for sculptures of Roman emperors. It shouldn't take you too long to conclude that this, then, must be a sculpture of four Roman emperors.

Was there ever a time when there were four emperors at once? Indeed there was, and one of them was the father of Emperor Constantine the Great, which explains why this sculpture is another of the Byzantine treasures captured by Doge Dandolo after the Venetian sacking of Constantinople in 1204.

In Constantinople it stood in a building called the Philadelphion at a crossroads in the main commercial road, the Mese. Now it is attached to the southern corner of St Mark's Cathedral, and it is known as the Tetrarchs. You would think it would be better called the Quatrarchs, as there are four of them, but one of them is meant to be Emperor Diocletian, who in 293 AD appointed a tetrarchy of three other emperors to help him rule the massive empire that was Rome at its height. The other three are Maximian, Valerian, and Constantius Chlorus – Constantine's father.

This sculpture is not a portrait of four individuals, it is a stylized group symbolic of the unity of their rule, which is why they all look alike and are embracing each other in goodwill. The harmonious sentiment was nobler than the reality, however, because Diocletian's short-lived plan to set up a process for orderly succession started to fall apart soon after he and Maximian stepped down in 305 AD. Constantius died in England in 306 and his son Constantine was proclaimed Augustus, or senior emperor, by his father's troops, an action which set in motion a series of internecine wars with the four other claimants to the throne, which eventually left Constantine in sole charge of the Roman empire.

09 July, 2006

45. Piazza San Marco

The only open space in Venice to merit the term 'Piazza' – the rest being simply 'Campi', or 'fields' – Piazza San Marco is the pigeon-infested heart of the city, the magnet that draws all visitors to it at least once whether they go anywhere else in Venice or not.

Napoleon called this square "the most elegant drawing room in Europe", and even though Napoleon himself did more damage to it than anyone else in its history, it still has a generous open spaciousness that is astonishing for a city where building land was more limited than any other in the world.

This view of the Piazza, from the loggia above the entrance to the Basilica, is the most dramatic and impressive angle to see it from. From the other end, looking towards the Basilica San Marco, the Piazza seems to be not so deep and more square, but from up here the square seems even longer than it really is. This is because the whole space is not an oblong with parallel sides, it tapers. The Basilica end is quite a bit wider than the other end so the effect of the perspective on your depth perception is exaggerated, creating the optical illusion of greater distance from one end and the contrary illusion from the other.

The magnificent buildings down the two long sides of the Piazza are the Procuratie Vecchie on the right, or northern side, and the Procuratie Nuove on the left. These were built as legal and political offices for the administrators of the republic. The 'Old' more Gothic building was constructed initially as a two story building in the 12th century, then rebuilt as a three-story block in the sixteenth century after a fire, while the 'New' more Classical block was not completed until 1640.

The less interesting smaller building spanning the width of the square furthest from the Basilica looks out of place in such elegant company, and it is. Originally both the Procuratie buildings had a wing which turned the corner at the western end, and in the space between the ends of the wings there was a small and very old church, which sounds like a much more appropriate arrangement than the one we have now. In 1810, Napoleon had all that demolished and replaced it with the much more boring ersatz classical 'Ala Napoleonica', supposedly just so that he could have a new ballroom – of all things.

Why is it that ruthless dictators like Napoleon and Hitler and Mussolini, who are so good at destroying buildings, delude themselves into thinking they are architectural experts when it comes to putting them up again?

08 July, 2006

44. A very Italian compromise

Venice has an ambivalent relationship with its more than a hundred thousand pigeons.

On the one hand, because of all the pigeon poop on the historic buildings and the unpleasant smell in the residential back alleys where they roost and breed, the city has full-time pigeon-catchers on the payroll who systematically bait, net, and exterminate these 'flying rats', as a Mayor of Venice once described them. This program is carried out as discreetly as possible, in the side streets, in the quiet time just after dawn, to avoid harrassment from greenies and animal rights activists.

On the other hand, tourists everywhere never seem to tire of feeding pigeons in public places, so Venice licenses street vendors to sell corn in packets just to feed the same 'flying rats'. As a result, there is so much food available to pigeons that they can breed not just once a year like most other pigeons in the world, but all year, up to seven or eight times, two eggs at a time.

Wouldn't it be sensible to ban pigeon-feeding and stop selling corn to tourists? Then maybe the 'rat'-catchers could get the pigeon population down to a manageable level. Well, that would be the logical, practical, sensible thing to do, but that's not what the city of Venice decided to do.

Why not? One, this is Venice, and Venice is in Italy, so the fact that NOT banning pigeon-feeding is illogical, contradictory, irresponsible, hypocritical, corruptible, and completely absurd doesn't automatically mean that banning will happen. Two, corn vending is so insanely profitable at several euros a time for a couple of handfuls of corn kernels in a paper bag that the vendors can afford to pay more than a hundred thousand euros a year to the city for each vending license and still make a handsome profit. The city won't kill this cash cow because it pays for the whole pigeon control program and then some.

So, what's the city of Venice's solomonesque solution to the pigeon problem? They made it illegal to feed pigeons OUTSIDE the Piazza San Marco. Inside San Marco – pigeon heaven, no limit on how much corn you can give the vermin to eat. Ten metres away from Piazza San Marco – on the spot fines for you, and exterminators waiting to catch the little birds.

07 July, 2006

43. Fondaco dei Turchi

In 1438, Emperor John VIII Paleologus, the penultimate ruler of Byzantium, was desperate.

Beset on all sides, his empire had been chipped away until it was little more than the great city of Constantinople itself, the last Christian stronghold in the east. He HAD to persuade the more powerful Holy Roman Empire in the west to help him defend eastern Christianity from being overrun by the forces of Islam.

The trouble was, his eastern Orthodox church and the western Catholic church had split in a bitter schism several centuries earlier, and Rome was not very interested in offering tangible help to Byzantium unless a lot of religious kow-towing went on first.

Venice was a long term trading partner and the closest thing to a friend that Byzantium had in the west, and it was to here that Emperor John came in 1438 to try – with Venice's help - to broker a rescue deal with Rome, or anyone else he could find in Europe with an army not currently busy elsewhere.

He arrived with an entourage of 600 priests – yes, six hundred Orthodox clergy – ready to compromise with Catholic demands. He stayed six months, conceding almost everything that was demanded of him and his clerics, and went home again with no binding promises of help.

This is the building in which John VIII and his retinue stayed while in Venice. It doesn't look that old, but that is because in the mid-19th Century this huge and ancient palazzo was so dilapidated that it underwent a massive renovation, conducted according to the historian John Julius Norwich with "marvelous insensitivity".

To me, what's more important is that underneath the cleaned up surface and the new ugly Grand Canal façade, the fabric of this building is still standing. That makes this – as far as I can tell – the ONLY surviving building in the world in which one of the Emperors of Byzantium ever lived. Can you imagine what a thrill it is to stand inside it? To visualize the heated theological arguments that must have gone on in every corner of it; to empathize with the daily frustration of John, trying unsuccessfully to win support for his cause; to imagine the impatience of the Doge and his Council at having to house and feed so many hangers-on, month after fruitless month?

Ironically, once Sultan Mehmet II had destroyed Byzantium in 1453, Venice sucked up to the Ottoman Empire instead and eventually turned this very building into a trading centre and warehouse for Turkish traders, complete with mosque, which is why it is now known as the Fondaco dei Turchi.

Today, it houses the Museum of Natural History. With all due respect to the scientists whose passion that is, who the hell goes to Venice to learn about the evolution of algae in the Adriatic? What a waste of such an historically significant building! What a perfect place for a museum that could explore the amazing 1100 years that was the Byzantine era, in which Venice, more than anywhere else in the west, played such an integral part.

06 July, 2006

42. God-fearing Communists?

To many of the secular left, this image would seem to contain a massive contradiction – a Christian shrine at a Communist party headquarters? Who could be more determinedly godless than the Communists?

It was the 'godlessness' of the Communist movement that provoked the United States government – at the height of its anti-communist paranoia in the Eisenhower-led 1950s – to allow religious fundamentalists to insert the words "…under God" after the words "one nation" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and to add the words "In God we Trust" to every denomination of the dollar bill. Formally declaring their country to be a Christian nation, even if it meant surreptitiously undermining the world's first and best secular constitution, was seen by many frightened Americans to be their only defence against the godless hoardes of Communists supposedly springing up in their midsts.

But in most of Europe the idea of the separation of church and state has never been as strong as it was among the founding fathers of the United States. For instance, the constitutional head of Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth, is also (thanks to her predecessor, Henry VIII) head of the Church of England. The co-mingling of the spiritual and the temporal is particularly true in Italy, where the Pope was for centuries not just a religious leader, but also commanded armies and the church's own secret police, who were not just Inquisitors but also judges and executioners.

The Partito Rifondazione Comunista is also not what you'd call a hardline orthodox Marxist-Leninist party either. As the Soviet Union lost its international influence, many parties of the radical left in Europe – like this one – grouped around the idea of 'Eurocommunism', which made them look more like Social Democrats with a few retained 'communist' elements in their platform.

This overt display of Christian allegiance on the outside or this 'Refounded' Communist Party branch building in Castello is one of many hundreds of similar such shrines on buildings all over Venice, so it is as much part of the general cultural heritage as it would be a statement of the religious affiliation of the party members who meet here. I am quite sure that the probability of Communist Party meetings inside starting with a prayer is much lower than it would be at any Republican or even Democratic Party meeting in the much more fundamentally religious USA.

05 July, 2006

41. St. Nic the Wonderworker

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker was Bishop of Myra, an old Greek town in Lycia on the Mediterranean southern coast of Turkey, which later became a Roman harbour town important enough to have its own amphitheatre, the ruins of which are now part of the province of Anatolia.

Bishop Nicholas was a delegate to the First Council of Nicea in 325, called by Emperor Constantine to decide key matters of Christian doctrine in the vain hope that it would stop the incessant theological squabbling then going on in the church. Arguments that would seem like mystical hairsplitting by some today, were then important enough to excommunicate, exile, even to execute those on the losing side.

The Arian team – who held that Jesus, being the son of the father, was holy but not the SAME as the father, not made of exactly the same substance – lost. The winners, the Alexandrian team, held that Jesus was "God from God", truly divine, and that The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were actually all one. The Council, which resulted in the Alexandrian-supporting Nicene Creed, was not an unqualified success, because even though its supporters lost, the Arian 'heresy' took an awful long time to stop being a nuisance to the rulers of orthodoxy.

Nic was on the winning side – like most of the delegates were at the final vote – so he went back to his bishopric where he died on December 6, 330 AD. Sanctified for a number of supposed lifesaving miracles attributed to him, Saint Nicholas' official day in the calendar is the day he died, and that is why in parts of Europe, Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, delivers his gifts to children on December 6, rather than on December 25.

St Nicholas is the patron saint of children (not surprisingly), pawnbrokers (go figure), and mariners. That latter capacity must be why he is celebrated in Venice, the greatest maritime power of its time, with this gloriously realistic mosaic portrait high up on the façade of St Mark's basilica.

I call this a portrait, because that is what it is, not a religious icon like the stylized Byzantine mosaics of Christ and his saints on the domes and walls inside the basilica. This is a much later work, and a real person sat for the late Renaissance artist who captured his likeness and made it permanent in tiny bits of beautifully arranged tile.

Who was the model? Certainly not St Nic himself, he was long gone. Nobles in Venice – those with money, anyway – were known to have had themselves portrayed WITH Christ and various saints, but not as far as I know AS one of the saints. The sitter for this portrait is much more likely to be an anonymous worker – a stonemason perhaps, or a baker, perhaps even a beggar with just the right face hauled off the street and cleaned up by the artist for as long as took to make the preliminary sketches.

Whoever he was, I love the character in his face, I love his beautiful halo, and I really like the fact that he's wearing a T-shirt under his vestments.

04 July, 2006

40. Have lute will travel

There's something uniquely Venetian about standing and listening to a street busker playing a Renaissance lute on a bitterly cold day outside the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, better known simply as 'The Frari', in San Polo.

This unusual instrument with an extra set of bass strings is a modern version of a type of lute known as an 'arch lute' or 'theorbe lute', which was very popular with some Italian composers for solo pieces. The longer scale length of the extra strings gives the instrument a bigger sound than the normally more muted sound of a regular lute.

Lutes became widely used in the middle ages from about 1400 onwards, until keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and later the forte piano allowed more complex music to be played more easily. The lute was not invented in Europe, though, it and its antecedents had been around in the Middle East for several millennia before it came to the west – possibly via the moors of southern Spain, or possibly with crusaders returning from the Holy Lands. The word 'busker' itself almost certainly comes from the Middle Spanish word 'Buskar' meaning to wander, which became a noun meaning 'wandering minstrel'

The intricate but gentle music this busker played sounded to me very like a composition from Venice's own Antonio Vivaldi, but unless it was a transcription for solo lute, it was more likely written by one of his contemporaries. Although Vivaldi wrote for the lute, I don't think any of his pieces were for the solo instrument.

The monkish hat and cape must have helped to stave off the worst of the cold for this busker, but playing this particular instrument in the open air in the middle of January, even wearing gloves with the fingertips cut out, must have been very challenging, so most of the small audience of tourists around that morning showed their appreciation of his effort by contributing a few small coins.

03 July, 2006

39. Napoleon go home!

Venice has hundreds of little backstreets and small campos where tourists rarely go except by accident. I was surprised during my last visit to Venice by how many wellheads and walls in these less frequented residential areas had been defaced by spray paint graffiti. There was so much of it, that it seemed like half the dwindling population of this magical city must have turned into graffiti artists – until I saw this classic piece of sloganeering, at which point I felt much less pessimistic.

The author of this two-word insult is either the most ill-informed political animal in Christendom, which is highly unlikely, or this is a very old piece of vandalism. Ronald Reagan completed his two-term presidency in 1988, so my guess is that this fading graffito is at least 18 years old, possibly more. Once I had figured that out, my next reaction was "why doesn't someone get a bucket of paint and get rid of it?" but then it dawned on me that Venetians must have a much more sanguine and practical view of this kind of transient damage.

Nothing attracts graffiti artists like a blank canvas. Once freshly painted, this wall is an open invitation to any other moron with a two-dollar can of paint. But if you take a longer and more tolerant view, and just leave it, you might be able to accept it as just one more visual texture no worse than most of the natural defacement around it.

If Venetians were obsessed with clean unblemished perfection, they wouldn't live in Venice, where every damp salt-sprayed surface is eroding, flaking, fading, discolouring, and falling off anyway. Eventually, this graffito will no longer be where it is, because it will either crumble away with the rest of the stucco behind it, or it will be plastered and painted over next time the owners of the building get enthusiastic enough to perform some renovating maintenance.

I like the idea that underneath the surface of some of the walls in Venice there are still 500 year old protests against Papal ordinances or Ducal decrees, or 200 year old insults against the invasion of Napoleon, that the people of Venice had the pleasure of reading for 20 years or more before they were finally hidden forever.

02 July, 2006

38. Giuseppe Garibaldi

From the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, until the Risorgimento or 'Resurgence' in the 19th Century which resulted for the first time in a unified nation, Italy was a very fragmented place.

For centuries Italy was a shifting battlefield fought over by Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Greeks, Normans, the Pope, and others, until powerful city states like Milan, Florence, Genoa, and Venice emerged and operated as independent competitive nations. As the power of these city-states in turn declined, the French and the Austrians in the late 18th and 19th Centuries conquered and dominated large chunks of Italy, and the nationalistic ideal of a unified Italy gathered strength among the people in the patchwork of regions that make up the peninsula.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose monument this is, was a revolutionary and very successful soldier who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the unification of Italy . Popular hero of the people, he fought in or led numerous military campaigns over 35 years, eventually sacrificing his own ambitions and republican principles for the sake of national unity by throwing his support behind the King of Sardinia, Vittorio Emanuele II, who as a result became the first King of all Italy.

Considering that Garibaldi was not directly involved in any of Venice's liberation struggles against Austria, and given Venice's history of passionate independence – many residents of the Veneto speak the local dialect and consider themselves Venetian first and Italian second – you would not expect the homages to Garibaldi to be all that lavish here in Venice, but nevertheless they are.

This fine monument to Garibaldi stands in the centre of a garden at the junction between Garibaldi St and Garibaldi Avenue in the Castello sestiere, near the Arsenale. The fact that Garibaldi Street is long and wide and is one of the very few streets called 'Rio' that is not a canal, is an indication of the esteem in which Garibaldi must be held - even in Venice.

01 July, 2006

37. Il Cantine del Vino

I've been to up-market wine bars in the West End of London, hot jazz and cool blues wine bars in Chicago, arty wine bars on the rive gauche of Paris, wine bars that have spent a fortune on creating just the right ambience, wine bars where the selection of wines on offer is astounding, but of all of them, this is my favourite – and you can't even sit down.

Almost opposite the 'Boatyard Where Nothing Happens' on Rio Trovaso is this liquor store and wine bar. It's very small, with one shop-sized room at the front and another smaller room out the back stacked with boxes and bins. Half of the front room – the window display and most of the walls – is the liquor store. The other half is a wide wooden topped bar with half a dozen or so open bottles of wine on a shelf behind and a glass-fronted display cabinet with interesting little nibbles in it, like crostini with herbs and garlic, or crunchy fried baby octopus.

A good thing about this place is that even if you only go there once it makes you feel like a regular, like you've been going there most of your life. Go there twice and you'll start imagining that you were born just around the corner. People recognize you and say hello, they talk to you, they stand outside with a glass of wine and a cigarette talking to passers by, and they lean on the bar tasting the food and the wine while they try to decide which of the hundreds of different bottles to take home.

If you are walking your dog in the early evening to get a little exercise you can stop in for a glass of vino and a chat, because nobody minds that they have to step over your mutt to get to the bar. And when you finally decide on the twelve euro bottle of Valpolicella, they wrap it carefully in tissue paper before putting it in a carry bag, just the same as they would if it was a three hundred euro bottle of Valpolicella.

Here are two more reasons why this bar is better than any wine bar in those other cities. One, it's in Venice. Two, no matter how long you stay, or how much you drink, there's no danger of being caught drink-driving on your way home.