31 August, 2006

98. Social climbing

Since its earliest days, Venice was ruled by its aristocracy, by the members of the old established patrician families. In 1325, this was formalised by the creation of a Golden Book, Il Libro d'Oro, which documented the names and lineages of these ruling families. If your name was not in the book, you could never be elected Doge, nor could you even be part of the Great Council, an automatic right that belonged only to the 2000 or so members of the 134 aristocratic families.

This palazzo, now known as Ca' Rezzonico, was built by Filippo Bon, a member of one of those great and ancient families. In 1649 he engaged Baldessare Longhena, the same architect who built the great church of Santa Maria della Salute, and began to build this huge palazzo with a marble facade. Neither man saw the job finished. Longhena died in 1682 and soon after, the Bon family suffered a financial collapse and work stopped.

Because of a war with Turkey, the coffers of the city of Venice were also pretty well empty at this time, too, because it was possible then - for a very substantial donation, of course - to buy your way into the Golden Book, and suddenly leap to the top of Venetian society. This is what the very wealthy but nouveau-riche Rezzonico family did, and they also purchased the unfinished palace from the impoverished Bon family.

The Rezzonico family never managed to produce a Doge from among their ranks, but their newly acquired noble status was nevertheless real and their upward social journey was complete by 1758, when Ludovico Rezzonico married into the powerful Savorgnan family, and Carlo Rezzonico was elected Pope as Clement XIII.

The rise of the Rezzonicos was as spectacular as it was brief. The last member of the family died in 1810, leaving only this palazzo to carry their name into posterity. Their fine family home is now owned by the city of Venice and it houses a wonderful collection of 18th century Venetian artworks.

30 August, 2006

97. The last hurrah

This very serious and impressive winged lion of St.Mark - clearly a lion this time and no other beast - commemorates what turned out to be the last futile attempt by Venice to try to regain some of its former glorious independence.

In 1797, Ludovico Manin, the last Doge, resigned when his city was taken over by Napoleon, who six months later signed Venice over to Austrian rule. During the next fifty years or so of Austrian occupation, much of the spark went out of Venice, it fell into decline and disrepair, with many of the fine old palaces abandoned and in some cases left derelict.

In 1847, Daniele Manin (who was no relation to the former Doge, but nevertheless a fierce Venetian patriot) presented a petition to the puppet consultative assembly that was critical of their Austrian masters, and he was promptly arrested and charged with high treason. The Venetian people rallied to the cause of this Austrian-hating lawyer and supporter of Italian unity and by March the next year the Austrian governor was forced to release him. But it was too late, rebellion was afoot and the Austrians soon lost control of the arsenal and they evacuated the city, leaving Manin to be proclaimed president of the Venetian Republic.

Determined to unify Venice with the rest of Italy, Manin resigned his powers in favour of Piedmont six months later, only to see Piedmont abandon Venetia to the newly reinforced Austrians who set about occupying the Venetian mainland and laying siege to the main city of Venice. The citizens stood firm against recapture and early in 1849, Manin was again appointed president, this time with unlimited powers to defend the city, which he did skillfully and energetically, to the best of his considerable organisational ability.

It was a doomed resistance. By August, ammunition and provisions were exhausted, and the Austrian batteries were close enough to start bombarding the city, at which point Manin negotiated an honourable amnesty, accepting exile for himself and a few others as the price of peace.

He never returned to his beloved Venice and died in exile in Paris in 1857. Two years after the Austrians left Venice for the last time in 1866, Manin's body was brought back to Venice and given a state funeral as the hero of the resistance, the man who gave the Lion of Venice its final roar.

29 August, 2006

96. A marble collage

When you get up close and look at the façade of St Mark's Cathedral you would think that it was made out of a motley collection of all kinds of second-hand bits and pieces some of which must have fallen off the back of a truck. And you would be right, it was.

Because of Venice's unique situation, every square inch of building material had to be imported, floated in on a boat. The cost of carriage was the same for sandstone as it was for jasper or porphyry, so it made sense to ensure that each shipload was as valuable as possible. Venetian merchant ships became effective scavengers of the ancient world, buying an old marble column here, bartering for a load of bas relief carved panels there, purloining whatever piece of alabaster that wasn't nailed down somewhere else. As the Venetian empire grew, the ships of war brought home even more prize building materials from other civilizations, and gradually, the facade of St Mark's became encrusted with this confusion of stonework from here, there, and everywhere, seemingly almost at random.

It literally is a potpourri, a hotch-potch of colours and textures and shapes that weren't designed to go together at all, an eclectic mix of variegated stuff, every piece of which competes for your urgent attention when you are close enough to see the separate elements of this fantastic encrustation. It ought not to work at all, but it does, and amazingly well.

When you get back far enough for the separate components to start to blur into one another something magical happens, and the whole cathedral becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. The colours and shapes blend and shimmer and are transformed as the light changes minute by minute so that the surface of this most unusual cathedral almost breathes with life and colour, sometimes tinged with this hue, sometimes dominated by that, but always presenting itself as a cohesive whole.

The serious architects of northern Europe built their soaring cathedrals from a uniform grey lime stone or beige sandstone, or in the case of St.Peter's in Rome from almost white marble, but the Venetians would have nothing to do with anything so uniformly conservative and boring. Instead they injected their joie de vivre into this church with every different type of stone they could find, colouring and texturing it with their Mediterranean passion until its soul sings at you whether you like it or not.

How could you not love it?

28 August, 2006

95. It's official - black is back

It used to be common for Venetian gondolas to have an enclosed and sometimes elaborately decorated wooden cabin called a 'felze', which gave the passengers inside some privacy, both from the gondolier standing behind them and from the outside world. There are still a few gondolas that have this feature and they are mostly used for weddings or other ceremonial occasions, but because they restrict the view of the passenger looking out, they are not generally much use for tourist rides.

In July this year, the city's gondola association announced that those gondolas which carried a 'felze' would be allowed to keep it, but all of the other 400 or so gondolas would be required to strip from their boats all the elaborate decorations which have become so common recently.

Pitching joyrides to tourists, especially out of peak season, is a very competitive business and more and more decorative features have been added by enterprising gondoliers to make their boat look that little bit more attractive to ride in than the one parked next to it. But no more.

Today's picture is now an interesting historic record because by the time you read this, the fancy upholstery on these and all the other gondolas may well have been taken off for good. In future there will be no more plush upholstery edging, no gilded ornaments, no fancy chains and pompoms, no embroidered cushions. The upholstery must now be plain leather only, and the allowed choice of colour for the interior will be black, dark blue, or purple. No scarlet, or burgundy, or turquoise, and everything else on the boat must be back to the basic black as decreed in the Sumptuary Law of 1562.

It's nice to know that there are some places in the world where tradition can prevail over commercial pressure.

27 August, 2006

94. How clever is this?

The flatter and quite heavily stylised type of mosaic work that covers so much of the interior of St Mark's cathedral - similar to the picture of St Mark in his coffin in my post a couple of days ago (scroll down to #92) - is filled with narrative and symbolic meaning. It developed into a medium of great power, that could communicate its message even to an otherwise completely illiterate audience - a bit like comics without speech balloons. This was the very effective way that mosaic was used here up until the late 14th century or so.

When the early Renaissance artists began to understand how to use perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional space, visual art became much more concerned with the appearance of the subject and the fidelity of the illusion, and less with the image's symbolic meaning or narrative function. So the later mosaics on both the inside and the outside of the cathedral are much more realistic representations of figures and other objects in space, but in other ways less interesting than the earlier works they replaced.

Ruskin (who I know I quote quite often but that is because he is such a quotable curmudgeon) greatly admired the Byzantine-style mosaic work. He thought the later mosaics were better than whitewash - but only just.

I can understand his point of view, particularly when you look at some of the syrupy schmaltzy images produced in the later Baroque and Rococo periods, with angels and cherubs that have now become such a cliche that they would look more at home on cheap greetings cards than in one of the world's greatest cathedrals.

On the other hand, just look at this example of Renaissance mosaic work from inside St. Mark's cathedral museum for a moment. Whatever the subject matter of the whole piece, aren't these a simply awesome pair of mosaic knees?

These are not just Byzantine outlines of limbs, these are totally convincing three-dimensional legs, legs sculpted and modelled with bones in them, with strong muscles and tendons flexed and holding upright the superior trunk and head of this man with the large sword at his waist. Whoever the artist was, he wasn't guessing at what legs looked like, he had looked hard at them. He knew how they worked and why, and he was able to arrange tiny little chunks of glazed tile in just the right way to convince you that they are flesh and blood.

Imagine the work that went into preparing the materials before he could even start to make this picture. There are at least fifteen, maybe even more shades and tints of this exact fleshtone in a precise gradation of density from darkest to lightest. Heaven knows how many glaze mixings and firings it took to get the colours of the tiles just right. Then they would have to be cut up into tiny pieces of an almost uniform size. Then with tweezers, the artist would have to select each piece and place it just exactly so in a bed of mortar.

I don't know who the artist was, but I have to admire his extraordinary skill with this fiendishly difficult medium.

26 August, 2006

93. A shop by any other name...

When I first moved from chilly temperate London, England (my old home town) to sultry sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia (my new home town), the houses all looked vaguely wrong. It wasn't the style of them, which was admittedly very different, it was a sense that they weren't real houses. Eventually it dawned on me. None of the homes in Brisbane have chimneys! You don't need fireplaces in tropical houses, so you don't need a chimney, and if all the houses you have ever seen before had chimneys sticking out of the roof, a house without a chimney looks somehow incomplete or unfinished.

It took me a while to nail that same vague 'something's-not-right' feeling that I had about most of Venice's thousands of little shops, like this one. No, it has nothing to do with their chimneys – the odd thing that was bothering me was that there are no signs on them. In my home town EVERY shop has a sign over the door or window which shouts its name out to the world, and very often tells you what sort of shop it is at the same time – "Stafford City Newsagency", or the "James Street Fresh Fish Co." or "Christiaane – Beautiful bathrooms". Here, the fact that it has a window and a door with credit card symbols on it tells you that it is a shop. What's in the window is what the shop sells. What more do you need to know?

It has a certain logic to it. A prominent shop sign will not only uglify the whole street, there isn't much point to it in a place like Venice. If you are near the shop, then you can see that it's there and what it sells. A sign won't attract shoppers to it from a long way off because, in the narrow short streets of Venice, if you aren't close to it then you won't be able to see it or its sign. And why would you bother trying to build brand recognition to distinguish your shop from all your competitors, when close to zero percent of your business is repeat business? Most of the people who buy things in Venice's shops will be in the city an average of less than three days, and then they will leave and never come back to Venice, let alone this particular shop.

"Do you know where we could get some boots mended?" we asked in a shop where we had just bought some new shoes. "Sure, you go to Mancini's" was the reply. Following the helpful directions we found ourselves at a no-name shop that appeared to sell dog food and pet supplies. Obviously not Mancini the boot repairer. We wandered the streets and kept coming back to the same place. "Is this Mancini's?" we eventually asked. "Of course," was the reply with a shrug. But it wasn't Mancini's, because the name on the business card inside the shop had some completely different name. "Ah" explained the man on the counter when I challenged him, "the boot repairing business in the room out the back used to be owned by someone called Mancini".

There's nothing quite as useful as a bit of local knowledge. And if they put names on the shops, it would probably just confuse the locals.

25 August, 2006

92. Hide and seek

This mosaic from the 13th century is unique for several reasons. It is in one of the nine lunettes (semicircular recesses) in the façade of St Mark's cathedral, but it is the only early exterior mosaic to survive, all the others having been replaced by more modern works during various renovations up until the 18th century. It is also the earliest representation we have of St. Mark's cathedral itself, which gives us a good idea what the front of the basilica would have looked like around 1250 AD.

We can see that all of the lunettes apart from the huge Christ over the doorway are shown to be at that time filled with just decorative designs, whereas now they are all figurative narrative scenes. We can also see that the front of the cathedral was no longer bare brick, which it was in the late 11th century when it was first built. A mere hundred years later it was already richly decorated with many different kinds of coloured stone.

This picture has the stylized feel of an Orthodox church icon, because when it was made it was still early enough to have been influenced by the then dominant Byzantine imagery and the Eastern church's craft skills. It is even possible that it was carried out by imported Byzantine craftsmen, as were so many of the mosaics in the interior of St.Mark's. It is dated after the beginning of the 13th century, because it shows the stolen horses of Constantinople, the Quadriga, already in place above the mighty image of Christ Pantocrator dominating the entrance to the church. This powerful figure has unfortunately since been replaced with a much less inspiring baroque group of figures showing Christ holding his cross at the centre with cherubs in clouds sprinkled all around him.

On the shoulders of the two senior clerics in the middle is a coffin containing St. Mark's body, shown entering the church. This is a big lump of artistic license, firstly because the corpse looks remarkably healthy given that by the time it arrived in Venice it must have been decomposing for about 750 years, and secondly, because it was not this church that St. Mark was carried into and buried, it was the first church built on this spot in the 9th century.

That church burned down in 976 AD, leaving the Doge, the Patriarch, the bishops and the clergy with a problem, because no trace remained in the charred rubble of exactly where St Mark had been interred. Only three people knew the exact location and they were now all dead. This present church was built on the same spot to replace it, and at its consecration, a High Mass was held to pray for the recovery of the relics. Miraculously, during the service, some supporting masonry crumbled away and a human arm protruded from the hole, an arm immediately recognized as belonging to the Evangelist. Amid great jubilation, the now 900 year old corpse was pulled out of its hiding place and reburied in the new cathedral.

I know what you're thinking, but no, that wasn’t the synopsis of an episode of Fawlty Towers, it's supposed to be what actually happened. Really.

24 August, 2006

91. A surfeit of saints

The winged lion of St. Mark is on one of the two granite pillars. On top of the other one is the original, and largely forgotten, patron saint of Venice.

St. Theodore Tyro, also known as St.Theodore of Amasea, was an early Christian martyr. A young soldier in the Roman army, he was burned at the stake in 306AD for refusing to renounce his Christianity (and possibly also for burning down a pagan temple). For reasons hard to fathom, one of the symbols associated with St. Theodore is the crocodile, and this rather modern looking statue depicts him standing with a curiously odd version of that animal, most likely carved by someone who had never seen a crocodile.

St. Theodore is venerated in the Eastern Church and became the patron saint of Venice very early in the existence of the city, when it was still a vassal state of Byzantium, but he is not what you would call a major league saint. As Venice's power and its ambitions grew, it was in danger of being ignored by Rome as a religious centre of influence because it had no ecclesiastical clout compared to the longer established Christian centres in places like Antioch and Alexandria.

We will never know whether it was the result of a cunning plan devised by Doge Participazio, or just a quick-witted entrepreneurial action, but in 828 AD, two Venetian merchants managed to persuade the Christian church in Alexandria to let them smuggle the body of St. Mark the Evangelist out of the city – "just for his own protection, you understand". St. Mark had been the Bishop of Alexandria and had died there, but the city was then under Saracen control, and there must have been some genuine concern about the safety of this most sacred Christian relic. The colourful story goes that the smell of the decomposing corpse as it was carted to the waiting ship aroused the suspicions of the Saracen guards, but the merchants hid the cadaver under a pile of pork meat, which the Islamic soldiers were unable to go near, let alone touch.

The church in Alexandria never had any chance of getting their grisly relic back. Owning the entire body of one of the Gospel-writing Evangelists gave the city of Venice the Apostolic patronage and prestige it needed, immediately lifting it to a holiness ranking second only to Rome itself.

Poor old St. Theodore never got another look in, even though he still presides over the city from one of the two pillars at the city's ceremonial entrance. Strangely, that same area of the Piazetta was also, up until the 19th century, the chosen site for state executions, and many Venetians are still too superstitious to ever walk between these two great columns.

23 August, 2006

90. A most enduring symbol

This is the same lion we met yesterday, and he has sat on his tall granite perch for about 800 years – apart from a quick trip to the British Museum for some restoration work in 1990.

In that time he has watched Venice emerge from under Byzantium's long shadow to become in her turn the most powerful maritime nation in the world; he has watched fleets of warships setting their ambitious sails as they row out of the lagoon towards Venice's enemies and former friends; watched kings and emperors and popes arrive and leave at the quayside below; observed Venetian society wax and grow rich, then wane and degenerate; he saw her conquered by Napoleon and eventually absorbed into the nation of Italy; he has seen candlelight replaced by gaslight replaced by electric lighting; seen most of the gondolas replaced by vaporetti; and now he patiently poses for the millions of gawking tourist cameras that flow through this city like a tidal wave every year.

He is synonymous with the city. The winged lion of St. Mark in all its forms IS Venice. He represents the power and confidence and protection given to all Venetians by the relics of their patron saint, the human remains of St. Mark the Evangelist himself, that supposedly rest in the centre of the nearby great basilica, from where this picture was taken.

Symbols are powerful things, they can unite and focus a people, they can inspire awe or fear, loyalty or rebellion. After the American tanks first rolled into Baghdad during the most recent of Iraq wars, people immediately gathered round the largest statue of Saddam Hussein and tore it down, destroying the symbol of their former oppression.

Was there ever political disagreement in Venice? Public dissent? Even treasonous acts against the state? Of course, such things are unavoidable in any authoritarian regime. But it is a wonderful tribute to the wisdom of the checks and balances built into the Venetian system of government, and to its essential humanity, that at no time in the city's long and chequered history was this most visible of symbols ever threatened by an angry mob. Not only was it never toppled, it was never even seriously attacked.

This symbol of the state has sat on his column for 800 years because the citizens of Venice allowed him to remain there.

22 August, 2006

89. The 'Lion' of St. Mark

The Gospel according to St. Mark describes John the Baptist preaching "like a lion roaring". Perhaps because of this, the evangelistic symbol for St Mark is a lion. All of the four gospel authors have a symbolic creature associated with them – Matthew's is a man, symbolizing the human nature of Christ; Luke has a bull or calf, symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ; John's symbol is an eagle, for the omnipotent all-seeing eye of God. Mark's lion symbolizes Christ as king.

All four of these creatures are traditionally depicted with wings, which creates some confusion in many people's minds about whether Matthew's is supposed to be a man or an angel, but it does explain why there are winged lions all over St. Mark's Venice in the form of sculptures and reliefs and paintings and mosaics – even doorknobs and restaurant menus.

This 3-ton bronze sculpture perched atop a massive granite column in the Piazetta is the most important and most famous of all the winged lion representations in the city, yet it is one of the strangest. Although it depicts a suitably strong and fierce animal, and although its body is sort of leonine, it would be hard to recognize its head in any other context as being any sort of cat at all, let alone Leo, the king of the jungle.

This is not surprising when you realize that the head and body of this animal are not of a lion at all but of some sort of completely mythical beast. Art historians usually describe this work as being a Chinese or Persian 'chimera', but nobody knows for sure where or when it was made. Perhaps it was captured during the sacking of Constantinople, perhaps some Venetian traders acquired it, but there is no record of how it came to be in Venice.

The wings are also not original. They were probably made in Venice, and then tacked on to this bizarre creature's back to create a 'winged lion', shown with his paws on an open copy of St. Mark's gospel.

This huge granite column - one of a pair - was definitely 'souvenired' from Constantinople in 1204 during the disastrous Fourth Crusade, and this odd but very heavy hybrid sculpture was hoisted to the top of it sometime later, probably early in the 13th century – no mean feat in itself when you think about it.

21 August, 2006

88. Excuse me for intruding.

In classical Greek architecture, three main designs for supporting columns evolved over many centuries. The first and simplest style was the Doric column, a straightforward pillar with no base and a simple unornamented roundel for a top, or capital. Later came the Ionic style, characterized by a decorated base and a more elaborate scroll-shaped capital. By the 5th century BC, the much more ornate Corinthian column had arrived. The base and column was similar to the Ionic style, but the capital had become an intricately carved profusion of foliage, traditionally canthus leaves.

All three of these styles survived into the Roman era and beyond – all three often being used on the same Roman building, like for instance in the great Colosseum in Rome, where all the columns on the ground level all the way round the huge stadium are Doric, all the columns on the middle level are Ionic, and those on the top level are Corinthian. The Romans had great engineering skill but little original imagination when it came to decorative design.

To the Venetians on the other hand, who had the rich visual vocabulary of Byzantium as well as the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome to play with, no formal design was sacrosanct. Everything was open to creative reinterpretation and column capitals in particular have been used more imaginatively in this city than anywhere else I know.

At a glance, from a distance, this capital on the façade of the Scuola di San Rocco looks like a typical ornate Corinthian capital until you look more closely. Suddenly, you are looking into the wide-eyed and rather startled face of a woman who looks like you have just walked in on her as she is stepping out of the shower, hurriedly sweeping up a frilly robe to not very successfully cover herself.

Who is she, and what is she doing on this building, like a ship's figurehead? I have no idea. What I called a robe could be fronds of seaweed, which might make her a mermaid, but as we can only see her torso, that's just speculation.

On the column capitals around the San Polo markets are all kinds of fish and other seafood, as well as boats and fishing gear, and fishermen and sailors. Around the Doge's palace the capitals are full of all kinds of animals and people, some of them very convincing portraits of obviously real people, with a wide range of facial expressions.

In the days when every part of a stone building was hand-hewn, not just assembled from factory produced components, the building workers didn't just blindly follow an architect's blueprint. Many of the decorative details relied on the expressive skills of the stonemasons who were artists as well as craftsmen and who took pride and care in their work – sometimes adding in amusing touches of their own invention.

This surprised lady might be one of them.

20 August, 2006

87. A Corner view

Stand on the Rialto Bridge and look down the Grand Canal towards San Marco and this is what you see. You have to admit that it’s a pretty sweet vista.

The Fondamenta on the right is the Riva del Vin, which stretches out of the picture and under the bridge we're standing on and right round the bend to the San Polo markets. This was the quay that received and unloaded most of the shipments of wine that came into Venice, because round here were the main wine merchants – and quite a few bars and osterie as well. Now these hostelries are mostly tourist hotels and the quayside is no longer a commercial wharf, it is a parking lot for gondolas and the Riva is where the gondoliers pitch their rides to the passers by, of which there is now an almost endless supply.

In the hazy distance down the left side of the canal is a succession of palaces whose names read like a 'Who was who' in Venice over the centuries, although in this stretch of the Canal one name more than any other repeatedly pushes itself to the front. For instance, the large white façade above and to the left of the gondola is the Palazzo Corner Loredan. The grey one next to it on its far side is the Palazzo Dandolo Farsetti (don't forget you can click on the picture to enlarge it). Both of these have Byzantine facades of the 12th or 13th centuries. The next low red façade is the Palazzo Corner Martinengo which is from the 16th century, as is the pink one beyond it which is the Palazzo Corner Valmarana. The massive palace next to that is the Palazzo Grimani, followed by the …don't tell me, let me guess… another Palazzo Corner? You got it. This time it is the 15th century Palazzo Corner Contarini Cavalli. And so on.

Can you appreciate the extraordinary power the Corner family must have wielded in Venice? And what you see here isn't the half of it. The main Corner palace isn't even in this picture, it's down around the bend and is bigger and grander even than the Palazzo Grimani shown here.

But then the Corners were 'old money', tracing themselves back to the first Roman refugees who fled from the barbarians on the mainland, even though they didn't provide the state with the first of its three Corner Doges until the 17th century. By comparison, the Grimanis (only two Doges) were aristocratic latecomers, nouveaux riches who made their money from canny commodity deals.

Venice may have been the most powerful city state in the world for quite some time, but in terms of its ruling clique, it was always a very small town.

19 August, 2006

86. A surreal place to live

This rather odd building looks like the ground floor beginnings of a palazzo that was never finished, and that is exactly what it is.

It is known to the Venetians as the 'palazzo non finito', but its official name is the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, and it was begun around 1750, quite a bit later than most of the completed palazzos around it on the Grand Canal.

The Venier family is one of the oldest and most distinguished aristocratic families of Venice, with three Doges to their credit, and nobody is quite sure why this palazzo was never finished. There is an architect's model of what it was intended to look like in the Correr Museum, and that shows the finished palazzo with a magnificent three level classical façade, grander even than the Palazzo Corner della Ca' Granda facing it on the opposite side of the Grand Canal.

Conspiracy theorists speculate that it was the even more powerful Corner family themselves who somehow blocked the completion of this building (perhaps with a dead horse's head in the city planner's bed?), because they didn’t want anything within view grander than their own noble pile, but the simpler – and more probable – answer is that the waning Venier family may just have underestimated the cost of building such a massive structure, and they ran out of money. Or, even more likely, by the time they got the ground floor in they realised that they would go broke if they kept going up, and chose to stop.

When you see the three massive entrance arches on the model, the two unusual foliage covered pillars in the middle of the unfinished entrance are easier to explain. In the bottom left of this picture just above the waterline is a yawning lion's head, one of many similar Istrian stone decorations along the front of the building. Why lions? No-one is sure of that either, but it is why the palazzo's name carries the 'dei Leoni' descriptor.

In 1948, the remains of this house were purchased by Peggy Guggenheim, heiress and niece of Solomon Guggenheim, whose arts foundation houses the huge Guggenheim collection at its eponymous museum in New York. Peggy was a free spirit in her youth, and married a Dada artist in Paris in 1922. The marriage didn't last, but she got to know many of the surrealist and abstract artists in Europe between the wars and used her money to support a wide range of them, amassing an almost unparalleled collection of modern artworks along the way. After the war, she settled in Venice and this palazzo became her museum of modern art.

Peggy continued collecting, championing artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and when she died in 1979, she bequeathed this semi-palace and her entire collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, who still run the museum in Venice, calling it as she herself did, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Peggy is buried in the backyard of this palace beside her many beloved dogs who lived here with her.

18 August, 2006

85. An afternoon's entertainment

The Procuratie Vecchie, was, as its name suggests, the older of the two great buildings in Piazza San Marco built as offices for the city's nine procurators – the administrators who were responsible for, among other things, the six sestieri, or districts of Venice. Its counterpart on the other side, is a slightly later construction known as the 'new' offices, the Procuratie Nuove.

Almost since the beginning of their occupation, however, these two buildings have housed other activities quite unconnected with city administration.

When the Venetian ambassador returned from Istanbul in 1585, he reported to the Senate that the Turkish were fond of drinking a hot black infusion made from seeds they called 'Kahavé', that had the effect of keeping people awake. The first batch of these seeds were not brought back to Venice until 1638, when they were roasted and ground and served in the first coffee shop in Europe, located on the ground floor of this building in the Piazza.

Coffee was exotic then, and very expensive. It is less exotic today, but the coffee shops of San Marco are still among the most expensive in the world. The most famous of these opened its doors in 1720 as the 'Caffé alla Venezia Trionfante', the 'Triumphant Venice Café', but its first owner was Floriano Francesconi, so it quickly became known as 'Florian's'. Caffé Florian was the favourite haunt of many famous visitors, like Lord Byron, and it's still there on the Nuove side of the Piazza.

On this side, also still going strong, are Caffé Quadri, a newcomer of 1755, and Caffé Lavena, Richard Wagner's favourite coffee house. Gambling was another pastime of the Venetian nobility that went on in and around the coffee houses, and by the end of the 18th century, there were 24 such establishments just in this Piazza alone.

One level up, on the first floor of the Procuratie Vecchie, were the 'ridotti', small but very fashionable apartments where a gentlemen whose palazzo might be a lengthy gondola ride away could entertain his friends in the afternoons and evenings. So much 'friendly entertaining' went on that in 1767 the government banned women from frequenting the cafes in the Piazza altogether (obviously, the debauchery was all their fault), but that didn't stop them from strolling about the square and along the corridors under the porticos while they waited for their lovers to finish their game of cards and to get their caffeine hit.

Despite the sea of coffee tables and chairs covering large slabs of the square every day in the tourist season, there are far fewer coffee houses here today than there were two hundred years ago.

And for the time being at least I am pleased to say that none of them are yet called 'Starbucks'.

17 August, 2006

84. The sun's drawings

John Ruskin wrote to his father in 1845, "I have been standing (but the moment before I began this letter) on the steps at the door – the water is not even plashing in the moonlight, there is not even a star twinkling, it is as still as if Venice were beneath the sea, but beautiful beyond all thought."

By his third visit to the city Ruskin could see deterioration in the fabric of the buildings, and he feared that most of their glorious details would soon be no more. He deplored the new enthusiasm for scraping centuries of grime ("the patina of the ages") from the marble facades, and he judged other renovations he saw as mostly disastrous.

As a result, his drawing style changed. Only a few years before, he had enjoyed making loose sketches, like his hero, Turner. Now he was frantic to record everything he saw before it disappeared, starting at 5:30 in the morning, drawing architectural details as accurately as he could and making copious notes all day until there was no light left.

Before he had recently left Oxford University, Ruskin had been told about the experiments of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the 'daguerrotype' process, an early form of photography, and he had seen some of the first examples sent to England of what he called "the sun's drawings" .

However, as he said in 'The Stones of Venice', "Wholly careless at that time of finished detail, I saw nothing in the Daguerrotype to help, or alarm me; and inquired no more concerning it, until now at Venice I found a French artist producing exquisitely bright small plates (about four inches square) which contained, under a lens, the Grand Canal or St. Mark's Place as if a magician had reduced the reality to be carried away into an enchanted land. The little gems of picture cost a napoleon each; but with two hundred francs I bought the Grand Canal from the Salute to Rialto; and packed it away in thoughtless triumph."

And in his letters home about this new-fangled photo-graphing (light-drawing), he said "It is very nearly the same thing as carrying off the palace itself – every chip of stone and stain is there – and of course, there is no mistake about proportions."

Ruskin left us hundreds of excellent drawings of the 'stones of Venice', but he doesn't seem to have ever considered learning the difficult process of how to make daguerrotypes for himself instead.

I wonder what he would have given for one of today's point-and-shoot digital 'sun-drawing' machines?

16 August, 2006

83. Normal working conditions.

Near the right hand edge of the image of Ca' Dario posted here on August 10, you will see what looks like a 'No Entry' sign. You would probably think that despite what I had said on another occasion about the apparent lack of traffic restrictions on the waterways of Venice, that this meant the Rio (canal) next to the palazzo was one-way traffic only. You would be wrong. It is indeed a No Entry sign, but the words underneath (which are clearly visible in the original image) in fact say "Rio Chiuso Per Lavori" – Road Closed For Works.

This is the sort of works that make a Rio in Venice impassable. In Venice, you can't repair one side of the street, leaving the other one open. In Venice, it's all or nothing, you have to close the whole street - and then take the street away before you can start work. It is never the 'street' itself that's the problem, it's the sides of the road, the foundations of the buildings, that need the periodic attention.

In many parts of the world, if it rains enough to be soggy underfoot, building work stops. If that was the union rule in Venice, work would never start. What passes for normal building conditions here would trigger a walkout almost anywhere else in the world. Here it is always soggy underfoot, damp where you're trying to work, and smelly all round – especially this close to the canal-bottom sludge in summer.

Most of the buildings in Venice are brick, a porous material, but this picture reveals the secret of what makes building out of brick possible. On top of the wooden pilings that create a more stable floor, the foundations of most of the buildings are constructed from Istrian stone, chosen not just for its strength or for its easy availability, but because it is completely non-porous, creating a moistureproof barrier between the watery streets below and the brick buildings above.

Caissons, which seem to be made from steel and concrete, are lowered into place to seal each end of the section of canal that needs to be repaired, and then the water is pumped out. The seal is never perfect, so all the time workers are inside the drained area, pumps are keeping seepage from the lagoon at bay.

Spare a thought for the original builders of the wonderful - amazingly wonderful - buildings that were erected five hundred or even a thousand years ago in the middle of this tidal lagoon under the most adverse building conditions imaginable, without electric pumps or power tools, or any of the benefits of all the other modern technologies we take for granted.

I don't know about you, but I take my hat off to them in admiration.

15 August, 2006

82. One bridge too many

John Ruskin visited Venice in 1836, when he was 16, and again a few years later when he was 22, both times accompanying his parents. Travellers to Venice in those days, whether for business or pleasure, had no option but to arrive by sea, approaching the island city slowly across the lagoon.

Well-heeled tourists like the Ruskins would have been rowed across in private gondolas, one carrying the family and several others transporting the 'cabin trunks' and other luggage, together with at least a valet and a maid, without which a Victorian gentleman's family would have been unable to travel anywhere.

Less wealthy travelers would have taken a gondola 'omnibus', the precursor to the modern vaporetta, much like the modern traghetto ferry, but larger.

In 1845, aged 26, John Ruskin visited Venice for the first time alone (well, apart from his valet and a 'traveling companion'). He was outraged to find that on the mainland where the Madonna dell'Acqua church used to be there was "a railway, covered with busy workmen, scaffolding & heaps of stones". Instead of being greeted with the sight of Venice in the distance he saw being built "the Greenwich railway, only with less arches and more dead wall, entirely cutting off the whole open sea and half the city".

I can understand his disappointment. To arrive in Venice slowly, at water level, perhaps in the fading light of late afternoon as the lanterns on the Grand Canal were being lit, would have been a magical experience and would have dramatically reinforced its unique island nature. Forever tying Venice umbilically to the mainland would have seemed to Ruskin to be a defilement of one of its most precious attributes – the freedom and independence of its watery isolation.

It is possible that some of the American students who were reading magazines or listening to iPods with their eyes shut or talking loudly about faraway boyfriends as they zoomed with us on this EuroStar express train over the long viaduct railway bridge to this platform in Santa Lucia station, may well have left the city several days later without even realizing that they had twice crossed a lagoon, or that Venice is anything more than just another old European seaside town. How sad.

14 August, 2006

81. Thalassocracy

Thalassocracy is not a word that crops up much in conversation these days, but it applies to Venice perhaps more than it has applied to any state before or since.

The word describes a state whose empire is a maritime one, derived from the sea and from its naval supremacy. In earlier times, Carthage in North Africa was a thalassocracy, as was the Phoenician network of merchant cities. In later times, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Great Britain all carved out far-flung empires for themselves mainly with warships rather than armies, and they too, are sometimes referred to as 'thalassocracies'.

But Venice more than all of them, is OF the sea. It is IN the sea. There is even a ceremony every year in May – La Sensa – when the city of Venice symbolically marries the sea. Starting in the year 1000AD, Doge Orseolo sailed out onto the lagoon with great pomp and solemnity in his ceremonial boat, and cast a gold ring into the waters with these words "We wed thee, O sea, in token of true and lasting dominion". Today, the ceremony is carried out by a local dignitary, but it still happens every year as it has for the past 1000 or so years.

Venice's empire was traditionally divided into three parts – the pre-eminent 'Dogado', which was the city and the lagoon; the 'Terrafirma', which was the city's holdings in the Veneto and other parts of Northern Italy; and the 'Mar', the overseas territories bound to Venice by sea.

The naval power of Venice came partly from its Arsenale, the dockyard that produced so many ships; partly from the fact that every one of its thousands of merchant ships were required to carry a certain amount of weaponry and armor and could be pressed into service as warships at a moment's notice; and partly from the fact that its navy never relied on slaves to pull the galley oars, the rowers were all recruited from among the citizens and this was an honourable occupation. It was also a convenient way for men who found themselves indebted to the city to work off their debts.

13 August, 2006

80. Annexe marks the spot

This beautiful atrium staircase belongs to the historic Hotel Danieli (see 'Palazzo Dandolo: May 31), one of the busiest and most expensive 5-star hotels in Venice. The hotel is popular with well-heeled tourists, but less well-regarded by some Venetians, for reasons that I'll come to.

In 1171, the Emperor of Byzantium arrested all 10,000 Venetians in Constantinople and seized all their assets. Doge Vitale Michiel II immediately raised a fleet of 120 warships and set sail for the Byzantine capital. On the way, he was met by ambassadors from the emperor who convinced him that a negotiated settlement was possible, so he parked his fleet at Chios, and sent his own ambassadors ahead to Constantinople.

He was conned. The Emperor had no such peaceful intentions, he was just playing for time, building his own defences, and he treated Venice's ambassadors with contempt. Unfortunately, while the wasted months went by, plague broke out in the overcrowded warships and rather than face a mutiny, the Doge led his depleted armada back to Venice, without achieving anything at all.

When he confessed the failure and humiliation of his mission to a general assembly, and when they found out that he had also brought the plague back to Venice with him, a mob formed outside the palace baying for Vitale Michiel's blood. He slipped out a side door, hoping to take refuge in the convent of San Zaccaria nearby, but the mob caught him along the quay and one of them stabbed him to death.

There is no monument to the unlucky Doge Vitale Michiel II in Venice, but until recently his death was commemorated in a different way. His assassin was tried and executed, and the killer's house – which was next to this former Palazzo – was razed to the ground, and it was decreed that no stone building should ever be erected on that spot.

The decree stood for more than 750 years, until the owners of this hotel convinced the city to repeal it so that they could extend their premises and build a modern annexe on what for centuries had effectively been vacant land. The building approval was very controversial at the time - and in fact it still is - and the hotel was very fortunate that they were allowed to put a modern hotel building in such a prominent and historically significant location, on the Riva Schiavoni so near the Doge's palace.

I doubt that the hotel makes many of its guests aware that they are sleeping where the city's most notorious assassin used to live.

12 August, 2006

79. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Even though 'The Frari' is listed in every guide book as a 'must visit' place for tourists, compared to some of the other grand buildings in Venice the very large brick church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari feels cold and unwelcoming, and looks awkward and unfinished. At least it does to me.

The main door into the place is typical of what I think is wrong with this building, with its chunky and unevenly proportioned columns each side; the three not very interesting sculptures perched precariously way up above the entrance where no-one can see them properly, two on the columns and one with little visible means of support at the pinnacle of the door; and the excessive roped braiding round the doorway, like a fancily embroidered cuff on the sleeve of a tatty blouse.

My brother says the Frari is a much nicer place to be when the choir is singing and the incense is swinging, and perhaps he's right, but I find it hard to excuse the unsatisfying design and clumsy finish of this church, given the prodigious effort that went into building it.

St Francis died in 1226, and by 1230 members of his new order were in Venice, looking for somewhere to build a church and a monastery. The Doge of the day, Jacopo Tiepolo, gave them this site and over the next hundred years a large Franciscan church was built, completed in 1338. By then the Doge was Francesco Dandolo, who expressed a wish to be buried in the new church when he died, which he promptly did within the year.

Dandolo left the monastic order much of his considerable fortune, and almost immediately, the Franciscans decided to pull their brand new church down and build another one in its place, even larger and facing in a different direction – a decision which somewhat complicated the burial plans of their ducal benefactor. The resulting church took another hundred years to build and this is the one you can now see in the middle of San Polo sestiere.

The Frari's main claim to fame is its massive size, the ostentatious tombs of some of the more famous people buried inside the church, and the quality of some of its decorative works of art, including several fine Titians and Donatello's painted wooden sculpture of John the Baptist. However, there are other churches and scuoli and palazzi and museums in Venice with many more great Renaissance paintings than you will find in the Frari, if that is what you want to see.

Despite my negativity towards this surprisingly much-loved church there is still (again, in my opinion) one very good reason for taking the time to visit it. In a smallish side chapel to the right of the high alter there is a Giovanni Bellini Madonna triptych that is simply drop dead gorgeous. Don't miss it.

11 August, 2006

78. Ca' Dario: Part 2

Venice was an oligarchy. One with many checks and balances which worked well for a very long time, but an oligarchy none the less.

The foundation of the system was the Great Council, the Maggior Consiglio, which was made up of between 1500 and 2000 members of Venice's aristocratic families. Officially, no-one else in Venice had any political voice, and if you were not born into one of the designated aristocratic families your chance of ever participating in any of the many levels of government was absolutely zero.

Giovanni Dario, who built this palazzo for himself, was not an aristocrat. He was a 'cittadino', a citizen, and therefore of the second rank and forever limited in Venetian society, a fact which in the light of his accomplishments, seriously pissed him off.

He was rich, he was a successful merchant, he was a respected diplomat who served Venice well – he had even successfully negotiated a peace treaty in 1479 between Venice and Sultan Mehmet II, the same Ottoman leader who had destroyed Byzantium – yet he could never receive the honours he felt he deserved, nor could he occupy a position of power and influence in the Republic.

When Dario retired from diplomacy, he built this lavishly ornamented home for himself worthy of the most exalted aristocracy. It was one of the first buildings in Venice to be completely faced in marble, and it was studded with decorative roundels of marble and porphyry, the Imperial stone, not the sort of material that an ordinary citizen would normally be presumptious enough to choose.

On the face of the building at canal level, he had these Latin words inscribed: "Urbis Genio Ioannes Darius" (click on the picture to make it bigger). This could be translated two ways. It could be taken to mean "Giovanni Dario, genius of the city", which you would have to agree was a pretty arrogant 'two-finger-salute' to the city fathers. Dario argued that it was in fact meant as a tribute from him to the city of Venice – 'genio' in Latin meaning 'spirit' – so it should be read as "Giovanni Dario, to the guiding spirit of the city".

He got away with it, but it must have been touch and go for a while, and you have to admire his cojones.

Although he could never be an aristocrat himself, Dario put together a big enough dowry for his daughter to marry into the Barbaro family, making sure that his descendants had ruling opportunities that he himself did not.

10 August, 2006

77. Ca' Dario: Part 1

This beautiful Grand Canal residence was originally built for Giovanni Dario in the late 1480s, but it has a very unfortunate reputation. Legend has it that every subsequent owner of this palazzo – still known as Ca' Dario - has died under mysterious circumstances, either accidentally, or by murder, or by suicide.

However, like most widely accepted 'truths' involving the supernatural, when you start to dig for details, hard facts are not easy to come by. Yes, there have been suicides associated with the palazzo, most notably the death of Raul Gardini, one of Italy's best-known industrialists, who killed himself while he was the palazzo's owner in 1992, but that may not be any more significant than any of the other incidences that are supposed to have occurred in the last 500 years.

It may be possible to prove that this palazzo has the highest occurrence of unusual or sudden death of owners compared to all the other palazzi, but that in itself is not statistically significant. One or other of the palazzi on the Grand Canal has to be the owner of that peculiar honor, why not this one?

Isn't it possible that owners of Venetian palazzi have always tended to be successful, older, very rich, high stress type of people in the public eye, who have a greater propensity to being noticed when they die suddenly? And isn't it probable that such people are also more likely to be the target of kidnappers, robbers, and murderers? Given the stakes being played for at various times in Venice's history, I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few of the owners of almost any palazzo in Venice haven't been knocked off over the years, or haven't died 'unexpectedly', sometimes at the hands of relatives – after all, many of them lived lives that are a long way from what we would call statistically 'normal'.

One of the latest victims of the 'Dario curse' now being touted is John Entwhistle, the bass player for the rock band The Who, who leased this palazzo in 2002, and then died 'in mysterious circumstances' soon after. The cause of his death was cocaine induced heart failure. The mysterious circumstances are: which room of the Hard Rock Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas did he die in? (the managers of the hotel want to keep that secret to avoid fans making it into a shrine); and what was the name of the stripper he was rumoured to be making love with at the time of his death? (even old rock stars shouldn't tarnish their legends by snuffing it alone).

I am personally sorry that the world's greatest ever rock bass player is no longer with us, but I don't think the fact that he was renting this building at the time could have had much to do with his demise, do you?

09 August, 2006

76. Not much of a memorial

It's not surprising in a city where building land is at such a premium, that there are many places where the houses and businesses have grown over the narrow streets below and made practical use of the space above a walking citizen's head height.

As a result there are 'Sotoportegi' like this one all over Venice, covered walkways that punch through and between buildings linking lanes and alleys at ground level. Some are very narrow and dark, some short and wide, some so low you need to duck your head (if you are, like me, a little taller than average male).

Some people find them a little sinister and threatening and avoid going through them, but I love the surprise of not always being able to know what’s on the other side. Sometimes you can go through a Sotoportego at the end of a narrow alley only to find yourself in another almost identical narrow alley, sometimes you can emerge into a bright and busy campo you didn't even know was there. Sometimes, if you’re not careful, you can end up in a canal.

All of the Sotoportegi worthy of that description have names, mostly unrelated to the names of whatever two places they are connecting. 'Malipiero' is an aristocratic Venetian family name best known in more recent years for the musicians and composers that it has produced.

Francesco Malipiero was an opera composer of the early 19th century, his son Luigi was a conductor and pianist, and Luigi's son Gian Francesco was a very successful composer and teacher of the early 20th century, among whose fans was Benito Mussolini.

On the other hand, there is a Ca' Malipiero Hotel in Castello that is housed in the 15th century former home of Pasquale Malipiero, the 66th Doge of Venice, so I think it is much more likely that this ancient-looking Sotoportego was named after him rather than after any of his musical descendants.

This sotoportego may not be the most extravagant of memorials to a former leader, but then Pasquale, whose reign from 1457-1462 was as undistinguished as it was brief, wasn't much of Doge.

08 August, 2006

75. Booty from Byzantium: Part 4

Today I'm going to ask you to do something strange. I want you to feel sorry for an Emperor of Byzantium, a place which for most of its 1123 years of existence was the richest and most powerful empire the world had ever known. Nevertheless, I would like you to empathize with him and share for a moment what must have been for him a very painful experience.

In 'Palazzo Dandolo' on May 31 in this blog, I told you how Venice sacked Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, in 1204 and stole so many of its treasures. On June 16 and 17, and on July 10, I told you about the horses and the porphyry sculpture that Venice captured and has displayed ever since at the Basilica of San Marco. On July 7, I told you how Emperor John VIII Paleologus came cap in hand to Venice in 1438, imploring her help in defending what was left of his diminishing empire.

Imagine that scene in 1438. It is now 234 years after the sacking. Most of the wounds have healed. The Greeks under John VIII have been back in control of the Eastern Roman Empire again for 180 years or so. Trading has occurred. Venice and Constantinople are friends again. Well, sort of. John VIII arrives in Venice with his 600 strong entourage. He is housed in a large palace. He is treated with respect, welcomed with pomp and ceremony as an Emperor should be.

At some point during the sojourn, it is absolutely certain that the Doge would have invited his Imperial guest to worship with him at his private chapel. To not do so would have been disrespectful. To refuse would have been an insult. But this is the moment when the mighty power that Venice had become was able to psychologically crush its former master, and was able to do it passively, almost incidentally.

John VIII would not have walked to church from his palace on the Grand Canal. He would have ridden in an ornate vessel of some sort to the steps of the Doge's Palace, then walked, perhaps on a red carpet, the 100 meters or so to the Doge's own chapel – which just happened to be the Basilica San Marco – past this, the southern wall of the great church.

This image would have been the first part of San Marco that John VIII would have set eyes on. He would have known of and recognized the porphyry sculpture of his predecessors on the lower corner facing him, stolen from his home city. Perhaps he commented on it, perhaps he ignored it. Looking instead at the wall facing him, he would have seen slabs of marble and decorative panels that had once adorned the churches of Constantinople, now flaunted over every façade of the cathedral. Walking on, he would have looked up and seen the Quadriga horses from his own Hippodrome. Inside the church, in pride of place would have been the Palo d'Oro, a solid gold and jewel encrusted alterpiece containing dozens of Byzantine holy icons – all part of the booty boosted from Constantinople during the three days of rape and pillage following its fall.

Then, the ruler of Eastern Orthodoxy would have had to swallow even more of his pride and pray at a Catholic mass. His humiliation at the hands of his former vassal state would have been complete.

To his credit, the Emperor must have born his ignominious situation with dignity. Any other response would have surely been noted and recorded and gloated over.

But you have to feel a bit sorry for him. Don't you?

07 August, 2006

74. Zattere

The usually fairly short paved stretches running partway along the sides of canals or fronting the lagoon are known as the 'Fondamente' – the 'foundations', which I suppose is an appropriate name for the place at the sides of the canals where the lower levels of the buildings begin.

Sometimes these walkways have a unique name of their own, for instance, one of the fondamente beside the Rio San Barnaba is called the Fondamenta Gherardini. Sometimes they will just take the name of the Rio they run alongside, for instance beside the Rio Novo is the Fondamenta del Rio Novo.

This particular fondamenta is longer and wider than any other in Venice and it has many names, although it is only ever known by one. It runs along the southern edge of Dorsoduro, looking across to the island of Giudecca, and at its western end it is the Fondamenta Zattere al Ponte Longo, which becomes the Fondamenta Zattere al Gesuiti, which runs into the Fondamenta Zattere Incurabili, then the Fondamenta Zattere al Spirito Santo, then the Fondamenta Zattere al Saloni, and finally the Fondamenta Dogana e la Salute, when it reaches the eastern tip of the sestiere at La Dogana at the mouth of the Grand Canal.

That may be its real names, but to most Venetians and to the world, the whole of this long promenade is only ever referred to as the Zattere.

Timber was the main building material in Venice, and rafts made of and carrying timber were floated from the Republic's forests on the Veneto mainland down the River Piave and towed across the lagoon to this quayside. 'Una zattera' means a 'raft', and this was once a busy dock where countless 'zattere' carrying vast quantities of building material were dismantled and brought ashore.

Nowadays, the Zattere is a very pleasant place to sit in the summer sun with an espresso at a waterside café, or, like this couple, to have a leisurely misty winter afternoon stroll to the shops.

06 August, 2006

73. A brief claim to fame

There is a plaque proudly displayed on the front wall of the Londra Palace Hotel on the Riva Schiavoni, not far from the Doge's Palace, and it says this, translated loosely from the Italian:

"The great Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky stayed from the 2nd to the 16th December 1877 in this hotel, where he composed his Fourth Symphony."

I don't know about you, but I find that simple statement extraordinary. How could he have written such a huge piece of music as the Fourth in only two weeks? In a hotel room? But just suppose for a moment that he did, it must have been a Herculean all-out effort, which means that Tchaikovsky went all the way to Venice and did nothing else at all while he was there except write music! This must have been a fantastic hotel if Tchaikovsky preferred the inside of it to the exclusion of all else.

The truth of course is slightly different.

1877 was what you might call an up and down year for Peter T. On the upside, his Swan Lake was premiered in February to great acclaim. Also, his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, gave him several other commissions and enough money to keep composing fulltime, and in the spring he began to compose his Fourth Symphony (yes, the one on the plaque). Oddly, although she was a huge fan, Madame von Meck never allowed Tchaikovsky to meet her, though they corresponded almost daily for fifteen years.

Then the composer did something very unwise. Not recognizing, or more likely, not admitting even to himself that he was gay, he married a young woman ten years his junior. This was a disaster, and within three months his marriage was dissolved, Tchaikovsky had a complete mental breakdown, and he attempted suicide by plunging himself into the icy waters of the Moscow River. His musical friends rescued him by chipping in to buy him a long holiday in Italy.

I think by now you've realised that the hotel plaque is not telling the whole story.

True, the 'great Russian composer' did write some music while he was in Venice, but only the conclusion of the Fourth Symphony, not the whole lot as intimated on the plaque. And he didn't have a fabulous time at this albergo, either. He wrote to his brother Anatole, "I shall leave Venice without sorrow….it is only thanks to the monotony of Venetian life and lack of distractions that I could work so hard and so intensively". Venice... boring?!

What's more, that letter was written on Christmas Eve, which means that the hotel's illustrious guest was still in Venice but must have moved out of the Londra Palace by then and gone to stay somewhere else. I don't know what caused the composer to find a different hotel in the middle of his stay, but the reason is unlikely to be a ringing endorsement for the hospitality of the Londra Palace Hotel.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good bit of PR.

05 August, 2006

72. Hitching posts

If you have never been to Venice it is easy to make quite false assumptions about it.

Every schoolkid who knows anything at all about Venice knows at least this: that the main roads are all canals. Consequently, we all understand that Venetians have to use boats instead of wheeled vehicles. It is then easy to make direct mental substitutes, one type of vehicle for the other, eg bicycles/rickshaws = rowboats; taxis/cars = motorboats; buses = vaporetti; trucks = barges, and at a functional level, this analogy works.

It would be very wrong, though, to assume as a result of that comparison that Venice is a lot like other cities, except with very soggy roads and different vehicles. The fact is that people in Venice have a profoundly different relationship to transport.

In most cities, vehicular transport is the norm, walking is the exception and very localised – and in some places, like Los Angeles, walking is an aberration to be discouraged, achieved only with great difficulty and physical danger from pedestrian-hostile traffic systems.

In Venice, it's the very opposite. Because of its island nature, everything in Venice is within walking distance, so most people who live here don't even want to own a boat, they walk everywhere. There is no Hertz or Thrifty Rent-a-boat service, so most visitors don't hire their own boat for the duration, they walk. Everybody uses vaporetti to get from island to island around the lagoon, or from one end of the city to the other, but otherwise they walk. And because of the total lack of any kind of wheeled vehicles in the land-based streets, Venice is a walker's paradise.

The relatively small proportion of residents who do own a boat also don't seem to wrestle with any of the traffic restrictions that vehicle owners have to cope with in other cities. There are no double yellow lines painted on the sides of canals, no Clearway signs, no roundabouts, traffic lights, stop signs, or parking meters. And there is so little traffic, they don't even have any trouble parking their boat when they get to where they want to go.

in the walls of medieval buildings in the old city centres of Europe, it is common to see iron rings or posts set into the stonework at about a metre above the ground. These are hitching posts and it is to them that you would have tied the reins of your horse when you wanted to park.

There were horses in Venice at one time, but I don't recall ever seeing that sort of hitching post here. Hitching posts in Venice mostly look like this – an iron ring set into the paving at the edges of the canals – and many of them are still used for their original purpose, which is to tie the reins of your vehicle to when you want to park. That's if you are unfortunate enough to have to have a vehicle.

Doesn't that make you green with envy?

04 August, 2006

71. Santa Maria della Salute: Part 3

Longhena won the competition to design this church partly because he proposed that the whole building should resemble a crown, a fitting symbol for the Virgin Mother. The interior reflects that vision and it's dominated by this central octagonal space under the main cupola, with chapels radiating out from the centre.

I don't find the interior of this church all that interesting. It doesn't have the warmth of San Marco, or the intricate charm of some of the smaller churches in Venice, to me it's just a collection of neo-classical bits in a pleasant enough arrangement.

With this exception. The floor, like so many other floors in Venice, is superb.

The wonderful floor in this church (incidentally, also designed by Longhena) spreads out in concentric circles from the central rosette, with spiraling decorative strips of diamonds and triangles and squares and circles in all kinds of rich coloured marble – red Verona, yellow Torri, black Iseo, and white Carrara.

This city, more than any other, is a city of detail. The terrazzieri, the flooring artists of Venice, so often gave free reign to their imaginations and created inlaid incrustations of exotic stone and polychromatic marble and intricate mosaic – producing marvellous surfaces more like Persian carpets than what we normally think of as functional flooring.

Even when the floors of the foyers of our towering CBD mega office blocks – those modern day cathedrals – are finished in the most expensive and durable materials available today, the chances are they will be laid out in polished squares of uniform charcoal grey.

That's not a floor. But go visit the Salute. Now THAT's a Floor.

03 August, 2006

70. Santa Maria della Salute: Part 2

The original design of this grand basilica was chosen as the result of a competition, won by a relatively young architect, 32 years old Baldessare Longhena. Although Longhena lived till he was 84, and worked on the church for the rest of his life, the scaffolding only finally came down on completion in 1687, five years after his death.

It has a number of unusual features: the double domes, one larger than the other; the octagonal shape of the main interior space; and the bizarre spiraling pinwheel buttresses surrounding the larger dome, like slices from some giant swiss roll.

Henry James described the building as like "some great lady on the threshold of her salon…with her domes and scrolls, her scalloped buttresses and statues forming a pompous crown, and her wide steps disposed on the ground like the train of a robe."

John Ruskin was less enthusiastic in his 1853 book, 'The Stones of Venice'. "(Among) the principal faults of the building are… the ridiculous disguise of the buttresses under the form of colossal scrolls…"

Ruskin called the buttresses themselves on this "Grotesque Renaissance" building "an hypocrisy", and if his cited source is correct, then he was right in this assessment. Ruskin observed that Selvatico and Lazari in their 'Guida di Venezia a delle isole cirnconvicine' state that the cupola structure is made of timber. With a stone cupola, the downward and outward forces from the compressive weight of the dome would need reinforcing buttresses to hold it up, but with a lighter wooden dome, no buttresses at all would have been necessary.

Which means they aren't really buttresses at all and that Longhena put them on just for decoration. How Italian is that?

02 August, 2006

69. Santa Maria della Salute: Part 1

One of the most recognizable silhouettes on the Venetian skyline, the church of Santa Maria della Salute dominates the lower reaches of the Grand Canal.

'Salute' means 'health', but it also means 'salvation', and the church acquired its name because it was commissioned at the beginning of an outbreak of the plague in 1630, as a prayer for salvation. The Redentore, on Giudecca, (see the post here on June 2) was built as an act of thanksgiving after the city's final deliverance from the previous plague attack in 1575, but this even grander edifice was started in the hope that the Holy Mother might be persuaded to intervene while the plague was still happening and protect the city from the worst of the current outbreak.

Arguably, the plan worked. This time, fewer people died, only 46,490 citizens perished compared to some 51,000 in the first epidemic, which in one sense was an improvement.

Equally arguably, the holy bribe failed. As the city's numbers had not yet recovered to their former levels, the dead this time represented an even higher proportion of the total populace than before, pushing the number of survivors left in 1633 down to only 102,000, the lowest city headcount for more than 200 years.

The project even started badly. The foundation stone was to be laid by Doge Nicolo Contarini on Ascension Day 1631, but he was bedridden on that day, and the laying was postponed for a week. On April 1, the Duke hauled himself from his sickbed and performed the ceremony, then died at 7am the following morning. That should have been a sign that Mary wasn't in much of a compassionately intervening mood, but the church construction went ahead anyway.

Each year on November 21, the city celebrates the Festa della Madonna della Salute, and a procession of worshippers approaches the church from San Marco across the Grand Canal on a pontoon made of boats, to then give thanks for salvation from the plague in the great octagonal church.

I suppose an optimist would say that although a third of the city died, two-thirds of it didn't, but that seems to me to be a flimsy and macabre cause for celebration.

01 August, 2006

68. Ghosts in the walls

Doors and windows are not just openings in the outside walls of a building, they are a reflection of what is happening inside as well. People change their minds about how to use a building, and sometimes that means they need to change the building physically.

What used to be a hallway is now a storage space; one large bedroom becomes two smaller ones; enlarging the kitchen means moving the front door a metre or so to one side; and so on.

One of the fascinating things to me about Venice (and about Italy in general) is that when structural changes are made to a building, the builders very often make no attempt to disguise the effect of their renovations on the outward appearance of the building. Sometimes, they even make a feature of the structural residue, deliberately accentuating its former outline by rendering or painting around it.

Almost every wall in Venice carries the scars in its surface where doors and windows used to be, but where they are no longer.

I love these scars. I call them 'ghosts' – ghost doors and ghost windows – and I have collected hundreds of these sometimes clear sometimes faint echoes of the past. In the older walls centuries of renovation history are writ into the brickwork, successive outlines of windows speak of changing tastes in design and shape. Doors become windows and windows become doors, and both become shadows of their former selves.

The central window of this first floor pharmacy became redundant and was killed off some time ago, yet some of its bones very deliberately remain in place as its memorial.