September 2, 2003 (Tuesday) - Venice
"God, did we sleep with the lights on all night?" No, since when I turn I can see through the windows the bright light of day and a blue sky. I open the windows wide and with this come into the room a breeze and the typical noises of the Riva: people, chairs being dragged at the restaurants below just to right and left of the hotel, the buzz of motor boats. The Meteo was right last night: This is a SUNNY day! Just what we would have ordered, if anybody had bothered to ask us.
The breakfast in Hotel Paganelli's Annex is a pleasant surprise: this is now a full buffet, as opposed to last year's continental which, by the way, was enough anyway.
Today is a catch up day: at the top of our list are Campo San Polo and the Frari, which we managed to miss a year ago. We are fresh enough not to jump on a vaporetto and retrace on foot the well known path to the Rialto, with the intention to cross and walk along Fondamenta del Vin and cut to San Polo through San Silvestro and Aponal. Of course, once on the bridge, we get caught into the milling multitudes and drop on the other side of the bridge and into the market, "just to look".
We know, though, from so many guides and stories that prices for Murano glass objects are lower in Venice than in Murano itself. Well, we look and stop here and there, and Josette notices in one of the stalls a beautiful plate, just like the one she coveted the evening before at a store around Campo SS. Filippo and Giacomo, but visibly larger, and with the reddish tint she really wanted.
We enter into a desultory conversation with the young woman minding the place but she doesn't seem to get on with our English, and surely not with my Italian, which is primed more for basic necessities of life, not for purchasing works of art. Deus ex machina: the owner appears: very attractive older gentleman, good English, easy reassuring manner; it is clear he is not there to sell, just to show us the glass beads, to explain the technique, to assure that what we just now hold is really one of the best pieces of its kind to come out of Moretti in the last 50 years or so, but if we wish, there are others, somewhat smaller pieces, maybe less expensive, surely not Moretti, do we wish him to bring them up to the front of the store?
Sure enough, after a feeble attempt at a discount and appropriate gesticulation, and assurances of friendship forever, we depart with the plate, appropriately certified with a certificate of authenticity pulled from a box full of its kind. (The plate, at the time these lines are being written, graces our living room on an appropriate stand and it is indeed beautiful company to the adjacent Hutschereuther.)
As we trace back our steps towards Fondamenta del Vin and San Silvestro, the plate safely packed and tucked in my shoulder bag, I remind Josette gently that I have also noticed a plate, a different type of plate, true, but maybe, on the way back, you know, we may stop at the Trevisan store and take a second look at it? Agreement secured, we return purposefully to our initial plan: we cut inland, towards San Polo.
The Campo is large, much larger than we expected. After admiring Palazzo Tiepolo with the façade embellished with masks, we go into the church, mainly to see Tintoretto's astonishing, totally unconventional Last Supper. We then press on, deciding on a detour: first San Rocco, then Frari.
The story of San Rocco has all the ingredients we like: a young medical student, dedication and sacrifice in times of plague, and the life-saving and devoted stray dog who stands by, feeds and watches over the young and deadly sick doctor till recovery. It is to be noticed that the only one sanctified was the human. Well, I better stay out of this…
As we reach the small Campo, the first thing we see is the elegant façade of the church, an harmonious blend of classic lines and over-the-top decoration, blinding white in the direct sunlight. When our retinas return to normal vision, the second thing we notice is a good looking, nattily dressed young man, hair in a neat ponytail, a sort of pamphlet in hand. Pointing to a tag with the word LAUTARI on it, together with a name too small to read, a number, etc., the young man pushes himself in our faces and wants us to participate in the fight against drugs. He speaks Italian, he speaks English, I look at the tag and ask: "Lautari? Isn't this a Romanian word for band of musicians playing folk music?" "Yes, indeed! You know the word?" "Yes," I say, but now we just want to enter the Scuola, "we'll talk later".
I just hate being accosted on the street, particularly when I have just regained my eyesight after being blinded by the sun. I walk around the young man, around his partner standing by a table with a bunch of pamphlets and trying to stop other passers by, and enter the wonderful world of Tintoretto… through the wrong door. Out again, by the two now less than engaging young men, and to the correct door.
For the following hour we walk, starting from the Sala dell'Albergo down to the ground floor hall, engrossed into one of the greatest cycles of pictorial work, from the Glory of San Rocco to the dramatic, almost frenetic Crucifixion, and the works of late maturity downstairs, in which nature scenes are given as much importance as the scenes of the Old and New Testament which these landscapes host.
We rest on a bench, and jet lag wins one over me: I fall asleep for a few minutes in Tintoretto’s temple! When I come back to, I think I am in Paradise, and we remember and talk about Tintoretto's own Paradise, that in the Doge's Palace, another enormous and frenetic work. Where did he take the energy and vision to start, and to finish, such enormous projects, still leaving behind so many other exceptional works? A Titan, of the same stature as a Michelangelo.
We would like to come back to the Scuola, maybe for a concert but, alas, nothing going for the days we will be in Venice. On to the Chiesa di San Rocco,
As we step out, we are accosted again, this time by the other of the two young men. He is even more insistent. By now I am irritated by their manner, and somewhat suspicious, but I have nothing against the fight against drugs and I pick up the proffered pen, to add my signature to the many already on the current page of an otherwise quite thick register.
As I start writing my name, I notice that the last column in the register, next to the signature, indicates sums of money, from 10 Euro to 50 Euro, each signature and an amount of money. Well, I am not going to give a bunch of cash to people I know nothing about and so, I just sign and put a "tick" sign where the amount would have been, return the pen and walk away wondering at the many people who left their money there, cash, to a couple of individuals they know absolutely nothing about. Am I heartless, or stingy (I am not, by nature) or are all these people naïve beyond belief?
[Off, on a tangent: To give Caesar his due, upon my return home I googled "lautari". Indeed, there is a cooperative with this name, registered in Pozzolengo in the Province of Brescia (BS), with regular articles of association, the first articles of association I have ever seen made of Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 19. Quote: " L'oggetto sociale della Cooperativa è la creazione di una comunità residenziale psicoergoterapica per il recupero dei tossicodipendenti mediante attività di recupero psicofisico e psicosociale, attività artigianali, agricole e di qualificazione professionale". End of quote. The means by which these objectives are to be reached are further listed in detail, but none includes aggressive fund-raising on the streets of Italian cities. Maybe I am indeed a heartless guy. By the way, when googling "lautari", the first two entries refer to this cooperative; the other 2918 refer to Romanian folk music…]
The church itself has balanced proportions, and the cool air is a welcome change from the hot sun outside. Here Tintoretto toiled some more, depicting the story of San Rocco in a number of powerfully expressive paintings.
Back into the sun, walking in a wide circle around the "lautari", and on towards the Frari. It is time for lunch and we stop at a small café next to the Campo dei Frari and order a couple of sandwiches and coffee. The sandwiches arrive soon, both displaying Canadian flags on toothpicks stuck in sandwiches. How did they know? We ask the waitress how did she know we were from Canada and we share with her a good laugh as she shows us a box full with a variety of national flags, from which she picks them at random and sticks them in sandwiches. She readily agrees she has magic if she was capable of picking not one, but both Canadian flags.
We move on to another kind of magic, that of the Basilica dei Frari. From the outside, the weathered brick structure with its startlingly white door frame, the three similarly white framed rose windows and "wedding cake" turrets and the graceful but somewhat standoffish Campanile crowned by a Moorish balcony with the same white accents, give the visitor little notice of what can be expected inside.
But then, nothing could have prepared me for the majesty of this enormous airy space, and for the richness of the art inside. The first impression is the seemingly floating forest of wooden beams supporting the nave, a perspective of beams and arches, a tri-dimensional abstract floral motive. (As I write these lines, I look at a picture taken in the Basilica and it appears as if an infinite number of mirrors repeat the pointed semicircle formed by the straight beams and the Gothic arches. I am running out of words now, as then.)
Once I am able to tear my eyes away from the ceiling I run into the Tizian festival, with the swirling Assumption at the centre of the high altar and Madona di Ca' Pesaro, while Tizian himself watches over them from his final rest place, to the right of the entrance. We move from altar to altar, all 17 of them, sit from time to time to absorb what we see: the warm brown and white brick and stone work, the tombs, simple or ornate, bearing resounding names and with them much of the history of Venice. We stop to admire the wonderful coro, itself a capo d'opera, and look again towards the high altar, where, above and around Tizian's Assumption, four rows of long arched windows let light in, and to its sides rest two Doges, Foscari and Tron.
Elsewhere, we practically step on, and stop in front of Claudio Monteverdi's tomb, as it rests just at our feet. The sacristy houses Giovanni Bellini's triptych of The Madonna, Child and Saints, surrounded by the same kind of Gothic windows as in the Basilica behind the high altar, but with light more gradated here, from the darker bottom to the full light from the higher windows, creating a natural spot light, large enough to illuminate the entire work.
We turn toward the sunlight of the peaceful cloister, again bright white framing of brown walls and arcades, walk around, and out, and leave Frari, which I think just became my preferred church and museum in all of Venice. Well, the competition is not closed as yet; five more days to go.
With the vaporetto back to San Zaccaria, we return to our room for a well-deserved rest and collection of thoughts.
Towards late afternoon we take a shortcut through Via delle Rasse and enter the Trevisan shop after making sure that the plate I want is still in the window. A few minutes later, with the plate well packed and in my shoulder bag, and with it another certificate of authenticity of the same variety, i.e. pulled from a box full with similar cards, attesting that the plate, itself more like a scooped boat shape with golden and red highlights, is the product of Vetreria Accaeffe. The certificate assures me that "slight variations in thickness, height, colour, (etc.) are unavoidable. In fact, they increase the value of each glass (sic!)…” Well, my plate must be extremely valuable, because I wanted it exactly for the variations in colour, so I am content with the acquisition. As we leave the shop we stop at "Alla Rivetta" and make a reservation for dinner tomorrow night, when our friend R. from Milano will join us for a day. The Italians have never any trouble spelling my name, I notice again. Particularly if I rrrroll the rs and oooopen the o’s and the i’s.
Our plan for the rest of the day is quite simple: we will retrace the easy way we used a year ago to get to the Arsenale and then go on to Sette Martiri where, from our room, we were able to see a couple of rather long, double-deck ships, with the typical elongated profile of flat-bottom river cruisers. We figure "MS Venezia", the ship we will board on Saturday for a cruise up the River Po, may be already docked and are curious to see it.
Well, the best laid plans… We snake in and out of Castello, over this bridge or the other, and wherever we turn everything looks awfully familiar but the road does not lead to the Arsenale. Frustrated, we decide to return to the Riva and first walk towards Sette Martiri. A long, gorgeous walk on the wide street devoid of tourists, or any other souls for this matter, all quiet in the golden afternoon. As usual, as I pass by his “house”, I pay silent respects to Petrarca.
At the Sette Martiri we find not "Venezia" but "Michelangelo", the ship on which our friends went up the river three years ago. We take for them a couple of pictures of the ship and turn back, with a stop at a cash machine.
Just to our right, opens the only real street of Venice, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Hardly one step on the street and to the right a building reveals a marble plaque commemorating Giovanni Caboto. This will stop a Canadian in his tracks, because Giovanni Caboto is better known in English and Canadian history as John Cabot, the valiant explorer who sailed with the permit and support of King Henry VII to discover the maritime route to India. The idea Caboto/Cabot sold successfully to the King of England, after being rebuked by Spanish and Portuguese monarchs, was that a voyage to India must follow a Northern route which, in the event, turned out to be much farther North than the routes attempted by Columbus, Vespucci and Magellan.
The King armed for him a modest, smallish vessel, probably because it was considered a rather iffy investment, but John Cabot and his crew sailed and sailed and finally touched shore in the summer of 1497 in a spectacular place, which he called, imaginatively, “New Found Land”, today’s Newfoundland. While he was convinced this land was lying just off the coast of India, he in fact had just opened to the world one of the greatest resources of ethnic jokes, the Newfy jokes, familiar to any Canadian. He never knew, and it will not be known for about another 500 years, that this land was already discovered by the Norse, who probably called it Vinland, but not because in it grew grapes (to this day what grows there in terms of stronger beverage is called screech, after the howl one looses after having a first taste of the famous rum, locally distilled by Newfoundlanders in stills hidden deep into the woods and away from the eye of the state controlled liquor boards).
But back to Venice, what I didn’t know was that Caboto, although born in Genova, sold his soul to Venetians, at the time the fiercest rivals to the Genovese, and became a Venetian citizen before defecting to the English. Hence the afore mentioned plaque.
After this unexpected Venetian encounter with a Canadian icon, we walk down Via Garibaldi, an unusually wide street in any Italian context (imagine Via dei Calzaiuoli in Florence around the Piazza della Republica), long from Riva San Biagio to Fondamenta Sant’Anna and from there on to Calle Quintavalle and to Isola di San Pietro. Via Garibaldi, and much of the surrounding residential area, was built in fact on the Fondamenta, hence its totally un-Venetian dimensions. The street is full of shops, restaurants and cafés, and owns one of the entrances to the famous Giardini Publicci of Venice.
Along the street, at this early evening hour, the school is closed, people are out in groups, kids beat the heck out of a football, men sit in cafés having a smoke, women mostly standing in groups in animated discussion, some still carrying their shopping bags, basically life as you could have seen anywhere else in Venice if… Venice would have had another street this size. Together with the adjacent smaller and narrower streets, Via Garibaldi is like a little town in itself and yet to be discovered by tourism, a Venetian well kept secret. A future visit to Venice will definitely see me return to Via Garibaldi and taking the leisurely walk to Isola di San Pietro where, it was suggested recently by a friend, the Chiesa di San Pietro in Castello is a must see place.
Reaching the farther end of Via Garibaldi, we debate whether to sit down and have dinner at one of the modest restaurants along the street but we make a mistake and decide against it. Instead, we meander through the path to the left of the Museo Storico Navale, towards the Arsenale, where we recall having spent last year just as nice an evening as this one at one of the restaurant-cafés facing the gate of the Arsenale.
Evidence of a lot of work is going on along the path, as it was a year ago and as it will probably be for many more years, but once up at the apex of the bridge crossing over the canal and into the piazzetta in front of the entrance to Arsenale we forget the mess because a wide vista of the Arsenale opens and one could easily imagine the hustle and bustle that went on when this was the site of the largest shipbuilding yards in the world. Today, the only hustle is done by a girl who seems to have opened a yard sale, with little toys for sale displayed on an impeccably white sheet of linen spread on the pavement. And there is no bustle. Nor food. One of the restaurants, which we liked before, has run out of cicheti and of anything else (!) except coffee and water, which we order. The other restaurant, for some unexplained reason, I don’t like.
Arsenale, view from the bridge
And so, for the second mistake this evening, we finish our coffee and decide to look for dinner “in town”, around the hotel. After eyeballing an obvious tourist grab, we sit but, once presented with the menu which has about 8 choices in all, printed with letters one inch high, we just leave and end up right across, at Da Ninno’s, where I have a passable meal of sarde saór and tagliatelle con fungheti but Josette’s grilled salmon, she will tell me only later, is really bad, and she leaves most of it on the plate. With ½ l. of house white, two espresso and water, it all comes up to 40 Euro, which wouldn’t have been too bad if the food would have been better. Da Nino looks a bit like a tourist trap; judging by the food, it may be one indeed. The mediocre meal is saved somewhat by the grace of an itinerant guitarist who belts out all the French, Italian and American “restaurant songs” and canzonette one could think of, and gets from us a couple of Euros and an A for volume and F for the rest of his talents.
Somewhat later, we have one of the most wonderful nights in Piazza San Marco, where the three bands at Florian, Quadri and Lavena are dishing out magical musical fare, particularly at Florian, where tonight the orchestra is in great form. It is almost impossible, even with artificial hips, not to want to dance, and so we take a turn with a tango and nearby a small group of Japanese dance up a storm, ballroom-dancing style, really good ballroom dancing, with the requisite turns and complex steps and flourishes. Two of them go on demonstrating their foxtrot and passo doble, with bystanders applauding enthusiastically, and the dancers bowing with grace.
After a while, I approach them, congratulate them and tell them how much they remind me of a beautiful Japanese film, whose title I forgot, about a Japanese man who falls in love with ballroom dancing and with a dance teacher. “Shall we dance?”, the Japanese man refreshes my memory. “Yes”, I say, "this is it!" And I ask in my best Canadian English: “Where in Japan are you from?” And they smile and answer in a chorus: “Oh, we are from L.A.!” They enjoy my surprise look.
Tan-go alla Piazza San Marco
The music starts again and, after another set at Florian, we go to check out the other two bands, but they seem to be stuck at the Phantom of the Opera and the like, so we walk slowly home, through the Piazzetta, where at Café Chioggia a forlorn saxophone moans in front of two people at a table, to show that nothing is new under the moon in Venice. Day 2.