Venice, June 14, 2011—AN INTERESTING CONVERSATION yesterday with the proprietor of a glass shop on Murano. Another couple was in the shop as we entered; with them, a ten-year-old boy who was carelessly bouncing something small and unseen in his hand, palm up, tossing it a foot or two into the air and then catching it, for all the world as if there weren't thousands of dollars' worth of fragility all around him.
The couple seemed distracted and irresolute; the shopkeeper grumpy and watchful — though for some reason he hadn't noticed the boy's activity (he was at the other end of the shop). The couple left, and we greeted the shopkeeper, and it was then I described the boy's startling behavior.
But where are you from, the shopkeeper asked; California, I said. Americani? Non sono Americani come tutti gli Americani, he responed, you aren't American like all the [other] Americans. I gave my standard explanation: we're not Americans, we're Californians. You're Italian, I went on, but you don't seem like a Roman, or a … and here I trailed off, not wanting to tread on any toes.
He finally broke into a smile and the conversation was on, again in fractured and only half-comprehending Italian on my side, clear but sometimes too-quick Italian on his.
He'd had a factory, he explained, but when it was time to get out of that his wife wanted him to open a shop for her, but she never sets foot in it, he's there all day. They never leave Venice, there are the grandchildren to stay near. In any case Venetians don't travel; until recently they didn't even go to Mestre, now of course they live in Mestre, but until recently they didn't even go there, going to Mestre was like going to America. (Mestre's a ten-minute train ride, a forty-five minute walk, from Venice, at least from the near end of Venice.)
He cleared up for me the matter of the weekend's election. It was a national referendum, and as such needed a turnout of more than fifty percent of the electorate; this one cleared that requirement fairly handily.
There were four items on the ballot: a shutdown of Italy's nuclear energy industry; two items restricting private ownership of and profit from water distribution; and a repeal (as I understand it) of various recent decisions granting exemption from prosecution to certain political leaders (read: Silvio Berlusconi).
Well, as we were talking, it was pretty clear this was all going to pass, and this morning's news revealed the margin was stunning, over 95% of voters approving each of the four items. (BBC report on all this here.) Our Murano friend must be pretty happy about this, and our Veronese friends even more so; I can hardly wait to hear from R____ about this. (But he's spending the summer on a Greek island, pretty far from reality, so it may be a while before he gets to me.)
Shopkeeper seemed to conform to an Italian temperament I've seen elsewhere: a little stoic, ironic, intelligent and informed. He banters easily once he feels it safe to do so. He's pessimistic about The Direction Things Are Taking: Venetians don't care about anything but money these days; everyone's stressed out; people spend too much time with gadgets. Yet he speaks easily about driving 225 kilometers an hour when he has to drive to Naples, getting there in four hours, in a car he describes as big and comfortable, to Rome.
We were interrupted a second time: a short, chunky man, dark green heavy shirt, wearing an American Civil War slouch military cap, wanted Orange Horse. You have orange horse? (Picking up, examining, tiny glass horses, one by one.) Shopkeeper eyed him a little nervously, I thought: Careful, those are glass you know, break one and it's yours. (His English was quite good, I realized a little remorsefully; why had I been torturing him with my barbaric Italian?)
Misinterpreting Shopkeeper's oddly intense gaze, Orange Horse pointed to a button on his cap. Union, he said. Union; it's Union. Shopkeeper looked at me meaningfully, his forefinger almost imperceptibly touching his temple, and I saw clearly in his eye: e pazzo, he's nuts. No orange horse, he said, with finality, and Union Cap turned and slouched out of the shop.
THE OTHER DAY, another conversation, with a young man, French-born I think, in the Fortuny Museum. Museum: what a misnomer. This is an enchanting place: Fortuny's house, a good-sized ca' near the Rialto, probably at one time housing not only residence and studio but atelier as well.
The first floor is housing a beautifully curated show of art of the last couple of decades, interspersed with some older pieces. Giacometti's Invisible Object, for example, stood at the entrance, for the show's theme and title is TRA, Italian for “between” — and, of course, a reverse spelling of “art.” Art, the implication is, is in that space between the hands of Giacometti's sculpture.
Art pieces hung, dimly lit, carefully spaced, often close enough to begin little conversations of their own — about edges, volumes, lines, forms, rhythms, light, space. Certain pieces held their own private places: James Turrell's Red Shift, for example, a permanent installation on an upper floor.
We watched a video, Passage — I didn't take note of the filmmaker, and the catalog is neither at hand nor on line — with music by Philip Glass. Normally my patience runs out during such films, but the physical location of this room, its seating, the preparation we'd been given in preceding galleries — all set the video up beautifully; it was mesmerizing.
Soon after entering the museum this discreet young man pointed out a couple of pieces, and reminded us to take our time if we could. He popped up again, now and then, always discreetly, generally waiting for us to open a conversation about this piece or that.
I gushed, I'm afraid, about the installation. Who curated this marvelous exhibition? Oh: it was — in fact, here he is, let me introduce you — Axel Vervoordt. I repeated my congratulations to Mr. Vervoordt, who was gracious and pleased and had every right to be.
There are other aspects to the Museo Fortuny, of course, than TRA. The floor devoted to the master's own collection, with its two perfect little 17th-century Dutch paintings, its modernist pieces, fabrics and paintings and drawings by Fortuny himself, is just as beautifully installed. Instead of labels, there are pamphlets with outline drawings to guide you through what seems a private home.
According to the iPhone Biennale app,
The exhibition explores the transversal connections between history, heritage and universal wisdom, through Mariano Fortuny's rich and multidisciplinary heritage, Axel Vervoordt wabi* inspirations and the meditations of economist Bernard Lietaer, scientist Eddi de Wolf and architect Tatsuro Miki (Taro), which formed the initial basis for the series of exhibitions.That's rather a grand ambition, but I think it works. Much of this “wisdom” is completely nonverbal: meaning without words. You either get such communication or you don't: if so, you already know it; if not, no one's at fault.
Rather like conversations in languages you don't really know.
*Wabi-sabi, our discreet cicerone reminded us, is the Japanese esthetic, or philosophy, or (as I like best to think of it) realization that the beauty and truth of things consists in their imperfection, their existence as affected by natural forces, their transitoriness: a perfect theme for any visit to Venice.
photos from Venice (and a number of other places)