Saturday, June 18, 2011

Venice Journal, 16: Biennale

Venice, June 18, 2011—
AN OLD GUY, apparently shakier than he looks, sits down on the bench to take off his shoes. There seems to be some problem with his shoelaces: he can't get them untied. Finally, with great effort, he pulls the still-tied shoes off his feet and stows them in the pigeonhole under the bench. He puts on one of the white cloth foot-covers provided, tries to open another for the other foot, fails, tosses it in the bin of dirty foot-covers, tries to open another, succeeds.

Then he stands uncertainly in the unfamiliar shoe-covers and waits. Two people ahead of him are also waiting their turn to walk up a number of black-carpeted steps into a sort of theater at the back of which three other people gaze at a solid curtain of colored light.

It's a long wait, so he bends over, retrieves a shoe, and begins to pick at the knot in the shoelaces. He can't see what he's doing: the light is dim. He takes off his glasses, awkwardly holding them by biting one of the temples, and peers at the knot. He looks out at the sea of people waiting behind a barrier, being let in only three at a time. He seems a little embarrassed, and why not? I would be too.

The knot finally untied, the shoe back in its pigeonhole, he begins to pick at the other one, gives up, shelves it, and turns toward the waiting people. The attendant tells him he may join another couple in the theater. He steps uncertainly up the stairs, whose treads are two short for sure footing. The attendant warns him not to step too close to the light-curtain; there's a drop of several feet at the front end of the stage.

The colors seem a little grainy, gauzy, with imperfections floating across, but they are very beautiful: a constant allover intensity, imperceptibly changing through indigos, blues, deep reds. After only a couple of minutes, though, he turns to leave, weaving a bit as he approaches the steps. He motions to the attendant, who reaches out offering his hand to steady him on the way down.

Seated, he picks with irritation at the remaining shoelace, finally untying it. He puts on a shoe, begins to tie it, takes it off, removes the foot-cover and tosses it into the box, repeats the gesture with the other, puts on his shoes, manages to tie them in the dark, and walks out the exit, alone, and disappears.

That's the James Turrell installation at the Biennale. I consider Turrell with mixed emotions. His work with color and light is as pure and magical as possible, I think: but it requires a degree of focus and concentration on the part of the viewer that can only be achieved, apparently, through a great deal of audience manipulation and even more tightly determined isolation from other simultaneous experience. You have to deal with Turrell on his own terms. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and it's far from unprecedented: Richard Wagner comes to mind. But I've never been comfortable with Wagner's demands, either.

(Speaking of Wagner, we toured La Fenice, the Venice opera house, the other day — an absorbing tour of a magnificent theater. The orchestra was on stage, rehearsing Das Rheingold, and we sat in the Royal Box for eight or ten minutes to listen. Yesterday on a vaporetto I was talking to a French woman; she said they were on their way to La Fenice for the tour. I told her about our experience, explaining that it was only an orchestra rehearsal, no singers. It's always better that way, she responded.)

The Biennale — well, it's a mess, as everyone is saying; but it's inevitable. Scores of countries have fielded hundreds of artists of varying degrees of skill and persuasiveness, most of them, to my taste and receptivity, unsuccessful. By far the majority seem to be concerned with the same problems the rest of us have on our minds: injustice, war, environmental problems, cruelty, and the like. Unlike the rest of us, they bring these concerns to work, make of them the subject of their art. To this degree they seem to me to be politicians, or propagandists, or social critics, rather than artists. Nothing wrong with politicians, propagandists, and social critics; we need them; they often improve the quality of life: but you don't go to them for insights into transcendent expressions of visual or sonic or even textual interest and beauty.

Final Cut Pro is apparently the acrylic paint of our time; a great many of these artists work in or with video, using found or stock imagery, or shooting their own, again for the most part in order to express reactions to prevailing social and political issues. I wrote the other day about having seen Passage, Shirin Neshat and Philip Glass's video of men, women, a girl, desert, death, and fire. I found it compelling: the majestic beauty of the sea and the desert, the colors, the fire all compelled visual response; the score, the rhythm of the direction and the gestures of the actors similarly rewarded the ear and one's sense of time; the theme — the inextricability of life and death in the rites of passage humans develop to confront their evanescence in the face of Nature — was just that, theme, not "message." It resonated with Quasimodo's marvelous poem, on my mind a lot during this Venice sojourn:
Ognuno sta solo sul cuore della terra
Trafitto da un raggio di sole
Ed è subito sera.

(Each alone on the heart of earth / transfixed by a ray of the sun / and suddenly it's evening)
It's asking a lot of any artist to stand next to Quasimodo, or Turrell for that matter. One of these videos, when I happened on it, was displaying a scene from Hamlet: the actor — I'm ashamed I don't know who; I've never been much of a film buff, clearly an important and skillful actor — was delivering the "Alas, poor Yorick" soliloquy. It's brave to include Shakespeare in your video, I think, but foolhardy too.

A lot has been said about the Italian pavilion; we can take it as representative of the entire Biennale. Literally hundreds of Italian artists were invited to participate, with a result reminding me of the "festivals" of "art" — photography, painting, sculpture, and other media — that used to be put on in outdoor venues by community organizations in the summertime. Or, the muses help us, of the exhibitions of amateur "art" at the county fair. There is good work here, and provocative commentary: but it tends to get lost in the jumble. And you can complain that the curator doesn't show a lot of respect for the art in the casual means employed to hang it: but perhaps respect itself is a red herring.
RIDING AROUND ON BOATS in the constantly changing Venetian luminosity has a disorienting effect on me. (Scientists might attribute this to low blood pressure.) It takes a while for reality to regain its stability. Venice is a place of façades; veined marble; hypnotically rhythmic brickwork; subtly fading and peeling stucco. On empty streets one strolls; on busy ones one dances among the terriers, babies, umbrellas, backpacks, shopping-bags, photographers, lovers. On the Canal, whether on a vaporetto or a gondola (we do take the occasional traghetto), the motion is choppy in one direction, rolling in the other.

Then there's the constant dialectic of grain and vista, detail and expanse; one's eye is constantly readjusting focus. And extend all this to an observation and contemplation of Time as well as Space — well, thinking about it is almost overwhelming. I find myself in the position I suppose many of these Bienniale artists are in, searching for elusive meaning, trying to render coherent a teeming multiplicity that threatens chaos.

You can almost understand the drive to impose order, so constantly expressed in all these churches. How reassuring it must be — particularly if it assuages any compunctions you might have about the justice of your social actions — to be convinced of a divine purpose and a divinely imposed system. And how irresolute we are, how prone to anxiety and anger, lacking that kind of reassurance.

photos from Venice (and a number of other places)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Venice Journal, 15: Further conversation

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)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Venice Journal, 14: Conversations

Venice, June 9, 2011—
A DAY REMARKABLE for its conversations, flawed by one futility.
IMG_0563.jpgWe set out pretty early on a fine morning, the water middling high in our Canale di Cannaregio, lifting the good ship Francesca nearly to sidewalk level. We were off in search of the French consulate, don't ask why, it's complicated and has nothing to do with Venice.

Soon enough we were hailed by a pair of handsome lads in fine 18th-century brocade suits. It's always a shock to see men wearing such finery but divested of their powdered wigs: perhaps their union rules let them get away with this, but I think it's a little déclassé. One of them was Italian, the other Tunisian; both were in the employ of a local music group, and they enticed us to do what we'd talked about doing anyhow, buying tickets to a production of La Traviata tomorrow night.

We had a nice conversation, mixing up English, Italian, and French. They were an engaging and handsome pair; if we see them again tomorrow I'll break a rule and photograph them. You see young men and women at various strategic location on the tourist routes in Venice, dressed in 18th-century clothes, pitching performances of vocal music, string orchestra music, things geared to what's presumed to be tourist taste. On a previous visit we were roped into a performance of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, and it wasn't half bad. I'll let you know what I think of this Traviata in a day or two.

On then to the French consulate: but en route we came upon a greengrocer stand in a small campiello (are there big ones?). I was attracted at first by the artichoke rounds, but there was no way they'd survive being carried around all day. On the other hand, a plastic bag of shell beans, not that's within reason.

I asked the lady running the stand how to cook them. She was short, maybe five foot four, and a little inclined to weight; but she had a handsome face and a dignified though quite forthcoming presence. She seemed surprised that I wouldn't know how to cook beans.

You put them in water, she said, in Italian, add a little oil, cover them, bring it to a boil, turn it down, and cook them until they're done. Then you salt them: not before.

Oh, I said brightly, you cook them the way you cook pasta. What an idea, she said, certainly not, of course you don't, you never put oil in the water when you cook pasta, beans are one thing, pasta is another, you don't cook them the same way.

A man I hadn't noticed before said Don't forget the rosemary. Give him some rosemary. She half-turned to shoot a meaningful glance at her partner, then rummaged around and came up with a fine healthy spray of rosemary. Oh, said I, rosemary? Not sage? I always like to add sage to beans.

You're joking, the man said, a shocked look of disbelief on his face. Sage, imagine it, sage with beans. No, of course not, this is Venice; we put rosemary in beans. You're in Venice, you must do things the Venetian way.

We thanked them both politely, for the conversation, the beans, the rosemary, the instructions, and went on toward the French consulate.

It has to be around here someplace, we said, looking alternately at the map in our hands and the reality around us. Finally, though, I stopped in at an expensive-looking hotel and asked the man at the desk.

Yes, it's nearby, no, not there where you were told, it's over near Santa Maria Formosa. I know it is, though I've never been there; I know it is, I walk across this bridge every day on my way to work, and I see the French flag flying there. It's right here (indicating a spot on the map, on a canal); I suppose you leave Santa Maria Formosa by this little street, and then turn down one of these streets.

He gave us the map and we walked away, across the campo S. Maria Formosa, down the street he'd indicated, then down the first little street to the left, which ultimately ran past rather an imposing palazzo — casa or ca', they're called here — and ended at a canal.

The main gate was open, so we went on in. No one to be seen. The front door of the palazzo was open, so we went on in there too. One of the bells at the gate had a label: Consulat de France, 2° étage, so we walked up the marble staircase, the treads a little cattawampus as is always the case in these old buildings, and found the door on the second floor.

We knocked and knocked and waited and waited; we called out; we knocked again. Finally we gave up and walked back downstairs. In the foyer I noticed a bank of mailboxes: the consulate's was stuffed with mail, obviously hadn't been looked at in days.

We looked in at a couple of churches, trying to see badly lit paintings flanked by brightly sunlit windows, and then we went to lunch. Afterward, a block or two from the restaurant, I noticed a handsome sculpture on the street, up against a garden wall. Nearby was a largish detached one-storey building; on its front door a sign: SPINGERE.

When you see a sign that says PUSH, well, you push; at least I do. It swung open and we stepped into a marvelous workshop, crowded with planks, bricks, stone, slabs of marble, blocks of granite, statues, thresholds and lintels, lathes and saws, worktables, a bedstead, assorted pieces of furniture. Up in the rafters a bicycle was hanging, suddenly making me think irreverently of the crucifixes we'd seen in the churches.

We called out — Buon giorno! Buongiorno! — but no one was visible. Finally a somewhat disgruntled voice came from somewhre at the back of the shop: Che é?Who's there? And a man dressed entirely in blue appeared, a man in his fifties, I'd say, clearly a little out of sorts at being interrupted.

Il porta dice “spingere”, I said, a little apologetically, e ho spinto. The entire conversation took place in Italian, mine quite bad, his voluble and quick and articulate and now and then ornamented with the Venetian dialect.

Yes, it says Spingere, that doesn't mean you should spinge, he said. Sono inglese?

No, statunitense. Ah, Americani, he said. No, non americani, californiani, e un altra cosa. E non inglesi; abbiamo vinto due guerre coi inglesi.

I still think of the English as the colonialists; it still annoys me that they burned our capital and especially our Library of Congress, quite deliberately. I was glad when Tony Blair finally apologized for this, but still.

The whole digression into Anglo-American relations amused the man. Ah, guerre, he said, we've had our share of wars. And, mollified, the conversation was on. He is a marmista, a marble-worker; this was his grandfather's shop; that's his grandfather's bedstead there; he's kept it ever since his grandfather died, but there's no point in keeping it any longer, he's going to get rid of it.

Suddenly he launched into a disquisition on the Venetian disinterest in its own history and heritage. They don't care about anything any more, he said, only about money, and not working too hard. It's always been like that.

He showed us a neatly stacked pile of bricks, all completely covered, like everything else in the shop, with marble dust. Look at these bricks, he said; the Venetians don't even care about their bricks. (In truth there are an awful lot of them; I'd estimated this morning that one small part of S. Maria Formosa was made of about 3500 bricks, and that at that rate the entire church must have had at least five million of them.)

Look at these, he said, they were all made here, here in Venice; look at these. Each man had to make a hundred bricks a day. He held up two bricks, one three times the size of the other. Look at these, he said; no one said how big the bricks had to be; as soon as they said you had to make a hundred a day, why, some of them began to make a hundred bricks each of them a third the size of a brick.

He suddenly handed the smaller brick to F___. This is important, he said, don't ever get rid of this, take it home and clean it with soap, not too much, don't use a wire brush, use something soft; then keep it and put something beautiful on it.

I was beginning to get, well, not bored, but restless, wondering how we were going to detach ourselves from this fascinating conversation. California had brought the subject of wine to mind, and he'd gone to the back of the shop and returned with a half-finished bottle of Cabernet sauvignon from somewhere, pouring glasses for us. He talked about the local restaurants, only one of which was maintaining any standards. He complimented the street market we've been shopping at, near our Ponte Guglie. Then another fellow entered, and he introduced him as a very important man, because he still beat out gold leaf by hand, the only man left in Venice who did.

A spirited conversation in Venexiano developed between them, and I thought of Carlo Goldoni, the playwright, whose house we'd seen yesterday. In fact the gestures, attitudes, and intonations of these two could have come directly from a Goldoni comedy: but when I said something to that effect our marmista took exception.

He seems mercurial, this man, brittle like his medium, and resistant, and set: but like the expressions we see every day carved into marble in churches, on lintels, at street-corners, he's lively, expressive, amused and amusing; intelligent; active. Another example of the liveliness of this city, so human, so fallible, so fragile, so perdurant.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Venice Journal, 13: Typical Day

Venice, June 9, 2011—
WELL, YES, some of you are kind enough to wonder: but what are you actually doing there in Venice?

Caffe.jpgFair enough: here's an account of today's activity, a typical day. It's a little embarrassing, because it's pretty haphazard. But that's how things go. I get up first, about eight, and pad downstairs to put the coffee and milk on the stove. F___ yawns and says Buongiorno sleepily. L. arrives a little later, after I call upstairs: De koffie is klaar!

Usually we have toast, made by grilling sliced bread or rolls in the frying pan, there being no toaster here. This morning there was half an almond torte left over from yesterday's special Lindsey's-Birthday-Boxing-Day breakfast, so we made do with that. Then F____ and I read half a Pirandello story to one another, and I finished reading it to myself — “Non c'e una cosa seria,” in Italian and in English translation.

Then we went out in search of the day's adventure. We walked down the Strada Nova to the Ca' d'Oro and took the traghetto across to the Pescheria, where we inspected the fish market. Everything looked okay: much cleaner than previously — word is the boys in Brussels, imposing their European Union imperatives, have ordered the seagulls and pigeons out of the market. This makes me a little sad, but I suppose it's all for the best.

Next order of business: get somehow to the Ca' Pesaro, Venice's Museum of Modern Art. This involves getting lost a couple of times, taking two or three dead-end alleys, counting Scotch terriers, marveling at oddly inscribed sweatshirts on (other) tourists, that sort of thing.

The Ca' Pesaro must be the only Museum of Modern Art all of whose paintings in the first gallery were finished before the invention of the telephone. Nor does it seem to have anything done after the end of the Korean War. There are a couple of marvelous things here: a luscious Bonnard, a brilliant Klimt, a series of impressive pieces by Medardo Rosso.

But the main gallery, filled with acquisitions from Venice Biennales from the very first year (1895) through 1950, reminds me of the sad bookcase in Portland's Powell's Books, filled with at least one book by every winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, most of whom you've never heard of, and never will unless you look it up right now. Apart from the pieces just mentioned, the collection contains a few first-rate pieces by first-rate artists — a good Kandinsky, a nice Calder mobile — but otherwise hesitates between a few second-rate pieces by first-rate artists and a number of first-rate pieces by second-rate artists.

There are also, of course, plenty of second-rate pieces by second-rate artists, to be generous. But as L. said, it's good that there are such collections; the morning was not wasted. It takes a lot of stuff at the bottom, and throughout the middle too, to provide a base for the few things at the top. Besides, who are we to… but that's not really sincere, is it.

IMG_0534.jpgA quick sandwich and a glass of Pinot grigio at the museum café, and on to the next assignment: the ongoing assault on Venice's gelaterie. We take ice cream pretty seriously in our family; the art-and-craft of making it is as technical, complex, and privy to failure as is that of making paintings. And while we can photograph various ice creams, preserving their visual appearance quite as well as we do that of the paintings we see, we can't record their taste, smell, and texture; we can only take notes, or try to commit to memory. Rating the gelati we have tasted is therefore a fool's game: but we try. Buono, I might say, ma non ottimo; or occasionally ottimo, ma non ultimo. Now and then, though, as today, F___ and I will exchange glances over our cups — well, in fact, she almost invariably prefers cones — and simply vocalize a quiet little “hum.”

That means it's really, really good. Ultimo, in fact. Today's gelateria was one we'd run across a week or so ago, early on this visit, VizioVirtù, on the Sestiere San Polo. It's an unusual gelateria: only six flavors, and them in covered cans in the freezer-chest. They're almost invisible from the street. And it's not really a gelateria at all, but a cioccolateria whose principal product we've yet to try. (We will, we will.)

I had two flavors: peach-lemon and vanilla. I usually have fior di latte and crema; I think strong flavors mask flaws in technique and compromises in ingredients, and after all I'm not here to enjoy this stuff, but to decide which ones are good. But this time I went for a little flavor, and oh my it was ultimo.
Goldoni.jpgJust before getting to VizioVirtù we ran across the Carlo Goldoni house-museum. What serendipity! (But of course that's the essence of Venice.) I'd already been attracted by the sight of a staircase behind a locked grating, and stuck my camera between the bars to try to catch it. Immediately, though, we next came to a sign and a doorway inviting us in. The large, elegantly proportioned cortile is beautifully though dimly lit: at one end, a grate over a doorway looking out onto a side canal; at the other, the staircase, open to the sky, leading up to the house on the first floor: ascending it, you realize all really Italian Italian houses begin upstairs; they're set atop stables, or cantinas, or garages, or as in this case a courtyard, empty now, but probably at one time given over to a donkey, a few barrels of wine, and a boat.

Upstairs, a nice room with a closed-circuit video introducing the master playwright to the visiting tourists. In adjacent rooms, a charming marionette theater and a few 18th-century volumes of Goldoni's plays. Alas, there's no theater on in Venice: O teatro, o la Biennale, the woman at the ticket-counter explained; it's either theater season, or the Biennale.

We stopped in on a few churches today, admiring Tintoretto and Titian and, even more, architects who remain anonymous to me. Some of them are given over to temporary displays having to do with the Biennale. We've seen half a dozen of these ancillary exhibitions so far; of them, only the Romanian one has impressed me — but I'm saving the Biennale for another day's comments, after I've seen more of it.

Getting late in the afternoon: time to find our way home. A few more twists and turns; a few streets wide enough for only one person; a few bridges looking out onto views of surprising beauty and richness of detail even if you've just crossed it in the other direction, only to find out you've taken exactly the wrong direction yet again.

We stop off to buy some guanciale and a bottle of milk, and I step into a wine-shop for some red wine. You don't drink only white, I point out to the shopkeeper, surprised that I'm not asking for my usual flat prosecco. The wine comes from carboys through plastic tubes, and is poured into one-and-a-half liter plastic water-bottles recycled for the purpose. (Usually I bring my own glass bottle in; I hadn't wanted to carry it all day today.)

The wine is delicious, fresh, fruity. I doubt it's more than 11% alcohol. It costs €1.50 a liter.

We carry it and the groceries home. I check the e-mail and look in on Facebook, then transfer the day's photos to the laptop for safekeeping, while L. makes the omelet. I make the salad. F___ goes about her clerical duties. We eat dinner slowly and appreciatively, exchanging more little “hum”s over it.

Just past l'heure bleue, when it's nearly dark, we go out for a walk. We walk past an osteria I want to go to soon for dinner: Dalla Marisa, which has a terrific reputation, but which I'd heard a week or two ago had been sold. It's late; only a couple of canalside tables are occupied, though the indoors tables are still full.

A waitress bustles back and forth, kitchen to canal, and I stop her in for a moment: Marisa, ancora cui? I ask in my broken Italian: Is Marisa still here? No, signor: un altra persona. La figlia. Oh ho: it's true: Marisa's no longer in charge; but if her daughter's taken over…

E c'e ancora buono? And is it still good, I ask, mischievously — Meglio, better, comes the reply, with a knowing smile: and I bet this is the daughter herself. We'll give it a try next week.

By now it's dark. We walk out to the end of the Fondamenta to take some last photos of the day. Down the quay to our left I can just make out the form of a man lying on a blanket on the pavement. He hasn't yet gone to sleep: he's half sitting, the back of his head resting against the building behind him, cushioned by a jacket or sweater or shirt, I can't quite make out what it is. He's gazing out over the lagoon, dark and blue and peaceful under the night sky. The the left a row of lights indicate the shoreline, leading from Mestre up toward the airport.

Here and there a bright yellow light on a pole ripples the quiet surface of the water. A small boat glides by, a faint light on its prow. Voices come across the water. We turn back to the city and take a final photo down the canal, toward the Ponte Tre Archi, the only three-arched bridge in Venice. The water laps gently against the fondamenta; the air is deliciously soft and fragrant.

Hum, we say to one another; this is truly a beautiful city, la vita e assolutamente bella.
  • photos from Venice online here
  • Wednesday, June 08, 2011

    Venice Journal, 12bis: More Loss

    Venice, June 8, 2011—
    ONE MORE NOTE on the subject of loss: the rhinoceros is gone.

    We first saw it the day after we arrived, a couple of weeks ago. A tribute to Albrecht Dürer, I think it may have been, and perhaps the only mural we've seen in this town. I took a photo and posted it to Facebook; my friend John Whiting then worked on the photo a bit, removing the fire hydrant from in front of it.

    It was on the north-east facing wall of a shed, exactly at 45.44480N, 122.32148E, a little southeast of the Ponte Tre Archi, off the west fondamenta of the Canale di Cannaregio. Close examination suggested it was painted on paper; parts of it were peeling away. (You can see this on the shed door, just below its boarded-up window, where a flap of paint or paper is detached and curling toward the viewer.)

    As we walked past the shed a few days after we'd first seen it, a man in an apron was walking away from it, supplies of some kind in is hand, toward the restaurant a few steps away: Pizzeria-Ristorante Tre Archi. I asked about the painting. He confirmed that it was painted on paper which was then affixed somehow to the wall, and indicated that due ragazzi, two youths, had come by a month or so earlier, asked permission to glue the painted paper to the wall, and were told to go ahead.

    What ragazzi, I asked; he only shrugged: two youths whatever. I suppose that's a self-portrait of one of them, sitting on the chair wearing what looks like a plumber's helper on his head.

    Yesterday, maybe the day before, we were astonished to see that the seated figure was missing. We looked fairly closely and decided someone must have taken it deliberately. I don't know why we so quickly put this out of our minds; perhaps it was just one more visual detail lost in the daily richness of this city.

    Today we noticed the rest of the mural was gone. The only thing left is the section of horn on the plywood boarding up the door of the shed. I asked at Tre Archi what had happened. The rain, they said, had finally dissolved it, or at least the glue holding it to the wall; I imagine someone somewhere managed to peel off extensive sections. I like to hope it was the artists themselves.

    It's frequently said that art changes the way we view reality, and I'll certainly never look down the Fondamenta de la Crea at that shed without seeing the rhinoceros. The shed is nude without it.

    Whoever the artists were, they were certainly talented. It's too bad their work wasn't more permanent, I suppose: but on the whole it's better for public art to be good but fleeting than bad and persistent. Like the Bellini, the rhinoceros stays in mind. I'm glad we had a chnace to see it.

    Across the narrow Rio de la Crea from the shed there's an apartment building. On its front door, a poignant note advertising the loss of Titi, a pet cat. Perhaps the rhinoceros frightened it and it ran away; perhaps now the rhino's gone Titi will come home. I hope so. Most losses are merely Redistribution and can be got over, but the loss of a cat is a serious matter.

    Venice Journal, 12: Lost, Found, Stolen

    Venice, June 8, 2011—
    WE DO NOT TRAVEL unmindful of what I refer to as the Principle of Redistribution of Wealth, which in less generous moments I call theft and loss. Especially we do not travel to Venice without contemplating such things. The Serene Republic was built, after all, on the backs of exploited people, with stuff and money rarely contributed willingly.

    Ten years ago, when we were here for a month with two other granddaughters, sharing an apartment with another couple, our friend's camera was stolen right off the back of the chair in which he was sitting while eating lunch. This was on the Fondamenta della Sensa, at the Osteria alla 40 Ladroni (the forty big thieves), which gave no end of amusement to the police when he filed his denuncio.

    Loss is part of the melancholic attractiveness of this city, but sometimes Retrieval is part of the fabric. Perhaps just as often: perhaps loss is only exchange, looked at from one end, and retrieval is an inescapable half of the dialectic; perhaps Serenity can only be achieved when such perfect balances are attained in all transactions.

    We were out to the Madonna dell'Orto yesterday, a very beautiful church, because relatively austere; very nicely sited, because off the beaten track at the Fondamente Nove. The name refers to a Madonna and Child found in, or retrieved from, a garden that once stood next door the church. Various accounts of many events in the long history of this place — which dates back to the sixth century, after all — disagree on various matters. One source says this Madonna was a painting; others say a sculpture. You'd think that would be an easy matter to clarify, and as you'll see, it is.

    madonna.jpgSources disagree, too, as to whether this miraculous thing — everyone agrees it's miraculous, in one way or another — was truly lost and luckily found, or simply moved, with the former owner's permission or not, from the next-door garden.

    She's off in a corner of a corner chapel, fairly unremarkable otherwise. The statue itself looks pretty old to me, and not particularly reverent. The Madonna looks like the older Gertrude Stein, after she'd put on weight; and the Child looks like Benito Mussolini. The whole thing looks Roman, somehow, and I wonder if it wasn't carved to represent some other mother and child, and has simply been appropriated, as Christianity has appropriated so many strands of previous culture, either deliberately or simply as part of the reckless, unpremeditated, even completely impersonal progress — I use the word in its most neutral sense — of history.

    Like most sculpture, all sculpture if the word's used correctly, even here in Venice, the home of the Biennale with all its up-to-the-minute art (about which more later, in another dispatch), this thing is definitely solid, substantial, physical, threedimensional, Found. What remains lost is its story, so others have been fabricated; narrative, like Nature, abhors a vacuum.
    DINNER LAST NIGHT at a nearby restaurant to honor a birthday. A nice, cozy, rather pretty room; a late dinner. At the next table, three young American men, frat men F___ calls them; they first got her attention when she overheard "I just can't get the hang of this Italian thing". At another, an American couple in their fifties or early sixties, apparently also celebrating an event of some sort.

    We all finished at about the same time, so I was able to witness another example of Redistribution — a missing iPhone. Consternation. Where can it be. It was right here next to me. Are you sure you had it? Of course I'm sure; I was using it.

    (I can attest to that: I saw semiclandestine photos being taken with it.)

    By now it was late, close to eleven o'clock. Dinner is generally earlier in Venice than elsewhere in Italy. The kitchen was closed and cleaning up, the busboy was washing up some dishes, our waiter was closing out his accounts, the barman-proprietor was eyeing the whole scene with that appreciative, analytical, managerial eye that's so impressive, so admirable, when subtly and efficiently handled, as it was here.

    Everyone looked everywhere: on and under the chairs and tables, in pockets and purses, on the floor. Ah, a waiter said, Perhaps it's in the tablecloth; and went to the next room where we saw, through an open doorway, a basket of crumpled linens; and where we then saw him methodically take all of them out, shake them carefully, and then sadly report the thing was not there either.

    The aggrieved party was, well, aggrieved; nothing to do but fare un denuncio, file a police report. Restaurant staff looked perturbed; I thought the busboy, particularly, seemed a little nervous: and why wouldn't he be? He would of course be the first to be suspected, for at least two reasons, both contemptible. He was the only staffer not clearly Italian — he'd confused us when he offered "pepe fresca," "fresh (black) pepper": his Italian seemed unidiomatic, translated out of some other native language by way of English: and the other native language was assumed to be South Indian, by his physical appearance. Anyway, he looked nervous.

    Finally, of course, the missing iPhone was found, in an upstairs pocket apparently little used under normal circumstances by its owner, and the owner was sheepish, and the proprietor was (properly, I though) rather I-told-you-so: siamo bravi; non siamo ladri, he said; we're good people (here), we're not thieves. But it had been a bit of a scare.

    Bellini.jpgBack home I looked over the day's photos. Among them one I find rather touching: the first side chapel on the left, at Madonna dell'Orto, where a particularly beautiful Bellini should be hanging, and where there is now in fact only an empty frame. The painting was redistributed in the early 1990s, according to a label accompanying the photographic reproduction standing near the empty frame.

    The reproduction appears to be quite faithful, though — as the label takes care to point out — a little less than life size. Light falls on it in such a way that it itself can't be adequately photographed, at least not clandestinely, with an iPhone, so you'll have to take my word for it.

    Lost, strayed, or stolen, it's a memorable painting; like all memorable paintings, it haunts a peculiar corner of one's memory. I'm not a painter; I couldn't begin to reproduce it, not even sketch its outlines, from memory. I seem to see it, with my mind's eye, in terms of light and colors, vaguely distributed across its rectangular space. The blues are haunting.

    Monday, June 06, 2011

    Venice Journal, 11: Umbrellas

    Venice, June 6, 2011—
    WE WERE ENTERTAINED last night by quite a lusty thunderstorm, which came on fast, lingered a while, and then moved on. You can see why the ancients assumed divinities of some sort were involved with such events: they have energy and personality; they remind you from time to time of people you know, and often wish you didn't.

    This morning was overcast but did not, to my way of thinking (which I'm occasionally reminded is not necessarily always the most practical way of thinking), threatening. I wore my canvas shoes, but not my “straw” hat, which is in fact made of paper; and I took an umbrella.

    Our apartment is furnished with three umbrellas, who spend their days in an umbrella-stand in the front hall. I suppose former renters have bought them when they were needed, or thought to be needed in an impending future, and left them behind, like cheap paperbacks, a third of a package of pasta, a jar of stale nutmeg. No one leaves gin behind, or Proust, or a nice prosciutto.

    I have a fondness for umbrellas. More than once I've bought an umbrella here in Italy, where they often seem unusually handsome. Once in the city of Aosta, for example, when it began to rain heavily while we were in the central piazza, I saw a display of elegant umbrellas with nicely made wooden handles and really fine subtly colored fabrics, and I bought one that pleased me almost as a first-rate hat.

    A week later we ate in a nice restaurant on the edge of Verona, taken there by friends who live there. It was still raining, just a bit, so I took the umbrella, and set it properly in an umbrella-rack in the foyer as we entered. After our lunch, of course, my umbrella was gone, a cheap folding Taiwanese pretense left in its place, as if to persuade me someone had made an honest mistake. I still mourn that umbrella, and Richard still kids me about it.

    Three summers ago in the small town of Chiomonte it was pouring when we got off our bus and walked down to the only bar-café in town. Next door, almost, is a general-dry-goods store; in it a marvelous umbrella. When I bought it the lady who ran the store looked pleased, a little surprised, and a little puzzled, all at once: pleased to make a sale, surprised an American had come to Chiomonte to buy an umbrella, puzzled because — wait a moment — doesn't he look familiar? — yes: I had bought an umbrella in the same store years earlier.

    That umbrella three years ago came in handy as we continued our stroll across the Alps. I'd wished I had one in earlier days, when it rained pretty heavily on us outside Chamonix; when it rained again, down toward Briançon, I think it was, the umbrella sheltered me, while my companions, who'd made fun of the umbrella earlier, walked in soggy misery alongside.

    That umbrella flew as cabin baggage, no problem at all, from Nice to Amsterdam. There it came in handy again, of course: but the flight from Amsterdam back to San Francisco I was told it had to be stowed. This advice came at the last minute, of course; there was nothing to do but give it to a man at a counter, who tied a tag to it and claimed it would travel in perfect safety. But when I finally retrieved it three days later — it had gone off on flights of its own, apparently — it was of course bent; it never worked quite right again.

    (And then, in a really terrific gust of wind on our driveway, whose weather can rival Alpine conditions from time to time, it turned completely inside out, breaking three of the ribs. I still have it, in the immense collection of Things Awaiting Repair, distributed among the attic, the workshop, and storage.)
    VENICE IS NOT HOSPITABLE to umbrellas. The streets are either too narrow or too crowded to allow any but the most selfish use of them. Some streets are so narrow the umbrella must be carried tilted, or it will brush the walls on either side of the street. Wider streets are crowded with pedestrians, many of whom are armed with umbrellas which are used as much for offense as defense.

    In a civil society there's a kind of ballet; a gavotte of umbrellas; they are lifted just clear of one another when their bearers meet in a confined area (which nearly all of Venice is); when necessary they'll be tilted just a bit. It seems rude to let them actually brush one another, as it is rude to cause another pedestrian to brush against a wall, or a bridge railing. And of course this gavotte is performed in a studiously carefree way: you wouldn't want to be caught actually paying attention to it. You lift, tilt, lower your umbrella to clear the oncoming traffic of umbrellas, but without actually looking at them, or at their bearers. It's a pleasant dance, and it takes your mind off the little miseries Venice rain imposes.

    In fact the main reason you don't look to closely at oncoming umbrellas, apart from the danger they'll blind you with their ribs, is that your eyes are on the pavement, if you've any sense about you. The square stones of the paving have settled nearly everywhere, each following its own interpretation of gravity and the soft geology of Venetian substrates; and where they've settled the rain collects. Oh, said F___ at one point: I've forgotten the Italian word for puddle, and it's a word I really like.

    Maretti, I said: little oceans. She laughed, and liked the word; but I had to admit I'd made it up on the spot. (It turns out to be pozzanghera; I can see why she likes it.) But these puddles do in fact extend themselves to near oceanic proportions, especially in the larger campi, and dodging them requires quick eyes, deft feet, and a polite disregard for such conventions as keep-to-the-right, give-way-to-babies.

    Rainwear here always seems improvised — odd; rain's hardly unusual here, but tourists especially always seem to think they're in Florida. They wear shorts and tee-shirts, sandals, Panama trilbys. Then when it rains they either simply get soaked or they grab whatever they can find to protect themselves. You see the occasional garbage bag worn as a poncho, a trick we learned one day in the Alps. You see variations of very thin plastic raincoats, often in alarmingly chemical colors. I saw one woman slogging along with plastic bags tied over her shoes.

    On the Piazza San Marco today we saw a couple of American tourists, the man, fortyish, fairly nondescript in shorts, a polo shirt, and rather a large paunch; his wife, about the same age, remarkable for her baby-blue frilly dress, her parasol, and her widebrimmed baby-blue hat. She was striking an attitude while he photographed her, the Basilica in the background to point of reference. The rain began to fall, lightly at first, and they ignored it.

    We ducked into the Museo Correr, knowing a thunderstorm was about to break. It was torrential. I looked out a window onto the Piazza a few minutes later: they were still there, quite soggy; but you had to hand it to them; they were toughing it out.

    June photos from Friuli and Venice now online

    Sunday, June 05, 2011

    Venice Journal, 10: Sounds

    Venice, June 5, 2011—
    WE WERE AWAKENED at six o'clock this morning by the bells in the church, just outside our window, striking the hour. At least I was awakened; I think the girls slept through. Thankfully the bells don't ring through the night: they tell midnight, then go to sleep themselves for six hours.

    At six-thirty I barely noticed the single peal marking the half-hour, and fell back into my doze. But seven o'clock! On this Sunday morning, all holy hell broke loose, and the girls were as wide awake as I. The bell-tower's hardly a hundred feet from our bedroom, and I'd left the double-paned window ajar for the night; I hate sleeping in still, stale air.

    This happened to us for the first time in 1974, on our first trip to Europe, when we booked a cheap hotel room in Maastricht right next to a big church. There the bells told the hours, and the half-hours, all through the night. Furthermore, they respected the maddening convention of telling each hour twice, at two minutes before, to give you warning, and on the hour, in case you'd counted wrong two minutes earlier. That was a rough night.

    Here in Treppo Carnico there are three bells, pitched roughly a major second apart. The highest bell is the first to sound, and peals pretty regularly for quite a while. Then the lowest enters, going at a slightly different speed, while the other continues at its pace. Finally the middle bell comes in at yet another pace. It's fascinating to hear the overlapping cycles, to hear rhythms grow gradually more regular, then further apart: the individual pitches act like children who wander toward one another to form a trio, then apart, each at his own pace, to strike their own individualistic postures.

    At the same time, of course, both within each bell and among the three of them various overtones become more and less prominent. The tonality suggested by the falling major third grows less certain as the shimmering overtones declare greater substance and interest. The shimmering becomes a buzzing sometimes; you're not quite sure those sounds are actually there, in the bells, or in the air around the bells, or in your ears. Maybe they're really only in your mind.

    And the major third isn't really quite a major third. It's certainly not an equal-tempered major third; it's "out of tune", except that there isn't really any tune. And why should there be? The bells may well have been cast in different places, at different times, by completely different hands. They certainly sound as if they're composed of different alloys, cast to different specifications.

    They're musical, no question about that; but the music they sound is theirs, not Bach's or Mozart's or Wagner's (God knows!) or Webern's. Xenakis's, maybe. It's clearly man-made, but the sound of this music has declared its independence from the conventions of music as most of us know it or think of it — that is, the tonal equal-tempered and rhymically rather unimaginative music of Western Europe from Palestrina, let's say, through today's rock, country-western, and concert music.

    The bells continue to peal for seven or eight minutes; we try to drift back to sleep, knowing (or suspecting) they'll be at it again at eight o'clock. Then, remembering we have to be on the road at nine, we get up, dress, and go down to breakfast. Sure enough they begin again, hardly any quieter for the few feet we've added to our distance from them.

    This time I record them with my iPhone, which tells me they play for seven minutes and forty seconds. At 8:38 they're at it again, a little quicker and more insistent; this time they only continue for a little over five minutes. Each of these little concerts is sonically, even musically interesting for a different reason: at first the physical sounds of the bells; then the interplay of the cycles; finally one's curiosity as to the history and intent of this custom.

    In my usual town, Healdsburg, the Catholic Church replaced its bells quite a few years ago with some kind of pre-recorded bell sound. I'm pretty sure it's a recording; this was done too long ago for a synthesizer to have been installed. The sounds are played through loudspeakers, of course; they're installed up in the bell-tower and played at rather a muted volume. Still, they're really annoying. They don't have the physical substance of bells. The loudspeaker is the worst invention of the twentieth century, I think, even worse than the internal-combustion engine; the only twentieth-century invention I can think of quite as insidious and pernicious is the back-beat.

    As the bells died away this morning they gave way to the sounds of birds. It's birds that first wake me every morning: here in Treppo, swifts, sparrows, and blackbirds; at our apartment in Venice, some kind of aquatic bird whose call is halfway between quack and gargle. Later in the day there's the everpresent sound of pigeons, whose slightly rhotic cooing has such an endearing quality you almost forgive the things being pigeons.

    The other bird in Treppo to surprise and delight us with its sound was the cuckoo. Friulian cuckoos do not sing the falling third familiar from clocks and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, nor do they often sing the falling fourth Mahler's more accurate ear observed. Friulian cuckoos, or at any rate those in the woods around Treppo, sing a falling major second, slightly wider than an equal-tempered major second but very close.

    Perhaps because of the church bells I usually hear this as the third and second degree of a scale whose keynote is always left implied. I like this, of course, because a never-achieved implication promises continuity, even futurity. And the insistence of the cuckoo, which would be maddening if it were closer or a less interesting sound, contributes to this sense of guaranty, of endlessness.

    In Australia, years ago, I encountered the bell-bird, who sings a single note, rather a resonant one, unvaryingly, frequently, insistently. The bell-bird is an egoist making its noise only to announce its presence, a presence otherwise completely unremarkable. The cuckoo is I think a poet and a Romantic, nostalgically calling over and over in the selfless hope that a resounding wood will somehow respond, contributing to an evocative universe of sound.

    We heard our first cuckoo many years ago, in Norway, outside Bergen, on a walk to a stave church not far from Edvard Grieg's studio. Until then I never quite believed the birds were less than mythical, serving Swiss clockmakers and German composers with a pleasant fantasy. (No composer gets the bird quite as accurately, or to quite as poetic an effect, as Frederic Delius, in his On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.)

    Since then we've heard them fairly often in The Netherlands, in forests in the eastern part of the country. But never until now have I heard them sing descending seconds; only fourths and, very occasionally, wide major thirds.
    I like this Friulian version, and hope to hear it again — preferably, next time, with a recorder handy.

    Saturday, June 04, 2011

    Venice Journal, 9: Mozartina

    Treppo Carnica, June 4, 2011—
    IT DOESN'T REALLY MATTER where in this world we go (though of course we're relatively choosy about what parts we visit), we find places worth spending much more time in. Carnica is one. Italy is divided into states, I forget what they're called in Italian: one of them is Friuli-Venezia-Giuliana. (That's already really three regions, I suppose, jammed for some politically convenient reason into one.)

    Friuli-Venezia-Giuliana, the northeastmost region of Italy, is divided itself into a number of provinces, of which Udine is one, named after its capital city. And the province of Udine is divided into four sections — perhaps not politically; I'm not sure about that: but because of history and geography, these sections have a certain individuality.

    One of those sections is Carnia, where we are. Its principal city is I suppose Tolmezzo. We went there today to visit the folk museum, but were unsuccessful: though we did have a nice coffee and a fine gelato, and made a successful ATM withdrawal, all well worth our time.

    The quarters of Udine province are divided by ridges and rivers. The riverbeds suggest the rivers can run pretty destructively, and there aren't that many bridges over them. The ridges rise to pretty high passes, and the roads crossing them are slow. (Yesterday we counted a dozen hairpins on one such road, seven on another; and of course there are tunnels, retaining walls, snowsheds and the like to maintain.)

    How surprising it was, then, that in the small town of Paularo, a few kilometers east of our temporary home in Treppo Carnico, there should be a museum of musical instruments: three floors of beautifully restored instruments, keyboards for the most part, apparently in homage to Mozart.

    Not sure exactly where it was, we asked at a bookstore on the town's main street. A woman there looked it up on their computer, then wrote out a phone number for me. The man who answered referred me to another number: when I called it, the man who answered asked how many we were, then suggested we come at 11:30, about forty-five minutes away. We walked around town a bit, bought some groceries for our lunch, then stopped at the Mozartina, where we saw a young man in a track suit unlock the front door, close it behind him, and one by one crack open windows and turn lights on and off, up and down the three-story façade.

    Finally he seemed to be done, and L. peeked into the front door: Attendere un momento, he called, Wait a minute, I'm not yet ready, and we retreated to the front yard, sitting a while on benches flanking the door.

    Then he came to the door and graciously let us in. He explained, pretty much by rote, that this was a private museum, that he would guide us through it, at the cost — he seemed a little embarrassed about this — of five euros each. Then he motioned us to follow into the first room, where I was rather amazed.

    The first instrument to catch my eye was a one-manual organ from the 17th century, nicely restored, the only modernization being electrically-operated bellows (very quiet, by the way), with original lead and wooden pipes. He played a short Handel prelude on this, not too badly, and explained the construction and tuning, responding well to what questions my primitive Italian allowed me to put.

    From there we went on to fortepianos, harpsichords, early pianos, harmoniums, all restored with as much attention to their musical utility as their physical appearance, which was very beautiful. The instruments are displayed in rooms otherwise furnished according to both period — 18th and early 19th century — and place: this little corner of a mountainous region of what was once a backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    Mozart, our guide told us, had actually visited this town on one of his travels; had actually played the glockenspiel we found in its shallow case, resting on a piano in the top-floor drawing room. (Our guide picked up a couple of little hammers and had his way with a passage from The Magic Flute.)

    All these instruments were gathered and restored by one Giovanni Canciani, a native as I understood it of Paularo. The house itself is from 1745; its restoration dates from just after the 1976 earthquake which caused a great deal of destruction in Udine province.
    The roof, for example, is new, including its beams: but built after the original methods. The attic room is used, I read, for private concerts from time to time, and while the entire house-museum is privately owned, tours like the one we took are available by appointment.

    In one room portraits of Canciani's grandparents hang, father's side on one wall, mother's on the opposite; flanking each portrait are portraits of the previous generation. There's something remarkably touching about all this, a feeling that one actually does look back into an intimate past, in a comfortable but not ostentatious home in an odd corner of an old world, one even including an occasional visit from a Mozart.
    I mentioned yesterday, either here or on the eating blog, our hostess-cook-waitress reminding us that simple things are best. We're staying in an albergo, a country hotel, which is also an agriturismo, a place connected to, making use of, and seeking to acquaint the tourist with a fattoria or farm, preferably a smallholding, which maintains traditional agricultural and domestic values in some way.

    All this is done with government support of various kinds. Certainly licensing and a degree of publicity; perhaps some financial support in the form of tax breaks or maybe outright subsidies — these things are complicated enough in any country, perhaps especially here in Italy. We learned last year, for example, when we stayed a couple of nights in a similar place in Piemonte, that the evening menus were actually stipulated by a regional tourist bureau: traditional dishes of the area, their roots in peasant cooking, dishes rarely met in commercial restaurants.

    That may well be the case here, as the two dinners we've had so far were composed almost completely of such dishes. We've only seen such dishes in one restaurant before: oddly, in Pasadena, where they're the mainstay of Tre Venezie, whose name refers to the three regions in the Italian northeast: Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and whose menu is drawn from peasant cuisine de terroir.

    This afternoon we walked ten minutes or so through town from our albergo to its farm, on the edge of Treppo. The main building is a barn dating from 1745 — the date's carved into the keystone over the door. Here, unlike the Mozartina, the roofbeams are the original poles, larch or spruce. The floors have been replaced, the ground floor covered with a thin layer of concrete; and the hay inside is neatly baled in cylinders.
    Four cows live in a stall in the basement, alas never allowed outside to pasture, but apparently content and certainly healthy. We drink their milk — pasteurized, of course; it's required — with our morning coffee, and it's sweet. Outside,
    vegetable plots — potatoes, pole beans, salad, leeks, onions — divide the space with fruit trees and, especially, grassland, which is cut several times a season for hay. A couple of men looked in on us, whether asked to by our host, or out of neighborly curiosity, I can't say. They told me that this was the way of life hereabouts until the 1950s, when the old ways were permanently abandoned by the younger generations.

    Today the ways of the paisano are continued only artificially, I suppose, as a part of the agritultural-tourism industry which is becoming a significant part of the Italian economy. I can't help thinking, though, that when the good times are gone, when people are forced back to old ways, whether from war, climate change, or terminal economic meltdown, the old ways will re-emerge; they will provide the only sustainable survival. And I'm glad to see the scythes and pitchforks are maintained in good working order, alongside the walk-behind mower and hay-baler.

    Friday, June 03, 2011

    Venice Journal, 8: Out of town

    Treppo Carnica, June 3, 2011—
    VENICE IS JAMMED at the moment; the apartment we've taken for the month had been previously rented for this weekend. It's the opening of the Biennale, and all kinds of people are converging on the town, for all kinds of reasons, no doubt.

    Our agent had explained this to us when we took the place; we knew we'd have to give up the apartment for these few days. Our only question had been, where to go? In the end the weather told us: up into the mountains. So yesterday we dragged ourselves and all our belongings over to the Piazzale Roma whence we were shuttle-vanned to a Hertz lot north of Mestre.

    There, a little after eleven o'clock, we got into a shiny black Ford Fiesta and drove up into the mountains. Most of the way we were on the autostrada, remarkable only for long code (“tails,” queues) of stopped traffic, fortunately going the other direction; and for the truck driver I watched at one of the service areas where we'd stopped for sandwiches and a coffee.

    1.jpg2.jpg3.jpgAlas, I did not catch him at one of the times he carefully poured the steaming-hot water out of the saucepan in which he'd just cooked his pasta — he ate at least two pans full.

    From Udine north the road began to climb, imperceptibly at first, later quicker. The flora changed dramatically, from the lower farmland — corn, for the most part — to forest. Now and then our road bridged broad riverbeds strewn with white gravel and boulders, a narrow blue-grey stream rushing down to the Adriatic.

    At last we left the highway and returned to narrower SS (strada statale, regional road) highways, one lane in each direction, well paved, the curves and grades well engineered. And finally we were in Treppo Carnica — “Carnica” both to situate the village, here in the foothills of the Carnic Alps on the Austrian border, and to differentiate it from another Treppo, Treppo Grande (though I bet it isn't), nearer Udine.

    After settling into a comfortable room, whose windows look out onto a ridge to the south, we went for a short walkabout. It's a mountain village like many; we couldn't help being reminded of St. Pierre de Chartreuse, where we used to stay so many years ago. Fresh-cut grass, with alpine flowers; stone-and-plank farm buildings; a freshet pouring down the hill between neat homesteads; well-tended gardens trending, this time of year, to pole beans and potatoes.

    Garden.jpg We stopped to admire one garden, bordered by fragrant carnations and stocks but containing plenty of vegetables. Its proprietor seemed surprised we'd find it worth stopping for, explaining the flowers were there simply because she liked smelling them. It was hard to understand her Italian: the local dialect is apparently pretty forceful, elbowing schoolroom Italian out of daily conversation. It was hard to break off the conversation, partly because of that: but we continued our peregrination,
    up and down steep streets, heading back to the Albergo.

    Dinner was cucina povera, as described over at Eating Every Day. The fellow who owns this place is very keen on explaining his land, of which he's proud as any native son, to these visiting Californians — the more so since we have connections to the ValSusa on the other side of northern Italy, and he was visiting there just last weekend. His mother, I suppose it is, presented us with the menu, but it was spoken, mostly in dialect, and the details evaded us. It was simple and local, though, and delicious, and we slept well.