August 13th, 2006

I See You!

Personal: Europe Trip: Venice Part Two

Sunday, 23 July 2006, 1:07am

Well, even though I just signed off in Florence just now [coming soon to a journal near you], up on top of the tower, I think I'll make a couple of quick notes about Venice and how that ended, because I certainly didn't have time, or was cut off yesterday as I was trying to record it.

So we had come down to the San Marco area, as I said before, walking around the sea side of the Doge's Palace and then into the Piazza for a while, taking shots of the façade of San Marco. We were trying to soak that in since we missed going to Mass there, and had skipped the tour because of the great line and because everything I'd read indicated that you would not really be able to see the inside in any great detail because the tours only show you a corner of it, for ten minutes or something like that. I supposed that we could look at the complete tour online, although if anything, this trip has shown me that "online" is not the same, or books are not quite the same. I have to think of seeing the Michelangelo today in the Uffizi, the Holy Family painting of his, probably his only other painting than the Sistine Chapel ceiling: somehow I had it in my head that that work was in the inside of a dish or a bowl, and it was colossal, so certainly details can get confused over the years from reading that would not be mistakes you would make having actually seen the thing itself.

But back in Venice we tried to do an early lunch so that things would thin out around San Marco. We came back down to the Piazza, which didn't really show much signs of having thinned out – I'm told the evening time is the time to enjoy that – and we walked around the entire length of the porticoed buildings surrounding the square called the Procuratie.
We were still rather taken with the sight of the Basilica and continued to study and shoot it from different angles, talking about details we noted and what we knew of its history. We had decided over lunch to go into Museo Correr, which appealed in its descriptions as a place where we could take a walk through Venetian history. In fact, we walked around the square because we simply missed the entrance to the museum the first time. That was an interesting mistake, nevertheless, simply because it was impressive to look at the high-end shops surrounding the piazza. Myself, I was rather taken aback to see small works by Dali for sale for several thousands of Euro, just inside the window of one art dealer. I was suspicious, too, that these limited-number runs of small sculptures of his, and the like, were some of the things I had read about, to which his name and assent had been loosely slapped in his failing years, as art dealers had him signing his name to blank pieces of paper to which prints would be later added, if I remember correctly. While I was ruminating on this, I'd lost Erik, of course, so I had to hurry past the gold dealers to catch up with him. We finally found the doors of the museum and ascended though a glorious white neoclassical entry. It was an odd layout, because you actually have to work your way back through a vast amount of the museum to come to the earlier material, so we found ourselves largely drifting backward through the chronology of the Republic of Venice. Still, its mercantile and military days of glory were made vivid and obvious. Portraits of Doges and notable figures past, Lion-decked banners, a vast and nearly-complete coin display of the entire length of the Republic's days, weapons, and even large woodworked sections of old ships – with models present to give you a sense of the full scale – all drew our attention.

So it gave us a kind of an overview of the city, one I thought made the most of a variety of artifacts that added up to an interesting view of the city, although nothing that stood out as a great work of art. Erik wasn't sure whether it was worth the time or the money we put into it, given the selectivity of what we could 'sample' in our day in Venice. We then headed back out into the Procuratie, and walked along it toward the entrance to the Piazza. We stopped for some minutes of live music, a five- or six-piece group of violins, upright bass, piano and the like, that was being played for the people in one of the grand outdoor cafés, the Caffe Florian, as they were being waited up by uniformly handsome men in white formal jackets. The fellow playing the bass eyed Erik and I as we were listening and gave a particular nod to our applause at the end of a piece: I suspect he could tell the difference between those who simply heard the music and those who were really listening to it. We moved on, though, before we could be hassled for sitting where we weren't ordering and grabbed some gelatos for the first time. From my students who have studied in Italy, or from P.J. McCurry, I have heard many things about the famed, transcendent ice cream of Italy, so I had been looking forward to the experience. I got a mint chip out of a sense of obligation, almost, although I was very tempted by the lemon. I don't know what Erik got: chocolate or something, a double scoop. We walked around the corner and back out toward the sea from San Marco, stopping in the shade of the columns to enjoy our gelato. I took some pictures of a couple of girls from Miami on their camera – I should have taken one of them of my own because it was so funny chatting with them – but they were asking me to take pictures of them, and I putzed it up the first time. After giving me more instructions we chatted a bit more. They were just a really funny pair – tall, black, elegant, in their early 20s, probably – and we compared travel notes with them for a few minutes.

Then Erik and I walked west down toward the opening of the Grand Canal for a while, looking at the street vendors and artists more than anything else, until we took a water taxi across to the area called Dorsoduro. According to the plan we had made for the rest of the day, this would be our last time on the water and Erik was adamant that we would not play tourist and hire a gondola for the trip. I suspected that that was something he didn't care to "sample" until he was visiting Venice with someone less masculine! As we waited for a water taxi – which might be more accurately called, by Americans, a water "bus" – he talked about how surprised he was at the rusty or work condition of a lot of the water transport of the city. He had mentioned this earlier in the day, too, and contrasted it to his experiences of New York, where he insisted that anything so visibly worn would have long since been retired. We debated whether this was a sign of the economic struggles of Venice and its domination by and dependence upon the tourist industry, or whether it was just a different economic/aesthetic from a continent that was used to much more visible evidence of sheer age than the United States was, where what is new is too often associated with what is good. This conversation carried us across the river and to the head of the Grand Canal, beautifully dominated by the church called La Salute, more properly called Santa Maria della Salute: Saint Mary's of/Our Lady of Good Health. It was so named because it was built as a thanksgiving for the end of the 1630 plague outbreak. We paused outside, studying both our destination and now looking back at the San Marco region we had just left and taking note of the view from across the water. I was struck by the shades of colour giving way from the white to the lighter terracotta in the picture I took of these buildings across the water. Erik took a portrait shot of me with the Campanile, the Belltower of the Piazza San Marco, in the background. [After I returned to Milwaukee, I saw that this was part of a series of pictures Erik took of me with my eyes closed, Erik apparently not having embraced the finer benefits of digital photography. This is my favourite of the lot.] After enjoying the tall, Baroque splendor of its exterior for a little while, we went into La Salute, trying now to soak in the architecture from within. We missed the Tintoretto Marriage at Canathat I guess was back there in the sacristy, but there was a Titian Baptism of Christ, I think, that caught my eye. But it was an interesting space, a largely round church, where we were both struck by the incredibly long chandelier that came down on this strong chain all the way down through this immensely high central domed space. The side chapel was filled up for current Masses and it did not seem that there were using this central space anymore, and it was roped off, thus herding the tourists around the edges of the main circle of the church.

Then we walked back on the south side of that island, toward the ocean. Passing through a brief neighbourhood, as the island was not very wide at this point, we saw this set of flags hanging from a house on the canal by La Salute. We were struck by the series – the new European Union, Italy, and the old flag of the Republic of Venice – and the unity they conveyed of both a contemporary and active political awareness with a deep respect for the distinct heritage of the islands. We began walking along the promenade along the south end of the island, the Zattere, that ran right along the water's edge there. The quayside was quite, flanked with old warehouses, cafés and churches. It wasn't open to the sea, though, because of the long barrier island further out, La Guidecca across the Guidecca canal. There we were faced with the stark front of the church Il Redentore, and further out to the east, the slightly separated island San Giorgio Maggiore, dominated by its active Benedictine monastery of the same name. Erik and I had debated heading out to that community, and studied the church from across the water, but that, too, was a sacrifice to time. The longer, outer island of Guidecca is the home of the Venice Film Festival, and we had read that expatriate nobility like Elton John having bought a small palazzo there were making it an increasingly hip place to live year-round, and not just when the stars cavorted there for the Festival. It was suddenly and stunningly quiet back there, with virtually no one else in sight. We finally worked our way, roughly north-by-northwest, to head back toward the train station with the intention of looking at the life of the city itself rather than the tourist life. We were finally getting a taste of residential Venice and I think we both really liked it. These streets and canals were quiet, and here and there you would run into a tiny splash of garden outside a home, perhaps behind a wall. I found myself stunned to see a tree for the first time on the streets of the city, other than perhaps back along the large walkways where the street vendors had been collected. You suddenly realized that you hadn't seen a tree in any domestic situation, and were reminded of the need to use every foot of the limited land of the islands: a garden, however small, was a luxury. We ended up back on the Grand Canal at the Gallerie dell'Accademia, which was our intention. When we came out of the warren of little streets, it was behind us as I was sitting there with my map on the steps of a bridge, looking in front of me and to both sides for landmarks on the Grand Canal, trying to figure out exactly where we were. There was the Accademia with the bold name of the place bannered hugely over its entire face, but invisible to me, because it hadn't dawned on me to look at the building I was standing in front of. So Erik had a good laugh at me as I was trying to figure out our location after he noticed that.

The Accademia explained why our other stops had had only a smattering of strong art: it seemed that every great piece of art in Venice had been enclosed within this one set of walls. We went in there and that was a really good, quick loop through Venice's chief art treasures. Whereas Erik had pronounced the first museum not worth our money, this second one was very much so, like the Uffizi here today in Florence. While nothing captured me there like the huge grins breaking over my face that I experienced today, I have to say that I was deeply impressed. We were moving fast, and this was art that I largely hadn't seen or studied before, and so impressions are already faded, but I can remember being struck by some of the medieval pieces. Yet it was my first serious encounter with Tintoretto that really was the gem of the visit. I had really only encountered him indirectly, either by references that one must see the Tintorettos in Venice – I think that was of some significance in the plot of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, if I recall correctly – or by the fact that his Crucifixion, which I now felt the full power of, was used as the cover art for Raymond Brown's volume The Death of the Messiah. The wild stampede of his Creation of the Animals, the Saint Mark cycle, like the Miracle of St. Mark Freeing the Slave, or the wild and overwhelming The Stealing of the Dead Body of St. Mark (again a popular theme for Venice, and its civic pride in holding Mark's relics), all grabbed me. Likewise, it made me blink to suddenly be in the presence of what has to be the most reproduced scene of Venice, Bellini's Procession in Piazza San Marco while having that same view fresh in my eye's memory. We both laughed at some point to see Canaletto's The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day – I can't remember whether that was at the Accademia or not, and if so, how, since I don't think it's part of their collection – for the same reason. In fact, I'm struck by the accidental similarity to my shot from the prior entry.

The rest of our time went fairly quickly. After leaving the Accademia, we continued to move west and north, just taking in the neighbourhoods as we went. After crossing the student/university area, which didn't stand out as such terribly strongly, we crossed the long Campo di Santa Margherita, which my guidebook recommended as the liveliest square for local nightlife and bars, although I also remember blinking at reading the line, "Given the contagiously upbeat mood, blue-rinse matrons from Milwaukee often join peace-protesting students in sipping a lurid orange spritz in one of the arty cafés." I confess that I didn't recognize anyone. Here in the late afternoon, it was a more quiet and relaxed liveliness we noted, as folks stretched out in the chairs in small outdoor cafés, or bought fruit from local market stands. It wasn't so driven by a youth bar crowd as perhaps it might be later at night. Erik and I paused so that he could grab some slices of pizza in a hot, tiny delivery place we noticed, and we sat there drinking while he ate and enjoyed the view of the industrious and beautiful young blonde who had served him. Our time was ticking away, as as we wandered north out of the Campo, Erik paused for another gelato. I walked ahead a little ways, waiting for him at the base of the next bridge. There, as I looked around, I found myself rather taken by the detail work on one of the worn buildings nearby, and grabbed this shot of all the distinctive little faces decorating it. I've come to be pretty fond of detailwork in recent years, and the character that it lends a building, and which we find so utterly lacking in construction today. We went on, veering west and noticing the increasing displays of wealth as we seemed to work our way into an upscale hotel area, if I remember correctly. Surprising ourselves by stumbling into the largest park area we had seen, the Giardino Papadopoli, which turned out to be standing more-or-less across from the train station, we made our way out of that and found ourselves nearing the end of our journey. While Erik – with increasing signs of impatience – waited for me as paused repeatedly at sidewalk vendors, we decided to take the slightly longer way around by walking down the Grand Canal, past the San Simeone Piccolo church that stands directly across from the station (in the background of the picture of Erik as we arrived in Venice) and across the bridge just off to the side of station, the Ponte degli Scalzi. We were a bit surprised to find a troop of Native Americans singing and dancing tribal songs just outside the station, and paused momentarily to listen to them, before we went inside and painlessly retrieved our luggage just as our train was ready to board.

And then we were off to Florence.

Go to: Florence: Day One, Part One