Sunday, May 1, 2011

La Serenissima

La Serenissima.
The Most Serene One.
Venice and crowds of tourists pretty much make a scene that is all too familiar to anyone who has visited this glorious city.
However, spend some real time in Venice and you will discover and appreciate that, apart from its architecture and art that can knock you senseless with their variety and beauty, it is essentially a quiet city. Wake up early and wander at dawn through the streets of this city and the loudest sound you will probably hear will be the cooing of pigeons or the distant thrum of a motorboat. You can sometimes hear the voice of a soprano doing scales, or catch bright snatches of trumpet sound. They do not annoy, but simply add to the mystique of Venice as a city of the arts. No cars, motorbikes, buses, not even bicycles are permitted in Venice. This city is pedestrian heaven.
Do I love Venice?
Is the Pope Catholic?
Venice defies the imagination. I know I’m neither the first nor the last to say this: no amount of books, pictures, paintings, travelogues or videos can adequately describe the beauty of this city. Words even failed Charles Dickens, who could only write of Venice as if it was just a rich and passing dream.
In the luxurious wonder of so rare a dream,I took but little heed
of time, and had but little understanding of its flight. But there
were days and nights in it; and when the sun was high, and when the rays of lamps were crooked in the running water, I was still
afloat, I thought: plashing the slippery walls and houses with the
cleavings of the tide, as my black boat, borne upon it, skimmed

along the streets. (Charles Dickens: Pictures from Italy)
How can I, for example, describe my feeling of awe when, on a cold and drizzly November evening, after blindly following a line of tourists through a dark, narrow alley, I stumbled into St. Mark’s Piazza and then into St. Mark’s Cathedral where I found myself in a vast blazingly lit space suffused with the smell of incense, candles and lilies, marble-paneled walls and columns soaring up to golden, mosaic-encrusted ceilings that glittered like jewels in the sky, while churchgoers sat on wooden benches reverently listening to the strains of Gregorian chant being sung on what just happened to be the feast of All Saints Day?
How can I communicate the richness of St. Mark’s altarpiece, the Pala d’Oro, other than to say that it is probably the most precious work of art in Venice, which is saying a lot?
How can I describe being part of the crowd at the Piazza San Marco while a multitude of pigeons swirl and flap about as they compete for crumbs of bread thrown at them by tourists and excrete it all back on the heads of the statues ringing the rooftops? The smell of pigeon-shit is part of Venice. If you wandered into some alleyway with a backed-up canal, in summer, you’d probably smell worse. But no matter. It’s Venice.
How can I even start to talk about the abundance of art here except to say that it is enough to fill up half the world’s museums. Aside from the Accademia and other formal establishments here, every church, chapel and palazzo in Venice is a museum. You could say that Venice is every art-lover’s wet-dream, endless in its variety and dizzying in its quantity.
How can I describe my delight when I first saw the crimsons and blues on Titian’s “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin” at the Church of the Frari, or my being overwhelmed by the dark and brooding canvases of Tintoretto at the Oratory of San Rocco?
How can I describe my sense of being in a timeless space when I found myself having wine and pannini at an upper floor of the Palazzo Grassi while, through an open window, I watched a sun-drenched scene out of a Canaletto canvas, traghetti and gondolas cutting wavy trails on the sky-reflecting waters of the Grand Canal on their way to the lagoon, past the curlicued façade of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana, the old Customs House, with the golden orb on its roof glinting in the sun.
I spent the summer of 1993 on a cruise ship, the Costa Classica, with Venice as our home port. The ship was in port every Sunday, usually arriving at five in the morning. By six o’clock, I was out making my way into one of several churches I was going to visit that day. I had decided that the best way to start my Sunday in Venice was to attend mass in a different church for as many times as I cared to as a way of soaking up local flavor and incidentally seeing the greatest amount of religious art before the churches closed for the day or the sun brought out the tourists. I made it a habit, just before I passed over the nondescript metal bridge from the cruise-ship pier to the old city, to grab a cup of espresso and a thick prosciutto sandwich at the corner traveler's café.
In this way, while most visitors contented themselves with looking at the pictures in the Doge’s Palace or in the Accademia, I managed to wallow in an embarrassment of Titians, Veroneses, Tintorettos and works of lesser-known Venetian artists in out-of -the -way churches.
I also saw, sadly, that only old people and pigeons attended mass in Venice. At one church, I counted fifteen churchgoers. Sunday in the Philippines, on the other hand, was standing room only. The contrast was telling. The Catholic Church has, for a long time now, already lost its grip on Italy as well as most of Europe.
With the help of a guide-book, I sought out lesser known artists: a Mantegna here, a di Palma there. Naturally, I acquainted myself with the collections at the Accademia and at Peggy Guggenheim’s villa- turned -museum. I visited Robert Browning’s former digs, the Palazzo Rezzonico, with its resplendent frescoed ballroom by Tiepolo. I couldn’t get into Wagner’s former pad, the Palazzo Vendramin because it was now the local casino. What made these explorations doubly pleasurable, although no less killing on the feet, was that you had to walk to these museums through what was essentially an open-air museum itself, the city of Venice.
One day, while riding the vaporetto (Venice’s water bus), amidst the chatter of French, German, Italian, and Vèneto (the Venetians’ own dialect), I heard somebody say something in Tagalog:
Ang ganda dito!” (How beautiful it is here!)
These words were uttered by a young Filipino man. Hands clutching the railing at the back of the boat, eyes surveying the parade of grand villas on the Grand Canal with delight, he was clearly enthralled by Venice. We talked a bit. He had just arrived a few days earlier. He was staying with his cousin. He was a graduate in aeronautical design. He had found work as caregiver and housecleaner. He was glad to get out of the Manila and find some work here in Italy. There was no need for designers of planes in the Philippines.
Sometimes, I caught myself wondering: Who actually lived in Venice? What sort of people were they? I knew there was a lot of moneyed foreigners who had bought and refurbished crumbling palazzi here, but what about the ordinary people?
There was a young photographer on the Costa Classica who looked like he had stepped out of a painting by Pontormo. His name was Luca. He lived in Venice with his parents. I asked him how he felt about living in this beautiful city.
“I hate Venice,” Luca said. “there is nothing for young people in Venice. It’s too expensive to live there.” He was planning to move out to Mestre or Padua, even Milan. Venice was losing its young population.
Another time, I listened to an old man, who told me that young people are leaving Venice.
Said he: Solo gli anziani ei pensionati vive a Venezia..” (“ Only old people and pensioners live in Venice.)
…and, I mentally added, rich foreigners, tourists, Somalian bag-peddlers and yes, out-of-work Filipino aeronautical designers.
When I got tired of looking at another heavily restored Cinquecento painting, I’d have an espresso at a café, or buy a panini and bunches of luscious green, Veneto grapes and eat them at the Giardini, Venice’s Central Park.
That summer was the summer of the Biennale. The Giardini saw the construction of pavilions housing modern artwork from many countries. Sculptural installations dotted the city. Sometimes it all seemed too much. Did Venice really need another painting or another sculpture to add to her prestige? Then, again, Venice probably needed an event like this to show to the world that she was not dead but vibrantly alive
Aside from art, serendipity best described Venice.
One morning, in an uncharacteristically sparsely-touristed St. Mark's Square, I sat underneath the portico of the Doge’s palace and took out my sketchbook, hoping to produce a watercolor or two. Just then, like something out of a dream, a bride in full wedding regalia glided out of St. Mark’s into the piazza. On her trail were the groom and two photographers. She was oblivious to the mud the hem of her gown was picking up from the wet pavement. It was a scene out of a Fellini movie.
A passer-by, a bespectacled man who looked like he could have been the professor in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”, stopped to peer at my watercolor, his goateed chin thrust out in the attitude of a critic. After a few, short seconds, he drew himself back and left without saying a word. I looked at my half-finished sketch of gondolas bobbing in the water and decided that Venice was too beautiful to portray on mere paper. I painted very little in Venice that summer and concentrated instead on an exploration of her cafes and shops.
If you hate crowds, off-season is the best time to go to Venice. That would be winter, or anytime Venice experiences it's acqua alta. The term is used to describe that time of the year when the sea invades St. Mark's Square and overflows into the first floors of the palazzi and generally keeps the crowds away.
Summer can be stifling hot and hard going, with hundreds of tourists pushing like lemmings through the narrow streets of this antique city. But then, summer is also the season of the regatta, when Venetians bring out lavishly decorated gondolas, including a replica of the bucintauro, complete with trumpeters dressed in 15th-century costumes and blaring glorious fanfares by Gabrieli. All this pomp and pageantry is only a prelude to the real deal: boat races on the Grand Canal that all Venetians take seriously, in much the same way that the Siennese do their Palio
Tired of walking?.There is the Grand Canal, and it's side canals that one can negotiate with the vaporetti and motoscafi (water-buses), traghetti (short-run gondolas), and the more expensive water taxis. Then there are the overpriced tourist gondolas, equipped , if one desires, with singing tenors who will usually sing about the glories of Naples ("Sorrento", "Santa Lucia").
It cost me $75 to ride this conveyance in 1993. I shudder to think how much this costs now in Euros.
Venice will always cast a spell anytime of the year.
I hope she doesn’t go under the waters of the lagoon, but if she does, and she probably will, something of extreme and irreplaceable beauty would have been lost forever to humanity.

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