Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Festa del Redentore 2014: Seeing, Feeling, Breathing Fireworks

Sandro beholds a fleeting pyrotechnical constellation
I don't think there's a bad place from which to watch the fireworks of the Festa del Redentore, so extensive is the show and so picturesque the backdrops surrounding the basin of San Marco. In fact, I suspect the only possible complaint you might have while watching the show from whichever vantage point you take up is that you can't simultaneously be watching it from at least two others.

I've been lucky enough to watch the fireworks while anchored in the middle of the broad Canale San Marco near the Arsenale (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2011/07/festa-del-redentore-4-views-from-boat.html), while standing all alone near the Giglio vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2012/07/festa-del-redentore-2012-fireworks.html), and while seated at the edge of Sant'Elena (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2013/07/7-views-of-la-festa-del-redentore.html).

This year we had the good fortune to watch them explode almost right above our heads from a boat in the middle of the bacino di San Marco. Not our own boat, I should quickly add, for as sweet as the thought may be of toodling into the basin in one's own small sanpierota to take up one's place amid hundreds of other boats, the reality of maneuvering through such a festive bobbing armada is beyond my piloting skill after only about six weeks of boat ownership. We were lucky to be with a friend who handled his boat as deftly as if it were small shopping cart, advancing, pivoting, retreating with ease.

In the center of the bacino you not only see the show, you feel it and breathe it. In the lit smokey sky after the brightest explosions you see large ashes of the exploded rockets drift slowly down, like insubstantial maple leafs. And the smaller ashes you can't see you feel: little things barely there brushing your arms, settling in your hair, almost in your eyes.

I somehow managed to forget to bring the one lens I most needed--a wide angle--but it would hardly have mattered. When viewed from the middle of the bacino, the field of fireworks exploding overhead is so vast as to exceed the limits of one's own vision, much less the frame of a camera. The images in this post are of the lower and even lesser fireworks: the grandest most dramatic bursts occurred higher up in the sky. A reminder, I suppose, that as sophisticated as our electronics are, and as dependent as we may be upon them, our intensest lived experiences still--thankfully--resist reproduction and representation.

A local friend told me there were used to be far more decorated boats a decade ago than there are now, but as you can see, above and below, some people still keep up the tradition
 
Bright colored lanterns in the dark crowded waters of the bacino of San Marco




Beneath the almost mid-day brightness of the spectacular grand finale

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Red Redentore: A Glimpse of Last Night's Celebration (with More to Come Tomorrow)

And, yes, oddly enough, those are two people swimming in the Bacino di San Marco during the fireworks (one with a camera)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Redentore Preserved (Services Cut)

Tables, flags, and paper lanterns just after noon today on Riva degli Schiavoni
The threats to cancel La Festa del Redentore due to lack of city funds seem to have been political posturing after all, as the whole shebang is taking place this weekend as usual. Of course the headlines of all today's local papers are all about cuts to Venice's nursery schools, public services, and garbage collection. Is this, one wonders, where the funds needed for Redentore were "discovered"? Well, at least we Venice residents have been left (for the time being) with what my physician here likes to describe bitterly as our "half a hospital."

In any case, preparations for this evening's dinner and celebrations and fireworks began before noon today with tables being set up, or places claimed for tables yet to come, along watersides all around the city. There are new regulations this year governing which kinds of boats can anchor where around the basin of San Marco; though, of course, last July it was on land, in Piazza San Marco, not on the water, that things got out of control.

As I type this with my window open I can already hear the insistent disco thump of a party boat on the lagoon. 

Here's hoping for a safe and sane Redentore this year.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Violin Maker and Restorer in Dorsoduro


"When did you start learning how to work with wood?" I ask Francesco Trevisan as we stand in his small workshop on the ground floor of his 16th-century house just behind the Guggenheim Museum in the Dorsoduro sestiere of Venice. He points to his two-year-old son Arturo, seated on the ground between us, pounding with a large wood mallet (but no nails) on a block of wood, and says, "When I was his size. I started out just playing in my grandfather's workshop, where the tools were my toys, as they are for Arturo. My grandfather was a carpenter in the Arsenale. He worked on boats belonging to the Navy. And his brother, my great-uncle, had a business renting boats near [the church of the] Carmini. My grandfather would repair those, too. Wood boats, boats to be rowed."

I'm puzzled by the idea of someone renting out boats not far from the historic center of Venice. Overly-influenced by today's Venice, I assume the business must have been oriented toward tourists, but can't imagine either the little rowboats available for rent in someplace like Rome's Villa Boghese in Venice, nor tourists capable of rowing in the Venetian style. "This was a business for tourists?" I ask.

"No," Francesco replies, "for Venetians. My great-uncle rented traditional Venetian boats, sanpierote, tope... Through the 1970s there were not all the motorboats there are now in the city, and fiberglass boats had not yet taken over, as they have now. If a Venetian needed to transport something like a piece of furniture, for example, they would still do so by rowing. These were my great uncle's customers."

It's hard for me to believe that traditional oar-powered Venetian boats had played such a role in the city during my own lifetime, but if I'm going to manage it anywhere Francesco's workshop, where he repairs and restores violins and cellos and other wood instruments, is one of the best places to do so in Venice. Outside the walls of this little room filled with tools and pigments and instruments and craftsmanship redolent of another era, Rio Terà San Vio is so completely quiet at noon on this weekday, without even a stray sound of a vaporetto or water taxi, that it's easy to imagine that one still lives in a time when Venetians get around by oar and that it's the norm, rather than something quite old-fashioned, that the son of violin maker would naturally become a violin maker himself.

 
But the fact is that Francesco's own path to becoming a violin maker, in spite of his grandfather's influence, was not direct. He studied physics at Ca' Foscari, then, after a mandatory year of military service, worked in the carpentry department of Teatro La Fenice until he was 30, when he gained admittance to the International School of Violin Making in Cremona.

"What made you want to learn to make violins?" I ask him. "Do you play?"

"No, I play the flute," Francesco says. "But I loved music, I had worked with wood my whole life, the school is excellent, and is nearby..."

"So if Cremona was the birthplace of the guitar, let's say, with a long tradition and an excellent school, do you think you would have learned to make them instead?" I ask.

"No, no," Francesco immediately replies. "For me the violin has a special allure."

At the time Francesco attended the school there was a three-year and a five-year program; because of his extensive prior experience with wood, he enrolled in the shorter program. (An interesting recent article on the school in Cremona can be found here: http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/violin-makers-cremona). Having completed it, he chose to spend his mandatory one-year training period not in Cremona, where the emphasis would have been on making new instruments, but in Germany, in Oldenburg (near Bremen), where he could take the first step toward becoming a restorer. He enjoyed his time there, then spent short periods gaining more experience in England and Holland, before returning to work in Cremona for two years. He then took a job in Lugano, Switzerland for a year and half, before moving back to Venice and trying to open his own shop. In a city so completely given over to tourism, it wasn't an easy task, nor was he thrilled at how much time he had to devote to matters of business rather than craft, so when a friend told him of a position available at an important shop in New York City, David Segal Violins, near Lincoln Center, he applied for it (http://www.davidsegalviolins.com/). 

"Was it the job or the chance to live in the city of New York that appealed to you more?" I ask him.

"The job," Francesco says. "It's an excellent shop, one of the best in the world. It turned out that I liked New York very much, but if the shop had been somewhere else, I would have gone there."

He spent his hours in the shop restoring and maintaining and repairing some truly great instruments. It was there, in New York City, that he had the chance to actually work on--and not just study--instruments made by the legendary luthiers of Cremona, such as Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and Antonio Stadavari. In his spare time, after shop hours, he made violins of his own.

"For anyone who wants to make violins, it's very important to have the experience of actually handling and working with a Stradavarius or a Testore, to see first-hand how they were made," Francesco tells me. To see and hear one of the violins that Francesco himself made during his New York years, you can watch a young up-and-coming violinist, Margarita Krein, performing the Red Violin Caprices by John Corigliano with it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi_i-8vT2Fo.

It was Krein herself who would relay to Francesco one of the most flattering estimates of his violins he's ever received: she was in a recording studio in New York recording some pieces when the sound engineer in charge asked her, after a few trial runs, for information about the Stradavarius she was playing.

Francesco's skill as both a restorer and a maker of instruments in New York led to a job offer from Robertson and Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another of America's best known shops (http://www.robertsonviolins.com/), but a relationship and subsequent marriage brought him back to Venice, where he now devotes himself to restoration and repairs.

He shows me a mid-19th century double bass he's currently working on. "A local baroque musician found this in a flea market," he tells me. "The sides are quite damaged, with cracks and holes--you see I must fill in places with small pieces of wood as if I'm doing a mosaic. But it is a Viennese instrument, it's top is still in good shape, and it is not easy to find an instrument like this with wood that has been seasoned for 100 or 200 years. Or, rather, you can, but it will be extremely expensive. So we take our chances with this one. The job will take me six months, but I think we will have a very beautiful sounding instrument when everything is done. It will have the kind of sound that is perfect for baroque music, instead of the kind of tones you get from new instruments."    

Internal view of the f-hole of a mid-19th-century double bass
In his spare time now, Francesco plays flute in a nearby amateur wind orchestra--the Gruppo Musicale Città di Molignano--and, like many Venetians, runs a B&B out of his house. Named Dorsoduro 461, after its address, it offers three double rooms in the apartment two floors above his ground floor workshop, and a bright book-filled lounge/breakfast room looking over the beautiful and tranquil Rio Terà San Vio (http://www.dorsoduro461.com/). "They are not extravagant lodgings," Francesco says, "but they are very fairly priced, I think, and comfortable, and the location can't be beat--close to everything, and very Venetian, but also very peaceful."

His ideal now, he tells me, is to integrate his work on instruments with the B&B: "I'm lucky to have had very interesting guests from all over. But when musicians come to stay, that is even more special. If a musician has an instrument to repair, or is interested in having a violin made, then the shop and B&B merge perfectly. Or if a musician comes to Venice and would like to play here, it would be fun to arrange for a performance with other musicians, in a hall. Or also as a flash mob. I have been quite taken with what musicians have done with flash mobs. You know flash mobs?"

I admit I really know only the term, so he leads me to a computer in his apartment upstairs and shows me the following video of an extraordinarily well-choreographed and striking flash mob performance by the Vienna Philharmonic in the Vienna Westbahnhof: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXglXeONApw.

"Now, that is really exceptional," he says, " I don't imagine anything so grand in Venice. But I love the idea of musicians coming together to make this dramatic fleeting thing of such great beauty. What a great thing it would be for the city--so different from all the regulations and tourism and money-making--and what a great experience for the musicians who participate and the bystanders who see and hear it."

It is now time for Arturo's lunch. Arturo has kept a small hammer with him from the workshop. I think of the line of wood working descending from Francesco's grandfather, to Francesco, and possibly to Arturo, and it suddenly occurs to me to ask, "But what about your own father, Francesco, he didn't work with wood?" 

"No," Francesco says, "he sold fabrics." Which, of course, is another craft and trade at which Venetians have long excelled.

"Do you hope that Arturo will follow in your footsteps?" I finally ask. "Become an instrument maker, too?"

"I would like him to be able to do what really interests him," Francesco replies. "If that is working with wood, then, yes, I would be happy. I became accustomed to the smell of wood and the tools very very early in my life. I think that can be very beautiful, to start very young with very good memories of being with your grandfather, or father, in a good safe place, having fun, playing, not working. The memories stay with you always, when you are older, they inform your work, they remain. But if that is how he will feel about things--that is up to him. I don't worry about such things. The important thing now is to have fun." 

The entryway of Dorsoduro461 B&B, with a reflection of Francesco's workshop

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Marching to Save Lido's Trees, Yesterday

A two-lanes-wide line of protesters stretches much of the length of Lido's Gran Viale
I've always thought that much of the charm of Lido's Gran Viale--the island's main commercial street of shops and restaurants running from its main vaporetto stop to the Adriatic--comes from the irregular greenery lining either side. But the redevelopment plans drawn up by the city and Insula (a half-public half-private company responsible for infrastructure projects in Venice) for the important thoroughfare calls for the removal of basically everything growing there. Some 280 trees and shrubs in all have been designated to be cut down this summer and a lot of Lido residents are not happy about it.

At least a thousand residents of Lido took to the Gran Viale yesterday evening at 6 pm, tying up traffic in both directions, to protest the redevelopment plans that would leave just two trees standing. In April of this year the city environmental councilor, Gianfranco Bettin, claimed that the Gran Viale's trees and shrubs were fatally ill with "risalita salina" (rising saltwater) and would have to be removed. The protestors yesterday disputed this claim, asserting that if there were some sick trees on the Gran Viale--though nothing like 280 of them--they were suffering from being improperly planted and poorly maintained.

Protesters also questioned the other justification now offered by the city and Insula for the greenery's removal: that roots along the Gran Viale will interfere with the installation of a new sewer system. In a city where each day's paper seems to lay bare yet more of the extensive corruption of the MOSE water gates, residents are now demanding the kind of transparency notably absent from both that multi-billion euro project and from the plans for the Gran Viale. Their fear is that the city and Insula are--with no input from citizens nor significant oversight--pursuing a disastrous course of action on Lido at this time of acute fiscal crisis that is as unnecessary and counter-productive as it is costly.

Whether the protest will have any effect is anyone's guess at this point. The plans of the city and Insula call for the trees to fall to the ax this summer, while the protesters are asking the city commissioner to immediately block the removal of any and all trees and shrubs.

You can read objections to and concerns about the Gran Viale project at http://granviale.it/, and on the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/granviale?fref=ts.

It's not easy being Green: two protesters symbolically chained to one of the trees due to be removed from the Gran Viale


Monday, July 7, 2014

Rings Over the Abyss: On Differences between Italian & American Playgrounds


The unveiling at the beginning of last week of a large new piece of playground equipment in the park on Sant'Elena where Angelina and Brad used to take their kids during the filming of the dull movie The Tourist reminded me once more of some significant differences that remain between Italian and American life, in spite of the homogenizing influence of a global economy and mass corporate culture.

Well, it wasn't literally "unveiled". For the weeks it took to put the play structure's many logs together, it was only partially obscured by opaque construction drapery hung irregularly upon its chain-link fence enclosure. You could peek in and watch it take shape, as many small kids impatiently did, and the only real suspense for Jen and me in recent days as it approached its final form was wondering when exactly the builders would realize their glaring error.

After all, it was a mistake so obvious as to be comical in a perverse Addams Family kind of way, in which humor lies in the hearty approval the two young Addams kids receive from their parents for playing with the most lugubriously dangerous "toys," such as a real full-scale guillotine.

For Jen and I agreed--in a shared assumption that revealed our American origins even more clearly than the accents of our spoken Italian--that the blueprints certainly did not (could not) dictate that a series of steel rings along which a hanging child is supposed to propel him- or herself be suspended from their short chains at a great height. The distance from the rings to the ground had to be at least 8 1/2 feet (2.6 meters), meaning that for a five year old of, say, 3 feet 7 inches (110 cm) in height, dangling from fully extended arms, the drop would be about 3.5 to 4 feet (1.2 meters)!

At the age of 18 I sprained my ankle and tore ligaments while turning it from a shorter drop.

Yet when the chain-link barrier was taken away, there were those rings just where we'd marveled at them all along, gleaming in the sun above an ankle-breaking abyss.

In Park Slope, Brooklyn, where we used to live, there would have been 150 lawsuits filed over those rings while the chain-link enclosure was still in place ("reckless potential endangerment"). There would have been outraged flyers taped to the front door of every neighborhood building and a tsunami of indignant posts that would have knocked out the message board of the website Park Slope Parents. When a new bike lane was put in on the street running along one side of the neighborhood's vast Prospect Park--it's a long story, but, yes, a bike lane--the reaction was so rabid that an outside observer might reasonably have assumed it was in response to the city's plans to set up the old Chernobyl nuclear facilities within the park itself and see if a little NYC know-how might not get better results from them.   

Here, however, no one even seemed to notice the height of the rings.

As I passed by the park one afternoon right after the play equipment was open to kids I happened upon a Venetian friend there with his 19 month-old son. "Quite a piece of equipment," I said, gesturing toward the new construction. He nodded.

We stood just a few feet from the rings and I pointed to them and asked, "Do those seem a little high to you?"

"No," he replied.

"In America," I told him, "they'd never be allowed in a playground. They'd be considered much too dangerous."

He looked truly shocked by this. "Too dangerous?" he asked, disbelieving. I nodded. He made a face that suggested there was no end to how absurd people might be, then after a couple of moment's thought, said, "But the kids will figure out how to deal with them."

When I got home I found that Jen had had a similar conversation that afternoon with another neighboring (Italian) father. He, too, couldn't believe that the the height of the rings would make them too dangerous for an American playground. So, as an alternative explanation for their prohibition, Jen told him about all the lawsuits that would inevitably arise from them. 

He found this even more impossible to believe. "But why," he replied, "would a parent file a lawsuit against the city or park when it was the parent who allowed the child to play on them? How could they possibly win such a lawsuit?"

There was no simple answer to such questions. Where even to begin? A historian of liability law could have explained every one of the landmark judgements that led the way to America's present attitude towards things like playground construction and our neighbor would still--for all his new knowledge--reasonably have responded, "Okay, but why? ("Va ben', ma perchè?"). Jen didn't waste her time or his, she had no illusions of bridging such a vast gulf. She simply shrugged. 

Of course one of the oddest things about this different perspective on playground equipment is that Italians are not exactly easy-going when it comes to raising their kids. If certain Americans (of a certain class) have been labeled "helicopter" parents for the way they relentlessly hover over their children's lives, I've sometimes found myself thinking that certain Italians might be termed "shroud" parents.

Influenced perhaps by their country's all-pervasive but often empty ideal of freedom, even the most controlling American parent tends to pride him- or herself on being rather "hands off". The American parent hovers elusively ever-present as a drone, but trusts that constant surveillance, unceasing coercion and an obsessive control over the child's surroundings will usually (though not always) save him or her the trouble of actually striking.

Italian parents, or grandparents, on the other hand, can quite literally be all over a child. Don't sit down in that sand! Stay on the sidewalk! Put your arms into this jacket I'm forcing onto you [as a small cloud passes momentarily across the sun]! Don't even put a toe into the sea until 3 hours have elapsed after lunch! As the product myself of many years of Catholic education I sense the presence of the Church in this insistence on an impossible ideal of purity in which neither the parent nor child has much real faith, so that the strictures themselves, and the authority they represent, become the whole point.

In any case, walking past the playground two days ago around noon I noticed that of the many features that make up what in America would be called the "Jungle Gym" and what here is called simply il nuovo castello (the new castle)--two slides, rope walkways, various bars and inclines--the most popular one by far was what I've come to think of as the Rings Over the Abyss. Three kids of various sizes were lined up on the platforms at either end, waiting their turns. I paused to watch, just in time to see a boy of about 5 or 6 set out on the rings with the encouragement of two Venetian grandmothers (one of whom I know a bit). These are the kind of women who are prone to slam shut the lone open window in an airless vaporetto on an 85 degree (29 C) summer day for fear that they themselves or their grandchild might be struck by a colpo d'aria (blow or blast of air) and develop pneumonia. But today as the boy's feet dangled some four feet above the ground they shouted advice: "Push, push!" and "Use your body!"

I'll admit that as they shouted all I thought about was the fragility of the boy's little ankles at such a height. But it turns out I needn't have worried. When he dropped--as he must, for he didn't have the upper body strength to make it across--in the middle of trying to swing his body forward (as encouraged), his feet flew out from beneath his body and he landed with a great air-expelling UUUUMPH on his chest.

The grandmothers both leapt a couple yards toward the scene of the accident and I'm afraid that, even as I gasped, the word LAWSUIT! lit up in my mind's eye like JACKPOT! on a glowing Vegas slot machine.

But the boy was okay. He looked stunned for a moment there on the one- or two-inch layer of wood chips that are supposed to pad such falls, and didn't exactly leap to his feet, but he didn't cry and didn't seem concussed nor hurt, and the grandmothers, after seeing this, didn't make too much of the incident. The boy returned to playing--though not to the rings; at least not while I was there--and the grandmothers to shouting advice at other young daredevils.

Jen says she likes the rings, and I suppose I do, too. She cites articles by Waldorf educators that suggest kids now don't have enough danger in their play. Not Addams family let's-stick-our-heads-in-a-real-guillotine danger, nor American-Marine-boot-camp peril, of course, but age-appropriate equipment to test themselves on or against, to challenge themselves physically, and mentally. Overly-controlled play is not play, regardless of what style of control is being exercised.

In the course of doing a little research for this post I found that America's National Safety Council recommends that playgrounds be covered with a 12-inch layer of impact-absorbing wood chips. I'm sure this a good idea, but we have nothing like that amount of ground cover here.

I also found that metal rings at the end of chains, regardless of how close to the ground they are set, have been phased out of American playgrounds. It seems kids were prone to hang upside down from them by their feet. In America this use of the rings was considered a serious safety hazard. Here, in the words of the father I spoke to a few days ago, I guess it's just another way that kids might figure out "how to deal with them."

Last night on the way home from an evening in Lido, Jen and I noticed that the first flyer about il nuovo castello had been posted on the community bulletin board located just a short distance from the playground. Uh-oh, thought my American self, seeing the flyer's large heading and image of the new piece of equipment. But the flyer wasn't the indignant complaint about it that I expected (on an island on which indignant complaints are never in short supply), but an open invitation to celebrate it. Over 600 signatures had been collected to encourage the city to replace the large old slide it had removed from the park some months back and the city actually had with this splendid new construction! The flyer invited residents of all ages to gather at il nuovo castello at 5 pm today when there will be "merenda per bambini e aperitivi per i genitori" (snacks for kids and drinks for adults).

Those aperitivi at children's events, by the way, mark another significant (and welcome) cultural difference between Italian and American culture. But that's a whole different subject.   

Friday, July 4, 2014

Violin Maker and Son, Dorsoduro


I'll have full post about these two next week, but for now I just wanted to post this image from yesterday noon.