Thursday, April 17, 2014

Venice Aflame: Sunset Last Night

I promise you, Dear Reader, that I have not decided to turn this into the Venezia Sunset Blog--though it has occurred to me that someone (not me) could easily take a sunset photo every evening from a single location here and at the end of a year perhaps end up with a fairly interesting series--but I just wanted to post a series of images taken last night. The above panorama was taken at 8 pm, the one just below at 8:07, the bottom image at 8:10; the light seems to change almost second by second as the sun vanishes.

The days have been sunny and quite breezy (when not downright windy) for the last few days, and the latter has kept the smog from settling over the mainland and given the whole city a high-def look. The breezes have not, however, blown all the clouds away, and in the evening especially they tend to compose themselves to great operatic effect--like some last rousing Verdi chorus to ring down the curtain on the day.

The city, or the Dolomiti behind it, aflame

Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Spring Flowers & on the Bugs to Come

Flowers, lions, cherubs and bearded men on a balcony above the Rio di San Lio

I'm afraid that the only part of this post having to do with spring flowers is the photo above, and the rest will have to with the rather less pleasant topic of the infestation of tiny bugs expected in Venice this summer.

Chironomidi is what my Venetian neighbor called them when he told me about them this afternoon, which is quite close to their official name in English of chironomidae (chironomus plumosus). But it seems that they're commonly known by a variety of much more colorful names in North America: "muckleheads" or "muffleheads" in certain regions around the Great Lakes, and by the distinctly Dickensian "chizzywinks" in Florida. They're also referred to as "blind mosquitoes", "lake flies", "bay flies" and "sand flies."

Whatever they're called they are, according to both my Venetian neighbor and Wikipedia, real pests. Looking rather like small mosquitoes, they don't (fortunately) bite, but Wikipedia warns that when they emerge in large numbers they "can damage paint, brick, and other surfaces with their droppings. When large numbers of adults die they can build up into malodorous piles. They can provoke allergic reactions in sensitive individuals" (

My neighbor warned that the last time they appeared in Venice in the mid-80s and mid-90s they amassed in such large dense clouds as to disrupt traffic on the Ponte della Libertà that connects Venice to the mainland. They coated car windshields beyond the remedy of any wipers, leaving drivers essentially blind, and covered the roadway in masses slick as oil spills. Given the fact that Venetians are notoriously inept behind the wheel of a car (as opposed to a boat), it takes little imagination to picture the kinds of chaos that resulted.

In apartments without screens my neighbor said they will sometimes congregate so thickly at night as to turn a white ceiling black.

In 3 1/2 years of living in Venice this is the first I've heard of them and, as far as I know, I've never seen them. But this year is different, my neighbor said, because of the extraordinarily mild winter we had here. That's right, while other parts of the world suffered through fierce winters that gave no impression of ever letting up, in Venice we rarely seemed to drop below the freezing point. We had periods of unending rain, but for the most part people here think we really had no winter at all.

As more pessimistically-inclined people like to say "No good deed goes unpunished", so perhaps one might say in this case that "No apparently good fortune is without consequences."

Of course much as some of us might have sometimes (but only rarely) felt a little smug to have it so easy this past winter, most Venetians I know look forward to the possibility of a snowfall or two in the city. But conditions never got anywhere close to being right for a White Christmas. Instead, they turned out to be perfect for an explosion of chironomidi, and we're being told to brace for the arrival of their black clouds.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Venice at the Crossroads

Caryl Phillips reads from his work in the Santa Margherita Auditorium of Ca' Foscari
In the three and half years I've lived here I've somehow managed to miss each year's edition of Incroci di Civilità (Crossroads of Civilization), the International Festival of Literature in Venice, prior to this latest one, which concluded yesterday evening. Since its inception in 2009 the series has featured major writers from around the world, including Michael Ondaatje, Roberto Calasso, Kiran Desai, Yves Bonnefoy, Adonis, Jeannette Winterson, and Nobel Prize Winners Orhan Pamuk and VS Naipaul.

The events are free to the public, though one must make an online reservation in advance to be assured of a ticket. And in almost every case it's a very good idea to make your reservation--which is quite easy to do online--as soon the festival website begins taking them. Each of the three events I attended this past weekend--the American writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn on Friday night; the American poet, playwright and novelist Rita Dove, and the English novelist, playwright and essayist Caryl Phillips on Saturday-- consisted primarily of substantial and lengthy discussions with the authors. Each of the authors I saw were excellent, their interviewers all did a good job, and each program lasted for at least 90 minutes (much longer than most of the American literary events I'm used to).

You can see a complete program for this year's festival, and a full archive of programs from each previous year, at:

If you plan on being in Venice in early spring of next year, it's a site worth bookmarking and keeping in mind. And perhaps for some people it may be even worth a trip in itself.

Rita Dove in conversation with Sally Michael and Duccio Basosi
Daniel Mendelsohn in conversation with Pietro del Soldà in the Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi
Caryl Phillips in conversation with Maureen Freely and Annalisa Oboe

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Tourist Trap: Una Fantasia (Posted 2 days Late)

A bench on Sant' Elena is a marvelous place from which to watch the sun set--but is it worth the risk?
Some locals find the number of tourists already wandering out to Sant' Elena and planting themselves on its benches along the lagoon dismaying. Only two bridges connect this island located at the easternmost edge of Venice to the rest of city and I've heard people suggest that each should have a guard house on it, with another located at the vaporetto stop. Unless you're a resident, or a guest of the hotel or B&B on the island, or a customer of one of its two restaurants or bar or pizzeria, you'd be forbidden entrance.

Many people say that such an idea, among its other faults, would turn Sant' Elena into little more than a zoo: at best, a wild life preserve for the last remaining Venetians. At worst, a prison.

But proponents of the plan ask: Do the bars of a zoo serve to keep the animals in, or the teeming masses of much more dangerous and destructive animals out?

People on all sides of the issue however marvel at the fact that the visitors keep coming, in spite of the alarming frequency of tourist disappearances that occur here.

Some locals, claiming to have inside knowledge of the disappearances, claim they are evidence that the CIA has extended its program of "extraordinary rendition" into Venice. But I have it on good authority that nothing in the background of most of the disappeared would even vaguely validate such claims.

Others suggest that the disappearances are actually kidnappings: money-making schemes carried out by the many gangs of criminals jockeying for power on Sant' Elena. However, another highly-placed source assures me that no ransom notes have ever been received.

A few of the more eccentric neighborhood characters even claim that Sant' Elena is the center of alien abductions in Italy--perhaps in all of Europe. According to these folks the island is a sacred vortex of some kind, and the mass of trees that were uprooted a couple of years ago in its park were torn out not by a cyclone, as reported in the local papers, but by the extraordinary force of a low-hovering alien spacecraft.

Whatever the source of the disapperances, city officials have managed, remarkably enough, to keep all news of them out of the papers. So the tourists, all unsuspecting, keep coming, lured by the promise of the city's only sizable park, and perhaps the opportunity to glimpse "authentic Venetian life."

Ah, that ultimate commercial pitch of every tourist trap, capable of penetrating the defenses of even the most jaded of travelers: in this pre-packaged world of mass tourism of ours a forbidden taste of "authenticity."

And so they come and--I shudder as I type this--meet their mysterious end.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Ruskin's Irregularities

One of the defining features and great virtues of Gothic architecture, according to John Ruskin, that champion of Venetian Gothic, was its irregularity. I find myself thinking of this when I see the work being done in the lagoon to the west and a bit north of Venice, pictured above. They are creating a vast new barena, one of those islands submerged during the highest tides, exposed during low ones, that were once a common feature throughout the lagoon.

In their succinct and immensely informative book The Science of Saving Venice, Caroline Fletcher and Jane Da Mosto talk more precisely about mud flats and salt marshes (rather than my more general term barena) and note that they "are down to a third of their extent since the end of the 19th century," while approximately "20 percent of the lagoon's plant and 50 percent of its bird species have disappeared since 1930."

"So what?" I can imagine some people responding, "we've lost a few plants and birds...."

But more than being just a vital part of the lagoon ecosystem, the "irregular forms" of mudflats and saltmarshes--with their shallow textured depths, their underwater grasses, their "intricate sub-structure of winding creeks and meandering canals"--served to "moderate wave energy" coming in from the Adriatic Sea, according to Fletcher and Da Mosto, and "used to help to dampen the intensity of acqua alta."

Man-made changes in the 20th century to the dimensions of the lagoon (land reclamation projects for the airport, for example), to the shape of the lagoon's inlets from the Adriatic, and to the number and (much greater) depth of canals, have transformed this once shallow marshy mucky mixed ecosystem of salt and fresh water into an ever deeper and ever-more-scoured salt water bay. The lagoon now holds twice the volume of water it once contained within its formerly larger dimensions and salt marshes and mud flats have disappeared from the central lagoon around the city, leaving the tide and wind-pushed waves to enter the city with unprecedented force.

And so the barges and heavy machinery and laborers head out with their gabions (wire cages containing rock or other material), sacks of organic matter and other supplies to try to reintroduce into the Venetian lagoon the "Savageness" the "Changefulness", the "Naturalism," and the "Redundance" that Ruskin celebrated as the essential qualities of the Gothic, and by which he meant variety, spontaneity, roughness of surface, imperfection, accumulation of diverse forms--as opposed to the smooth scrubbed abstracted symmetry and simplicity and uniformity for which he condemned Classicism and the Renaissance, and which now might be used in describing the state of the lagoon bed.

Indeed, Ruskin argued that the moral health of the Venetian Republic was directly embodied in the noble vivacious irregularity and spontaneity of its Gothic constructions; in their rough imperfect surfaces bearing the imprint of un-oppressed laborers, of their detailed abundance of leaves and vines and natural forms untamed by tyrannical ideals of form. It's actually quite a dubious reading of Venetian history: part myth-making, part fond fantasy, and largely (like much of history) having more to do with the challenges and context of his own time, and his didactic response to them, than with any doge or council or citizenry of Venice.

Yet if his principles of gothic had little to do with the actual moral state of the lagoon society in which they were employed, they seem now, over 150 years from when he first put them forth, to have a good deal to do with present attempts to try to restore the ecological health of the lagoon. And so you (or at least I) can still find Ruskin all around Venice, even in the lagoon itself amid machinery, even when you (or I) aren't looking for him.