Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Psst! Wanna Buy a Venetian Island for 99 Euros?

The island of Poveglia (middle ground), as seen from atop the Porta Nuova tower at the Arsenale
Though it sounds rather like the chance to buy the Brooklyn Bridge that slick New York City con men were always offering out-of-town rubes in old American movies and cartoons, for a limited time you really do have an opportunity to buy an abandoned island in the Venetian lagoon for just 99 euros. Or at least a share of one. And, depending on whom you believe, this island comes fully loaded--at no additional cost!--with history and valor and horror and lunacy and no shortage of ghosts.

The name of the island is Poveglia, it's located just a short distance west of Lido, and it's due to be auctioned off on May 6. A group of Venetians living on Giudecca, afraid that this piece of Venetian history would (as has happened far too often in recent years) be snatched up by some private interest and converted into yet another "tourist destination," decided that a group of citizens themselves should band together to make a bid on the island with the goal of developing and preserving the island for public purposes.

The enthusiastic response to this idea--the headline on today's paper said "thousands" had already signed on and contributed--is an indication of how sick and tired Venetians are of seeing their cultural patrimony sold out from beneath them. The name of the association created to make this bid is Poveglia Per Tutti (or Poveglia for Everyone), and you can read all about their plans for the island (in Italian, English or French) and even make a contribution and become a member of the association yourself at: message-in-a-bottle.org 

Or visit their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/povegliapertutti

For information about the history of Poveglia, as well as its place in Venetian culture today (and potentially in the future), I'd suggest you take a look at a recent post on the blog A Garden in Venice: http://www.gardeninvenice.com/2014/04/why-do-venetians-want-to-save-poveglia.html

Anglo-American media have almost exclusively depicted Poveglia as "The World's Most Haunted Island",  but A Garden in Venice emphasizes that Venetians also know it as one of the first islands in the area to be settled, whose inhabitants so vigorously contributed to the defeat of Pepin's ill-guided invasion of the lagoon in the year 809 that their representative was granted the rare privilege of kissing the doge on the lips once a year.

But if it's precisely the spooky side of Poveglia you're interested in, Robin Saikia--author of the extremely entertaining and insightful Blue Guide Travel Monograph The Venice Lido--recounts the darker events of the island's long long history and his own visit to it in his piece "A Day Trip to Hell": http://www.robinsaikia.com/p/poveglia-island-of-sadness-and-terror.html

In fact, Robin Saikia is himself part of another group planning to bid on Poveglia. Like the association Poveglia Per Tutti, Saikia's group (The Poveglia Foundation) also believes, in its own words, that the island "should not fall into the hands of speculators intent on turning (it) into a luxury hotel development. The time has come to take a stand against... entrepreneurial vandalism of this kind." You can see their proposed plans for the island at http://www.povegliafoundation.com/

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Green Venice: Canale di San Pietro Before the Storm

(as usual, please click on image to enlarge)
A panorama taken late this afternoon from the Arsenale's Porta Nuova tower, shortly before a storm. The Lido spans the horizon in the background, the trees of Sant' Elena's park lie behind the leaning campanile of San Pietro, and at the right edge of the horizon line, barely visible, is the island of Poveglia, about which I'll have a bit more to write soon.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Arsenale Opens Wide This Weekend

A fleet of sanpierote moored in the Darsena Grande
Yesterday was the first day of a three-day "open house" at the Arsenale. Officially entitled Arsenale Aperto alla Città, each day through Sunday, from 10 in the morning until 8 at night, will feature a full array of events for children and adults.

Throughout the day kids can have a go at throwing clay on a real pottery wheel under the watchful eye of an experienced artisan (as below), learn how to row in a caorlina (a large traditional lagoon work boat now used for 6 person races) in the Venetian style, or in the "English-style" (as it's called here) in a long dragon boat. There are free drawing and painting and clay workshops for kids, too, while adults might take one of the frequent guided tours of the Arsenale. There are sporting events--regatte, rugby, calcio--live music, arts and crafts displays, exhibitions of traditional Venetian boats (such as the sanpierote above) and Il Nuovo Trionfo (the old trabaccolo usually moored at the Punta della Dogana and formerly used to carry goods throughout the northern Adriatic), and, of course, Venetian food and wine. 

But each day also features conferences, talks and meetings on not just the history of the Arsenale but on its future as an important part of the life of the city. For the real point of the three-day festival is not only to entertain the community, or to celebrate Venetian traditions, but to send a clear signal to the city's decision makers that Venetians have an abiding and active interest in this central piece of their cultural patrimony and are determined that it be used or developed in a way that benefits Venetians, with imagination and foresight, in the interest of the living resident community, rather than some imagined foreign luxury clientele.

It's an important message to send, and one that's becoming increasingly hard to get across anywhere in the world, but this three-day open house aims to demonstrate unmistakably the public commitment to such ideals.

A full schedule of events, with a helpful map, can be downloaded on the following page ("Scarica il programma dell' evento in formatto pdf"): http://www.comune.venezia.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/73050

One of the members of I Bochaleri (l'associazione di ceramisti veneziani) helps a boy with the pottery wheel
Most of the events take place in the warehouses to the left of photo; in the distance is the Porta Nuova to the lagoon with its large tower, constructed by the French in a gothic style in 1810 (and with a rooftop full of people yesterday)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Roar of a (News)paper Lion: Veneto Independence in the Anglo-American Press

A demonstration in favor of Veneto independence in front of Santa Maria della Salute, September 17, 2013
I must admit to being rather dismayed by last month's vote on the Veneto's secession from Italy. Not so much because of the results which, given the people who created the online poll and oversaw its operation, were exactly what one would have expected. No, it's the lazy (at best) and irresponsible (at worst) coverage of the vote by the international English language press that's been bothering me.

As an example of what I'm talking about, take a look at a recent article by the respected American magazine The Atlantic Monthly (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/europes-latest-secession-movement-venice/284562/), whose provocative but relatively restrained title of "Europe's Latest Seccessionist Movement: Venice?" immediately gives way to a sub-head stating that "2.1 milion Venetians just voted to leave Italy and restore their medieval republic." Just a bit further down the page, a bold-print pull quote announces that "a whopping 89 percent of voters chose independence."

The same figures were trumpeted by every other large news outlet, almost none of which bothered to exercise the least journalistic caution or concern about the reliability of the online polling process nor the veracity of the final tally--though the only source of the final tally was, after all, from the very same separatist groups who'd organized the poll, without any verifiable outside oversight.

To be specific, the website hosting the online poll was the creation of one Gianluca Busato, a Treviso-based "IT entrepeneur" whose political past includes membership not only in various right-wing separatist groups, but the enthusiastic endorsement of the farcical 1997 armed takeover of the Campanile in Piazza San Marco.

Some supporters of Veneto independence in front of Salute last September
This seems like a significant bit of background information on the profoundly partisan origins of the poll, likely to suggest that a certain skepticism might be in order about its results. But far from regarding the vote with any critical distance, most English language reports went so far as to refer to it as a "referendum." This is indeed exactly what the organizers of the poll called it, but considering that (as the organizers themselves no doubt knew) to refer to a vote as a "referendum" in English suggests a degree of legitimacy and oversight that was entirely lacking in the Veneto Independenza online poll, one might expect that a responsible journalist would at the very least strongly contextualize the term's usage.

For example, in my home state of California a referendum can be put to a state-wide vote, but there are a number of preliminary steps to do so, opposing voices are given a chance to campaign against it, and the actual vote is subject to the same oversight as other elections.

No such things could be said about the Veneto Independenza vote, and yet with one notable exception the only acknowledgement of the online poll's dubious status made by news organizations was to term it an "unofficial referendum" whose results would not be in any way binding or even recognized by anyone outside of the the separatists who sponsored it.

Which raises the obvious question: Is an "unofficial referendum"--devoid of all authority and oversight--really a referendum at all?
The Orwellian motivation behind the sponsoring groups's use of such a term is obvious, and for that very reason it should never have been mindlessly repeated by the media. As it was by all except BBC.com, which referred to it only as an "online poll." (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26604044)

But instead of responsible coverage of the online poll, evincing even the most elemental journalistic standards, pretty much every English-language account followed the same basic outline of presenting:

1. The dramatic overwhelming results.

2. A list of the standard talking points of the online poll's separatist organizers (the discrepancy between the amount of money the Veneto sends to Rome and the amount of services it receives in return, the annihilation of Venetian language and culture, etc)

3. A brief history of the old glorious Republic

4. The (dubious) suggestion that the Veneto was unwillingly subsumed by Italy in 1866.

Not a single news report even hinted at anything the Veneto may have received from the state of Italy since 1866. Is it really possible that the relationship between the region and the national state has always been as one-sided as the separatists present it?

In an actual referendum the arguments of the opposing camp would have been readily available to even the laziest journalist, but as this was not a referendum every news outlet was apparently content to work exclusively from the press releases of Gianluca Busato and the organizers of the vote. (Yet another example of the increasingly evident trend of news media acting merely as organs of press release dissemination rather than actual reporting.)

In any case, having cut and pasted from the vote organizers' press release and reported on the "referendum's" extraordinary results, each news outlet then turned to the "next steps" that the separatist leaders--buoyed by this unprecedented tidal wave of public support--would undertake to press their historically- and popularly-legitimated cause. Each separatist leader vowing, bravely, nobly, selflessly, not to let down the millions who'd thrown their support behind them.

What a stirring story it made!

Except that it seems there may not have been anywhere near 2.1 million Veneto residents who voted in favor of Veneto independence.

There may not have been 2.1 million Veneto residents who voted at all.

Two articles in the Corriere del Veneto on March 26 and 27 reported that an analysis of traffic flow performed by three different independent website counting companies (Alexa, Calcustat, and Trafficestimate) on Gianluca Busato's Plebiscito.eu online polling website during the six days of voting on the "referendum" revealed a small fraction of the 2.36 million visitors whom Busato reported--and the international press blindly repeated--as having cast votes.



Indeed, during each of the six days of voting the three counting companies (which monitor traffic in and out of websites in order to arrive at a website's value for advertising agencies) estimated that no more than 22,500 people visited the Plebiscito.eu voting site.

In other words, there's reason to believe that the "staggering" figure of 2.36 million Veneto voters--of whom "a whopping 89%" voted to secede from Italy--may, in reality, have been closer to something like 135,000.

Moreover, online analysis showed that a full 10% of voters originated from a web address located in Santiago, Chile. Other votes came in from Serbia, Germany, and Spain.

When confronted with these much lower figures by a radio reporter, the estimable Mr Busato reasserted that his poll results were accurate and encouraged listeners to boycott the Corriere del Veneto that had called them into question. Elsewhere he asserted that he would provide definitive proof of the accuracy of his figures to a "specialized American magazine" (by which, I assume, he meant one specializing in internet polling rather than the fraudulent inflating of figures for political purposes).

Another view of last September's Veneto independence demonstration
Judging by the fawning piece published by PC World on Busato and his online poll just after the vote--entitled "E-voting Comes of Age in Italy with Venice Independence Referendum"--I have a feeling I may know where this "definitive proof'" is likely to be offered. But so far it's not been forthcoming. (http://www.pcworld.com/article/2112380/evoting-comes-of-age-in-italy-with-venice-independence-referendum.html)

Incidentally, those skeptical sorts who may not have been surprised by Mr Busato's claim that 89% of voters on the polling site he created and oversaw agreed with his own position, may also not be especially surprised to find that the honorable Mr Busato, according to his own reports, received by a huge margin the most votes of any candidate elected to be one of the "Ten Delegates for Independence." (Yes, it seems the "new" republic, like the old, will have a Council of Ten.) According to Mr Busato himself, he received 135,306 votes, while the next most popular council member ended up with nearly 90,000 less. Do such results leave any doubt as to whom should play the guiding role in the delegation?

And so we wait on this definitive proof of the legitimacy of this online poll.... And I have a feeling we'll be waiting for quite some time.

After all, in the name of their 2.1 million supporters (or was it closer to 100,000?), on behalf of all those Venetians (or were they Chileans?) behind them, a variety of selfless public servants from the cluster of right-wing parties crammed into the political clown car of Lega Nord are fervently pressing forward with what they'd always planned to do anyway.

And, furthermore, why split hairs and obsess over the difference between 2.36 million and 135,000? Any questions about the actual voting are now moot--tired old news--as the worldwide press has legitimated whatever the separatists do from here on out with their bold headlines of a "referendum" and a "massive turnout" and an "overwhelming majority".

Indeed, I've yet to find a single English language news organization that has covered the questions raised in the Corriere del Veneto about the online vote. And though a piece in The Guardian three days ago briefly referred to questions about the online poll's legitimacy, it still linked to The Atlantic Monthly article at the top of this page and ultimately seemed far more caught up in the romance of separatist movements in general and of one particular Veneto expat in England than anything else. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/19/venice-independence-movement-hq-kent)

In an age when the measure of journalism is page views, perhaps I'm silly to hope for much beyond romance and rousing headlines and media-ready spectacle. But I happen to live in a neighborhood here in Venice built in the 1920s, amid viali named after military leaders and apartment buildings adorned with helmeted soldier heads (all looking very much like a certain Italian leader), which one might say sprang out of romance and rousing headlines and media-ready spectacles.

We all know how that turned out.

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" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chironomidae)

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: http://www.incrocidicivilta.org/

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.