Sunday, 23 October 2016

Letter from Venice (19) 23-10-16

In my home town today – Sunday - my wife is running in the Great South Run. I wish her well and set out for the Scuola San Giovanni Evangelista. I arrive at exactly the moment when the door is being opened and comment to the female custodian on how cold it is. She agrees and then tells me what a struggle she had to get on to Venice this morning because of the Marathon. I had seen posters for this but had forgotten about it. I ask her more. She says it starts on the Brenta Canal on the mainland and that the runners run across the road and rail bridge and then along the Fondamenta Zattere by the water’s edge. She wasn’t sure where they went next but assumed they turned into the city at that point. I do a brief tour around the Scuola which has a beautiful Renaissance double staircase deigned by Codussi. Afterwards I head straight down across town to the Zattere to see the Marathon. On the wonderful fondamenta the runners’ route is taped off and includes the use of the long wooden ramps usually used by people with wheelchairs, buggies and shopping trollies to cross the bridges over the canal entrances that intersect the sea promenade. A café near the Zattere landing stage has two rows of tables directly in front of it. This where I install myself with an americano with the taped off route right in front of me. There are a lot of Police and Protezione Civile about in high vis jackets but no sign of any runners. After around half an hour I hear the sound of a helicopter hovering above the Giudecca. Most of the café’s tables are on a projecting pontoon beyond the taped off race route and I have noticed that a few customers have begun to sit there in spite of the difficulty the waiters might have with crossing the lines. This is also going to be a problem for embarking and disembarking passengers at the boat station. Two of the waiters seem to be having a heated discussion precisely about the wisdom of serving across the lines of runners. The younger one who is in favour of the business it represents wins the argument to the consternation of the other one. I make a quick decision and cross over to the pontoon. I have noticed that a Protezione Civile man has been acting as a traffic warden and is opening and closing the tape to allow trade to go on. Shortly after making my decision the first runner arrives thudding over the wooden ramps of the nearby bridge. He helpfully bears the number one on his chest and looks to me like a Kenyan or Ethiopian. He is miles ahead and further runners with names like Masai and Ngare arrive three or four minutes later. It’s about ten minutes before the first white runner appears and that is only after the first female runner has passed, she also an African I guess. I watch for half an hour or so and then board a 5.1 at the landing stage. The boat follows the promenade about thirty yards offshore, moving faster than the runners but giving a great view of them in both directions along it. The question raised by the woman at the Scuola earlier as to where they would go into the city is answered as the mouth of the Grand Canal begins to appear. They don’t go into the city. Instead a high metal footbridge has been built overnight on large pontoons across the mouth of the Grand Canal and the runners run straight over to the Giardini Reali and then past San Marco along the Molo and the Riva degli Schiavoni down to the Giardini Pubblichi. There are three arches under the footbridge and, although I assume that the Vaporetti 1 and 2 which ply up and down the Canal must have been suspended, I soon see that the Number 1 is slipping gingerly through the central arch under the runners. The water taxis are using the two lower arches either side. The number 2 which would only normally continue for one stop reaches the footbridge and then doubles back. I alight at San Zaccaria and am able to scramble under a scaffolding ramp at the nearest bridge and make my way up into the heart of Castello and home.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Letter from Venice (18) 22-10-16

The posters tell me the Quartetto di Venezia are to play two of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets in the classy surroundings of the Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio, opposite San Marco. They are sold out online but it says that returns may be available an hour before the concert at the box office. I walk down to San Zaccaria to get the 15.49, number 2 across to the island. I also walk straight into a demonstration. On my way down I noticed gondoliers wrapped in Venetian flags and now, on the broad Riva degli Schiavoni, I encounter a full scale protest around the triumphant equestrian statue of Vittorio Emmanuele II who was the first King of unified Italy. The protesters wave large blue or burgundy flags bearing the golden lion of Venice. High on the bridge towards San Marco a larger flag is being waved amongst the tourist hordes. I stop one of the demonstrators to ask him what it was about and a history lesson began with me always conscious of my need to be on that boat. Over his arm he has a number of t-shirts with the word ‘VENEXIT’ printed on it and he is delighted when he learns I am English because of our BREXIT. The proud independence of La Serenissima Repubblica, he explains, lasted eleven hundred years until 1797 when Napoleon rolled into town, later rolling out and leaving Venice to the Austrians who then fought and squabbled over it at the time of Italian Unification. A plebiscite was held on this day, the 22nd October, in 1866 whereby the people of the Veneto voted to join the new greater Italy but these guys insist the vote was rigged and, now, want to re-establish the region as an independent state. He refers, gesturing at the statue, to the ‘merdoso’ Vittorio Emmanuele and proudly tells me this demo is illegal. I notice that the female figure of Italy at Vittorio’s feet now clutches a Venetian flag. I thank him and, to the sound of bullish chanting, withdraw towards the boat pier where I discover I have missed my boat.

Arriving on San Giorgio I am directed to the back of the island behind the church. At the box office my name is put around number 8 on a waiting list and I mooch around hopefully until 10 minutes before the start of the concert. Names are read out and some don’t respond, and then my name is read out and I am delighted to get a ticket. We walk through a hall and then a courtyard to enter the very modern concert hall – Teatro Lo Squero. It is set in an old brick building with a wooden pitched roof. There are about two hundred chairs and a raised dais at the front. Behind this is a wall of glass which extends a little way up the side walls. Framed in the window is the lagoon and the Giardini Pubblichi on the other side. A passenger liner, attached to two tugs, draws across the window. It is MSC Magnifica on board which my family and I had been six months ago. I sit next to a friendly elderly couple who come from Trento. He wears an orange tie.

The Quartet make their entrance. They are middle-aged men in ties and dark suits and take their place against the wonderful backdrop. The music is ravishing. They begin at 5pm against a blue sky and end, with the stage lights on, against an indigo sky and lights all along the Giardini Pubblichi. The whole of the concert hall seems to crowd onto one number 2 boat. When I alight at San Marco - San Zaccaria the wing of the Venetian lion at the base of the nationalist monument is still draped in the Venetian flag.

Letter from Venice (17) 22-10-16


In the morning there isn’t a trace of mist and the sea is very calm. From the Fondamante Nove I can make out the snow-capped Dolomites clearly depicted in a huge arc filling the skyline from east to west behind Murano. Their quiet presence is a faery backdrop perhaps only 100 kilometres away.

Towards lunchtime I sit in the archway of the waterside café at the Ca’ Pesaro and soon become aware that two egrets have taken off from the side of the Grand Canal. They bank and turn into a canal issuing into the larger one and disappear over a bridge.

On my way home I walk along the Canal di Canareggio in bright sunlight and sit on the water’s edge with my feet on a landing step to smoke a cigar while waiting for the 5.2. I am at the Tre Archi Boat Station towards the North end of this canal which leads out into the Northern Lagoon. Looking to its mouth I can see the road and rail bridge which emerges from Santa Lucia station and links Venice to the mainland. You usually see cormorants alone on the water or in small groups. Suddenly around a hundred birds cross the mouth of the canal in a long string, from the direction of the road bridge flying towards the east a few feet above the water. I board the 5.2 and move into the fore cabin. Unusually standing, in the cabin at the front is a Muslim couple who are clearly keen to see all that the journey unfolds out of the small front window. He is bearded, hefty and wears a baseball cap, jeans, and a denim shirt to cover his bulk. She wears a hijab and a pure cotton navy gown with long sleeves and two gold stripes at the cuffs, up her arms and down the front edge. She wears large sunglasses of the sort Italian women wear. I see the lovely tower of the Madonna dell’Orto come into view above the buildings to the right. It is graceful and brick-built with a top section which has a white triple arcade on each side. Above this is a white marble balustrade which is surmounted by a pale orange brick dome, in its turn, surmounted by a statue of the Madonna who wears a cast iron halo filled with stars.

Later, in the evening, a canopy of umbrellas flows over a bridge in front of me. In the dark, glancing sideways from the next bridge, I make out the distant figure of a gondolier depicted against a white wall while his boat and the water are black on black as he disappears around a corner, silently apart from a light splash. Looking back into it the shopping street I am descending is all lights and sound.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Letter from Venice (16) 18-10-16

The Scuola San Rocco has to be seen to be believed. Two floors of massive rooosm the size of concert halls covered in carved and gilded wood on the walls and the ceilings with gleaming carved grotesques on choir stalls all down the walls. Amidst this, in three rooms, is a perfect record of the development of Jacopo Tintoretto, one of the six Venetian greats. You start with a whole room given to his sensational ‘Crucifixion’, a painting ‘beyond all analysis and above all praise,’ according to John Ruskin. My guidebook tells me there is so much going on it is like a novel rather than short story. From here to the other two grand rooms, decorated on walls and ceiling with around forty of his works. On entering downstairs, I know I will be carrying a heavy mirror with me to see the ceiling paintings and so ask if I can deposit my slightly heavy shoulder bag. The answer is no, so I am not surprised, in the upper room, when one of the custodians approaches me and tells me off angrily because the bag I put down could be a bomb for all he knows. Strangely, an Italian woman appears from nowhere and starts to defend me. I tell the fellow that I asked downstairs and that, in a building this size they should have a depository (gardaroba) for bags. He misunderstands and thinks I’m talking about the contents of my bag and, then, the penny drops and he becomes, in an instant, utterly apologetic. It’s all rather baffling. I carry on viewing while he goes off hunting backpacks and returning them to others.

I visit the tiny Greek Cross shaped church of San Giacomo di Rialto which was founded in 421 on the same day as the official birth of Venice itself. Later in the afternoon I cross the Rialto Bridge and stand on the southern side, the only part not bristling with scaffolding and swathed in white plastic sheeting for ‘restauro’. On the Riva del Vin to my right there is a sign saying – “No Mafia, Venezia è sacra.” The sun is directly in the south and lays a dazzling and flickering carpet of gold on the water in my direction. Gondole, motoscafi and vaporetti, ply their trade, the latter, from above, especially the large number 1 and 2, under their flat metal canopies, looking like moving boat station shelters that have come adrift or, perhaps, as if they are roofed with the flat sponge fingers used in British trifles. I head down from the bridge to the nearby Goldoni Theatre to check if it is going to be alright to show my ticket here on Thursday on a device as opposed to having to print it.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Letter from Venice (15) 17-10-16

In the afternoon I decide to reconnoitre the Railway Station as I want to make some visits to a few of the mainland towns near Venice. I head for the church of San Stae first which I had visited a few days ago but been unable to enter as it is only open in the afternoons. This time it is locked because it is closed on Mondays. I step back to the edge of the Grand Canal to view the massy, Palladian style façade. Huge statues give the appearance of busily and vertiginously struggling to escape. There is a boat station in front of the church so I hop on the number 1 and hop off two steps later at Ferrovia on the other side of the Canal.

I pause for a moment to take in the low flat building and the steps in front of it. The letters FS are set in a flying modernist logo on the frontage above the entrance hall. I mount the steps and penetrate the station. Passing through one row of boutiques I immediately emerge at the buffers where I am confronted by the wedged leading edges of four Frecciarossa high speed trains. The romance of travel hits me amongst the hubbub and bustle of this famous station. I look up the times for regional trains to Vicenza and Treviso and head for the Biglietteria to find out about prices. After a while in a ticketed queuing system I speak to a female Trenitalia employee who tells me I can do the 45 minute round trip to Treviso for a mere 6 Euros 70. For the trip to Vicenza it’s only 12 Euros. I am delighted and begin to plan a lot of other trips.

I emerge from the station and descend the steps to the 5.2 boat station. It is 20 minutes till the next boat so I sit on the station steps with many others, light a cigar and watch the porters, pedestrians and boats crossing and re-crossing in front of me. Behind me I hear the tanoy chatter the names – ‘Modena, Bologna, Bassano, Trieste, Vicenza, Treviso, Milano, Verona.’ In a pleasing nicotine haze I board the 5.2 and sit in the front cabin. Occupying the two forward lateral seats are a youngish couple. Unshaven, in his red leather jacket and baggy jeans the diminutive man, his sunglasses on his head, looks like a minor criminal. His girlfriend, in a buttoned up coat, sits upright with her hands on his knees as he peers into his phone. On the way home the couple stare into each other’s eyes and pass each other grapes while the woman toys with a garish, bronze-coloured handbag.

Sunday, 16 October 2016


Human presence is dependent on human sex. This is to state an obvious but necessary truth. The base and lowly connection of sex is also the currency in which love between the human sexes is transacted. That love is extended into the offspring which are the product of sex and into the human family and its relationships. Love is the main consolation for our mortality. Sex is procreation. Sex is creation. Sex is beauty. If you subtract sex from the equation all of these things vanish and cease to be. It is their substrate. It is the substrate of human love. Sex depends upon there being two genders. That we are male and female defines what we are. To suggest otherwise is to create a genderless creature that is curiously absent from our society. In spite of this, many arguments which define modern society have a starting point which assumes, perhaps unconsciously, that these things are not true. For example the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ takes as a starting point that the sexes are not entirely dependent on each other for the existence of love and also that this takes precedence as a biological and emotional imperative over, and pre-exists, any ‘war’ between the sexes. This fact is unlikely to disappear and gives this ‘war’ a context. Whatever the ‘war’ the sexes cannot do without one another because the human is not complete until the sexes come together. Humanity can be seen as a whole broken into two halves which have no rest until they are magnetically reunited, something which the behaviour of the race and the perpetuation of the race seems to bear out. This a priori fact predates the war and the war will always be undermined by it with everyone finding it impossible not to flee their battle lines and become a turncoat against their gender allegiances by throwing themselves irresistibly into the arms of the ‘enemy’. It appears, in practice, that we have little say in this. We do not appear to have been consulted. We all know this and our actions confirm it even though our words may not. Ain’t love grand?

Letter from Venice (14) 16-10-16

I stumble to the boat station two minutes late to catch the 4.2 which would have taken me clockwise round the city to Sant'Elena where I could have changed for San Marco on the number 1. I decide to get the soon arriving 5.1 heading anti-clockwise to Riva di Biasio where I can, similarly pick up a number one, this time heading down the Grand Canal to San Marco. It doesn't make much difference which way round one circles the city. The boatman mutters something about San Alvise as I get on which I choose to ignore. A few stops later at, surprise, surprise, San Alvise, the boat terminates and the boatman explains that it can't do its normal trick of cutting inwards into the city here through the beautiful Cannaregio Canal because, this Sunday morning, it is closed for a Regatta. I cut through on foot from the northern edge to the Cannaregio Canal and emerge opposite a small crowd on the far bank. A broad man with a white moustache and turned up trousers holds a microphone into which he chatters relentlessly, reading out the names of every member of each crew as it passes. Spectators stand on the Vaporetto landing stages, redundant from their usual use. Every two minutes or so a wide wooden boat with a rower standing on the raised stern, with five other standing rowers in front of him punting for all they are worth, heaves into view and passes us to cheers and the encouragement of 'Bravi ragazzi!' and 'Forza ragazzi! from the man with the mike. The normal tourist stream descending from the Railway Station stops to watch from the Ponte Guglie as the rowers pass underneath.

I cut through to San Marcuola and take a number 2, managing to get a seat in the prow for the main stretch down the Grand Canal. Alighting at San Marco I head for the Museo Correr hardly entering the main square and climb four massive flights of marble stairs to see the Ippolito Caffi exhibition.

In the afternoon I head out to the Lido in search of Art Nouveau buildings amongst other things. While I wait, reading inside the boat station, whenever I look up I'm looking into the empty space of a small square section of the ingress from the sea. Suddenly this is filled, just as the carriage of an old-fashioned slide projector might bring a slide into place before the lamp, with the side of a vaporetto, one which I don't wish to catch. The square frame is perfectly filled with the open section of the boat in which stands a beautiful young boatwoman with long, full-bodied raven hair and sunglasses. She cannot but be aware that she is on view and she shakes her mane of hair. She slams open the barrier to let passengers on and off and, then, with disinvoltura, shouts something to someone further up the landing stage before unhitching the rocking boat. Immediately the slide is withdrawn in the opposite direction, and the boat disappears. She is there for a noisy, striking moment and then gone. I carry on reading.

As soon as I disembark on the Lido I am back in a normal Italian city. There are cars, road markings, roundabouts and buses and, at first, not a canal in sight. I head down the Gran Viale which brings me to the other side of this long island which acts as an enclosure of the Laguna and, therefore, as a protection for Venice. On the way down the Gran Viale I take in the Hotel Ausonia e Ungaria which is a tiled Art Nouveau masterpiece with sexy Aubrey Beardsley nymphs on the facade. Although I am now on the far side I cannot see the sea. Over my shoulder I am aware of the Hôtel des Bains which has a 500 yard frontage and seven storeys. It is, however, boarded up on the ground floor. Before me is a painted concrete construction which I negotiate by passing under it and through a short corridor. I emerge, amidst some bar frontages, onto the sand. I pass through a gap in a four foot high wall of sand banked up deliberately by mechanical diggers, and then am on a flat wet beach which disappears in both directions as far as the eye can see. I walk down to the water's edge to watch the Adriatic roll gently in. There has been mist since this morning so, a kilometre or so off the beach, small ships and dredgers appear and disappear from time to time. There isn't a breath of wind.

I want to walk down to the Hotel Excelsior, another architectural extravaganza according to my guidebook, but am in two minds as to whether I should do it along the beach or down the Lungomare Marconi. This is because the space between the two is filled as follows: firstly there is a fence succeeded by three or four rows of beach huts belonging to one of the many hotels. This is followed by another fence and then by the sand wall which I guess to have been recently raised to protect the huts from winter storms. If I walk down the beach I am not sure I will be able to get off it back to the street as most of the beach here is allocated to private hotels. This is the seaside experience on an industrial scale. I take a risk and find that some beach gates are left open. The Excelsior is massive and has minarets and domes but does not seem that impressive. I turn back towards the Gran Viale along the Lungomare ducking into the Via Lepanto which is recommended for its villas. On the way I pass delegates from the National Urology Conference taking place in the Palazzo del Cinema which hosts a Film Festival every September. Many of them chat and smoke on a large balustrade. The Via Lepanto yields up some intriguing Art Nouveau villas with matching railings, tiles and patterning and brings me almost back to the boat station. This is the one whose barrier machines refused me entry a couple of days ago and which does the same today. I duck under the barrier in full view of the boatman on the 5.1 and explain to him what has happened. The boat sets off for Venice and, using a mobile phone like device, he verifies that my Venezia Unica card is fully paid up.