Monday, October 17, 2016

D'Annunzio, Ca' d'Oro, the Casetta Rossa, and Venice

 A panorama of Ca' D'Oro's androne mosaic                                    photo credit: Sandro
The ground floor courtyard (or androne) of Ca' d'Oro is probably the most exotic and evocative space of its kind in Venice. But while the palace's famous facade exemplifies 15th-century Venetian architectural taste at its "most decorative and florid" (according to Deborah Howard in her Architectural History of Venice), the androne displays the connoisseurship and refined turn-of-the-20th-century taste of Baron Franchetti, who restored the "Venetian-ness" to a space that had been gutted by the famous ballerina Mademoiselle Taglioni in the mid-nineteenth century. (Taglioni, to John Ruskin's horror, had torn out the palace's beautiful external 15th-century staircase, its ornate portal over the street entrance, and its wellhead, among many other barbarous alterations.)

In 1896 as Franchetti himself was busy on his hands and knees arranging the rare colored stones of the androne's beautiful mosaic pavement (modeled on the 12th-century floor of Murano's church of Santa Maria e San Donato) another well-known, highly-cultured, connoisseur of the time was often right beside him, helping out: Gabriele D'Annunzio.

The colorful, elaborately-patterned floor of Ca'D'Oro serves as a guiding image of the biographical method of Lucy Hughes-Hallett's excellent 2013 biography of D'Annunzio, entitled The Pike in the UK, and Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War in the US.

Though little-known in the US, where his extravagant language and self-consciously-literary decadence isn't really to the national taste (even if his militarism and twin obsessions with youth and conscienceless individual power might find a ready audience), D'Annunzio serves in Hughes-Hallet's book as a fascinating and complex prism through which to see the young state of Italy at the end of the 19th-century and its disastrous attempts to forge a strong national identity in the first decades of the 20th.

In this sense, it's an overview of Italian culture and politics of this period, using one of the country's most famous and influential figures as a focal point.

Though bearing no physical resemblance to his virile ideal, D'Annunzio was something of a proto-rock star: with all the fame, the crowds, the mass adoration, the groupies, the excess, the drugs (he loved cocaine), the world-famous lovers (eg, Eleonora Duse), the celebrity perks, the influence, the entitlement, and the unquestioned authority.

But not even the most celebrated of rock stars has managed to do what D'Annunzio did after World War I in the former Venetian territory of Istria: establish his own little proto-Fascist nation-state in the port town of Fiume, with himself as dictator, which he held for nearly a year and a half while the allied victors of the Great War tried to figure out what to do with both the region and him.

D'Annunzio's time in Venice makes up just a part of his mad life, but it's such a significant part--and he plays so colorful a part in the history of the city--that I'm tempted to call Hughes-Hallett's entertaining and well-researched biography a must read for any lover of Venice.

Forget about the famous love affairs he carried on here, the theatrical premieres of his work and all the other kinds of drama, the years he spent here during World War I alone will alter your sense of the Grand Canal and the Casetta Rossa: that little red palazzo set back from the water by a small garden right beside the immense facade of the Palazzo Corner (now seat of the Province and Prefect of Venice), and across the water from the Guggenheim Museum.

The Casetta Rossa this afternoon: an engraved commemorative plaque of D'Annunzio's habitation there is set into the garden railing at right, but its worn letters are almost impossible to make out even in person
Having used his celebrity to obtain an offier's commission in the newly-hatched Italian Air Force (though by this time he was already over 50 years of age), D'Annunzio would be chauffeured in a motor boat from what he called this "doll's house" on the Grand Canal--rented for a pittance from his pal the Austrian Prince Frederick von Hohenlohe--to the airport on Lido, from which he would set off on regular bombing raids against those he described in unceasingly inflammatory public pronouncements as Italy's "ancestoral enemies" and the loathsome spawn of a nation he likened to a "vulture vomiting human flesh": the countrymen, that is, of his landlord.

Then after quite literally dropping bombs, or sometimes, in the case of a dangerous foray over Trieste, pamphlets of his own creation; after surviving anti-aircraft fire and the brutally frigid and perilous conditions of early air warfare, he'd return to his palazetto on the Grand Canal to soak in a hot bath, powder and perfume himself and, amid the 18th-century furniture and ornaments collected by his Austrian benefactor, entertain one of his many female friends or admirers.

After a year of increasingly daring raids, D'Annunzio's luck ran out. Temporarily, at least. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and D'Annunzio was blinded when his head smashed into the machine gun mounted in front of his seat. He'd eventually regain sight in one eye, but only after three months of lying motionless on his back in a completely blacked-out room of the Casetta Rossa.

He would, in fact, return, one-eyed, to his bombing raids--against medical advice. And, having escaped death, he'd go on to even greater prominence, power, and influence, not least of all with Benito Mussolini, with whom he had an uneasy relationship. (D'Annunzio recognized that Mussolini had basically stolen some of his best material and methods and, though uncouth and vulgar, was enjoying the power that D'Annunzio believed rightfully should have belonged to himself. Mussolini, meanwhile, keen on presenting himself as the political heir to Italy's world-famous nationalist poet, felt obligated to flatter the older man, and showered him with extravagant gifts (such as installing the front half of an actual battleship, complete with sailors, on D'Annunzio's property near Lake Garda), saying "When a decayed tooth cannot be pulled out it is capped with gold.").

For anyone interested in Venice, Hughes-Hallett's book does what all all the best books about the city do: it enlivens and enriches one's sense of this peculiar little place which, in spite of its long history, can sometimes subside into merely the collection of beautiful monuments and picturesque views it's long been sold as. It re-orients one's personal map of the city, freighting previously unnoticed areas with new significance, and, more generally, it offers a compelling perspective on the early years of the nation of Italy.   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

From Both Sides Now: Two Views of This Evening's Sunset

The same scene, taken just minutes apart, from opposing angles.

As you can see below, the freshly painted benches of Sant'Elena are now such a vivid red as to seem almost more like an artistic intervention from the Biennale--say, a low-budget minimalist version of Christo's and Jean-Claude's bright saffron "gates" in Central Park or his recent "Floating Piers" on Italy's Lake Iseo, intended, perhaps, to call attention to our unexamined assumptions about "bench-ness", or about their ostensibly natural place in the ostensibly natural space of a public park, or something like that--than the plain old park benches they used to be just one week ago. But it's a pleasant change.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Airing Laundry, Both Dirty & Clean, or, Confessions of a Venetian Laundress to the Stars

I'm trying something new with this post--as well as reviving something old.

For some time now I've been interested in the possibility of adding an audio element to this blog. Doing so would eventually open up the possibility of audio interviews with different people in Venice, and of maybe creating pieces that used the distinctive ambient sounds of the city, or recording live musical performances.

More immediately, this required me to learn about the process of podcasting, and how to include audio files in this blog.

During the 2015 Venice Biennale I spent 7 nearly months reading, on an almost daily basis and with a variety of co-readers, all of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, little by little, in three 30-minute sessions in the large Arena space of the Central Pavilion for each day that the Biennale was open. This project was the brainchild of the 56th Venice Biennale's General Director, Okwui Enwezor, who described it as the centerpiece of the extensive series of performances staged in the Arena, and it was directed by the English filmmaker Isaac Julien, in collaboration with curator and critical theorist Mark Nash (

Doing this kind of thing for so long makes you think about the difference between the written and the spoken word--the different effects and experience of the one versus the other. On the one hand, it seemed somewhat natural to me, as I've always had to read and re-read my own writing out loud to myself as part of the process of editing it. But, of course, it's different when you're reading something out loud to others. And it was also quite different from the experiences I'd had reading my own fiction out loud in public, or speaking in public.

If part of the appeal of a travel blog of this sort is that it perhaps sometimes offers a certain immediate sense of a place to people who are, in fact, far away from it--and maybe missing it--I wondered if audio might give a different sense of immediacy. It seemed worth a try.

And in the act of trying, I've discovered this is yet another kind of reading out loud--in which I require a lot more practice. 

In any case, I've made four podcasts so far of the earliest essays in what now totals (after more than five and a half years of blogging) more than 650 posts--not all of these posts in the form of writing, fortunately. I'm hoping this is not only a way of finding my way into podcasting, but of selecting written posts (as opposed to the photographic) from the hundreds I've put up which, taken together, develop certain ongoing themes of the blog.

Of what I've described on the Soundcloud site that hosts these podcasts as an ongoing project of writing about living in, and raising a child in, what has long been called one of the world's most beautiful cities, as it confronts rising waters, a dwindling native population, a crushing deluge of tourism--and my young son becomes that ever-more-rare of creatures: a Venetian.

In any case, below you'll find one of my first four podcasts: about the very different ways that a native Venetian and at least certain Americans look at those picturesque clotheslines of drying laundry that tourist shutterbugs find so irresistible. And which asks the question: Just how much do we really want to know about the underwear of our neighbors--and some of Hollywood's most celebrated leading men?

Other, even earlier posts, are available on the Venezia Blog stream on Soundcloud.   

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Rush Hour Traffic, Bacino Orseolo

These two take in the bacino fray, book-end style, from one of the rare public (or semi-public) benches in Venice

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tending to Venice

                                               A group of volunteers cleans a barena near Certosa last Saturday                      photo credit: Jen

There was a large, spirited protest against cruise ships in Venice yesterday afternoon, complete with live bands playing on a barge moored just off the Zattere in the Giudecca Canal, well over a thousand (and perhaps as high as 2,000) attendees, and delays in the scheduled departures of the largest of those ships due to leave.

Faced with a hostile crowd, some cruise ships apparently decided they had no choice but to sacrifice the lordly perspective looking down on a legendary city in the golden light of a late afternoon that they'd promised their passengers and slink out, instead, under cover of night--when the crowd of protesters would at least be smaller and less visible, if not entirely gone.

But Sunday afternoon (and early evening) was not only about cruise ships. From the stage, and from various tables set up along the Zattere, the message was, more broadly, that Venetians would continue to fight for the existence of Venice as a living city, not a theme park, stripped of residents; not an environmentally-ravaged dead lagoon.

I've posted about this topic so much lately that I have no interest in doing so again at length. Suffice it to say, it registers somewhat differently with someone who lives here full-time with a son who, at this point in his life, ardently imagines for himself a life in the lagoon, than it does with those who visit even for extended periods or own a second home here. The latter are rarely confronted by the lived reality of a life in Venice which, of late, with the start of school, has included classrooms that were not cleaned all summer long and a schoolyard so infested with rats that children had to be kept in during recess, along with such a shortage of city funds that toilet paper is quite literally rationed. (Is this an improvement over those schools in Venice where students are asked to supply their own? You decide.)

Our son's school makes headlines, unfortunately, for being filthy
At the first meeting of the school year for parents, at which our son's teachers were to lay out the year's educational aims, as well as tell parents about the school supplies that all students would need, these were the kinds of non-academic topics the teachers had to address, trying as best they could to somehow keep the general mood optimistic. It didn't work for everyone. My wife Jen reported that the father seated beside her kept muttering under his breath at various points in the presentation, "Terzo mondo..." That is, "third world."

And yet, cruise ship traffic is higher than ever before and the total number of tourists steadily grows! These, according to Venice's mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, and the head of its port, Paolo Costa, are the engines of the local economy--and yet while these engines spin ever faster you'll be hard pressed to find any growth in local benefits.

On the contrary, the city continues to lose residents and fixtures of local life continue to vanish. As reported in yesterday's edition of La Nuova di Venezia, four fish stalls have recently closed in the famous Rialto fish market, mostly for lack of customers. Over the past few years the total number of fishmongers at the Rialto has been halved, from 18 to 9. As one fish seller says in the La Nuova article, the ever-increasing numbers of tourists gawk and snap photos as much as they ever have--what they don't do, however, is buy anything.

The city needs a mayor committed to a comprehensive plan to maintain--or re-establish--Venice as a living city; something which a subservience to a monoculture of mass tourism clearly has not done, and is not doing. What the city seems to have instead is a real estate Developer-in-chief.  

Development plans pour out of Mayor Brugnaro: to turn the old fort of Sant'Andrea into a luxury resort, to expand the old grass-runway Nicelli Airport on Lido in anticipation of a big ski event, to do this and that with the old Ospedale all Mare on Lido, to name just a few... None of which, nor all of which, will actually address what ails the city of Venice and its residents--though it will create some nice plum construction contracts to hand out to a favored few.

And while our Developer-in-chief indulges himself in such utterly moronic crack-pipe dreams as that of Venice hosting an Olympics(!), it is a group of young citizens called Generazione 90 that actually takes concrete and immediate action to address the deleterious effects that Airbnb is having upon the availability of housing for residents: 

But of course it is not just Brugnaro, and it is not just Venice. As the cultural critic Stuart Hall put it, "A pervasive, ruthlessly competitive and privatized 'common sense' has penetrated popular consciousness, corrupted business practices and public life, and invaded and transformed every sphere of life..." 

The first step to addressing the problems of Venice is to consider them from outside of this "common sense," as various community groups and scholar and citizens have been trying to do for many years. Groups which continue to try to be heard.

In the meantime, in this "best of all possible private-profit-at-public-expense-driven world"--see the great ongoing MOSE flood gate swindle here in Venice (not to mention almost all recent Olympic host cities)--we must also continue to "tend our own garden." Which is, in this case, the lagoon. This is just what a group of volunteers did last Saturday, as part of a nation-wide project by the non-profit environmental group Legambiente: picking up garbage from a large barena (mudflat) near the island of Certosa and rowing through canals to collect more of the same.

What remains of the life of Venice can be found, I think, in such community-oriented activities; activities of which the vast majority of visitors to the city are not even aware.