Friday, July 30, 2010

Venice- Day Three

The possibility of rain continued the next morning as we made our way around from one section of the city to another. There are few, if any, straight lines in Venice. Getting from one point to another takes you through multiple possibilities and choices to a conclusion that is, hopefully, where you want to go. On the other hand, you can only get so lost in Venice; it is only a matter of time before you reach the edge and are looking out at the lagoon.

This was our last day in Venice and because of our wanderings taking longer than I anticipated one day (not a problem, really) and the deluge of rain the next I had to make sure that one of my favorite things to do in Venice was on the schedule before we left. That is, walking just beyond the Doge's Palace along the waterside to the San Zaccharia stop on the vaporetto route. There we would take the poor man's route around the city. This is the relatively inexpensive but long vaporetto ride around and then down the Grand Canal. The problem was timing. The benefit of starting on the #2 vaporetto at San Zaccharia, heading toward San Giorgio Maggiore, is that you will be able to sit wherever you want- it's the beginning of the route and the vaporetto's seats are wide open. My choice? Right up in front. But it isn't quite the same if you are getting soaked from a steady rain. So, the question was- the Church of the Frari to see Titian's Assumption of the Virgin and Bellini's Pesaro Altarpiece first, or head over and hope the weather would improve? Fortified with more espresso than usual, I made my choice by not really choosing. We walked. We looked. We did a little shopping. (Are you suuuure you want those really bad plastic masks?) We ended up heading over toward San Marco, and as we did the sky brightened and the sun came out.

I received one card with a magnetic strip to cover the tickets for all of us, we waited all of three minutes and our ship came in. Being a mature, fatherly figure to my students I made sure that when the gate was opened I was first through and directly to "my seat". This particular vaporetto route takes you across the lagoon to San Giorgio where you can get off and go visit the Last Supper by Tintoretto inside and follow that up by going up the campanile for what may be the best view of Venice. They have a habit of closing around noon, though, so it needs to be timed right. I didn't. The vaporetto then makes stops along the Giudecca, that long, half-forgotten island off by itself in the lagoon. In little gaps between buildings you can see trees and gardens beyond. Across the way Dorsoduro lies with the domed Santa Maria della Salute and a line of other churches facing the water. When we were going by the church bells were ringing and I could see the movement of the bells within the towers.

Farther along, you may have a chance at a tour of the Lifestyles of the Rich and, if they aren't Famous, they certainly are Extravagant, where you may see enormous yachts lined up along the shore. Then the cruise ships follow up. It was only a one cruise ship day (that will not happen on Fridays to Sundays) which meant that we would have another day where the streets would not be terribly crowded. The vaporetto then goes around by the market, by the people mover (new to me) by many small boats picking up food and wares to be delivered and then makes its way to the Grand Canal. Here the crowds get on deck and you can, if you wish, take a quick breezy look in their direction from your seat in front. The rest of the trip down the canal is dreamland, no matter how many times you do it. Your sense of time is collapsed as you remember all those images of Venice from long ago which merge very easily with what you see before you. It all goes too fast.

Before long we are back at San Zaccharia, the floating dock shifting a bit under our feet as we leave. This is one thing that I do with my students that does not need, or is even helped by, an introduction. We get on, we sit, we gaze and this huge, elaborate stage moves by us as it has for centuries.

This is my favorite thing to do in Venice.

Later that afternoon I found a campo I'd never been to before, had some wine, chatted with a couple from Lancashire, remembered the time and bolted back to the B&B to meet the students for our journey back to Florence. Crossing the bridge and walking into the train station we were met by the next group of people who were entering the play. In place of a bow, we walked through the doors of the station, the train was waiting, we climbed aboard and shortly after, watched the clustered buildings above water slowly recede. With the train moving back onto land I again entered into a sense of something that seemed closer to normal reality.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Venice- Day Two

The morning started bright and clear and we, in small groups, went outside to sit down in the small courtyard under the vines for breakfast.

Venice is so quiet.

The loudest sounds you will hear are motor boats delivering produce or other articles to stores; vaporetti, if you're near the lagoon, or are on the Grand Canal; bells tolling out the hours; people talking and laughing together while sitting and having a drink. Don't forget your earplugs when you go.

The sun was warm and the air was cool and we made our way over to the Accademia. They have a new ticket booth outside. I found this out by walking right past the three signs directing you to it, inside where you used to buy tickets, watched the people in front of me get directed outside and then asked to buy tickets. A little embarrassing. I spent extra time with the early paintings by Bellini that are in the second room, a bit more time looking and discussing the renamed Feast at the House of Levi by Veronese, and, as always, with the Pieta', Titian's last work. Giorgione's The Tempest used to be in one of the first rooms you go through, now it's along the back hallway (near the bathrooms) in a couple of rooms that are very small and the small paintings in these rooms are hung very close together. In these two rooms are a number of paintings that would be the centerpiece of almost any museum in the world. Here they are inches apart- POW-POW-POW.

The Accademia is overwhelming in what it contains as far as amazing work, but it is not a huge museum. It is easier to look selectively, with less guilt, and avoid Stendhal's Syndrome. A couple students were with me to visit St. Ursula, as I always do. Besides seeing the story by Carpaccio unfold, there is a charm to seeing multiple events taking place on one canvas divided by a column, a wall or a flag. The viewer is transported from the left, where they see an imaginary view, to the right side with the meeting of the Prince and Princess with a backdrop of Venice. But, when looking at Carpaccio's work, as I've written before, I enjoy seeing how the composition is like an interlocking puzzle with one piece meeting another, that piece then framing and leading to another, from mast to flag to column to street to person to facade. There is also the sense that you are going to walk outside right into that world because your view of the buildings and canals do not seem all that different from Carpaccio's.

We went over to the Ponte Rialto to do some drawing, but by now the storm clouds were rolling in and it was only a matter of time before they would let loose. The bridge was relatively uncrowded for the second day in a row as we sat down near the water's edge. In time it started to rain lightly so we moved to the shelter of an open loggia near the old fish market to draw. As one draws the view, your eyes move and recognize shapes, lines and connections. The lines on the paper follow. Up the side of the building, connecting to the roof line of the adjacent palazzo, down the edge of light marble in the face of the building, along the bottom of the window traced out in oriental design, over to the edge of the next building, down to the riva, the bank along the canal.

When we were through I decided to let everyone have free time to explore for hours before dinner. The rain came down a bit harder as the students headed out in groups, to look for something to eat, to take photos, to look for presents to bring back. Walking back through the narrow streets to Dorsoduro the clouds opened and the rain came down in buckets. Standing in the relative shelter of an overhang of a building I stood and watched the shapes, lines, architectural elements interlock with the people racing by, trying not to get soaked, and those, like me, stock still under the awnings.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Venice- Day One

Tuesday, the third of June, we left for Venice by train. It was exceptionally clear with little to no haze, giving us distant views as we went through the Apennines and out onto the open stretches of Emilia-Romagna. Most of the students were reading, resting, listening to their ipods along the way. I was looking out the window at small towns, the fields that went off into the distance and thinking about how densely the cities and towns were settled. After crossing the Reno, Po and Adige I could see the jagged peaks of the Dolomites, their shapes filled in with a consistent blue off in the distance. This was the clearest I'd ever seen them.

There is something very different about arriving in Venice. I've arrived at Santa Lucia station five times now (not very many times compared to the addicted) but, there is something about leaving the mainland and going across the lagoon where you are doing more than traversing space. You are going to a completely different place. You can see the city, the outlines of buildings, domes, bell towers as you move forward; the city keeps its back turned toward you across the water as you approach. It is like a theatrical backdrop. Then you enter the station, much like a lot of other large train stations, where the vision of the city is put on hold (anyone need to go to the bathroom?) for a few moments. Then, walking out of the doors of the station, you enter directly onto the stage. You walk into the scene itself. The people standing and gazing, the boats and vaporetti gliding by, the masses going over the bridge to your left, the dome of San Simeone Piccolo rising across the canal all are part of this play. Thousands of stories are taking place on the stage before you. And you enter.

I had been staying in Cannaregio my last two trips, but this time I was staying on the edge of Dorsoduro looking across at Santa Croce, less than a ten minute walk from the train station. The B&B, Locanda Gaffaro, was tucked away inside a small courtyard and beyond the gate was an enclosed garden with chairs and tables shaded by vines growing above. We dropped off our luggage- Brian's method: bring the big luggage to the apartment in Florence, bring a small backpack with two changes of clothes and drawing supplies on the road- and headed out.

Venice is very compact, its small to tiny streets lead you through maze-like routes toward and, sometimes, away from your destination. It is always funny to see that in places you will have two arrows
, painted on the side of a building, pointing to San Marco, each pointing in the opposite direction. Either route will take you there. In some places you are walking down what feels more like the enclosed corridor of a building than a narrow street outdoors. Then you come into an open campo and you get your bearings. The experience of Venice- finding your way, getting lost, thinking you are going in the correct direction, realizing you don't know what the hell you're doing, getting to a point of recognition- adds up to the experience of place as metaphor. That heightens the sense that you are taking part in a play, with a didactic twist that is not over-wrought, but natural.

For this, my third time taking students to Venice, I am developing a tradition. Once again, I lead them to Piazza San Marco to look around and marvel (less pigeons- yea!) and then off to play "Let's Get Lost in Venice". Each student leads the group for fifteen minutes, or so, and then chooses the next leader. The aim is to stay away from the crowds and not to find ourselves back in San Marco. We found quiet canals, water lapping against the sides in the shade of trees with no one near. We heard a piano playing time to unseen ballet students. We smelled fish, shrimp, octopus and other creatures gathered from the lagoon and beyond at vendors booths. We ducked in to San Zaccharia (I had to take the reins for a minute when I saw where we were) to see one of Bellini's greatest paintings that is still in the church, where it was intended to be. One student, while leading us, found a small courtyard named with her surname- Cortese; definitely a photo opportunity.

As with a lot of places I go to with the students I become more aware of what I want to see someday. I have never been in the Doge's Palace and there are loads of churches, well-known and nondescript, that I have never ventured inside of. As with Rome and Siena, (with Florence also, although we are there for the better part of a month) we can only see a small part. I have to choose what is most important for the students' experience, so I return to a lot of the places again and again. No complaints, I just try to fit in new places, a bit here and there, when I can.

We ended on the northern edge of Cannaregio, looking across to the cemetery on its own island in the lagoon. The students decided it was time for a gelato, so we had some looking across the lagoon- "What island is that across, over there?" "I have no idea".

Later, after making our way back to the B&B, while the students took a rest, I scouted the location of two restaurants that were suggested by my friend and self-admitted Venice addict, Kathleen. I made reservations for Taverna San Trovaso for that night and Casin dei Nobili for the next. From the time I saw the Taverna, I thought I recognized the way it sat along a canal but made its own corner along the street. It looked very familiar. When I went inside to make reservations that sense grew on me. I went back through to the Campo Santa Margarita, which is definitely the happening place in the neighborhood, and sat at a table under an awning in the square and had a Aperol Spritz (very Venetian). I watched as a local guy, half hiding behind me, was steering a remote-controlled car around the open space in front of us. He made it weave in front of people as they walked, bump into them as they stood in groups talking, darting in front of someone who tried to avoid it but almost kissed the pavement in the process and race after casually elegant young women. For the young women he would reveal himself after the car tapped their foot a few times. Not a bad idea.

Later we all arrived at the restaurant, at a time that was more appropriate for Rome and Florence. I forgot that, generally, people go out to eat a bit earlier here. On entering, I was almost certain- this was the place my teacher took a group of us to fifteen years ago when I was first in Italy. Now it was my turn to take students for their first time. Venice helped me find my way, get lost and come to a place of recognition. The play goes on.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Fun with Blogging, Part II

Did you know that Apple makes a wonderful, stylish power adapter that I use to power and re-charge the batteries in my MacBook? Yes? Well, did you know that it is supposed to work with 120 aaaand 240 voltage? Yes?


Actually, if you try to use it with European current, you'll notice that right next to the magnetic piece that attaches to your computer it starts to turn brown. It may not happen right away, but happen it will. Especially if you watch movies (or try to for ten minutes) on the computer. I barely saw any of Amelie in Italian, or Samuel L. Jackson praising the Big Kahuna Burger in dubbed-in Italian. The computer doesn't receive power from the cord anymore.

That's because it's melting.

That's because it's burning.

It smells kinda weird.

And that is why, dear friend, I'm probably going to have to take this up when I get back from my travels on the 18th of June. Please allow for a bit of jet-lag.

I am now nearly using the last of my battery power that I stored up from using a student's power cord. Hers hadn't quite started to burn, yet.

I will be popping in to email places in Paris for the next week and keeping things short and sweet, so please email me.

It would be great to hear from you.

I will catch up.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Florence Sites/Sights

There are so many places to go to in Florence. There are so many places I still haven't seen. Just as in reading the history of Florence, you become more and more aware that you are scratching the surface, it is the same with seeing places around the city.
Here is a rundown of some of the places we've been to after returning from Siena and then after our trip to Rome:

May 18th- Brancacci Chapel and Santa Maria Novella- Masaccio
We went to these places specifically to see the work of Masaccio. As with most churches, there is a wide sweep of work in most places, from peeks of remnants of frescoes from the 1300's up to paintings from the 18th century. Everyone is free to explore, but what I'm going to talk about in each place is pretty focused (as much as possible) on a chronological movement through time. Of course trips to Rome and Venice disrupt this a bit, but that's how it is. I still have not been in the actual museum, that is the rest of the grounds besides the church, of Santa Maria Novella, that includes the Spanish chapel. Someday.

May 19th- Santa Maria del Fiore and the Cupola - Brunelleschi
Not in this order. The stairs to the cupola of the Duomo and the lantern on top, where you can look out, open at 8:30, it is best to be there shortly after. If you wait until 10 or 11, chances are you will see a massive line. This is the first time I've had a student start to go up and then... have to go back down. She made it up to the overlook down into the crossing, where you are right next to Vasari's painting inside the dome. Then when we started going up from there, where you are actually going up between the two walls of the cupola, she immediately knew she had to go back down. Excellent timing, actually, because that is where those coming back down split off on their own route going back down. I could stay up on top for hours. I think the students largely have a harder time just looking. After ten days of showers, clouds, bits of sun here and there, this was our first day of just beautiful weather for the whole day in Florence. After a break we took the #7 bus up to Fiesole, started the walk down and drew from an overlook over Florence. When we were through, we walked the rest of the way down into the city.

May 24th- Day off.
After being in Rome for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, this was a day to take it easy. OK, I did a bunch of errands and catching up on the accounting and writing here and there. But it also involved getting extra sleep.

May 25th- Santa Trinita - Ghirlandaio
This small church has always been a favorite of mine. For years this place has been a small retreat from the bustle and traffic noise outside. The most people I have ever seen in here, besides myself and my students, have numbered three, maybe five. Not this time. Just after arriving, we were joined by four other groups. I especially go there to see the Sassetti Chapel with its fresco paintings with Francesco Sassetti and members of his family, joined by Lorenzo de Medici and members of his family, present at the Confirmation of the order and the resurrection of a child by Francis after his death. It is important to see how Ghirlandaio refers to, makes use of and builds on painters of the past such as Giotto, Masaccio and Hugo van der Goes.

Monday, May 31, 2010


How do I introduce Rome to people who have never been there? What should I cover, where do we go, what do we see and experience? In two and a half days? While still giving some measure of respect to a city I love?

I could understand someone throwing up their hands and saying "it's impossible; you can't even begin to start to get to know Rome in that period of time". I know, I know. If you leave one major thing out then you will see the pikes and torches heaving up and down with the accompanying chants of one faction; if you, well, you get the idea.

is hard. You kind of feel like someone taking Solomon too literally, "hmmm, maybe if I split the baby right there... But a little is better than none in my book.

One of the things the students first noticed about Rome is that there is even more graffiti here than in Florence. Then they noticed the traffic and the fact that there are very few traffic signals and the resulting realization that you are taking your life in your hands when you cross the street. But these fade away once it starts to sink in that you are in
Rome. We stayed at a small family-run hotel straight down the street from the Colosseum. Walking the other way to the main drag you have the Roman Forum in front of you, and the Forum of Trajan to your right. Did I mention the remains of the churches of Saints Cosmas and Damian to your left over there? The sense of time is so unmissable in Rome, that even if you didn't get it, the Gods would prove it to you by shoving you thirty feet into an archaeological site below.

That is one thing I love about Rome- no, not falling into an archaeological site, but the sheer sensory overload of the place. You can look to your left and see the broken columns of an ancient temple from the time of the Republic, look in another direction and it is a purely Baroque facade. Look another direction and you see something from the ancient world that was set up in a new context by people long afterward, and then turn and see a woman with reaaally cool sunglasses wearing, uh Renaissance, a square that was redone during the Renaissance. And all this with cars flying by, a few people chatting loudly and gesticulating wildly, the clinking of glasses and the murmur of large groups walking by.

We immediately headed to the Vatican Museums to once again try out the tested method of entering without any wait. The Method can be reduced to this dictum- "Have lunch first just outside the area". We went to a little place across from where we peeked out from the Ottaviano metro stop that served everything from Spaghetti all'Amatriciana to Hamburgers. Then, right about 1 pm, we headed over. No wait... at all. The Vatican Museum involves the same decision-making that one makes for the city as a whole; you can not see it all, so you have to make choices. The antique statuary are a blur to me as I follow the signs to the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. Nothing against those tapestries; I'm sure they are wonderful (if I ever stop to see them someday). Same with those paintings over there, and there... But it takes enough work and concentration to try to keep everyone together and moooove past the crowds, around the group tours, where they are listening to someone talk about said tapestries, and on to the rooms I really want to see.

Then, on arrival, I shift gears. The crowds can go by, those who keep as evenly a paced gaze to the area devoted to contemporary religious art, as it does to the Stanza della Segnatura can keep going. Even within the Raphael rooms, I will spend much more time in front of the School of Athens than with the Sala di Costantino. So sue me. Then on to the Sistine Chapel. I just can't spend enough time here. Even if I got a spot to sit and snacked on Power Bars and did everything to sustain my energy, I wouldn't be able to. It takes a lot of energy to look at Michelangelo's work with a high level of intensity while battling the feeling of being saturated and keeping your eyes going out of focus. And you'd better give it the attention it deserves, even if for a relatively short time; otherwise, you-know-who may put his skin back on and beat the crap out of you. I can only get to know this amazing work bit by bit, over time. But, still there is so much there that you could focus on one corner and it would sustain you for an hour, easy. And that's without shifting your head to the scene of the Last Judgement. Sensory Overload.

I used to live in New York; in my humble opinion, New York doesn't come close to Rome for sensory overload. A lot of it is because New York largely presents one type and time-period of information for the brain to assimilate; Rome goes way beyond that. But, at the same time, one other thing I love about Rome is that I can go down a narrow, cool, shady lane and it - is - quiet. Just the place to have a bottle of aqua minerale, and four tylenol.

Friday, May 28, 2010


For the first time in three tries, it was not raining when I visited Siena. The last two times I brought students here, the stones were slick and the breaks in the rain were spotty. But, now that I remember, it just wasn't that bad. Siena is a charmer, and in my book, not only is that a good thing, but a bit of rain here or there is not going to diminish the experience much. It was here, five years ago, that I stood under the boards laid out on a high, rambling structure of scaffolding clinging to an ancient structure, and read Invisible Cities while waiting for the rain to stop. It's all part of the experience.

Siena is an experience. It's one of those places that transport you back to the 14th century, especially when you get out in the lesser traveled areas of town. Especially, especially if you stay after dark. This time the weather was beautiful, with blue skies and warm temperatures each day. We went to the Duomo, looked at the designs on the floor and the Museo del Opera del Duomo to see the original sculptures that were on the outside and Duccio's Maesta. Each time I see it I think of the the day when the painting was brought to the cathedral, when all the shops closed down, the populace lined the streets and followed the procession, alms were given out and the city solemnly installed the painting on the high altar. There is a diagram showing the original position of all the panels, front and back, and it is sad to think of it being taken down in the 1700s and sawn into pieces, with some pieces damaged, others sold off, and others lost.

It's fun to look around the city for the contrada symbols as you walk from one division of the city to another. This time I poked my hand on the metal tusks of an elephant's head- one of the supports of the stair-rail going up the steps to the fountain next to the contrada hall of the Contrada della Torre. There above you on the walls, are emblems of a caterpillar, or a panther, or a tortoise.

The next day we went to the museum at the Palazzo Pubblico, especially to see the fresco paintings The Effects of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the room where the city's leaders, the Nove, met. We drew for a while from the overlook in the back of the palace. There is a big staircase in the middle of the rooms, and if you go up to the top, you can go through the doors and look out on the marketplace below and out to the countryside beyond. The countryside doesn't look all that different from that depicted in the painting- thankfully, on the side of good government.

By seven at night, most of the crowds are gone and the Campo, where the Palio is held, is much emptier. Sometimes, on warm days, as the night comes on, a cool breeze comes up the hill and through the gates and over the walls. The streets become lit here and there with lights above and coming through doorways and windows. The few cars and small shuttle buses you encounter during the day have been reduced down to none at all. And, if you squint, the neon lights from the gelaterie fade, the bright electric lights inside the bar almost becomes torchlight, and you are transported.