Friday, July 30, 2010
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 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
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
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
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
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.
It 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.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
In preparation, they made me discontinue the link I made from their ancient, not able to attach anything more than ten words in a Word document, email program, to Entourage.
Not that Entourage is all that fantastic, but it is compared to the regular email program that the university provides.
The whole system ended up crashing for over two days.
When I'm in Italy.
And I really need it.
So I had a great idea- I'll use my Gmail to send my friend a video from Italy. Yea!
The Gmail said, (if Gmail could talk) "Gee, Brian has never used me, and now he is suddenly using me and attaching a video, from a foreign country, no less. This can't be Brian!"
So immediately after sending the email, Gmail closed me out.
And gave people a notice here that the blog has been removed.
I was told I would have to give a cellphone number for a message to regain access.
I started to think if I gave them an Italian number, Gmail would be convinced- "This really can't be Brian, this isn't the phone number he gave us when he set up the account!" (Remember, this is Gmail talking, here)
So I followed the instructions for those poor, backward sods like me who would prefer to email a message. What I'd actually like would be interaction with a carbon-based life-form. Any ferret, or iguana would do.
So I gave them the Italian phone number.
And now, for some I reason I had nothing to do with, I am a follower of my own blog.
Yea for techonlogy!
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The students worked outside under the protection of the walkways from the rain, which continued off and on for a while.
My weekend was a blur of errands, laundry, catching up with the bookkeeping, doing some shopping and trying to catch up on some rest. After all the travel and running off fumes and caffe', I finally crashed and got some extra sleep. This was rest sorely needed with getting up early on Monday for a two-day trip to Siena.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
This was Orientation Day. There are a lot of things to introduce, show and explain when you are bringing people into a country they've never been to before. One of my students just arrived after experiencing the first time she ever flew in an airplane. When you live in apartments there are a lot more issues that need to be covered.
First a walk around the city to see the famous landmarks and get bearings. Meet at Piazza della Repubblica; around the Duomo; south by the Yellow Bar and the Bargello toward the Piazza della Signoria; diverted to public WC off of Borgo de' Greci; then to the Piazza della Signoria; a quick lecture about the history of the Palazzo Vecchio? No, that's later. Now it is about paying attention to me, not gypsies, when I'm telling them about the history of a place; Baaaack into the crowds as we head for the Ponte Vecchio (can't imagine this place on a Saturday); wait for my student with the digital SLR to catch up; walking in the shade of Borgo San Jacopo; back across the Ponte Santa Trinita to Via Tornabuoni; then past the street where their apartments are- Via della Vigna Nuova and back to our meeting place, the carousel at the Piazza della Repubblica.
That was Giro Numero Uno.
The next one definitely has a food theme- north to the Mercato Centrale where we walk around and experience the smells, sights and sounds of merchants talking back and forth. For the students this was the first time they saw a man hold up a huge piece of tripe; here is the place with the great fresh pasta, there's Nerbone- try this place for lunch sometime, there's Mario's outside the market, I definitely need to go there; around the corner to the Centro supermarket to show them how to pick up and weigh the produce- put your hand inside the bag and then pick it up, look for the number for the corresponding button on the scale; across the street to the One Euro store (yes, you can actually buy wine for one euro- I won't); then up to Via Guelfa and the really inexpensive internet shop run by the Sri Lankan family; then into my favorite Kebab place for lunch. This was their first opportunity to really try to order on their own in a place where the people don't speak any English. A bit to get used to, but you will, and look, you got your food!; from here some went to email family and friends, others went with me to use the ATM and one brought a load of U.S. dollars in cash that needed to be changed (No, not at those cash change places, we're going to the bank).
So ended Giro Numero Due.
They had a break (I say 'they' because I was off to my apartment to get the forms that were needed at the Rental Agency and then deliver them) and then met later that afternoon to walk across the river and up to San Miniato al Monte. Did I tell you the alternative name for the class is "Drawing and Fitness in Florence"? There was a certain amount of huffing and puffing up the hill, but we did take a break to see the little houses built for the cats in the sanctuary just off the walkway. We had a look over the city and went in to hear the monks perform Vespers.
Sitting there inside, listening to the chant, watching the light through the doors reflect off the hem of the garment in the mosaic of Christ in the apse of San Miniato al Monte, I think I took my first deep, deep breath back in Florence.
This should give you an idea:
Wednesday was the day the students were arriving. Because of the ash cloud, most of their flights were delayed and diverted. Yes, flights is written plural. I have eight students and, originally, five different times they were coming into Peretola. With the changes in flights this was reduced to four (yea!), but I was at the airport from 4:00 until 7:30 pm gathering up the first three groups. Many had to wait with me for a while because the flight delays were timed so they were not long enough to allow me to shuttle one group in and be back in time to meet the next without them waiting and wondering where I was. I did get that first group in , went to the apartments, showed them around the neighborhood a bit so they could get something to eat and off I went to meet the later students. Their flight was seriously delayed; it came in at 11:30. That's just about the same time that the last shuttle bus pulls out. OK, no choice but to take a taxi.
I think I got to sleep around 1:30.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
The trip to Florence was relatively smooth and landed with the usual heavy smack on the tarmac at Peretola with its short runway. The whole trip was above, or in, the clouds. But, I arrived safely with no volcanic ash to wipe from my clothing. Back on familiar ground again.
Monday, May 10, 2010
The packing, the lists of things to do, the last-minute tasks for work that should not have been left for you to do, I mean he is still around and not doing, oh, sorry about that. You get the idea.
Anyway, I'm just about to leave for the airport. Everything is pretty much done. Not bad for five and a half hours of sleep, an empty stomach and I'm going to have my first cup of caffeine now. I'll have to take the chance of jitters over being a zombie.
But first, I have to check again to make sure I have my passport, and then take care of the clogged sink in the bathroom.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
I keep thinking of those paintings in that one room- Room 10 in the Accademia. The room with the Feast, the Miracles of St. Mark, and the Pietà. The sense of mystery that envelops them, the depicted world of pageantry and enjoyment that still shares its existence with flying figures, ghostly buildings and apparitions of living and dead together. This depicted world that culminates with the sense of loss and decay, as unseen people are warded off from a sacred vision and sacred space while the flame is carried away. These aspects of the paintings run parallel to my remembered world of Venice that contains these things, and so much more.
The sense of loss is palpable in Venice. It’s there with the lapping of the waves against the stones, the fog that obstructs the view, the eroding of steps over the waters of a canal that slowly takes over the constructed world built on pylons. But the sense of loss is personal also. I have never been to any other place where leaving you feel like you are embarking from Cythera. But that is just another part of its beauty.
So, when I leave, as I take the vaporetto around the islands to go back to the train station, I find myself saying one thousand good byes. Good bye to Santa Maria della Salute, good-bye to the steps on that bridge over a small canal, good bye to the people waiting for the vaporetto to take them in the opposite direction, good bye to the fog down the canal moving away from me, good bye to the lapping of the waves, good bye, good bye, good bye.
This summer I have another chance to visit Venice. Another chance to purposely get lost; to try some food I know I can’t get anywhere else; to find a real insider’s bacaro; to see a painting I haven’t seen before (very easy); to buy a special gift; to see Venice for the first time- again.
One big difference between Venice and other stops on “The Big Three Tour” is the lack of crowds in major art venues. The first time I took students with me I made sure that I had reservations for the Uffizi, set up everything in advance for the Borghese in Rome and checked TA for loads of suggestions for the best time to avoid the lines into the Vatican Museums. When I was planning for Venice, I checked out the website for the Accademia, and started to plan out getting reservations for the museum. I remembered going there as a student, standing in the (incredible) room that has the (renamed) Feast at the House of Levi by Veronese on your right as you enter; The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark by Tintoretto; and the last painting by Titian, Pietà, finished after his death by Palma Giovane. The room was largely empty. You could sit there, by the radiator stuck in the middle of the room, as long as you wanted. I had a hard time navigating the website and hoped there would be no problem when we arrived.
There wasn’t. I apologized at the desk for not setting up reservations; the woman said there was no need to.
Every time I have been there, the museum is not crowded at all. Each time I spend a lot of time in the room that houses the St. Ursula series by Carpaccio, and each time, as I look at how a figure aligns with a mast, links through a flag to an architectural detail back to a column framing a kneeling figure, I could spread out a picnic lunch on the floor and probably not be bothered.
The same is true with viewing Tintoretto’s masterwork in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and seeing Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin and the Pesaro Altarpiece in the Frari. I don’t know why. But I’m not necessarily complaining about it.
There are seventy-nine inflatable gates being built now in the lagoon’s entrance to the sea that are designed to protect the city from flooding in the future. The problem of flooding with tourists, of which I am obviously a part, is also a difficult problem. I have no solutions and would never deter anyone from visiting. But, I must admit I do have a problem with the huge cruise liners. The Venetians must have a real love-hate relationship with us. For the person who spray painted “Shoot the Tourists” in Cannaregio on the way to the Rialto it must be a hate-hate relationship. I have met some rather short-tempered people in Venice, but, for right or wrong, I generally find it easier to be tolerant of it in Venice.
I have come across some people in Bed and Breakfasts who were very short-tempered and a waiter who gave one woman out of a group eleven grief because she didn't order anything. The other ten did. But, no matter. On the other hand, there were the two elderly brothers who owned a restaurant who doted over my group of thirteen one evening. They were very impressed with and congratulated my son, then fourteen, on his gastronomic bravery and adventurousness. When the meal was over, because they knew we were almost all paying separately, (sorry, cringe, cringe) one of them went over to each of us in turn with an old adding machine, recounting what each of us had, printing out the total on the ribbon of paper and handing each one of us the bill with jokes, flirts and smiles. The two brothers have since retired and sold the restaurant, but small things like that are never forgotten.
My first time in Venice I was with my friend, Nora, a fellow grad student who had experience traveling through Europe before. We were both on a very limited budget and she always looked for fruit to keep her going; that and tonno tramezzini (tuna sandwiches). We found a fruit stand that belonged to a woman; one of those elderly, short Italian ladies who appear to be made of stone that one doesn’t mess with. These are the ladies that seem to be, quite possibly, the common denominator of all areas of Italy- north and south, tiny village or center of major city. Invariably dressed in black, they are usually seen carrying something- anything- as long as it is nearly the same weight as them. This great load, whenever possible, must also be carried up a long flight of stairs. Assistance is out of the question. Nora knew better, but forgot for a moment and reached out to touch a piece of fruit. With reflexes on a par with a holder of a karate black belt, the woman reached out, over the fruit, and slapped Nora firmly on the hand. I didn’t know before, but I warn my students now- point, but do not touch.
One thing that I learned about over time was a special offering of Venice- Cicchetti and an Ombra- a selection of little snacks with a glass of wine meant to hold off hunger during the late afternoon or early evening. At first I thought this may be an inexpensive way to get a meal. Selecting from a wide range of little plates and exotic delicacies to have with a glass of wine is fun. For me, it ends up being an exercise in trying to figure just what that actually is that you’re considering eating. The first cicchetti place I went to was on a tiny little street in Cannaregio- Calle de l’Oca, right near the end of the Strada Nova. After selecting your little bites and glass of wine you could take your purchases, trying to hold on to everything at once, through another door to a small courtyard and sit down. It is when you pay that you realize this is very satisfying, but not really an inexpensive option. I think my late afternoon snack cost me something on the order of $22. It was probably the baby octopus… The last time I went there they were closed for renovations; they may have needed to expand in part because they got a write-up in the New York Times.
As I’ve mentioned before, when I take students to Venice I always play a game called “Let’s Get Lost in Venice”. It is very easy to play this, whether you intend to, or not. The last time we started in the Piazza San Marco and one volunteer led the group, turning this way and that for about five minutes, or so. Then the next leader steps forward and continues on. I don’t say anything, but I’m hoping the whole time that we really end up in some far-flung corner. Some places look familiar, some don’t- at all. My total time in Venice has been very limited, probably a total of eleven days. Each time I’m there I get turned around, go in a different direction than the one I’m SURE I’m going in, sit in a campo studying and turning a map around and around in my hand, and generally end up befuddled. I actually have an excellent reputation for finding my way around a place. Friends have said that I have a grid inside my head and, generally, I can go to a new city, take a quick look at a map and find my way around- no problem. Not Venice. She plays with me. I think I’m going the right way, start to see that I don’t recognize the area I’m walking in, and then end up where I wanted to go- from a different direction. Or I won’t recognize an area at all, then see something that I do know- “Oh, of course the Scuola Grande di San Rocco!”, or, “This is where the craftsman who builds the gondolas has his workshop!”, or “Up here is the bar where I got a good price on beer before!”, and then immediately back into the blankness of unrecognizability. She isn’t at all cruel, though. She wants to make sure that I know that she is largely unfathomable to me, and then I find myself again.
Early one morning I woke before anyone else and decided to go out for a walk. There was no one out. I made my way to the Piazza San Marco and saw it completely empty except two old men sweeping the huge expanse of the square. The fibers of their brooms were long and curved and they moved slowly, step by step. I felt as if I were witnessing something that would have looked exactly the same two or three hundred years ago. I felt as if these men had been sweeping, when no was around to see them, for two or three hundred years. A fog hung over us, and it was so silent I could hear the sounds of the brooms swooshing across the stones. At that moment the bells tolled and hundreds of pigeons took off and the air was filled with the sight of blurred wings. On the way back, as I walked by the Bridge of Sighs I heard the muffled sounds of a man screaming.
(This is not for effect- it is absolutely true)
One thing I do each time in Venice is ride the number 2 vaporetto. I start at San Zaccharia heading to San Giorgio Maggiore and, after visiting the church and its Tintoretto Last Supper, continue the route. Heading in this direction, I can get seats outside and right in front. It doesn’t make every stop on the Grand Canal, but it does do a grand circle around the city.
There is a small park around the corner from the Piazza San Marco, facing the lagoon that I went to early one morning. The Giardini ex Reali was quiet and inviting, offering me a place to sit and look around for a moment. After a few moments I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye- a bit of movement down near the ground. A few minutes later there was a quick movement of something up higher by the wall and to my right. Then more quick movements- first left then right, first high then low. Then slowly the rulers of the Royal Garden allowed me to observe them as they peeked out, then made their presence known. The garden was filled with cats.
After a day of exploring and visiting paintings throughout the city, a group of us hired a gondola at night off the beaten path. One of the first things one notices in Venice are the eastern influences that are evident in the city’s architecture. Venice, for so long the hub of trade between east and west, gathered so much from the eastern ports of call that can be seen throughout the city. As we floated through the dark canals we could see the lights coming from windows above us, and shadows of the ancient doorways directly from the canal into various palazzi. The gondolier was silent. A friend of mine from Turkey started singing an old Turkish song as we slowly moved along a small canal. Her voice echoed through the passageways. Everything seemed to stop. Time dissolved and it was as if the stones and buildings along with the vaporous presence of those who lived within them long ago were recognizing the song and remembering back to a long lost time.
The following blogs, meaning this one and the ones above, (strange things these blogs) are memories of Venice from that first trip to Italy and afterward. My apologies to my friends who have already read these before. Well, I've got to shuttle some things in here.
Like a lot of Americans I always thought of Italy as one place with the differences from region to region owing more to geography than anything else. That is, until I first went there. I had always seen photos of Venice and knew of canals and gondoliers, but had no idea the overall sense of mystery, history and beauty of the place. How can you possibly know before going? This city reveals itself in a different way than other places and it has its way of turning you around and back in time.
I was in graduate school (a bit older than the average student) and was primarily in Florence for six weeks. My professor took a small group of us for a weekend to La Serenissima. When we reached the lagoon beyond Mestre he motioned us to get up and look out the windows on the left side of the train and said, “You’ll always remember your first sight of Venice”. I could just make out buildings and towers off in a light mist that was being burned off by mid-day sun. It didn’t seem real. The sense of suspension of reality always hangs close to me in Venice. Now, when I bring students with me there and we are crossing the lagoon I tell them to get over to the left and look out. I say the same words he did.
One thing I always think about when remembering the experience of Venice is the traveler’s movement from very narrow passageways (nearly scraping your elbows) to wider (relatively speaking) streets and then quite suddenly into wide open spaces. It is like traveling through an organism. Then back into a small walkway, in the shade, the paths taking you where they want you to go.
A friend of mine, when she found out that I was going to Italy for the first time, suggested a book for me to read. “It’s called Invisible Cities, it’s by an Italian author named Italo Calvino.” she said. “It’s a bit hard to describe, really… but, DON’T read it until you’re there! You HAVE to wait until you are in Italy to read it!” What great advice.
My teacher knew Venice very, very well. He had, at that time, spent time there probably every summer for twenty-five years. His wife is an expert on Giambattista Tiepolo and she regularly spent time there doing research. He would be leading us around and turn to us, and say, “Oh, there’s a place over here, you’ve got to see it, it’s incraydeebilay” We would follow him through a door of some building, up some stairs and show us a fresco painting that I’ll never see again. He wasn’t completely fluent with the language (a LOT further on than me) but knew a lot of the ins and outs of the city.
Later he brought us to his favorite restaurant- I wish I could remember where- seafood was something he craved and, living in the Midwest, something he waited to have until he was in Venice. He ordered Frutti di Mare, I ordered Spaghetti alla Seppia; we all shared a bit of this and that. It seemed that my teacher gave away the bulk of what he had on the plate because he wanted us to try so much of everything. My cuttlefish ink sauce tasted like the scent of the marshes and the sea distilled down to a liquid. Very good, very different for me, but I could only eat a bit of it, not the huge plate in front of me. Sharing comes in very handy. Afterward someone suggested grappa. I’d heard of it before… why not? When I got my shot glass I threw it back. Big mistake. This is not Jack Daniels. This, at least for me, is not anything to trifle with. Something deep inside decided immediately to set the gears in reverse and I made a very loud, embarrassing and unintentional sound. People three or four tables away were laughing! It took me thirteen years before I entered into a semi-comfortable truce with grappa.
Italy is for sipping.
Monday, April 19, 2010
I love flying.
The first time I flew in an airplane, (well, I haven't flown any other way) I was traveling between the exotic locales of Cleveland and Boston. I was hooked and glued to the window. The flight attendant had to try three or four times to get my attention to offer me some peanuts; I took the bag and put my nose right back on the window. Now, this is pretty much standard procedure for me; but, probably soon, the airlines will be charging for the peanuts and I won't be distracted at all.
But, there is another side. No, it isn't a love/hate relationship I have with flying, it is a love/scared-shitless-I-may-not-make-it-alive-time-to-make-it-right-with-everyone relationship. I experience this every time, but only during take-off and landing. Especially take-off, though. The business people around me (all two of them who fly coach) are completely unfazed after logging ten-thousand hours in flight; the kids are too busy doing the inevitable bouncing on and kicking the seat in front of them to know the difference; other people have ingested enough alcohol through their ten dollar drinks at the airport that if something really bad happened, they would be immolated so fast they wouldn't know what happened.
Me? I go through a real quick version of the Kübler-Ross model for facing death.
a. I tell myself about how infrequent a plane crash is.
Of course, it can happen as infrequently as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series; it only has to happen once to moi.
b. I tell myself driving a car is much more risky.
Yeah right. I've been in car accidents. Hell, I've been in a six-car pile-up in Maryland and, as far as I remember, it didn't involve falling thousands of feet.
I usually skip over this pretty quick, unless a kid is behind me doing the inevitable, well, you know. The last time I flew to Rome I saw an elderly gentleman (one of those adjectives is being used quite casually) fly into a jaw-unhinging rage because someone was talking too loud near him. Funny, I didn't hear the other people talking at all; the, uh, old man was yelling at decibels that would match a jackhammer. I guess he was just going through stage two.
Oh, yes. Big time. Then I feel really stupid.
I'll spare you the details. Which brings us on to-
This is, basically, most of the process for me. Sometimes I don't have much time for the others, so I have to go through them in rapid succession. I may be distracted reading, or we've been waiting forever to taxi to the runway and I don't see what's happening until it's almost too late. Then I spring into action, moving as fast as I can to stage five. This is where I start to say goodbye to everyone I know and love. I ask them to forgive me- "I'm sorry I didn't appreciate that" or, "I'm sorry I'm a pain in the ass", or one of the many variations on a basic theme. I tell them I forgive them, if there is anyone I think fits in this category, then I take a deep breath, hold onto the armrest with a grip that would strangle a wolverine in two seconds flat, and pray.
When the plane has reached a height and speed that seems in keeping with a nice, fairly smooth flight, and not fiery terror, then I take another deep breath, stare out the window, completely enjoy myself and look forward to the in-flight selection of alcohol. From my experience, Air France serves champagne for free on transatlantic flights, and that sure can help me forget all about those five steps I've just completed. Until we are about to land.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
The small plane arced over the countryside and descended toward the Arno river valley, preparing for its landing at Peretola, outside Florence. There were streaks of rain on my window and I looked out, trying to get my bearings in a place I'd never been to before. Wreathed in fog, the shapes of buildings took form- first, red tiled houses, then concrete industrial buildings ahead. A quick view of the river and then looking up, there it was! In the rain and fog I could only see its silhouette, but nothing more than that was needed. I immediately recognized the Duomo with a clarity that was matched only by my ability to remember that split-second now.
All the photographs did not prepare me for how the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the city. I don't know why not. The pictures I had seen in art history books show very clearly the scale of the dome in relation to the buildings surrounding it. I had read about its construction, had diagrams projected before me in a lecture hall and remembered Alberti's pronouncement how the dome was "ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people". A bit metaphorical, of course,... herringbone brickwork,... capomaestro,... Sir John Hawkwood,... "Oh my God, LOOK at that!"
But this foreknowledge was something of my mind, this sight was tied directly to my heart.
With gracious thanks to Francesca Birini for allowing me to use her photograph here. You can see her fantastic work under the name of Firenzesca on Flickr.com Thanks Francesca!
Friday, April 16, 2010
There is a distance between the reality of desire and the reality of experience.
Flying in over Tuscany, the countryside was hidden from view with a thick layer of fog and cloud. The cover broke for a moment and I first caught a glimpse of the landscape with its shapes of fields dotted by groves of trees accentuated by lines of cypresses far below, all rising and falling with the undulations of the hills. I remember seeing farmhouses and roads down below and my breath caught suddenly at its beauty. I couldn't help it. It didn't look real. Here I was seeing it out the window and I wouldn't have been any more surprised to see a child's hand come down from the clouds to move the toy farmhouse to another hill. I had memorized representations of this landscape by artists like Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Balthus and thought the paintings had taken some liberties. Their views looked abstracted and slightly childlike in their depictions, with an emphasis on the elements of the land forming designs, much like my imaginings. The land as patterns, shapes, lines formed of dots all held within gold, green and earth tones.
Now I knew they had seen it as it is. My imaginings also had held this reality.
The distance between desire and experience had merged.
The first time I flew over the ocean, my flight left from Boston on a May evening. I was traveling to Florence through Brussels on, what was then, the cheapest flight available on the airline that was known for packing in budget-conscious students- SABENA. Later I heard that according to some flyers the name of the airline was actually an acronym for Such A Bad Experience Never Again. I had no problem. I was sitting next to a window on the left side of the plane riveted to the view.
I was experiencing the shortest night of my life. Even though the flight left at around 7:30, the light went quickly as we headed northeast toward Nova Scotia. Shortly after, out of the darkness below, I saw the lights of a city reaching out to the edge of the land. I recognized it as, most likely, St. John's, Newfoundland, and the tiny dots below were showing me the last habitation of fellow human beings before going over the edge. It was suddenly blacker than black below me, in my seat, inside the shell of sheet metal with engines.
Yes, I'm one of those people who open the shade of the window to see the sun rise while others are trying to sleep. But, I did use my blanket to cover the window and myself and peered out, like a photographer using an old studio camera. The view seemed more like that of someone in space, seeing the sun rise above the ocean, than in an airplane relatively close above the waves.
Ireland followed with its patchworks of greens, and after a bit to eat, England followed where I could make out the oval of the metropolis of London, stretched out below.
Then, when we were flying over the English Channel, the last portion of the journey, I had a strange experience. It was still early morning, the sun rising up in front of us and its light hitting on an angle on the surface of the waves below. I could see the bottom of the channel, the ground below the waves, as the light palpably illuminated the distance between the surface of the water and the undersea land. I could see this underwater land rising as I could visually discern the changing of this distance, bit by bit. It was like looking near the edge of a lake, or a bathtub, and seeing that in one place the water is ten inches deep, there, maybe five inches. The land continued to rise under the deep until there was created an edge, as cut by a razor- here "water", here "land".
Within minutes we landed outside Brussels. Although it was all new, I dutifully left the plane, found the bus to the proper terminal, showed my passport. I handled it all well. But, inside I was overcome with the beauty I'd just seen. If an airport official had approached me and informed me that there was some mistake, I'd have to leave and fly back to Boston, I would have nodded my head and quietly gone back. Just the flight over the ocean was beyond anything I had experienced before.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
The best way that I can describe the passage of time when I first went to Florence (it actually was my first time across the ocean) was that I was living a parallel life. It was much like dreaming, where you may doze off for only ten minutes, but, it seems that hours have passed as all manner of events take place in the dream world. I took the airport shuttle bus to Boston, took my bags inside Terminal E at Logan and went through all the necessary steps. When I went through the passageway into the plane my regular life stopped, held almost with a click, shifted to one side and this very separate life moved into place and started running. A transition so smooth and seamless that I had no idea at the time that it was happening.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Then my countdown will be thirty days before I go back to Florence.
I will be taking eight students for a university summer study abroad program, going to the art historical sites and drawing all over the city and beyond. The students will be staying in apartments in the city center, shopping at the markets, cooking their meals (at least part of the time), exploring and just having fun.
My rental apartment is on Via Palazzuolo, west of the very center of Florence, but still in the middle of it all. For me, returning to Florence will be a mixture of the familiar with always so much that is new. But, in bringing my students with me, I always get a taste of my first experiences of the place.
I want to give you a taste, too.
There may be 140 or 150 million blogs out there. Here is another drop of water. Like almost anyone doing this, I'm interested in making a connection with friends and, hopefully, new friends, who, like me, love to travel. But, if you're like me, you see travel as more than going to new places and having new experiences.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
There is something about the process of traveling, of moving from one point to another, of coming to know a place as it unfolds before you, that resonates with me. It is the sense of our moving through our lives in compact, intensified form. It is living deliberately.
The Embarkation for Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau, Musee' du Louvre