June 6, 2013


The fórcola is the strange looking oarlock on the rear of a Venetian gondola.  One of those objects whose form reflects centuries of use and gradual design evolution. In a little shop selling toys and ornaments, I bought a 3-D puzzle of one from a friendly and talkative craftsman who told me that this particular design is a fórcola for a boat that is somewhat more sporty than a regular gondola.

For me, it’s the perfect souvenir.  It sits on my desk at the office, and I take it apart and reassemble it endlessly as I sit in my chair, barely listening to the droning voices during pointless teleconferences.

20130606_141053 20130606_141535

20130606_141440 20130606_141715

Rabbit Iconography

May 17, 2013

Poor wabbit!

I noticed this image on the porch of San Zeno in Verona, a splendid Romanesque church.  Rabbits have a curious set of associations in our culture, don’t they?

  • Cute and cuddly
  • Pesky and destructive
  • Fertile, too fertile
  • Innocent
  • Malign

Not sure what the Christian symbolism behind a rabbit being preyed upon is – I noted it on another facade in Venice, I believe.  One source implied that it alludes to the struggle of the human soul to elude Satan, but it is also true that rabbits sometimes represent souls in thrall to Satan.  There’s one in the lower portion of this detail from Bosch’s vision of Hell.

Venice Walk

May 16, 2013

Walking back to our apartment – canal, then an alley, then space.  That’s the progression of a walk in Venice.

Urban Flight

May 9, 2013

Venice can can get overwhelming:  the sun, the crowds, the art, the beauty…how much of stuff like this scene above can you take?  Sometimes you just have to flee the city.

Fortunately, The Lagoon beckons.  Within it, are several islands:  Murano for the glass manufacturers; the cemetery; Burano, a small island community of brightly painted houses; and Torcello, about a thirty-minute boat ride a way.  It’s a rather forlorn, marshy place, and practically no one lives there any longer, but it was the place where the people of the Veneto first sought refuge from the Hun invaders.  It grew into a city, but poor resource management led to the silting of their lagoon, bringing mosquitos and malaria, and bad fishing.  They up and left for what became the city of Venice.  The citizens of the new city, practical to the core, looted Torcello for its stone, we would say recycled, so only a few buildings remain.


Not quite the Grand Canal of Venice, but at the end of the walk, there is a nice surprise.


I am not talking about Cipriani’s, the tony restaurant outpost of the ‘famous’ Harry’s Bar that is right down the path from Santa Maria Assunta, but the mosaics inside that church, seen in the left of the photo below.  The structure on the right is the Fosca Basilica, and it is quite plain inside.

The counter-façade of Santa Maria, i.e. the wall inside of the main facade, is covered with a Byzantine-style mosaic of The Last Judgment that is incredible.  (The photos are not mine.)  The one below shows the final trumpet raising some of the dead, including a few that met their ends in the jaws of large fish.


The dead do not have it easy in these scenes of judgment.


Better make sure that you are on the right side of the scale used to weigh souls!


Most Serene

May 9, 2013


It took a while, but I finally made it back to Venice, La Serenissima, my favorite city.  This picture of San Marco was taken before the place was truly mobbed in the afternoon.

The view from the living room window of our apartment is quite peaceful.   It’s in a 17th century palace, seeminly on another planet from the tourist hubs of the city.  Well, everyone wants to see the same things, and who can blame them?


The stucco on the ceiling is amusing…

The small plaza, or campo, outside the palace is adorned with this nose piece from a shell that lodged in the wall when the uprisings of 1848 were being put down.  At that time, before Italy was a unified and independent country, this territory was ruled by the Austrian Empire.  The inscription below the shell piece is a quotation from Gabrielle D’Annunzio, the proto-fascist adventurer-poet, denouncing the odious barbarians, the Austrians.  He later engaged in a famous venture to ‘liberate’ another small city from the barbarians after WWI, an inspiration to Mussolini for his March on Rome.


Seaweed glistening in the sun, thick and green, a sign of health.  The canal waters seem cleaner than I remember from my last visit.


Four Horses of the Cathedral

April 25, 2011

Over at His Futile Preoccupations, things are gearing up for a heavy dose of deep, dark, syrupy, sicko-noir, from Jim Thompson.  He wrote The Grifters and The Getaway, favorite films, as well as the screenplay for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory!  Before I dive into that, I felt the need for a bit of escape to one of my favorite historical time-place intersections, Venice and the Fourth Crusade.

I am reading Jonathan Phillip’s history, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, a nice read by an historian who is not as eager as some have been to take to task the Venetians for their diverting of the holy rollers from their destination in Palestine to overthrow the Byzantine Empire instead.  No, you have to see it in context… I really can see it from the crusader’s point of view, because I’ve been reading the chronicle of the events written by Robert of Clari, an ordinary knight who took part in the whole mess.  As he relates, the Venetians committed themselves to ferrying the army to Egypt (the strategy was to take Alexandria, make a base, then move up the coast to Jerusalem) and they through the entire resources of their city-state economy into the task of building an enormous fleet.  Then, the ‘army’ doesn’t show up!  Or only a very small part of it does.  All those boats, and nobody to sail in them!

The Venetians were out a lot of money and needed to be paid.  Then there was this heir to the eastern throne who was hanging around Germany who had some contacts with the crusaders since he was hiding out in Europe after his uncle murdered his father.  (Byzantine rulers ruled by a sort of ‘heavenly mandate.’  That is, if a slave murdered his way to the throne, he was assumed to have been divinely destined for it.)  One thing led to another, and the crusade made its fatal detour in history, and Venice got the four horses that used to reign over the Imperial Hippodrome…

Robert gives us quite a long digression to explain the dynastic politics of the Eastern Empire – much treachery, putting out of eyes, assorted bloodshed –  before resuming his chronicle of the crusade, and he includes this pungent episode involving a filthy camel:

And when the morrow came, early in the morning, the nobleman took Andronicus [the deposed traitor] and led him away to the royal palace into the presence of the Emperor Isaac [rightful and restored emperor]. When Isaac saw him he said to him, “Andronicus, wherefore hast thou in such fashion betrayed thy lord, the Emperor Manuel [Isaac's murdered father]; and wherefore didst thou murder his wife and his son; and wherefore hast thou been so fain to do evil to those who were displeased because thou went emperor; and wherefore didst thou seek to have me taken?”

And Andronicus answered him, “Hold thy peace!” (quoth he) “for I would not deign to answer thee!”

When the Emperor Isaac heard that he would not deign to answer him, he summoned many of the men of the city to come into his presence. And when they were in his presence, the emperor said to them, “Sirs, behold, here is Andronicus, who hath done so much evil both to you and to others. I myself could, me seemeth, in no wise do such justice to him as ye all would desire; but I release him to you, to do with him what ye will.”

Then were the men of the city right glad, and they took him; and some said that he should be burned; and others, that he should be boiled in a caldron that he might live longer and suffer more; and others, that he should be drawn and quartered; so that they could not agree amongst themselves by what death or what torture they might destroy him. But there was there a certain wise man, who said,  “Sirs, if ye would trust me, I would show you how we might avenge ourselves right well of him. I have at home a camel, which is the foulest beast and the most bedunged and ugliest in the world. Now we will take Andronicus, and we will strip him stark naked, and we will bind him to the camel’s back in such fashion that his face shall be against its rump, and we will lead him from one end of the city even unto the other. Thus will all they, both men and women, whom he hath wronged, be able to avenge themselves right well.”

And all agreed to that which that man had told them. And they took Andronicus and bound him even as the man had devised. And as they were leading him adown the city, then came those that he had wronged; and they stabbed him and pricked him, some with knives, and others with daggers, and yet others with swords. And they cried, “Twas thou didst hang my father! ‘Twas thou didst ravish my wife!”

And the women whose daughters he had taken by force tare his beard and wrought such other indignities on him that when they were come to the other end of the city there was no flesh whatsoever left upon his body. Then took they his bones and cast them into a draught-house. In such wise did they avenge themselves of the traitor.

One can get used to anything.

September 20, 2010

Several years ago, I began reading Casanova’s memoirs.  I managed to scrounge the entire six-volume set in paperback, and now I dip into it, in no particular order, whenever I find myself without something to read.   He writes about his affairs, of course, as well as his duels, gambling, legal affairs, illnesses, travelling, and a million other things, and what keeps me reading is that he is a fabulous storyteller.

I happen to be reading about his imprisonment in the prisons of Venice, known as The Leads, because of the material used to roof them.  He was denounced, more or less anonymously, for having prohibited books in his rooms, books about magic, astrology, and other blasphemous subjects.  Somebody was settling a score. 

The conditions of his incarceration are awful – the stifling heat, the fleas, the lack of books, paper and pens, poor food, poor light, and the occassional roomate thrown in, some of whose company is worse than solitary confinement.  He contrives to dig a hole in the floor through which to escape, but just before the breakout day, he is moved to another cell, a palace compared to the rat hole he is in. 

He did get out eventually, and wrote a pamphlet about it that became fantastically popular, burnishing his reputation as an adventurer.  Others had escaped, but none had written about it!  Casanova was a multi-talented fellow, and rather philosophical.  His memoirs are sprinkled with observations on the nature of man and fate – at one particularly dark moment in his story he remarks, “one can get used to anything.” 

The image above is the Bridge of Sighs, which leads from the interrogation quarters of the Doge’s Palace to the state prisons.  It’s quite famous, and despite its criminal associations, architects have imitated it, or claimed to, quite a bit.  This bridge in Oxford is called the Bridge of Signs, but it looks more like the Venetian Rialto. 


At least this old bridge in NYC with the same name connects to a prison, known as The Tombs.  The other two are simply skybridges, that you see here and there around the city.  Shall we imagine that the desparate sighs of imprisoned white-collar workers can be faintly heard?


Meanwhile, back with the strife of love in a dream…

March 29, 2010

Our trusty Poliphilo has met up with his beloved Polia and is led hither and yon by her.  He can barely restrain himself when he sits beside her:  She is so beautiful, so celestially dazzling that his blood is inflamed, he is short of breath, and all he can imagine is throwing himself on her, moving his hands over her breasts, unlacing those delightful red leather slippers with the blue silk laces and half-moon ornaments, and…  Yes, that’s the level of detail he goes into as he sings her praises – he loves her clothes, and every square inch of alabaster glowing skin they conceal.  Which does he love more?  It’s not always clear.  But, he does restrain himself, and she directs him towards some absolutely fascinating classical ruins that he must go see.  How could he resist?  Antique architecture makes his heart beat (and his manhood grow rigid?) as much as Polia’s goddess-like forehead does.

Amidst all the broken architecture are numerous urns and plaques with incriptions in Latin telling of the woes encountered by lovers cursed by fortune.  Included among them is a married couple that died on their wedding night, before consummating their love, when their house collapsed, crushing them to death in each other’s arms.  None of these sorry tales – mostly involving spurned or lost lovers who take their own lives – cools Poliphilio’s love.

The images below show a massive architectural ensemble that Mr. P. finds and describes in great detail.  I was reminded of this painting by Cosima Tura, one of my favorites, that is in the National Gallery in London.  Tura was from Ferrara, midway between Venice, where Colonna, the author the Hypnerotomachia, lived, and Florence.  He painted this at the same time that Hypnerotomachia was being written, but years before it was printed and published in the famous Aldus edition in Venice.    Click on the images to see enlargements.

I miss Venice

December 21, 2009

I last spent time in La Serenissima about thirty years ago.  How time … [insert cliche here.]  I was on my way to India via the land route, and stopped for a week or so, drunk with architecture.  It was September, and I thought that the high tourist season would be over by then, but I was wrong.  I spent my first night on the Lido beach, I recall.  The sight of boats laden with tourists gliding through the dark, surrounded by crowded walkways, reminded me of Disneyland, but I knew why I was there.

With daylight, I found my way to the Giudecca, the Jews’ island, where the International Youth Hostel was.  I ate for free during the several days of the Festival of Unity staged by the Communist Party – delicious.  The irony was tasty too – I am neither an observant Jew nor a communist.  Moreover, the Jewish ghetto of Venice was never located on that island, which is home to one of the great Renaissance monuments, the church of Il Redentore  by Palladio.

Venice seems to have a special place in the imagination of Europeans, even Italians, as well as tourist hordes worldwide, and it is featured in films often. Two films I like very much that feature Venice are Italian for Beginners and Bread and Tulips, one Danish, one Italian, both romantic comedies.  Then there are the films I don’t like, and films I thought were great but that I’m too scared to watch again.

When I was studying the history of architecture, a grad student told me that “everyone loves Venice.”  That is, all architects and planners, regardless of their stylistic bent or ideology (and the latter can be pretty fierce among architects – intensity seems inversely proportioned to the number of completed projects…) all point to the city of Venice as the exemplar of whatever they hold most dear.  It is often cited as a supreme example of “organic” urban growth, and indeed, from the air, it looks sort of like a schematic fish!  I have always thought the Grand Canal, snaking through it, looks like the main intestinal tract in higher animals, and once again, that is, sort of, what it is for the city as a whole.

Now, the city is a fossil, without an economy independent of tourism, although we shouldn’t despise it for that since in our “spectacular age,” tourism is an industry like any other.  The sinking has stopped with the cessation of pumping in Mestre and other places, but high water, as always, is a problem.  The flood gates are under design to preserve the physical fabric of the place from inundation, but the lower stories  of many structures, already sunken to the point that portions are permanently submerged while they were designed for occasional flooding, are crumbling and need shoring up.

I don’t really care – the city is a physical creation unlike any other in the world and should be appreciated for that beyond all else.  It is a monument to the amazing creativity of the urban collective, and it provides an ideal point against which to measure any urban fantasy, because it was as real as real can be for centuries.  Pity it, laugh at its not-too-clean canals, dismiss it as a decaying urban theme park:  what city can claim to have been so powerful, so rich, so influential, and so fantastically beautiful in a way unmatched by anyplace on earth for so long?

Oh, and then there’s that Fourth Crusade, with its never-ending lessons for the rest of us…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers