Thursday, May 21, 2015

Looking Out the Front Door of Palazzo Contarini-Polignac, This Afternoon

Both Ca' Barbaro and--almost directly across the Grand Canal from it--Palazzo Contarini-Polignac are hosting Biennale exhibitions from now into November, which means not only do you have a chance to see some interesting contemporary art gratis, but also to see the interiors of two of the most beautiful and celebrated palazzi in the city. Having visited both palazzi today, I can tell you that both places and both exhibitions merit a visit, and I'll post some images from each in the next few days. But, lacking time at the moment, I hope this view out from the water gate of Palazzo Contarini-Polignac will suffice for now.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dining Al Fresco: Five More Views of Trattoria alle Vignole

One of the tables overlooking the lagoon
We somehow ended up at Trattoria alle Vignole again last night, the second time in the last three nights, and the subject of my previous post (which supplies links to more information on the restaurant: It was quiet on our Thursday night visit; it was quite lively last night, a Saturday night.

In one area of the large graveled outdoor dining area, near the little swing set, was a bachelor party: the groom dressed in a curly red clown wig, a white T-shirt (whose hand-written text I never got around to reading), and very small women's panties worn over his jeans. As bachelor parties go, it was quite well behaved. After one member of the party got a bit carried away and, for whatever reason, removed his trousers, he noticed Jen walking past on her way to the restroom, apologized for his rash act, and put them back on.

Before sunset the whole group of a dozen or so men piled into a large boat and set off from the trattoria's dock to wherever their next revels lay.

There was live entertainment: a singer accompanied by a Karaoke set-up. He sang, with not a trace of irony, "Feelings." Yes, that "Feelings" ("Whoa, whoa, whoa..."), which Wikipedia assures me won the 1975 Grammy Award for Song of the Year.

There were groups of teenagers arriving in their boats, and families arriving in theirs, and a birthday party of adults, and plenty of smaller kids, on the swing set, or running around the large grassy yard behind the kitchen, beside the very large garden.

The Rombo al forno was okay last night, but not as good as I remembered it being last year (perhaps because it was not cooked with potatoes, as it was last time I had it). The spaghetti alle vongole was good, the pizzas good. But the light and view and general feel were great.

When we left at 10 pm everything was still going strong--the music, the families and teens and groups of friends (all speaking Italian)--and for the first time in many many years I found myself reminded of the large Italian(-American) weddings that punctuated my childhood far less often than I wished, back about the time when the song "Feelings" was being played on radio stations all over America, without a trace of irony.

The view of the trattoria's landing dock; the church of San Pietro di Castello and the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance
People arrive at the trattoria in boats of all sizes: in this case an inflatable two-person dinghy
A couple walks toward the path leading to the vaporetto stop leading to (and from) Fondamenta Nove
Sunset seen from the trattoria

Friday, May 15, 2015

Dining Al Fresco in the Lagoon: Trattoria alle Vignole

A view of the trattoria from the lagoon: approaching in a boat from the direction of the Arsenale
As we rarely go out to eat here, I'm generally uncomfortable whenever anyone visiting asks me for a restaurant recommendation, as we simply haven't sampled a wide enough range of them to give anything more than basic suggestions. And yet, that said, I'm nevertheless compelled to tell you about Trattoria alle Vignole, which we visited for the first time this season yesterday evening.

Actually, it's not the first time I've been tempted to do a post on it, but--dare I admit this?--there are some few things around Venice I keep to myself, awful as that may sound, and Trattoria alle Vignole was one of them. Located well outside the historic center on an island, reachable only by one's own boat or a vaporetto (or, I suppose, a water taxi, for those with deep pockets), the thought that I might somehow (however slight the odds) be responsible for the arrival of the first mass group of 100 day-tripping tourists at the trattoria disgorged from a lancione (or tour boat) was too awful a prospect to risk. 

In lieu of a parking lot. During the summer mooring places can become a bit scarce
For the only boats that pull up to the trattoria now are owned by individuals or families, and it is one of the many pleasures of being seated at one of the trattoria's many outdoor tables on a warm afternoon or evening to see them arrive and tie up along the riva. (Sometimes, it must be said, only briefly: as when customers arrive to pick up wood-oven pizzas for "take-away", then depart again in their boats--just as I'm used to seeing them do in America in their cars.)

In case you're wondering if the artichokes in the risotto are fresh: they're grown within 100 yards of the kitchen
Along with the wood-oven pizzas, there is an extensive array of cicchetti: things like grilled vegetables, grilled cuttlefish and baby octupi, very good sarde in saor (Istanbul-influenced, according to a native friend, because of its sultane, or raisins) and scampi in saor. Or you can order from a very limited daily menu of dishes written on the chalkboard outside the bar. Last night, as is often the case, our three choices included a scampi risotto with zucchini flowers and a Rombo (turbot) al forno, both of which are excellent.

If you can't come in a private boat you can take the number 13 vaporetto line from Fondamenta Nove to Vignole. I've never done this, so I refer you for details to here (the trattoria's Facebook page):

or here (a website for the island of Vignole):

I do know there is a bit of a walk from the vaporetto stop where you arrive to the trattoria itself--perhaps the equivalent of one or two New York City blocks, I suspect, though, again, I haven't actually done it myself. For those used to walking around the historic center, it will be a pleasant tranquil pastoral change. But as the part of the path I've seen is not paved and the outside table area of the trattoria itself is covered in clean gravel, it may, unfortunately, present some difficulties for anyone in a wheelchair. I would suggest checking with the trattoria first in such a case to make sure of access. 

Last night the sunset was obscured by clouds, so I'm afraid none of the images of this post suggest anything like the full charm of the place. Maybe I'll have something better to show you in the future.

I wouldn't call it "economical"--the cicchetti, in particular, can add up. It seems about average for Venetian restaurants. But the food is fresh, and (as long as you stay out of the patio area with the flat-screen tv playing music videos--or ask them to simply turn the damn thing off) on summer evenings it's one of my favorite places in the lagoon to be.

But let's just keep this between us, shall we?

[For a few more images of the trattoria, see:]

At the end of the unpaved path leading from the vaporetto stop is this view of San Piero di Castello and, even better, the trattoria a little further along

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Biggest Splash of the Opening Week of the 56th Biennale (at Least for Locals)

A gangway in front of Fondazione Prada collapses: full story and images here: (photo credit: Interpress)
The glee with which many Venetians responded to the minor but dramatic mishap early last week of what local papers called a group of "VIP"s in front of the Fondazione Prada on the Grand Canal (above) seemed like a good indicator of just how much ambivalence (if not outright antagonism) many, if not most, Venetians feel toward those million of visitors on whom their livelihood--or a cynic might say, their "lingering demise"--depends.

Judging by the volume (in both senses of the word) of responses and remarks on social media it was pretty clearly the big hit of the opening days of the 56th Venice Biennale, at least for the local crowd.

What happened was simply that the floating dock projecting out from the Fondazione Prada (located in Ca' Corner della Regina) into the Grand Canal tilted so perilously for some reason that it separated from the gangway connecting it to the fixed pier and, under what La Nuova di Venezia claims was the appalled gaze of multi-billionaire Miuccia Prada herself, sent a good half dozen of her guests ("bejeweled ladies and well-suited men") into the drink.

No one, fortunately, was injured, and what struck me about the incident and the local response to it was that this slight (but very well-documented) mishap managed to achieve what was once the explicit function of Venetian Carnevale and all its ancient precursors throughout the world--but which the contemporary corporate Venice Carnevale has entirely given up on. That is, to quite literally upend the established social hierarchy, bringing down the highly-positioned and powerful "Haves" to the immense, if only momentary, amusement of those vast many--quite literally the vast majority of the populace--without any particular position or power.

It is ultimately, it seems to me, a cold consolation (or amusement), partaking, I suspect, of more envy and despair than actual joy, but whatever it was it was certainly widespread last week. And I'm tempted, actually, even to suggest that the breadth and intensity of such glee (understandable and common as it is) might be construed as a fairly good indicator of the economic and social inequality present in a society. The bigger the gulf between the Haves and the Have Nots, the bigger the splash, so to speak, when one (or some) of the privileged former group slips up.

In any case, it was just the first of a number of incidents last week that seemed to call attention to the difference between what the Biennale means to most locals and what it means for those who come from abroad to see it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

7 Glimpses of the Opening Days (and a Night) of the 56th Biennale

The exhibition pieces start before you even enter the Giardini proper: this one (which I had no time to find out anything about) seeming to raise questions with its emergency service colors and material about what happens when a particular culture's very mode of dress starts to be interpreted as a hazard

My involvement in a Biennale project has left me with almost no time to do anything else but I wanted to post a few images from yesterday and today's opening days, even if I must do so with almost none of the explanation that the works merit.

At present I can only refer you to the Biennale's official website:

The Biennale opens to the public on May 9.

Oscar Murillo's heavy black drapes and Glenn Ligon's neon "blues blood bruise" adorn the front of the Central Pavilion

David Adjaye's beautifully-designed ARENA space within the Central Pavilion is the setting for a continuous series of live performances

If you look closely at the above photo you'll see a blond woman speaking into a microphone just beneath the "N" of FINLANDIA. But, like most people actually at the Biennale, your attention was probably entirely taken up by the table in the foreground laden with champagne bottles and the pourers handing out free glasses of it.
Isaac Julien's new installation Stones Against Diamonds received a very brief 1-day showing at Palazzo Malipiero-Barnabò. Its premiere will actually occur at the forthcoming Art Basel. Julien is the director, however, of the Biennale's Das Kapital Oratorio, shown in an image above on the ARENA stage.
One of the countless parties that punctuate the end (or beginning) of each of the Biennale's opening days--for a fuller depiction of which I refer you to Geoff Dyer's comic novella Jeff in Venice, in which a very contemporary English version of Thomas Mann's Gustav Von Aschenbach learns that even the consummation of one's desire for a younger beloved can leave a whole lot to be desired.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 4: The False Wall

The master bedroom with its false wall, at right, and an air purifier atop a large dresser, at left

By mid-March, after more than 6 weeks of living and laboring in limbo between our old apartment outside the historic center and our new one near San Tomà, pretty much everyone we knew was  impatient for us to take decisive action. As you probably are, too, Dear Reader.

Specifically, what I might call our supernaturally-inclined friends believed we had to be completely insane to linger another day in such an obviously cursed place.

While those I might term our rationally-inclined friends were just as strongly convinced that we were completely insane to have any hesitations whatsoever about moving into such a beautiful apartment of the sort so rarely available to residents here.

Each group, of course, also thought it absurd that we listened at all to the opinion of the other.

But what both sides agreed on was that we were totally nuts.

And after more than 6 weeks of our struggle to make a go of the new apartment, they were right.

For how many days in a row, and how many times in a day, can one ask the question: "Do you think the air seems better in here since I did X, Y or Z?"

And how many days in a row and times in a day can one strain one's perceptions to the utmost, then try to answer with: "Hm, yes, well, I think it does seem, maybe, perhaps, a little less heavy...."

How many days in a row and times in a day can one try to isolate the cause of one's burning itching flaming face with something like the following tortured internal monologue?:
Perhaps my sweater's been contaminated with allergens. Or maybe the bedspread. But I just hand-washed the sweater... But maybe it came in contact with the bedspread afterwards... Perhaps I should wash the sweater again.... And the bedspread. And definitely my pants if I sat on the bedspread while wearing them. Or if they brushed against the sweater... Or maybe it all started with the pants... And what about my shoes?!
We decided, boldly, to isolate in one room every object we knew to immediately cause an allergic reaction. That meant every single piece of upholstered furniture in the apartment and the two single mattresses we'd tried to salvage from earlier rounds of purges. We put all these things in the large salotto--the most beautiful room in the apartment--and closed both its doors, intending never to use it, nor even venture into it, during this quarantine period.

This did seem to improve the air quality of the rest of the apartment. Though the concentration of foul air in the salotto was so intense that we lined the gap at the bottom of each door with a towel to try to reduce the amount of it that escaped.

We invited La Signora's architect over to experience for herself how hopelessly musty and dusty was the quarantined furniture and said we couldn't live with the pieces in the apartment. No one could. She agreed with us, though she thought it might be a struggle to convince La Signora to haul it away.

We had by this time entirely given up sleeping in the new apartment, as we no longer had any mattresses, so when the architect asked if we were sure we could live in the apartment if the old dust-mite-infested upholstered furniture were removed we hesitated a bit. "Is the rest of the apartment okay?" she asked again.

"Well, there's an odd persistent smell in the master bedroom..." Jen admitted.

We had tried to sleep in there only one night, on one of the original mattresses weeks before, and I hadn't lasted more than 3 hours--every breath a torment to me. But by the time of this meeting with the architect I'd begun to take the side of our rationally-minded friends who marveled that we could ever dream of giving up such a rare beautiful place, and I tried to minimize the problem. "But that was on an old mattresses," I said. "And now that we've removed even the old platform bed from there, which itself was pretty funky..." I added hopefully, if vaguely.

But the architect was not going to engage in a battle with La Signora on our behalf, no matter how justified she thought we might be, if we could not guarantee her we would stay in the apartment after the furniture was out. This was fair enough.  She asked us to give the bedroom a try and tell her in a few days, before the end of the month.

The problem now was to quickly and inexpensively obtain something to sleep on for our trial run in the master bedroom. With the extraordinary help of our friend (and old/current landlord) we managed to do so. Then, with the end of the month fast approaching, all three of us--Jen, Sandro, and myself--settled in for what we hoped would be a comfortable test sleep in the master bedroom.

Now, I should note here that there was always something vaguely unsettling about the master bedroom, nice as its basic dimensions were, and I hadn't been the only one to notice it. But this was usually blamed on its color: an odd indefinably-oppressive shade of red verging on fuchsia that uninterruptedly covered absolutely everything--walls, cabinets, and the large old steam radiator--except for the room's ceiling.

Jen and I both like vividly-colored rooms, and when we'd first looked at the apartment the color--along with a huge old disintegrating silk wall hanging removed before we moved in--gave the room an exotic air that seemed suitable to Venice. The longer one lingered in the room, however, the less exotic and simply more cloying and somehow just plain wrong-seeming the color became.

But by the night of our test sleep I was determined to move into the apartment and so, before turning out the lights to begin our trial sleep, I tried to recapture the exotic sense the walls had once suggested to me. Then I closed my eyes and tried to let the loud hum of the room's ever-running air purifier lull me into a good night's sleep.   

I lasted two hours. It was unbearable. My skin didn't itch and burn as it had weeks ago during our first attempt, but the smell!

We fled, carrying our mattresses into what would have been my office and our guest room and spent the rest of the night there.

The next day we tried to figure out where the room's unrelenting vinegar-y smell was coming from. It was essentially empty except for an old dark walnut chest and a massive walnut bureau--each a couple hundred years old. Neither of them had any smell. Nor did the built-in wood cabinets lining one wall. And the walls themselves were freshly painted and showed no signs of water damage or moisture. If the smell was mold, where was it coming from?

Lacking any other idea of what to do, I walked around knocking on the room's walls. To an American like me, used to the flimsy drywall construction of my native country, the stone-like solidity of Venice's thick plastered walls is a wondrous thing. The first two walls I knocked on were, as expected, fit for a fortress; the third--for a mobile home.

This wall--near which, because of the room's built-in cabinets, you had no choice but to place the head of your bed--was a false one of carton-gesso or plaster board.

And suddenly I could almost imagine myself, no, not in a Donna Leon mystery (whose denouement would have to be more sophisticated than this), but in the brittle yellowed pages of some old Hardy Boys Mystery novels for young readers I used to check out of the Modesto, California Public Library. 

Now looking closely at the wall for the first time (as the teen sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy might have), I noticed how the molding of the custom-built floor-to-ceiling wall cabinets at either end of it had been removed to allow for the insertion of the fake wall. While scrubbing every millimeter of these custom-built cabinets located in each room of the apartment I'd had plenty of time to admire their craftsmanship. Every detail, inside and out, was simply but perfectly fitted and finished.    

The false wall had been put in sloppily, though, seemingly well after the original cabinets had been finished. Moreover, there was a small gap running between the bottom of the false wall and the pavimento veneziano. I could just squeeze the tip of a finger between it, into a space between the false wall and what I assumed was the original wall behind it. It seemed damp and cold.

I remembered then something our friend and old landlord and long-time overseer of reconstruction projects in Venice had mentioned in passing about the ground floor entry to this apartment building when he'd come to look at our new place. He'd stopped on his way upstairs and knocked on one wall along the stairwell, noting it was carton-gesso, and pointed out the row of neat, round 20-centisime-sized holes running along the top of it.

He explained that, as it was now typical for the brick walls of most buildings in the historic center to have been compromised by repeated aqua alta up to a height of half of their first floor (or what Americans would call the second floor), false walls of this sort were put up in front of them. They allowed for a much neater appearance, as paint would not peel off them as it would off the damp plaster or bricks behind them, while allowing air to circulate and dry as best it could the bricks in-between new soakings.

Of course, he said before continuing up the stairs, the brick wall behind the false wall continues to disintegrate because of the damp, but you're only a renter here so that won't be your problem....

If there was mold growing behind this false wall in the master bedroom, though, it was very much our problem. And though we were on the second and highest floor, the damp could be coming from a leaky roof right above us even more easily than from the small canal below our windows.

I thought again of the prior resident of this apartment who'd become ill while sleeping in this very bedroom, his head against this very wall. I thought of how, as he underwent chemotherapy, his family had given away their large furry dog in an attempt to clear the apartment of anything that might be hazardous to a weakened immune system. I remembered what I'd learned a few years earlier about the dangers of long-term exposure to mold. Among the facts: there are types of black mold that research has proven to be carcinogenic....

But I thought also that perhaps none of this had anything to do with the prior family's terrible loss. Those of us with the great good fortune of having some choice about how we shape our lives, some choice of where we live, what we do, or even what (and how much) we eat--as a very great many people in the world do not--perhaps come to harbor illusions about how much control we actually have over what happens to us. Perhaps this is the kind of necessary delusion that the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi believed was required to make life--even a fortunate life--seem tolerable.

But I'm wary of it to the extent that it makes us dismissive of those who suffer, as though with a little more--what? insight? caution? wherewithal?--those who suffer could have eluded their trials and pains.

As if there aren't trials and pains lying in wait for each of us, at blind turns in the Venice-like maze of our days, beautiful as they may be. Or behind false walls...

None of which I intend as a conclusion to this. I'll save anything resembling that for the next and last post about this.      

But we started moving our things out of the San Tomà apartment that same day.

[Part 3 of this series can be read here:]