Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 2

Like ancient underground frescoes, shuttered shops like this serve as traces of vanished Venetian life
In blatant contradiction to what each of the following commonly-used phrases suggests, being swept along by passion, or carried away by desire, usually ends up involving one in a lot of really hard work. 

In Death in Venice, Gustav Aschenbach trudges ever more wearily, ever more futilely, through the maze of Venice's calli in pursuit of his beloved--through infernal summer heat and stench and, finally, the fever that signals his imminent death. 

In our "dream" Venetian apartment near Campo San Tomà, Jen and I labored just as misguidedly as poor old Aschenbach, struggling, like him, to realize our own elusive vision of beauty, in spite of all the concrete obstacles we found in our path. For the first month of our lease we didn't even try to live in (much less enjoy) our new apartment, it was too big a mess. We only cleaned. And cleaned. And cleaned some more.

I've already mentioned some of the countless broken appliances and electronics we found, but there was also a storehouse's worth of broken furniture (for example, half of the six 19th-century dining room chairs turned out to lack part of a leg), and a library's worth of old books. Now, old books are one of my weaknesses, but even I have my limits.

Like the upholstered furniture, the books had once been beautiful things (about 40 years ago)--and in so far as their content could be disembodied from their pages in the act of reading, they still were. But they were all so dust-mite-infested that I couldn't stay close enough to them to read their covers, much less their contents, without my skin and eyes starting to itch, my sinuses swelling and closing up.

And though there were built-in book shelves along one wall of the apartment's good-sized entry, most of what added up to a rather extensive library was squirreled away inside the large nearly floor-to-ceiling custom-built armadi (or cabinets) that appeared in nearly every room, in lieu of the built-in closets that no Venetian apartment has. (And for good reason, as a built-in closet in damp Venice would be a breeding bed of mold.)

Alas, these were not Cabinets of Wonder, but of Dander--or at least dust. Each door of every cabinet in the apartment required a skeleton key to open. And just as the ancient Egyptian tombs of the pharaohs are said to have released deadly fungal spores upon being pried open, so each of these cabinet doors seemed to exhale something foul and unhealthy from their own ancient contents: which typically included not just old ill-kept books, but also fusty wool blankets: enough for a pharaoh's army, and from about the same era.

Perhaps after reading this, Dear Reader, you won't be surprised to learn that the apartment--beautiful as its layout and moldings and paneling and pavimento veneziano and hand-blown Venini hallway lamp and views were--just plain stunk. As a flophouse would, or one of Dickens's dosshouses.

Yet, like Venice itself, what a feast for the eyes the apartment was! And for the imagination! Everyone who saw it thought so, even the perspicacious and trustworthy landlord of our first (and now again current) Venice apartment: he who'd had a long career over-seeing reconstruction projects for Venice and other comuni

We all believed it to be merely a matter of having the landlady's people haul off all the garbage (boatloads of it), repair the broken furniture, install new appliances, fix the water lines, etc. And of Jen and I cleaning--deeply, exhaustively cleaning--what was left.

For all of February the entryway and long hallway of the apartment was cluttered with things to be hauled off or repaired. It seemed every day, and each new cabinet opened, revealed more of them. And as often as we could that month we cleaned, for hours at a time.

I quite literally cleaned with soap and water and a sponge (then dried with cloths) every single millimeter of the apartment that was not painted plaster: all of the many massive armadi--inside and out, top and bottom, front and back and sides, every single surface without exception--and all the paneled walls.

As cleaning the inside of just one armadio would turn the soapy water in my bucket black and silty, you can imagine what the water was like when I cleaned the outside of them. Or when I tackled the greasy tiles of the kitchen. 

And at the end of each bout of intensive cleaning, without exception, Jen and I would return to our old apartment far from the historic center with bright red faces and necks that burned and stung and glowed crimson like fresh 3rd-degree sun burns.

We wore long rubber gloves and bought special protective masks to wear over our mouths and noses, to try to filter the air we breathed as we cleaned. They made no difference. 

It was miserable, it was madness, but such labor was, we believed, the only way to rid the apartment of the very allergens that were plaguing us, and the long built-up filth that made its air so heavy and unpleasant.

Remember, too, as you read this, that we were laboring in, and on behalf of, what we thought would be our home for the next 4 or 8 years. Maybe more. Trying to realize, or reclaim for ourselves the kind of Venetian apartment that it has now become almost impossible for permanent Venetian residents--as opposed to tourists or transitory inhabitants of no more than one year--to rent. (As I explained in a recent post:

Like no other experience I've had in the more than four years we've lived here, this one with this San Tomà apartment underscored the fact that in most ways the very features that people have long identified as essentially or distinctly Venice--its characteristic edifices and apartments and neighborhoods--now exist ever more completely and solely for the benefit and enjoyment of non-residents.

So we worked hard in the knowledge that this was probably our only chance to rent an apartment like this.

But, more broadly, I wonder if we didn't also work so hard in an attempt to deny another fact about the city that our apartment search had kept thrusting before our eyes. The fact that most of those very areas that strike the camera-toting tourist as the epitome of charming picturesque Venetian-ness, can't help but strike the resident as being almost as sterile and empty as if a neutron bomb had been detonated there, leaving the buildings intact but obliterating nearly all Venetian (or residential) life.

Those picturesque areas through which tourists stump like zombies, looking for something to consume, and residents flit like ghosts, lacking what would once have been the foundations of their daily lives.... 

Those depopulated neighborhoods with their vacant shops, the faded letters above shuttered windows (or, just as vacantly, above cheap masks and tchotchkes) attesting dimly to the life once there-- panificio, macelleria, latteria [bakery, butcher, dairy]--as traces of frescoes on underground walls attest to civilizations long gone....

As a pubescent Polish boy came to seem to the love-struck and ever-more-feverish Gustav Aschenbach to be a portal to ancient Greece and archaic ideals of beauty, so, perhaps, the dirty San Tomà apartment seemed to me a way to reconnect with a much more recent past. Not the Venice of 300 or 400 years ago, but simply that of, say, 40 years ago: when the population of the city still was above 100,000, when tourists weren't ever likely to outnumber residents on any given day around San Marco or Rialto by the astounding proportion of 600 to 1 (a figure provided in a recent CNN piece here), and when the best of the city's apartments weren't reserved for the invading multitudes.

You could almost feel that old elegant Venice all around you when you stood in the San Tomà apartment--if you held your breath and ignored the irritated tingling of your skin, or had the windows wide open in spite of the winter cold. It was within our reach if we worked hard enough...

Wrong from the start, as a famous resident of Venice (with reprehensible racial and political views) put it in a poem of his about another pursuit of beauty "out of key with [its] time."

But we'd have to struggle through all of March and stumble upon an unfortunate surprise or two before we realized (or admitted) this. As will be the subject of the next part.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 1

The view from the windows was of Ca' Mocenigo and a facade of what could be the heads of the nine muses. Or were some of them the Moirai, the three weird sisters of Fate who spin out (and snip off) our lives?
The great advantage that we readers have over the doomed would-be lover Gustav Aschenbach in Death in Venice or the pair of doomed lovers in Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, is that we can see quite clearly when their desire or passion has carried them too far. In fact one of the unsettling pleasures of such books is watching the process by which the protagonists drift further and further from the shores of reason or good sense, is observing the various points at which, on the very verge of returning to the safety of what might be called the terra firma of their routine lives, they disastrously tack further out to sea.

The protagonists think or feel or imagine themselves sailing toward some experience of great beauty or intense passion--of some experience somehow very near the mysterious heart of Venice. But of course we know they're headed toward that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."

In so far as we sympathize with the characters as if they were real people, we'd like to stop them from pursuing their fatal course. But to the extent that we're enjoying the book as readers, we'd like them to press on, as all the drama of the book depends upon their ultimately ineluctable journey toward disaster.

Which is a long way of saying we are relieved to have escaped from the calamity of living in a distinctly Venetian apartment with a view of the Grand Canal, regardless of how much material it might have provided for this blog. Or the writer of my obituary.

When I recently wrote of our search for an apartment, and our discovery of a promising one, the only obstacle to our enjoyment of the latter seemed to be the dander of the previous residents' large black furry male un-neutered dog ( (It's reported that un-neutered male dogs and cats with dark fur produce the most hyper-allergenic of dander.)

If only it had been so simple. What became clear after I wrote that piece is that regardless of whether any dander persisted, the apartment's once-beautiful upholstered furniture definitely had a very serious dust mite infestation. We'd already gotten rid of the rugs, which were hopelessly filthy, so we tried having the living room furniture professionally cleaned. When they were new, 40 or so years ago, the couch and chairs had been costly well-crafted examples of modern design, on a par with the Eero Saarinen dining room table and Achille Castiglioni Arco floor lamp with which they shared the large high salotto.

They turned out to be too far gone, though, to benefit from the professional cleaning. It wasn't just that the once-white upholstery was brown and stained (it could be covered), it was that the mites were unreachable deep inside the furniture. As they were, too, in all the mattresses (one of which appeared old enough and foul enough to have been the death bed of Marco Polo).

Well, furniture, you might say, can be disposed of. And so it can, if you succeed in convincing the owner of the apartment, La Signora, to do so. In spite of the fact that her own architect, who'd known her for more than two decades, told her that the furniture was, unfortunately, ruined (by a combination of long neglect and recent tenants), it was no sure bet that La Signora was going to listen.

And, yet, that wasn't the real problem with the apartment.... The real problem was that there were so many problems with the apartment.

Or, more exactly, the real problem was that there were so many problems in an apartment whose beauty and promise kept you laboring to rectify problems that, it turned out, could probably never be rectified--short of extensive, and very expensive, renovation. 

Like every dark Venetian love story, the harbingers of doom were present from the outset. The apartment wasn't cheap by our standards. But a sunny place from which you had, from almost every window, a view of Lord Byron's old digs on the Grand Canal (in Palazzo Mocenigo) really should have cost more to rent, judging by the asking prices for the gloomy view-less apartments we saw elsewhere. (The lone window without a view of Palazzo Mocenigo looked out, instead, on the beautiful gothic windows of Ca' Goldoni.)

But like so many lovers--and nearly every lover of Venice, in particular--we believed we'd happened upon a hidden gem. Visions are granted to the fortunate lover--at least that's what he or she believes: fortuitous encounters, special insights. Aschenbach, for example, believes himself granted a sublime vision of timeless transcendent beauty--while most everyone else seems to see a pretty pubescent Polish boy, trooping along on family outings.

The apartment was hardly transcendent when we arrived to take possession of it on February 1, and in spite of the rental contract's original declaration that it would be delivered in "ottimo stato" (perfect condition). It was not even in the "buono stato" (good shape) to which this phrase was amended before we signed it. No, it was a complete mess.

Now, this should have bothered us more than it did. Especially as the appointment we'd set way back in November to see the apartment two weeks before taking possession--to do the inventory of the apartment's furnishings with La Signora's representative, which is a typical step in renting a furnished Venetian apartment--had been cancelled. The tenant, we were told, the one who lived in the apartment before us, was being troublesome, slow in getting out, and refusing to make it available to be seen.

So we arrived on February 1 to find what was little better than a dump, with, among other eyesores and useless things, two large old broken tv sets, a broken dishwasher, an oven that also didn't work, and a main bathroom without hot water.

Due to contractual obligations, we'd be obliged to pay rent on our old apartment from which we were moving for the first two months we lived in our new place. That is, for two months we would have two apartments and pay two rents, which was a painful financial prospect but one we couldn't avoid if we were not going to miss out on our new dream apartment just off the Grand Canal.

As it turned out, what we'd only ever thought of as a great hardship, turned out to be our great lucky break in this whole matter. As I'll recount further in Part 2.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A New Source of Magic in Venice

One of Mistero e Magia's two proprietors, Alberto De Curti, performs a trick for a young visitor from France
Venice has long been considered a mysterious and magical place, but only since the March 28 opening of Mistero e Magia has it had its own magic store: the first ever in the city's history. 

Located on Ruga Giuffa, the narrow picturesque commercial calle that branches off of Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the direction of Campo San Zaccaria, the store not only stocks everything a budding magician might need, but if you're looking for juggling supplies of all kinds, face paints and clown gear, or a wide range of wands with which to produce soap bubbles in sizes ranging from the divertingly domestic to the elephantine, you need look no further.

What especially sets it off, though, is its staff. Mistero e Magia is not just a place where magic supplies are sold, but where magic is actually performed--and taught. Sandro and I happened upon the store by accident a couple of Saturdays ago and he was thrilled when one of the staff started showing him some tricks.

I know absolutely nothing about magic and, aside from a couple of brief performances at birthday parties he'd attended, Sandro had not seen much of it. But the staff, both the first day we wandered in and on subsequent visits, is great with kids (and adults): patient and informative, intent on educating, rather than merely selling.

The store has become Sandro's favorite after-school destination. The last time we were in, I talked to one of the store's proprietors, Alberto De Curti (Daniele Malusa is the other), and watched as he demonstrated various tricks to various kids: first, in Italian, then in English, then in French. De Curti told me that beyond the impromptu education they're happy to do in the course of normal business hours, the store also offers workshops for both kids and adults taught by professional magicians, suitable for both full-time residents of Venice and those who are only in town for a few days. 

For example, Aroldo Lattarulo will teach a course on April 26, and later in the spring the well-known American illusionist Vito Lupo will offer his own workshop. To learn more about the store and its offerings, you can visit their Facebook page: Mistero e Magia Facebook Page

Residents of Venice are all-too-familiar with the sight of neighborhood stores going out of business. It's much rarer to see a store that opens with the aim of becoming a destination for the city's young (the last time we were in Mistero e Magia there was a group of local guys in their later teens who'd come in to talk magic with one of the store's staff).

Mistero e Magia also happens to be a great destination for tourists and visitors to the city: an excellent break, for example, from the usual sight-seeing for a visiting kid (or adult) worn out and foot-sore from too much legendary old art and architecture.

It's the kind of magical enterprise the city could use more of, and it will likely require the patronage of both residents and visitors to stay afloat. It's worth a visit--or many.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Little Easter on the Lagoon

A barena, fishing nets, Mazzorbo's church of Santa Caterina, and the mountains beyond
After having spent five Easters in Italy I've come to realize that I now prefer Pasquetta, the holiday that occurs the day after Pasqua, or Easter, to Easter itself.

It was formerly called--and may be still by the most devout--Lunedì dell' Angelo, or the Monday of the Angel, and commemorated those women (Mary Magdalene, among them) who were distressed to find the tomb of Jesus empty when they visited it--until a helpful angel appeared and put them at ease.

But to use a term from soccer or football, Pasquetta, or "Little Easter," strikes me now as a kind of extra-time holiday. Something added on when the official time, or holiday, has expired. It's a bis holiday, an encore, and, I think, a great idea.

After all the great otherworldly to-do and stress of a major holiday, Pasquetta returns us to the simply human, to our life in this world. After the vault of Death has been blasted open and the golden trumpets of Eternal Life set to blaring; after we've been assured we are not of this paltry worn-out earth but beings destined to be clothed in pure light, shod in silver and gold clouds, adorned with rainbows and stardust, beyond all time and seasons... After all this incorporeal pomp--we go, the next day, for a picnic.

At least that's the tradition. If you live in Milan or Rome, you head to the countryside. If you live in Venice, you take to the lagoon, which is what we did. 

It was sunny but rather cold, and I was disappointed that I didn't see nearly as many families out in their boats as I had (sitting and watching from a riva) on previous Pasquette. And those families you did see tended to be in large boats, contemporary models, and were bundled up in down parkas and knits hats, looking more like people dressed for sledding than for boating to an island picnic.

But we had hot chicken soup with us--not traditional, but appropriate for the weather--and sat in the bottom of our small sandolo sanpierota, out of the wind, after dropping anchor amid some barene (or mud flats).

Out among the barene, I didn't find myself thinking of the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene found and some Life beyond life, but of other, older myths of rebirth and regeneration; seasonal myths, like that of Persephone. Dead myths that persist now simply as old stories, as invaluable reminders that even tales of the Timeless and Ageless have their own expiration dates. For as far as I know no one these days conquers or exploits or oppresses or tortures or murders in the name of and for the greater glory of Persephone.

But mostly we just enjoyed being out in the lagoon, the perfect semi-natural space for someone like me, prone to both claustrophobia and agoraphobia: neither too small, nor too big. You can roam far and wide and never find yourself beyond the reassuring embrace of the Lidi or the bosom of terraferma, on water in constant motion but generally no deeper than that of your bathtub.

The art and architecture of Venice has inspired or preoccupied or even haunted the minds of millions of people for centuries, and there are many to this day who feel that its impressions (as Browning said of Italy) have been engraved on their hearts. But the lagoon seems to get into your blood, its tides moving in your veins.

In the middle of the north lagoon this clam digger kneels in just an inch or two of water
A few people sailed on Pasquetta

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reflections of Heaven in Palazzo Loredan

Every time I happen into Palazzo Loredan, the beautiful exhibition space of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti located on Campo Santo Stefano, I always see something that makes me wonder why I don't make a point of visiting the place more often.

The palazzo itself is worth a visit (especially considering one can do so free of charge), and until April 19 you can see the exhibition Within Light/Inside Glass (, the latest in a series of exhibitions there that stand out for the inspired interplay between the art on display and the rooms in which they're located (or for which they've specifically been created).

The work pictured above and below is "Room of Angels, 2015" by the Finnish artist Anna-Lea Kopperi, in which the pavimento veneziano of the palace's rear stuccoed room is mostly covered by irregularly-shaped pieces of recycled glass. The original pavimento of the floor mimicked in its mosaic design the painting on the room's ceiling, but Kopperi's site-specific work quite literally mirrors the ceiling, creating a new kind of mosaic that both reflects the ceiling more accurately than the original stone floor and provides an entirely different sense of it--even as it also evokes the reflective qualities and movement of the water in the city's famous canals and lagoon.

And it's just one of a number of works on display by an array of international artists that are worth a look.