Friday 8 November 2013

Venice - leaving the best until last

Unintentionally. We'd had in mind spending the morning re-visiting the Correr, where the Technical Dept wanted to look at the full-length senatorial portraits in order to compare them with the Lazzarini picture of Carlo Ruzzini which is still in  the loggia at Via Fucini. The one which we informally call 'Crazy Ern', after the  
 inscription that appears behind him on the representation of a bit of decorative terracing. And I think TD had also tracked down that the Correr has a terracotta bust of Carlo, as well, which was exciting news, given that Ruzzini portraits of any kind are few and far between. That was the intention at any rate - until the moment when the lizard-like ticket seller on the door casually mentioned an entry price of 32 euros for two.

"How much?!?"  We'd been thinking merely of coming in for a look, not buying the contents.

"32 euros",he repeated, "and you also get free entry to the Doge's Palace"
"Not interesting", we told him, "we've already seen the Doge's Palace". 
"Oh, well, in that case, you can get in here for free if you show me your tickets from the Palace."
"From 2006? I doubt I could lay my hands on them, after all this time..."

He shrugged, to indicate we had no choice, and we turned and walked out, to demonstrate that we did.

Which left us standing in the sunshine in the Piazza, with time on our hands. TD suggested we strike out, yet again, for Madonna dell'Orto (which, in our repeated failure to get there, was starting to assume the character of Mrs Ramsay's lighthouse), and so, not particularly concentrating, we did. And found ourselves ten minutes later completely off course, and in Campo San Stefano, close to the Accademia Bridge. Which prompted another on-the-hoof change of plan, and a decision instead to pass by the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, which I knew I knew how to get to, and which I also knew was open - relatively unusually - that morning. Little did we know quite what a gem the place is!

A fine entrance screen, which leads into the small piazza behind, with the church to the left and the Scuola to the right.The lower hall of the Scuola is pleasant enough, but largely unremarkable, and then, a right turn and another, and before you opens the most perfect staircase in the World. Designed in 1498 by Codussi, it plays astonishing tricks with perspective, with a barely discernible horizontal entasis on the treads, and a gentle and imperceptible tapering outwards of the staircase walls - the top tread is apparently 70 centimetres wider than the lowest one - and the effect is of a grand staircase stretching effortlessy way off into the distance. While, in fact, it occupies only the space of a moderately sized room,  it somehow achieves the grandeur of the most splendid neo-classical baroque staircases to be found in palaces the length and breadth of Europe. Quite, quite remarkable.

The Scuola was empty, apart from us - not even a lumpy custodian in sight, and we sat for ages in the upper Sala, taking in the pictures and the proportions and the atmosphere. Thick layers of silence. Dust motes playing in the rays of sunlight which penetrated the curtains pulled imperfectly across the bulls-eye windows above the large canvases which lined the north and south walls. We stayed for hours, footsteps echoing heavily across the richly polished marble; and nobody to object as we sat in the governors' chairs in the Sala d'Albergho, and explored the intricate and intriguing carvings on the chapter stalls - the result of some febrile sixteenth century imagination.

The church also, we had to ourselves. It was unlocked especially for us to enter, and we locked it behind us again as we left. A charming combination of early gothic, merged with some later neo-classical....some parts of it in perfect condition, and recently restored, and in other places, damp plaster peeling horribly from the walls, and in serious need of attention. The repairs seemed to be a work in progress, but it was unclear whether the restoration would prevail before the structure gave way entirely.

We'd spent so long at the Scuola that we risked being too late for lunch anywhere - and certainly, when we tried at La Zucca we were smilingly turned away, on the basis that the kitchen was already closed. Which, frankly, given the style of the place, seemed a little precious.  Rejecting two further hostelries which we passed en route towards the station, we dived into a third and hit paydirt. Full of large and loud italians, only a minute after we sat down, a couple of gondolieri came in and occupied a table together in the inner room; this was clearly the venetian equivalent of white-van-man territory, which, as any fule no, is always where the best food is to be found. And the rule held good, as we feasted on perfect gnocchi al salmone, washed down with a half litre of a slightly frizzante Soave.

And, after that, we did indeed finally make it to Madonna dell'Orto. Famous for its Tintorettos, in fact the gems there are a beautiful panel by Cima da Castignione, and a Titian (in need of a good clean) on the apocryphal Book of Tobit. (Note to self, concerning Tintoretto: it is not possible for anybody to have covered in one lifetime the acres - and acres - of dreary canvas which are confidently attributed to Tintoretto, all over Venice, and beyond. Has nobody every counted it up, and done the maths? If they have, I think we should be told, and if they haven't, they should...)

And thence, thoroughly satisfied, back to San Julian, and a well-earned evening at rest.


Venice, Day 3...

And the morning acqua was even more alta both than previously and, presumably, than expected by the powers that be, as we discovered when turning a corner en route to the vaporetto stop at San Zaccaria, and found the piazza ahead of us a sheet of water, knee-deep, and not a raised duckboard walkway in sight. No choice but to do a u-turn, and we made our way instead back to the Rialto, from where we went by  boat down to San Marco, and got back on track there.

Another beautiful morning. The sun glinted gorgeously off  the one or two facades along the Grand Canal which have been recently restored to their renaissance 'bling' splendour...all garish fresco, and glittering mosaic. Wonderfully vulgar. To see the entire length of the Grand Canal decked out unashamedly like that must truly have been a sight to behold. Possibly more impressive than beautiful.

To San Giorgio Maggiore for the morning. Visually iconic, from a distance, but I'm not sure that many people actually make the hike out to see it. The pregnant armless woman from Trafalgar Square is indeed installed just to the left of the main church, gazing implacably out across the water. Not the marble original, but a much larger inflatable version, in pale lilac fabric. On the plinth was a whole load of guff about it being the sort of art which, if not looked at and forming the basis for people's thoughtful consideration, disappears into nothingness. "I wish...", I muttered grumpily, considering that there was nobody there to pay any attention to the thing.  If only I'd had a pin. Then, we'd see about disappearing into nothingness.
 The church is sublime. Perfect. Although, viewed through eyes trained to Vanbrugh and Hawskmoor, it has a curiously secular feel. If the altar were to be quietly removed, and a few battle-scarred colours to be hung from the architraves, you could readily imagine yourself in the entrance hall at Blenheim, or beneath the dome at Castle Howard.

The Venice yacht club has its quarters on the island, and we strolled the length of the sunlit quay past moored yachts rolling gently on the water. A glass of wine and a plate of pasta at the cafe, largely deserted, with a view across the channel towards San Marco and the facades along the Riva degli Schiavoni, while the car ferry chugged resolutely back and forth before us, going between piazzale Roma and the Lido. At one point, the Technical Department took a call on his phone, and mentioned, as he checked the number afterwards, that it had come from Wembley. We seemed an awfully long way away from Wembley.

And then, on to the Giudecca, which had been our original goal on setting out. Only ever viewed from a distance, we had a suspicion that there were things there to be found and possibly an undiscovered gem, for future visits. Sadly, not so. Striking inland from the quayside, we discovered what appeared to be blocks of social housing units, all rather grim and prison-like, and a depressingly dead atmosphere that would have made even 'dour' seem like a positive in comparison with the drab dreariness all around us. The only high spot was a pilgrimage to the front gate of the Garden of Eden, with tantalising views beyond of trees and statuary...but no way of putting a foot inside -

and even the Redentore I found rather flat and uninspiring. Definitely, IMHO the Redentore comes a distinct second to the majesty of San Giorgio Maggiore. After half an hour or so, and stopping short of the Molino Stucky, we fled the Guidecca on the first available vaporetto, which took us round the bum end of the now-deserted docks (a view of unlovely industrial charmlessness), in the direction of the station. Right past the place where, years ago now, we'd once seen from a passing water taxi a police operation as part of which a low-flying carabiniere helicoptor had mistakenly sent thousands of banknotes in a swirling cloud to rain down upon the canal and the surrounding area, providing untold largesse for the local citizenry.

From the station, we set out on foot for Madonna dell'Orto, and made a complete hash of the route. Once we'd realised we were already at entirely the wrong end of Strada Nuova, and thus within striking distance of home, conscious of sore feet and a mild sense of church-fatigue, we called it a day.


Ravioli of Mortadella and Ricotta

Salsiccie Veneziana; gratinata of zuccini.

Apple pithiviers. 

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Venice, Day 2...

Glorious weather. Everything washed clean by the rain of the night before, and additionally by an acqua alta, which had the gondolieri bending awkwardly to negotiate the lower bridges, and which led to raised duckboarding in places where the streets were actually full of water (Robert Benchley, take note!) and pedestrians were invited to carry on as normal, but just three feet higher. In a side street near San Julian, the newspaper kiosk had become a little island in the middle of a lagoon all its own, and the proprietor watched balefully as all her potential customers made their way along the street, separated from her by more than the arm's length necessary for the exchange of goods and money.

The venetians seem to be a remarkably good-natured lot - they must be, I decided, as the result of my supermarket incident of the morning, when an entirely unassuming packet of minced veal flashed up a price of 1,900 euros as it was passed across the scanner. Which then resolutely refused to change its mind, as the check-out girl tried repeatedly to reverse the transaction. Maurizio was called...but the machine remained obstinate, as the queue behind me grew ever longer...then Massimo was summoned....but he initially failed to make any difference. I was starting to get impatient, but the smiles on the faces of the people behind me seemed completely unfazed. Eventually, the machine was made to see reason, and the Italian national debt was put back in its box. Smiles and good humour all round, as I paid and left, thinking that if that had taken place in London or New York, then blood would probably have been spilt by an enraged mob of impatient shoppers, wreaking carnage with their wheelie bags!

Palazzo Grimani - the one just behind Santa Maria Formosa - for several hours before lunch. Tranquil, majestic and a glorious discovery. Apart from a party of italian schoolkids, who arrived noisily, but then departed practically at the same time - not unlike a crowd of starlings, en route for Africa - we had the place to ourselves. Sun flooded the rooms, empty of all but a few paintings dotted here and there (a Titian, last seen at The Quirinale, in May, and greeted now as an old friend; a Vasari panel, which was arguably of a better standard than most of his stuff; although that isn't saying much;  two or three Tintoretto portraits; and a Roman Ganymede suspended from the ceiling of what had been the Grimani wunderkammer ). Beautiful renaissance frescoes, some in perfect condition, others merely the beaux restes (but what restes there were, were extremely beaux indeed); carved fireplaces, inlaid wall could all have been one rhinestone too many, but in fact was quite perfect.

Early afternoon found us at the top of the Campanile at San Marco - a trip that has been tried before, without success..I think our timing has always been off. Clear views out over the city, the lagoon, the islands, and all the way practically to Treviso in the North and Ravenna in the South. San Giorgio Maggiore gleamed brilliantly, and beside it, rather improbably, could be seen that statue of the armless pregnant woman, which at one time occupied the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square (only, I think, this version is a great deal larger). Perhaps this is outreach by the British presence at the Biennale, which I think is still on for another few weeks.

Down to ground level, once more, and we wound our way through the Piazza....surprisingly lightly populated, as is much of Venice at the moment...and thence to the Accademia bridge, in order to negotiate the tortuous route up to the Frari. It used to be on our journey from the Zattere up to Cannaregio, and so we'd walked past the Frari many times before, but never actually set foot inside. The volume is wonderful, and, behind the high altar, the tiered fenestration is striking. Canova's tomb, like the pup of some fantasy design of Boullée, gives pause for thought, with its unremitting neo-classical presence installed rather brutally in the middle of the Frari's soft gothic charm; water damage is evident up to the knees of the attendant, oversized marble mourners, however, so perhaps nature will eventually take its course. The art in the place is not wonderful - everybody raves about the Titian altarpiece, but I've seen it before, up close, and I don't actually like it much. There are some good-ish Vivarini's, and a good Bellini altarpiece in the sacristy; in the chapter house, with its pitted red and white checkerboard floor and the smell of many generations of beeswax, is a lovely Veneziano, which alone would justify the visit. A glance at the heap of long-dead roses tossed through the bars onto Monteverdi's tomb, a sideways glance (in astonishment, largely) at the Pesaro mausoleum, and we were back out once more in the square outside, the late afternoon sun disappearing behind the rooflines, and the thought of tea and biscotti at home putting paid to any idea I might have had of also fitting in a visit to Madonna dell'Orto before the end of the day.

Tonight's Dinner

Gnocchi alla Romana

Grilled Salmon, braised Cucumber.

Plum Tarts.

Tuesday 5 November 2013


We arrived in the rain - a persistent drizzle, but not so bad that we were put off walking to the Rialto vaporetto stop (where we had an assignation with somebody who was to lead us to our home for the next few days), rather than shell out the fourteen euros for two one-way tickets to ride the waves for the eight minute journey down the Grand Canal. I don't remember the vaporetto charges being so exorbitant on previous visits. Maybe they were, and we just didn't tend to use them. That would at least explain why it is that we know the walking routes through Venice well enough to be able to rely on shanks pony. From the station at Santa Lucia, it was a leftward swing towards Cannaregio, then the full length of the Strada Nuova, and a rightish trajectory thereafter.  And eccolo!...the steps of the Rialto bridge, populated with a dense array of opened and dripping umbrellas that was more reminiscent of Renoir than of Canaletto.

The apartment is large and light, and nestled deep in that area midway between Rialto and San Marco which is dense with a patchwork of small courtyards, twisting alleyways, and obscure canals. From the kitchen and bedroom windows, the Campanile of the Basilica can be seen, softly illuminated after nightfall, and the various windows in the living room look down to a small courtyard and entrance to a sotoportego and out across a roofscape of mottled tiles, altanas, and the oddly complicated shapes of venetian chimnypots.

 Having raided the local stores and stocked the kitchen, we headed out in a damp dusk to track down  the renowned Libreria Acqua Alta, just the other side of Santa Maria Formosa. The Libreria is a place about which many people have raved, enthusing that it claims truthfully to be 'the most beautiful bookshop in the world'. It isn't. By a long way. As advertised, the warren of rooms was filled to overflowing with books, piled high in beached gondolas and bathtubs, and stacked precariously to left and right of the small amount of floor left navigable to those browsing. But, the books were tired and dog-eared and unloved. Everything was dirty and damp, and the covers of the books left one searching (in vain) for somewhere to wipe one's fingers afterwards. In two small courtyards, bales of books were piled forlornly, gently rotting in the rain, and the interior of the place smelt mildly of mould and neglected decay. The whole place is decadent in the extreme, and in the worst possible way - and I speak as somebody who has no problem whatsoever with the idea of decadance, having even been known to indulge, myself, on a good day. The Libreria, rather than being the treasure house that we'd been led to expect, was more like an elephants' graveyard, in a very advanced stage of decomposition. Fortunately, I did find one volume that was still worth rescuing - Emilia Valli's 'La Cucina di mare dell'Abruzzo e del Molise' - and so, book underarm and heading for resurrection, we headed out into the rain and the night, to return home to a welcoming glass or two of Prosecco, and dinner.

And awoke, this morning, to a Venice of clear blue skies and  bright sunlight, and streets gleaming and freshly washed by last night's downpour.

Onward and upward!