Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving in Venice Celebrates the Black Madonna - The Feast of the Madonna della Salute

Unde Origo Inde Salus MDCXXXI in Church of Madonna della Salute - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) To me, the beautiful rose mosaic in the center of the Church of Madonna della Salute is one of the most powerful points on the planet. Officially, the public can only stand on it one day out of the year, and that is on November 21st, the Feast of the Madonna della Salute, the Feast of Our Lady of Health. On that day, I like to make my way through the crowded church and align myself with the female Madonna energy beaming down from the heavens.

The rose mosaic is under the enormous chandelier in the center of the dome. In the mosaic is a bronze circle engraved with the words Unde Origo Inde Salus MDCXXXI, which means "From the origin comes salvation, 1631."

The Church of Madonna della Salute was built in thanks for ending the plague of 1630-31, and dedicated to the Madonna, under whose protection Venice was created in the first place -- or so the story goes -- so it made sense to ask her for help.

And on the high altar, in all her glory, is the Madonna, who happens to be Black.

In 2013, I wrote an in-depth post about the Black Madonna and the Festa della Salute, which I will share with you again. And for everyone all over the world that is freaking out over the US presidential election, I strongly suggest you ask the Black Madonna for a little help. Happy Thanksgiving!

Festa of the Madonna della Salute

(Venice, Italy) During the fifteen years I've lived in Venice, I have rarely missed the Festa of the Madonna della Salute on November 21. Most of the city, and much of the Veneto, makes the trek over the pontoon bridge from Santa Maria del Giglio next to the Hotel Gritti Palace and over to the Church of the Salute on Punta della Dogna to light a candle (or two or three) so that the Beloved Black Madonna will protect our health.

The plague first struck Venice in 1575. Desperate for relief, in 1577 the Venetian Senate decided to build a church in honor of Christ the Redeemer if God would end the plague. That worked (for a while), and the city of Venice has the magnificent Church of Redentore to show for it.

Unfortunately, the plague returned only 55 years later, so Doge Nicolò Contarini and the boys decided to build another church, this time pleading to the Virgin Mary for help. After all, the Republic of Venice was feminine, and under the Madonna's rule -- or so the story goes. On October 22, 1630, Contarini ordained the church be built; the 26-year-old architect Baldassare Longhena won the competition to design it; work started in 1631 and was finished in 1687. Longhena wrote:

"I have created a church in the form of a rotunda, a work of new invention, not built in Venice, a work very worthy and desired by many. This church, having the mystery of its dedication, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the ... shape of a crown."

The centerpiece of the awesome Salute Church is the Panagia Mesopantitisa, a very wise Byzantine Black Madonna, who never fails to fill me with deep emotion. The Panagia Mesopantitisa gets all dolled up for the occasion, and puts on her finest jewels. If we can understand where she comes from, perhaps we can understand why the Venetians built such an impressive church.

Photo: Wolfgang Moroder
The Panagia Mesopantitisa is from Candia, which was a Greek city originally named Chandax on the island of Crete. The Venetians bought the city for strategic purposes back in 1204 after the Fourth Crusade, and colonized the town. They held onto it for 465 years until 1669 after losing the famous War of Candia (1645-1669), a 21-year battle with the Ottoman Turks for possession of Crete.

The city is now named Heraklion, and is again part of Greece, and that is where the Eastern Orthodox Black Madonna named Panagia Mesopantitisa comes from. I like to think that the Venetians of that era might have been a little sorry for the part their ancestors played in the Fourth Crusade by giving her such an honor.

From the Venice Comune:

"The Festa della Salute is probably the least "touristy" of the Venetian festivities and evokes strong religious feelings among the city's inhabitants. 

The holiday is, like the Redentore, in memory of another bout of pestilence, which lasted for two years from 1630-31, and the subsequent vow by the Doge to obtain the intercession of the Virgin Mary.

Even today, thousands of inhabitants visit the main altar of the imposing Salute Church on November 21 to give thanks, and a strong symbolic tie remains between the city and the Virgin Mary."

Wood carving on seat - right
After you buy your candle, you bring it inside the church and hand it to one of the candle lighters -- if left to our own devices, there is a strong possibility we would burn ourselves up given the size of the crowds.

Next I always stand directly in the circle beneath enormous light fixture that dangles directly from the center of the church and get one of my power charges for the year.

Wood carving on seat - left
(Those elaborate wooden carvings on the choir stalls behind the high altar were so bizarre I had to take a photo of them.)

The crowd surges against the high altar until the young guards controlling the scene allow everyone to pass. You then wander back through the Sacristy, where you can buy little prayer cards and rosaries and gaze upon precious art by Titian and Tintoretto, and the first Pope John Paul's vestments -- who was, of course, Venetian, and died after only 33 days as Pope. For some reason, seeing the sweet Papa's actual clothes made me teary-eyed.

Then everyone pours back out down the steps and over to the endless stalls of sweets from Sicily and enormous balloons for the kids -- for Festa della Salute is a day when every kid in Venice proudly marches through the city clutching their carefully-chose balloon.

One great thing about living in a Catholic country is that there are many miracles and White Magic floating through the air, and Venice definitely has its own interpretations and rituals. So far, the Madonna della Salute has worked her magic, and kept me healthy and protected under extreme circumstances, so here is a little prayer to share:

Maria, salute degli infermi, prega per noi.

And remember, when your Republic really gets into trouble there is only one way out: SAY YOU'RE SORRY AND THEN BUILD A SPECTACULAR CHURCH GRAND ENOUGH TO CATCH THE EYE OF THE MADONNA OR JESUS CHRIST! It works! 

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat -The Venice Blog

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Rivus Altus - Max Farina Shoots the Rialto Bridge

Max Farina at Work
(Venice, Italy) It was natural that a photography exhibition called "Rivus Altus" would catch my eye. Rivus Altus, or Rivo Alto, means "high bank," a cluster of islands that would eventually become the center of the Republic of Venice. Rivo Alto morphed into Rialto, the commercial center of Venice. At that location on the Grand Canal, the Venetians would go on to build one of the most famous stone structures in the world, the Rialto Bridge, completed in 1591.

In the 21st Century, the top of the Rialto Bridge became photographer Max Farina's office for two years.

RIVUS ALTUS - 10,000 Visual Fragments from the Rialto Bridge in Venice is the result of that labor of love, with much of the funds coming from Kickstarter.

In 2013 and 2014, Massimiliano Farina, architect and photographer from Milan, traveled every month to Venice and set up his outdoor office at the top of the Rialto Bridge, capturing the collective urge of humanity to take a photo from the famous location, as well as the panoramic view itself. The Rivus Altus project is a dialogue between the Panorama and its Observers.

The Observers
From the same position, day and night, for 264 shooting hours, Max photographed the "Rialto People." Using two cameras joined by a metal clamp, he simultaneously photographed the same subject and scene using two different zooms, techniques, movements and time exposures, depicting 15,963 people. The fragments were linked in diptychs, and printed in black and white.

Cat Bauer in front of the Rivus Altus panorama - Photo: Max Farina
During the same time period, Max clicked thousands of photos of the Grand Canal from the top of the Rialto Bridge. He chose 78 of those fragments to create a colorful wall of photos on pads of photo paper, seven meters long. That wall of photos, an enormous panorama of Rialto, is the focus of the Rivus Altus exhibition. Visitors are invited to rip off the top photo of any of the 78 fragments -- like ripping the top sheet of paper off a pad -- revealing a different angle of the same shot underneath, and creating a constantly changing panorama.

Cat Bauer - Rialto apartment
As you regular readers know, my beleaguered apartment is located right on the Grand Canal at the Rialto Bridge, and, sure enough, Max had photographed it every month for two years. I flipped through all the photos, hoping that Max had caught a significant moment in the Battle for the Heart of Rialto. Unfortunately, nothing special was going on during that time; it was closed and shuttered in every photo. I told him that it was too bad he hadn't started shooting in 2009 or 2010 because he would have captured quite a lot of excitement!

The Last Supper - Boga Foundation
In addition to Max's photos, the Boga Foundation has collaborated with a series of Homini sculptures, including The Last Supper. Two works from the Foundation's collection by the renowned Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti, are also presented as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of his death.

Another element of the exhibition is the sound installation designed by Giampiero Sanzari. The bells chiming in the distance from Piazza San Marco, a vaporetto grinding to a halt at the Rialto stop, the roar of the tourists, the calls of the gondoliers, the water lapping on the Grand Canal -- all the cacophony that is the background music of the Rialto Bridge -- adds a deeper dimension.

Photographer Max Farina at Rivus Altus
The top of the Rialto Bridge is one of the points on the planet where humanity pauses to snap a photo and record its presence. Max Farino takes that experience to a higher level, and records humanity in the act of recording itself.

I thought Rivus Altus was totally cool.

Rivus Altus- 10,000 Visual Fragments from the Rialto Bridge in Venice
Photography project by Max Farina
Through November 27, 2016
10am to 7pm
Free Admission
Cultural Center Don Orione Artigianeli
Zattere - Dorsoduro, 909/A

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Remembering the Venice Flood of 1966 - Aqua Granda 50 Years On

Venice 1966 high water - Photo: Comune
(Venice, Italy) Friday, November 4, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the devastating 1966 flood in Venice, and nearly every organization in town has done their part to remember the day, coordinated by the Venice Comune in a program called "Aqua Granda."

On November 4, 1966, Venice and Florence were hit by dramatic weather conditions: rain, wind, high tides, melting snow. The Arno River burst through its embankments in Florence, and the waters of the Venice lagoon rose up over more than 6 feet, inundating over 75% of the city. When the waters finally receded, both cities were without food, gas or electricity. Florence was covered with a thick oily mud, and 101 people had lost their lives.

For 22 hours, Venice was completely isolated from the rest of the planet. The ground floors of 90% of the city were flooded, trapping people in their homes. When it was over, thousands were left homeless and fled to the mainland, never to return, starting an insidious exodus out of the historic center.

Crucially, both Renaissance cities were treasure chests filled with precious works of art and rare manuscripts. Museums, galleries, churches, archives, and libraries containing many of mankind's highest achievements were damaged or destroyed. 

Marciana Library
The flood waters in Venice also washed away the blinders that had hidden how dramatically the ancient city had been neglected and allowed to fall into decay, shocking the planet into action. The General Conference of UNESCO, which was meeting at the time, decided to launch an international campaign to safeguard the precious city. 

Throughout the world the call for help went out, and the World of Art and Culture flew into action, forming committees and raising money. Many organizations formed in 1966 still exist today, like the American Save Venice, Inc., the French Committee to Safeguard Venice, and the British Venice in Peril Fund. 

Ted Kennedy in Venice
On November 4, 1966, Ted Kennedy, then a first-term Senator from Massachusetts, was in Geneva when he received a phone call from his sister-in-law, Jackie Kennedy, urging him to go to Florence, which he did. He then came here to Venice on November 16, together with Ambassador Fred Reinhardt, and surveyed the damage, some of the most serious to manuscripts housed at the Marciana Library.

Marciana Library
Through November 27 there is an exhibition Venezia 1966 - 2016 in the Sale Monumentali of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana where you can view newspaper clippings, Marconigrams (I'd never heard of a Marconigram before, a message sent via radio), photos, and other records of that fateful day.

Ritorno in Piazza by Anna Zemella at Olivetti Store
At the Olivetti store in Piazza San Marco there is a photography exhibition, Return to the Piazza, by Anna Zemella and curated by Jane da Mosto that runs through January 8, 2017. Jane has also written an excellent book, together with Giannandrea Mencini, entitled Acqua in Piazza, which explains in clear language everything you would like to know about acqua alta, and how it affects Venice. Both books have been published by lineadacqua, a publishing house in Venice.

The projects, part of L'acqua e la Piazza, are promoted by FAI, the National Trust of Italy, in collaboration with Associazione Piazza San Marco and Venice IUAV Architecture University, and curated by We Are Here Venice. Instead of revisiting the flood, L'acqua e la Piazza tells a story about the relationship between Venetians, the water and Piazza San Marco.

Another nifty part of the project is a blue line on many Venetian businesses that marks how high in centimeters the 1966 water level reached, from +84 on the Caffè Quadri, to +101 on the Gritti Palace Hotel, to a whopping +143 on the Galleria Ravagnan.

Aquagranda at La Fenice
La Fenice commissioned a new opera, Aquagranda by Filippo Perocco, which opened the season with the world premiere on Friday night. Set on the island of Pellistrina, which was hit hardest by the flooding when the sea broke through the Murazzi, a dam built of Istrian stone by the Venetian Republic, the opera runs through November 13.

Photo: Wolfgang Moroder
Alberto Nardi, of the renowned jewelers, Nardi, which has been located in Piazza San Marco for nearly a hundred years, wrote a poignant forward in Acqua in Piazza. Nardi is also the Chairman for the Associazione Piazza San Marco. Here is an excerpt:

"...When the acqua alta recedes, the shopkeepers of the Piazza are left with the repetitive, relentless task of cleaning up after the dirty water, already dreading the next tide. They anxiously follow the various forecasts, hoping that the wind will die down and that the bad weather will be less violent than predicted. Often -- in recent times I should say too often -- their hopes go unfulfilled as the water, slowly but inexorably, rises again, spreading to every corner of the Piazza.

All this creates psychological damage, which I consider even more harmful and insidious than the obvious economic damage. The frequent occurrence of these events renders the mind sluggish, as if the indomitably adaptive Venetian spirit has given way to an inert acceptance of what, instead, should never be accepted.

It must never be accepted that Piazza San Marco will continue to be flooded... 

To see all the Aqua Granda events, go to Venezia Unica.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Sunday, October 30, 2016

From Venice to Istanbul and Back

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - where Christianity & Islam converge
(Venice, Italy) A couple of weeks ago, I spontaneously decided that I had to take a plane trip outside of Italy. I had not been out of the country for ten years, and wanted to see if I had regained my right to freedom of movement -- a topic that needs a book, not a blog post to examine. Simply, I wanted to go out of Europe, get my passport stamped, get a breath of fresh air, and come back home.

After checking a bunch of cities and airfares, I decided to go to either New York or Istanbul, leaving on Thursday and returning on Sunday; the decision rested on whether an old friend was free to meet me in New York. He was not, so off to Istanbul I went, despite some well-meaning friends who said that I was crazy -- Ataturk Airport was the target of a terrorist attack on June 28 that killed 45 people and wounded more than 230 others, and Turkey is under a state of emergency due to the attempted coup on July 15, 2016.

Istanbul in the evening
I am happy to report that the trip could not have been smoother. I slid through all the checkpoints at Marco Polo Airport, and boarded a direct Turkish Airlines flight (did you know they have been chosen by Skytrax as the "Best Airline in Europe" for six consecutive years?) that zoomed me to Istanbul in 2 1/2 hours, including a nice meal and large selection of movies. I picked The Big Short, which I had never heard of before, which shows how out of the loop I am considering that it was nominated for five Academy Awards and is about the housing bubble and financial crisis.

Mother Goddess in Istanbul Archaeology Museum
I also chose Istanbul because it was familiar. I had been to Turkey twice before, fascinated by the ancient symbol of the female divinity, Cybele, a Mother Goddess that stretches back about 12,000 years -- a lot of that research ended up in my second novel, Harley's Ninth. Plus, Venice and Istanbul aka Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, have a long, complex history. And, it was inexpensive. (CAT TRAVEL TIP: try to travel during wars and coups because the prices go way down.)

View from Rooftop Terrace of Levni Hotel, Istanbul
I picked a boutique hotel right in the center, the Levni Hotel & Spa, that had a roof terrace with spectacular views, a warm and welcoming staff, and a terrific Turkish breakfast buffet with exotic offerings and honey dripping from the comb. The location could not have been better -- it was within walking distance to most of the major sights, and steps away from the new Marmaray metro system that zooms you underneath the Bosphorus strait in four minutes, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Grand Bazaar
It had been about 15 years or so since I was last in Istanbul, but I felt immediately at ease. The first afternoon I walked around, inhaling the exotic scents in the air, listening to the Islamic call to prayer resounding from the minarets on the mosques, and chatting with the shopkeepers. Everyone was friendly and eager to express how they felt about the political situation, which I knew very little about. Even if they didn't agree with their president, Receo Tayyip Erdogan, who used to be the Mayor of Istanbul, they said they took to the streets to protest the coup because they loved their country, and didn't want to lose it to a foreign power.

Basilica of San Marco in Venice
Although Italy is Catholic Church Headquarters with the Pope down in Rome, and church bells ringing constantly throughout the day, it is a secular republic. The Republic of Venice herself was more influenced by Constantinople than by Rome, which is why the architecture here has an Eastern flavor.

And although the majority of people who live in Turkey are Sunni Muslims, and there are calls to prayer wailing from the mosques throughout the day, it, too is a secular republic. The first President of the Turkish Republic, Musttafa Kemal Ataturk, abolished the Ottoman Caliph, who was also the Sultan, the supreme religious and political leader, on March 3, 1924, and the last caliph went into exile. It would be sort of like abolishing the Queen of England, who is also the Head of the Church of England (Americans don't have this system:-) 

INTERESTING ASIDE: If the Imperial House of Osman were still in existence, the current Caliph would be Bayezid Osman, who is now 92-years-old, lives in the States and used to work in the New York Public Library.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque aka the Blue Mosque
Later the first day, when I finally made it to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which Westerners call the Blue Mosque, it was closed except for prayer, so I said I wanted to pray, which was true -- even though I was obviously not a Muslim -- and they let me in. You must take your shoes off and put a scarf over your head. The interior was radiant, with hand-painted blue tiles covering the walls.

Inside the Blue Mosque - Photo by Cat Bauer
Inside the Blue Mosque - Photo: Cat Bauer
Sultan Ahmed I ascended to the throne in 1603 when he was only 14-years-old. When he was 19, he commissioned the architect Sedefkar Mehmet Aga to build the mosque based on the design of the Byzantine Christian church Hagia Sophia, located a few minutes away. The mosque was constructed in about seven and a half years, from 1609-1617; Sultan Ahmed was so dedicated to his project that he personally worked as a laborer.

Hagia Sophia
The next day, I went to the Hagia Sophia, which means "Holy Wisdom." The Hagia Sophia was constructed as a Greek Orthodox Christian church under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537, which I find astounding. How did they built such a masterpiece in four and a half years?!

Constantine the Great mosaic in Hagia Sophia c. 1000
HISTORY REFRESHER: Roman Emperor Constantine I reunited the Empire under one emperor in 324, and was the first Roman emperor to legalize Christianity, eventually becoming a Christian himself. He did not consider Old Rome for his capital because of its declining infrastructure and dusty old monuments like the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. 

Constantine decided to found New Rome, or Constantinople, on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which was strategically located on the European side of the Strait of Bosporus, and closer to the geographic center of the Empire (can you image how humongous the Roman Empire was?). 

So, unlike pagan Rome, Constantinople was inspired by the Christian God aka Jesus Christ, although Constantine constructed plenty of temples to pagan deities. He died in 337 CE. In 391, Emperor Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
According to legend, Venice was founded at noon on March 25, 421. Before that, it was a bunch of islands in a lagoon, inhabited only by fishermen. Venice became a Byzantine territory, and then grew into a Republic.
The Western Roman Empire ended in 476.
The Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.

Jesus on the throne with 
Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos & Empress Zoe donating money
11th Century Mosaic in Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia remained Orthodox until 1204 when Constantinople was conquered by the Fourth Crusaders, led by the wily Venetian, the blind, 90-year-old Doge Enrico Dandolo -- who died in Constantinople and was buried in the church. It was then converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral, which it remained until 1261 when the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople, and put it back the way they wanted it -- Greek Orthodox.

Marker of the tomb of Enrico Dandolo
When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, he ordered that Hagia Sophia be turned into a mosque (and destroyed Enrico Dandolo's tomb). Then, the mosque morphed into a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led the Turkish War of Independence and transformed Turkey into a modern republic, becoming its first President.

It's an architectural miracle that Hagia Sophia is even standing after nearly 1500 years, let alone after going through all that chaos!

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Another reason I went to Istanbul was that I really wanted to experience the hamam, or Turkish Bath again, an experience that had a profound affect on me so many years ago. I stumbled on the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, which was built by the architect Sinan in 1584, and established by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Sultan Selim II and mother of Sultan Murat III.  

By researching this post, I have just discovered that there are several theories as to who Nurbanu Sultan was, and one of them is that she was Venetian! She was prominent under the era known as the Sultanate of Women, when women of nobility exerted strong political power in the Ottoman Empire. The most powerful women were the Sultan's mother, whose title was Valide Sultan, and his wife, whose title was Haseki Sultan. As a wife and a mother to two sultans, Nurbanu was both Haseki and Valide Sultan, a strong diplomatic force, communicating with the likes of Catherine de Medici, and maintaining relationships with European countries. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Back to the beautiful energy of the hamam. Men and women are divided into separate baths, which is a good thing because there is something truly divine about the female Turkish energy. They are strong, motherly and kind, with an impish sense of humor. First I was led upstairs to the dressing rooms, where I took off my clothes, put on a pair of black panties, wrapped a towel around me, and stepped into a pair of rubber slippers. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Then I was led into the hot room, and directed to lie upon the impressive marble slab among mostly Turkish women, who were in various stages of being scrubbed and washed. Naked except for the panties, I gazed up at the sunlight streaming through the circles in the dome and relaxed, listening to the chattering of the Turkish women. 

After about ten minutes, a lovely woman whose name sounded something like Susan used a loofa mitt to scrub the dead skin off my body. Susan did not speak much English, but she did manage to tell me that she was the mother of three using hand language. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Next, a bucket of bubbles was poured over me, which made me feel like a child being pampered by a loving mother. Susan washed and massaged my body, then led me over to a marble basin, where she washed my hair.

After that, I was led upstairs for an oil massage. Waiting for me was Halime with a grin on her face, eyes full of joy, who greeted me as if nothing could delight her more than to give me a massage. Halime had the perfect touch, and hit all the right spots, humming a Turkish tune the entire time. She struck a deep chord within me, sharing such beautiful feminine energy that it made me teary-eyed. It was the Mother Goddess come to life. In fact, the experience was so enchanting that I went back the next day and did it all again.
Inside the Harem

There were so many other rich experiences, too many for this post. The Sultan's Palace and its Harem, the Archaeology Museums, more mosques, the spicy food, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the Bosphorus, the streets filled with tame cats -- and tame dogs -- the Turkish coffee, the Turkish tea, the Turkish Delight, the silks, the gold, the mosaics. 

Istanbul was the perfect place to dash off to, that ancient city that spans both Europe and Asia, exotic and quixotic, crammed with the history of humanity. None of the internal turmoil within Turkey touched me at all; I was obviously American, and was welcome everywhere I went.

Turkish cats watching a big cat sneak up on a kitten in a tree
On the way back to the airport, I decided to try the new rail system, the Marmaray, which was about 30 seconds outside the hotel. I had to make one switch, and ended up chatting all the way to the airport with a Turk named Ali who lived in London. I remarked how friendly everybody was, and he said, "It is because you are a guest, and it is part of our culture to be good hosts to our guests."

When we arrived at the airport, we stopped outside for a smoke. A stranger came over and asked if we needed a light. "You see?" Ali said. "He doesn't know you or me. He only saw us searching for a lighter."

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A World of Enchantment at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice

Grand Canal from the Rooftop Terrace of T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
(Venice, Italy)  A great deal of my life in Venice has been spent living on the Grand Canal right at the Rialto Bridge, so the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, at the foot of the bridge, has been a major part of my personal landscape. It was my post office, where I waited in line to buy stamps, mail packages and pay my bills. It was enjoyable because many of my neighbors had to wait in the same lines, so going to the post office was like a social event.

T Fondaco dei Tedeschi - Photo: DFS
The Fondaco dei Tedeschi was originally constructed in 1228 as the headquarters and restricted living quarters for the German merchants in Venice, which was then the center of the world's trade. It was destroyed by fire, rebuilt in 1505 and 1508, and functioned as a palace, warehouse and market. Then, under Napoleon, it transformed into a customs house, and morphed into a post office under Mussolini.

Rialto Bridge currently being restored by Renzo Rosso from water entrance of DFS
Just about 17 years ago, on October 1, 1999, I moved into my apartment at San Polo 622 with a balcony that overlooked the Grand Canal, and a full-frontal view of the Rialto Bridge. As time went on, and unregulated tourism became more rampant, I witnessed various forces battle for control of Rialto area.

Aerial view Fondaco dei Tedeschi - Photo: Archdaily
In 2008, the post office sold the Fondaco dei Tedeschi to the powerful Benetton family of Treviso, who hired Rem Koolhaas, the renowned Dutch architect, and his firm, OMA, to transform the beloved structure into a shopping and cultural center. The next player in the picture was the DFS Group, the Hong Kong luxury travel retailer, a subsidiary of LVMH, the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate, headquartered in Paris.

The reconstruction took place behind covered scaffolding, closed to the public. Venetians are always suspicious of change, and braced for the worse.

Thursday night Gala at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
We have finally arrived in the year 2016. After a VIP bash on Thursday night, the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi once again opened to the public on Saturday, October 1st, and I am thrilled to report that it is teeming with excitement, magic and joy. The restoration of the structure itself is simply spectacular. When it was a post office, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi felt stark and Mussolini-like; now it feels bright and vibrant, like an elegant, exotic bazaar.

T Fondaco dei Tedeschi - Photo: Cat Bauer
Philippe Schaus, the Chairman & CEO of DFS was aware that they "were the guardian of something close to people's hearts," and took that responsibility seriously. According to The Moodie Davitt Report, Schaus said they had three major responsibilities:

1. To make sure that the architecture was consistent with its history.

2. To create something which adds value to Venice and elevates the profile of the city -- to add a dimension so people can stay in Venice longer, and don't need to go to Milan or Rome for shopping.

3. To bring a level of service to the building which that the customers of DFS have come to expect. They created 500 jobs, and had to decide how to fill them -- should they hire people away from other retailers, or train employees from scratch? 

Silva Shehata & Missoni scarves exclusive for the Fondaco
To me, the hiring was the most exciting element of the project -- DFS decided to recruit young people and give about half of them their very first job opportunity. According to the Nuova Venezia, over 400 people have been specially trained to work in the structure; half are in their first job; 80% have been given a permanent contract; and over 70% are women.

I spent several hours in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi on Saturday interviewing dozens of employees, and I have never met a group of people who were so excited and grateful for their jobs. It seemed like most nationalities, languages and skin colors were represented, from every continent in the world (maybe not Antarctica:-). Most of the employees I spoke to were from Venice or the Veneto. Even if they had been born in China, Brazil, India, Africa, Southern Italy or beyond, they had either stayed on after attending university here, or had arrived as children with their families.

The employees were professional, enthusiastic and courteous -- and remember, I was talking to them on their very first day on the job. A 25-year-old woman in the shoe department lowered her voice and said, "I want to tell you something. I have never had a job before in my life. We have created a entire world inside the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, filled with people from all over the globe. I see this not as just a job, but an opportunity for a career."

A tall, 23-year-old man, brimming with confidence, told me that he had been born in the Ospedale Civile, Venice's ancient hospital. This was not his first job, but it was the platform from which he wanted to launch the rest of his life. He said he wanted to be a manager, and, judging by his demeanor, he has a good chance of achieving his goal. Another young man told me that he was not sure, exactly, what he wanted to do with his life, but he was positive he wanted "to be in this world, the world of fashion."

Fiori from Venice & Giulia from Jesolo in cosmetics
What was personally rewarding was that I encountered people I know in everyday Venetian life, almost unrecognizable in their newly-styled look.

Up in cosmetics, a young Venetian woman smiled at me: "But I know you already. You go to my gym!"

Over men's fashions, a young Russian student told me, "But I know you already! From the library at the university."

As I was wafting through the perfume section, another young woman asked me if I wanted to try a scent.

"What is it?"

"The Merchant of Venice."

I paused, then grinned: "I know the owner of your company, Marco Vidal. You are in good hands. He is passionate about his product and about Venice."

Chinese-French DJ MIMI XU at opening gala T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
It was like a marvelous mini Venetian empire, filled with an international buzz, with a strong presence of the Far East. T Fondaco dei Tedeschi combines history, culture, luxury and local products under one roof, products that give back to the Venetian community. On the ground floor there are select wines and food, along with a splash of products created by local artisans and businesses.

For example, the Ceccato family has been around for four generations. The Venetian clothing brand, Emilio Ceccato, is the official supplier of gondoliers' uniforms, which you can buy yourselves -- that is a real Venetian souvenir. A percentage of each purchase goes directly into supporting the gondoliers of Venice, helping to keep the ancient profession alive. I was at the very first presentation of the official logo a couple years ago, and I was there when the gondoliers got their very first check, which I wrote about here:

News from Rialto - Gondoliers of Venice Go Global

Escalator at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
Philippe Starck, the legendary French designer who lives on the Venetian island of Burano, together with Massimiliano Alajmo, the legendary 3-star Michelin chef, and his legendary brother and partner, Raffaele -- they are responsible for the current Ristorante Quadri in Piazza San Marco -- have created a café/restaurant called "Amo," which means "I love" in Italian. The café part of Amo will open on October 15, and the restaurant part sometime in the near future. 

TIP: As soon as you enter the Fondaco, stop at the front desk and ask if you need a ticket to visit the rooftop terrace with a spectacular panoramic view of Venice. Due to space and safety, only a limited number of people are allowed up on the terrace at one time. They are still experimenting with the best way to control the line, so be warned that there could be a wait at the top anywhere from five to thirty minutes, or you might get lucky and score a singular view of Venice.

Once on the top floor, you will enter a contemporary cultural venue and meeting place, which kicked off with "Under Water," a video installation by the Italian artist, Fabrizio Plessi, a familiar face around Venice.

Ancient well in former medieval courtyard
The biggest complaints I've heard is that the ancient well that was in the center of the Fondaco was moved off-center, and that the floor is too contemporary and slick. I've also read some negative comments on the Internet. All I can say is that after living in Venice for nearly two decades, where gossip is an artful weapon, the only way to draw a correct conclusion is to witness something with your own eyes and ears, and form your own opinion.

OMA, the architectural firm founded by Rem Koolhaas, has created a page on its website filled with a description of the project, articles about the gala opening, images from social media and more, so click over there if you would like more information.

Cat Bauer on rooftop terrace of T Fondaco dei Tedeschi gala
Cat Bauer on terrace of T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
To me, the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi has pumped fresh blood into Rialto, the heart of Venice itself, a zone that was in desperate need for a transfusion.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog
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