Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dear Venezia, Happy New Year to You!

Neptune Offering Gifts to Venice by Giambattista Tiepolo (c.1748)
(Venice, Italy) That image you see, Neptune Offering Gifts to Venice, by Giambattista Tiepolo is my favorite image of Venice, and can be found in the Palazzo Ducale.

That image speaks as much today as it did about 300 years ago. Neptune yearns to buy his way into Venice's secrets. It is not the right approach. Venice holds back the sea Himself with a firm, seductive finger, her arm draped upon a lion's head. She is vulnerable, yet strong. She is sensuous, yet particular. She is not off-limits -- she can be had -- but not simply for a cornucopia full of coins.

Today is Venice's birthday. She was born on March 25, 421 at twelve o'clock noon at Rialto. March 25th was also celebrated as New Years Day in England not that long ago -- up until 1752. It falls very close to the Vernal Equinox, and the first day of spring. It is also marks the Annunciation, the day that Gabriel (the angel) told Mary that she was going to give birth to the Son of God. So, March 25th is a particular kind of day.

From Wikipedia:

In Christianity, the Annunciation (Ancient Greek: Εὐαγγελισμὸς τῆς Θεοτόκου, Euangelismós tēs Theotókou) is the revelation to Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the angel Gabriel that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God. Some Christian churches celebrate this with the Feast of Annunciation on March 25, which as the Incarnation is nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Jesus, or Christmas. The date of the Annunciation also marked the New Year in many places, including England (where it is called Lady Day).

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday, dear Venice
Buon compleanno a Te.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog

Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE IDES OF MARCH - Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice

Venus with a Mirror by Titian (1555)

(Venice, Italy) There was a time, about 500 years ago, when a pack of uber-talented individuals lived and worked in Venice. Here in Europe, the artists Titian (1488-1576), Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Veronese (1528-1588) are household names, but many Americans have never heard of them.

Thanks to Hollywood, most Americans know that Michelangelo (1475-1564) painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, in addition to sculpting a statue or two like David and La Pietà. Thanks to the Da Vinci Code, we know that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) painted the Mona Lisa, now in the Louvre, and The Last Supper in Milano, as well as figuring out the Answer to Life in his spare time. Now, thanks to Frederick Ilchman, assistant curator of European painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Jean Habert and Vincent Delieuvin, curators at the Louvre, these three brilliant artists -- Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese -- who were centered in Venice, have arrived together in America for one spectacular show.

I will confess that I have a little bit of a crush on Frederick Ilchman, and now that he has dropped this magnificient bomb in Boston, my admiration has grown even greater. Opening today, the Ides of March, and running through August 16th is the exhibition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice. I'm sure that Frederick's unique perspective helps to make the show the great success it appears to be. This is from Holland Cotter's May 12, 2009 article Passion of the Moment: A Triptych of Masters from the New York Times:

BOSTON — You can pretty much kiss goodbye, at least for now, the prospect of more exhibitions like “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice,” which opens Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts here. Transatlantic loans of the kind that make this show the breathtaker it is are a big drain on strapped museum budgets. Boston was lucky to partner with the Louvre on this project, but such masterpiece gatherings are likely to be rare in years to come. Catch them while they’re hot.

Suzannah and the Elders by Tintoretto (1555)
I have often wondered why Venetian history is not taught in the school system in America, yet we learn so much about Rome -- even Florence. I think we need to go back to the Italian Wars -- the League of Cambrai in particular -- to understand a bit about this critical moment in time. From Wikipdedia:

The Italian Wars, often referred to as the Great Italian Wars or the Great Wars of Italy in historical works, were a series of conflicts from 1494 to 1559 that involved, at various times, most of the city-states of Italy, the Papal States, most of the major states of Western Europe (France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and Scotland) as well as the Ottoman Empire. Originally arising from dynastic disputes over the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, the wars rapidly became a general struggle for power and territory among their various participants, and were marked with an increasing degree of alliances, counter-alliances, and regular betrayals.

To read the entire article, click here:

The League of Cambrai itself, in 1509, could be titled The Entire World vs. Venice. This is from John Julius Norwich's superb book, A History of Venice, describing when Pope Julius issued a Bull on April 27, 1509:

Venice, he thundered, had become so puffed up with pride as to molest her neighbours and invade their territories, including those of the Holy See itself; she had given shelter to rebels against the Vicar of Christ; she had flouted the law of the Church and his own specific commands with regard to his bishops and clergy, imprisoning them and sending them into exile according to her whim; finally, at a time when he, the Pope, was striving to unite all Christian peoples against the Infidel, she had deliberately obstructed his efforts for her own profit and advancement. Accordingly he proposed to declare a solemn excommunication and interdict against her, permitting any other state or person to attack or despoil her or any of her subjects, to obstruct her traffic on land or sea and to do her all possible harm and hurt, if within twenty-four days she did not make full restitution.

Venice dealt with the new sentence as she had the last, refusing to accept it, forbidding its publication in her territory, and announcing -- by means of a proclamation nailed by two of her agents to the door of St. Peter's -- her intention of appealing to a Council.

Oh, those enterprising Venetians, always manuevering around the rules. There is confusion about Titian's actual age, but we can assume he would have been in his early 20s about this time. So, during the period these artists were working, there were often military battles being fought in the background releasing all kinds of energy, which many brilliant minds transformed into masterpieces of art, architecture and literature that still exist today.

For example, long before New York City came into existence, Venice was the center of the publishing industry. The deeply respected Aldus Manutius published the mysterious Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in 1499. The writer Pietro Archino (1492-1556), one of Titian's best buddies, caused all sorts of havoc with his erotic works. Architects such as Sansovino (1486-1570) and Palladio (1508-1580) trod the calli; Leonardo da Vinci himself was hired by Venice as a military engineer in 1500, inventing schemes to undermine the Turks. The Rialto Bridge as we know it today was only an idea in 1503, finally brought to fruition in 1591 -- I just walked out on the balcony and took a gander at it -- so, yup, it's still there:)

Plans were offered by famous architects such as Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio and Vignola, but all involved a Classical approach with several arches, which was judged inappropriate to the situation. Even the great Michelangelo was considered as designer of the bridge. The present stone bridge, a single span designed by Antonio da Ponte, was finally completed in 1591.

Okay. Have you got your bearings in Time? 16th-century Venice may seem long, long ago to a country as young as America, but it is just yesterday here in a town where many creations from that point in time still exist today. In today's disposable world, perhaps we can learn something from these wise folks who created masterpieces that are still standing.

More from Holland Cotter:

Venus at her Toilette by Veronese (c.1582)
In a gallery of female nudes with skin so incandescent as to barely need lighting, eroticism floats like a scent. For the first time in European art we see paint itself used as an impassioned material, the instrument of fervid hands and inflamed personalities.
The show is about three such personalities: Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian; Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto; and Paolo Caliari, called Veronese. All three shot off sparks as they reforged painting as a medium. And all three had feverishly competitive overlapping careers.
These masters of 16th-century Venetian painting were no Holy Trinity. They were a discordant ménage-a-trois bound together by envy, talent, circumstances and some strange version of love.
These three artists (and many others in various mediums) consumed the explosive energy surrounding them and spat it out onto the canvas. Unlike today, with so many people moving in a somnambulent stupor, Venice was teeming with life! Instead of crushing the creative spirit and mashing it into one giant void of sameness, the Powers that Be understood that by supporting these unique, eccentric and often difficult personalities, they encouraged the flame of life itself to brighten humanity's view.

Holland Cotter adds in another element as to why this creative explosion took place -- the Venetian's use of oil to paint:

Before the 16th century Italian art was dominated by two cities, Florence and Rome, and by two kinds of painting: fresco and egg tempera — water-based, fast-drying, smooth-surfaced — on wood. Venice lay outside this mainstream. Fresco wasn’t viable in the city’s humid atmosphere; tempera had problems too. Then, at the end of the 15th century, oil painting, still little known in the rest of Italy, was introduced, and Venetian art caught fire.

When I was writing Harley's Ninth, I asked Geoff Leckie, an American artist here in Venice, if I could observe his process, and he generously agreed. I watched in fascination as he ground the pigments with a mortar and pestol, combining minerals and clay such as Lapis lazuli and burnt umber together with linseed oil. The canvas, too, was alive, made from sheets of linen. As he worked, I realized that an oil painting was a living, breathing thing, alive with pigments and natural materials, together with the artist's soul.

Also, oil paint was physically different from other paint. Because it was slow drying, artists could rethink and revise as they went. (The show has a fascinating section on pictures buried under other pictures.) And its controllable density and weight allowed each stroke to leave a distinctive and volatile trace, like the ink line in handwriting.

To read all of Holland Cotter's excellent article, click here:

So, when you go to Boston to visit the exhibition, you will be seeing the actual souls of of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese there on the canvas. You will see their fervent swirls there in the paint. You will feel the Italian Wars in the background, and the Pope battling with the Doge. You will feel the fiery relationship the artists had with each other, and the passion for life that kept Venice alive while the entire world attempted to destroy her.

You will feel the soul of Venice herself.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog

(The three images of the ladies gazing into the mirror you see are Top: Titian's Venus with a Mirror, Center: Tintoretto's Suzannah and the Elders, Bottom: Veronese's Venus at her Toilette.)
To visit the exhibit's official website at the Museum of Fine Art, click here:

Friday, March 6, 2009

Vampires in Venice

(Venice, Italy) I have been threatening to write a book called Vampires in Venice for a long time now -- in fact, I just read the first Stephenie Meyer Twilight book to prepare. Vampires are very big in my genre; it seems like every YA writer has climbed on the vampire bandwagon. Whenever another vampire book arrives on the scene, I think, HHmmph. You guys don't know nothin.' We got real vampires over here, baby, not some weeny American vampires. Our vampires are thousands of years old. They are professionals, and do not seek the spotlight like the Hollywood vampires do. Our vampires are distinguished, love to listen to classical music and have learned how to drink red wine instead of blood.

Now, today, after 500 years, we finally have some proof:

(ANSA) - Rome, March 6 - The remains of a 'vampire' have been found in a grave in Venice lagoon, an Italian forensic anthropologist has claimed.
That image you see is an ANSA photo depicting the proper way one must impale a vampire -- through the mouth with a brick, not through the heart with a stake as they do in America. Because, of course, the point is to get them to stop sucking blood, which is difficult to do with a brick in one's mouth.

It was thought that these vampires, who were buried next to the bodies of plague victims, fed on their dead neighbours until they felt strong enough to rise from the grave and begin feeding on the living, perpetuating the cycle of contamination.
Gravediggers were therefore responsible for identifying possible vampire women among the dead by signs of shroud-chewing around the mouth and impaling them with a brick to stop them feeding, according to Borrini.
The woman's skeleton was found in mass grave of victims of the Venetian plague of 1576 - in which the artist Titian also died - on the small island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. Venice authorities had designated the island a quarantine hospital in 1468 following an earlier plague epidemic.

Click here to read the entire article:

In the article, you will notice that the plague was blamed on the female vampires, not on the males. That is an outright Venetian myth designed to confuse you. It is an old Venetian trick to say one thing, but do exactly the opposite. In fact, it's perfectly legal to behave in such a fashion, and if you can get away with such behavior, you get extra bonus points. Believe me, there are just as many male vampires as there are female vampires. In fact, I would say males outnumber the females 3 to 1.
[UPDATE APRIL 3, 2017 - That link no longer works, nor do many others on this dusty post. However, there is an update to the story on the National Geographic site.]

The Plague of 1576 is the plague that inspired one of Venice's most beloved holidays and famous churches -- Redentore. From the Comune's website:

The plague In the three years between 1575 and 1577 the Serenissima was tormented by the plague: aided by the high density of the population, the disease spread through the city, causing terrible losses. Almost 50,000 died, which was more than a third of the city's inhabitants.

That image you see of the man with a hat and a beak and a wand is a plague doctor. The beak was stuffed with medicinal herbs, etc. to keep the doctor from catching the plague.

The vow On September 4, 1576, the Senate decided that the Doge should announce the vow to erect a church dedicated to the Redentore (Redeemer), in return for help in ending the plague.

The end of the plague On July 13, 1577, the plague was declared definitively over and it was decided that the city's liberation from the terrible disease should be celebrated on the third Sunday in July.

Ah, those were the days! When doctors ran around dressed as birds with long beaks, and gravediggers smashed bricks into the mouths of female vampires to stop them from munching on dead plague victims. Just think: we still celebrate the Redentore holiday today!

You regular readers will remember we had a little discussion about the Church of Redentore before, which was designed by Palladio. The blog was entitled (by strange coincidence): "Where's the Blood?"

The vampire depicted in the top photo was discovered out on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. You must take Vaporetto 13 to get there, and if you think I am joking about the number, I am not. You can wander out there and visit the island, which is, in reality, full of precious archaeological discoveries.

Guided tours to Lazzaretto Nuovo, which enable the visitor to trace the historical and archaeological route of the boundary wall, and to enjoy the natural beauty of the site along the “barena”, the typical venetian sandbank, take place from April to October on Saturdays and Sundays at 9.45 am and 4.00 pm (corrispondence with Actv line 13, from Venezia – Fondamente Nuove at 9.00am and 3.30 pm; from Treporti at 9.07 am and 3.22 pm).

You can even take an archaeological vacation. It sounds so fascinating, I think I'll head out there some day soon and report back. Here's their website:

And don't worry. Venetian vampires do not drink the blood of the average tourist. After consuming too much McDonald's and other fast food, humanity's diet has gotten so tasteless their blood is almost undrinkable for our poor vampires.

Venetian vampires prefer to snack on your soul.
Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Palazzo Mocenigo - The Lives of Spaces (Lucia in the Age of Napoleon by Andrea di Robilant)

(Venice, Italy) I nominate Andrea di Robilant for American Ambassador to Italy, or Italian Ambassador to the United States, whichever position becomes available first. He is an international treasure and should be paid a pot of gold and a rainbow to bridge the gap between the cultures. Son of an American mother and an Italian father, Andrea's ancestors also include two of the most ancient noble families in Venice, the Memmos and the Mocenigos. Most importantly, he has a tri-cultural sense of humor.

That image you see is of Palazzo Mocenigo, and was shot by Carlo Naya back in the mid-1800s when photography was in its infancy. "The Lives of Spaces" was the name of Ireland’s participation at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale last year, and inspired my thought that Palazzo Mocenigo -- the space itself -- is a fertile backdrop for many Venetian stories right up until the present day. There's a whole lotta ghosts running around over there.

Last Monday, I heard Andrea speak in English over at UNESCO about his latest book, Lucia in the Age of Napoleon. (Sitting next to me at the lecture were the current tenants of Palazzo Mocenigo, which made it even more surreal, though I do believe they were human beings, not ghosts:) This past Monday evening I caught the end of Andrea's talk in Italian, Lucia nel tempo di Napoleone, over at Ateneto Veneto. The first talk was so entertaining, I immediately read the book (in English). Andrea had some fascinating ancestors who also happened to be clever writers.

This is from the Prologue:

When I was growing up I sometimes heard my grandfather mention Lucia Mocenigo, my Venetian great-great-great-great-grandmother, who was known in the family as Lucietta. Her name usually came up in connection with Lord Byron, to whom she rented the piano nobile of her palazzo during his scandalous time in Venice. I learnt more about her many years later, while doing research on her father, Andrea Memmo, whose epic love story with the beautiful Giustiniana Wynne in the 1750s was the subject of my last book, A Venetian Affair.

You regular readers might remember hearing about Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne (another fab female writer) in the Venetian Cat Views on Venice blog. Perhaps you might want to have a look at that blog again so you can get a sense of just how small this town is, not only in space, but in time. In fact, you might want to get yourselves a pencil right now and keep a score card:)

If you've read Andrea's first book, A Venetian Affair, the second, Lucia, about Memmo's daughter, is even better. Andrea began his talk, and his book, Lucia in the Age of Napoleon, wondering why the enormous statue of Napoleon is inside the entrance of Palazzo Mocenigo.

And that is everyone's first reaction: what in tarnation is that thing doing there? Then you sort of don't notice it anymore, the way you wouldn't notice a pink elephant if it were always there.

Here is Andrea's description:

The statue, wedged into a corner, faces a damp wall in the androne (water-level entrance) of Palazzo Mocenigo, the venerable old palazzo on the Grand Canal which once belonged to my family. The emperor is clad in a Roman toga. His left arm is extended forward, as if he were pointing to a luminous future, though in fact he stares vacuously at the peeling wall in front of him. A mantle of dark grey soot has settled on to his shoulders, and a slab of roughly hewn marble links the raised arm to the head, giving the statue an unfinished look. It is hard to imagine a more incongruous presence than the one of a youthful Napoleon standing sentinel in that humid hallway to the sound of brackish water slapping and sloshing in the nearby canal.

Back in 2001, when I was writing for the IHT-Italy Daily, I saw the statue for the first time. I had just submitted a piece about Vivaldi, and was on vacation in Croatia, splashing sweetly in the sea by Rovinj, when my editor in Milano called. He said my editor in NYC was not happy with the piece, and could I please rewrite it? Vivaldi was too old, too dusty; he wanted something more contemporary. "Oh, sure. No problem," I said, and tossed my cell phone to a baby shark.

Seriously, I think I had two days when I got back to Venice to tweak the piece, and I decided to write about composers in Venice in general (subtitled: The Music of Vivaldi and Many Modern Composers Attest to the Serenissima's Rich Musical Tradition -- and no, I did not write that!).

A friend said he knew a Spanish pianist who lived in Lord Byron's former apartment. Enrique Pérez de Guzmàn graciously granted me an interview inside the very rooms you see there. I mixed the story into the previous Vivaldi piece, tossed and served. My slave-driving editor in NYC, Claudio Gatti, was pleased.

This is from the IHT-Italy Daily September 7, 2001:

"I was bitten by Venice," said Pérez de Guzmán. "I fell in love with the city. You establish a rapport -- it gives you a peaceful feeling so that you can create. You absorb all the beauty and peace that Venice gives you, and incorporate it into your own work, then give it back to the world. To create your own music, to find peace of mind in order to create a new repertoire or to get ready for the season, Venice is ideal.

For centuries, artists and musicians have come to Venice for inspiration. Wagner composed the second act of 'Tristan und Isolde' here for many of the same reasons, I imagine. Tchaikowsky was here, Mozart, Goethe, Ezra Pound and John Ruskin. Lord Byron wrote the first two cantos of his masterpiece 'Don Juan' right here in these rooms. Benjamin Britten and Arthur Rubinstein have played the piano in my drawing room. Some of the greatest talents in the world have held private concerts in this palazzo."

A few years later I had a regatta party at my house -- it could have been for the Vogalonga because I vaguely remember Enrique wearing something stripey inspired by that theme. Pierre Higonnet, who then owned the Galleria del Leone over on Giudecca, brought Andrea di Robilant as his guest. And that, folks, is how Andrea di Robilant met Enrique Pérez de Guzmàn, who was living inside Andrea's family's former home (which included Lord Byron's apartment in Palazzo Mocenigo) and that is how I met Andrea.

(Think of it like this: you grow up in your grandparent's home. Things change. People die. Other people now live in your home. Now you live somewhere else on the planet. But you still yearn for those old familiar childhood memories. Many years later, you visit your hometown. You go to a party. You meet someone, and they are now living in your old home. Venice is like that.)

Andrea writes about Lucia Mocenigo's most famous tenant, Lord Byron:

Lucia and Byron parted on very unfriendly terms, yet in a way the poet never really left Palazzo Mocenigo, or Venice for that matter, and still today his spirit hovers over the city he helped to resurrect. Venice was dead when he arrived in 1816, and the Austrians had no intention of spending money or effort to revive it... It was Byron, a stranger to Lucia's Venetian world, who gave the city a new life by turning those sinking ruins into an existential landscape -- an island of the soul...

What Lord Byron wrote upon exiting Palazzo Mocenigo:

I have replenished three times over and made good by the equivalent of the doors and canal posts any little damage to her pottery. If any articles were taken by mistake, they shall be restored or replaced; but I will submit to no exorbitant charge nor imposition. What she may do I neither know nor care; if they like the law they shall have it for years to come, and if they gain, what then? They will find it difficult to 'shear the wolf' no longer in Venice. They are a damned, infamous set... a nest of whores and scoundrels.

Even today, palaces and artistocracy hold a great fascination for travelers to Venice, as does the Age of Napoleon. During Carnival, guests plop down hundreds -- if not thousands -- of euro to dress up as aristocrats and reinact the balls, a curious phenomenon to American eyes, since it is not part of our system. Gilbert von Studnitz, a German nobleman, begins his precise explanation of European aristocracy with this sentence: The German system of nobility, as indeed the European system in general, is quite different from the English system with which most Americans are familiar.

I will confess as to being completely confused myself, since there seem to be all sorts of creatures running around Venice with titles at any given moment, behaving in the strangest fashion.

This is where Lucia in the Age of Napoleon comes in handy. Not only was Lucia a Memmo herself, descended from one of the oldest families in Venice, she had married a Mocenigo, a family who had produced a whopping seven Doges for the Venetian Republic, plus she had lived through the Venetian Republic's collapse, through Napoleon, through the Austrian Empire -- all the way through to Lord Byron -- and she kept notes!

For example, after she became lady-in-waiting to Empress Josephine's daughter-in-law, Princess Augusta, this is what she wrote in a letter to her sister, Paolina:

I lead the dullest existence, rushing from my apartment to Court and from Court to my apartment. What does one do at Court? Well, the evenings in which we have Grand cercel (Large Circle) we tend to sit around for about an hour before moving to the gaming room. When the card-playing is over the Princess rises, says a few nice words to us and I run back home as fast as I can. When we have Petit cercle ( Small Circle) only those attached to the Court are invited. The evening usually begins with a session of baby-watching: we crowd around ten-month-old Josephine, Princess of Bologna, as she plays in her pen. Very interesting...

It was educational to read how the family routinely switched loyalties and languages between France and Austria, depending on which was more prudent. Even more enlightening was how intelligent, enterprising and educated Lucia was. In general, Lucia led a lonely existence, since her husband, Alvise, left her alone for long periods of time. She had several miscarriages before they finally produced an heir, a son, Alvisetto, who also died young.

But then, Lucia did something extraordinary -- she fell in love with a dashing, daring Irish-Austrian Colonel with the Hollywood name of Baron Maximilian Plunkett. They began a secret love affair, which produced a secret son! Maximilian died gloriously in a rain of French bullets two days after his son was christened.

Lucia's husband, Alvise, didn't find out for four years; of course, he was furious when he did. But, ultimately, he was pragmatic. Being without an heir himself, he decided to change the boy's name (which was Massimiliano) to Alvise, or Alvisetto (I guess we can call him Alvisetto Due), and turn his wife's lover's son into a Mocenigo. Oh, those wacky aristocrats!

This is from an interview that Andrea did with Robert Murphy for W Magazine:

Most stunningly, perhaps, di Robilant's book blows the cover off a two-hundred-year-old family secret. While examing archives in Venice, he discovered that Lucia's only son to survive infancy, theretofore presumed legitimate, was actually the fruit of an illicit union with an alluring Irish-Austrian officer. "For a long while I wondered why my father had red sideburns," said di Robilant. "Everything that brings out the truth is good. It puts into perspective all this crap about blood and legitimacy. Who would have figured that I was part Irish?"

(That gorgeous image you see of Andrea di Robilant was taken by Pamela Berry

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog