Monday, July 25, 2016

The Merchant of Venice in Venice, Italy

The Merchant of Venice at Hotel Danieli - Photo by Mirco Toffolo
(Venice, Italy) When William Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice around 1596-98, a Jew had not lived legally in England for more than 300 years, and the Jews in Venice had been consigned to the ghetto. So when Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, demands a pound of flesh after a Venetian merchant defaults on a loan, Shakespeare knew he was dropping his characters into dynamite, a setting which still raises explosive issues up until the present day.

Shylock - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
A streamlined version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was presented on the opulent ground floor of the Hotel Danieli on Wednesday night, July 20, the marble columns of the 14th century Palazzo Dandolo creating a natural setting for a "story about friendship, money, revenge, hatred and love."

Presented as a staged reading in partnership with Kings Theatre Portsmouth, the show was a production of the Teatro Stabilie del Veneto - Teatro Nazionale, in association with the Federation of the Friends of Israel Associations and the Hotel Danieli, so there was a lot of cooperation between different entities to get the tale on its feet.

The production commemorates the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice in 1516, and the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 1616, a hundred years later.

At the time The Merchant of Venice was written, Jews had been banished from England since King Edward I's Edict of Expulsion in 1290, the main reason being that Jews were practicing usury, or charging interest on loans, particularly loans with land as collateral -- in cahoots with the barons -- which, after doing some research, utterly simplifies a very complex situation, too complicated to delve into here. If you would like to do some research on your own, you might start with the unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

Narrator - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
In the version presented at the Danieli, many of the characters were eliminated from the original text, and the action moved along briskly with the use of a narrator. At the fast pace, what became more apparent was how human and deeply complex all the main characters were, and how relevant the story is to this very day. The roles of Jews, the banking system, as well as women in society are current topics of discussion, as they were centuries ago. And is Antonio, the merchant of Venice, actually gay?

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, again, I'll let you do your own research -- if you don't want to read Shakespeare, you can watch the 2004 film starring Al Pacino as Shylock, set in Venice. Here is a clip of the famous, powerful speech (for email subscribers, click here):

In the streamlined version adapted by Sophia Pauly and directed by Paolo Valerio, I was most impressed that 430 years ago Shakespeare wrote such a strong female character like Portia, who dresses up as a man, poses as a lawyer, and logically and concisely argues in court to save the life of the man who just might be her scheming husband's lover. Not only is Portia beautiful and wealthy, she is also super-intelligent.

Portia - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
What is even more astonishing is that at the time Shakespeare created Portia, not a single woman had ever received a laureate from a university. Though there were educated women, the first woman in the world to be awarded a Ph.D. degree after a public examination was a Venetian, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who received a Doctorate of Philosophy on June 25, 1678. Elena's father, Gian Battista Cornaro, was a powerful Venetian nobleman who was not permitted to marry her mother because she was a commoner, though he repeatedly tried to legitimize his family -- even the nobility was subject to restrictions on their lives by the Venetian Republic. As the daughter of a man of great wealth, Elena's brilliance was admired and honored throughout Europe. In fact, we can also commemorate the 332 anniversary of Elena's death, which will be tomorrow, July 26.

And, of course, there is the eternal question of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh, and whether or not The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic.

Antonio & Bassanio - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
To me, we should also examine the character of Bassanio, a Venetian nobleman who schemes to marry Portia, a wealthy heiress, to get out of debt. Bassanio hits up Antonio, his beloved friend, for the cash to pose as a contender. Antonio's funds are all tied-up in ships at sea, but he agrees to guarantee a loan -- which is where Shylock, the Jewish money-lender comes in. If it weren't for Bassanio's duplicitous behavior in the first place, who uses not only his best friend, but his own wife to solve his financial problems, Shylock would never have come into the picture.

The evening began with a Kaddish, a hymn of praises to God in the Jewish prayer service, which the audience was asked to stand and recite in Italian. The main goal of the Federazione delle Associazioni Italia-Israel is to help people learn about the cultural, political and social life of the State of Israel, and to foster the development of friends with Italy.

The narration of the condensed story of The Merchant of Venice was in both English and Italian, as was the program, so the audience could follow the dialogue, which was all in English. I studied Shakespeare many years ago, and was thrilled for the opportunity to hear the Bard's words in English, in Venice, where the play is set.

After the show, we were treated to a delightful array of Merchant of Venice-themed food, a cocktail dinner with nibbles named things like "Three chest of gold, silver and lead" -- skewers of chicken, guinea fowl and goose; "Mirth and laughter" -- mixed fried fish; and Artichokes à la Shylock, washed down by Pommery Brut Royal Kosher Champagne.

Photo: Mirco Toffolo
The Merchant of Venice at the Danieli was one of several performances set to take place this year in Venice, the city where Shakespeare set the play.

On Wednesday, July 27, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court Justice herself, will play the presiding judge in Shylock's Appeal, a mock trial that will reconsider the judgment against the Jewish money-lender. Six performances of The Merchant of Venice will be presented in the actual Venice Ghetto from July 26 to 31.  In a side event, Ginsburg will chair the bench of five jurists who will hear Shylock's 2016 appeal. I have always adored Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and am eager to learn how the appeal is resolved.

UPDATE July 28, 2016: You can read the article by Rachel Donadio in the New York Times to learn the result of the mock appeal: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Presides Over Shylock's Appeal.

Venice Ghetto today - Photo: Cat Bauer
Then, October 19 through 21, the Globe Theatre's production of The Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce will be performed at the Goldoni Theatre here in Venice. I just read the New York Times review by Charles Isherwood dated July 22, 2016 of the Lincoln Center performance, and it appears that The Merchant of Venice is undergoing an international makeover:

"...Mr. Pryce’s Shylock, meanwhile, evinces little rage and thirst for vengeance — he knows better than to fall into the traps laid for him — but instead argues his case with a measured rationality that, despite its monstrous consequences, never feels tinged with unbridled malice. 

On the other hand, Portia — disguised as the lawyer Bassanio [sic: Bassanio is Portia's husband; she is disguised as the lawyer Balthazar], arguing for the life of Antonio — seems almost sadistic when she gives her verdict in Shylock’s favor, only to reverse herself at the last minute and, with cool calculation, assert that Shylock himself is guilty of trying to take the life of a Christian. Mr. Pryce’s confusion and abasement are painful to watch, as Antonio seems to relish his control over his persecutor’s fate, allowing him to live only if he converts to Christianity."

Does this mean we must reinterpret The Merchant of Venice once again in the near future, focusing next time on the role of Portia and the education of women in society throughout history?

A tale from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, direction by Paolo Valerio, adaptation by Sophia Pauly, was performed at the Hotel Danieli Luxury Collection Venezia on July 20, 2016, featuring Stephanie Dickson, Enzo Forleo, Joe Parker, Sophia Pauly, Grant Reeves and Sabrina Reale on piano.

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Today is the Feast of Redentore in Venice! The Day in Pictures

(Venice, Italy) After last night's spectacular fireworks display, today is the actual day of the Festa del Redentore, a purely Venetian holiday to give thanks for deliverance from the plague back in 1577.

(For those of you who subscribe by email, and cannot view the video, here is the link, a short click away:)

You can read my previous thoughts about Redentore here:

Cat Bauer in Venice talks about the Festa del Redentore 

Since I have written about Redentore so often before, today is going to be a visual post. It is a beautiful day here in Venice, clear and hot, with throngs making their way over the floating bridge, their feet keeping the beat to the chimes of the Redentore bells, as the sunshine dances on the waves of the Giudecca Canal.

(Again, here is the link to the video, complete with bell chimes:

Everybody was up late last night because the fireworks don't start until 11:30pm, but that didn't seem to stop most folks from making the trek across to the Island of Giudecca to pay their respects inside the Church of Redentore, designed by the renowned architect, Andrea Palladio.

Once across the bridge, at the entrance of the church there are baskets full of shawls to toss across your shoulders if they are bare.

Inside, the church is all decked out for the special Votive Mass of the Redeemer, celebrated by the patriarch, as has been done for centuries.

Trays of candles flicker expressions of thanks.

Redentore Bridge - Giudecca view
This is the view of Venice from the entrance to the Church of Redetore. To arrive at the top, 15 spiritually-significant steps must climbed. The bridge stretching across the canal all the way to Venice reinforces the importance of the celebration. 

One of my favorite things to play is Pesca di Beneficenza, fishing for charity, or a lucky dip. You pay a euro,and a volunteer (or, today, a Capuchin friar, the Order in charge of the Church of Redentore) spins the barrel, and hands you a small, rolled-up scroll with a number or a word on it. Then you go inside to collect your winnings.

Everybody plays, young and old, boys and girls, men and women, and everybody wins something. If you draw a specific number, you get a specific prize, or else you get a grab bag kind of treasure. In the past, I have won some very useful items, like wooden stirring spoons, or a pad and pencil. 

Today my scroll said "tigre," or "tiger." Apparently, that was the designation for a type of grab bag. A boy about 12-years-old took my opened scroll, scurried away, and brought back a colorful bag tied by a pink bow. 

Here is what was inside my bag of loot, which I'm sure I would find very useful if I were a 12-year-old girl:

Meanwhile, the rowing regatta out on the Giudecca Canal captivated spectators on land and water. After all, what would a celebration in Venice be without a rowing regatta?

It was a beautiful, peaceful day inside the cocoon of the Venice lagoon -- something greatly appreciated, especially when much of the outside world seems stricken by turbulence.

Ciao from the Festa del Redentore in Venice,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Cat Bauer in Venice talks about the Festa del Redentore

Fireworks for the Feast of Redentore 2015 - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Contrary to what some people think, the Feast of Redentore is not held on the third weekend of July. It takes place on the third Sunday of July, with the festivities starting the Saturday before.

Back in the year 2001, I was writing for the International Herald Tribune's Italian supplement, Italy Daily. That year, the first Sunday of July was July 1. That meant the third Sunday was July 15, but the third Saturday was July 21 -- therefore, July 22nd was the fourth Sunday, even though it was the third weekend. The correct date of Redentore that year was Sunday, July 15, with celebrations starting the day before on Saturday, July 14 -- the second Saturday of July, 2001.

Calendar for July, 2001

This year, 2016, the Festa del Redentore takes place on Sunday, July 17, with the celebrations starting the day before on what happens to be the third Saturday, July 16. The feast is to commemorate the official end of the plague on July 13, 1577, 439 years ago.

Got all that?

Church of Redentore - Photo: Cat Bauer
As I have written many times before, the Festa del Redentore translates to the Feast of the Redeemer. The Church of Redentore was built as a votive church to give thanks for delivery from the plague, which had devastated Venice in the years between 1575 and 1577, wiping out nearly a third of the population, even taking the life of the great Venetian artist, Titian.

  • The Death - On August 27, 1576. Tiziano Vecellio, aka Titian, died of fever during the raging plague. Now, I'm not saying that was the reason the Senate decided to build a church, but I think it is interesting they did so about a week later.
  • The Vow - On September 4, 1576, the Venetian Senate decided that Doge Alvise I Mocenigo should announce that a church would be built for Christ the Redeemer in exchange for ending the plague. So, they decided IN ADVANCE that the only way out was to ask for divine intervention.
  •  The Cornerstone - On May 3, 1577, the cornerstone was laid (more on that later).
  • The End of the Plague - On July 13, 1577, two months later, the plague was officially declared over.
  • The Consecration - The Church of Redentore was consecrated on September 27, 1592.

The Church of Redentore was built on the site of the Church of San Jacopo, not the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, a sweet little ancient church that still stands on the Island of Giudecca, tucked away from most eyes, and is used by the Capuchin Friars to this day.

Pantheon - Photo: by Roberta Dragan
Il Redentore was designed by the great architect, Andrea Palladio, who, by that time, had already built the new Refectory inside the Benedictine monastery on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, as well as designed the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, which was in the process of being built at the time the Church of Redentore was ordered up. Palladio's career was strongly inspired by a book he had read written by Vitruvius in the first century BC called De Architectura that had been recently republished in Venice in 1511 (1500 years later), detailing how the ancient Romans built things like temples.

I went into some depth about it in a post I wrote about Aldo Manuzio, which you can read here:

MUST SEE - Aldo Manuzio - Renaissance in Venice - EXTENDED UNTIL JULY 31

To completely over-simplify, if Palladio had had his way, the Church of Redentore would have been round like Pantheon in Rome, but he was overruled by the Venetian Senate, who thought it was too pagan, so what we've got is a single nave church with three chapels on either side, and a Pantheon-inspired facade with an ancient Roman bath-inspired interior. (By the way, Palladio did get to build his dream temple at Villa Barbaro, one of the last things he did.)

Church of Redentore
Such an important church would have had its cornerstone laid by the highest ecclesiastical authority in the Republic of Venice, the Patriarch of Venice, not by Palladio, who, even though he was a genius, was not an aristocrat, although he had the support of some very powerful members of the nobility.

The cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. For ecclesiastical structures, it is symbolic of Christ, the "Chief Cornerstone of the Church." When a cornerstone is set, it is often accompanied by official pomp and circumstance, even to this day. All other stones are set in reference to the cornerstone.

Christ the Redeemer by Titian (1534)
The Patriarch of Venice was not just some guy sent over from Rome. From the middle of the 15th century, the office was held by a Venetian patrician elected from the Senate. Surprisingly, he was usually a layman, rather than a cleric. Venice had a long history of doing its best to limit the authority of the Church in Rome inside its territory, and to look out for the interests of its aristocracy.

An exception was Giovanni Trevisan, who was a Benedictine monk, and was the Patriarch of Venice from 1559 to 1590; he was also the son of important Venetian patricians, Paolo and Anna Moro.

And it was Giovanni Trevisan, Patriarch of Venice, who laid the cornerstone for the Church of Redentore on May 3, 1577.

Go to Venezia Unico for the official program. 

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